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