She’s Got A Brain, A Super-Brain… Oh No, Wait, She Doesn’t

by 29-May-13

D.A. Madigan takes an unusual look at the gender divide in the superheroic world…

Super-strong, super-confident, but not allowed to be super-smart, despite being a lawyer.

So… where are all the super-smart superheroines?

For that matter, where are any super smart super-women at all?

Super-smart supermen are as common in comics as water molecules, at both ends of the morality spectrum. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of male supertypes who employ their superhumanly keen intellects in various fields of science — Lex Luthor, Bruce Wayne, Ray Palmer, Barry Allen, Dr Doom, Reed Richards, Hank Pym, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Charles Xavier. Super smart super scientists who put on costumes and punch out other super scientists in their spare time are simply all over the place. These super scientists routinely invent way out whacky stuff like artificial intelligence, anti gravity rays, force field projectors, gateways to the Negative Zone, teleporters, nuclear powered battle armour, size changing gas, and humanoid robots that cannot be easily told from real people…

… and every single one of these brilliant boffins is a guy.

Every. Single. One.

I’m not saying superwomen are dumb. I am saying, however, that while it’s almost routine for male superheroes to be superhumanly intelligent in their secret identities, there are absolutely no female super scientists or inventors… not that I can think of, anyway.

No, wait, I’ve thought of one. In Marvel’s long ago, very short lived Claws of the Catseries, there is a female super scientist, Joanne Tumolo (I think). She gives Greer Nelson her cat-like powers and a supersuit that turns out to be full of movement enhancing micro circuitry.

Dr Tumolo, a super-scientist who… oh. Turned out to be using secret magic powers. Never mind.

However, later on, she turns out to be a disguised cat-person who actually uses magical powers rather than super science, so I’m not sure she counts.

And even Dr. Tumolo was not a super-player herself, merely a supporting character and plot device.

As a general rule, super heroines created in the Silver Age largely fall into one of two generally demeaning categories anyway — they were either created to be the ‘Inevitable Girl’ on an otherwise all male super team, or they were created as female copies of a commercially successful male character, in hopes of expanding that character’s appeal to female fans. (The Golden Age of comics was a looser, freer, more flexible time and Golden Age super heroines who still exist today, notably, Wonder Woman and Black Canary, do not have to fit into this mold, although both of them have, at some time or another, fulfilled the seemingly mandatory role of being the only female member of an otherwise all male super-team.)

Yet even superheroines created as female versions of male characters are never as smart as their male progenitors. Spider-Girl does not have Peter Parker’s scientific savvy, nor does She-Hulk have Bruce Banner’s superhuman brain power, simply to list two of many, many examples. Superman often displayed “super intelligence” when a storyline required it; Supergirl has rarely  made use of such a power, presuming she even has it.

Now, super women tend to be smart… I mean, they ain’t stupid, as a general rule. Black Canary, Wonder Woman, Sue Storm, Hawkgirl, Ms. Marvel, the Wasp… these chicks are bright as hell. But it seems that they are never allowed to be SUPER smart, like so many of their male peers are. They do not invent wondrous super-devices, they do not expand the boundaries of whatever field of superscience they may work in… in fact, when you think of it… they do not have intellectually demanding jobs at all.

Wonder Woman, in her secret identity as Diana Prince, has generally been a military secretary.

Black Canary, in her everyday ID as Dinah Drake, owned her own flower shop.

Sue Storm Richards is a housewife and mother.

Ms. Marvel, AKA Carol Danvers… I don’t know what she’s doing these days. She’s been in charge of security at an Air Force base in Florida that kept getting attacked by Captain Marvel villains, and she was managing editor for NOW Magazine. God knows what she’s doing now.

The Wasp/Janet Van Dyne is a rich heiress.

She-Hulk’s alter ego of Jennifer Walters is a lawyer, although She Hulk hates being Jennifer Walters and rarely turns back into her.

A brilliant scientist who’s also a dab hand with a machine gun, Dr MacTaggart was the true renaissance woman.

There are, in fact, only two really amazingly super smart women I can think of in comics: Dr. Moira MacTaggart in the Marvel Universe, who is sort of a female Scottish equivalent to Professor X, without any mutant powers, and Oracle, otherwise known as Barbara Gordon, who became a super genius computer hacker after being paralyzed by the Joker and losing her ability to physically fight crime as Batgirl (yet another female version of a male character designed to hopefully appeal to female fans).

It’s notable that Dr. MacTaggart is not a super-player, she just hangs out with them — essentially, she’s a plot device.

It’s even more worth noting that when Barbara Gordon (herself the daughter of a notable male character, Police Commissioner James Gordon) was Batgirl (a female version of a stronger, more competent, obviously smarter male superhero) she fought crime physically, and was not only never as smart as Batman, she never seemed particularly intellectual at all, despite the fact that in her secret identity, she was a librarian. It was only when her capacity to kick bad guys into unconsciousness was removed that she suddenly demonstrated superhuman mental prowess. A process that seems to have been reversed since her return to physical combat.

Along this tack, also let us look at Sue Storm Richards, i.e., the Invisible Girl/Woman, and Janet Van Dyne, the wonderful Wasp. Both have demonstrated enormous competence and intelligence over the years, and both have been depicted as hiding their undeniable brains and ability out of fear that their boyfriends/husbands won’t like them if they act too smart.

