For many in the popular culture, many superhero characters have become a favorite staple in the comics and graphic novel industry, and now a star in commercial television series and blockbuster moviemaking. The term superhero has been adopted to describe any heroic fictional character who wear costumes or masks, and who may or may not possess some superhuman abilities (e.g, flight or super-strengths). Through the years, the superhero group has turned to include not only humans, such as robots, monsters, and even aliens. In spite of the varying traits and abilities of these characters, however, they share kindness of soul, sincere intention, and keen interest for justice to be served (Russell 2011).
Moreover, scholars interested in contemporary popular culture have recently begun to take up the notion of the superhero as a genre. They highlighted the increasing prominence of superheroes in American culture and how storyline conventions are often repeated in superhero genre (Darowski 2012). Unfortunately, another aspect that is often repeated relates to the identity of some superhero characters, particularly that of female characters, minority characters, and homosexual characters.
This paper then will take a look at how the superhero genre, being both inspirational and aspirational can change for the better, its problems with portraying the stereotypic identity of the minorities and gendered classes will be minimized. More particularly, this paper seeks to shed light on the representation of gender and minority characters in superhero genre in the different media formats, from comics to mainstream franchise films.
Superhero Genre: From Origin to Maturation
Prior to our study about the superhero genre, it will be of value to first inspect its history. According to Darowski (2012), there are clearly two antecedents to the emergence of the superhero genre before they entered the mainstream comics industry through to its wide adoption in film franchises. These are the classic mythology and American adventure stories. Both strands of pre-historical source of the superhero share the Heros Journey pattern. While ancient mythological stories feature fantastical beings, superhuman powers, secret disguises, and death-defying battles, the adventure stories features calls to adventure and refusals of the call. Evidently, the superhero genre borrowed liberally from these two narrative strands (Campbell 1949).
Significantly, Supermans appearance in 1938 has been believed to be the first full conception of the superhero genre. The plot, the character, the battles that Superman featured back then all combine the elements that were said to be part of the genre. According to Russell (2011) early on in comic book history, the superheroes adventure stories were set in a world that was essentially the real world, which will consequently set the groundwork for more of these comic book stories in the future. After the Superman series became a phenomenal success in the entertainment industry, many publishers followed suit and produced their own version of the costumed, code-named heroes with powers beyond human abilities. Soon, other characters were introduced by the comic book industry, such as Wonder Woman and Captain America, albeit their patriotic and propagandistic origin stories. The superhero genre has become linked with the concept of American exceptionalism and war efforts (Ruzicka, 2010).
Future iterations of the superhero genre gave rise to the heros new origin story, new secret identity, and a new costume. Whereas the superhero characters during the Golden Age identifies the heroes with certain iconic, perfect identity, the Silver Age saw the rise of superheroes who are like other human beings: flawed and imperfect. As the superhero genre matures, the expansive narrative space introduced new elements that were not present from the earlier products of the genre. In the 1980s, dark anti-heroes were introduced and some trends introduced the deconstruction of the genre, such as those of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (Darowski 2012).
Representations of Stereotypical Identity and Minority Groups in Superhero Genre
For more than the genres 75 years of existence, hero characters are often portrayed by white males, powerful and exceptional. In Peter Coogans work, Superhero: The Secret Origins of a Genre, he identifies these four elements of this narrative type as: Mission, Powers, Identity and Costume (Coogan 2006).
Meanwhile, comic studies scholars seem to agree that superhero genre has been portraying or representing stereotypical gender identities and minority characters, as in real life, merely belonging in the margins mere minority, voiceless and invisible. Female characters and other racial and gender groups (e.g., Asians, homosexuals, etc.) are stereotypically represented or objectified as quiet or meek, in a feminized aesthetic. The fictional, fantastical tenets of the superhero characters were transplanted into a realistic universe, drawn from feminine rather than superhero myths (Round 2006).
Kirkpatrick and Scott (2015), whose groundbreaking works on gender identity and the Superhero has been studied by scholars in comics studies, argue that the increased interest in understanding superhero representation have also focused on determining which superheroes are privileged and marginalized when portrayed in media and merchandized in the market. As a field of inquiry, they admitted the innumerable and serious issues concerning gender and its representation.
