Supergirl saves an airplane and the citizens of National City complain about getting a “rookie superhero” instead of the Man of Steel. Jessica Jones uses her powers to fight a dangerous rapist and is labeled “rude,” “volatile,” “erratic” and a “psycho bitch.” When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Daisy Johnson gains her superpowers, her teammates place her in quarantine while they search for a “cure” that would strip her of her powers. Off-screen in the real world, the media accused Hillary Clinton of being untrustworthy after not revealing her diagnosis of pneumonia to her ready-to-pounce critics. It is unsurprising that film and television mirror society’s struggle to process the apparent incompatibility of being both powerful and female. Pop culture can manifest our progressive, utopian fantasies but can also reflect our deepest fears and cultural biases, both overt and subconscious. In the stories of Medusa and Eve and in historical practices like witch hunts and the separation of Orthodox Jewish women during their menstrual cycle, we see the tension between awe at the female ability to bring life into the world and deep suspicion of their intentions when seeking or wielding power.
Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s story has seeped into pop culture and become the stuff of fiction. Or perhaps narratives of female leaders struggling for equal recognition and fair treatment is so common that pop culture parallels are inevitable. In light of the 2016 election results—Clinton won the popular vote by a wide margin and still lost the presidency to a man who has never held political office—this is a particularly significant and difficult moment for women in America. Americans may be ready for a female president, but America relies on an outdated electoral system that makes it possible to get elected without winning the most votes. Rebecca Traister presciently noted in The New Republic, “Hillary Clinton has loomed so powerfully in the American consciousness for so long that it’s hard to remember how delicate, how combustible, how ultimately improbable the project of electing her president is likely to be.” And indeed the assumption that Clinton would win—that she had to win—was part of the grief and shock that has overwhelmed the country post-election.
During the campaign, it was often difficult to process the deep-seated, emotional antipathy towards Clinton that seemed to go beyond criticism of her political past and proposed politics. It seems that many of the criticisms aimed at her—she’s too shrill, she’s in fragile health, even early articles claiming that menopause made her unfit to be President—are inextricable from gender, just as vitriol aimed at Barack Obama was inseparable from race. Or, as a recent Huffington Post headline put it, “Don’t Pretend You Don’t Know Why People Hate Hillary Clinton.” Clinton herself spoke to the impact of being compared to charismatic male politicians like her husband and Barack Obama on the popular Humans of New York website: “You have to communicate in a way that people say: ‘OK, I get her.’ And that can be more difficult for a woman. Because who are your models? If you want to run for the Senate, or run for the Presidency, most of your role models are going to be men. And what works for them won’t work for you. Women are seen through a different lens. It’s not bad. It’s just a fact.” The fact that being male is the societal standard when it comes to most real world leaders is something that smart writers have picked up on and explored through complex, powerful female characters like Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Mad Men’s Peggy Olson, and Veep’s Selina Meyers.
Supergirl—which premiered on CBS in the fall of 2015—is the perfect allegory for everyday struggle against the patriarchy. In fact, some critics thought the show’s initial episodes were a bit too on the nose in depicting Kara Zor El’s struggles to be taken as seriously as her cousin, the Man of Steel. “I wouldn’t even wear this to the beach,” Kara exclaims in reaction to the initial (midriff-baring) design of her costume. The two villains she meets in the pilots are also unimpressed. “Fighting him would be an honor, fighting you is…exercise,” says one. “She’ll be much less of a threat than he is to our endeavors,” says the second. And of course, we get the meta-discussion of the moniker Supergirl, perhaps an attempt by the show’s writers to avoid inevitable complaints from fans. When Kara (in disguise as her geeky magazine assistant alter-ego) protests that using “Supergirl” instead of “Superwoman” is anti-feminist, boss Cat Grant responds with a well-composed defense of the word “girl”: “I’m a girl. And hot, and rich, and powerful, and smart, and your boss. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the problem you?” Kara/Supergirl’s struggle to be taken seriously is frustrating as it relates to our world, where women are often viewed as less-than, or kind of like settling for a Pepsi when Coke is available. Women in power are forced to pay undue attention to their appearance and public perception. Regardless of their qualifications, women are pressured to appear feminine, non-threatening, and—the bane of the 2016 presidential election—likeable. Kara’s transformation into Supergirl is inspiring, particularly for young women who have experienced the backlash that can occur from being perceived as threatening for being too smart, too strong, or too capable.
Actress Laura Berlanti, who plays Kara’s mother, told the Huffington Post, “Kara’s stifling her superpowers provides a metaphor for what so many women do; hide their light and strength in order to seem ‘nicer’ or ‘less threatening.’ The unbridled joy on her face when she steps into her own power is a thing of beauty.” Supergirl’s intentions and abilities are constantly questioned and belittled by everyone outside of a trusted handful of friends and family. She’s criticized for her inexperience, asked if she plans on having a family. “They never ask my cousin that,” Kara retorts, echoing the frustration of every female celebrity ever interviewed. Ultimately, Supergirl becomes a symbol of hope—but only after fighting for every scrap of support and recognition she earns. As media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) notes, quoting a famous aphorism, “Every woman worth her salt knows she has to work twice as hard to be thought of as half as good.” This line echoes the frustration of the media’s suggestion that Clinton was a weak candidate who should have run a better campaign. Very few imagined that Donald Trump would win enough key states to become President until results started rolling in on election night.
