Superheroines of Color and Empowerment in Fantasy on TV

Vixen on 'Arrow'

This guest post written by Constance Gibbs appears as part of our theme week on Superheroines.

It’s a rare sight to see women of color as superheroes, but rarest, probably, on television. There are so many books and indie movies and even half-hearted attempts in mainstream superhero movies, but television has been starving for women of color superheroes for a while now. A google search of “Women of Color on Superhero Television” gives one result of a woman of color from a superhero TV show among the top 15 results — Iris West — who doesn’t actually fight crime.

Two of the most popular superheroines of color — Wonder Woman’s Linda Carter (whose mother was of Mexican descent) and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Chloe Bennett (nee Wang) — aren’t even acknowledged as such because of Hollywood pressure to change or hide their ethnicity. There are only a handful of others: Ming-Na Wen’s Agent May on S.H.I.E.L.D. kicks enough ass to be considered a super, but Daredevil’s anti-hero Elektra — spoiler alert — doesn’t even survive the end of the season. There was a blink and you miss it episode of The Flash where Linda Park became the anti-villain Doctor Light and Vixen’s equally quick appearance on Arrow, (which we’ll talk about later). That’s about it.

Daisy on 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'

We know it’s hard for women superheroes in general. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are still a ways off, the Black Widow movie has been consistently teased but never confirmed, Agent Carter just got cancelled, Supergirl went from a Top 4 network to The CW (admittedly the superhero network), and Jessica Jones still doesn’t have an action figure. Ultimately, none of these examples have been intersectional or inclusive of women of color. This photo of the crew for Wonder Woman shows exactly the problem.

If you squint, you can count the women of color on one hand. The “Where’s Phillipus?” twitter hashtag showed that people are paying attention to the lack of women of color on their screens. We, of course, want equity between men and women in these franchises, but women of color must be included in the conversation.

Superheroines are important. The desire for women to be seen as heroes, as strong, as capable, as desired, as everything transcends race. But when women of color are constantly told they have to wait or aren’t given the same chances, it does the same thing as when it’s men vs. women. While white women want Black Widow, women of color want characters with speaking roles. In terms of television, just because Supergirl and Jessica Jones exist, doesn’t mean that there is no room for a woman of color to have a superhero series too. Look at what Supergirl does for Girl Scouts.

The Super Girl Scouts of Oklahoma dropped by National City today… #girlscouts

A photo posted by Melissa Benoist (@melissabenoist) on

Why can’t we have a Black or Asian or Latina or Arab or Native heroine acting as a universal hero for all girls of all races? Why must white continue to be the universal standard and everyone else is relegated to a niche audience? People of color want the empowerment fantasy too.

In this early Atlantic article about Kamala Khan’s debut, the writer says that the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is getting to live out the “empowerment fantasy.” She is a young kid, who is teased for her religion and her nerdiness and who aches to fit in and one night she gets to become Ms. Marvel, one of her favorite heroes. The empowerment fantasy, which white heroes have gotten to live out for decades (centuries if we’re honest), lets people who aren’t in positions of power to see themselves as heroes, to envision themselves as someone worth looking up to. This is something women of color struggle with on a daily basis. As a Black woman, we are the highest educated, but are paid $20,000 less than white men and the statistic that Black women are the least messaged and least preferred on dating sites come to mind. Women of color are fetishized or ignored. It’s no wonder that this has currently translated to superheroine fiction.

Television is the best medium for this problem to be fixed. TV moves a little bit faster than movies do. It’s still one year before Wonder Woman, and two years before we get Captain Marvel and both have been in production and pre-production for years already. A television pilot written in the fall, on the other hand, could be on air the following fall. Sadly, my hopes are not high. After the way women on science-fiction/fantasy shows were treated this season (most notably Abbie Mills of Sleepy Hollow, as close to a superheroine woman of color lead we had), and with the lack of women of color in superhero shows so far next season, it doesn’t seem we’re getting a woman of color lead anytime soon.

Kamala Khan / Ms. Marvel

Which is a shame, because television is most suited to telling comic stories, which are often episodic and involve long arcs and tons of character development. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is great, but there are small moments between characters or within the stories they tell that TV tells better. We get to spend more time with these characters. The Nerds of Color article on the failures of X-Men: Apocalypse with regard to its three women of color heroes and villains, points out that Storm (Alexandra Shipp) is underused, as is Olivia Munn’s Psylocke, and Jubilee (Lana Condor) doesn’t even display her powers in the film — those scenes apparently got cut. While television isn’t perfect — at all — there is still more of an opportunity for those characters to get their day in the spotlight. Then, the fans have a chance to fight for that character to get more screentime — see the increase of Felicity Smoak on Arrow and the improvement in writing for Iris West on The Flash. Television tells in depth stories better, we are able to truly live the empowerment fantasy with these characters, feeling their successes and struggles on a weekly basis (or mainlined into our bloodstream during a 3am binge session).

