Power Fantasies

Power fantasies are a big deal these days. As much as videogames might come under attack from the media and activist groups, they also draw in new players from all around the world every year and many games are understood to be such fantasies. Tons of research has been done on power struggles in social interactions and communications (Deborah Tannen is the best writer I know of on this subject) and superheroes like Spider-Man and Superman are often seen as healthy male power fantasies. In short, we understand that men want to be strong and able to beat up bad guys and save the world. And if you think about it, the appeal is pretty easy to see. Why wouldn’t a guy want to be someone who’s able to be always in control, always able to protect the people he loves and unquestionably always on the side of right? So here’s the tricky question: what is a woman’s power fantasy?

The feminist answer would be “the same thing”, but the reality is always more complicated than that. Yes, women want those things too. That pretty much goes without saying. Except, sadly, it needs saying because many people don’t understand that a woman would want to protect her loved ones and be able to retain control of a situation and be always doing the right thing as well. So the question becomes, why do women want those things too? More than that, why do women need them?

Something that I forget a lot of times is that while women live lives always having to be somewhat on alert, always careful, men not only don’t have to do that, but they very often aren’t even aware that women do. Jennifer de Guzman wrote a brilliant post on her LiveJournal about this that really articulates it well:

As I wrote in my reply, I am kind of astounded that some men don’t see why physical empowerment would clearly be attractive for women. I think it’s intriguing to note that women often like the hot women who kick ass as much, if not more, than men do. Here’s what I think is behind that: As women, we are nearly constantly aware of physical threats. And those threats often are of being violated sexually. When I used to go to campus for night classes and people warned me to “be careful,” what they are saying was, essentially, “avoid getting raped.”

Now, what if, what if, as a woman, you could walk around, be sexually attractive and not have to feel threatened? What if all the rage you feel about women being victimized and brutalized could be channeled into pure, righteous ass-kicking? And, because you’re a woman, you could possibly do that ass-kicking without being seen as a testosterone Steven-Seagal-esque meathead. Ass-kicking fantasies for men are more about proving and retaining power, I think. For women, they’re about finding and asserting power when they’re not expected to have any.

That’s exactly it. That’s a really big reason why women, and even little girls, need power fantasies and superheroes of their own. But as brilliant as this post was, what made me really think about this was the reaction it elicited from Michael May over at Amazon Princess:

That makes so much sense I’m ashamed I never thought of it, at least not in those terms. I’ve been operating under the hypothesis that the attraction of Wonder Woman for women has a lot to do with confidence (and argued that that also makes her attractive to men – or at least to men like me), but Jennifer’s thoughts go deeper than that and explore at least one of the reasons why Wonder Woman can afford to be so confident. She’s gorgeous and she can damn well take care of herself.

So, yes, women do want and need superheroes. Little girls need superheroes. This isn’t to say that boys don’t need them, but why can’t we have both? If there can be three ongoing comics at the same time about Batman’s adventures in Gotham, surly there can be a little more room for real superheroines! There are so few comics highlighting superheroines (and at the rate Marvel’s going, fewer all the time) and the ones that do exist often feel like the neglected side projects that either got hastily put together while the writers focus on their real stories or are assigned to second-string artists and writers and never promoted in any way, giving them no chance to gain a real following. Even flagship characters get dropped and forgotten (how many times has Spider-Girl lost her book? when was the last time one of the DC editors even mentioned Wonder Woman’s book publicly?).

Women deserve more heroes. We deserve more games with heroes we can see ourselves in (and yes, if you read the above you’ll see that we do like them beautiful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they all have to be naked and have DD-cup breasts, beauty is more complicated than that). We deserve more comics with kick-ass heroines. We deserve heroines with real female friendships, since women do occasionally interact with each other. I’d love – *LOVE* – to read a comic that passed the Bechdel Test, but since Birds of Prey ended I haven’t found one. I’d love to see as many little girls running around pretending to be Batgirl, Spider-Girl, Wonder Woman and Supergirl as I see little boys running around pretending to be Spider-Man, Superman, the Hulk and Batman. Maybe if more guys saw that girls could be heroes, more women would actually be safer in real life too. You never know.

2 Comments

  1. Kathleen said,

    August 19, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Well said. I think that’s why Buffy Summers is the perfect superheroine. She’s a real person with real relationships who happens to be hot and totally kick ass. We can thank Joss Whedon for lots of strong (and relatively realistic) women to look up to: Willow, Zoe, Inara, Echo, and Adele Dewitt, to name a few. It might not have hit the comic world quite yet, but I think female power fantasies are alive and well on television (starting with Charlie’s Angels and The Avengers up to Dollhouse and Burn Notice).

  2. Rosepixie said,

    August 19, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I agree, Buffy is a fantastic female power fantasy! Zoe from Firefly actually occurred to me while I was writing this post. But it seems like videogames, comics and even movies have a ways to go before we get the kind of heroes for girls that Spider-Man is for boys.

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