Growing up, I had been exposed to a wide range of male heroes, but very few female heroes. Now, don’t get me wrong, these male heroes were awesome. Han Solo, Superman, Spock, Optimus Prime, these were the staple hero influences of my childhood and they are still awesome. But the female hero was in short supply. I had Princess Leia, Wonder Woman and Lois Lane but that was about it. And so, even though I wanted to own heroism, the unspoken message was clear: Heroism is really a boy thing.
I clearly remember asking, sometimes begging my parents for Star Wars action figures and that gorgeous She-Ra action figure (seriously, I still want that doll). But, for Christmas and birthdays I watched my brothers get all those toys while I received more female “appropriate” things. I will admit that I did love those toys. But somehow my Barbie’s always managed to find themselves in harrowing adventures where they were rescued by Ken. And when I played with my brothers Leia action figures, she would start out doing something heroic, but usually end up being saved by Han.
Do you see what could be wrong with this?
I wanted the female hero in my play as a kid, but my default was passive because that’s what I saw in the media I consumed. There was a severe lack of representation in my upbringing where the female hero was concerned.
Fast forward to me in my mid-thirties. I’d been married for several years to a staunch feminist, and was a mother to a precocious 18 month old. On a whim, I decide to attend the first year of Geek Girl Con in Seattle. One of the first panels I went to was called “The History of the World According to Wonder Woman.” There I am, sitting in a large screening room at the EMP in Seattle. All around me are men and women; but primarily women, of all different ages, ethnic backgrounds, fandoms and walks of life. And I have no idea that my soul is about to be opened up.
The panel description talked about the guests and a rough cut of a documentary we’d be seeing called “Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines”. I’ll admit, one of the main reasons I was there was to hear Jane Espenson talk; by this time I had become a HUGE Buffy fan.
The documentary was the first thing, and so I settled back to watch not really knowing what to expect.
Within minutes, I was crying.
I couldn’t tell you why then, but now I think I know. All my life I’d craved the female hero, but was either denied her power, or didn’t know where to find her. When I was able to find her, I was doled out bits and pieces of the female hero and told that I should be happy that I at least have that much. What I saw that day was a wide world full of female heroes, both imaginary and real. And perhaps that’s what was so amazing about the documentary. It didn’t just distill the fictional female hero, there were real life female heroes in there too. Suddenly, being a hero was no longer relegated to the pages of a book or a movie screen, I could be one in real life!
I never realized, until that moment, that I’d been starving for the empowerment that the female hero could give me.
What does this empowerment look like? Well, I think it’s different for each woman, depending on her experiences. If she’s trans, lesbian, a woman of color, disabled, etc. it may look different than what a white, cis, straight woman like me experienced. For me, it validated my worth and my voice as a woman. It helped me grab a hold of the truth that as a woman I can be just as heroic and strong and amazing as any of my male counterparts.
As I watched other women in the documentary and on the panel afterwards, talk about female heroes, and their own heroes journey, it filled me with an indescribable pride and power. I was touched on a soul level, deep and profound.
Because of this experience I know deep in my bones that representation matters in a huge way. This isn’t just a cute catch phrase. It really does.
Even in the desert of female heroes that I grew up with, I still saw more women that I could relate to than a girl who grew up as trans, or lesbian, or disabled, or of a different skin color than me. The empowerment that I experienced that afternoon isn’t just for white, cis, straight women. It shouldn’t be hoarded, or guarded. It should be given to anyone who wants it. We look to stories to inspire us. Stories help us believe the impossible. They enable us to dream and feel stronger than the limitations of our circumstances. To not see yourself in the female hero narrative sends a message that the heroic is not for you. Whether spoken outright or in the subtext that comes with lack of representation, it’s there and it’s insidious.
As an artist I believe that it is within my power to help change this. I want to share what I was given that day, because I know what it has meant to me. There’s a great example of sharing power that I always come back to. It’s, unsurprisingly, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In the last episode of the show, Buffy is in a room full of potential Slayers. She looks at each of them and says “I say my power, should be our power.” I tear up every time I watch this scene, because this sharing is what those ladies at Geek Girl Con did for me six years ago. It’s what each of us must do for those around us. This empowerment isn’t just mine, it’s ours. I hope to share it in my writing. I will not always get it right, but that’s ok, because I’m learning. And no matter how challenging it may be, I will never stop striving to give to someone else what was given to me that day:
The Empowerment of the Female Hero.
Who are some of your female heroes? Are they fictional or non fiction? Or maybe both? I’d love to hear about the role the female hero has played in your life. Feel free to leave comment below, join the conversation on Facebook, or sign up for my once a month email newsletter. I look forward to chatting with you!
And, if you’d like a deeper dive into the female hero, check out the documentary I saw that day, “Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines” directed by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan. You could also read “Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors” by Jennifer K. Stuller, one of the founders of Geek Girl Con.