“Young Justice” Offers Little Justice for Female Characters

This is the first in a three-part series that looks at the gender messages sent by superhero show Young Justice. In these posts, I am considering this program as a microcosm of the issues surrounding pop culture portrayals of males and females in children’s pop culture, especially as they affect boys. 

Young Justice is a new-ish animated superhero series based on DC Comics Justice League characters. The series follows the trials and tribulations of the teenage sidekicks of some of the better known DC male superheroes: Superman, Batman, Martian Manhunter, Flash, Aquaman, and Green Arrow. Although the show is in its second season in the U.S., it just premiered in Canada in September. (Hence the delay in me talking about it. I didn’t know much about it until recently and just caught up on the first 12 episodes through YouTube.)

Because it features teens, the series depicts a fair amount of adolescent angst and a little romance. There are some strong characters and very positive messages about working together, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and accepting that there are always lessons to be learned in life. The reviews I read have rated the show very highly, in part because of its positive messages. But they have overlooked a major flaw in this and most other superhero shows: the sexism, both subtle and overt, directed mainly at female characters.

Common Sense Media is one review source. While they do excellent work, gender portrayals are not always on their radar. To wit, their review indicates twice that the heroes in this program are “positive role models.”

I question the positive influence of male characters who routinely refer to females as “beautiful,” “sweet,” “hot,” “chic,”, “babe,” and “little girl.” While some of the characters uttering such phrases are the “bad guys,” the majority of the comments come from Kid Flash, who is supposed to be one of the good guys. He even goes so far as to refer to the green-fleshed Miss Martian as “green cheeks” in episode 12.

In the first 12 episodes of this series, there were 14 such comments made about females. There was only 1 about a male’s appearance (a cheerleader calling Superboy “hot”) and 2 diminishing a male (a villain says the League shouldn’t send “boys” to do a man’s job and Artemis calls Kid Flash a “geek”). I’m not saying that any number of demeaning comments is acceptable, but why so many directed at women exclusively? And what are boys learning about how to treat and speak to females when they hear “heroes” talking like this?

The first five or six episodes are about building the team and it is here that many of the valuable lessons in this series emerge. It is also here that another sexist undercurrent makes its presence felt: the abilities of the female characters are called into question, while those of the males are not.

On her first mission with the team, Miss Martian makes the mistake of assuming that a villain is a Justice Leaguer in disguise, attempting to test the new team of junior heroes. When it turns out that the villain really is a bad guy, she gets dumped on by the males. Superboy yells: “You tricked us…”. Aqualad and Robin defend her to some degree, but Robin calls it a “rookie mistake” and says “we shouldn’t have listened,” as though they should have known better than to assume she was right. Kid Flash tells her: “You are pretty inexperienced. Hit the showers. We’ll take it from here.” (“We” being the guys). The scene ends with Superboy snapping at her to “stay out of our way” before the males all go off together in search of the villain.

The body language in this scene also sends subtle messages about who is dominant in this series. Although all of the kids had been knocked down by the villain, Miss Martian is still on the ground, in a submissive posture, when confronted by the males of the team, as seen in this image. (This scene occurs at about 3:42 of this clip, if you would like to watch.)


The team has only just begun working together as an independent unit and they are all rookies to some degree. So why is Miss Martian belittled and treated with condescension by her male colleagues? The males on the team make mistakes, but none seem to be treated as harshly as she is in this scene.

In a later episode, Green Arrow’s former protégé, jealous at having been replaced by female archer Artemis, asks Green Arrow (not Artemis herself): “Can she even use that bow?” Artemis answers for herself, but, still, his question was a subtle dig at her abilities, based, it seems, on the assumption that she might not be as capable as the male protégé.

There are also times when the females are also depicted as less confident and more emotional than the males. Miss Martian (aka Megan) seethes with self-doubt much of the time, is absentminded, and frequently bangs herself in the head and says “Hello Megan,” or, in other words, “Duh, get with the program, girl.” And in one episode, Artemis is labelled “distraught” by the calm and collected Robin and later curls up in a ball and cries. Neither her tears nor Miss Martian’s lack of confidence are unnatural, but neither are those traits seen in the show’s male characters.

And then there is the sexualization of the female characters, a topic I have addressed in my book and this blog (including a post about the impact of sexualized images on boys). Again, it’s hard to reconcile Common Sense Media’s assertion of “positive role models” when you look at the females in this series, both villains and heroes. They are strong and capable fighters for the most part (more on that in the next post), but these characters are diminished by their wardrobe, leading me to ask,  how exactly are these “positive” depictions of women? I’ll let the images speak for themselves.

