This summer, any doubts regarding the widespread appeal of Wonder Woman were shattered as the character’s long awaited origin film broke numerous box office records. It’s telling that many felt there wasn’t a market for a film about the world’s most famous female superhero. Obviously, these misogynistic notions regarding superheroes have now been dashed.
I still remember religiously watching the animated television series Super Friends as a child, and Justice League as a pre-teen. In the latter series, Wonder Woman played a prominent role as one of the de facto leaders of the league. Not only was she strong willed—never backing down from expressing her opinion—but she was much more powerful than most of her counterparts, both in rank and ability. This incarnation of the character was shown as having super strength and being able to fly, routinely rivaling the capabilities of her colleague Superman, the pinnacle of American masculine culture.
In one crucial episode, the duo even spar under the illusion that the other is the enemy. The result? Wonder Woman emerged the victor thanks to her superior hand-to-hand combat skills. Watching this as a child, an immense sense of excitement welled up inside of me as she took down the Man of Steel.
It’s clear that Wonder Woman could hold her own among the boys physically within the Justice League, but her other qualities made her truly special. While other superheroes made rash decisions and were quick to engage in battle, Wonder Woman always seemed levelheaded and diplomatic. She routinely saw all sides of a conflict—a trait established in her royal background. In contrast, Superman and the Martian Manhunter were both aliens to Earth, forced to learn certain social graces. Meanwhile, Batman was a tortured soul who ran as a lone wolf, without believing in the benefits of teamwork.
Wonder Woman was likable and relatable, both of which can be tied to her feminine identity. Gal Gadot, who played the Amazonian princess in the live action film, described the character as: “Experienced, super-confident. Open and sincere even in the midst of a gruesome, bloody conflict. Having many strengths and powers, but at the end of the day she’s a woman with a lot of emotional intelligence.” This quality separated Wonder Woman from the men in the Justice League who spectacularly failed in this aspect.
Despite all of the ways in which Wonder Woman surpassed her male counterparts, when I think back to my childhood she doesn’t stand alone. I have always had an affinity for female superheroes and in hindsight, I can easily see why strong female characters are more appealing than their hyper masculine counterparts to Queer children. Female superheroes are inherently the outsiders within their genre and seeing them succeed fundamentally connects with that desire in any outsider to thrive within the world. This explains the excitement I experienced watching Wonder Woman take down Superman. Her victory is something highly unlikely to happen, but when it does, it’s so fulfilling for the part of me that wants to rise up and triumph against the status quo.
Sailor Moon will always be one of my favorite heroes for as long as I live. In the late 90s, Cartoon Network started an afternoon programming block called Toonami, which aired English dubbed versions of popular Japanese anime. I’ll always maintain that this was one of the most essential features of a 90s childhood. If you weren’t watching Toonami, we definitely couldn’t have been friends. As a child, my fixations were professional wrestling and anime. Through Toonami, I had greater access to the latter and was introduced to Dragon Ball Z, Inuyasha, and Tenchi Muyo!—all male-driven shows. At the time, I thought Toonami was great enough as it was, but it would soon get a lot better. I can remember one day seeing a commercial where five females, all dressed in sailor outfits accented with a signature color, dropped down into a dark cavern, struck poses and illuminated the cavern around them. The commercial was for a new addition to Toonami, Sailor Moon.
In the series, the protagonist Serena initially believes herself to be a normal human, but soon learns that she is actually the long lost princess of a Moon Dynasty. I grew up seeing Serena go through a depiction of adolescence that mirrored my own experience: social awkwardness, anxiety, stress and even getting picked on from time to time. Her realization that she is Sailor Moon represents what all burdened young people hope for during their life; that not all of the bad things in life are real and somewhere within us all is greatness that we have yet to realize, that we all are Moon Princesses deep down.
Throughout the show, the viewer is introduced to a variety of supporting characters known as the Sailor Scouts. One of my favorites has always been Sailor Jupiter, the tomboy of the group. Distinctly taller than the rest of the Scouts and rough around the edges, her signature color happened to be my favorite, green. Not only does this sizable team epitomize a supportive sisterhood, but the various members also provide so many different children with representations that they can relate to. Where I related to the tomboy of the group, other children may see parts of their identity in Sailor Venus (the most overtly femme member of the group) or Sailor Mercury (the geeky braniac).
The Sailor Scout team is equipped with weapons and each of them has unique abilities relating to natural elements. When it comes to Sailor Moon’s abilities, they are pretty extravagant: one of her most powerful abilities came from what many see as a weakness. In an early episode of the series, Sailor Moon had run out of options, and is seen crying when faced with a terrifying opponent. Surprisingly, her tears and the sound of her crying effectively attack and subdue her opponent. It didn’t hit me then, but the series transformed a commonly negative trait into a positive one. There have been many times throughout my life where there is nothing else I can do in a situation but cry. Even though some may see it as a sign of weakness, I know that the release of tears is a necessary relief during hard times.
Every Saturday morning, I would wake up with my cousins and rush to the living room to watch the X-Men animated series. Hailing from nobility, just like Wonder Woman, Storm was born to a Kenyan princess who came from a long line of sorceresses. Her lineage always stood out to me, as there has historically been a negative stigma associated with the continent of Africa and blackness in general. Even though she is a fictional character, Storm’s story taught me that there is worth, power and a rich history that lies deep within Africa, its culture and its descendants.
Storm’s upbringing also deeply resonated with me. She was raised in Harlem, just as I was. I’ve always felt an affinity for positive representations of Harlem, whether they are fictional or not. Largely different to the gentrified mecca it is today, Harlem once had a negative stigma just like Africa does, an undesirable place—the rough part of town. Sometimes as a child, I’d wish I was brought up somewhere like the Upper West Side, a place people wouldn’t cringe at when hearing the name. Knowing that Storm was from my neighborhood always made me feel optimistic. The depiction of her character would expose Harlem to millions of other kids and and as a child, I would think that Storm could do something to remove the negative stereotypes associated with my neighborhood.
Another relic from the 90s, the Powerpuff Girls are a trio of genetically engineered sisters who attend kindergarten by day and fight crime by night. The Powerpuff Girls share traits with Sailor Moon in that they have normal lives coupled with their heroic duties. They routinely succumb to sibling spats, insecurities, and childhood angst. The characterization of the Powerpuff Girls certainly relies on female character tropes when it comes to the three main characters: Blossom is the overachiever you admire but still dislike, Buttercup is the tomboy who’s aggressive and unapproachable (and who also wears green just like Sailor Jupiter), and Bubbles is the ditzy blonde. But overall despite their flaws, the girls are a team, and when they work together there’s nothing that can stop them from saving their town.
My most prevalent memory of the Powerpuff Girls is the introduction of their nemesis, the Rowdyruff Boys, who were created to be ruthless, stronger male versions of the protagonists. When the Rowdyruff Boys appear, the girls are no match for them; the boys are much too strong when it comes to combat. In the end, the girls figure out that there is one unexpected way that they can defeat the boys: a kiss. The affection that the girls show through their kisses is in total opposition to the aggression that the boys embody and they are successfully defeated. This episode of The Powerpuff Girls, in addition to the chronicles of Storm, Wonder Woman, and Sailor Moon, taught me that there are other ways to fight battles; sometimes it’s not best to fight fire with fire and that’s a lesson I’ve carried with me to this day.
Looking back on these characters, I can see that feminine power is distinctive from masculine power. While their male counterparts relied on brute force when it came to combating evil, these female superheroes used love, affection, graciousness, strategy, and temperance in order to defeat their opponents. In listing out their respective tactics, it’s easy to see why I’ve always revered the heroines of the world.