Women have been largely excluded from the hero discourse. When they are portrayed, they’re usually one member of a group of heros, and they’re usually the only woman. Think of Wonder Woman and most recently, even though she possesses no super powers, Black Widow in the 2012 Avengers movie. (The comic book itself has more female characters, but the movie is much more widely known and recognized.) Aside from this token-like treatment of women super heros, when women are present in heroine roles they’re still objectified as sexual beings to be acted upon, rather than powerful agents who are in control.
A very overt example of what is called “The Fighting Fuck-Toy” in the movie Miss Representation is when Selina Kyle (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) turns into Catwoman in the Tim Burton rendition of Batman. Before Selina Kyle transforms she is weak, bullied, and harried. But when she transforms she turns into the only image of a powerful woman that is plausible for mass media: a temptress in skin tight clothing. The first sentence she says as a newly “empowered” woman is, “I don’t know about you Ms. Kitty, but I feel so much yummier.” Catwoman equates her power with sex appeal and the word “yummy” in particular. Alluding to herself as something to be desired and devoured actually places her in a position of inferiority to the men that are intended to do the devouring.
Catwoman prances around in her skin tight suit, red lipstick, and stiletto heels for awhile, causing mischief, but not really making much of a dent herself until she eventually needs the help of a man, Batman in particular when she almost falls off a roof. So while Selina Kyle is seen as a new woman of agency as Catwoman, she is in fact still under the influence of men. Her power derives from the assumption that men will find her sexually attractive, take away that assumption and she has no power. If for example, an unattractive, 6oish, overweight woman were to undergo the same transformation into Catwoman with the tight black suit and all, would she still be perceived as powerful knowing that men will not be aroused by her appearance? Even with this perceived, sexually derived power, Catwoman is not the main villain of concern neither is she the main hero. She’s rather a side character that’s either an annoyance, tease, or romantic interest to the hero, Batman.
Many women are taught that beauty is power. I saw a billboard for a cosmetic surgery practice that said those exact words. But if women are truly going to be taken seriously in academic and leadership pursuits, they’re going to have to learn that their sexual appeal is more of a distractor that marginalizes their words and actions, and makes it easier for them to be equated with sex rather than intelligence or agency. Real power is when people respect you and believe your ideas are of worth. There are plenty of hot bods and pretty faces around, but usually our thoughts are unique to ourselves.