In Profiles of Popular Culture, stereotypes are defined
as “the generalities of life cut down to a fine point concerning a particular subject and directed usually toward a special goal” (Browne, pp. 102). Marvel comics are full of stereotypes and attempts to subvert them. There are characters that act intentionally not like a stereotype and there are characters that embrace stereotypical behavior. Then there are the characters that struggle to overthrow a stereotype, maybe successfully, maybe not. There are a multitude of stereotypes in Marvel comics and have been for generations; African-Americans, Asians, Germans, Women, Gays—all have stereotypes that they follow or struggle with throughout Marvel comics.
One example of a character that is subject to stereotypes is Betty Ross, originally seen in Captain America comics. She is the daughter of General “Thunderbolt” Ross, a controlling man that sends her away to boarding school after the death of her mother. Sh
e becomes an FBI agent in the 40s and on multiple occasions gets into trouble and needs to be rescued by Captain America and his sidekick Bucky. That demonstrates the stereotype that mean are stronger than women. The trope of the “damsel in distress” is widespread throughout comic books, movies, and fairy tales. While Ross could be seen as a strong woman, capable enough to be an FBI agent, she is still in need of rescue by men who are “far superior”, even though Bucky had no superpowers, only military training (Kirby, 1941) which we should assume an FBI field agent should be more than capable of using herself. She is later used as bait for the Hulk many times because of her relationship with Bruce Banner in the Ultimate Marvel series (Millar, 2000).
Marvel did later nod to the fact that she was aware that she was pushed around and helpless in Marvel Ultimate where she injects herself with Hulk serum and becomes She-Hulk in order to help the Hulk fight off Wolverine who was sent to kill him. But this only perpetuated the stereotype that women are emotional (and from a military point of view, therefore unfit for battle) and make rash decisions. She deliberately disrupted a mission to kill the Hulk because she was in love with Bruce Banner (Hulk’s human form) and went as far as to commit grand treason and help a national criminal escape death (Millar, 2000). Ultimate Marvel is an “updated” version of certain Marvel characters to better fit them with today’s popular beliefs and cultures, and though some may see this as a woman showing strength and fighting for what she believes in, Betty Ross could have just as easily been shown to suffer with the loss of Bruce Banner and show loyalty to her country, a struggle which could have resulted in her injecting herself with the serum anyway but with better reason than “let me abandon my morals and help save the man I’m in love with”. Afterward, she is captured and used as bait against the Hulk—back to the same scenario that was prevalent when she had no superpowers.
In the Earth-616 universe, Betty Ross indeed becomes the Red She-Hulk without leaving the loyalty to her country in the dust for a man. Though this time, it was at the urging of her father who had saved her body in cryostasis after she was poisoned while living as a fugitive with the Hulk (Loeb, 2010). So one again, her father is controlling her life. Literally this time. As Red She-Hulk, Betty Ross is aggressive, but not in the same way as the original Hulk. She does not lose her human self when she is a Hulk, only is she becomes “pure-hulk” where she gains strength from absorbing energy from other Hulks and loses all sense of herself (Loeb, 2010). But even Red She-Hulk has her feminine stereotypes, even if she has more control than other Hulks. Red She-Hulk reverts to human form when scared (Loeb, 2010). This again shows women as weak—the fact that the Hulk changes into a rampaging beast with immense strength when scared or angry and she snaps back to a weak little human form when scared makes it look like women are unable to handle tough situations, unable to perform under pressure.
While Marvel comics are chock full of other stereotypes, one of the ones that resonates with me the most is way in which women are depicted. Some may not notice these stereotypes, and indeed, Marvel has changed a lot of characters to meet with more politically correct views of the current populace, they still show themselves in many ways. Some of this may be due to the fact that they did not want to entirely change the personalities of characters when they did the reboot Ultimate Marvel, but some women may still find it offensive. Female characters in marvel comics and movies are never shown as the perfect role models that men are. Pepper in Iron Man may be the CEO of a fortune 500 company, but she is always in need of rescuing by her metal boyfriend. Gwen Stacy in the Amazing Spiderman was intelligent, beautiful, had plenty of money, but she too needed rescued by a super hero. Storm from the X-Men team was the leader, yet she constantly questioned her ability to lead. No woman is shown to be powerful and successful. She can be one or the other, but someone will have to save her at some point, no matter how strong she may be. Hopefully we will see female characters develop into something that doesn’t need to be saved as comic book characters become more and more popular.
Browne, R. B. (2005). Profiles of popular culture: A reader. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Kirby, J. and Simon, J. (1941) Captain America Comics #1. Marvel Comics.
Loeb, J. and Pak, G. (2010) World War Hulks. New York: Marvel Comics.
Millar, M. (2000). Ultimate Marvel. New York: Marvel Comics.