In a recent post on Comparative Geeks, (which you should absolutely seek out) Holly discussed the film Girl Rising in the context of an underlying message-the importance of female heroes and superheroes, fictional or historical. “Why We Need Female Heroes and Superheroes” asserts that girls need to see other girls and women as agents of change who can not only save others but save themselves by acting. The case is made by examining pivotal moments in the film when girls seem to connect on a large scale with powerful women. In short, what Holly advocates is providing a sense of agency to girls through their perception of others.
“Agency” is a multifaceted concept, though on its surface it seems simple; it is nothing more or less than an individual’s (the agent’s) ability to act, and the sense of agency is then the individual’s understanding of his or her capability of acting. So the concept itself is simple enough, but the practice can be far more complicated. For children, acquiring and exercising a sense of agency is even more complex than for adults; children are told what and when to eat, when to sleep, where to go, what to wear, and a multitude of other commands. Furthermore, because agency is an individualistic concept, it cannot be given to someone. This is why we often see children’s stories in which the child is an orphan (such as in Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the Lemony Snicket series) or who is removed from the control of parents for the action of the novel (such as Where the Wild Things Are and Peter Pan.)
Removing children from the control of parents is the easiest way in the fictional world to ensure that the child has not only the sense of agency but the agency itself. But in the physical world it isn’t quite as easy for children to exercise their own agency. Many of their frustrations (or at least the Little Jedi’s frustrations) arise from the conflict between their desire for agency (sense of self) and the status dictated by being a child. And that’s where fiction and history come in. That’s where heroes and superheroes come in.
These heroes and superheroes provide not only an escape for children but also allow them to vicariously exercise agency. They get to try on what a character has experienced. This is one of the many reasons that from his infancy I’ve read to the Little Jedi, and it is a reason I will continue to do so. And the feminist element of this, wherein I recognize the gap in education and in strong characters provided for women, has led me to the field of girls’ studies. The field is relatively new, and like feminist studies, is interdisciplinary. But its focus is on girls and girlhood rather than women. And it means that I get to read The Hunger Games and many other girl-centric texts for work.
It also means that I appreciate the gravity of and importance of providing girls with a sense of agency through fiction. We do, in fact, need women heroes and superheroes. Our girls need them.