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When you think of superheroes and villains, one of the first things that comes to mind are their aesthetics. Many are more known for their fancy costumes, hair, makeup, and accessories than for their escapades. Capes, masks, spandex, boots, leotards; all in service of hiding the true identities of these mysterious men. But whether he was bitten by a radioactive spider or arrived from the planet Krypton, most characters emblematic of power, strength and cunning have historically been male. But in a post Wonder Woman, female Doctor Who world, it seems like we’ve come leaps and bounds and female characters, both good and evil, are finally taking on the leading roles.
In his new piece, author David Jester writes about a more obscure, lesser known group of female superheroes, those who dress to impress, show strength and a demonstrate a tight grip; the Superhero Lady Armwrestlers of Portland, otherwise known as S.L.A.P. “In most comics, superheroes wear costumes to protect their identities, because they fear revealing their true selves. But these mask wearing, cape donning arm wrestling superheroines from the State of Maine are in fact slipping out of their costumes before they arm wrestle. Their outfits and personas symbolize their release from the roles society forces them to play, to the point where sometimes it is unclear which ego is really alter.”
It’s an interesting phenomenon, this international league of lady arm wrestlers, especially as the “sport” itself, more than any other, is a simple competition of pure machismo. "Arm wrestling has historically been a symbolic competition of masculinity, a demonstration of strength and dominance. It’s place in American pop culture, whether in the saloons of spaghetti westerns or as plot twists in after school specials, has always been about separating the boys from the men.”
The act of arm wrestling already breaks down gender roles, and these ladies go even further to reject the roles women are forced to play everyday of their lives. “In that darkened bar, they are adored for who they are, goddesses locking arms to best each other, women in positions of power, choosing their own backstory. It is consent to the utmost, asking only themselves who they want to be, and then embodying those characteristics.” Read S.L.A.P.
Although professional arm wrestling might be one of the most obscure sports around, this idea of putting on masks in our everyday lives to break society’s hold is something a lot of people can relate to. So why is it, from Black Widow to Elektra, strong female characters tend not to hide their identities? Maybe because when women really show force, the masks come off.
No one in the history of cartoon characters, or at least, 8 year old cartoon characters, was tougher than Lucy van Pelt. She has a reputation, this we know. She’s tough. She’s bossy. She’s brutally honest to the point of being harsh. She’s driven, which, even for a little girl, is seen as stepping out of societal bounds. And she always wins. But looking back on her character with more modern eyes, we see her in a different light, and realize maybe we had it wrong all along. Maybe she’s actually the unsung hero of the Charlie Brown universe. Fighting for her rights and opinions - she was way ahead of her time.
In terms of crushing machismo, this 1969 cartoon special comes to mind. In It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown, Snoopy, dressed in a mask and going by his alter ego, Masked Marvel, challenges Lucy to an arm wrestling match. Lucy, on behalf of all the girls at camp, accepts the challenge. She dresses in her usual garb, because unlike Snoopy, she doesn’t need to wear a costume or a mask; she hides her toughness in that little blue dress, yet she still seems braver and stronger than all the boys combined. In the end, Snoopy fouls Lucy with a dog kiss. She demands his disqualification and wins.
Actually, most of the girls in the clan were tougher than the boys. The boys were often portrayed as insecure, powerless, and passive while the girls were pretty revolutionary. Think about it. Lucy was an entrepreneur, essentially starting her own psychology practice. She thinks the boys are nothing but blockheads. Peppermint Patty was by far the best athlete out of her peers and lead the girls team to a softball victory. The girls won every single competition at camp actually, which is an interesting role reversal for the time, and the boys constantly wallowed, especially the lovable loser Charlie Brown. And when it comes to arm wrestling, the ultimate show of machismo, the boys couldn't physically compete, so they sent in man’s best friend to do it for them.