A Woman Visible

Search for beauty. Search for adventure. Search for the visible you.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Absolute Power Only Corrupts Powerful Women Absolutely?

What do these two lovely women have in common? Let's take a look:

  1. Both are superheroines and are pretty.
  2. Both have tapped into cosmic levels of power on more than one occasion.
  3. Both women have used the cosmic power they've tapped into to either change their universe or, much worse, to destroy and devour their universe.
If you read my other journal, The Other Invisible, you may have seen my post from Thursday concerning Phoenix (the lady in green and gold) and the X-Men.
I am a big comic book and X-Men fan from way back, and I am fascinated by female superheroes, mostly because I'm female and of course, many people have this idea that
comics are mostly geared for and written by males. In case you are unfamiliar, let me introduce the ladies at the left. At the far left is Wanda Maximoff, also known as the Scarlet Witch. Next is Jean Grey. Some of you may recognize the name from the X-Men movies that have been released over the last few years. She is also known as Phoenix, though not in the movies (not yet). As Phoenix, Jean Grey is the most powerful mutant in the universe. Unfortunately, she's not ready for the cosmic powers she wields and ends up almost destroying the entire universe in order to fill her mighty hunger. She finally self-destructs in order to save the very universe she desires to devour.
I probably need to explain why I'm even talking about these two characters in this blog in the first place. This isn't exactly the place you'd expect to find a discussion about comic book superheroines.

Let me explain:

I am an unusual woman in that I adore comic books and have since I w
as a young girl. While other girls were reading about horses and Nancy Drew (which I did read for an entire year at age 10), I was devouring the latest issue of Spiderman and Avengers.

As I have matured as a reader, (yes, I still read comics) I have seen a trend in the way female superheroes are sometimes dealt with. Karen of Outpost Mavarin, made an excellent comment in response to my other post. She said:

...the Dark Phoenix sequence bugged me, as if she couldn't be strong and not become evil.
Her comment really hit home. I'd been thinking of this for a bit myself, and I realized that she was right. Phoenix wasn't the only victim of this problem. Scarlet Witch has just gone through a similar problem.

You see, the Scarlet Witch has the ability to manipulate reality. This comes in handy when dealing with bad guys, or personal problems. Unfortunately, she is unable to have children, and this desire has become a rather destructive force in her life. She is so distressed that she ends up accidentally killing two very close friends, and goes over the edge. The other superheroes are scared. She has these dangerous powers and she's out of control. A discussion insues about what to do about her, and there is even a discussion about killing her. Her brother, in an attempt to make her (and everyone else) happy, and save her life in the process, manipulates her into creating a world where mutants rule, she has twin sons, and all is well for everyone. Sort of...This misuse of her powers ultimately causes great chaos and pain.

Are the writers trying to tell us women something about ho
w we manage power? It's a curious thing. The writers for both of these stories (stories that were actually issued some twenty five years apart) are men. The Dark Phoenix Saga was written by Chris Claremont, and the House of M series, which was released last summer and fall, was written by Brian Michael Bendis.

Now, I'm not saying that these men have it out for women. I don't think that's the case at all. What I have to wonder, however, is if they realize the message that is coming across in the stories they create for these marvelous characters is less than flattering for women. It's like their saying that women can't handle a huge amount of power without some sort of cataclysmically terrible thing happening that we cannot control. It's almost like these men are afraid of what a woman could possibly do.

Think about it. How many male superheros can you think of that have become cosmically powerful and ended up having to either be destroyed or have destroyed themselves to save everyone else. hmmm

Did you come up with none? I thought as much. I've been wracking my brain for the same answer. There aren't any.

What I find most interesting is that this follows the very Victorian idea that women cannot handle certain tasks because they tax a woman's very being, and can cause a woman to become overwhelmed to the point of destructiveness. A woman can't be given power because she will become corrupted by that power, and could become dangerous. Women may use the power to destroy things, or worse, women can be manipulated by others to use our power to change things in what seems positive but is really a step into chaos.

We might devour whole solar systems!

