I’m going to admit something rather important to you, so lean in close.
The idea of going to a kickboxing class at my gym kind of terrifies me.
I mean, it sounds like fun. A part of me always scans the class schedule and thinks that maybe one day I’ll try it. Maybe one day I’ll show up to the Boot Camp class that LA Fitness has and feel like a warrior princess or something. More often than not though, I end up on an elliptical or in the back of the Latin Zumba class trying desperately to pretend that I’m not as white as I really, really am. Because the fact of the matter is that I’m not really a super confident girl, especially when it comes to classes at my gym. I don’t have a six pack. I’m laughably terrible at push-ups. If I tried to kick someone hard enough to be effective, I might actually injure myself instead of them.
But I’m not weak.
I’m just not a personal trainer.
And for me, that’s completely okay. Sometimes I daydream about what it would feel like to be a heroine in an action movie or television series. I watch the stunts on Arrow and I marvel, slack-jawed, at how utterly COOL it looks when Caity Lotz wields her bow staff. It’s quite beautiful, actually. I got like, actual chills when Roy, Oliver, and Laurel leapt from the roof in Starling City and swan-dove toward the end of last season. It was just an amazing visual, really. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Laurel Lance and Sara Lance and Thea Queen are heroines. They’re not perfect. In fact, they’re far from perfect. They’re all broken, fragile things. Sometimes they’re sharp, uncomfortable even because of the shards of glass poking from them. But beneath it all, I truly believe both women to be heroines. They take charge of their own destinies. They need men sometimes: to pull them back from the edge, to talk sense into them, to lean on for support, to vent to. I’m not in the camp of “a strong female character has to be completely independent from any man.” Men and women need each other. It’s as simple as that.
But there’s something dangerous that has been percolating in conversations recently, especially in regards to Arrow and it’s this: it’s that if a woman is lacking a mask or a costume, she is not a hero. That somehow Lois Lane isn’t as strong as Superwoman. Or that Felicity Smoak isn’t as heroic as Black Canary. The moment we begin to elevate one type of character above another and label their actions “heroic” and another’s identical actions as “normal” is the day we completely miss the point of what being a hero really means.
Logically, most of us know that masks or costumes don’t make people heroes. But that’s… also kind of what television, comics, and movies perpetuate, isn’t it? Bruce Wayne isn’t that impressive; Batman is. We adore Barry Allen but we label him “heroic” whenever he’s wearing a bright red suit. Superman is JUST a guy… until he dons a cape and then he’s a hero. Okay, class, pop quiz time: what is the reason that superheroes have secret identities in shows/movies/comics? Time’s up. The reason that heroes have secret identities is because they don’t want their nemeses to be able to identify them. And so they have these secret identities to blend in. They adopt them so they can remain unassuming. So that no one will suspect there is anything remotely special about them.
(Which, I could write an entire paper about but I’ll refrain.)
And so we’ve come to associate a person in “normal” clothes as a regular, ordinary, unsuspecting human being. And we’ve come to label the one with the mask or the suit as the “hero.” They’re the same person, mind you: Barry Allen does nothing besides change clothes to become The Flash. (What’s so refreshing is that The Flash identified this problem toward the end of their season, when Joe essentially told Barry that he’s always been a hero in his own right, not because he puts on a red suit and runs really fast, but because of his spirit and personality and convictions. God bless The Flash is all I have to say.)
And so, when there was an interviewer at Comic-Con who directly implied that Felicity Smoak (Arrow) could not be a hero because she was the only one without a mask or a suit, most of my Twitter timeline was – rightfully so – enraged. Emily Bett Rickards, who I’ll talk about momentarily, did a fantastic job over the last three years of portraying a normal young woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances who earns the favor of those around her, grows as a result, and learns more about herself in the process. Felicity doesn’t wear a mask. She doesn’t need to. She’s earned the reverence of everyone she has encountered – good or evil, mind you – without one. She’s a heroine in this show, on equal footing with Katana and Black Canary and White Canary and Speedy and The Arrow and whatever-Diggle-will-be-called and Arsenal.
Felicity doesn’t need a mask or superhero suit to be a hero.
And neither do you.
Your superhero suit is your own skin. Do you feel comfortable in it? Do you feel powerful in it? Do you feel strong in it? Good. You should. As women, we often don’t. I have bad days. I have really bad days. I have great days. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and I wish I could change everything about myself, from my nose to my stomach and everything in between. But the days where I remember that I’m strong and I’m capable and I have purpose are the days I feel like I could conquer the world.
Some heroines wear masks. Some wear suits. Some wear flip flops and big sunglasses and fur coats. Some can shoot a gun. Some can do complex math in their heads. Some can memorize scientific formulas. Some know the perfect way to calm down children and some can cook an amazing meal without glancing at a recipe once. And the moment we place one type of woman above another – or one type of men above women – is the day we do nothing more than tear another person or group of people down.
