I love superhero comics. I love romance. Naturally, I love it when they’re combined into a perfect package of super-romantic sentiment. I’ve singled out a few favorites of mine in the past, as well as a few not-so-favorites that act as cautionary tales. Chances are I’ll find plenty more excuses to write about superhero romance in the future.
That said, I’d like to take a step back from the specifics of superhero romance and assess the forest from the trees, so to speak. Instead, I thought I’d highlight something that I’ve been noticing within the pages of some of my favorite comics. It’s not necessarily an egregious flaw, but it is a distressing trend for lovers of romance like myself.
It has to do with how superheroes are portrayed when they’re in romantic relationships. Almost every popular superhero is caught up in a romantic sub-plot. Superman has his ever-iconic love story with Lois Lane. Cyclops and Jean Grey have decades of romance and drama. Spider-Man gets around so much that he has multiple iconic romances.
Not every superhero is defined by their romantic sub-plot, although some are more effected by it than others. It’s hard to tell the story of Sue “Invisible Woman” Richards without involving her husband and children. However, certain characters are held to different standards when it comes to romance.
That’s to be expected, given the diverse circumstances of each hero. Not every hero is going to be affected by their romantic sub-plot in the same way. That effect also changes through different eras. Even the iconic relationship between Superman and Lois Lane has changed a great deal over the years, although not necessarily for the better.
However, this particular era has really twisted the standards for female superheroes in romantic relationships and not in a good way. I won’t go so far as to call it a double standard like the others I’ve cited, but the differences are stark. It goes like this.
A male superhero gets caught up in a romantic sub-plot. The plot progresses, he enters a relationship with his romantic interest, and continues being the same hero he’s always been. The relationship supplements his story.
A female superhero gets caught up in a romantic sub-plot. The plot progresses and she enters a relationship with her romantic interest, but the relationship conflicts with her ability to be a superhero. It gets to a point where the act of her being a hero is detrimental to the relationship. She can have one or the other, but not both.
These scenarios are somewhat generic, but they convey a similar message. Male superheroes can be in romantic relationships without it undermining their heroic persona, but female superheroes can’t have those relationships without it becoming an obstacle.
This strange, unbalanced dynamic played out recently in the pages of “Wonder Woman #754.” I’d even go so far as to argue that Wonder Woman suffers the most from this dynamic, despite being one of the most iconic female superheroes of all time. Given that she’s the ideal that other female superheroes are compared to, I think that’s telling.
The main plot of the issue isn’t important. The side-plot is where this dynamic showed up. There were frequent flashbacks that highlighted Diana’s recent “drama” with her long-time romantic interest, Steve Trevor. I put drama in quotes because it feels less like drama and more like forced excuses.
It’s been an issue for Wonder Woman for decades. Despite being her most iconic love interest, going back to the 1940s, Steve Trevor has never been that official with Diana. Even though they’ve professed their love for one another in many forms and in many timelines, they’re rarely ever shown as being in a functional, mature relationship.
It’s not just with Steve Trevor, either. Even in the classic “Justice League” cartoon in which she was romantically linked to Batman, nothing ever became official. There’s was never a point where Wonder Woman went from being single to being in a real, functioning relationship.
In fact, the only time Wonder Woman was ever in a functional romantic relationship was when she dated Superman during DC’s short-lived New 52 era in the comics. During that time, Wonder Woman and Superman had their own comics and their own stories. Sometimes, those stories became entwined. Sometimes, they didn’t. It never undermined their relationship or vice versa.
I know comic fans have strong opinions about the New 52 as a whole, but I find it telling that this was really the only time Wonder Woman was allowed to be in a relationship while still being Wonder Woman. For her to be someone’s girlfriend and still be the hero she’s always been, her significant other had to be Superman.
Take a moment to think about the scope of that standard. Wonder Woman, the standard-bearer for female superheroes for decades, can be in a functional relationship, but only with someone as capable as Superman. She and Steve Trevor can be in love, but they can’t have a relationship. He’s just an ordinary man. He’d just undermine Wonder Woman’s ability to be the ideal female hero we know and love.
Meanwhile, male heroes like Batman and Spider-Man can become romantically involved with far less capable individuals, many of which don’t have superpowers and can’t fly across the planet to be on time for date night. They’re still allowed to be in those relationships, but Wonder Woman can’t even make the effort with one of her most iconic romances with Steve Trevor.
As a fan of superhero comic, romance, and Wonder Woman, I find this both flawed and frustrating. While the “Wonder Woman” movie did an solid job establishing genuine romance between her and Steve Trevor, they still never got a chance to actually be in a relationship. It’s as though a female hero can’t be in a relationship without losing something. At the same time, a male hero can’t have a complete story without one.
It’s a strange disconnect and I think it’s getting worse. In recent years, superhero comics have made a concerted effort to develop female characters and I applaud that effort. It has led to some major successes. The problem is that, like Wonder Woman, these female characters aren’t really allowed to become anyone’s girlfriend. Being in a relationship is seen as an obstacle to being strong, independent, compelling characters.
Respectfully, I call bullshit.
Being in a relationship isn’t detrimental to any character, male or female, if the relationship is well-written. In addition, female characters don’t have to be completely, 100-percent independent to be great. In fact, making them that emotional single-minded is a good way to make them unlikable and unrelatable because, in the real world, people have relationships. They form bonds, rely on others, and are effected by those close ties.
Now, I don’t deny that writing great female characters is challenging, especially in recent years. It feels like you can’t write female characters without having an agenda anymore, even when it’s not printed on a shirt. Again, I call bullshit. Female characters, like all characters, are deeply affected by the loving bonds they form. They deserve the same development and exploration as their male counterparts.
Why can’t Wonder Woman be in an official relationship with Steve Trevor?
Does being Steve Trevor’s girlfriend make Wonder Woman any less a superhero?
Does any female superhero lose something when they become someone’s girlfriend?
These are relevant questions that are worth asking. If someone as iconic as Wonder Woman can’t be in a relationship with someone without undermining what makes her Wonder Woman, then that’s not a problem with her as a character. That’s a problem with the standards and assumptions we have about superhero romance.
I’m sorry if this rant feels dragged out, but this has been bothering me for a while. I’d be happy to discuss it more. Please share your thoughts in the comments.