On the subway last night, I saw a woman giving her son a new Avengers cup. It was pretty awesome. All the important Avengers were on it. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk.
In fact, the only characters missing were Hawkeye and Black Widow. And although it sucks that the only female Avenger was missing from the merchandise, I can see the designer’s point. Hawkeye and Black Widow are kind of the lamest of the group. They don’t have superpowers. They’re not super-rich with super-suits. They aren’t gods or the result of government experiments. They don’t even have cool shields or iconic outfits. They’re just normal people who happen to be exceptionally talented at what they do. And although that might make them better characters from some perspectives, “regular people with skills” rarely end up on children’s cups when superheroes are on offer. No one includes Bruce Banner in the merchandise when they can include the Hulk. And no one includes the “regular people” when there are superheroes to love.
The problem is that Hawkeye is one of five male Avengers, but Black Widow is the only female Avenger. There’s only one woman in the group, and she lacks superpowers, or even a superhero costume. She’s not the equal of the others. She’s easily forgotten or shoved to the background. And unlike the others, she has to deal with a lot of crap that makes her role far less aspirational. She gets called misogynistic slurs and has to run for her life when attacked by the Hulk.
She is, in short, not enough of a Mary Sue.
“Mary Sue” has been an insult for “unrealistic” female characters for quite a while, but “Mary Sue” is the absolute definition of a superhero. Angsty backstory? Orphaned? Super special powers? World-changing fate or destiny? More money and cool gadgets than you know what to do with? Everyone you’re even vaguely attracted to being attracted to you? On a female character, it’s ridiculous. On a male character, it’s iconic.
And this is a serious problem, because we need insanely unrealistic wish-fulfilment female characters, just as we need male ones. Young girls need to be able to dress up as female superheroes, and have those female characters represented on their lunch boxes and cups and pillowcases. Young boys need to see women and girls included in the group of capable, awesome characters to admire and idolize.
Yet there’s almost nothing to offer. Only one of the Avengers is a woman, and she’s easy to ignore, not necessarily because of her gender (although that may contribute), but because she’s not on the same tier as four out of five of the male characters. And unlike male superheroes (who get movies and reboots made about them again and again and again), there’s not much material to draw upon. How many female superheroes can the average non-comic-book-reading person name? Out of those, how many of those are original characters, and not “girl” sidekicks to more important male characters like Superman or Batman? There isn’t a rich array of popular female characters here. But creating a new one would be almost impossible. If anyone suggested that a movie could be led by a female character who was like Tony Stark, they’d be laughed out of the business. It would be unrealistic. She would be unlikeable. And of course, everyone knows that female characters can’t lead action movies. Even established characters, like Wonder Woman, aren’t trusted to lead a blockbuster. What could a newcomer to the scene possibly have to offer?
And although I’ve been talking about the Avengers, this isn’t exclusively a superhero problem. Few female characters get to be “the Chosen One” in science fiction and fantasy. Leia is as much the child of Darth Vader as Luke is, but only Luke gets to use the force, be recruited by his dad and ultimately save the day. We don’t get impossibly clever female sleuths or the sexy spies with the awesome gadgets. And on the rare occasions that we do get those characters, they’re denigrated as unrealistic Mary Sues.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing about the need for a wide variety of realistic female characters, but staring at that cup yesterday, I also realized how much we need unrealistic female characters. We need women to take roles that men have had in Hollywood for decades. The iconic characters. The Chosen Ones. The superpowered, and the impossible adventurers. The characters with the fast quips, the dark backstories, who are burdened with glorious purposes and discover that with great power comes great responsibility. The heroes that kids want to dress up as on the playground and want to be (against all realism) when they grow up.
We need more Mary Sues. We need more unapologetically powerful female characters, on a wish-fulfilment level of awesome. We need them to be gods and superheroes and billionaire playboy philanthropists and science experiments gone wrong and normal kids bitten by spiders who now save the world. Why should female characters have to be realistic, while male characters have all the fun? Why shouldn’t a female hero appear alongside Iron Man and Thor, in a way where she can truly hold her own?