I know I'm being extreme. I'm not saying that I will not read comic books ever again, nor am I saying that my daughter shouldn't read comics. Comic books have always fueled my imagination. I just have to wonder if there is a hidden agenda here. Some of you are saying, "You're reading too much into this." Perhaps you are right. There are many strong, powerful superheroines that are stable and don't go over the edge. My own daughter reads Spidergirl. Of course, most superheroines don't have cosmic powers either. Still, it's a message that you can't help but see if you look at the comics. I'm also sure that this trend might move differently if there were more female writers in the system.

So does Absolute Cosmic Power corrupt women? I don't know. I do know that we need to help our girls understand that they are powerful and that all people can be corrupted if they have too much power given them without boundaries. All people have the potentia
l to be planet devourers if their power is not put into check...


  • At 4:03 AM, Blogger Economics 101 said…

    This is a great analysis - well done!

    Can I bring to your attention AK Comics of Egypt who produce 'Middle East Heroes' which has just started being distributed through Diamond.

    AK Comics is the only comic book company that has a written equal opportunities policy for its heroes and villains (it's true!)


    Win a year's subscription by designing a new team of Middle East Heroes and sending your entry to akcomicsuk@aol.com

    Remember that half the team must be female.

  • At 4:21 AM, Blogger Lea said…

    I'm impressed that such an awful piece of Spider-Girl art could be derived from a perfectly good pic of Kirsten Dunst.

  • At 8:43 AM, Blogger JessN said…

    Thanks for your astute comment. It adds so much to the conversation!

    I will definately look at AK and see what's happening. Very interesting indeed for a writer!

  • At 2:23 PM, Blogger Marionette said…

    Before you take economics 101 at his word, I suggest you read my response to his blogspam here

    Jess, you ask how many men have been put in the position of destroying themselves to save the universe. While I agree with some of what you say, you're on shaky ground here. There certainly are male characters who have been in a similar position, though I'd have to check to give you names. There are also plenty of examples of female characters in similar situations who are not corrupted by such power.

    I can't speak for the Scarlet Witch, but from what I recall of the Phoenix saga, Jean did not lose control because she was too weak to handle it, but because Mastermind brainwashed her.

    I feel I should also point out that you are basing your entire thesis on two stories from different companies over a timespan of 30 years. Given how much has been produced in this time it would be possible to construct an argument for or against almost anything and find two stories to support it from such a large resource.

    I'll maybe get back to you with that list later.

  • At 3:23 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    It's an interesting thought, I think in general though any character that becomes extremely, extremely powerful tends to have it linked to insanity or evil.

    Hal Jordan's Parallax stint has a lot of similarities I think to the Phoenix comics. Up to and including the retcons of mind control (I believe Jean's was a retcon too, but I could be wrong), allowing a character who was essentially a mass murderer to be a plausible hero once more.

    Actually, I think most comics have storylines with characters that are, or temporarily become, incredibly powerful who end up, at least briefly crossed the line if not quite as dramatically as the Scarlet Witch.

    The only exceptions tend to be, basically, thematic Frodo Baggins sort of characters. These characters remain uncorrupted (if confused) by their great power, which tends to be given up freely and without hesitation for the greater good. Wonder Woman or Kyle Rayner for example, but they're pretty damn rare no matter the gender. Girl or Guy, these sorts of characters are pretty close to one-of-a-kind in their respective stories.

  • At 3:28 PM, Blogger 100LittleDolls said…

    I have to just shake my head with Scarlet Witch--since I stayed far away from that story arc, did they ever talk about adoption? While the agony that some women feel about not being able to have their own children, I feel it would have been far more interesting to go into the subject of child-bearing from the perspective of S.W. being a woman, bottom-line, instead of making her go crazy. Sounds like Women in Refrigerators syndrome to me. I also think that it may be difficult to write about characters that are extremely powerful, and when you throw into the mix their gender, and the fact that there's not a long history in our culture of mega-powerful women, the writers end up employing questionable story lines.

