Commissioned post for Aleph Null. I don’t think it’s ever come up here, but I have a long-standing fascination with infinite sets, so I think that’s a seriously awesome name.
Everyone needs a hero.
There is much to criticize about superheroes: they protect the status quo and prevent revolution, and revolutionary change is sorely needed. There is much to criticize about the broader category of heroes: they stand on the border between us and them, and in so doing reinforce that that border exists.
But they are not an unmixed curse. There is much of value to be found in the figure of the hero. They often exemplify virtues we consider worth emulating–Batman’s determination, Superman’s kindness, Wonder Woman’s feminism. Or, to use more traditional heroes, Odysseus’ cunning, Beowulf’s courage, Hua Mulan’s sense of duty. And, frankly, sometimes we need to feel protected.
To be aware of one’s own difference, to recognize that in the eyes of the dominant culture, one is a part of them, not us, is to be aware of a constant need for vigilance. To feel safe is to let go of that vigilance, and hence to be unsafe–but to feel unsafe at all times is traumatizing. (This is, of course, just restating the concept of dual consciousness that we discussed with Ms. Marvel.) The fantasy of a hero is a way to, briefly, at second hand, get a glimpse of what it might be like to be an us, to be protected, to be safe.
But if all the heroes are for that other us, the one that defined you as a them, that instead reinforces that you don’t get a hero, don’t get to be us–that you are always and forever a them. And so we get things like Emara: Emirates Hero, which creator Fatma Al Muhairi says was driven by her desire for a heroic character she could “culturally identify with.” Her and her team of mostly young, Arab creators have, in pursuit of that goal, created something delightful.
Nothing about Emara, other than the nationality of the characters, is particularly novel. Visually, it references anime heavily, especially Cutie Honey–which it also references in the core concept of a transforming (apparent) robot girl–and the works of Hiroyuki Imaishi (Dead Leaves, Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill) and Takafumi Hori (Little Witch Academia, that one episode of Steven Universe, that one episode of Adventure Time). Story-wise, at least in the first two episodes, it’s pretty typical superhero fare: Moza is a teenage girl raised by a single mother and a dead dad, she fights bank robbers, a mysterious conspiracy is after her, and she has a rival superhero who is working for the mysterious conspiracy but has doubts.
But novelty isn’t the point–this is no different from Ms. Marvel‘s similarities to early Spider-Man, a way to shortcut through setup by presenting the familiar, so that the series can quickly move on to the rest of its story. The point is to bring superheroics to Emirati girls, to give them a hero of their own to remind that they can be an us, and to remind the rest of us that they are part of us.
Representation, in short, matters. Dhebian, Emara’s rival, is another example–the rockets in his feet are a fun answer to Emara’s gun arms, but they also contrast with his use of a wheelchair in his “civilian” identity, Sultan. He is a disabled man who needs a wheelchair to get around normally–but as Dhebian, his superpower is mobility. This is one of those cases where the protector fantasy and the power fantasy blend together–it is a wish for the power to be the protector. A wish for power, not to impose one’s will on others, but to help them.
How, though, is this different from Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin? I castigated them as trying to cement their status as provisionally “normal” by enacting violence to preserve the circles of normalcy. By attacking “criminals,” isn’t Emara doing the same thing? The “normal people”/criminals binary used to justify retributive violence against people who commit crimes is as much a lie as any other “normal people”/Other binary; there are no criminals, only people who commit crimes.
Emara is not actually different from Sawyer and Turpin in that respect; the inherently problematic elements of “law enforcement” and “superhero” as concepts remain intact. But that’s the thing–why should only some people get imperfect and problematic representation? Why can’t Emirati girls get their power/protector fantasy, when white American boys have so many?
It’s not just that everyone needs heroes. It’s that everyone needs to be a hero, from time to time, within their own head. We need to feel, even if just for a moment, knowing that it’s not true, like we have the power to protect what’s important to us and to change things for the better.
Heroes fight monsters. And yes, all too often, monsters are defined by difference, but frequently they also represent harm. If heroes help define the border between normalcy and deviancy, perhaps a proliferation of “deviant” heroes is exactly what we need, to push that border out so far that it encompasses everyone. Perhaps when everyone is normal, no one will be, and we will at last be free of that binary, while our heroes protect us from the genuinely harmful rather than the merely different.
Either way, heroes belong at the margins. Doesn’t it make sense, then, for them to come from among the marginalized?
Bit by bit, we inch closer to understanding how to salvage what’s good within the figure of the superhero. Diversity and representation of the underrepresented are a part of the answer–but then, they’re part of the answer to most things.
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