It would seem that in superhero comics — an industry dominated by male creators, specifically targeted at an overwhelmingly male audience, it is taken overwhelmingly for granted that a smart woman is not a desirable woman/character/market commodity. And even when female characters are created specifically to appeal to female comics fans, those female characters are never defined as being particularly intelligent… meaning, male creators not only assume male fans don’t want or like smart women, but female fans share this distaste for intelligent female characters as well.

Barbara Gordon as the much-admired Oracle, mysteriously dumbed down since her equally-mysterious return to bipedhood. Did we ever find out how she got her working legs back? I confess I stopped caring…

Essentially, there are very, very, very few female characters who have ever been introduced into comics and been shown to possess the kind of superhuman intellectual capacity that is common to many, many male comic book characters. And when I say “very, very, very few”, I mean, like, three.

And out of those three, none of them are allowed to be actively, physically superhuman.

So, as an almost universal rule, women can’t be super smart in superhero comics. On the extraordinarily rare occasion that a supersmart woman does show up… she’s not allowed to really do anything. She is allowed to exist only as a supporting character.

Women who do get to play in the superhuman theater of operations — trying to conquer the world, or save the world — villainesses and heroines, in other words — aren’t allowed to demonstrate great intelligence while they do it. They can be smart… but they can’t be REALLY smart.

Which is another way of saying, women are not allowed to be of primary importance in superhero comics. They are not allowed to be dominant. They are not allowed to be in charge. Oh, women can take their turn leading superhero teams — that was something that became very trendy back in the ’80s and ’90s; everyone from the Invisible Woman to the Wasp to the female Captain Marvel got a turn to be team leader for a while.

But they still can’t really… RUN it.

Marvel even has an Illuminati group now of the most powerful characters in various different areas that run things from behind the scenes. Who’s in it? Iron Man, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange, Reed Richards, the Sub Mariner, and Professor X. All men.

So, essentially, the super people who are really the movers and shakers, the people who pull the strings and make all the important decisions behind the scenes in the Marvel Universe… are all guys. No women need apply to be Illuminati members

It’s like, seriously, this is 2013, dudes. WTF?

Where are the female Brainiacs, the female super scientists inventing cool futuristic stuff, the female super-warriors who also happen to have galaxy class intellects? Nowhere. Apparently, they don’t exist.

I think it’s about time superhero comics had a few.

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5 responses to “She’s Got A Brain, A Super-Brain… Oh No, Wait, She Doesn’t”

  1. Though not a scientist, the Saturn Girl of the pre-Shooter Legion was a mind to be reckoned with. She was not only an accomplished product of her century (the 30th), but a great leader who directed the Legion through some extremely rough times. Later, she married Lightning Lad and moved into the background. Often wearing a demi-burqa. (DC likes to punish uppity females.)

    Wonder Woman, all too often shown to be lacking in intellect (!), had a great “brain” on her team: Paula von Gunther. She began as a villainess but was redeemed and became Diana’s ally as well as chief Amazon scientist.

    One of my favorite comics from the Silver Age was a World’s Finest that introduced Genia, a brilliant and evil female equivalent to Brainiac. Unfortunately she succumbed to Silver Age Female-itis and fell in love with Brainiac, which ruined her career as a super-villain.

    Here comes Wonder Woman again: a minor character who kept popping up for a time was the Bana Amazon, Akila, a genius who studied at Oxford and was adept both in mechanics and magical applications of same. For a long time I hoped she’d become the new Wonder Girl. (sigh) (She wasn’t a blonde beauty.) (Until the Simone era, in which case she suddenly became one.)

  2. D.A. Madigan says:

    Saturn Girl was awesome, although I think she enjoyed kissing Superman a leetle beet TOO much that one time under the mistletoe. But she as a grown up Saturn Woman then and she can do what she wants and if Lightning Man doesn’t like it I assume she can deal.

    Interestingly, even while Saturn Girl was adroitly leading the Legion, Brainiac 5 was frequently insisting that she couldn’t go on dangerous missions… because she was a GIRL! Now, if he’d said “We can’t risk the leader”, I could have seen it, although James T. Kirk would have bitch slapped him a few times.

    I knew of Paula and her Purple Ray, but again, she’s always seemed far more a plot device than an actual player to me, and as such, seems to validate my observation: few women are allowed to be super brainy, and when they ARE super brainy, they aren’t allowed to actually do anything except act as a plot device.

    I had no idea Brainiac had an female doppelganger. That’s awesome. If only DC would let me write a comic, I would totally bring her back. I wouldn’t care what comic, either. I’d bring her back in SECRET SIX if I could.

  3. D.A. Madigan says:

    I typed the above while at work, in between calls, with frequent interruptions. If I could go back in and polish it, I would, but apparently I can’t, so I apologize for all textual clumsinesses.

  4. Darci says:

    On Marvel’s side, I’d mention Superia, aka Dr. Deidre Wentworth. She’s on a one-woman crusade to make a future with Femizons like Thundra come into being.

    Since you wrote this, the New 52 has reverted Barbara Gordon to being Batgirl. Even worse than giving up the Oracle character, they’ve made Barbara into a teenager with the current obsession with social media and OMG selfies.

  5. nani says:

    A good example of this is in the bat family where all the women are smart but they are always the sidekick and never to the level of their male conterparts. Why can’t they have someone on the level or even better than time drake. Which I’m starting to think is an overrated character by the way. I don’t get why it’s so hard for the creates to do this.

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