I’ve been thinking of power fantasies a great deal lately—about how they are shaped and formed along different lines. Race. Gender. Socioeconomic status.
Superman is of course the prototype. The first hero. Created in a society that was—is—deeply racist and patriarchal, he is a visual representation of those who are in power. He is male. He is white. And vitally, he is an immigrant. An alien. And that status was aspirational to the first- and second-generation white Americans for whom assimilation and acceptance were a key part of becoming American. A real American. The ones for whom status is not conditional upon subservient performances for white and Christian countrymen.
Superman’s physical and mental might are off the charts, for where does one set limits for a group of children who were well aware that they would inherit the power structures that lead the world? That subjugate others? You must set those limits in the stars.
Luke Cage’s are set in the streets. That is not an insult. It is a statement to show the changes that are made to our heroes in order to tailor them to the group that is being targeted. In Luke Cage’s case? It is African-American men. In a country where blackness is demonized and hunted by officers and representatives of the very same systems that purport to protect all Americans, to be unbreakable is a fantasy that provides blissful relief. Impenetrability is merely one of multiple assets in Superman’s arsenal. For Luke Cage, it is the lynchpin of his existence. Kal-El’s parents gave their lives to send their son to a new world that welcomed him with open arms once it discovered the wonders of which he was capable—a classic tale of immigrant success. Luke went from Harlem to the hell of “the system” and back again. Hardened by his struggles, he was not only able to rebuild, but thrive. That is not an immigrant’s success story. It is the journey of the persecuted innocent. It is the story of the slave—families extinguished due to treachery and avarice, members shipped down river and tortured, rebuilding as best one can once the worst of the horror is over. Knowing that there are more troubles to come, but that one is stronger now. United with others. Invincible.
But race is not all that shapes us, moves us—or hinders our movement.
I think often of Wonder Woman and of another power fantasy more clearly marked for white women in our modern era—the Whedon-helmed Kitty Pryde. Where Superman and Luke Cage are impenetrable, Wonder Woman and Kitty are untouchable save for when they—and only they—desire to be touched. Diana achieves this by retreating to a utopia where there are no men. Kitty remains within a patriarchal society, but her intangibility prevents others from physically dominating her. She is able to come and go as she pleases, to observe violence as a disaffected bystander or conscientious objector depending on mood. Both Kitty and Diana are given respected positions within the power structures they have decided to be a part of (Justice League, X-Men)—Kitty’s position is the more notable one given her rise from a subordinate child to a leader that is often deferred to. Through hard work and studious behavior she is able to ascend. It is interesting to note that Kitty and Diana do not dismantle the patriarchal societies they move within, simply achieve positions of power within them due to their exceptional achievements. And both stress diplomacy over domination. After all, why take the building down if you can simply smash the glass ceiling instead? Those stairways are useful.
For Kitty, for Luke, for Diana (but not for Kal-El) the fantasy is to no longer be a victim of violence—violence that is enacted upon them solely because of who they are inherently as people. Black men. White women. Kitty has the option to retreat. Luke has the option to fight. Diana is afforded the opportunity to do both. I would argue that Diana’s duality stems from her status as an LGBT power fantasy in addition to being one for women, but I could be wrong. (I would love for someone with more knowledge than I possess to examine that possibility!)
As a dark-skinned black woman, I have searched for a character that embraces my triality—one whose fantastic powers are a vehicle to escape the unique agony enacted upon my mind and body according to the circumstances of my birth. I’m still looking. And what I’ve discovered is that I am not looking for power within a character, but instead I am searching for a character to be treated a particular way. And for my search to be so fruitless is demoralizing and, quite frankly, makes me want to abandon the medium of comics and the superheroic genre altogether.
“If you have a work and I see the same tired trope of the dark-skinned girl being the no-nonsense butch one, the aggressor in all things, the stoic one who doesn’t need a man, the romanceless den mother? I’m done. It’s insulting and weak.”Cheryl Lynn Eaton
My power fantasy is to be loved and appreciated. And in fantasy worlds where walls are punched through like tissue paper and the skies are no limitation that must seem ludicrous. And it is. And yet black women who look like me are not easily afforded something so basic in the art we consume. Our love and acceptance are conditional—tied into shade and age and “grade” of hair. How many characters have I cherished only to wince when skin is lightened with increased popularity or lovers are written out of a character’s history (or must be doggedly pursued)? Too many. Love at first sight in art is rarely an option for women like me. Instead we are told that we must work for men to look past the sight of us. What must it be like to be loved without need for convincing and cajoling? To be someone’s first and only choice? As-is. Unconditionally. Lois Lane.
It must be nice.
I appreciate Storm’s leadership, Misty Knight’s determination, Vixen’s raw power, and Amanda Waller’s intelligence. But I see dark-skinned black women making amazing things out of nothing on a daily basis—in real life. And I see them do it tirelessly without appreciation and acknowledgement. Without kindness. I see their works and images outright stolen from them and cherished in presentations that aren’t theirs. So yes, while it is so important to find relief, even in a fleeting fantasy, from violence, showing me I can punch monsters from the sky doesn’t mean as much when (1) my community has already shown me what I am capable of and (2) I must beg someone to cheer for me when I touch back down to Earth.
I am known, often with much frustration and eye-rolling from those who aren’t black—to those in power—to stress the importance of having black women writing in the mainstream. And it is for selfish reasons. Not for my own advancement, but because I trust black women implicitly. I trust them to understand what should be so basic, but countless writers who are not black women have failed to grasp. Over and over and over—a haystack of unintentional insults. We know we are capable. We know we are strong. Loved? Well, the world could do a much better job of showing it.