Why Are Even Powerful Women Victims?

As I watched Emmie Mear’s #SuperWomen Twitter chat roll by me last night, and a variety of contributors trying to contribute names to a list of Super Women in popular culture today, I had some trouble articulating why I’m not a fan of Olivia from Fringe. She’s possibly the most bland character on television today—her evil twin was far more appealing—but that’s not what really bothers me.

No, I hate that she’s still portrayed as a victim: even her apparent “superpowers” came about because some mad-scientists experimented on her when she was a kid. Sure, she’s the only one to survive sane, with her powers intact, but those powers were forced upon her and she’s not that keen on using them.

Her reluctance isn’t caution: it’s fear. These powers only exist because she was abused as a kid. I get that it makes her noble for even thinking about using the abilities,  but the fact is, the show-writers perpetuate the effects of the abuse by forcing the character to never overcome them.

And she’s not the only example of the woman who only receives her powers through abuse: look at River Tam from Firefly, the perennial super-assassin-girl. She’s a badass, but she can’t control her badassery. Her skills are the result of years of brainwashing. A brilliant, bright girl was forcibly changed into a weapon of mass (and self) destruction.

That’s not personal power, folks. That’s rape.

It’s unacceptable for women to receive their super powers only as a result of tinkering by outside forces, especially when those forces are portrayed as male. These shows are basically telling us that these women are only amazing because a man stepped in and made her that way, forcing her out of who she was and into a painful new role. These women are powerful, and I won’t deny that. I just can’t redeem the victim-role they’re forced to play.

The journey for these women is then to integrate that power into their lives—and frequently that requires the aid of a lover, brother, or father. Although I hate to besmirch the name, River Song from Doctor Who is an example of where the path of abusive power-giving leads. She’s awesome (and empowering in other ways), but she only came into her awesomeness because she was programmed by a “religious order or movement” to kill the Doctor.

She overcomes that brainwashing, but only because the Doctor himself devises away to let her fulfill her mission, apparently killing him and satisfying her programming. All her well-laid plans to avoid the moment come to nothing, but the Doctor pulls her out of the fire and saves the day.

That’s really uncool when you think about it.

A strong woman’s journey should not require to overcome her abusive past. It should not require her to seek some man’s aid. It should not require her to integrate someone else’s idea of who she should be into her idea of who she is. Maybe she’s all the stronger for overcoming her past, but it’s still not okay to turn her into a victim. Perhaps making her overcome these challenges is more realistic—what woman doesn’t have to overcome some trauma and the perceptions of the world around her?—but the nice thing about television is that it allows us to move past what is and into what could be.

Buffy is awesome, and her power was inborn. Sure, she was “chosen,” but she had the latent powers there already. Part of her journey is to accept that these powers are a defining part of her, for better or worse.

I hate to be the lone nay-sayer, but I think the female superhero sub-genre has yet to reach its potential. We’re still a long way from giving women power without strings, and we viewers, readers, and writers, have the ability to change that. So let’s keep looking. Let’s keep fighting. We’ll have real Super Women across the board one of these days.


What do you think? Are you okay with this trope?

Who are some inherently super-powered women? How about:
Hermione from Harry Potter, who knows that nerdiness is awesome
Arwen from The Lord of the Rings films (who, sadly, chooses to give up her powers for a man, which could be a topic for another blog post!)
Daenerys Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire

Can you think of other powerful women victims? I can:
— Caroline Forbes on The Vampire Diaries received her powers from, well, a bite
— Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager, kidnapped and turned into a borg as a kid
Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood, powerful but still vampire bait

6 thoughts on “Why Are Even Powerful Women Victims?

  1. I, too, have had issues with this trope but have not been able to articulate it nearly as well as you have here. There aren’t nearly as many of those kinds of stories written with boys or men as the victims – in fact, none are coming to mind but that may be due to not enough coffee yet. Great thought provoking post!

    • Thanks! You know, I thought about trying to bring some victimized men into the post, but there’s quite a dearth of material there. I’m sure the male powerful victims are out there, but it takes some head-scratching to come up with them.

  2. You know, even Buffy came about because the first Slayer was a victim of the first Watchers. Remember that episode in season seven where she goes back to that moment to boost her power? The original Watchers chained the Primitive to a rock and spiritually raped her by injecting the darkness of the demons into her against her will. That shook me — it’s awful. Buffy was born with the potential, but only because another woman was made a victim.

    This is a really great post, and it addresses something powerful and overlooked. I think that the subconscious (maybe even conscious) mindset behind the manifestation of victims-made-stronger is the somewhat flawed notion that these women have overcome their victimhood and become Something More. While I respect the ability and the gut strength it takes to overcome abuse, sexual violence, and violation, I want to see women who make themselves strong without being victimised as a catalyst.

    You’re right; it’s way too prevalent in our culture.

    • That’s a great point, and–honestly–I’m not a big fan of the victim-made-stronger trope, but I felt the need to concede there lest I get my ass kicked by victims who have been made stronger! Still, it suggests that women’s path to great power is through adversity, and that shouldn’t be the case.

      And you’re right about Buffy — the first Slayer’s story made me feel dirty, and I can’t believe I forgot to bring it up here! In my post-plotting, I actually got hung up on the thought that Buffy herself takes on the role of abuser late in the show. She forces her Potentials to fight and then she takes any element of choice away from the all Potentials around the world. With Willow’s spell, suddenly all of those young girls are made into warriors, whether they like it or not.

      That problem of choice and lack thereof is prevalent in the super power mythos. By taking away the hero’s choice in the matter, suddenly they have an easy flaw. We can pity them because it was forced upon them… and frequently it’s a case of “Boohoo, I can hear your tiny violin from here.”

      • “Still, it suggests that women’s path to great power is through adversity, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

        You know, Ann Romney basically espoused that entire philosophy in her speech at the RNC. She implied that women are strong because we put up with so much shit, but that’s just the way it is.

        I don’t like that philosophy. Women are strong, period, and I want to see more women being strong without a “because.” I am with you 100%, and I agree that the comic book world and superhero genre needs to move past that.

        My protagonist gets her powers from something she did, drinking a bottle of soda in a strange, unexplained lab. And while she is taken against her will once, she uses that time to learn, to listen, and doesn’t think of herself as a victim. This post made me think long and hard about my own superhero protagonist, because I don’t want her to be a victim. That’s not what media should glorify, but that is what media glorifies.

  3. Well said! I think Hermoine is my favorite powerful (and powerfully smart) female character. That she remains feminine and kind makes her all the more powerful. Having a woman detach from her feminity and compassion to make her powerful is almost as bad as making her a victim, because it says we have to give up an important part of ourselves and become more like a man to claim our inherent power.

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