Even in adulthood, superheroes remain an endless source of fascination perhaps because it so aptly captures the daily drudgeries of the working life. Some of us relish the fist-delivered justice served to megalomaniacal bosses like Lex Luthor, others bask in the fantasies of being a gazillionaire genius like Tony Stark.
Still, the typical male superhero narrative paints a rather lonesome reality, one in which conflict and alienation are endlessly recycled, and which reproduces the male worker’s exclusion from his family by fetishising the modern work-life schism and overtime work culture.
Similar to Hollywood’s longstanding heroic formula, brands have comfortably nestled in the individual empowerment space. Products are framed along a journey of self-discovery and self-transformation towards the end goal of an upgraded self.
Keeping in tone with the modern mobility of women, the code today has become saturated with models of “empowered” femininity. Yet the category seems to be stagnating. Why? One possible answer lies in the narrow definition of individual empowerment that brands have bandwagoned on. Empowerment remains conventionally masculine: ascending the hierarchy, goal oriented and performance boosting. As seen with our male superheroes, the siren calls of productivity would in the long run increase anxiety and stress, perpetuating alienation. Hence, there is a need for renewal and healing in the empowerment code and perhaps heroines could help us in our search.
Unlike the solitary individualism of heroes, heroines are the steadfast emotional centre, strengthening relationships and gluing the team together. Heroines are the ideal avatar for the alienated subject of mature capitalism regardless of gender because they fulfil the fantasy of intimacy.
Here I refer not only to romantic intimacy, but socio-emotional intimacy. Intimacy that persists in friendships is characterised by emotional arcs of confrontation, turbulence, reconciliation and solidarity.
K-pop girl groups are a great example: enduring the fatigue of rehearsals and overcoming industry politics, all-girl squads exemplify feminine kinship through in-sync singing and dancing in music videos.
In this respect, Asian heroines like Sailor Moon are granted a broader definition of kinship to explore a wider spectrum of platonic emotional ties, unleashing their feminine strength by resolving interpersonal conflicts on top of intergalactic battles.
Their oversexed Western DC and Marvel counterparts on the other hand are more easily trapped by romantic clichés of being torn between love and heroic duty, further politicised by the clamour to include non-heteronormative relationships.
Thus, if the Western heroine represents the present state of the empowerment code, our Asian heroines offer a glimpse of the code’s future when narratives of intimacy are weaved in.
In addition to revitalising platonic bonds, heroines bring a balance to the empowerment code by complementing the self-sacrificial ethos of production with the self-love of consumption. After yet another round of defeating the villains and restoring order to the universe, female superheroes undergo intensive self-care in the form of vacations, retail therapy and high fashion. Their intimacy is deepened as they have fun and play games together.
These shared leisure experiences are essential to fostering trust, teamwork and cooperation that they would later draw upon in keeping evil at bay. In doing so, consumption is no longer construed as simply gratification, but plays a social function in sustaining meaningful relationships.
For brands, the key takeaway from this is that intimacy is an aspirational space desired by both female and male individuals that is complementary to self-improvement. While our curated virtual personas are socially beloved, many of us struggle and stumble through our real life relationships. Perhaps the next stage of evolution for the empowerment code would be to address this sense of connected disconnectedness.
Brands that seek to grow the empowerment code in this direction should strive towards the kinship possibilities between heterogenous individuals, and avoid the bland homogeneity of “consumer tribes” because it signals conformity. This means moving beyond the “me/we” binary to explore the plurality of decentralised social identities that spring into action depending on the social context. For example, the shared social moment between women in dressing for a party reveals the extensive coordination required to retain uniqueness of personality without stepping on any toes.
Indeed, female superheroes have shown us the exciting possibilities of cross weaving empowerment with intimacy. It is now up to brands to re-energize the empowerment conversation and lead it to a higher level of care for the consumer.
(The author is with Quantum Consumer Solutions)