June 4, 2012 The Superheroes of Washington & Lee University
I’m Professor X, only with more hair and worse teeth. My mind control powers are less impressive, but I did just spend last month brainwashing my Spring Term class in the subtleties of superhero science. The Gavaler School for Gifted Youngsters is housed in Payne Hall at Washington & Lee University. To graduate, my twelve evil geniuses were required to breed their own mutations in the Petri dish of superhero conventions.
“Disrupt the tropes!” I bellowed from my levitating wheelchair. “Disrupt the tropes!!!”
Their frothy creations unmask a few facts about superheroes, themselves, and our college.
Professor G’s New Mutants include:
Seven superheroes and five superheroines. The class itself was an even split, but three of the women and one of the men quietly gender-jumped. The slight disproportion does not reflect my testosterone-heavy syllabus, with only one female author (Baroness Orczy) and only Wonder Woman in the otherwise all-boy club (Frank L. Packard’s Tocsin, arguably the first superheroine, is a brief exception, and Moore’s Silk Spectres are at least female, though not exactly heroic advances in gender typing).
Washington & Lee, since its co-ed reboot in 1985, maintains roughly the same gender ratio as my class, but the faculty is closer to my syllabus, about 2-to-1. Which still beats both the Justice League (see Wonder Woman above) and, worse, The Avengers’ 6-to-1 casting rate (what happened to the Wasp? Scarlet Witch? Mockingbird? Tigra? Moondragon? She-Hulk? Hell, what about Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer?).
Of my students’ twelve characters, none self-identified by race. Guessing from appearance (my students created posters), two were African American. That’s roughly 17%, and it beats our university’s diversity stats, which list about 85% of the student body and 90% of the faculty as White, Non-Hispanic. I have numbers for African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, but since my students’ characters didn’t fill out census forms, we’re left with the skin tones and limited facial features available at Hero Machine 2.5 (3.0, they tell me, is crazily more advanced, at least for identity-obscuring costumes).
My syllabus included only two authors of color (both of whom were poets, an even rarer presence in superhero demographics). The Avengers score lower (if you don’t count Nick Fury as a team member, then the only non-Caucasian skin is green). At least when the Justice League rebooted last year, they retconned a black cyborg (named Cyborg, which at least is better than Black Cyborg) onto the roster. W&L is trying its best too. CollegeProwler.com reports our school “just isn’t too diverse, but it is working on it. The $100 million Johnson Scholarship has allowed students of many different backgrounds to attend, and everyone at the University seems to be embracing it.”
I have no idea which if any of my students are Johnson scholars, but some of their characters could qualify for financial support. There’s a homeless anarchist (secretly the creator of all life on Earth), a poverty-vowing monk (though he should probably leave his years as a drug kingpin off the application), and a slum-raised orphan (he would have had some serious money if a different drug kingpin hadn’t murdered his soda pop tycoon parents). If the eugenically bred right-wing millionaire mercenary donates another $100 million, W&L could pull the next roster of need-blind heroes past the $56,400 attendance costs. Meanwhile, the other 2/3rds of the team appear solidly middle class.
There are no boxes for sexual orientation on the superhero application form, but since “love interest” was one of the most analyzed tropes in class, most of the characters had their sexualities on full display. Of the twelve, only one was openly gay. Even though that’s below 10%, it’s still a promising sign for W&L. It’s now possible to be an out student here, and a friend over in Counseling Services says the gay support group gets happily raucous. When a student in my wife’s poetry class workshopped a poem about his boyfriend, he was more worried about meter than outing himself. Excelsior!
Age wise, the characters cluster close to their creators. We have only one parent on the team, a stay-at-home mother of two, and one child, an unrelated ten-year-old, plus two high schoolers (though one time travels, so technically he’s over a hundred). It may be a reflection of the current economic environment, but there’s only one hero holding down a regular day job. He’s a cop. I’m not counting the government assassin because her only paycheck is the government not murdering her brother.
Government, especially law enforcement, tends to take a pretty bad rap in superhero stories, but for this crowd, superhero vigilantism is worse. (This may have something to do with my presenting the 1914 KKK as a model for the formula.) A total of five of these characters use deadly force while heroing, often as an outgrowth of their own self-defined, Nietzschean morality. (There was a vandal in the group too, but he seemed to grow out it.) But three of these homicidal whack jobs pay the ultimate price and die themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, two characters are proud law-abiders, working with the police and community to fix long-term problems instead of pulverizing the bad guy of the moment. One’s even a vegan.
There was only one case of bullying in the origin tales. It was nerd-on-nerd violence, and given the near lethal doses of comic book geekness I was exhaling into the classroom, I’m thankful it wasn’t worse. In the end, all my evil geniuses graduated from the Hall of Payne.