Observation Deck

The Making of the Modern Superheroine

Why comic-book crusaders have nothing on the real-life women who changed the world in 2015.

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During the interminable but reliably ridiculous early phases of the 2016 presidential campaign, Republican aspirant Jeb Bush felt it appropriate to note that television’s new Supergirl looks “hot.” Because Foreign Policy is dedicated to public service, I took it upon myself to watch several episodes of the show to determine precisely what it was that this potential commander in chief was referring to.

I will not comment further on Bush’s assessment, except to note that it is freaking 2015 and that he should go to the nearest lending library and see if he can borrow a clue. That said, after watching the episodes it is clear to me that Bush’s view of the show is not the most backward one on display. There is, for example, the perspective of the producers.

Presented to the world as a bit of female empowerment-based entertainment, Supergirl, played by Glee alumna Melissa Benoist, is pretty much your typical superhero — and that is the problem. Everything that makes her “super” is essentially the same thing that makes other famous superheroes special: overstated male traits that can be summed up as a unique ability to beat people up. Super. Super-duper.

Most superheroes are set apart from average citizens almost exclusively by physical strengths: They are stronger, faster, and often less vulnerable to physical attacks. And sometimes they have superhuman powers, such as the gift of flight or X-ray vision. They all would be pretty good in the NFL or a bar fight or any other testosterone-rich zone. But, really, is that as super as traits can get?

Why is it so seldom that superheroes are actually smarter than your average person, more perceptive, strategically supergifted? Why is it that they don’t have the ability to outsmart and defeat villains without throwing them through semitrucks or brick walls? Why are they not inventors or artists who, with their brains, can produce revolutions or transform societies? That is to say, why is it usually the hero — the tough vigilante — who wins a reader’s heart by beating the “mad” scientist who, inevitably, has a brow or cranium that’s slightly too big?

As for Supergirl, wouldn’t even the slightest thought to the feminist-empowerment themes that are allegedly associated with the show (and referenced periodically by Supergirl’s female boss, played by Calista Flockhart) result in, I don’t know, a woman whose superpowers might somehow not be the exact overstated stereotypically masculine traits that you find in most traditional comic-book characters? Isn’t there something more, something different that is possible? Something other than merely changing the cut of her requisite superhero leotards?

It is not a new error. As we were reminded last year in the excellent The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, even though there was something of a feminist theme to that icon’s story, at the end of the day she spent most of her time fighting and winning (Amazing! Boff! Kapow!), not to mention the fact that the stories also contained idiosyncratic sexual undertones related to the unconventional living arrangements and tastes of the Amazon warrior’s inventor, the certifiably strange dude Dr. William Marston.

We need not wait indefinitely, however, to find stories of women with supergifts that help them stand apart without aping the look and ethos of, say, a WWE match. You can look at the list of Foreign Policy’s 2015 Leading Global Thinkers. For the first time in the award’s seven-year history, the majority of the recipients are female — there are 61 women and 60 men. This is perhaps less a milestone for women than it is a sign that Foreign Policy is coming to its senses, awakening to the remarkable work being done in every field by women with real superpowers — namely, world-altering, life-changing, barrier-breaking intellect, creativity, and decisiveness.

Each year, in producing the list, Foreign Policy considers hundreds of achievers who meet our criteria: that is, people whose ideas are being translated into action and impacting many lives across borders. The recipients are all real-life superheroes (or in a couple of instances, supervillains) who transcend the typical by applying their great mental gifts and related talents. None of these remarkable individuals has, to the best of our knowledge, achieved success by turning green and growing muscles so big that his or her clothing has been torn to tatters. All have influenced the world by cultivating, to unusual levels, gifts involving not just academic achievement or narrow professional success but often remarkable sets of cross-cutting talents — musicians who are knitting together nations, pathbreaking artists who are leading political movements, scientists with great political or entrepreneurial skills who are forcing us to question our core philosophies.

When you look at the list, you can’t help but notice a remarkable mix of women who have made it in traditional male-dominated arenas and others whose greatest accomplishments relate to fighting for the recognition of long-denied or neglected women’s rights — or, in some cases, relate to fighting to be recognized and identified, once and for all, as a woman, period. There is no single path to becoming the kind of standouts acknowledged on our list, except that the skills being tapped are far more diverse and far-reaching in their impacts than any celebrated in even the most fantastic of fantasy publications.

That gender looms large isn’t surprising: 2016, for example, is the first year that a woman, Hillary Clinton, has a real opportunity to become the leader of what is currently the world’s richest and most powerful nation. The fact that this is the first time in almost 240 years of U.S. history suggests the powerful forces that have been opposing it. But now we are on the threshold of great change led by women, for women — and benefiting everyone. As Clinton has said, “Women are not victims, we are agents of change, we are drivers of progress, we are makers of peace — all we need is a fighting chance.” That kind of thinking and hundreds of years of perseverance have brought us to a moment when everywhere we look women are at the forefront, improving the world and doing it in their own special way appropriate to the truth of who they are.

Now that is hot.

Illustration by Matthew Hollister

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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