For generations, superhero comics and movies have inspired and entertained society. From Captain America defeating Hydra and the Nazis in World War II to Batman delivering vigilante justice in Gotham, superheroes have captivated audiences. One of the reasons that superheroes have been able to captivate audiences is because superheroes are “…blatant personifications of society’s morals (Romagnoli, 8).” With this power, superheroes can also shape how society views certain problems and certain people. Because of this, superhero stories have been used to change societal views on the roles of women and black people. However, to achieve success in changing societal views superhero stories have sometimes objectified individuals and have played into stereotypes to get an audience that allows the messages of equality to be heard. Superheroes reflect societal views and morals from the time that they’re from while also trying to change society for the better.
Superhero comics started after the Great Depression. They were seen as a form of entertainment to distract from people’s economic turmoil. Superhero comics were targeted to young white males as something that they should spend their allowance on. Because the audience for superheroes were white males the superheroes themselves were also white and male. Superheroes at the time also represented the white hegemonic patriarchal society of America. Because superheroes represented societal views and morals most of the superhero stories involved strong men who had to rescue a damsel in distress. This shows the societal views of the time as males were considered dominant in the patriarchal society while women were seen as weak and in need of a man’s help.
Around the time of World War II, there were shifting societal views and norms on the role of women. As the men went off to fight in the war women went to work in the factories. In late 1941 Wonder Woman made her first appearance in DC Comics. Wonder Woman was one of the first female superheroes and embodied strength, justice, and equality. Because of the changing societal views around women during World War II Wonder Woman was able to come into existence. Wonder Woman reflected the times.
As women went to work in factories Wonder Woman represented those women because she was strong and independent, like the women who were earning a wage. As a strong female role model, she further helped change societal views by pushing for feminism and equality. She was also a character that represented girls and was one that young girls could look up to. Wonder Woman helped empower women and change societal views of what women could do. As much as the period of World War II affected the creation of Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman affected society by raising questions on the role of women in the world.
After World War II the men came back to war and there was again a shift in the roles of women in society. While during the war women were working in factories and they were empowered, after the war there was an expectation to return back to a patriarchal society. As societal views shifted Wonder Woman shifted as well. At this time Wonder Woman no longer represented feminism and equality. Instead, she represented femininity and marriage. This is a far cry from what she was originally intended to represent. It does, however, represent the changing times and the changing societal views on roles for women.
Wonder Woman even gave up her powers to get married in the comics. This represents the weakness of women in society at the time and their reliance on a man to take care of them. “The creative team saw this big change as feminist in that she would have to rely on her wits and not her superpowers…(Cocca, 217).” While the writers of the comics may have intended the marriage to force Wonder Woman to rely on her mind it still represented societal views of women in the household as the caretaker. Because of this it was not seen as a feminist move and was instead seen as a way to make Wonder Woman fit into American society because her role as a strong empowered woman did not fit into American society at the time. Wonder Woman’s powers were not restored until fans decided to lobby the editor.
With a new emergence of Wonder Woman in the 1980s, she was back to being the feminist hero she was intended to be. Now she was back fighting with other female amazons instead of fighting alone. The goals of this new Wonder Woman were to bring lessons of peace and equality to a man’s world. Despite this reboot of Wonder Woman, with the ending of the second wave of feminism, there was also an ending to the popularity of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman still encouraged young girls to be strong and independent along with fighting for feminism and equality. However, with the ending of the second wave of feminism, there was also a drop in popularity of this Wonder Woman. Because of this, there was a change in how Wonder Woman appeared in her comics.
Starting in the 1990s Wonder Woman was feminized. This was similar to the hyper-feminization she went through in the 1950s and 1960s. This time, to attract a larger audience to her comics she was made to look more physically attractive. She wore fewer clothes and had a curvier figure. This was done to attract a larger audience because the majority of individuals reading comics in the 1990s were still white heterosexual males. There was also more violence added to the comics to make them more appealing to readers as well. By objectifying Wonder Woman the writers were able to get a larger audience for their comic and thus created a larger audience to share messages in Wonder Woman about feminism and strong female role models.
Although Wonder Woman was objectified she still can inspire young girls and represents a strong female role model. While there are obvious problems with the way that she was depicted it stands to benefit society as a whole. By objectifying Wonder Woman the writers are able to attract new readers who probably would not have read the Wonder Woman comics if she did not look the way that she does. The writers recognized that they cannot solve issues of gender equality and gender roles in society but they can at least take steps to better society.
By having more boys read Wonder Woman they are being exposed to a strong female hero who fights for equality and feminism (even if they do it scantily dressed). Joss Whedon, who was a writer of Wonder Woman, said: “If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of a situation without their knowing that’s what’s happening, it’s better than sitting down and selling them on feminism (Cocca, 221).” By having young boys read comics with female leaders they are getting used to having women in charge. This helps change societal views on the roles of women. It allows there to be an acceptance of women in leadership positions and other positions of power. By slowly advancing feminism in popular media then there is a chance to make real change.
