Psychologist William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman because, he said, he was tired of girls reading comic books and getting the message that only men could be admirable. As he wrote in The American Scholar (1943):
It's smart to be strong. It's big to be generous, but it's sissified, according to exclusively male rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring. "Aw, that's girl stuff!" snorts our young comics reader, "Who wants to be a girl?" And that's the point: not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength.
Wonder Woman was a great step forward. What Marston missed, however, was that, even with a woman heroine, girls (and boys) were still being denied something important.
Children, more than anyone perhaps, dream of empowerment. We all, at some level, dream of power, but those who have the least will naturally hunger the most. The comic book industry was built on feeding youth visions of power.
Yet it's adults who manufacture and sell these dreams in comic books, novels, movies, and TV shows. And adults are too seldom willing to offer visions of youth using any real power.
Comic Books' Evolution
Robin cheers as Batman swings into action
Comic books, even when they were marketed to children, were almost always about adults. Captain Marvel was a child, but when it was time for action, he said the magic word ("Shazam") and turned into a super-powered adult as the industry was not yet willing to let us see superpowers in the body of a child.
The first young super hero was Robin the Boy Wonder, a sidekick for Batman. When Robin was added to the cast, sales of Batman comics promptly doubled. But for years, regardless of market demand, Robin could only exist as Batman's obedient helper.
Eventually, the comics industry ceded to market pressure and allowed us to have autonomous young heroes such as Superboy, Spiderman (depicted originally as a high school student), the Teen Titans, and Spyboy. Even Robin now has his own comic book.
The rest of the entertainment world remains reluctant to offer this much respect.
Outside of comic books, we occasionally get youth with superpowers; but no matter what powers they possess, they remain subservient to adults. The TV show "Smallville" offers a teenaged Superman who, while able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, seems unable to even blow his nose without first begging permission from his everyman parents. In the pilot episode, Clark (AKA Superman) saves the life of a millionaire. The grateful millionaire buys Clark a pickup truck, but Clark's dad tells him to return it because — get this — his dad doesn't like the millionaire's father! Clark knows this is silly, and Clark does not want to give up the truck, but ultimately he does for no other reason than his dad telling him to. Superman can bend steel, but he is too weak to question patriarchy.
In one episode, Superman shows some backbone. After he begs his dad to let him play high school football, his dad still says no. Clark finally decides to play anyway. He manages to do just fine, neither hurting anyone as his father feared, nor giving away his secret powers. The episode ends with an apology. You guessed it: it's Superman who apologizes to his dad for his transgression in thinking for himself. And of course Clark quits the team.
This teenaged Superman is also surprisingly ineffective at catching criminals. That's especially true when the criminal is an adult. The show's producers do not want to show a teenager — even a super teenager — besting any adult, so adult villains must be defeated by other adults. One villain is defeated by Clark's mom who dumps grain on the villain's head. Another episode features a crooked cop; Superman does cleverly get evidence against him, but it is a group of security guards (adults) who kill the cop in the ensuing shoot-out.
In the football episode, the villain is the coach. Our teenaged Superman gets cornered and has to be rescued by, yes, his father showing up on his own initiative to drag Clark out of a kryptonite steam bath. That episode ends with the coach being killed by himself (whether by accident or suicide is unclear — I doubt the writers cared; the only thing that mattered was that the coach not be beaten by a teenager).
"Smallville" is not the only show insulting youth this way. In one episode of "The Simpsons," Bart and Lisa gain superpowers. How do they use their powers? By cleaning their parents' yard, with Bart using his stretch power to make a rake while super-strong Lisa lifts a house to give him a place to stash the leaves. When they face off against an adult villain, they get cornered and have to be rescued by an adult. How original.
Then we have Harry Potter. In both books and movies, the young wizard is remarkably wimpy. In Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry's mortal Aunt Petunia "aimed a heavy blow at his head with the soapy frying pan. Then she gave him work to do, with the promise he wouldn't eat again until he'd finished." When a frying pan hits a child's head, it usually causes death. Does Harry call police and have her arrested for attempted murder? Of course not. J.K. Rowling does not want to give abused children any ideas. Does Harry use wizardry to fight back? No. The next sentence tells us precisely how Harry responds: "Harry cleaned the windows, washed the car, mowed the lawn, trimmed the flowerbeds, pruned and watered the roses, and repainted the garden bench."
Many adults who run our entertainment industry seem so insecure that they will not invite children to even dream of being powerful in any meaningful way. They instead feed youth self-imagery of submission to hierarchy and obedience to authority figures. They'll let youth dream of having the power to better rake their parents' lawns and maybe even the power to play better football. But the dream of claiming dignity and demanding respect, even the dream of physical safety, is largely off-limits to youth.