Three Super-Heroines Who Understand the Struggle

"Captain Marvel" | Art by Arkenstellar. Used with permission.
Like most people, I have dozens of responsibilities weighing on me every day. It’s hard to juggle them all, but even harder to feel confident in the process. I wonder, did I do well enough? Did I devote my attention to the best places? When I read comics where superheroes struggle with the same ordinary issues that I do, I feel less alone, and three of these role models stick out to me as women who wrestle with finding balance in their lives.

Spider-Gwen: Using Responsibility to Avoid Responsibility

“Spiderwoman” by Arkenstellar.

After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Gwen Stacy dons a mask and becomes the Spider-Woman of Earth-65 (an alternate reality Earth). When she looks back on this decision, she says, “All I wanted was to be happy. To have fun with my powers.” Gwen’s “fun” turns to tragedy when she fights the Lizard, only to discover the monster is actually her friend, Peter Parker. Peter dies after the fight, and a grief-stricken Gwen realizes that being Spider-Woman is more than just a game.

Even after she takes her heroic duties seriously, Gwen struggles to manage responsibility in her regular life. She uses her secret identity to escape from life as Gwen Stacy, who is having issues with her father and her friends. Crime-fighting as Spider-Woman gives Gwen something to run toward, so she can lie to herself about the fact that she’s running at all. It’s Spider-Ham, of all characters, who eventually tells her, “being a super hero is way more than facing bad guys…sometimes you gotta face real life.”

One day, to keep from being late for work, Gwen swings through the streets as Spider-Woman, only to encounter the police, who are trying to arrest her. As she flees, Gwen calls her dad, a cop who knows her Spidey secret, and tells him, “I’m fine. Absolutely not in danger. Other than… rent on the new place being due and being late for work and… I’m being responsible, Dad!” Juggling responsibilities doesn’t come easy, but Gwen is learning, and that’s all any of us can do.

Gwen’s struggles remind me that using responsibility as an excuse to run away still counts as running away. To fully embrace life, I can’t accept some responsibilities while ignoring others. Gwen’s rocky attempt to balance all her responsibilities is oddly comforting, because if superheroes stumble around in the process, I can give myself some grace when I do, too.

Captain Marvel: Great Power, Greater Uncertainty

“Captain Marvel Carol Danvers” by Arkenstellar.

At least when Gwen runs away, she just takes to the streets as the crime-fighting Spider-Woman. When Carol Danvers, also known as Captain Marvel, needs to sort things out, she goes all the way to space.

Carol is one of the strongest heroes in the Marvel Universe, and her powers along with her bold attitude enable her to handle most challenges with ease. Unlike Spider-Woman, Carol doesn’t shy away from responsibilities; instead, she often takes on too many because she feels uncertain about her place in the world. When Iron Man offers her an Avengers post in space, Carol seizes the opportunity. “I need to find the edge of me,” Carol tells herself, “and maybe, if I fly far enough, I’ll be able to turn around and look at the world… and see where I belong.”

Carol ends up embroiled in a diplomatic conflict on Torfa, a supposedly poisonous planet. As a member of the Galactic Alliance, Carol’s job is to convince the people to evacuate, but the inhabitants want to stay instead of leaving their sick citizens behind. The more Carol tries to solve Torfa’s problems, the bigger the mess gets. Eventually, she is ordered to leave the planet, just after learning that secret—and very valuable—vibranium mines are at the root of the forced evacuation.

Throwing diplomacy and caution to the wind in characteristic style, Carol disobeys her orders and stays to defend Torfa. Although she has a duty to the Galactic Alliance, her responsibility as a superhero wins out when she decides her place is between innocent people and their enemies. Carol flies into space alone and faces down the fleet of enemy ships, saying, “My name is Captain Marvel. I am an Earthling and an Avenger. Today I stand as one with the settlers of Torfa… If you move against them, you move against me. I am willing to die here today, for this cause. I have made my choice. Now you make yours.”

