Superheroes and princesses: the fortunes of gendered entertainment in a socially just world

Ironically, they seem to be doing very well, at least by commercial standards.  Between them, they’ve arguably devoured American popular culture.  That’s not to say that the genres are in good health; a genre can continue making money long into its decadent phase when it lives on irony and nostalgia.

When I was a kid, I read a bunch of the DC comic books–Superman, Green Lantern, that sort of thing.  My maternal grandfather co-owned a candy shop, a veritable paradise for young boys full of chocolates, squirt guns, and a turning comic book rack near the front entrance.  At that time, comic books were still for boys.  They were produced on inexpensive paper to be cheap, had new issues each month, and generally avoided “adult themes”.  Years later, after I’d outgrown them, comic books morphed into “graphic novels”:  bulky, expensive things aimed at an adult audience.  The DC superhero crew lives on in movies, especially the wonderful recent Batman trilogy, which surprisingly contained many counter-revolutionary themes.  These also were really more aimed at adults, albeit young adults who probably didn’t fully appreciate them, than boys.

Is this the perversion or maturation of the genre?  There’s nothing wrong with something being aimed for children; such belongs to the proper telos of some art forms, the deviation from which (toward inaccessibility to children or presence of distinctly adult themes) is a defect.  Even if we admit that superhero stories don’t really function like they used to, feminists are probably not to blame.  Certainly superhero stories worked to appease feminists by adding more heroines and taking away stories with the hero saving his love interest, but boys never really like those stories anyway.  We would have always been happy for Lois Lane to disappear altogether so that Superman could give all his attention to clobbering Lex Luther.

In any case, I find that I can’t mourn the comic stories of my youth, because I have grown to dislike them.  The very idea of a class of people who go around clobbering villains in the name of “justice”, as if human beings were so cleanly divided into good and evil, has become hateful to me.  If there really were a Superman, I’m sure I’d be one of the people he’d be beating up and throwing into jail each week.  Him and the whole Social Justice League of America.  It’s the Manichean worldview that seems so characteristic to me of the Jewish imagination.  One might protest that superheroes can be imagined in a conservative way.  Capturing criminals is a way to defend the social order; aren’t superheroes just glorified policemen?  Well, it’s the fact that it’s unglorified that makes police work an honest job.  Police don’t enforce Justice; they maintain an admittedly imperfect social system where people are allowed to be imperfectly liberal.

Contrast this with a medieval adventure story that I love, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  People call Malory’s knights “idealized”, but what’s interesting is how they contain contradictory ideals.  The whole story could be seen as a battling out of the ideals of clan loyalty, courtly romance, and Christianity.  Arthur’s knights cause as much mayhem as they stop.  The climactic battle is between Lancelot and Gawain, two flawed heroes.  The story ends not with the defeat of any external enemy, but with the genuine repentance and redemption of Sir Lancelot.  (Malory handles this in a beautifully understated way, with Lancelot overseeing the transfer of Queen Guinevere’s grave.  As he sees the dead king and queen laid to eternal rest together, he finally understands the monstrousness of what he has done.)

Some time ago, my sister asked me if I’d seen the new X-Men movie.  I told her, no, I’m not going to bother with those movies anymore, because now that I’ve seen Frozen, I’ve seen the mutant superhero story done right.  It’s an instructive comparison.  X-Men is a Marvel comic, cartoon, and movie series about a bunch of mutants with superpowers who suffer prejudice from regular people.  The must writers always insist that it’s irrational fear, because otherwise viewers would notice that anyone in his right mind would have rational fear of these mutants.  Half of them are evil, and most of the other half don’t control their powers well or have powers that are inherently dangerous to be around.  You’d have to be insane to be willing to have a mutant in your child’s classroom.  To a certain type of imagination, the goyim majority must always be evil, even when their actions are rationally justified.

Queen Elsa finds herself in a similar predicament, although her powers are, sensibly I believe, usually called “magic” rather than a “mutation”.  As with many X-Men, she experiences her powers as a curse that separates her from other people.  She can’t control her ice powers, and her subjects are rationally afraid.  There’s no need to portray them as evil, and they aren’t.  Once Elsa does learn to control her powers, people stop fearing her.  The only really villainous character is Prince Hans, but he actually has very little to do with the characters’ misfortunes.  In fact, I found the story more compelling for the fact that Elsa’s and Anna’s loneliness isn’t anybody’s fault.

And if Professor Xavier had found Elsa, taught her to control her powers, and set her to work fighting evil in a revealing skin-tight superhero suit, that would have been really stupid.

How about princess stories?  These take a very different inspiration from European folk and fairy tales; the imagination is Germano-pagan-Christian rather than Jewish.  The focus is on getting the boy rather than defeating evil.  Rather than a heroically good boy battling an evil world, a generally good girl ascends to the next stage of life in a good but mysterious world.  One possible sign of health is that Disney Princess movies are still aimed at little girls, not nostalgic older women.  On the other hand, Disney has had to execute a careful negotiation between the demands of feminism for gender role smashing and the demands of the market for a celebration of femininity and medievalist nostalgia.  As I’ve written before, the Disney writers have pulled it off surprisingly well so far, but one wonders how long their ingenuity can carry them.

It’s true, unfortunately, that recent princesses have acquired superpowers, albeit plausibly feminine ones.  They still strike me as healthier influences than actual superheroes; at least they’re not trying to make the world a better place.

4 Responses

  1. Princess movies are for girls what sports are for boys: vestigial displays of femininity and masculinity which act as lightning rods, conducting those natural forces into the ground where they are no threat to established liberalism.

  2. The rotating comic book rack (at the quicky-mart) with cheap comics was part of my childhood too. I’m old enough to remember 40 cent comic books. Shogun Warriors was my first love. After about age 5- 6, I always went for the Marvel adaptations of Robert E. Howard characters (Conan, Solomon Kane, etc.). Totally different from the superhero comics. Severed heads and almost naked chicks. Conan’s a bad dude but the Picts are worse so he crushes their skulls. No Manichean worldview.

  3. […] is often at his best when talking about ostensibly meaningless pablum. His talking about Superheroes and princesses: the fortunes of gendered entertainment in a socially just world is no […]

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