A Girl’s Love for Batman: The Possible Cost of Segregating Stories by Gender

By Julie Wu

Yesterday, my four-year-old daughter got Batman sneakers.  They go nicely with her Batman shirt, Batman socks, and (temporary) Batman tattoo.  She has a Batman costume and wants a Batman backpack.  She watches Batman shows and I read her Batman books.

My daughter’s Batman craze makes some people uncomfortable.  She is, according to the Zeitgeist, supposed to like Belle and Ariel.  Or, if she is going to like superheroes, Batgirl or Wonder Woman.

But here’s why I don’t mind my daughter’s obsession: Batman is a great character.  He has a tragic past and is driven by both tremendous anger and guilt in his quest to stop crime, yet he is not vindictive.  His only superpowers are will, ingenuity, and brute force.  In groups of superheroes, he is the one who leads, not Wonder Woman or even the ridiculously superpowered characters like Superman and Green Lantern, whom my kids deride as being “cheap.”  (Your only vulnerability is Kryptonite?  You can make anything you want out of your ring?  Come on.)

In contrast, who is Batgirl?  She is admirably brave but weak, second string even to Robin, who is himself secondary (interestingly, there are Robin costumes commercially available for girls and women).  And the only thing that strikes me about Wonder Woman is her corset and go-go boots.  The woman has no personality.  As for Belle and Ariel, not to mention all those princesses, am I really supposed to try to get my child to drop a great hero like Batman to worship a pretty, pleasantly spunky girl whose life’s drive is fulfilled by a handsome guy and a drop-dead dress?

Sometimes I think back on the books I read and the shows I watched as a young girl.  My mother, like many moms, determined what I was exposed to, and when I was laid up in bed with the chicken pox, she borrowed Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess for me from the library.  It was a beautiful edition with color plates depicting Sara Crewe in all her beautiful clothes.  My mother must have asked the librarian for a girl’s book, and been bestowed with this.  Did I love it? Absolutely.  It’s a wonderful story, and the pictures were just lovely.

But then one day, my third grade teacher, Anne, announced that she was going to read a book out loud at one of the two lunch tables.  She described the story as about a girl who enters an orphanage.

Now, A Little Princess was an orphan story, but this one didn’t sound nearly as interesting as A Little Princess.  In fact, it didn’t sound interesting to me at all.

I sat down at the other table.  All the boys joined me, and all the rest of the girls joined Anne.  I still remember our table—the boys and I sitting and joking while we reached into our crumpled lunch bags (taking out room-temperature bologna sandwiches which, by the way, were perfectly tasty and did not kill us).  While we talked and laughed and had a wonderful, raucous time, I looked back at the other girls quietly listening to the quiet story, and thought, man, that is weird.

Why did all the girls want to hear that story? Were they really interested?  Were they conditioned to be?  Did they think they were supposed to be?  And why weren’t any of the boys interested?

Recent research shows that fiction helps people develop more empathy by using cues to elicit empathetic emotions in the reader (or audience).  So what does it mean if our exposure to stories and characters is limited?  My daughter would know nothing about Batman if she had no older brother.  Without my son, my daughter would probably be reading and watching material “appropriate” for girls.  She would be developing huge amounts of empathy for those pretty, non-threateningly spunky girls. As a result, she might grow up identifying with all the pretty, spunky female sidekicks in popular movies—Jessie in Toy Story, Nala in the Lion King—instead of Buzz, Woody, and Simba, the undisputable heroes (whom she does adore) of these movies.  Would this really be in her best interest?  Does it make sense to limit a girl’s capacity to empathize with a hero, and then tell her she can do anything she wants when she grows up?  On the other side of the equation, would it hurt to give boys “girl” books to help them empathize more with the traditionally female point of view?

Believe me, I have tried to find powerful heroines in books, shows, and movies for both my children.  The pickings are slim, particularly for the very young. Even Mulan, who disguises herself as a man to save China, declines a position of power and ends up with a handsome general as her ultimate reward.  And while Merida in Brave doesn’t get carried off by a handsome prince, she solves everything in the end by sewing up a tapestry.  [Disclaimer: my kids saw and didn’t like this movie much; I haven’t seen it—please tell me I’m wrong about the ending and Merida actually rocks the finale with her archery skills!].

So I have come to peace with Batman.  And Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Spiderman, and Ironman.  Because if my daughter grows up to be pretty and pleasantly spunky and drops her whole career once she finds her handsome dude, it’s fine with me—if that’s what makes her happy.

But it’s also fine if she wants to be a hero.


