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.
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.