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Superladies in Waiting: How the Female Hero Almost Emerges in Science Fiction
Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, No. 58 (Summer 1993)

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What all these examples suggest, then, is that a female hero in science fiction cannot fully emerge as an accompaniment to or outgrowth of an existing male hero. However, a female hero might be successfully created and maintained if she is developed from the beginning as a central figure in her own context; and that is a fair description of the early career of the most prominent female hero in comic books, Wonder Woman. However, aspects of her later adventures demonstrate another problem for the female hero in science fiction: if she is later brought into the context of established male heroes, the female hero can be weakened in many of the ways already observed.

Psychologist William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman in 1941 as a deliberate effort to provide a positive role model for young women. While Wonder Woman was presented as an outgrowth of classical mythology, where goddesses offered a number of strong powerful women as logical predecessors, the women who nurtured her on Paradise Island were also accomplished scientists, who gave her a good education and occasionally provided her with helpful inventions like her robot plane. With only her rather ineffectual boyfriend, Steve Trevor, in attendance, and surrounded by a group of helpful women, Wonder Woman successfully battled against a series of domineering, threatening male villains. All in all, considering the general intellectual climate of the 1940s, the adventures of Wonder Woman seem remarkably ahead of their times; as Gloria Steinem has argued,

Here was a heroic person who might conquer with force, but only a force that was tempered by love and justice. She converted her enemies more often than not …. Looking back at these Wonder Woman stories from the '40's, I am amazed by the strength of their feminist message …. Many of the plots revolve around evil men who treat women as inferior beings. In the end, all are brought to their knees and made to recognize women's strength and value. Some of the stories focus on weak women who are destructive and confused. These misled females are converted to self-reliance and self-respect through the example of Wonder Woman …. Wonder Woman's family of Amazons on Paradise Island, her band of college girls in America, and her efforts to save individual women are all welcome examples of women working together and caring about each other's welfare …. ("Introduction" [9])
However, when Wonder Woman began spending time with other male heroes, her status and message were considerably altered. Despite her awesome powers, she joined the Justice Society of America as its "secretary," not a full-fledged member; and one adventure I remember found her assigned to wait around at headquarters while the male heroes actually coped with the crises at hand. And although she enjoyed full membership in the later Justice League of America, there are still signs of her continuing inferior status; when the heroes start straightening out their headquarters, Aquaman announces, "When it comes to cleaning time, we all agree Wonder Woman is boss" ("The Origin of the Justice League" 3). Implicitly, in affairs of greater import, Wonder Woman is rarely if ever the boss. Her character was also weakened by Moulton's death in 1947, which, as Steinem noted, left "his heroine in the hands of writers who didn't really understand her spirit. Gradually, her feminist orientation began to wane. She became simultaneously more submissive to men" ("Introduction" 11-12). For example, I vaguely recall one story in the 1960s where she improbably figured as the helpless heroine while Steve Trevor and a merman fought for her affections.

Eventually, Wonder Woman fell victim to the same force that destroyed Supergirl: incoherent and ill-advised career changes. First, Steve Trevor was killed, Wonder Woman lost her super-powers, and she went to work as a karate-chopping secret agent modelled on Diana Rigg's Mrs. Peel in The Avengers. Then, virtually without explanation, she reverted to her former powers and position with Steve Trevor back at her side. When editor Julius Schwartz took over the character and tried vainly to impose some logic on these changes, he was obliged to call the recent Steve Trevor "a mentally-induced substitute designed to maintain your psychological stability" by the scientists of Amazon Island; and amidst these surprising revelations comes a moment sure to make all admirers of the character cringe: Wonder Woman cries out to Superman, "Oh, in Athena's name, Superman … What's wrong with me?" and the Man of Steel reassuringly takes her in his arms and says, "I don't know, Diana … but we'll find out" ("The Man Who Mastered Women" 10, 6). And once she returns to the Justice League, a subplot describes her as increasingly unpleasant and irritable—so much so that Green Arrow blurts out "Look, Supes [Superman]—we want Wonder Woman out of the [Justice League! … If you ask me, she's just turned into a razor-tongued witch!" ("Return from Forever" 24, 25) Even though these outbursts are later explained as the effects of mental manipulation by an evil being called the Construct (in "A Tale of Two Satellites"), it is worth noting that no male hero in the Justice League was ever characterized in this fashion.

At this point, even while other scenes and statements incongruously contrive to continue portraying Wonder Woman as strong and independent, her character was slowly being undermined as she periodically functioned as an emotionally unstable "witch." However, while an unsuccessful film brought about the end of Supergirl, a successful television series in the 1970s helped to revive Wonder Woman. Because the series depicted Wonder Woman's adventures during World War II, the comic book character was correspondingly shifted back to the same time and setting; and once again separated from the established context of male super-heroes and placed again in her own original context, Wonder Woman thoroughly regained her own strength and self-confidence. In one extended adventure, for example, she battled Superman to a standstill in an effort to halt the development of atomic weapons. Unfortunately, her subsequent return to the present, and subsequent new changes in her character, again weakened her character and brought her less and less popularity.