  1. Sue says:

    Great article. I have a 19 year old daughter. When she was born we decorated her room in primary colors in an attempt to be somewhat gender-neutral. When she was old enough to choose, it was pink ruffly dresses she preferred. But as she grew, we read a variety of books together. She ended up favoring Nancy Drew and then Harry Potter. And as a journalism student, she’s now been exposed to women’s studies classes that have opened her eyes further. She learned early that she’s her own person, and that everyone else has a right to be who they are. I wish I could credit myself with a lot of that, but I’m pleased to say that it’s not just me. She heard positive messages about self and respect from a vareity of sources, including Girl Scouts. I wish articles like yours weren’t necessary; because I wish every little girl who wanted to could don Batman attire without it being a big deal. But I’m thankful to you for bringing the issue out into the open. Your daughter sounds awesome and so do you!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Sue, it sounds as though your daughter has had a wonderful, affirming upbringing.

      Thanks so much for your kind comment! So far, my daughter thinks nothing of putting on superhero costumes, and I hope that doesn’t change.

  2. Leslie Greffenius says:

    Lovely and thoughtful musings, Julie. I love the picture, too. I’m awed that you had the courage to sit with the boys, and so glad you lived – despite unrefrigerated bologna sandwiches – to defend your little girl’s choice of hero!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Leslie! I love the picture, too. If she had black hair, she could easily be my daughter, who is a force of nature–I really have no choice but to see things her way.

      I actually kind of liked those sandwiches. Now people would notify DSS if we sent cold cuts to school with no freezer pack.

  3. chuck small says:

    Brave was more about the tensions between the very complex mother-daughter relationship, of which I know less than zero. It was also about the difficulty in realizing traditions have become obsolete. The sewing up of the tapestry,though “girlie” was actually an adequate symbol. I think it shows females not in terms of black and white, heroine or damsel in distress, but as more well-rounded. Yes, she was a skilled athlete, in eh tomboysense, but she learned that she didn’t have togive away all her womanly arts. Anywaym Pixar has certainly made better flicks; my son is obsessed with WALL-E now…

    As for raising girls, I was sister-less (though I learned about 2 years ago I have 2 younger half-sisters) and am now daughterless, though I have two nieces. Sarah, who wil be 14 soon, has a massive crush on Justin Bieber, the mortal enemy of my 12 year old son. It was fascinating talking with her during our vacation, as well as her BFF sidekick, who has an equal crush on a New Direction boy. I wonder how they divided them up? But I digress.

    It’s called HIS STORY for a reason: men have written it. Very few women made the script, and perhaps the “best” role model, the Virgin Mary, could be written off as little more than a vessel. Then again, the Theotokus is more highly regarded insome brands of Christianity than others. The others who come to mind are the likes of Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Catherine the Great. Times have changed, ironically around the time of the American Revolution, and women have gotten more ink since then.

    But as for fictional heroines, you left out Nancy Drew, though her series was written by the same man who wrote the Hardy Boys. But I see a LOT of kids movies (3 Madagascars, 3 Chipmunk Movies, Yogi Bear (ugh!)). The only heroine I can think of is the girl in Aliens vs. Monsters, an otherwise unremarkable movie despite voices from Hugh Laurie and Stephen Colbert). I even forget how she saved the earth.

    As for Batman [Spoiler Alert] in the latest incarnation, Catwoman, usually portrayed as a villian, actually SAVES Batman. But of course, the chief villain ends up being the vindictive, treacherous woman, a modern spin on the traditional evil women in Disney films (Walt must have HATED his mother)..

    Wonder Woman was never designed as a role model, or even a vehicle, to invite girls into the male world of comic books. She’s essentially softcore porn to induce and indoctrinate even more males into the manly cult until they’re old enough to enjoy the SI swimsuit issues and eventually Playboy, where women become the object of desire and lust based on apearance alone. There have been far fewer Himbos in history…

    As for stereotypes, I end with this. During entire my chess career starting in junior high, I played maybe one girl,and we only had one girl on our teams for about one season. The Hungarian Polgar sisters prove that women of capable of mastering teh game, but it took their father to basically engineer them: he used them to test his theory that he could create genius. It is really difficult to revese stereotypes and well-engrained “traditional” roles. Look at how few female attorneys become equity partnes in major law firms,as my wife lamented this morrning. Women have made significant inroads, but as long as they give birth, there will be vestigal reminders of the perceived chasm between the genders.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Hi Chuck! Thanks for reading. As for Brave, honestly the whole must-retain-womanly-arts thing drives me nuts. I hope Margaret Thatcher never had to demonstrate that she could still sew.

      I read a couple Nancy Drews as a child. She was a good heroine, but I do recall there was an awful lot of emphasis on her clothes. I recall (accurately or not) a scene in which her car broke down, so after she pulled over, she propped up the hood, and she and the other girls freshened up their lipstick. My reaction: What???

      In Aliens vs. Monsters, the heroine grows from a doting fiancee to a supersized superhero, Ginormica. I had forgotten about that. She should be a great hero and role model, but for some reason I barely remember her. She doesn’t have much of a backstory, except for wanting to get married.

      I think it’s true that it’s hard to reverse stereotypes, but it’s interesting to me that our country lags behind in having, for example, a female president. It may be worth taking a look at our culture, popular and otherwise, to figure out why that might be.

      Thanks for your comments!

