Today I bring you a terrific essay by Liz Pfeiffer who has guest posted many times for the blog on everything from Lois Lane to Kate Kane’s clothes. This time she looks at the portrayal of mothers and daughters in superhero comics. Her thoughts follow.
After my best friend’s mother died of a short battle with cancer this February, she and I had a very long conversation about mothers. She and her mother had a very complicated relationship and she told me that I should be so lucky as to get into arguments with my mother because she was still there to get into arguments with. Since the loss of my dear friend’s mother, I have been reflecting more on mother and relationships. They are, in a word – complicated. As a young girl, I loved hanging out with my mom; as a teen, I fought with her constantly to define myself; and as an adult, she is the first person I go to for advice and the person I can’t wait to share good news with or cry to about my bad news. Other women I know have just as complex relationships with their mothers. And yet, when we look to mediums, our relationships with our mothers become stereotypes or one-dimensional portrayals of parents and children.
Take comics for example: there are about a few regularly recurring stereotypes:
I wanted to understand why these stereotypes exist in the first place, so I went to Jennifer K. Stuller, author of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology. Stuller writes about mother figures in comics and action roles for women, as well as discusses the very few positive mother-daughter or female mentoring roles there are in these genres.
“Whether it’s intended to or not, this trope of the mother-daughter relationship as combative gives the impression that women can’t get along because they are inherently in competition - whether that’s a struggle for power, autonomy, a male figure, or moral superiority. Though, to be fair, we see a similar struggle in our cultural narratives between fathers and sons.
Also - I think that the idea of seeing a woman protecting a child, being bad-ass through Mama-Bearism is still seen as culturally more appropriate than say being a straight-up vigilante.”
There are and have been quite a few female mentoring roles or mother-daughter type roles that are positive. But those roles are almost all currently non-existent now, having been wiped out through retcons, crises or the DC New 52 Relaunch. Which relationships am I talking about? Here’s some great ones to name a few:
· Cassandra Cain/Batgirl & Barbara Gordon/Oracle
· Stephanie Brown/Batgirl & Barbara Gordon/Oracle
· Dinah Laurel Lance/Black Canary & Stephanie Brown/Spoiler
· Dinah Laurel Lance/Black Canary & Mia Dearden/Speedy
· Hippolyta & Diana of Themyscira/Wonder Woman
· Jessica Jones & Dani Cage
· Sue Storm/Invisible Woman & Valeria Richards
· Hazel & Alana (from Saga)
· Buffy & Joyce Summers, Buffy & Dawn (Buffyverse)
· Artemis & Paula Crock (Young Justice)
· Julia & Vanessa Kapelitis (Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman run)
Of the above mentioned mother-daughter relationships, at least six are now non-existent, and Wonder Woman has probably experienced about a million deaths of her mom and sisters. Says Stuller, “I think that mother/daughter relationships aren’t explored in action and super hero comics because they are generally not the protagonists of comic book series. Additionally, as I write in my book, Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors, female heroes tend to have mothers that are absent, ill, or deceased — and this trope extends across entertainment media.”
And at least four characters on that list are defined by the men or father figures in their lives much more so than any of their mother figures: Barbara Gordon is known as the Commissioner’s Daughter. Cass Cain has the worst possible father imaginable and he is responsible for her training. Stephanie Brown’s father is the reason why she became a vigilante – to stop people like him. Mia Dearden ran away from her biological father, sought a father figure in her pimp, Richard; and becomes the second Speedy to a new father figure, the privileged and pompous Ollie Queen. Barbara’s mother was absent for the majority of her life (until recently…); Mia Dearden’s biological mom died early in her life; Stephanie Brown’s mother was addicted to painkillers for some time; and Cassandra Cain’s mother is both absent and manipulative.
In the relaunched DC 52, one of the greatest mother and daughter relationships has been forever changed. In the Wonder Woman mythology, Hippolyta dreamed of having a child, but could not bear one as there were no men on Themyscira in order to do so. (In other versions of the story, such as Gail Simone’s The Circle, the women of Themyscira were forever barren, unable to bear children). One night, Hippolyta fashioned a child form out of clay and her wish to have daughter was granted by the God Hera and blessed by other Goddesses, including Demeter, Aphrodite, Athena, Artemis, Hestia. Wonder Woman’s creation was nothing less than a miracle and in most versions of Wonder Woman’s origin, there is no male involvement.
The new Wonder Woman writer, Brian Azzarello, has retroactively changed Diana’s mythos, making it not about a mother and her fellow women raising a miracle baby, but rather about an affair that Zeus had with Hippolyta to create Diana. This storyline has not only driven a wedge between the greatest mother-daughter relationship in comics history, but has also changed the dynamic between Diana and her fellow Themyscirans. It ended in an angry Hera turning her mother to stone and her fellow sisters to snakes. The concept of mother on Paradise Island itself has been radically altered as the Themyscirans have been revealed to be nothing but extremist: women of the Island would scout out sailors every seven years, seduced them, and threw them overboard when they were done. Any male babies – “failures” — were cast out of the Island.
That we have these tropes is indicative of one big issue in the comics and action hero medium that desperately needs to change: “not enough female voices in mainstream comics,” Stuller says. “While men are capable of writing complex female characters (see Greg Rucka’s recent, and excellent, piece on the subject) we also tend to write what we know. Women are more likely to explore the complexities of a mother/daughter relationship (or a female mentor/protégé relationship) because they can draw on their personal experience.”
Women read comics. Women have mothers. Women want to be the protagonist of stories. Women want their stories to include their experiences with their mothers, too, not just their fathers. They need not all be positive; they need not all be negative; they just need not be stereotypes.