The Queen of Atlantis.


Tula, from Atlantis.

Shimmer, a villain.

Black Canary, as she removes her jacket to lead a training class.

And for the ultimate in objectification, fast forward to 3:23 of this clip.

(For the record, Superboy is objectified to some degree. As mentioned above, he is referred to as “hot.” He also removes his shirt on occasion, but remains fully clothed the majority of the time, unlike his scantily-clad female counterparts.)

Rather than positive portrayals, Young Justice offers its young male and female viewers some very negative ideas about girls and women: they are not just crime fighters but also eye candy; they are less confident and more emotional than males (except when it comes to expressing anger, which we’ll see in my next post); and their capabilities must be proven before they are fully accepted as heroes.

So what about the males of Young Justice? They do not suffer the sexism directed at the females, but there are male stereotypes on display here too. More on that in my next post, being published Tues. Nov. 8.



10 thoughts on ““Young Justice” Offers Little Justice for Female Characters

  1. Ah, that famous M’gann in her bathing suit clip… yeah, I had to roll my eyes at how obvious that was.

    As for other things however, I think there’s a few things you may not have noticed.

    For one – yes, Kid Flash objectifies girls, that’s for sure. But the way the other characters react to Wally’s ‘flirting’ or whatever we want to call it, very clearly shows that they all think it’s a negative characteristic, and something they tolerate as a part of who Wally is. But it’s not glorified, and it’s not encouraged. If anything, any child watching that show probably comes off thinking that Wally’s advances and objectifying language is ridiculous, and that’s exactly what we want, to discourage it.

    M’gann has come under a lot of criticism because of her ‘Hello M’gann!’ act, but it has to be taken into context. She’s an alien. She has no idea how human girls act, and she got all her information from an old TV show. So that’s the kind of girl she molded herself after. But to criticize her is to criticize a lot of girls who act bubbly and cheerful and like baking and girly things, and there’s nothing wrong with those girls. M’gann has balanced that and being a powerful and compassionate character, a key asset on the team.

    Additionally, yes, it’s true the girls’ abilities were called into question. But for M’gann, she was definitely a rookie – Aqualad, Robin and Kid Flash are not rookies, they’re fairly experienced as sidekicks, just not as a ‘team’. Superboy was a rookie, so he should have been judged the same was as M’gann, but at the same time, he’s a living weapon, so it’s easy to see how the other boys might have sort of accepted his abilities to fight. M’gann did prove her worth at the end of the episode (and in many other episodes aftewards, particularly the one where Superboy was becoming overprotective over her because she was his girlfriend, and she straightened that up with grace and dignity and made sure he understood that she was a teammate during missions, not a damsel to be saved). And for Artemis, it’s not possible to pin Red Arrow calling her abilities into question because it was a girl. Personally, I thought it was out of sheer jealousy, and even if not, Artemis answering for herself sent the right message: there will be people who doubt you (for being female) and you should stand up for yourself.

    And I’m sorry, but they’ve objectified the men plenty of times. Wearing skintight suits and tights for the boys isn’t objectifying their bodies? Just because you’re not showing skin (which at this point is more a matter of fashion and being trendy) doesn’t mean you’re not being objectified. As for Black Canary’s outfit, they actually tried to tone it down with her – no fishnets, you’ll notice, and she’ got boots instead of high-heels. The girls’ snow-suits and motorcycle outfits are appropriate and realistic, showing that they’re not just trying to stick skin out for fun (except for that one M’gann clip at the beach, God, that one’s just embarrassing).

    Lastly, if there’s anyone riddled with more doubt in the show than the girls, it’s Aqualad. He is constantly going through self-doubt and self-deprecation. And the girls, when they go through their self-doubt moments, use it to push themselves forward. Those moments of self-doubt or insecurity have nothing to do with being girls, and everything to do with the situations they’re being put through. You have to admit, most girls react differently to situations than guys. It’s not sexist, it’s fact. Girls are more likely, depending on personality of course, to be more obvious about their emotions. You just won’t see a guy curling into a ball. And maybe it’s because we have dumb gender stereotypes about how girls and guys should act, but these characters grew up in this same world presumably, so they’re grown up with these same rules and guidelines, and they’re going to act accordingly. So you most likely won’t see Aqualad curling up in a ball and hugging his knees. There’s a fine line between breaking down gender stereotypes and being realistic so that your audience can connect to the characters, and I think they’re treading that line fairly well. If anything, how amazing and strong the girls in this show are is a great message. Do they act ‘stereotypically girly’ at times? Sure, but so does almost every single girl watching the show.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I really appreciate you taking the time to offer such a detailed review of the show.

