If you could create any kind of superhero with any super-powers you liked, what would you be? Invisible-when-I’m-sleeping Man? The Kilometre-High Leaper? The Skunk? *
I recently taught a grade two class, in which a young boy had clearly set himself that challenge. They were doing their ‘Writer’s Notebook’ lesson, which meant they could write about anything they liked, in any genre that they liked, without any editing or interference from their teacher. This boy (let’s call him SuperBoy, just for fun), had decided to create a list of new superheroes, and he was currently at about number four, when he stumbled into some serious writer’s block.
I recognised the pained expression, the pencil tapping and the fidgeting that was quickly going to erupt into full-blown distraction of every other child at his table. With the agile reflexes of a fully trained primary school teacher, I was at his side in a millisecond.
“Meh,” he mumbled, and shifted aside so I could read his handiwork.
Now, it’s at this moment that I really wish I could remember the list of superheroes that he had created because they were clearly awesome (ok, actually one of them was a lame ripoff. Batboy or some other copyright infringing creation). But they were, on the whole, some great characters summed up in some pretty quirky titles.
But they were all men.
All of them.
Ok, so Superboy’s only seven years old; we’re not going to blame him, right? He’s created the kind of characters he wants to see, which is totally fair enough. But in this scenario, I’m totally SuperGenderEqualityTeacher, and so I’ve decided to assist his writer’s block by offering up a new possibility.
“Could there be a girl superhero? Girls can be superheroes, can’t they?”
At this point, I was expecting him to give me an exasperated sigh and keep fidgeting until I left him alone. What I wasn’t expecting was for the other kids - mainly boys - at the table, to take my side.
“Yeah!” they cried, “There’s Wonder Woman! And Batgirl!”
“There are girls in the X-men, right?” I asked, hoping that my vague memory of X-men cartoons was accurate (Yes, I can hear you screaming that there are like a bajillion X-men movies that have come out recently. Clearly I haven’t seen them. Cue shame-filled comments now…).
So Superboy shrugged and got down to some serious thinking about female superheroes. When I returned to his table about ten minutes later, I saw that the writer’s block had been defeated, and Superboy was the triumphant owner of a list of about ten superheroes… with one female superhero on it. I can’t remember her name, but it was actually good. It wasn’t like Lipstick Princess Girl or something stereotypically feminine; it was as kick-ass as the other ones he’d created. But still… one?
“Could there be more than one girl?” I asked tentatively, but he turned on me like I’d suggested his literary masterpiece could use more seaweed. His reaction was fair enough; this was his fiction, and the purpose of this lesson was for the kids to write without censors or meddling teachers. Superboy gave the exasperated sigh I’d been waiting for, and narrowed his eyes.
“There aren’t many girl superheroes anyway!” he huffed, and returned to his writing.
He was right … There aren’t many girl superheroes anyway!
Honestly, I’d love to have asked him more questions about that statement, to find out why he thought there weren’t many girls in the first place, but I didn’t. I know that look from a seven year old. Plus there were twenty other kids in the room, all eager for attention. No more meddling from SuperGenderEqualityTeacher.
Instead, I just felt happy that he had included one girl in there. One in ten. Not bad?
As I said before, this wasn’t seven-year old Superboy’s fault. It’s his work to do as he pleases with. But after my conversation with him, I realised that he wasn’t just creating the characters that he wanted to see, he was creating the sorts of character that he thought he was supposed to see. He’d seen enough superhero movies and TV shows and comics and merchandise and billboards and lunchboxes and whatever to know what superheroes are meant to look like.
And what are they meant to look like?
One in ten.
That’s what he sees. That’s what he creates.
*In grade six, we had a dress up day at school where you could come as anything as long as it started with ’S’. I went as a skunk. I still don’t know why.