Ideas of Womanhood and Gender in Adrian Dingle’s "Nelvana of the Northern Lights"

Term Paper 2016 16 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Powers and Weaknesses
2.1 Nelvana’s Superpowers
2.2 Nelvana’s Weaknesses

3 Superheroines in World War II
3.1 Nelvana as a Subordinated Heroine
3.2 Nelvana as an Emancipated Heroine

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The word ‘superheroine’ is often automatically linked to one single woman that is seen as the prototype of this kind of comic book characters - Wonder Woman. Created in 1941 by the American psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman has not only become one of the most popular female comic book heroes, she has also been widely considered a feminist icon. Especially the early Wonder Woman comics from 1941 to 1947 are seen as explicitly feminist, going along with the political aims and demands of the women’s liberation movement in the 60s and 70s (Munford & Waters 2014: 3). This is due to many recurrent images and themes in Marston’s comic book that crossed socially constructed gender boarders in the 1940s. Such images and themes are for example:

normal human females successfully acting as presidents, professors, and police officers; female attributes of emotion and “love” accompanied by physical strength and intellect; male characters in need of protection [...]; one-dimensionally misogynistic villains [...] and female physical and mental domination of men [...]. (Matsuuchi 2012: 122)

But Wonder Woman was not the first female comic hero that appeared in western popular culture. Four months before, a Canadian superheroine with the name Nelvana was introduced to her readership. This creation of the Welsh Canadian painter Adrian Dingle is seen as the first Canadian national superhero, but no research has been done yet about her attitude towards feminist ideals. This is remarkable because Nelvana of the Northern Lights was published at a time when women were still severely suppressed in society. Accordingly, a female superhero was something special that had the potential to derange the socially constructed gender boarders of this point in time, just like Wonder Woman did.

This term paper is supposed to shed some light on this topic. For this purpose, two aspects of Nelvana of the Northern Lights will be examined for potential transgressions of socially constructed gender roles. The focus on her superpowers and her weaknesses allows a closer investigation of her super hero personality and the character itself, the analysis of Nelvana’s depiction in the context of World War II is useful to survey her attitudes in relation to the Canadian wartime society. Furthermore, both elements are suited for comparisons with Wonder Woman comics because they play an important role in Marston’s stories as well.

2 Powers and Weaknesses

In order to analyze the idea of womanhood that is represented in Nelvana of the Northern Lights it is useful to look at the main character’s superpowers as well as her weak points. Like every comic superheroine, Nelvana possesses superhuman powers that allow her to fight evil elements throughout her comic book series, but this is not the only function of such skills. They are also potential means to challenge the traditional female roles of either passive victim or villain which were predominant in crime fiction until the rise of women’s movement in the 1970s (Aisenberg 1994: 144). Because of their superpowers, superheroines are able to accomplish deeds that are usually reserved to male heroes, such as fighting for the good, rescuing of themselves and others or solving mysteries. (Brown 2011: 25). Thus, female superpowers can challenge gender boarders and they seem to represent feminist ideals per se. But in the case of Nelvana, it is important to look at the origin of her powers and to compare it with the origin ofWonder Woman’s abilities.

Wonder Woman’s feminist reputation is partially based on the acquisition of her powers. Unlike other superheroes from the Golden Age, her powers are not given through extraterrestrial origin or military experiments. She developed her abilities naturally through hard and consistent training from infancy and “perfected them in Greek-style contests of dexterity, strength, and speed” (Steinem et al. 1995: 9) against her Amazon sisters on Paradise Island. Thus, Wonder Woman is not provided with super powers like Superman or Captain America. She is rather skilled. Indeed, she also possesses magical equipment like bracelets, a lasso, a telepathic headband and an invisible airplane. But she also had to learn how to work with these instruments in order to use them correctly (Robinson 1989: 101)[1]. Hence, Wonder Woman’s superpowers transfer a feminist message of female empowerment through the sheer own will. The lesson for readers is that girls and women have to discover their own strength and that it is up to themselves and into their realm of possibilities to compete against the male claim on power which is based on the assumption of the allegedly stronger sex (Emad 2006: 959). This reflects Marston’s own feminist attitude and his “demand for the equality of opportunity that would permit physical strength and social power to become feminine attributes” (Robinson 2004: 45) and makes Wonder Woman to a strong feminist icon.