Over in the Marvel television universe, the first female superhero on TV in over 30 years (beating Supergirl to the small screen by a season and a half) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s Daisy Johnson (know as Quake) is an Inhuman who gains her powers halfway through the show’s second season. What is most striking about Daisy’s narrative is how the people around her react to her newfound power. Let’s check the Marvel scoreboard for a second. When Steve Rogers turns into a Nazi-punching super soldier, he’s an instant celebrity who inspires trading cards, legions of devoted fans, and an exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum. When billionaire Tony Stark “comes out” as Iron Man, he hosts lavish parties, seduces women, and opens his Stark Expo with female dancers in skimpy Iron Man costumes. Although these male superheroes are not universally adored, the world seems to be generally grateful for their presence.
Daisy, on the other hand, is treated like a monster by the teammates who are essentially her substitute family. Her team isolates her in quarantine as they attempt to “cure” her of her abilities. Within three episodes, Daisy is described as “wrong,” “dangerous,” “terrifying,” “a natural disaster,” and “unstable.” Worse, she internalizes these messages and comes to see herself as cursed instead of gifted. Daisy tries so hard to suppress her powers that she ends up turning them on herself, causing multiple internal bone fractures. It’s difficult to understand why an agency dedicated to helping superheroes use their powers for good would be so terrified of one of their own highly trained agents. Once again, a powerful woman draws focus because of the fear she inspires, not the fact that being female might make her an even better hero.
Chloe Bennett—who plays Daisy—observes, “What I’ve been trying to promote is that badass doesn’t always mean more masculine. Strength doesn’t always mean being more masculine. Sometimes people mistake that. Sometimes, strength means being vulnerable or nurturing or maternal. It’s really about challenging what badass really means.” Indeed, Daisy doesn’t learn about her powers until she visits Afterlife, an Inhuman community led by a matriarch. The leader, Jaiying, turns out to be Daisy’s mother and teaches her to see her powers as a gift. She can cause earthquakes and destruction, but she is also in tune with the vibrations of everything in nature which means she can fly, manipulate objects, and yes, kick a lot of ass. Daisy eventually becomes a powerful warrior who leads her own team of Inhumans, but not before being exposed to fear, suspicion, and even her teammates’ “contingency plan” for taking her out if she becomes dangerous. Of course there is a history of male heroes struggling with the burden of their powers, but there is still a double standard which requires superwomen to prove themselves time and time again before they can be truly trusted to save the world.
The most fascinating female superhero on television has to be Jessica Jones of the titular Netflix series. Jones is a superhero turned detective who survived months of captivity, rape, and mind-control at the hands of a psychotic killer. What sets Jessica’s character apart from other female superheroes is that she is never made to apologize for who she is: not her powers, not the fact that she is “unfeminine,” not her anger, not her alcoholism, not even her sexuality. Jessica is a protector who will do anything to prevent other women from experiencing the same trauma that haunts her. Jessica Jones also contains the most overt (and the most impactful) metaphor for the misogyny and violence women experience every day.
Not only does Kilgrave—the show’s villain—rape and enslave women and force them to “smile”—a tactic used by street harassers everywhere—but he is particularly obsessed with Jessica because she is powerful, her resistance an arousing challenge to his desire for control. He even tries to justify rape by complaining that because of his mind control abilities he never knows if women are attracted to him out of their own free will or because he orders them to be. The show’s writers couldn’t have imagined that a man who brags about “grabbing women by the p****,” would be elected to the highest office in the nation, but its critique of male power is even more haunting in light of comments like these. Indeed, one Republican senator hesitated when asked if he would still vote for Trump if the candidate actually raped a woman (instead of the sexual assault implied but not proved by the leaked tape), saying he’d have to think about it. Jessica Jones resonates deeply in a society where women are still seen and treated as sexual objects, even as many argue that we’ve achieved equality and now live in a “post-feminist” world. Jones’ refusal to give into intimidation and harassment is clearly a feminist statement. As The A.V. Club critic Oliver Salva notes, Jessica Jones is a hero for women who encounter versions of Kilgrave’s sexism on a daily basis: “She won’t smile, and she won’t run, even though her every instinct tells her to get as far away as possible. She will fight until she puts an end to the man who abused her and so many other women, and her greatest superpower ends up being her ability to overcome fear and take action.”
A woman who comes up swinging after being called a “psycho bitch,” bears more than a passing resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Like Clinton, Jessica Jones struggles with what it means to be a woman with power. Like Clinton, she is described as rude, unlikeable, and unattractive. Like Clinton, and the other two female superheroes mentioned in this article, she is held to an absurd double standard by a society that expects her to embody femininity while working tirelessly to serve her community. For Jessica Jones, Supergirl, Daisy Johnson, and Hillary Clinton, qualities that would be praised in a powerful man—physical strength, righteous anger, intelligence, and perseverance—are seen as character flaws. Even though she “lost” the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton’s name is known around the world. Her story—the story of the most qualified person ever to run for President and lose, the first former cabinet member to be nominated in over 100 years, and the first female nominated by a major party—will remain part of our history, chipping away at the negative perception of female leadership. With more seasons of Jessica Jones, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Supergirl, plus solo movies for Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel (not to mention the abundance of diverse female comic book characters), female superheroes will continue to play a larger role in the shared American cultural imagination. And as a dangerous man takes office, women all over the country will quietly put on their capes, take to the streets (and the courts, and the ballot box) and continue to hammer away at that metaphorical glass ceiling.