views updated


Superheroes developed in newspapers, comic books, radio and television programs, and films of the early twentieth century and have clustered in two traditions in competing comic book companies: DC Comics' traditional costumed crusaders and Marvel Entertainment's more psychologically complex heroes. Further deconstruction followed a landmark pair of graphic novels from 1986, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's The Watchmen, which ushered in an age of superheroes who reflect a postmodern condition of cultural dislocation and even antihero-ism. Despite these modifications the superhero continues to affirm the fantasy of a masculine universe.


The gender template for the superhero was forged by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman in the first issue of Action Comics (1938). The "man of steel" embodied power, invulnerability, and extraterrestrial mobility for an age of technological advancement. Moreover, as Umberto Eco argued in his 1979 essay on Superman, he reinforced masculine values of individualism, moral superiority, mastery over his environment, and a resistance to domestic demands. Replaying the plot dynamics of the typical Western hero who opts for the rugged frontier rather than settling down with a female admirer, Superman repeatedly rebuffs Lois Lane in order to protect his secret identity as Clark Kent, a bashful reporter. In this way, the hero reinforces a gender ideology popularized in the nineteenth century in which men were permitted to inhabit opposing realms, both the private and public spheres, whereas women were relegated only to the private. Though Lois Lane is a workingwoman and thus occupies a public space, the superhero's split identity recodes gender divisions according to a new form of privilege. Only the male hero can move fluidly between two identities; Lois Lane and others remain rooted in one.

The duality of Superman's hero-wimp identity presents an allegory of Western middle-class masculinity of the mid-twentieth century. For example, Gary Engle (1987) reads Superman as a metaphor of the ideal immigrant, who uses normally hidden alien characteristics for the betterment of his foster community and whose rapid shifts between normally fixed social categories enacts a fantasy of mobility rooted in American frontier mythologies. Alternatively, for Eco, Clark Kent incarnates a mythic chastity, or "parsifalism": "the bashful embarrassment of an average young man in a matriarchal society" (1979, p. 115). To most critics, the superhero's dualism represents identity as a conflict between internal and social constructions of the self. While the powerful public self is masked and rendered theatrical in a flamboyant costume, the unmasked, private self must be kept just as secret. What distinguishes Superman from most subsequent superheroes is that his "normal" identity as Clark Kent is the costume; as Superman, he is free to be the alien he is. Subsequent superheroes exhibit a reversal of this role so that the superhero identity symbolizes a fantasy projection of the original ordinary self.

The secret identity and its gender implications endure in television superheroes who nuance Superman's hero-wimp paradigm, such as the African American teen Static Shock or the various members of the Justice League and Teen Titans. Notably, Spider-Man, like Captain Marvel or Shazam, represents a fantasy of identity split between extremes of age and maturity. Spider-Man's alter ego, troubled teen Peter Parker, transforms into a crime-fighting adult. Some heroes such as the Hulk or the Fantastic Four reflect the dual model of identity but dispense with the secrecy. For Batman, duality hinges on social location and temper: a carefree luminary of the wealthy as Bruce Wayne, but an obsessive, shadowy vigilante in superhero form.


Notwithstanding Batman's unquestioned iconic status as a superhero since his first appearance in Detective Comics in 1939, certain representations of the character's sexuality have been the subject of questioning by critics and fans. Early comic books showed the "caped crusader" as a brutal vigilante epitomizing the moody, selectively lawless, and obsessive behavior of the film noir detective. But after teaming up with Robin, who first appeared in 1940, and causing a surge of hero-sidekick spin-offs in the 1950s, Batman became the target of a homophobic censorship campaign launched by the psychoanalyst Fredric Wertham, who, in 1954, famously accused DC Comics of portraying Batman and Robin as a gay couple (especially in repeated scenes of mutual rescue) and of inciting young readers to homosexuality. As Andy Medhurst (1991) notes, the campy 1960s television show of Batman satirically added to the claim that the hero as well as the accoutrements of superhero mythology—tight costume, boyish sidekick, secret lifestyle—suggested queer sexuality. Claims about the sexuality of the hero, then as now, have less to do with the details of the superhero's fictional universe than with America's penchant for arguing over sexuality and gender normativity through such symbolic figures as the superhero.


Since Wonder Woman's early acclaim as the first and sometimes only female in the pantheon of superheroes, superheroines have experienced a recent boom influenced by such television warriors as Xena (aired 1995–2001) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003). As with Daredevil's introduction of the assassin Elektra (1981), X-Men revolutionized the superhero genre beginning in 1975 with its multicultural team equally supported by heroines such as Rogue, later incarnations of Jean Grey, and Storm, and spawned other female heroes who occupied more central and aggressive roles than the defensive positions allotted to the Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl or the Avenger's Scarlet Witch. But whereas television and film audiences of female superheroics may be more varied in age and gender, comic book readers for the two largest companies (DC and Marvel) still tend to be adolescent males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. Some critics point to this readership as shaping the continued objectification and marginalization of female characters even with the trend toward incorporating formerly excluded gender identities such as stronger women and gay characters such as Alpha Flight's Northstar, the Authority's couple Midnighter and Apollo, and Ultimate X-Men's Colossus. Male homosexuality in Marvel teams may be seen as a continuation of a tradition established by the Fantastic Four in organizing superheroes around dysfunctional families that galvanize disparate outcast figures according to a principle of tolerance.

Nevertheless, as Norma Pecora argues (1992), even in such familial dynamics the masculine universe of Batman and Superman prevails, championing male dominance and mastery alongside concomitant representations of "civilian" women as either victim or vixen. Nor do superheroines exhibit great variation in appearance. Though superpowered, most are reduced to voluptuously buxom objects of visual consumption, unlike the male heroes who show a greater range of body types. Regardless, then, of a relative trend toward power sharing in the superhero universe as more women fight alongside or against Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Batman, the regulatory sexualization of the female body reduces these would-be wonder women to stereotypes that fall short of the protofeminist agenda some critics, such as Lillian Robinson (2004), read in the earliest Wonder Woman comic books. The psychologist and gender theorist William Moulton Marston (pen name, Charles Moulton) created Wonder Woman in 1941 to provide young female readers with an archetype who combined valued feminine qualities of peace loving and tenderness with underrepresented qualities of strength, force, and power. Nevertheless, as a site of male gender disciplining, the objectifying conventions of superhero illustration disrupt the very forays into progressive gender politics (cyborg sexuality, transgender, nongender, etc.) that superhero stories increasingly undertake.


Eco, Umberto. 1979. "The Myth of Superman." In The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Engle, Gary. 1987. "Why Is Superman So Darned American?" In Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend, ed. Dennis Dooley and Gary Engle. Cleveland: Octavia.

Medhurst, Andy. 1991. "Batman, Deviance, and Camp." In The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media, ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio. New York: Routledge.

Pecora, Norma. 1992. "Superman/Superboys/Supermen: The Comic Book Hero as Socializing Agent." In Men, Masculinity, and the Media, ed. Steve Craig. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Robinson, Lillian S. 2004. Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes. New York: Routledge.

                                        Michael A. Chaney