This post originally appeared on The Jane Dough.
For one brief, beautiful glimmer in time, Marvel was really embracing feminism: Spider-Woman, Dazzler, Ms. Marvel — there was a proliferation of female superheroes who were smart, strong, and sick of being mistreated.
I could probably rhapsodize about any of these characters and the transformative affects they have had on my character, my feminist modality, and my secret desire to just punch all misogynists in the throat. As a young girl who was accustomed to being told that she was too loud, too big, and too “masculine”, I identified with these sharp-tongued and muscular women, perhaps more than I should have, and perhaps more than Stan Lee intended or thought possible.
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And there was one beautiful, colorful, and hulking superhero that I identified with more than all, a gamma-radiated goddess whom I shamelessly worshiped, celebrated, and emulated as if she were the biggest teen idol of the 90s: She-Hulk.
I know that mine is a rare opinion: for the most part, no one’s out in the comic trenches championing Jennifer Walters and the green-hued version of herself. I suppose that most comic book fans look down on She-Hulk, writing her off as some inherently ridiculous character that sprung from Stan Lee’s opportunism (The Incredible Hulk was incredibly popular at the time of She-Hulk’s launch) rather than divine feminist inspiration. In many ways, most comic book fans are right. I’m not going to argue that She-Hulk isn’t a little ridiculous; considering that she once fought alongside Howard the Duck and Frankenstein’s Monster, that would be a losing battle.
But we can’t pretend as if the Hulk, the original, isn’t absurd in his own right. That the combination of gamma radiation and a weenie white man’s weenie white rage created an unstoppable force of brute strength and animalistic instinct? Sure, why not; that’s a whole lot less cheesy than an oppressed and maligned member of society tapping into an internal wellspring of suppressed/ignored frustration, fear, and anger that (according to gender roles and expectations) she cannot express otherwise. (Just in case my Hulk-sized sarcasm went over your head — I was being sarcastic.) I would argue that a large part of the contempt comic readers have for She-Hulk is due to the fact that she is a strong and unmistakably feminist female superhero.
While the untrained eye may look upon She-Hulk and see a Hulk knockoff with different genitals, the heroes are completely different with distinct triggers, degrees of power, and methods of coping with the Hulk condition. Jennifer Walters, a mild-mannered and nondescript attorney, receives an emergency blood transfusion from her cousin Dr. Bruce Banner after being shot by mobsters. By accepting Banner’s radioactive blood, Jennifer acquires a milder version of his powers. Suddenly, a once invisible and “mousy” woman find recognition, legitimacy and power. She-Hulk isn’t a savage monster — she is a feisty, assertive, and confident woman who just happens to be green.
Whereas her cousin, who was directly exposed to gamma radiation, cannot control himself after transforming to the Hulk, Jennifer largely retains her personality after becoming She-Hulk. Hulking reflects a character’s repressed self so while the Hulk is a seething mass of unfocused and nightmarish rage, a demonstration of unrestrained male aggression, She-Hulk is the woman that society fears and attempts to control with concepts like “femininity,” “modesty,” “virtue,” and desirability. Yes, She-Hulk is an acknowledgement of female rage — probably one of the only acknowledgements in popular media that women harbor a desire for physical power — but she is also much more than that. She-Hulk is unlimited physical, intellectual, and emotional power. She-Hulk has relinquished all of Jennifer’s internalized cultural rules without becoming the raging ball of id that is the Hulk. She’s an amplification of Jennifer.
I think I would side-eye anyone who admitted to idolizing the Hulk, but aspiring to be like She-Hulk is understandable. While, like the Hulk, She-Hulk comes from a place of anger, she isn’t untethered from rationality or language. If anything, She-Hulk is projected to be more more desirable than Jennifer pre-transfusion; She-Hulk is a truer Jennifer Walters. She-Hulk’s “monstrousness” permits Jennifer to transgress and challenge rigid definitions of gender; it gives her access to a whole new world of musculature, confidence, agency, and strength — ergo, the male world. She-Hulk is the Jennifer Walters that unfortunately could not exist until she was separated from the expectations and codes that are hinged upon the “normal” female form. And would you like to take a guess as to what frequently triggers Jennifer’s rage and transformation? Sexism. Boom.
Before Jennifer had control over her power, Buck Bukowski, Jennifer’s condescending boss, would unknowingly provoke Jennifer to change with misogynistic digs about her prowess, intellect, and talent. When antagonists doubted Jennifer’s strength, her repressed self — who happened to be an incredibly strong woman — would be unleashed. Interesting, isn’t it, that this depiction of feminist rage isn’t inarticulate or overly emotional but instead witty, sharp, and logical? (Take that, anyone who cries “misandry.”) She-Hulk is explicitly feminist; I’m not just projecting de facto feminism onto her because she is a strong woman taking charge in a male-dominated field. She-Hulk engages in feminist politics; she has faced sexual harassment and sexual coercion. At the end of the day, She-Hulk is still a woman and she still faces bigotry and judgment. How could she not be a feminist?
Oh, and talk about the struggle to maintain work-life balance: She-Hulk manages to devote time to her career as an attorney and as an Avenger/member of the Fantastic Four/all-around badass superhero. And it’s not as if Jennifer Walters’ law career is as phony-baloney as Peter Parker’s and Clark Kent’s “journalism”; homegirl is a ridiculously skilled attorney. She attended UCLA School of Law where she was a member of the Order of the Coif and was once the Assistant District Attorney, despite being entirely green. Jennifer doesn’t sacrifice her career in the courtroom for a lifetime of taking care of vulnerable and helpless mortals. (Like my non-so-subtle comparison to working mothers? …Eh?) She-Hulk’s brain is just as important and valuable as her brawn; one doesn’t supersede the other. She is still Jennifer Walters. She is everything she was before and more. SHE-HULK CONTAINS MULTITUDES!
A green Amazonian who incapacitates villains while making quips about her place being in the kitchen appeals to something fundamental in me. I believe that feminism doesn’t preclude humor, that women’s bodies don’t have to meet any particular standard, that confidence and intellect are as threatening as physical strength and that the combination of all three is deadly. I believe being emotional isn’t a bad thing, that valid objections will produce anger and frustration, and that anyone who tries to delegitimize your argument by calling you irrational or insane isn’t worth your time. To some degree I believe these things because of my early She-Hulk comics.