While the wounds suffered by Wonder Woman and the treatment accorded Supergirl and other female heroes are indefensible, the fact that these characters were created and allowed to develop to a certain level is not unimportant. It is sometimes claimed or implied that the genre of science fiction is by its very nature inimical to women and their concerns: as Anne McCaffrey argued,

In the beginning, and start with the classics of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, sf stories were written for a predominantly male audience; the premise being that the female mind was unequipped to cope with science or extrapolation …. The male readership wanted certain things from their science fiction stories: exercises in extrapolation, the use to which unproven but valid scientific hypotheses could be put in the near or distant future, or plain escapist 'blood-and-thunder' adventure yarns …. Not only was the female viewpoint unappreciated in most of the '20s, '30s, and '40s, but also women were generally relegated to the position of 'things,' window dressing, or forced to assume attitudes in the concern, out of the way. Woman as a valid character or, heaven forfend, protagonist was a rara avis (278-279, 281).
What I am trying to suggest is that the female hero in earlier science fiction is not as rare as critics often imply; indeed, I would argue that in many ways science fiction—with its emphasis on extrapolative thinking, quest for novelty, and noticeable female readership—is impelled to create female heroes. That is, Hugo Gernsback, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan, E. E. Smith, Robert A. Heinlein, Gene Roddenberry, and Mort Weisinger all saw in some way the logic of a female hero who would be as strong and dominant as a male hero; in their stories, they carefully developed such female heroes and advanced them to the point where they could replace the male heroes; and it is only at this point that they were driven to weaken their female heroes, reduce their status, burden them with stereotypical feminine traits, and sometimes eliminate them altogether—decisions caused not by any inherent quality in science fiction but rather by the general sexist climate of their times.

Therefore, when general attitudes changed in the 1960s and 1970s, it was only natural for a large numbers of genuine female heroes to appear and thrive in the genre of science fiction. But that is a story for others to tell.


1. As David G. Hartwell notes, "It is a source of both amusement and frustration to SF people that public consciousness of science fiction has almost never penetrated beyond the first decade of the field's development. Sure, Star Wars is wonderful, but in precisely the same way and at the same level of consciousness and sophistication that SF from the late Twenties and early Thirties was" (Age of Wonders 23).

2. Lorraine's story is discussed in Jane Donawerth's "Lillith Lorraine: Feminist Socialist Writer in the Pulps," although Donawerth sees it as a pure feminist utopia, without noting any troublesome aspects in the story.

. I argue, then, that Ralph's careful scientific explanations mark his respect for, not condescension toward, Alice, and that Alice's interest in those explanations mark her ambition, not her submissiveness. Those who doubt this reading should read E. E. Smith's Skylark Three, where the scientist heroes rattle off incomprehensible jargon—not caring if their wives understand—and their wives respond by laughingly announcing their ignorance:

"Now, Mart, as to how it works …. It operates on a band of frequencies lying between the longest light and heat waves and the shortest radio waves. This thing here is the generator of those waves and a very heavy power amplifier. The headsets are stereoscopic transmitters, taking or receiving a three-dimensional view …. This three-dimensional model, or view, or what you want to call it, is converted into electricity in the headsets, and the resulting modulated wave goes back to the educator. There it is heterodyned with another wave … and sent to the receiving headset …"

"I see," said Crane, and Dorothy, the irrepressible, put in:

"Just as clear as so much mud" (33-34).

In Smith's future, therefore, women choose to remain ignorant—and powerless—and their only function in these stories is to offer companionship and to get rescued. As will be noted, though, a female hero of sorts did eventually emerge in Smith's work.

4. Heinlein is always a problematic case for feminists: on the one hand, his works often feature strong female characters and vigorous statements that women are equal to or even superior to men; but these characters and statements also reflect hopelessly stereotypical attitudes about typical female attributes. It is disconcerting, for example, that in Expanded Universe Heinlein calls for a society where all lawyers and politicians are women, essentially on the grounds that they possess a mysterious feminine practicality that men cannot duplicate.

5. The actual title of the pilot was "The Menagerie"; but this was also used as the title of the two-part Star Trek episode which incorporates scenes from the pilot, so the original pilot was released as a video under an old working title, "The Cage."

6. I am hardly the only critic to find fault with this film; Phil Hardy, for example, calls it "insipid … Supergirl is little but an innocent ingénue" and quotes one unnamed critic who complained that what "ought at least to be a Manichean struggle between Good and Evil . . . becomes a banal case of romantic rivalry, the clash of the Titans reduced to a cat fight over a landscape gardener" (390).

7. After writing this paragraph, however, I happened to notice a recent issue of Action Comics with Supergirl on the cover, so she has apparently been brought back to life (though it turns out that this Supergirl is a robot, with no connection to the previous character).

8. It might be further argued that subordinate or spinoff characters of both sexes in general do not fare well, and that Supergirl's uncertain career and tragic end are but another example of that trend. While conceding the general point, I would add that a few male sidekicks have actually done quite well for themselves: Guy Gardner, once an occasional guest star as an "alternate" Green Lantern, later became a regular member of the Justice League in that role; Robin left Batman, adopted the new name of Nightwing, and enjoyed a moderately successful career as a member of the New Teen Titans; the Flash's former sidekick, the Elongated Man, moved on to a successful solo career; and when the Flash himself died, his young sidekick Kid Flash aged a few years and took on the name and costume of Flash. In contrast, other female sidekicks have also experienced a tragic end like Supergirl's: Batwoman, who once was advanced to a status almost equal to Batman, was dropped without explanation when the character was revised and later reappeared for one adventure in which she was killed. Aquaman met and married Mera, a woman from an alternate world whose power to control and shape water arguably made her more powerful than Aquaman. Nevertheless, she promptly reverted to the housewife role, staying home while Aquaman went out to battle menaces, and she and her infant son were eventually killed by criminals.

In comic books, there is one prominent exception to this pattern: Marvel Comics' the Wasp, originally created as a female sidekick for Ant-Man, later emerged as a hero in her own right,

retained her basic character and abilities, and at one point served as the leader of the Avengers, Marvel's equivalent to the Justice League. And it was her erstwhile male mentor, Ant-Man, who faded into obscurity after undergoing a bizarre and humiliating series of changes in his name, costume, and powers.

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