Melinda May, a Superhero Without Superpowers

When I was growing up, I often observed that there was a distinct lack of good women role models in film and TV. Women characters always seemed to fit into a limited set of stereotypes: the damsel-in-distress, the leading man’s beautiful-but-personality-free love interest, the femme fatale, and the Cruella de Vil-style villain. The first good woman character I remember as a small child was Wonder Woman from the 1970s TV series. I adored her; not only did she beat up the bad guys with ease and always came back from adversity to save the day, but she had some fantastic moves! The twirling transition from Diana Prince to Amazon Goddess, the iconic crossed bracelets stance to defend against gun attacks, and best of all her boomerang tiara! Dressed in my Wonder Woman pyjamas, I would proudly strike a pose with my arms crossed.  Usually indignantly whilst being given a ticking off for leaving my toys on the floor!

Me, aged 5. [Image Description: A photograph of Cerys aged 5 dressed in Wonder Woman pyjamas]

I still really do like the Wonder Woman character, and the Gal Gadot films are very enjoyable. Gal’s Wonder Woman is smart, independent, powerful, and always holds her own alongside the hero men. She’s fun to watch, but I do have a couple of problems with Wonder Woman as a role model for young girls. Yes, she does have a lot of admirable qualities, but at the same time she is still very much the comic book character. A curvy, exotic princess dressed in a skimpy costume—her creator’s idea of the perfect woman. Her value comes from the superpower abilities she has been gifted rather than skills she has earned for herself. Although the same is certainly true of many man superheroes, there are many more examples of strong man characters in TV and film who are awesome without having any special powers. 

Fortunately, as time has gone on, it has become more acceptable and perhaps even more desirable to have strong women characters in film and TV. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien may have helped to spur these changes on. Ripley’s character is smart, technically minded and strong—the ultimate survivor in the face of insurmountable odds. She’s real and human without ever having any of the stereotypical weaknesses seen in the women characters that came before her. Her transformation from ordinary crew member to lone survivor and hero of the story is subtle and believable—no superpowers required! Since Ripley, there have been numerous films and TV series that have produced strong and compelling women leads. There are many great characters to choose from, but I especially enjoy watching those films and TV series where the writers spend effort on developing the characters so that you really get to know them. 

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is a TV show with a really well-balanced cast of characters containing a mix of both heroic and nefarious women roles. The primary women ‘good guy’ characters are May, Skye, and Simmons. The show is a spin off from the Marvel Comic Universe, and so many of the characters are literally comic book characters, but the series has enabled them to develop into three dimensions. Skye is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer clone—a misfit, plucky teenager who ultimately grows to wield superpowers and save the world. Simmons is the geekiest and the smartest of the bunch, an expert in both science and technology; introverted and logical, she’s basically Hermione without Hogwarts! Although I identify most with Simmons, the character I love the most is Melinda May, right-hand woman to the director of SHIELD.  

May is a veteran soldier and pilot who successfully commands the respect of her team with her strong strategic and leadership skills. Nicknamed ‘The Cavalry’ following an infamous incident where she took on a formidable foe alone to rescue a SHIELD unit, she is a highly skilful and effective fighter. She often dismisses the use of guns and instead relies upon her own strength and abilities to tackle the bad guys. On the surface, she appears to be a somewhat cold, brooding warrior, dedicated to her job and letting nothing stand in the way of the mission. Over time, however, her other qualities become apparent. May is smart, independent, and strong. Notorious for being a woman of action rather than words, she takes no nonsense and when she has something to say—the team better be ready to listen! She is fiercely loyal to her friend and boss, the Director, and is extremely protective of her team. Although the other characters may not agree with all her decisions, her integrity is never in doubt. Fearless but also human, she has suffered tragedy and uses her experience to help guide and support the team through their various trials and tribulations. Although reserved, she shows her maternal instincts as a selfless protector of the team. She is a mentor to both Skye and Simmons, developing their skills as agents but also teaching them how to take care of themselves and deal with difficult situations. She is a natural observer with a deep understanding of people and knows how to get the best out of them. When she trusts a character, she reveals her inner warmth and playfulness.

I love May for her strength, her no-nonsense attitude, but also her many depths. She’s passionate about what she does and in protecting the people she cares for. She recognises the challenges her women team members face in the macho world of SHIELD and gives them the skills to help them succeed. She doesn’t need others, but she chooses to be there for them. She has no superpowers and instead earns the respect of her team through her skills, experience, and determination. She is an unexpected hero, and I love her for that. A tiny Asian woman in her fifties beating up the bad guys and saving the world! She may be unexpected, but you don’t doubt her capabilities for a second. She’s an absolute badass, but she’s also real and relatable. She’s an inspiration to women of all ages and backgrounds. Who needs Superman? I’d rather watch Melinda May beating up the bad guys any day! 

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Cerys Willoughby
“Rock On!”

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