Approaching the Superhero Genre
According to Renner (2015), the increasing prominence of superheroes in American culture led to the rise of interdisciplinary interest in the same. The range of studies about the narrative genre range not just around the exploration of the historical transformation and relevance of individual superheroes but also the critique of representation and societal conflicts, and even comics as a philosophical discourse. But there has never been any period of time similar to ours now where the notion of superhero as a narrative genre has been explored more deeply.
In our inquiry about the stereotypical representation of gender and minority groups in superhero genre, Peter Coogans influential piece, The Definition of a Superhero provides an intriguing summary on what makes a superhero a superhero. In his superhero tenets that utilize mission, powers, and identity, the most relevant of the triptych for our study is the last credential - identity. According to Kirkpatrick and Scott (2015), the use of identity which comprises of codenames and uniforms in studying gender representation, for example, is relevant inasmuch as it is what provides the best mirror of what marks superheroes as distinct from other heroes; hence, they are crucial when ruling particular characters in or out of superhero status. The authors added that while the use of superhero codename can sometimes externalize what their alter egos inner character or biography, it is the superheros costume that can function to represent (emblematize) the characters identity (Kirkpatrick & Scott 2015).
One of the primary issues with the superhero representation of female or minority groups is that they are routinely spun off from male superhero productions. Thus, the use of code names like Supergirl or Superwoman, for instance, can somehow bring out an inner character that is secondary to the identity of the original male superhero. Apparently, in the use of costume, it is a male superheros variant emblem that is externalized (Kirkpatrick & Scott 2015). Closely reading what the manifested identities of non-male superheroes reflect, it is difficult not to decipher the choices from costuming to codenaming, which it seems emblematize the prevalent practice and commitment by the entertainment industry to the demands of its male, hetero-normative audience/readership. It is also said that the demographic are desiring sexual objectification.
Likewise, albeit in a different manner, the same superhero narrative that provides its readers and viewers with its manifesto of what makes a superhero a superhero, then the tendency for the other characters present the audience with an offsetting checklist to what makes a superhero not a superhero. According to Easton (2013), the traits or characteristics stereotypically linked with villainy characters such as excessive greed and irrationality, are also being associated with femininity and other gendered characters. These traits represent a failed masculine subject. These secondary characters, mostly comprised of minority groups, female, homosexuals, and the like, appear doomed to succeed only in their relentless failure to achieve their indicated ambition. This outcome, however, paradoxically serves the purpose of the superhero the improvement of his appeal and the version of white hetero-masculinity (Easton 2013).
The thorough inspection of the outcome of our investigation of the stereotypical representation of these characters would be best studied using queer theory. The model is interested in destabilizing normative identities and practices. This makes this framework the more suitable model to use when exploring transgression, disruption, and even failure of the secondary characters, such as minority characters, women, homosexuals, and now even villains.
In our study, we found out the so many issues concerning gender and minority characters and its representation in contemporary superhero genre. Long-held tradition and commitment of superhero franchise that is beholden to the demands and desires of its male demographics to consume entertainment fare that represent super-heroine characters as sexual objects might be a challenge to break. Thus, scholars must take cognizant of the superhero myth vis-a-vis its impact to real life in formulating a new realm of superhero narrative genre that break new grounds in normalizing tolerance, equity, justice through the characters they portray on comic books industry and on the silver screen.
However, there is another avenue of hope for the superhero genre that can be found in the way characterisations routinely speak of the possibility of being, becoming, and belonging which is through the transformations of these characters into objects of adoration and hope for the oppressed or helpless. The superhero genre has been used for propagandist purposes in promoting American war efforts and it is not too late that the same narrative genre be used in cultivating new sets of culture, mores and moral codes.
Campbell, J 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. NY: Princeton UP.
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Easton, L 2013, Saying No to Hetero-Masculinity: The Villain in the Superhero Film,
Cinephile, Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall 2013, Retrieved from: http://cinephile.ca/wp-content/uploads/9.2-WEB-VERSION.pdf, <Accessed 12 June 2016>.
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