Look! Up in the sky! It’s a superheroine!
So you’ve seen Kick Ass, right? That’s the 2010 movie in which the school dork tries to be a superhero in a saggy wetsuit and meets up with Hit Girl, an 11 year-old genuine assassin who totes more weaponry than Matt Damon and swears like an escapee from South Park.
What is it about that kid? Sure, she’s been trained to kill from a young age and she can blow up an armoured vehicle just by looking at it. She’s also kinda sad – don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, but it does leave you wondering about her life, and what will become of her. (For that, you have to read the continuing comic series.)
Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit Girl
The other astonishing thing is that you realise just how few young kick a** superheroines there are in movies, comics and books.
As far as your bona fide superheroes go, there’s Rogue, Storm and Mystique in X-Men (note the "men"), and coming up soon Catwoman in another Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises, followed by Black Widow in The Avengers. My all-time favourites are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her best friend Willow. (Buffy, of course, began as a TV show but became a series of books and comics – and as she springs from the minds of some of the finest writers in the business, the best Buffy scripts are amongst the most perfect creations you’ll ever read. You can look them up online.)
There are others – I bet you can all name a few – but that’s the point. There are a few notable and often wonderful examples of women or girls with decent superpowers. And I don’t mean stupid, lame superpowers - the superhero version of sitting on the beach, holding your boyfriend’s towel while he catches a few waves - but really good ones, like flying or kicking a demon into another dimension or having the ability to destroy the world. That kind of thing.
I’m not just talking action thrillers either. The Harry Potter franchise, for example, has any number of powerful female characters of all ages: Hermoine, Ginny, Tonks, Mrs Weasley, Professor McGonnigal – even Bellatrix is an utter psychopath, but she does kick a**. All of them have magical powers, but their strength also comes from elsewhere: from the heart or the mind; their intellect or wisdom or ingenuity or even their hatred or love for other characters, such as Mrs Weasley’s ferocious defence of her children, ranged against Bellatrix’s deranged desire to destroy.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love a proper superpowered hero or heroine as much as the next person. But I find myself most interested in people who don’t have superpowers – or at least, powers that derive somehow from the supernatural. I usually try to write books about young women who have powers that are amazing to the people around them, if not to us. Lily, in the Swashbuckler trilogy, for example, can read and write and navigate. To the pirates who kidnap her, this is pretty astonishing. When they discover she’s also really good at sword fighting and sailing, they think she has superpowers, but of course we all know that you can learn and master any of those skills if you practice.
So a heroine (or a hero) doesn’t need to be supernatural to have amazing powers that can get them out of any nasty situation.
Coming soon, for example, is the movie of The Hunger Games, with a central character, Katniss, about as tough and capable and essentially human as you get.
One of the issues with superheroes is that they can be a bit one-dimensional. If they come up against a challenge, they don’t need to think it through, they just go into action with whatever superpower they have at their disposal. All well and good, but it does get a bit repetitive, doesn’t it? So the very best superheroines and superheroes, written by the very best writers or comics or fiction or screenplays or games, do much more than just blow stuff up.
And here’s the other thing: so many of the best-written young female characters in movies are in adaptations from novels and comics.
Aren’t we lucky? Because that isn’t just a punch in the nose for all those years of dull books and movies and TV shows in which there weren’t any girls like the girls we know or are. It also makes for more interesting male characters, too.
That’s partly because there are so many YA authors creating wonderful characters – not just powerful (or “strong”, as they are usually described in the reviews) but also flawed and interesting and fearful and a little crazy and petulant and brainy and unconventional and never boring.
Like the most interesting humans we know.