2.1 Nelvana’s Superpowers

Nelvana’s creator chose a different story for the origin of his superheroine’s powers. She possesses most of her abilities due to her divine descent from Koliak the Mighty, king of the Northern Lights (Dingle et al. 2014: 277). This means, her superhuman powers are inborn and not trained and it places her on the same level with Mary Marvel who received her superpowers through magic. Lillian S. Robinson criticizes this character because “no effort had to be expended in the acquisition or perfection of her superskills [...] and nothing a girl does at the gym can help her there” (Robinson 2004: 69). Consequently, it is unlikely for the female readership to identify the feminist idea of empowerment in such characters because they transfer the message that women either possess certain abilities granted by external influences or they should not even try to gain them. Furthermore, Dingle often emphasizes that most of Nelvana’s powers are actually those of her father Koliak. On many occasions, he links Nelvana’s ability to fly, to be invisible, to melt metal, to lift heavy objects, etc. to her father’s great power (Dingle et al. 2014: 67, 56, 250, 28). In the first issues, Nelvana even has to pray to her godly father in order to have his powers available (Dingle et al. 2014: 28, 50, 67) and in one of the rare moments in which Koliak himself talks to his daughter, he states that Nelvana may retain his (not her) power when she has to take up the identity of a mortal women (Dingle et al. 2014: 227). This dependence on male power becomes particularly evident when Nelvana is out of Koliak’s reach or when his powers break down due to electrostatic mines or demagnetizing handcuffs (Dingle et al. 2014: 56, 83, 103). In such situations, Nelvana appears helpless or she is taken captive by the enemy. Therefore, the origin of Nelvana’s superpowers resembles common patriarchic structures of the 1940s in which power differences were fundamental for the inequality of the male-female relationship. In the society, these power differences were often based on “enforced economic dependence of many women on male providers” (Pierson 1986: 13). In Nelvana of the Northern Lights, this power difference can be taken literally through Nelvana’s dependence on her father’s powers. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, encourages young women to become strong and able to live independently from men by using their own powers (Emad 2006: 959).

But her father’s super powers are not the only skills Nelvana possess. At the beginning of the first three issues, Dingle introduces Nelvana someone who “inherits her mother’s earthly characteristics” (Dingle et al. 2014: 31). Since Dingle does not concretize these characteristics, one may assume that he means the skills Nelvana possesses independently from her father. This contains stealth (ibid. 40), deftness (ibid. 55), cleverness (ibid.), the power of perception (ibid. 171), an acute hearing (ibid. 175) and the power of deduction (ibid. 233). All of them are useful powers but they do not really challenge gender boarders because they are not explicitly reserved for men. Some of them, like dexterity and good eyesight, were even believed to be natural endowments of women in general in the 1940s. This was one of the reasons why women were seen as well suited for precision work in war industry (Pierson 1986: 74). This focus on women specific powers can also be seen in an issue from 1944. Here, Nelvana uses “the dis-arming [sic] power of a woman’s high heel” (Dingle et al. 2014: 252) in order to free herself from a villain’s hold. Thus, Nelvana’s superpowers remain completely in the socially accepted gender boarders of the Canadian society during the 1940s. The abilities that could endanger male superiority are actually those of her father and confirm patriarchic structures. All her other skills do not conduce to cross gender boarders because they do not belong to superpowers that usually represent masculinity or they are even seen as typical feminine. In contrast to Wonder Woman and her strength, Nelvana does not fully possess a superpower that is socially assigned to a male domain.