So no, dear friends: those who wear masks aren’t heroes because they wear masks. Those who can fight with a bow staff, who can shoot an arrow with accuracy, or can run faster than the speed of sound are not heroes simply because they can do those things. They’re heroes because of who they are, not what they wear. Women who wear masks can be heroes or villains; they can be complex or one-dimensional. Women who don’t wear masks can be heroes or villains; they can be complex or one dimensional. Men who wear masks can be heroes or villains; they can be complex or one-dimensional. Men who do not wear masks can be heroes or villains; they can be complex or one-dimensional.
… Did I get my point across yet?
Before I wrap this post up, let’s examine some heroes, shall we? Since the comment that started this blog post/soap box leap was in regards to Felicity Smoak’s rather normal (and, apparently, to the reporter, completely un-heroic) existence, I thought I would examine some “everyday” heroines from my favorite televisions shows. I’ll attempt to be brief because there are a lot of them to cover.
Felicity Smoak (Arrow)
Why she’s a hero: Felicity Meghan Smoak is my favorite character on Arrow and one of my favorite characters – and favorite female character – on television right now. She can’t shoot a gun, presumably, and she has basic self-defense skills that have saved her life. But she doesn’t wear a mask. She doesn’t go out in the field to fight. She saved John Diggle’s life by hitting Isabel with a van, not by battling her in some stunning fight sequence. Felicity is normal. She’s layered and complex and emotional. She’s really good at what she does and the reason why she’s a hero is because she constantly spurs everyone to be greater, to be better and she does so with compassion, humility, and often tough love. Villains respect her and bend to her will (Malcolm Merlyn, Slade Wilson, and Ra’s al Ghul all paid her compliments and respect.) In fact, the reason that Felicity was able to help defeat Slade Wilson was simply BECAUSE of the fact that people underestimate her capabilities as a woman and fighter.
Felicity isn’t perfect and I love that about her. I love that she’s not always right and that she’s occasionally really stubborn. I love how she constantly fights for the happiness of others and for herself. I love that Oliver loves her because of her heart and her mind and her soul and everything she is and can be to him. I love that Felicity bonds with the women in her life and she doesn’t exist to prop them up or to tear them down, but to simply BE. Felicity is a hero because she has an amazing heart and she will always fight for the good things in the world.
Iris West and Caitlin Snow (The Flash)
Why they’re heroes: Caitlin and Iris don’t have superpowers (okay, well, technically the former will at some point but file that plot point in the back of your mind for the time being) and that’s what I love about them. Iris is just really passionate about her job and so is Caitlin. They’re both incredibly smart women who care about the men who surround them – who take care of them a lot but who also are unafraid to stand alone when the men are being idiots. Caitlin is a hero because she uses what she knows to help the world around her become better. Iris is a hero because she constantly battles the things in life that are unacceptable. She’s a hero because she expects everyone around her to be better – for the world to be better – and does whatever she can to help make it so.
Annie Edison, Britta Perry, Shirley Bennett (Community)
Why they’re heroes: God, I love the women of Community. Annie Edison is a hero because she loves and cares about other people so genuinely and because she’s seen so much bad in the world and yet continues to believe in hope and optimism. She’s not naïve – she knows that life isn’t perfect and she doesn’t expect it to be, but she ALWAYS challenges others to be the best and challenges herself to be, too. (She and Iris would get along swimmingly.) She’s an overachiever because she knows her value. She’s a perfectionist because she cares deeply. She’s lovable because she loves. In a world of cynicism, it’s heroic for Annie to be the optimist.
Britta Perry is heroic because she’s challenged herself and found her own worth outside of relationships and outside of school and outside of her friendships. She’s chosen to stand alone, even when it was difficult and even when others made fun of her. Heroism is looking down the barrel of a terrifying experience and choosing to stand instead of hide in shame or embarrassment. Britta is that woman.
Shirley is a hero because she cares about others more than she cares about herself, sometimes to a fault. She’s heroic because she protects other people in love. She is unafraid to call people out on when they’re wrong. She’s unafraid to step into the unknown without a safety net. And she chooses to stand by her faith and convictions when the world tells her that she’s insane. That is completely and utterly admirable.
