Representation matters. It’s a sentiment uttered regularly in reference to everything from movies to television, from books to video games. When we talk about representation for young girls, we do so with the hope that these mediums will challenge the stereotypes that paint women as inferior or two-dimensional, and graduate on to something a little more representative.
Doctors, geneticists and psychologists are but a few of the professions of the smartest and most intelligent female characters featured in Marvel & DC Comics. These characters go a long way towards giving young girls a sense of pride, and the courage to pursue dreams which are so often stigmatized for women.
1976 - Bumblebee: A Scientist and Woman of Color
DC's first female African-American superhero, Bumblebee, made her debut in DC Comics in 1976. She became the superhero Bumblebee and joined the Teen Titans a year later. With the ability to fire sonic blasts and produce bee-like stings, Karen Beecher's introduction into DC comics was a monumental one. For the growing number of people of colour reading and buying comics, seeing Bumblebee in action was important. Having her as a main character — and member of the Teen Titans — provided an examplary character to aspire to for African-American girls everywhere.
1980s - Janet van Dyne Comes Into Her Own
In 1963, Marvel Comics introduced the character of Wasp, a.k.a. Janet van Dyne. A founding member of the Avengers, Janet started off as merely the daughter of a highly intelligent scientist. She was portrayed as somewhat flighty and superficial at first; her career into superheroism began after her father's death, when she teamed up with her father's associate, Hank Pym (a.k.a. Ant-Man), to find her father's killer and avenge his death. Their quest for retribution led the pair to experiment with Pym particles. This experimentation gifted Van Dyne with the powers of flight, wasp-stings and shrinking / growing abilities. Later, she was able to conjure these abilities at will, her body now naturally producing the Pym Particles.
In the 1980s, almost 20 years after her debut, Janet began to further develop her capabilities in bio-chemistry, and led The Avengers in numerous battles. One of the things that became synonymous with her character was her love of fashion and her ever-changing costume. This, coupled with her scientific abilities and heroism in leading The Avengers, made Wasp a formidable inclusion in Marvel comics. Her interaction with something typically "girly" - fashion - and her abilities as an Avenger and hero, provide an adequate balance for girls to look up to. Showing them they need not disregard their femininity, or activities seen as typically feminine to be taken seriously as a scientist.
1980s - Invisible Girl To Invisible Woman: The Triumph of Sue Storm
Never one to stray from a scientific female character, Marvel's own Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four holds four doctorates in Bio-Chemical Sciences under her belt. Sue was introduced before any of the other women here, making her debut in 1961 as the older sister of Johnny Storm (Human Torch). Sue began her run as a damsel in distress and love interest to Reed Richards (Mr.Fantastic) — not an uncommon route for a lot of Marvel's heroines.
As the only female on the Fantastic Four team, it was important that Sue's character not remain the typical damsel-in-distress. In order for her character to be a positive representation, Sue needed to evolve from the once-victim, to all-time hero. After her powers evolved her personality and status within the group followed suit, allowing a much stronger Sue to now be present in the comics. She now acts as the centre of the Fantastic Four, having led them multiple times, using her ability to turn invisible and manipulate invisible force fields.
1988 - Poison Ivy Overcomes Her Shyness
DC’s Poison Ivy is a Supervillainess who made her debut in the comics way back in 1966. She started off as Dr Lillian Rose PhD, a botanist from Seattle. After stealing a rare Egyptian artefact, she was poisoned by her accomplice, developing her plant/poison based powers/ abilities. Although she's had a PhD since her inception, in 1988 her backstory was retconned, giving her new origins as the shy and timid daughter of wealthy parents, who ends up being seduced by her professor, and injected with toxins.
Her origins as a once shy and timid character are an important part of her character's psychological make-up, and how she comes across to younger readers. For a lot of young girls, growing up shy and timid is cause to be ridiculed by your peers. Ivy — as a character who managed to overcome that, and become a large voice in the fight for enviromentalism and fight against ecological extinction — is a prime example for these girls.
