Sexualized Saturdays: Powerful Women and the Men Who Love Them

Power comes in many different forms, and there’s no one right way to be a strong female character. That said, however, there’s a clear dearth of female characters whose strength is, well, strength. We’re moving forward in media in terms of representing women in STEM professions and many other male-dominated fields, but one spot that remains lacking is the sort of woman who can bench-press a truck.

The superhuman guy + regular-human girl = love trope is a tale as old as time, and it’s one that’s getting kind of boring to me, to be honest. How many pairings of this nature can you name off the top of your head? Thor and Jane Foster; Bruce Banner and Betty Ross, Superman and Lois Lane—hell, might as well mention Belle and the Beast since I made that tale as old as time reference. And it’s not even limited to Western media—add Abel and Esther of Trinity Blood, and Tsuna and Kyoko from Reborn, among others.

Off topic, they are super cute together.

Off topic, they are super cute together.

Even in cases where the guy is not powered, per se, like Carol Danvers and James Rhodes, the guy is still a superhero of similar caliber. He isn’t, like, a brilliant scientist, or a librarian—he’s a fighter just like her. When both are equal, whether powered or not, our best bet is that they’ll have equivalent combat skills as well (think Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask, or Hawkeye and Mockingbird/Spider-Woman/Black Widow/whoever he’s dating these days).

Meanwhile, there are very few pairings in which the woman is the super-strong punchy one, and the man is just a regular dude with non-combat skills that’s occasionally in awe of his lady’s powers. This is a representational problem on two levels: one, it perpetuates the idea that it’s weird for women to be physically stronger than men, and two, that men who aren’t their girlfriend’s equal in strength are somehow lesser than men who are.

wonder woman steve trevorThe first example I thought of when brainstorming this post was Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. Steve is Diana’s classic love interest, and unlike the deific, magically powerful Princess of Themiscyra, he’s just a regular, unpowered human being. However, this example falls apart pretty quickly: first, while Steve isn’t a superhero, his primary occupation is as an Army guy. He’s certainly not Diana’s match in strength or power, but his profession is still basically ‘combat’, which leaves him a watered-down version of Rhodey in my Carol/Rhodey example.

I threw up my hands in the general direction of Western media and turned to anime, where I did stumble on a few examples. The first I could think of that really fits this reversal is Lizzie and Ciel from Black Butler. Ciel is physically weak and holds power over people through manipulation and subterfuge, whereas Lizzie is revealed in later chapters to be a master swordfighter. This is an interesting example because it displays the way that women are affected by the mentality that women shouldn’t be physically strong. Lizzie, despite being so talented that she’s able to defend her friends from a zombie horde with her skills, was terrified of revealing her fighting prowess to Ciel, because she worried he’d think her unfeminine and unattractive.

Durarara!! actually provides us with an ideal example of one of these relationships in Celty Sturluson and Kishitani Shinra. Celty is a super-powerful Irish fairy who works as a transporter and can kick pretty much anyone’s ass, whereas Shinra is a doctor who sells his services on the black market and has absolutely no combat skills. celty shinraShinra and Celty’s relationship is a good example of a strong lady/weak man pairing that works. Shinra doesn’t covet Celty’s power, or feel unmanned by it; rather, they’re part of the reason he loves her, and he’s comfortable with his own skill set. And while Celty worries sometimes about Shinra’s affections, it’s more because she’s worried he sees her as inhuman rather than unfeminine, and he’s one of the few people she is comfortable opening up to about her fears and weaknesses.

As I said earlier, the lack of more of these sorts of relationships in media is a twofold problem. Firstly, it doesn’t explicitly shame physically strong women, but it does perpetuate the idea that they don’t (and shouldn’t) exist. This is tied to a dated idea of what ‘feminine’ means—that women should be both dainty and pacifistic, and to be otherwise is undesirable. And while we have gotten some representation of women who are neither dainty nor peaceful, these women are often explicitly labeled as undesirable. (Look no further than Brienne of Tarth.) While women shouldn’t base their entire self worth around their appeal to men, it’s also worth sending the message that being a powerful woman isn’t a life sentence of singledom and celibacy.

Furthermore, we as a society are still focused on idolizing traditional, often toxic, masculinity. This mindset says a man who is less physically strong than a woman is unmasculine—less deserving of the label of man. This teaches consumers that men must focus on physical strength and should feel ashamed if a woman beats them in any display thereof. Showing relationships where men are not threatened by a woman who’s stronger than they are—and where they are, in fact, attracted to these women, can help send another message: that it’s not emasculating to be a guy with a skill set outside of “I can lift heavy things”.