2.2 Nelvana’s Weaknesses

In fact, the lack of physical strength is one of Nelvana’s biggest weaknesses. In Nelvana of the Northern Lights, strength is almost solely reserved for the male sex. Nelvana’s brother’s “strength is amazing” (Dingle et al. 2014: 39) as well as the villain Toroffs “great physical strength” (ibid.: 64). Even a powerless and old geologist who was captured in a cave for 20 years is able to break down a stonewall with his “superhuman strength” (ibid. 62) activated by his desire for freedom. But Nelvana even has problems to close a trapdoor that was opened by a villain with “incredible ease” (ibid. 161) and in order to underline her physical weakness she utters “Oof! It’s heavy!” (ibid.) during this attempt. This unequal distribution of physical power often leads to situations in which Nelvana is in danger. In the second issue from 1941, Toroff, for example, manages to overwhelm Nelvana by a “crushing, vice-like grip” (ibid. 41) at her wrist. Similar situations can be found in later issues (ibid. 84, 252, 309). In all those instances, Nelvana is physically inferior to her male opponents. This conforms the conventional gender role of the weaker sex and male dominance. In Wonder Woman comics, these gender roles are inverted through the emphasis on female strength. As against Nelvana, Wonder Woman is able to overcome her male enemies in fistfights (Moulten Marston & Peter 1946: 10), to break steel chains (Moulten Marston & Peter 1947: 8) or to even lift a rolling train (Moulten Marston & Peter 1944: title page). By doing so, she crosses gender boarders and challenges conventional sex roles. A recurrent visual trope of her physical superiority over men is “the rescue of the (often uniformed, hence militarized) male body by the strong and capable female body” (Emad 2006: 958). This image occurs regularly and reverses clichéd gender roles of men as the protector and women as the protected by portraying her physical strength as equal to any male superhero (Pierson 1986; Brown 2011: 236). Such situations also exist in Nelvana of the Northern Lights and add a touch of female strength to Dingle’s character (Dingle et al. 2014: 132, 303). But one must keep in mind that it is still “Koliak’s power” (Dingle et al. 2014: 303) that gives Nelvana the ability to carry men and to get them out of dangerous situations. So, one of Nelvana’s biggest weakness is the lack of strength which is an attribute seen as typically female in wartime Canada (Pierson 1986: 180). All her other weaknesses confirm her typical feminine gender role, as well. As mentioned before, Nelvana appears helpless when she is deprived of her father’s powers, which represents female dependence from men. In another instance, Nelvana is mesmerized at the sight of “the star-stone” (Dingle et al. 2014: 302), a big jewel in the possession of the villain Vultor. This again allows interpretations according to sexist stereotypes like the women’s weakness for jewelry (Pierson 1986: 145).

So, Nelvana’s powers as well as her weaknesses remain completely in the socially prescribed gender boarders of the 1940s and they do not deliver any feminist ideals. This clearly distinguishes Nelvana from Wonder Woman and her claim for female empowerment. But her superpowers are not the only elements that made Wonder Woman to the icon of feminism. It was also her effort in World War II and the way how she dealt with her enemies.

3 Superheroines in World War II

After the outbreak of World War II, comic books became an important part of Allied propaganda against the Axis Powers. The war provided much of the editorial content for the stories and the simple comic structure of ‘good and evil’ allowed the depiction of the political enemy as an inhuman and pernicious evil (Savage 1990: 11)[2]. Consequently, many comic book heroes enlisted for military service (Robinson 2004: 32). Wonder Woman and Nelvana, with their first adventures published in 1941, did not constitute an exception. Although, their portrayals as belligerents were different from each other.

For the Marston, the American entry to the war was a great chance for women to improve their social situation due to the wartime needs for more female workers (Matsuuchi 2012: 124). In 1944 he stated that “in this [...] war, women will develop still greater power [and] by the end of the war that traditional description ‘the weaker sex’ will be ajoke - it will cease to have any meaning” (Richard qtd. in Robinson 2004: 47). In line with this, Wonder Woman’s representation as a warrior for the nation also delivered feminist ideals. Marston’s heroine did not participate in war for patriotic reasons (in fact, she was not even American but an Amazon from Paradise Island), nor solely to protect her beloved, the Army intelligence pilot Steve Trevor. She also chose to fight against the Axis Powers in order to defend the “last bastion of democracy and equal rights for woman” (Robinson 2004: 32), namely America. Of course, this motivation clearly combines feminist demands with national wartime rhetoric. But in his comic series, Marston always puts gender above nationalism by describing “nationalism at the expense of women’s power [as] a conventional nationalism that must be subject of critique” (Emad 2006: 963). Thus, Wonder Woman became an active participant in America’s involvement in World War II in order to defend the nation and to demonstrate female power. Nevertheless, her missions at the front lines were rare. In Wonder Woman No. 4 from 1943, Wonder Woman fought directly against Japanese soldiers side by side with American marines. More often, however, she fought against enemies far away from the front lines, like corrupt businessmen and Nazi spies. Though, this was not a specific element in Wonder Woman comics. Most of the Golden Age heroes did not fight at the front because comic book publishers feared that it would demean the sacrifices real soldiers were making in war when superheroes fought off enemies at the front line with ease (Carifio 2015: 72). Furthermore, Cord Scott suggests that “the possibility of women in combat, even comic book ones, was difficult for readers to grasp” (Scott 2014: 333). Although, this explanation does not apply for Wonder Woman. In her fights against her enemies, she is represents as a true combatant using all her martial arts skills to defeat the villain. But in the end, she never kills them. This is another element of Wonder Woman’s character that is seen as truly feminist.(Emad 2006: 966).