Like Carol, I often feel uncertain when I’m at my strongest. When it seems like I can do anything, it’s hard to know what I should be doing. Carol demonstrates that managing responsibility is all about knowing where you belong. I can’t answer every demand that life throws at me, but I can attend to the situations where I’m most needed, where I believe God has called me, and that’s how I’ll discover my place in the world.

Thor: Winning a Losing Battle

Art from Mighty Thor vol 2.

Like Gwen Stacey and Carol Danvers, Jane Foster faces uncertainty and doubts about her responsibilities. When Thor Odinson becomes unworthy to lift his hammer, Mjolnir rests on the Moon—until Jane picks it up, becoming the new Thor. Her initial battles are plagued by her own inexperience, as well as opposition from Odinson (as the former Thor comes to be called). During her first mission, she thinks to herself, “This is too much. I only just got these powers—whatever powers I’ve even got. I don’t even know what I can do.” And yet, after facing down a few Frost Giants and winning handily, she thinks, “Oh, man. Oh, wow.”

Even Odinson comes to accept and respect the new wielder of thunder, officially bestowing the name “Thor” on her and saying, “Mjolnir never flew like that for me.” However, Odinson is determined to discover Jane’s identity, a secret concealed behind her mask. He makes a list of women he believes to be worthy of the hammer and tries to eliminate possibilities one by one. Jane Foster is one such possibility, but after realizing Jane is bedridden by breast cancer, Odinson determines she can’t be the new Thor. But he’s wrong. Mjolnir’s magic not only gives Jane the power of Thor, but temporarily removes the evidence of her illness.

As Thor, Jane may have occasional uncertainty in battle, but she never wavers in her belief that Earth needs Thor to defend it. She wields the hammer in spite of fierce opposition from Odin, who sends the Destroyer after her. Jane knows the Destroyer is unbeatable, but she doesn’t hesitate to fight it. In a similar way, she continues to wield Mjolnir, over and over, whenever the Earth needs a protector—even though it’s killing her.

Jane’s battles as Thor, as well as her fight against cancer, are often considered losing battles by the people around her. They urge her to take the easy way out, by giving up Mjolnir and using Asgardian magic to heal her body. But whether or not a battle is a lost cause all depends on what you want to win. Jane can face the prospect of her death without fear because she’s decided the lives of everyone else on Earth are more important.

Just because one battle isn’t winnable doesn’t mean all battles are a lost cause.

I feel most uncertain when life presents me with no-win scenarios. It seems like there should be some way out, some solution I need to tackle. But Jane reminds me that some situations are too big to take responsibility for. I can either fight for control I’m never going to have, or I can pursue a new goal that overshadows the initial challenge. Just because one battle isn’t winnable doesn’t mean all battles are a lost cause. Jane can’t control her cancer, but she can save the world as Thor. Like Spider-Woman and Captain Marvel, she’s learned to put aside her uncertainty for the sake of a higher calling.

Spider-Gwen, Captain Marvel, and Thor all have great power and skill, but that doesn’t stop them from struggling at times. Like us, they sometimes feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and wrestle with their uncertainty. And that’s okay. In the words of Earth-616’s (our reality) Spider-Woman when she gives advice to Spider-Gwen, “The hard times, the times when you’re unsure, those are just how you figure out who you are. What your life means.” As I navigate this messy, crazy world, her advice reminds me to give myself grace when I feel uncertain and to keep moving forward to embrace my responsibilities, because that’s how I discover where I belong.

Caitlin Eha

Caitlin Eha

Staff Writer at Area of Effect magazine
A published writer and aspiring novelist, Caitlin can usually be found with her head in the clouds and her heart in a faraway land. When she isn’t devouring a new favourite book or feverishly writing one of her own, she enjoys archery, cosplaying, jewelry making, and time with her Lord.
Caitlin Eha