Superhero comics and movies do have the effect to change society and societal views. Wonder Woman has impacted societal views on the roles of women along with inspiring girls to become strong and independent women. With the criticism for how Wonder Woman was depicted in the 1990s, Joss Whedon recognizes that “[If he made] a series of lectures on PBS on why there should be feminism, no one would be coming to the party, and it would be boring. The idea of changing culture is important to me, and it can only be done in a popular medium (Cocca, 217).” While things like PBS or NPR can educate people on what is wrong with society and how it can be changed, it will not have the same impact as the popular media. Superhero comics and movies can change societal views because they reach a large audience of people and because they are entertaining. By entertaining a large audience Wonder Woman movies and comics can change societal views of the roles of women along with changing societal views on strong independent women in power.
While Wonder Woman shows how superheroes can change societal views around women, Black Panther shows how superheroes can also be used to change societal views around race. The overwhelming majority of superheroes are white males. This can be attributed to the time when superheroes came into popularity and societal views on race. Black Panther was introduced in the 1960s. This was during the civil rights and black power movement. As American views of race changed, Black Panther represented the changing views of blackness in America.
Black Panther is a strong black hero who is also a great leader who leads an entire country. He represents what black people in America could become. He also represents an idea of black power in which black people are proud of their culture but are also willing to help those in need because they know the struggles that their people went through. The 2018 film Black Panther decides not to show this understanding of how the people of Wakanda can help others until the end of the film. It is not until Killmonger comes to Wakanda and opens the eyes of the Wakandans to the atrocities against black people in the world that there is an understanding amongst the Wakandans to help out people in the rest of the world.
The reason that the film is this way is because of the changing societal views of black power. The Black Panther Party was founded in the same year that the Black Panther comic came out (1966). The Black Panther Party had an ideology of black nationalism, socialism, and armed self-defense. This type of thinking is similar to that of Killmonger in Black Panther. Both Killmonger and the Black Panther Party sought to use violent means to express black power. T’Challa, on the other hand, uses intelligence, cultural awareness, and forgiveness to express black power.
Over time there have been changing views of black power in America. In modern times Black Power has moved away from the idea of using violence to achieve its goals. This type of ideology was around in the 1960s with leaders like Malcolm X. Changing societal views has lead to Black Power being expressed in non-violent ways and through other means such as impacts on the culture and arts and black is beautiful.
The Black Panther in the 2018 film represents these new societal views on Black Power. The 2018 film showed black and African culture differently from most other mainstream movies. First off, Black Panther had a majority diverse cast. This has been rare for Hollywood films. It was important to the filmmakers that they expressed African culture in the movie. The filmmakers consulted with experts on West Africa to help accurately portray the people of Wakanda. The most obvious way in which African and black culture is celebrated in Black Panther is through the clothing. Inspiration for the female warrior’s costumes came from the Maasai people of Kenya. There was also an inspiration for costumes from the African country of Lesotho.
The culmination of this celebration of African culture comes during the ritual combat scene. This scene shows off the African inspired costumes. It also shows pride in rituals and customs. This shows Black Power in that it shows a togetherness of the people of Wakanda and a celebration of African culture. This is important as it reflects the current views of Black Power in America.
Black is beautiful is part of Black Power and is aimed at dispelling the idea that black people’s natural features such as facial features, hair, and skin are inherently ugly. It is important because in America because of racial biases white people have been considered to be prettier. There weren’t even black barbies until the end of the 1960s. This relates closely to a 1940s experiment done by Kenneth Clark. In the experiment, he used dolls to determine the psychological effects of black children in segregated schools. What he found was that “…black children in segregated schools who rejected the black doll for a white doll demonstrated internalised feelings of racial inferiority…(134, Nama).” By not having black superheroes the same self-views of racial inferiority can be perpetuated in black children. Because of this, there must be diverse superheroes in American culture.
Black Panther addresses black beauty throughout the film. In the movie, the warriors who protect T’Challa are women. This is important because it shows the role of strong female figures in black society. They are also made to appear both strong and beautiful. This can be seen in the casino scene where Okoye (T’Challa’s bodyguard) goes from being dressed up elegantly to fighting against Klaue without skipping a beat. This highlights how black is beautiful.
Black Panther was also an important film because it was the first Marvel film to represent black people. Just like with Wonder Woman where it is important to allow society to get used to seeing a woman in power and as the protagonist, it is also important for society to get used to seeing black characters as superheroes. This helps shift societal views on what it means to be a superhero and what superheroes look like. It leads to a world where there is also a wider acceptance of people who are different. Black Panther helped bring positivity to a group of people who are not often the focus of Hollywood blockbusters. Because of that, it was able to change societal views on what superheroes can be.
Superheroes reflect societal views at the time. As society changes, so do our heroes. But society doesn’t just change superheroes, superheroes can also change society. Because superheroes have a place in popular media they can get out messages to a large audience. This means that superheroes can change societal views on women and black people, and superhero stories change societal views to make society a better place.