Jane Villanueva, Petra Solano, Xiomara Villanueva, Alba Villanueva (Jane the Virgin)
Why they’re heroes: These woman are AMAZING heroes. Xiomara is heroic because she had and cared for Jane as a teenager. She became a mother and that experience morphed her from a child into an adult. And as an adult, Xiomara continues to be heroic by sacrificing for her family and Jane and providing all she can for them while still having the courage to chase her own dreams. Alba is courageous because of her faith and her hope – she believes in God and a plan and to choose to be dedicated to that in a world where life doesn’t make sense sometimes is really heroic and admirable. Petra is a hero because even though she often makes mistakes and takes what she wants by force, she loves deeply and is vulnerable. It is heroic to love – to put your heart on the line for someone else without knowledge of how they’ll return your affection. And Jane Villanueva. Boy, Jane is a hero. She’s flawed and stubborn and utterly wonderful. She’s compassionate. She’s sweet. She’s kind. She’s proof that heroes wear dresses and go to church and laugh and cry and kiss and love. Jane is proof that heroes are products of how they act in their circumstances, even when the circumstances are overwhelming.
April Carver (Chasing Life)
Why she’s a hero: Okay, all of the women on Chasing Life are heroes but I’m just going to take a few seconds to focus on April Carver, whose heroism is exemplified in how much she loves and cares for and protects her family. She’s strong not because she never breaks down (she does) or makes a mistake (she does). Heroism isn’t defined by how many mistakes you make or fights you get in. It’s defined by how you let your experiences shape you. And April lets having cancer shape her and mold her until she’s broken down… and then she gets up. Repeatedly. She’s a hero because she’s proof that bad circumstances don’t have to cripple you. Horrible news is not the end of the sentence. Even when you’re tired from fighting and feel like you can’t stand one more moment, April holds her head up higher, arches her back straighter, and looks her fears directly in the eyes, challenging them gaze for gaze.
THAT is heroism.
Jessica Day and Cece Parekh (New Girl)
Why they’re heroes: Jessica Day is good at her job. She puts herself out there, even though she’s been hurt by men before. She loves and she’s unafraid to be weird. She’s loving and shows her love by standing beside people who she considers to be friends. That’s heroic. Jessica Day is always on your team if she’s your friend and when the world is full of people who constantly waffle, friendship is a pillar of heroism. Cece is such a hero because she doesn’t let the expectations other people have of her determine who she’s going to be. She’s beautiful but she lost her passion for modeling and for being just a pretty face. Instead, she decided she wanted to try a new job and go back to school. She willingly put herself in an uncomfortable situation because she knew she deserved more out of her life and she was willing to be uncomfortable in order to get it. HEROIC.
Paige Dineen (Scorpion)
Why she’s a hero: Paige Dineen is the only non-genius on Team Scorpion, but she’s a hero. She’s a mother, which makes her a heroic person already, but the way that Paige mothers Ralph – by trying to understand him and do what’s best for him even when it’s difficult for her – is beautiful. She commands and leads, even though she doesn’t have as high of an IQ as Ralph. The series presents her as just as valuable as any other member of the team. Emotional intelligence is heroism, you guys.
Kimmy Schmidt (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)
Why she’s a hero: Kimmy Schmidt faced HORRIBLE circumstances and she could have let those cripple her. She could have curled up and accepted her fate. But she didn’t. Because Kimmy believes in bright colors and in not accepting defeat. She fights for other people to achieve their dreams, even if she has only just met them. She genuinely cares and that’s so refreshing. In a world of darkness, Kimmy stands out as this neon, bright spot. Because to her, that is what life is all about: embracing who you were meant to be and never backing down because of what life throws at you or what other people do to you.
Leslie Knope, Ann Perkins, April Ludgate, Donna Meagle (Parks and Recreation)
Why they’re heroes: Leslie Knope is honestly the hero we all deserve. She’s resilient and optimistic. She’s lovable and loving. She’s smart and she’s capable. She’s a beautiful tropical fish. And the reason we all love Leslie Knope isn’t because she wears a mask or a superhero suit. It’s simply because she uses her passions and talents to make the world around her better. THAT is heroic – to stand up, proud of who you are and what you have accomplished – when others command you to sit. Leslie is one of the most heroic characters on modern television because she’s so layered and complex, so wonderful and so very good at what she does. Ann is a hero because she chooses every day to be herself, to love herself, and to be an amazing friend. April is heroic because she doesn’t let other people warp her into who she’s “supposed” to be. She stands on her own. She embraces cynicism but does so in a way that causes her to grow as a person and a friend, wife, and mother. She loves her weirdness. And Donna Meagle is a hero because she realized it’s possible to be the strongest version of yourself while also being in love.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s theme song sings: “females are strong as hell,” and I have to agree. Women and men aren’t heroic because of what they wear or don’t wear. They’re not esteemed by audiences because of the color of their suit or the way they wield weapons. While we admire them for their skills, talents, and abilities, heroes are heroes on television not because of marks or costumes but because of their hearts and their souls.
I appreciate the everyday heroine, because they’re not ordinary.