By Helyn Trickey
Before today's television heroines flaunted black leather minis, pink lip gloss and skillfully placed kung fu kicks, you could find their older sister between the pages of a DC comic book -- and it's probably not the one you're expecting.
Gritty, dark cities with ominous skylines provide the backdrop for comic book tales where never-ending supplies of evil villains line up to rule the world, or at least City Hall. Although conflicted caped crusader Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, is ready to save Gotham, he wavers in his determination to decimate bad guys only when a certain cat meows her way into his Batcave.
"How could you not like a female in a vinyl suit?" says editor and television critic Steve Bornfeld in a phone interview from his office in Las Vegas. He is, of course, referring to the curvaceous and clever Cat Woman. Bornfeld is an editor for the Greenspun Media Group, and is a former media and entertainment critic for the New York Post, Chattanooga Times and Albany Times Union.
"Female villains in comic books were always presented as voluptuous, and they always tried to bring down the good guys," he says. But would society have accepted a physically powerful, hard-nosed female action hero on the thin pages of a comic book back then? "Maybe," he suggests, "you had to be bad before you got to be good."
That is to say that perhaps today's television action heroines -- like vampire slayer Buffy, post-Apocalyptic warrior Dark Angel and Witchblade's New York cop, Sara Pezzini (played by Yancy Butler) -- grew out of the sultry, curvaceous bad girls who tempted, cajoled and literally clawed at the edges of comic book story lines in decades past.
"I think the biggest change we've seen is the audience acceptance of heroines being physically involved in crusading," says Tami Cowden, co-author of The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes & Heroines: 16 Master Archetypes.
"I think we didn't see much of the female crusader because the public didn't see women as physically strong characters before now," she says.
"Wonder Woman was sort of a milestone," says Bornfeld. The superhero babe in the red, white and blue bustier was a force to be reckoned with. Her fierce intellect matched her fiery eyes, and she could toss her detachable belt like an Olympic-class javelin thrower.
The bad guys didn't stand a chance.
Unlike the Bionic Woman and so many others before her, Wonder Woman was not just a "take-a-rib-from-a-man" sort of heroine, says Bornfeld. Wonder Woman stood apart from her male superhero counterparts and physically battled evil using her magic lasso and bullet-deflecting wristbands.
"Wonder Woman was certainly a crusader type of heroine," says Cowden. "She knows her place in the world and she is on the side of justice."
According to Cowden, a crusader is someone for whom black and white is very clear. The crusader and warrior archetypes kill without remorse because they know they are on the side of right. They are willing to make waves, and are frequently on the outside of society.
Peele Pushes the Boundaries
Emma Peele, the heroine in the British adventure show The Avengers was a breakout role for strong female characters. Unlike Wonder Woman and her comic book sisters, the prim Ms. Peele had no magic belt or special powers. This broad worked on wit alone.
"Emma Peele and John Steed, (her Bowler hat-wearing secret agent ally), were equal partners, but she kicked most of the ass," says Bornfeld.
"She certainly had strong crusader elements," says Cowden of Peele, "but she also falls into the librarian archetype" -- that is, characters who are efficient, serious, intellectual and dependable.
The Kate Jackson character Sabrina Duncan on the 1970s crime show Charlie's Angels also matched the librarian archetype. She usually fit the pieces together to solve crimes, while her two partners, Jill Munroe and Kelly Garrett, were busy playing kissy-face with the bad guys to glean information.
While none of the characters on the show exhibited the crusader-like attributes of our modern-day heroines, Charlie's Angels did finally show active women physically foiling the bad guys, even if they did do so prissily. "Charlie's Angels ran like girls," says Cowden. "They were physical in an almost silly way."
In contrast, today's female television warriors are less feminine than their predecessors, trading in toothy smiles and pink fuzzy sweaters for witty repartee and tight leather. Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy the Vampire Slayer may dress like a sexpot, but she knows how to fight. Jennifer Alba's Dark Angel (aka Max Guevara) eschews makeup and cute cars for practical duds and a fast motorbike. Butler's Witchblade character is a New York City cop -- enough said -- and Lucy Lawless's fiercely independent Xena: Warrior princess would rather kick butt than make eyes at potential swains.
In short, today's generation of television babes make much more formidable opponents.
The bigger evolution, however, may be with the audience watching from home than with the sirens taking charge on the small screen, says Cowden.
"Apparently men are less threatened by the stronger female type these days. There is always a certain sexuality exhibited for marketing reasons," she says, "but it just seems like they (heroines) are increasingly popular with men as well."
Girls with gimmicks
But if heroines have aligned themselves more with their male counterparts, Bornfeld points out that these leather-clad girls still rely mostly on gimmicks to get them through the rough spots.
On Witchblade, Sara Pezzini appears a mere mortal until she slides the Witchblade onto her hand and is literally transformed into a weapon.
Dark Angel's Jennifer Alba's DNA has been altered to give her special powers, including night vision as keen as a cat's.
The sisters of Charmed are witches who stumble onto their powers when sister Phoebe recites an incantation and unintentionally releases supernatural powers the sisters were destined to have.
"It's all about empowerment," says Bornfeld, "It is just a lot different than the empowerment of, say, Emma Peele, who had nothing more remarkable than a calm self-confidence."
They may conjure spells or spirits, but these modern-day sirens don't have to hide behind whiskers and tails to purr their way into a plotline these days. In fact, our favorite television enchantresses don't even have to throw girlie punches. Sara Pezzini and the rest are learning they can be strong, beautiful heroines on their own terms, despite the special powers that may nudge them along.