So hey, remember last week I made that comment about Stan Lee being good-naturedly condescending toward women in his early ‘60s work?
This is what I’m talking about:
(Fantastic Four #11, art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers, February 1963)
You see what I mean. There’s no outright, rampaging misogyny; Stan isn’t hacked off that Sue’s not in the kitchen preparing a nice roast for her husband and his buddies or anything. Instead, there’s an attitude that I’m sure Stan felt was well-intentioned: look, Sue is a woman, and women (“females,” as Stan’s characters often say with a certain befuddled jocularity) are emotionally fragile creatures, so every now and again the Fantastic Dudes do well to protect her by reminding her they think she’s swell. I can’t be too hard on Stan Lee for this, I suppose; the attitude, I’m sure, would not be uncommon for 1963, and anyway he also points out the times where she actually did save the rest of the team, which is a fair sight more than Lois Lane would have been capable of at that time.
But the years pass and attitudes change, and at some point, later comics writers looked back at these issues and cringed at Sue. They saw her fragile characterization as a mistake to be rectified. So they amp up her powers, make her really confident and well-adjusted — the “mother figure” of the team. Chris Claremont had her fight Iron Fist to a standstill once. Later writers overcompensate for Stan Lee’s wilting stereotype by making Sue virtually faultless.
This, too, is well-intentioned, but it has an unfortunate side effect:
See, we can identify with the men in the Fantastic Four because of their human flaws — Reed for his tendency to get wrapped up in himself and his work, Johnny for his immaturity and temper, Ben for his gruffness and struggles with self-pity. But we don’t get to see ourselves in Sue? The modern Sue Storm is impossibly compassionate, selflessly responsible, always putting her family before herself, the calm in a storm. As David Brothers pointed out in response to my comment, “The team literally would not function without her being there to hold them together.” And through it all, she still has time to look beautiful.
Oh crap, in trying to make Sue Storm a modern character, they’ve made her into a model 1950s housewife!
Well, now what do we do? I’ve got to justify this to myself somehow if I’m to feel okay about reading these things into my adulthood. That means it’s time for…
! ! ! ! M E T A T E X T U A L F A N W A N K ! ! ! !
Right, Wikipedia summarizes Sue Storm’s prehistory thusly: “As detailed in The Marvel Saga: Official History of The Marvel Universe #16, Susan Storm, and her younger brother, Jonathan grew up in the town of Glenville, Long Island, children of a physician named Franklin Storm and a woman named Mary. The parents left their kids alone one night to travel to a dinner honoring Dr. Storm. On the way, a tire blew out but only Mary was injured. Franklin escaped injury and insisted on operating on his wife. He was unable to save her and she passed away. After his wife's death, Dr. Franklin Storm became a gambler and a drunk, losing his medical practice, which led him to the accidental killing of a loan shark. Franklin did not defend himself in court, because he still felt guilty over Mary's death. With their father in prison, Susan had to become a mother figure for her younger brother.”
Okay, we can work with this. Suddenly a teenage girl has the responsibility of raising a brother who’s probably only a few years younger than her. So Sue gives up her childhood for Johnny’s sake; we establish a pattern of sublimating her own desires for the sake of her responsibility to others.
Hey, this is going to give you some legitimate self-esteem issues. Johnny’s friends teasing, “Hey, is that your sister or your mom?” Sue probably doesn’t make many friends, and she can’t go out after school because she has to make sure Johnny learns his multiplication tables or else he’ll be held back. And Johnny’s probably young and bratty enough to add to this: “You’re always bossing me around! I wish I had a real sister!” They live with their aunt, who’s apparently too busy running her boarding house to contribute much to Johnny’s upbringing; perhaps there’s an element of “You’d better pull your weight around here,” unspoken or not.
Fast forward a few years and we see her as a young adult, timid and deferring, still taking care of her brother. All of a sudden she’s fighting aliens and mad monarchs while at the same time acting as the mother figure in the weird pseudo-family dynamic of the Fantastic Four.
So with all that going on in her life, if you tell her she’s not contributing?
Yeah, she is going to have a hard time hearing that.
Now we have a Sue Storm who has self-esteem issues because of her specific history, not just because she’s a woman. She has a relatable character hook: being taken for granted spurs her feelings of inadequacy. We can identify with that feeling once and a while, can’t we? And just as the Fantastic Dudes struggle to overcome their personality flaws for the sake of the team and the safety of the city/world/universe/whatever it is today, so too is Sue’s triumph greater when she saves the day despite her own self-doubt.
So is this a viable characterization, or is the danger of sliding back into “fragile female” territory too great? There’s a great potential for extreme dodginess, but Grant Morrison did something similar to this in FF: 1234 and it seemed to work pretty well.
(Post-script: this same bloody thing happened to Jean Grey, as well. In the original X-Men, Scott is the brooding leader, Hank the funny intellectual, Warren the smooth ladies’ man, Bobby the immature kid, and Jean is ... the girl. Why do you think they kept turning her back into the Phoenix in the 1990s/2000s? Because there’s precious little personality, little else to the character other than “mother figure,” so you might as well go all-out and make her the ultimate goddess personification of life-giving force.)