      As I admit in my final Young Justice post, I do tend to err on the side of negativity when I look at kids’s shows, and I expect people to disagree. I look at things as a parent of young boys and since I see the same themes repeated just about everywhere, I feel the need to point them out in individual shows as symptoms of the larger problem of how characters of each sex are presented in kids’ pop culture.

      I get the nuances that you are talking about, but I’m not sure young children will and they are the audience I am discussing here. The show is rated as 8+ in Canada, but I can guarantee that kids younger than that age are watching it. And I’m not sure how much they understand about, for example, Kid Flash’s language.

      I acknowledged that Superboy is ogled to some extent, although not nearly as often as the females. I talk about the way the males’ bodies are presented in my second Young Justice post. And I would argue that tight clothes are not the same as showing skin. There is an inherent imbalance there. Yes, the boys are overly muscular and wear tights, but the females tend to show more skin which I believe diminishes and devalues them. And young boys see that everywhere, from TV to toy shelves. Even a show I like a lot for its storytelling and strong characters (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) has its females showing a lot more skin than the males.

      Yes, males and females do react differently, depending on personality, as you say. And I just found Artemis’ reaction in that scene to be out of step with her personality, leaving me to draw the conclusion I did.

      My final post also describes (probably too briefly) the good points of the show. This show could be a lot worse, but, in my mind, it could be better.

      Thanks for the discussion. As I say in my book, “Readers may question my conclusions and disagree with my assessment of boys’ popular culture, and that is okay. My ultimate goal. is not to dictate what is right and what is wrong in pop culture, but to encourage discussion about a vitally important issue that is rarely talked about—boys and their often skewed understanding of gender.”

  2. Let me start by saying I’m a female in the US Army who is obsesed with comicbooks and superhero’s. To an extent I see where you’re coming from however you are overlooking a few things. For one I see nothing wrong with a guy refering to a girl as beautiful or sweet, I can see how the others could be offensive but for the most part these are quite common in today’s society and they are often used for flattery and not to be degrading (except little girl which is used by a villain). Most of the boys on the team seem to view Ms. Martian as an equal even though she’s ditsy (possibly because she’s not used to her form or earth for that matter). The reason they doubt Artemis has nothing to do with her being a girl but with the fact that she isn’t Speedy and has an abrasive personality. The episode where Ms. Martian messes up has more to do with her being new to the superhero game while the boys are all ex-side kicks. The one with Artemis is a bit exaggerated considering what she went through with her dad (look it up or read the comics) but It had allot to do with getting robin to trust her and giving her character some depth. The Kid Flash is a bit of a womanizer, but he’s actually almost exactly like that in the comics which is why he’s got such a fan following (including quite a few females I know) and is put in the show simply for loyal comic book fans such as myself. I do think superhero females (in almost any media) should wear more clothes and both guys and girls could look more realistic in most comic book media but considering there is stuff like this: http://www.google.com/imgres?um=1&hl=en&sa=N&biw=1366&bih=667&tbm=isch&tbnid=O0Fr86e3dFyCWM:&imgrefurl=http://www.titanstower.com/source/whoswho/starfire.html&docid=oAegrr_gXdXjnM&imgurl=http://www.titanstower.com/assets/gallery/perez/model_style/modkory.jpg&w=382&h=360&ei=IQHZT9XnIaaY6AGJvZCIAw&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=176&vpy=4&dur=256&hovh=218&hovw=231&tx=127&ty=34&sig=101853100031752022615&page=1&tbnh=129&tbnw=142&start=0&ndsp=26&ved=1t:429,r:0,s:0,i:141 in comic books labeled Teen Titans… I’d say they did a pretty good job at making this show good for kids and the adult fans.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I apologize for the slow reply.

      You are right that there are worse portrayals and the one you linked to is certainly one of them. It is all a matter of personal opinion and I appreciate yours, but I cannot accept a program aimed at 8-year-olds that refers to women as “hot”, “chic” or “babe.” I don’t find these terms flattering at all and I would not want my son using them or thinking they are acceptable. And the women are still far too sexualized–not as bad as the link you sent, but definitely typical of the superhero genre.

