I couldn’t help myself. I had to write a trilogy. It seemed only fitting that blog posts about what those who work for social justice can learn from comic book-based movies be told in a trilogy. In the first post I explored what those who work for justice can learn from superhero movies. In the sequel, I looked at the dark side of social justice work. I end this trilogy with a post focused on girls and women. The comics have quite a few women heroes. Wonder Woman follows only 3 years after the creation of Superman and is as powerful. Yet, for years the hero movies have been overly dominated by men. There had been a myth in Hollywood that no one would pay money to see female superheroes leading a movie, or even holding a major part. The movies wouldn’t sell, we were told, and the stories couldn’t hold enough depth and intrigue to be interesting. And they were actually right – well, right about how Hollywood has had difficulty producing movies with female superhero leads.
While I really like how many women are portrayed in comic books, I often do not like how those same women are portrayed once Hollywood gets its hands on them. Hollywood took the strong anti-villain that is Cat Woman and turned her into a leather-wearing sex kitten (that had nothing to do with the comics, but I digress) seeking to save the world from an evil cosmetic company (because what else would a woman fight against?). I also saw the Baroness of GI Joe become completely weak after the evil chip was taken out of her brain. Evil woman kicks butt and takes names; non-evil woman must be rescued by Duke. These stories were not well told. But I am grateful that we are starting to come out of the dark ages and enter a Renaissance of well-told female-centered hero movies that can resonate with those that identify as female and work for social justice. Just as comic book heroines have long existed, women have always been on the front line of social justice work, though often treated like background. While this is getting better, sexism has not been eradicated from social justice movements. So, this one is for the ladies, a list of things comic book movie heroines teach us.
Tell Your Own Story
When I think about two recent female hero blockbusters, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, I think of great origin stories that feel real. This is a result of women telling their own stories. Patty Jenkins directed Wonder Woman and Anna Boden was co-writer and co-director of Captain Marvel. This makes a difference. Representation matters, and it’s not just about optics. It matters whose face is seen, whose voice is heard, and who gets to craft the story. Too often, those who work for social justice say that it is our job to be a voice for the voiceless. But it is dehumanizing to have someone constantly speaking for you. It is justice work to pass the mic to those who have not historically had it. And if you are one who have not had that mic, it is also justice work to grab the mic and tell your story.
You may be surprised by your power, but you don’t have to be afraid of it.
As an origin story, much of the Wonder Woman movie is about Diana’s self-discovery. She is often seen exploring new things and being surprised by the power she has: to climb a wall, to block bullets, or even to foster electricity with her bracelet. When Ares throws lightning at her, she harnesses it. She did not know before that moment that she could do that, so she is surprised and really excited to discover her new power. But she never shies away from that power; she walks boldly into it. And when Captain Marvel discovers the full strength of her power, she has a great time with it and cheers with glee. It is a beautiful thing to see women and girls come into their own power. To see a girl find her voice and realize that her voice can move others to act. To see a woman recognize that something in her world is not right and know that she has the power and the wherewithal to change it. That is power. And it is beautiful. It is a power that comes from the Divine within.
Throughout the telling and retelling of the Wonder Woman story, two origin narratives are presented in the movie. In one telling, she is made out of clay and brought to life by the breath of Zeus. In another, she is the child of Zeus and Hippolyta. In both tellings, she comes to life because of the divine and carries a divine image. This divine image makes her special – it is the divine within her that gives her the strength to defeat her foe and love humans that do unlovable things. The Imago Dei within us is how we get our power.
People Will Tell You that You Have to Prove Yourself to Them—You Don’t.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, there is a party scene where different people try to lift up Thor’s Hammer. The legend dictates that only those who are worthy get to wield the hammer, but his friends try. One by one the Avengers try, Iron Man and War Machine even try together, but the hammer does not budge. Then they invite Black Widow to try and she says, “Oh, no, no. That’s not a question I need answered.” Black Widow is well aware of the power she possesses and is fine with limitations on that power. Her importance does not hinder on whether or not she can do something that one of her team members can do.
In the final fight scene of Captain Marvel, Yon-Rogg, knowing that he is outmatched, tells Kara to not use her powers but control her emotions (while he is yelling angrily) and fight him in hand to hand combat. He tells her to prove to him that she can do it. Before he can finish, she blasts him with a proton blast and says, “I don’t have to prove anything to you.” Women are constantly being told to keep their emotions in check and approach things the way the speaker would. But we all fight and use our powers differently. Our power is meant to make the world a better place. We have far more important things to do that show our power off with party tricks or fighting on demand by folk have no power to command us.
Love is Fierce.
We often here that the answer to hate is love. Cornell West is noted for saying, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And one of the things I love about the Wonder Woman movie is the different portrayals of love. It isn’t cupcakes and unicorns. Love is fierce. Diana sets out on a journey to kill Ares. She is convinced that ending him will end the world’s problems. She fights on behalf of humans, but Ares tries to convince her that humans are not worth fighting for. He does not believe that humans deserve to be saved or fought for. Diana responds, “It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.” She fights out of love. Love powers her. And it is love that should power us. Love for people who are made victims of injustice. Love for what is fair and just and right. That kind of love is the kind of love that wins battles.
People will misread your intentions because of your gender.
In Avengers: Endgame’s final battle scene the Avengers work together to defeat Thanos. This includes protecting the infinity gauntlet, keeping it away from Thanos, and getting it across the battlefield. Various Avengers move it across the field and at one point, Captain Marvel takes the gauntlet from Spider Man. She is told that she can’t do it alone. Then all the women surround her, declares that she is not alone and together they begin to fight their way across the field. It was a bit cheesy and on the nose, but it made me cheer.
However, online there was a huge conversation that did not center around the women, but on Peter Parker. This was not seen as the women doing their superhero job, the job that several men had tried to do before them. The conversation became about these women being mothers (although only one of them is actually a mother and none of them are Peter’s mother). People will try to take your light and center it somewhere else. They will try to tell a different version of your story and pretend it’s not your story. They will ignore your voice and take your opinion as their own. What these women did helped to right a wrong. Your work does too. Keep doing it. Continue to do the work God called you to do and continue to shine your light.
Every outfit looks good with a kick-ass sword.
Hey, accessories make the outfit. So, why not accessorize with the most powerful weapon in your arsenal? In Wonder Woman, Diana shows up to a party to find Ares and end him so the war can end. When I saw her in a gorgeous gown, I thought, well, guess we had to get the glamour shot. Then the camera pans to the sword on her back and I cheered. The sword is called the god killer, but Diana later learns that the power is not in the sword – it’s in her. And as corny as this sounds, I want every girl and woman to know that within her, is power. That power looks different for every one: for some it is quick wit; for another it is a quiet intellect; for another it is a caring nature; for another it’s physical prowess. Whatever it is, know that your power is your best accessory.
Dr. Annie Lockhart-Gilroy is a womanist pedagogue and practical theologian who writes and teaches on emancipatory pedagogies and the spiritual formation of youth. She is Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. In addition to numerous articles, and posts, she is the author of the forthcoming Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination of Urban Youth. To find out more, visit www.lockhartgilroy.com.