I’ve been thinking a lot lately, about superheroes. Of women superheroes and supervillains to be
exact. More specifically, the relationship between the two.
Why is that, you may ask? After all, Women’s month is long gone, and with it, the discourse of women empowerment has slowly settled down.
Shelved until international Women’s Day next February, and then again next August — how lucky
women in South Africa are, we get to be celebrated twice a year, not just once … What hasn’t died down after August, sadly, is the ongoing stream of headlines containing dreaded key words such as “GBV”, “rape” or “femicide”, begging the question, where does all this empowerment talk settle when the August winds blow away?
In Barbie land? Or the imaginary beach I’m convinced all my mismatched socks settle on? My take on the topic is simple. If women were truly regarded as equal and appreciated in all our roles, we wouldn’t need a month to remind the world how awesome we are.
But I digress. Why have characters such as Harley Quinn, Catwoman and Black Widow been running through my mind? We were burgled fairly recently. The usual. Smash and grab through your bedroom window at 1am while you’re mindlessly scrolling — as one does when you’re awake at 1am.
I did my best (read far cry from a) Black Widow impersonation and launched myself at the window. He
was not going to get my laptop. So he grabbed my handbag a few seconds before my arm went through
the window after his. But he was gone.
My traumatised self, now clearly over retelling this story, delivered a much longer, clumsier version of this
clinical account to the lovely police officer who took my statement at 3am, seated in my lounge.
I caught myself, though, every time the pronoun “he” slipped out of my mouth. Perhaps it was the
journalist in me, editing my sentences to remain neutral and objective in my reporting of unknown suspects.
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What made me believe the intruder was male when all I saw was a grey gloved hand? This perturbing reality of the stereotyped view of crime and criminals springboarded my mind to imagine an alternative reality.
One where cat-women rule the night. For some reason, when imagining my intruder as a bad-ass catwoman type, it wasn’t as scary. Think Cats. Somehow, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s depiction of those
feline felons leaves us sympathising and excusing their malicious mischievousness, based on sheer theatrics.
Perhaps that’s the allure of a female villain. My Harley Quinn who climbs up to the second story of a
suburban home and terrorises residents, just for fun. For the thrill of it. Because she can.
Maybe it’s a power thing. The kind of power that, alongside its sidekick poverty, are the underlying causes
of most crime in this country. The gendered power imbalance that manifests itself in our very real GBV
Is it this same power imbalance that makes it so hard to imagine a woman performing the same brazen
Women are nurturers by nature. And this innate compassion is what supposedly stops us from carelessly
going out of our way to inflict harm. That’s one answer I’ve received in response to my recent philosophising.
But positioning women on a higher pedestal of moral ground is not only exhausting, it’s the double standard that discrimination is made of.
Maybe my fantasising over a female superhero-villain is more of a desire to imagine a world where men are not the feared primary predator.
If we flip the narrative, like Marvel is doing with its focus on female superhero/villain characters in the
name of gender inclusivity, why can’t we as easily accept the notion of women having a darker side in real life?
We gasp at cases where women are the masterminds behind heinous crimes. Marvelling at the likes of
DrNandipha Magudumana’s hand in Thabo Bester’s prison-break saga.Oh how we love to hate a real-life Black Widow.
But what is it about this inherently female redeeming quality that invokes shock when a woman is found holding the weapon? Even Marvel Studios has not escaped criticism for its portrayal of its female heroes. Representing female superheroes and villains for the sake of representation falls flat on its head when the characters remain over-sexualised, are still portrayed as damsels in distress and frequently have their bad-ass qualities reducedto a female trope of self-sacrifice, as the reported critiques go.
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If fictionalised female superheroes are reduced to the same innate feminine characteristics that continue to define our fate, what hope is there for envisioning the prospect of actual women “breaking bad”?
Now is probably a good time to clarify that my case for a female villain is not because I want to be
met with a gun-wielding Natasha Romanoff type the next time my address is picked from the “unlucky” house visit draw. I’d prefer no unwelcome guests. Regardless of gender. Ever again. Thanks.
Perhaps I’m purely dreaming of an alternate universe where women’s virtuousness doesn’t reduce them to victims at almost every turn. Where a woman’s actions aren’t dichotomised into “victim” or “vindictive”.
Where a woman dressed in a black baklava with a gun in hand can be seen as equal a threat as that of a man in the same costume. Are these the lengths women must go to, to be feared instead of fearful
Fantasies aside, at the most basic, pragmatic level, if my intruder were a woman, at least she’d get some use from my five favourite lipsticks I kept on hand, to be prepared for any occasion. If anything, it will teach me not to keep my trusted arsenal in one leather bag.
Because that, and a good, trusty pair of heels are the secret “girl power” ingredients I need to fight any
battle. Bring on Catwoman, I’ll be ready. In my five-inches. Let me just apply my lipstick …
• Jade le Roux is an assistant editor at The Witness