The Problem with Women Superheroes

Spider-Woman #2 coverThe problem with women superheroes, is that there is nothing wrong with them at all! Female superheroes have had a huge resurgence over the last few years. She-Hulk, Spider-Woman, Incredible Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, even Raven, have hand their own titled graphic novels, and have tackled topics like puberty, motherhood, and being a woman in a male dominated profession. When there is a fan base that is looking for a particular subset of a genre, women led superhero titles for example, it is important to understand how to find that specific subset. Did you know there is a separate heading for “Women superheroes” and just plain ol’ “Superheroes”? I didn’t for a long time, which is why understanding the reason headings are created the way they are help to create context for way headings are applied. So, let’s explore how “Women superheroes” came to be and how to apply it correctly.

Cataloger’s have not been very good at keeping track of updates to their taxonomies. When did Cookery change to Cooking? We often hear that it is based on literary merit or cultural shifts; however, “Women superheroes” as a heading is based on a different context. To research this post, @VioletFox and @Marccold recommended I read Hope Olson’s The Power to Name: Locating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries, but it was not available at my library. I was able to find the article The Power of Name: Representation in Library Catalogs from Signs, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Spring, 2001). In the article, Olson describes subjects like “Women superheroes” as “drawing attention to women as exceptions to a male norm.” As stated earlier, literary merit is often sighted as the impetus for creating new headings, but historically, much content was created by and for men. Of course, there have always been women creating comics, but because of their marginalized roles, were often left out of the wider discourse. We can also break down how men are seen a subjects, and women as objects. The headings “Computers and women”, and “Self-employed women” whereas “‘Male prostitute’ specifies that it refers to men, because prostitutes are conventionally construed to be female objects.” These are some of the many examples given by Olson in her article, which I implore you to read for further information.

Zatanna #11 coverBut, I have been cataloging comics for over five years and it wasn’t until very recently I learned that “Women superheroes” was a legitimate heading. Why wasn’t it on every Wonder Woman comic? Why wasn’t it on every She-Hulk comic? When a quoted subject search is performed in Worldcat, “Women superheroes” brings back 1,473 book titles and “Superheroes” brings back 25,337 book titles. That’s over 17 times as many titles. This could be because “Superheroes” was established in 2007, five years before “Women superheroes” was established in 2012.

As catalogers, we are charged with making materials accessible. So, what do we do with female led superhero comics we want to provide access to? Do we assign only “Women superheroes” and limit access to only one seventeenth of the collection? Do we double up on headings and assign both “Women superheroes” and “Superheroes”? This could explain why there are so many more “Superheroes” than “Women superheroes”. We could also train our staff to search for broader subject terms and advocate for more equitable subject headings.

Hope offers some optimism at the end of her article that we should all heed. In a section titled “Techniques for ameliorative change,” Hope states, “we need to let the other speak for it/him/herself – we need to develop an ethical relation with the other.” Unfortunately, there are no Women superheroes to ask how they’d like to be described, but there is a wealth of comic creators, both women and men, and fans who can offer guidance on how they want their creations, and fandoms, described. As catalogers, we often forget that we have the ability to make items more accessible and communities more accessible through our work. It is a superpower we must take the reigns of and guide towards a more equitable future.