  • At 6:31 PM, Blogger Marionette said…

    Kal - the mind control thing was always a central part of the Phoenix story. The retcon was having Phoenix not be Jean at all but an alien that had taken her place. >.<

    In fact she became Phoenix in X-Men #101 and even managed to rebuild some cosmic dohicky that holds the universe together around #107. Everything is fine until Mastermind starts messing with her mind around #122. At first very subtly, he begins to implant false memories in her mind over the next 10 issues.

    It's very well written for the period, but it's all about taking control away from a very strong woman. Once she is broken to serve the Hellfire Club she is no longer capable of controlling her vast power.

    If anything, a good reading of the story will show Phoenix as a person who was fully in control of huge cosmic power until someone of much lesser power screwed her over.

    Quick analogy: A woman driving an 18 wheeler is in charge of great power. If she is is doing an excellent job of controlling that power but her passenger injects her with heroin when she is not looking, does her subsequent loss of control of that power mean that she is a weak person?

    Because that's how I see Jean's "weakness" in this context.

  • At 7:29 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Marionette: Thanks! I remembered a big retcon involved but I couldn't remember how. :-) I'm not terribly good with Marvel, I have to admit.

  • At 7:38 PM, Blogger Ragnell said…

    I heard that the Phoenix thing came about becdause they'd upped her power so much that there wasn't anything that could be done with X-Men that Jean couldn't fix. So, they made a story out of her going evil.

    Wanda, on the other hand.. *Fumes*

  • At 9:06 PM, Blogger Marionette said…

    Wow I'm chatty today.

    Ragnell - I don't think so. She first demonstrates cosmic level potential around #107 and therafter is beaten by everyone she fights, including a one on one with Magneto where it's hinted that she has reached some artificial limiter on her powers - perhaps a self imposed block to keep it from getting out of control? After that she is sidelined at home with Prof X while the team does a bit of a world tour, visiting Japan, Canada, and the Savage Land.

    By the time she is fighting again Mastermind has his hooks into her. But it's not like she wins all the X-Men's battles on her own even after the plotline has started.

    The ironic thing about this discussion is that this is one of the few Marvel storylines I would defend so strongly. Pick almost any other Phoenix story even, and you can sign me up for angry mob duties, but this one (and the immediate sequel in #175) are classics.

  • At 2:22 AM, Blogger ARJ said…

    I don't know if this completely counts, but: Hal Jordan? He did get overly powerful, turn evil and he killed himself to save Earth.

    I don't bring it up to invalidate your point, however. I do see this theme a lot-- I just started DC's Shadowpact series, and that features yet another female character who turns evil when she starts using too much power (Enchantress). I always saw this as just a common superhero character theme, but now I'll be paying more attention to the gender of said hero in those storylines.

  • At 3:51 AM, Blogger Ragnell said…

    Marionette -- I jsut know the Phoenix story from creator interviews, if I can remember the video I saw it in I'll tell you where I heard that story.

  • At 1:19 PM, Blogger Marionette said…

    Arj - I'd forgotten about that aspect of The Enchantress. But it reminded me of Maul of WildC.A.T.s whose intelligence diminishes as he grows larger, so the more powerful he becomes, the less control he has.

    On the magic side the idea of having a magic ability that turns you evil when you use it to do good goes back a long, long way. But then it's basically a metaphor for the corruption of power. Which was kinda where we started.

  • At 4:25 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    If I think about it, sometimes I wonder if this whole Absolute Power Corrupting Powerful Women thing isn't somehow subversive.

    I mean, the power corrupts theme has been throughout literature for ages. But in general, the subjects are always men. It's almost always the men getting the power and having it overtake him. Possibly because it was so rare for women to have much power at all, let alone be corrupted by it.

    In comics though, we have stories of both men and women who reach that point in their abilities and strengths. Women (and men) who've become like as to gods, even if they can't ultimately handle it.

    I've always thought the themes of such stories was about humanity, and how, being inherently flawed, humans were never meant to wield the powers of the gods. In an odd way, with these sorts of stories extending to women now too...it's like thematically, for once, we're being considered part of the human race.

    If that makes any sense at all.


Post a Comment

<< Home