What’s Wrong With the Word “Heroine?”

Wonder Woman

You probably like Breaking Bad, and I don’t blame you. The narrative was tight, the themes were fresh and the main character was a relateable bad guy, which is a pretty novel trope these days. I watched the whole thing (like actually watched it without also looking at my phone), and while I was optimistically waiting to fall in love with it, it just never happened. This was strange – normally I can hop onto pop culture trains pretty quickly. It took me longer than it should have to realize my problem with Breaking Bad was the lack of likable female characters.

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Looking further into the issue, I discovered that I’m not the only one with this problem, so I won’t get into it beyond asking you to think about whether this show would have worked just as well with a female Walter White. I can’t think of any reason he should have been a male, besides his embodiment of the middle class dad’s compulsion to suppress his own needs for the good of his family, which over the past four or five decades has quietly become the burden of the working mom as well.

Genderbent Walter White by DeviantART's Melodywiseart

Genderbent Breaking Bad by DeviantArt’s Melodywiseart

The more I think about that question, the more I wonder what other shows, comic books, video games, or movies could have just as easily have had a female main character.

Ever since I was in elementary school and learned the word heroine (maybe ironically and confusingly on the same day I was being taught to hate drugs in the DARE program), it’s always seemed superfluous. Why do we need a word to indicate that our hero is a female?


gearing-up-heroine 2

It could be argued that ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ exist simply for precision of language, but the need for such a distinction at all is what’s baffling. The existence of the dichotomy at least raises the question of whether heroes and heroines are equal, and that’s not a question I want my daughter to have to ask.

Asking you to stop using the word “heroine” (which you should) would be like putting a Band-aid on a broken leg. The real problem isn’t that the default hero is a man, it’s that there’s a default hero at all. I’m not suggesting that females and males and the problems they explore are at all the same, but at the very least we should keep a critical eye on any imbalance being presented to our kids.

When posing male characters like Wonder Woman doesn't make them look ridiculous, we'll know we've made some progress.

When you pose a male superhero like a female one and you can’t tell the difference, we’ll know we’ve made some progress.

How do we eliminate gender (or any other category besides good and evil) from our concept of heroism? That’s an overwhelming question, but an important one to keep poking at – if not for ourselves than for our kids.

Wonder Woman, vol. 3 #25 cover by Aaron Lopresti

Wonder Woman, vol. 3 #25 cover by Aaron Lopresti

This issue has become especially relevant in my life lately because I’ve been neck deep in questions of gender and equality while creating Nerdy With Children’s new clothing line. We decided to choose six “Real Heroes for Real Kids” from science and history in order to make them more accessible to kids, which at first seemed like it would be easy, but then we remembered history’s been pretty crappy to women for a long, long time.

We deliberately included two women – Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace – in our final shortlist, but I’m still not quite sure if forcing a certain number of females into the group counts as perpetuating the problem.

Nevertheless, I’m glad they’re on there, and you won’t catch me calling them heroines.

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