Friday, September 23, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: America Chavez (Marvel Comics)

Look, I don't mean to be inflammatory here, but I'm pretty sure the phrase, "She's beauty, she's grace, she'll punch you in the face" was originally intended to refer to one America Chavez, aka Miss America.

There's a delightful play on expectations when it comes to America Chavez, and it all centers around her "superhero name" as it were. See, America Chavez is an AfroHispanic New Yorker, born to immigrant parents, who suddenly finds herself gifted with extraordinary strength and stamina, and, of course, chooses to use these powers to fight evil. Her superpower name, fittingly, is Miss America. It's a classic play both on her actual name and on her powers' being vaguely related to Captain America's and on a well known and recognizable cultural thing.

The joke? Well I'm sure you've already guessed it, but most people don't immediately picture a gruff, badass AfroHispanic teenager who can lift a car over her head and throw a shark into outer space when they're told that Miss America will be saving them. And therein lies the beauty and genius of America Chavez as a character: She is Miss America, and because of her name, her background, and her powerset, she forces us to reconsider our ideas of what it means to be an American, what it means to be a young woman, and what it means to want to help the people around you.

She's pretty great.

Now, if you want to be all technical about things, America Chavez was not the first Miss America to appear in Marvel comics. But given that the original Miss America was largely a nonstarter of a hero from the 1940s and 50s, America's arrival in 2011 can largely be seen as independent of that. 

Coming on the scene in a small miniseries event called Vengeance, America quickly grew in popularity and eventually became part of the Young Avengers storylines, and is now seen as a central figure in that group. Heck, there's even a possible future we get a glimpse of where America becomes Captain America one day.

Born to two loving, superpowered mothers in a different dimension, America's backstory is about as bonkers and intense as your average superhero. When her mothers sacrificed themselves to save their home dimension (and America), she escaped into a different reality and decided to become a hero in their memory. She's been drifting through the universes ever since, eventually adopting the name "Miss America" and becoming a superhero. She ended up in the main Marvel timeline when she decided to stop Loki from hurting Wiccan, and then just sort of ended up sticking around.

But as we all know with comics, the actual plots and backstories tend to matter a lot less than personality or thematic point. That's the case here. With crossover events, weird shakeups where America is dimension hopping with a 1600s era Kate Bishop, and other nonsense like that going around, what happens is a lot less important most of the time than how the characters handle it.

And that's where America Chavez really shines as a character and as an interesting take on Hispanic/Latina femininity. Her way of handling things is less of a traditional female superhero's "let's all sit down and talk this out" and more of a "I'm going to punch you until I feel better". Which isn't really me editorializing either. Take a look at this honest to goodness moment from Young Avengers:

Clearly America Chavez is a woman who feels very comfortable in her physicality. As well she should. As an extradimensional being (or kind of an alien, I guess), America has powers we humans can only dream of. She's superstrong, has incredible endurance, can fly, and also has a nifty thing where she can punch or kick holes in reality and then walk right through. America the great, indeed.

You might, however, wonder what's so great about a female character who is angry and likes violence and is kind of grouchy all the time. I mean, why are we celebrating a Hispanic/Latina character who gets in a lot of fights? Isn't that exactly the kind of character stereotype we're trying to get away from?

Well, yes and no.

So, as we discussed in talking about Isabelle Lightwood last week, there are important considerations to take into account when talking about stereotypes of violence. Yes, there is a pervasive and damaging stereotype that Hispanic/Latina women are a lot more likely to have violent outbursts, to be so "passionate" that they lash out, and to get into fights with each other all the time.

Those stereotypes, however, largely stem from a belief that Hispanic/Latinx people in general are more "firey" and "spicy" and prone to valuing emotions over reason. They're why characters like Rosa Diaz and Amy Santiago can be completely different and yet both refutations of the same stereotypes.

The violence inherent in America Chavez' story isn't violence born of a "spicy" personality, it's violence born of the fact that she's a superstrong metahuman who tries to save the world a lot and doesn't get enough sleep. 

She never fights people who can't fight back, and while her superstrength does sometimes lead to slightly gruesome fights, America is all about making sure that the bad guys know why she's fighting them. She's very clear and very candid and not interested in making you feel comfortable.

Essentially, while America is deeply impulsive, her fighting is rarely based in emotions, making her a good counterpoint to the "violent Latinas" stereotype. It's also interesting to look at her in light of the general sexualization of Latina women fighting, and remember that America is rarely sexualized as a character, at least not outside of the original Vengeance run. 

More often than not, America is shown wearing comfortable street clothes, not even much of a uniform. She likes hoodies and shorts and sneakers, and while she's definitely attractive, most depictions of her highlight her muscles not her breasts, making her the rare female superhero allowed to be strong without necessarily being sexualized while she's at it.

Oh, and how about this for fighting stereotypes? America Chavez is absolutely not going to get into a catfight with another woman because she "stole her man". That is a thing that is definitely not happening.

I mean, it's mostly not happening because America is a confirmed lesbian, but also because that's really not her personality type. Would America get into a fight over someone insulting one of her friends? Probably. Would she get into a catfight over a romantic partner? Almost definitely not. It's just not who she is.

Yes, America is impulsive. Her catchphrase, after all, is "America YES" (which is alarmingly accurate as a catchphrase for our country to be honest). She's prone to bad choices, like throwing a shark into the sky, and not really thinking her decisions through until she's already made them. But these aren't exclusively Hispanic/Latinx stereotypes here, and the majority of her character really does push back against the hypersexual, very hetero, catty, fashion obsessed stereotypical Latina character.

But that's not why we're talking about America Chavez. Or, well, it's not the only reason we're talking about America Chavez.

I want to bring us back to what we were talking about in the beginning. America Chavez. Miss America. "America YES". For all that this is a silly superhero character who spends most of her time punching bad guys and having ambiguous flirtations with Kate Bishop*, America Chavez means something for Hispanic/Latina representation simply by existing. She's a character not defined by her relationships to any of the men in her life, who never apologizes for her race or background, and who proudly wears the flag of her country.

She's a woman who openly insists on identifying herself with the United States of America, fully aware that she's not how most people picture "Miss America" looking. She's a woman who refuses to let them tell her she's not good enough, not ladylike enough, not white enough to represent this country. 

America Chavez is my hero because she refuses to believe she's not. She takes ownership of this country and proudly claims it, completely ignoring anyone who tells her she can't. So, yeah. America, who? America yes.

*I ship it. Come on, Kate, we all know you're into her!


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