We do have some upcoming women of color supers coming to a TV show near you: Simone Missick is playing Misty Knight on Luke Cage this fall; Jessica Henwick will be playing Colleen Wing on Iron Fist — which has it’s own separate issues with race; we may get more Linda Park on The Flash, based on *spoiler* the finale hitting some sort of reset button; and hopefully Supergirl hears its fans and adds a woman of color as a superhero. As we know, however, this isn’t enough. None of these ladies are leading their shows, some are barely recurring characters.

Misty Knight

What women of color can we get to headline a superheroine TV series? The two shows I think have the closest chance right now of becoming women of color led superhero shows are Vixen and Ms. Marvel. Both are already a part of established TV universes. Vixen’s 30 minute (total — 5 minute episodes over 6 weeks) cartoon debut on CW Seed led to an appearance on Arrow last season (with, hopefully, a visit to The Flash’s Central City in the future), and Ms. Marvel could definitely be a teen show set in the same Marvel Television Universe (connected, however distantly, to their movie verse).

With Vixen, there is already an actress attached to the role, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and if you saw her live-action debut, she was fantastic (even if the sloppily-written backdoor pilot dialogue was not). Her experience connects to the mainstream American woman — someone living in America, trying to make sense of her foreign/immigrant roots, trying to live her best life, while also trying to be brave and strong and a hero. Seeing her overcome her trials, while also kicking ass with the strength of an elephant or the flight of a bird would be awesome. This year, at The CW Upfronts, it was announced there would be a season two on CW Seed, but what about her live action version? Does she not deserve an hour of live-action like her DC TV Universe compatriots? (Let’s be honest, Legends of Tomorrow totally could have been a cartoon on CW Seed.) If there’s no room in the schedule, a live-action Vixen could air on Fridays, during mid-season hiatus for the four main shows, or in the summer. The fact is, she deserves as much of a chance as Green Arrow received, as much support as Supergirl. Let her story be a universal empowerment fantasy for women, but inclusive of the experiences of women of non-white descent.

Vixen on 'Arrow'

With Netflix’s Defenders-verse of grown-up, M-for-mature supers, I think that Netflix is long overdue for some teen supers. 10 episodes of South Asian, Muslim teenage Kamala Khan trying to fit in at school and save Jersey City, just across the river from Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones. Plus, like Wolverine in the comics, the adults could crossover into Kamala’s world every so often, giving advice and mentoring the young, new superhero. It’s all one big MCU, right? Kamala’s story is the classic teen show, filled with boy, body, and parental angst, but also the hope of getting past all that. She’s a superhero!! She saves her city and her friends on a regular basis! For a young girl, but especially for a young girl of color, this is something to look up to. Something to make you feel like, “if Kamala can do all of that and stop that villain, I can probably get through junior year.” The same thing that Supergirl’s Kara Danvers does for young girls, Kamala could also do — on Netflix.

These are hardly the only characters deserving of a lead role on a TV show, just the ones closest to the door. The difference between diversity and inclusivity is diversity is being invited to a party, inclusivity is being asked to dance. No one is asking women of color to dance yet. Vixen twirled with a jock and his nerdy friend on the dance floor for a whole song, but is now the wallflower waiting for her next invitation. Daisy Johnson and Agent May are turning up, but they’re looking around for some friends to form a dance circle. Misty Knight is still on-line outside the gym, the principal is checking her ticket because she’s from another school. Linda Park got asked to dance, but no one’s seen her since. When these girls aren’t asked to dance, no one wants to come to the next dance. This hurts their self-esteem and it the dance isn’t nearly as fun. I’ll stop with the metaphor, but I hope you understand what I mean. Lack of diversity and inclusion doesn’t just hurt those excluded, it hurts everyone.

We have to force action. We have to support the ladies of color we do have in superhero fiction and demand for more. We have to tell the producers when we are upset about the treatment of a woman of color — even when they don’t listen, ahem, Sleepy Hollow. And in the face of resistance, we have to go out there and write our own. We have to see the lack of empowerment fantasies to inspire us and create it ourselves for the future. That’s what the original superhero comic writers did; many of those Jewish writers came from a post-World War II world and saw that they needed to empower themselves after all the tragedy they faced. It’s time television reflected our struggles and our ability to overcome them. If they won’t let us in the door, we’ll just have to kick it down. We are superheroines, after all.

See also at Bitch Flicks: Brown Girls Can Be Heroes Too: Why We Need a Ms. Marvel Movie; How Does ‘Vixen’ Collide with Race, Gender, a Black Sense of Home, and the Video Vixen?; Elektra in ‘Daredevil’: Violence, White Masculinity, and Asian StereotypesDaisy Johnson, Superheroine of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ — And Why She Matters

Constance Gibbs is a nerd culture writer, editor, aspiring TV writer, and Hufflepuff living in New York City. She is the Black Girl Nerds TV Editor and has written for The Nerds of Color, The Mary Sue, and Hello Giggles. You can find her mostly on Twitter (@ConStar24) or her website

One Comment

  • Sir Laguna
    Posted May 29, 2016 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Iris West — who doesn’t actually fight crime.

    I hope Iris become more like her Earth-2 counterpart, a badass police detective.

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