      The issue with talking about pop culture is that the discussions are subjective–what I see is not what others will see of course. Just for argument’s sake, I like to turn things around e.g. in the case of Miss Martian, I have had other people talk about her being presented the way she is because she is trying to adapt to her new culture. Fair enough, but I wonder if a male character in her situation would act the same i.e. “ditsy” as you say, or speaking with such a lack of confidence? Same question for Artemis–would the rest of the team be more accepting of her “abrasive personality” if she were male? Just something to ponder.

      I’m not a comics reader but I do like superhero shows. I guess I was hoping for more from this one instead of the same tired themes I see elsewhere. I’m currently trying to catch up on episodes of Legend of Korra, hoping that she remains a good female hero who is not sexualized. I’ve only seen the first 2 episodes, so we’ll see where that one goes. Hopefully I’ll be able to write about it soon. Thanks again!

  3. Sooooo….. you don’t think superboy’s a little abrasive? Also I think anyone raised by a super villain parent who frequently puts their children through emotional abuse is bound to have some personality flaws especially when she’s frequently being compared to someone else and is afraid her friends will abandon her if they find out the truth. Also Miss Martian learned earth customs from an old show about a ditsy girl, so of course she’s going to act like that at first, I assure you as the show goes on she gets more depth and after her true appearance is revealed she becomes more like herself and less like a TV character. As for words like hot and chic if you don’t think your 8 year old should see them on TV that’s your business although most kids do learn those words at a young age and like the other person said above me, his attempts to attract women using those words are always portrayed as ridiculous and failed.

    1. Thanks again. Artmeis’ back story wasn’t included in the episodes I watched. A bit was hinted at but the full story wasn’t there so I could only judge by what I saw, as would any young viewer who is too young to read the comics. And it is young viewers that I have in mind when I review a show. Young Justice is targeted to 8-year-olds but, as is often the case with these kinds of shows, kids younger than 8 might be among the viewers. I think the use of the kind of language aimed at the female characters may desensitize young viewers to those words, especially if they hear it elsewhere–it may all come off a big joke. Younger kids may find characters like Flash funny, without realizing that he is supposed to be seen as ridiculous. I’ve had parents tell me about boys in grade 2 referring to an older girl as “hot” and that is decidedly unfunny. For older kids, teens and adults the language is less of an issue, but I write about younger boys and there are aspects of this show that I think are inappropriate for them. Just my opinion as a parent and someone who writes about gender stereotypes.

      For the record, I would like to watch more of the series. It looks like it is no longer on the air here but when I have a chance I will seek out the later episodes and see how the characters progress.

  4. I think you are being a bit biased here. The female characters are portrayed the way they are because they are females and naturally act differently than males. The writers also try to stay with the comics, and won’t make drastic changes to the story. The female heroes also get a share of episodes that generally revolve around them. And finally, the rookie female characters are portrayed as making mistakes at first because they are indeed rookies compared to the other members, like Robin, Kid Flash, and Superboy (being an exception because he is a clone and very strong and whatnot). The males have the right to be frustrated with the girls if they make rookie mistakes. A rookie male gets just as much of an “aura”, if you will, of disappointment if he screws up a mission. And on a sidenote, the TV ratings are specific enough to where they rate the show as being for younger kids, if it lacks gruesome violence, language, etc, and no one should freak out about the rating being unjust.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Reviews of shows like this are subjective and I’m just talking about what I saw. I watched 12 episodes but plan to watch additional episodes to see how things evolve for the female characters. I just haven’t had a chance to do that yet. If I think things have evolved, I will gladly write a follow-up. As for the rating, I am not “freaking out.” I am merely saying that I, as a parent, think some of the language is inappropriate for kids 8 and younger.

  5. I see a lot of disagreeing comments on here. And I wanted to say that I’m with you. I agree with everything that you’ve said. For me, the worst part is that the expectations for the female vs. male characters is drastically different. Yes, as another commenter said, both genders are rebuked by older/more experienced members when they mess up. But the tone with the males is completely different. Batman, Red Tornado and Superman talk to the male young justice as if they expected better from them (when in error), and that they’re mistakes reflect badly on the training they’ve already had. Yet with the female characters, their ability to function as a member of the young justice seems to be called into question. Which in my opinion is very different.

    Sort of like with the male characters the issue is: Why didn’t you do better? And with the female characters the issue is: Can you do this at all?

    This shows a clear bias. And I simply think that most people are not competent in understanding symbolism enough to get this on a real level. But I’m glad you’re pointing it out. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback. It’s been a long time since I wrote this and I keep meaning to revisit the show to see how it is now. I’ll try to check out a few episodes soon.

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