Have I missed any couples you can think of? Let me know in the comments.

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11 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Powerful Women and the Men Who Love Them

  1. My perception is kind of the opposite of your here. I’ve found it annoying that some people think physical strength is the only valid way to make a female character strong. I don’t even the implications behind this attitude that Wonder Woman has to look large and muscular.

    • I think Lady Saika is talking more about the couple dynamic than the unfortunate trope you’re talking about. I agree that that trope – “the only way for women to be strong is to ‘transcend’ their femininity is by having the most hyper-masculine skill set possible” – is definitely a problem. There are a lot more people who will say ‘men and women are equal’, but a lot less who will say ‘femininity and masculinity are equal’.

      But on another note, as a woman who is both muscular and strong, it’s great to read an article acknowledging this trend. I have to experience it in my daily life, and it doesn’t feel good.

      I’ve noticed that even when a woman is supposed to be strong, she isn’t depicted with *any* visible muscles. Women don’t bulk up like men do without synthetic hormones and it takes years to get noticeably muscular, but we still get muscles if we eat and train accordingly. This is even more egregious when these women perform feats that require months or literally years of physical training to do: despite that, their appearances still conform to that of the waif.

      Because of this, I had the totally opposite reaction you did, Mithrandirolorin: when I first saw Wonder Woman and that she was muscular, my jaw dropped. I honestly could have jumped for joy: there are plenty of strong women characters, but even when they’re lugging around 100 lb+ machine guns and such, they have Victoria’s Secret model bodies. Wonder Woman and Korra are the only ones out of the hundreds of physically strong female characters I’ve seen or read about that actually have a matching body type.

      It’s sad, but some of my athletic female friends and I were talking about the whole ‘hide it’ dilemma – it’s real. Most people can’t tell a woman is strong without a demonstration or it’s so outside of their sense of what’s reasonably possible that it just doesn’t occur to them. It’s awful to feel like you have to hide one of your passions. It does sound like strong women are becoming more accepted, though…

      • Agree with anon here. What characters are we even talking about with regards to “some people think physical strength is the only valid way to make a female character strong”? Barbed Wire? That’s about it?
        People are so obsessed with making sure not to demonize femininity, while ignoring that it’s making quality butch representation rarer than ever, to the point of demonizing butches for bowing to masculine standards. Nearly every case of tomboy characters comes with a “she cleans up pretty” sequence or soft-butch styling, which I don’t relate to.

        Sure, you can look pretty and kick ass, but what about people who just don’t care about looking pretty, or don’t have bodies conforming to mainstream beauty/fashion standards, and don’t want to? Where are the characters who reflect those values? (I have not read Lumberjanes.)

        It’s telling that the only place I can find those characters are in picture books, where artists are free to depict characters as awkwardly and gangly and chubby and still ass-kickingly as they want.

  2. This is something I’ve noticed before. I think the TV Tropes for it would be “No Guy Wants An Amazon” and “All Amazon Want Hercules.”

    The only counter example that springs to mind is Vin and Eland from Sanderson’s Mistborn. Vin is a mistborn and has powers like super strength, speed and senses as well as pushing or pulling on metals (sort of like Magneto). By the end of the trilogy she’s basically a one woman army. Eland’s a statesman/intellectual type. (SPOILER – he eventually gets powers too, but still isn’t as strong as Vin).

    Hmmm… would the Alana books by Tamora Pierce qualify?

  3. For a pretty good example of ‘powered female/non-powered make’ relationship, check out Grace Randolph’s ‘Supurbia.’ There is a female warrior superhero whose ordinary scientist husband is the one who takes care of the kids and makes dinner. It’s pretty rad.

  4. Dark Angel is the only example I can think of. Max is a genetically-engineered super soldier and her love interest Logan is a wheelchair-bound hacker. I really liked their dynamic because they began as a team, fell in love, and despite all the things that kept them from maintaining a steady relationship in the show, remain loyal to one another.

      • What, you mean you don’t watch it at least once a year? Shame on you . . . to be fair, though, I think the lovely thing about that relationship is that the whole strong woman/not so strong man thing is never (as far as I can remember) an issue. They are just in love in a lovely long-term, equal partners kinda way.

  5. Pingback: When the Roles Are Reversed: Steve Trevor & the Wonder Woman Movie | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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