All white male superheroes, in addition to whatever neat gadgets or super strength they’ve already got, have a superpower in common: invisibility.
Now, you may be thinking, “White male superheroes aren’t invisible! I see them in, well, every blockbuster superhero movie!”
You’re right. White male superheroes are everywhere. It’s their whiteness and their maleness that’s invisible.
When superheroes are not white men, their identities become part of the story. Take for example Black Widow from the Avengers. Twice in that movie, a villain underestimates her because she’s a woman, and she uses that to her advantage, playing up her supposed weakness until they reveal more than they mean to. Her femaleness is an important part of her character, to the point that if you tried to gender-flip her, her story wouldn’t make sense anymore. The only way people would underestimate a male Black Widow the same way they underestimate the real Black Widow would be if he were a feminine man – and that’s not much different.
But the same thing is true of white male superheroes. If you race- or gender-switched them, their stories would be fundamentally altered. It’s just much harder to see, because the white man is the Default Person. Their stories don’t point out the ways in which they’re defined by their identities, but it’s there. I can prove it.
Let’s take a moment to reimagine…
Clark Kent (Man of Steel)
Before Clark goes off to his first day of school, his dad says they have to talk. “The other kids might try to pick on you because you’re different, Clark. Your skin color’s darker than theirs, and your eyes have a different shape, and you don’t look like your mom and me. But no matter what they do, you can’t fight back. Tell the teacher, tell me, but don’t fight them.”
“Why?” asks Clark.
“You might get away with it now, but if you get in the habit, they’ll say you’re a problem child. You don’t want to be a problem child, do you?”
After Jonathan’s death, when Clark travels around working odd jobs, he’s careful who he tries to save. The first time he tries to protect a woman from a mugger in an alley, she thinks he’s working with the mugger and hits him with her handbag. When he knocks the mugger unconscious and runs away, he hears her tell the police it was a gang fight. That teaches him to be more cautious.
When he finds the message from Jor-El, it’s a revelation. People who look like him created a civilization greater than anything Earth has ever known. But he’s also disgusted at Jor-El’s naiveté. His powers won’t bring hope to humanity. It’ll only make them afraid. If there’s one thing Clark has learned in life, it’s that no one likes power to lie in the hands of people like him.
And he’s right. Even after defeating the Kryptonians Zod let loose on Earth, the military still doesn’t trust him. He has to break out of military lockdown and defeat Zod without their help. He spends the rest of his life a military prisoner.
Bruce Wayne (The Dark Knight trilogy)
The Waynes were famous, in their day. They were the wealthiest African-American household in the US. That fame is passed on to Bruce, when he comes of age and goes on to manage his fortune even better than his parents did.
He knows how fleeting society’s approval is, though. He knows what Gotham would think of vigilante justice if it was delivered by a black man. He carefully manages the way he speaks, and his Batman mask covers every square inch of his face.
Antonia Lluvia Stark (Iron Man, Avengers)
The world is scandalized when playboy Howard Stark marries Inez García, a woman he met on a business trip to Mexico.
Antonia is much like her father. Technically brilliant, though no one ever seems to completely believe it’s her who comes up with all of Stark Industries’ cutting edge tech. Horny as hell and afraid of commitment, though she knows she’s not allowed to be a “playboy” in the press like her father was, and keeps her trysts secret, especially the ones with women.
“The Iron Lady,” the press calls her, after they find out it’s not a man inside that suit, and she knows the undercurrents there. In her thirties, and she’s never had a boyfriend. Takes no bullshit from anyone, even if they meant it as a joke, she really shouldn’t be so uptight. Frigid bitch. Nothing but an iron trap between her legs. That’s what “Iron Lady” means, beneath all the superhero talk.
So much of what allows our beloved superheroes to get away with what they do, all the lines they cross, is because society gives them the benefit of the doubt. They’re white men, after all. So next time you see a superhero movie, don’t let white maleness be invisible. Think about how the story would be different, if the hero didn’t have all his social privilege.