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Larger Than Life

The Vital Role of Superheroes

Photo courtesy of pxhere

by Natasha Doris

In this day and age, our modern cinematic landscape is dominated by the superhero genre. Screens the size of our homes dazzling and explosive, heroes reaching out their hands to pull us into a world in which we can fly and fight and soar with them. A beautiful dream where we live out our wildest fantasies of saving the world, kicking the bad guy’s ass, and finally riding off into the sunset until the next time.


Most of us have grown up with Spiderman and Iron Man and Captain America solemnly shouldering the heavy weight of their great power and responsibility upon themselves, and we have watched in awe, longing to emulate them. For many of us, we ran around our playground years singing the songs of our favourite heroes, playing Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones and Wolverine. Little girls and little children who didn’t fit the white male archetype, however, slowly realised that they could not see themselves in their heroes on that giant screen. Slowly the world pressed in around us, our lives saturated with racism and sexism. All too soon our Technicolor dreams began to feel like nightmares; the horrible reality was that our heroes, who we looked to for fantastic aspirational escapism, withdrew their hands and barred entry to us with dazzling smiles intact. 


Please know that I am not attacking white men for this. I am happy that they have had a wealth of positive role models to aspire to. The superhero is the figure we all wish to become. It is a gift that they have had these heroes, one which I am grateful for. The power of the superhero is to see someone like us do things which are extraordinary, to transcend adversity and prove triumphant in the face of all that we as mortals cannot take on ourselves. An escapist fantasy in which we are free from the bondage of our daily realities, whether that be fear or pain or sexual discrimination, in which we can break free, take our hero’s hand, and we can soar.  


Allow me to convey what is happening on the other side of the curtain, the one in which we live. As a girl, I was warned that danger lurked around every corner. Walk safely in the daylight, and even then, clutch your keys between your fingers, keep an ambulance on speed dial in case… well, I don’t have to expand anymore on this, do I? My heroes didn’t look like me, the women were not created for our viewing benefit. Their fluttering eyelashes and skin-tight outfits as the hero saved them made me realise that these women were a fantasy for the men. If I try to emulate these women, I can’t feel powerful. I feel exposed, stripped-down, made to be a partial piece in the hero’s puzzle. Never my own hero.


For people of colour, racism is a daily reality, a horrible thorn in their side which will not give rest: stereotyping, underestimation, irrational unwarranted comments and attacks. They looked to the heroes they grew up with and found no one pulling them in to escape from their lives, into one where the heroes looked like them, and the heroes were rulers, warriors, queens and kings. 


Now allow me to explain the tidal shift of recent years.


When Wonder Woman came out, I saw it three times in the cinema. Each and every time, I cried. And I wasn’t alone. Seeing Diana fight her way across a battlefield, lead her soldiers, run fearless into the fight and embrace rather than run from her femininity, hit a mark I had no words for, and salved a gaping wound that made me break. The impact it had on me cannot be overstated. I walked home that night with a fearless stride and a war cry in my heart. Women the world over took to twitter and social media and the message was clear: the impact, earth-shattering. It was summed up perfectly by a woman who wrote: “No wonder white men are so obscenely confident all the time, I saw one woman hero movie and I’m ready to fight a thousand dudes barehanded!”


The effect of Black Panther, similarly, cannot be overstated. Twitter hit peak excitement, with one using posting: “Black women on giant Marvel posters for Black Panther. These better be plastered up in Times Square all winter.” I understand; the day I put my Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman posters on my wall, I danced around the apartment, laughing like a little girl again. “The extraordinary success of ‘Black Panther’ rests in part on creating a counter-myth to centuries of racist depictions of Africa, where it sets a hidden kingdom wiser and more technologically advanced than the wildest visions of Afro-Centrism”, one writer for the New York Times states. We have deep, gaping wounds which have been long unaddressed by the heroes we admire; but the tide is turning for the better, and we, collectively, are singing our praises and dancing like children, free and worry-free once more. 

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