      • fontgoddess says:

        So here are some fragments of my train-of-thought after reading this post and the comments:

        Brave is only disappointing because Pixar made it and because it isn’t amazing people think it sucks.

        It’s not a work of staggering genius, but it is competent as both a story and fable. I actually think it’s one of those films that will seem a bit better on second-viewing so one can see a bit better how they fit the story together.

        Merida gets to demonstrate her competence in the woods to her mother, who keeps being mistaken for a monster (as she has been turned into a bear). Merida helps her mother escape the castle, find refuge in the woods, and then they go fishing and such. The fixing of the tapestry isn’t required to be an expert job, it’s just symbolic because that’s how magic works and Merida herself cut the tapestry (sort of accidentally) so there was a literal rift between her and her mother.

        As for awesome movies with awesome heroines, I highly recommend the work of Hayao Miyazaki (a Japanese animation director whose work is released in the US by Disney). Spirited Away is my favorite of his films, followed closely by My Neighbor Totoro, both of which have amazing, complex, realistic female protagonists. Actually, I think all of Miyazaki’s films have female protagonists.

        This is what he had to say about what he was trying to do in Spirited Away: “I created a heroine who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathize. It’s not a story in which the characters grow up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them, brought out by the particular circumstances. I want my young friends to live like that, and I think they, too, have such a wish.”

        I love Batman, but I swear that there are worthwhile female characters in comics who aren’t terribly obscure. Yeah, it sucks that many of them are related somehow to a male hero (as in their second-string sidekick or Distaff Counterpart http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DistaffCounterpart ). Still, a good character is a good character and some of the women are pretty epic. There was a female Robin and there have been three women inhabiting the mantle of Batgirl within the comic universe. Barbara Gordon is perhaps the most iconic one, and she’s also incredible when she spent time as Oracle (the Joker shot and paralyzed her—didn’t stop her from being a superhero and anchoring the Birds of Prey). Depending on the writer, Wonder Woman actually can have a personality and it’s even an interesting personality.
        Over in the Marvelverse, She Hulk is pretty cool. Squirrel Girl is worth looking up as she is listed as the most powerful character in the entire Marvelverse (yes, she’s obscure but she is still awesome).

        • Julie Wu says:

          Thanks very much for your comments! I have to add Miyazaki’s films to my small but growing list here. And I’ll have to look up the iterations of Batgirl and these other superheroines. I would add that my daughter loves Tigress from Kung Fu Panda. She’s definitely a sidekick, but at least she is depicted as stronger, wiser, and better at Kung Fu than Po, and defeats him regularly.

  4. There are some brilliant heroines out there, and more emerging every day. It is sad that there aren’t more, though.

    Some good ‘uns (for various ages):

    Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (younger middle grade)

    Lyra in His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman (older middle grade/YA but not smutty or anything)

    For the very young: Olivia the Pig by Ian Falconer. Utterly hilarious female lead, in picture books.

    • Julie Wu says:

      We love Olivia! Thanks for these great suggestions, Louie! I would add Lilly and the Purple Plastic Purse to the list of great picture book heroines.

      I should mention that we had inherited a Barbie book from another child. We did read it occasionally (the story wasn’t bad, actually), but my daughter recently took it and threw it off her bookshelf.

      Take that, Barbie.

  5. Julie, I loved your post. It brought back memories of my childhood cowboy hero who was so gentle with his horse yet so fearless with his enemies. I spent my allowance on the series available at every kiosk.
    And now my heart jumps for joy when my son is into female heroes. Not that they make for a big population, but there are a few. He loves Pippi Longstocking and Ronya, the Robber’s Daughter (Astrid Lindgren). And then there is Kiki on DVD, the fearless witch coming of age in “Kiki’s Delivery Service”.
    At my son’s school, 4th graders pick a historical figure, study it and then become that character in a “wax museum” performance. At first, when I saw the list of characters they could choose from, I was outraged at the ratio of men versus women, only to find that on the night parents got to see the show, there were many boys enacting female historical figures. Emily Dickenson was among them.
    As long as both genders can inspire each other, there is hope.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Christiane! That is neat that boys were enacting famous women!

      I have to say I was also thrilled about the Junie B. Jones books, which my son devoured. There are great books out there for older girls, thank goodness.

  6. Robin Smith-Johnson says:

    This is a fascinating blog. Like some of the other writers, I am mother to three sons. But, as a former girl, I remember the literary heroines I loved: Anne of Green Gables and her contemporary Emily (“Emily of New Moon”), Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jane Eyre and even Elsie Dinsmore. Nowadays, Hermoine Granger and Katniss Everdeen rule the feminine roost. I hope your daughter discovers some of these.

  7. Julie Wu says:

    Thanks, Robin! I also loved Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jane Eyre. I do also love Hermionie, though I dislike the fact that early on, as with so many female sidekicks, she is portrayed as an annoying know-it-all. I will definitely have to read the Hunger Games, to get to know Katniss!

    So glad you found this post interesting.


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