1990s - The Psychological Depths of Jean Grey
Interestingly, Marvel were not subjected to the same cries for representation that DC were. Jean Grey was introduced to the Marvel Comics Universe in 1963 - three years before Poison Ivy hit DC. Originally starting out as the sole female member of the X-Men, and going by the name Marvel Girl, her story was retconned after the infamous Phoenix Saga, to allow the character to come back as a permanent fixture absolved of her crimes.
Her scientific roots were more deeply explored from the '90s onwards, with the creation of the New X-Men. Being one of few members on the New X-Men team, Jean and the others took on more mentor-like roles for younger mutants, whilst still dealing with pro / anti mutant issues. A prominent psychologist, Jean's inclusion in the comics is instrumental to the portrayal of women in this medium. So often female characters are portrayed as inferior, yet Jean has never been portrayed as anything less than highly intelligent and powerful, even before the infamous Phoenix Saga.
Her roots are firmly based in the social and cognitive sciences, allowing her much greater depth to her already Omega-Level Mutant abilities. She's been both a formidable hero and threat in the Marvel Comics Universe, and her ability to come back from it all is a mark of what a brilliant character Marvel have created.
2008- A Beacon for Muslim & Hijabi Girls
In complete contrast to Sue, British-Pakistani Agent, Dr. Faiza Hussain - Excalibur - began her run in the comics as a strong character from the get-go. Making her first appearance in 2008 as a medical doctor helping heal the wounded during the Skrull Invasion, Faiza's extensive medical background allows her to use her power to completely break apart the components of the human body. She is able to piece them back together without causing the subject harm or pain. She has used the skill to aid her in surgical procedures, and in her efforts as a healer during the Invasion.
Representation for young women doesn't just come in the form of strong, superpowered beings. Faiza started out as a human character - a doctor hailing from Essex, UK. Her Pakistani heritage and the fact that she is very fearlessly and proudly a Hijabi, are both important aspects of her character. Her character exists as a strong symbol for Muslim & Hijabi girls everywhere, and having briefly taken on the mantle of Captain Britain, Faiza's incredible run can only go up from here.
The Present Day
The characters illustrated here are but a portion of the strong female characters both DC & Marvel have begun to establish / develop over time. What's important to note here - especially with Marvel - is the wide array of diversity with these characters. In addition to the development of long-running characters, Marvel have a slew of newer characters, just as eager about their scientific capabilities and just as capable as their long-running counterparts.
Kavita Rao is an Indian-born Medical Doctor and Geneticist most commonly associated with the X-Men. Her passion for and knowledge of Mutant Genetics has taken over much of her life, taking precedence over almost all aspects of it. An incredibly intelligent character, Kavita has advanced degrees in Mutant Genetics as well as Ph.D's / Doctorates in biochemistry. In addition is also a capable physician.
Cecilia Reyes is a Puerto Rican Mutant from the Bronx, a Doctor and former member of the X-Men. She dedicated her life to becoming a Trauma Surgeon, after seeing her father gunned down in front of her at only six years old. Cecilia has the ability to generate Psioplasmic bio-fields - giving her increased durability and the ability to battle enemies through the power of her force fields. Her qualifications as a medical doctor make her the only truly qualified member of the X-Men in the field of medicine.
By now, almost everyone has heard of Marvel's RiRi Williams. Williams is the young girl set to take on the Iron Man mantle complete with her self-made suit, and unique name: Iron Heart. An incredibly intelligent young girl and certified genius, RiRi's already making history with her inclusion in the comics. At a time when less than 20% of Computer Science and Engineering graduates are female, competent, vibrant characters like Riri are still very much needed.
Representation in comics - especially considering the growing number of women and girls reading them - is an important aspect of this incredibly successful medium. The women featured on this list are but a handful of characters with roots in science and backstories which demonstrate their determination, perseverance, intelligence and intellect. These woman provide strong, intelligent role models for young girls reading comics — and in the cases of younger characters like RiRi and Tempest, provide characters whom they can grow up with, and look up to.