In Nelvana of the Northern Lights, World War II is a central element as well, although Nelvana’s motivation for fighting has less to do with feminist demands. As against Wonder Woman, Nelvana does not sign in voluntarily in order to protect the nation or female rights.

She rather gets roped into it through her first adventure which takes place in the Arctic wilderness. Here she fights against Toroff, an agent of the “evil Kablunets [who try] to rule the world” (Dingle et al. 2014: 48). Of course, this hint relates to the ongoing war, but Nelvana’s motivation still remains the protection of the Inuit against starvation and exploitation (Dingle et al. 2014: 24, 48 f.). There is no direct reference to Axis or Allied forces, to national socialists or Japanese soldiers, although the informed reader probably understands the suggestions. So, Nelvana’s fight remains nonpolitical. This changes when Nelvana meets the modern Canadian civilization.

3.1 Nelvana as a Subordinated Heroine

The political element of actual warfare against Axis forces appears only after the existence of the Inuit tribes is secured and after the return of a captured Canadian geologist to civilization. On her way back to the Arctic, Nelvana coincidentally comes across Axis warplanes. In her attempt to inspect them at closer range, Nelvana accidentally touches one of the planes with “Koliak’s powerful ray” (Dingle et al. 2014: 71) that envelops her. As a result, the engine of the plane stops and the bomber bursts on the ground. But instead of crushing all of the remaining planes with Koliak’s power, Nelvana decides to visit an R.C.M.P. post in order to warn the Canadian military of the approaching invasion (Dingle et al. 2014: 72). Thus, the “gallant men of the R.C.A.F. are ready for the challenge” (ibid. 75) and they start the air battle. Nelvana, in the meantime, retreats to the stratosphere in order to watch the battle from save distance without interfering with the fight. Instead, she prays to her father who joins the soldiers in the form of a giant ray (ibid. 79). So, the first clearly war related battle against the Axis enemy in Nelvana of the Northern Lights is entirely fought by men. The female heroine does not act like a warrior here. She appears more like a guardian angel for the Canadian soldiers who is “with [them] all through the dog-fight” (Dingle et al. 2014: 80) but does not support them actively. By doing so, Nelvana confirms socially constructed gender roles of the Canadian society in the 1940s.

Although the Canadian Army slowly opened its doors for women during World War II, combat remained a “male monopoly” (Pierson 1986: 104) due to the fear that women could advance into male territory and become too independent (Pierson 1986: 164) . Thus, most of the 50,000 women who served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) replaced male clerks, telephone operators, administrators, cooks, drivers and other non-combat duties. (Marsden 2012: 76) Those subordinated service jobs were socially accepted as women’s work and did not threaten the male claim for dominance. CWAC mottos like ‘We are the women behind the men behind the guns’ or ‘We serve that men might fight’ emphasized this subsidiary role of women in the military forces (Prentice 1996: 384). Of course, a superheroine like Nelvana cannot work as a simple clerk, but in her non combatant attitude she conforms to the demand of female subordination to the male dominated military. She conscientiously reports the Japanese attack but leaves fighting to the male soldiers.


[1] In addition, some of the objects, like the ‘Lasso of Truth’ or the ‘Invisible Jet’, transfer feminist ideals by themselves. For further information please read Matsuuchi 2012: 124 and Jimenez 2008: 35.

[2] This led to racist depictions of the political enemy in Nelvana of the Northern Lights as well as in Wonder Woman. Although this is a topic that is worth to be analyzed in detail, it is not supposed to be a part of this term paper.


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Title: Ideas of Womanhood and Gender in Adrian Dingle’s "Nelvana of the Northern Lights"