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The Wasp: Marvel's most openly feminist Avenger

Contributed by
Jun 27, 2018

The new Ant-Man & The Wasp film is set to focus on Hope Van Dyne as the Wasp, with her mother Janet Van Dyne stranded in The Quantum Zone and in need of rescuing. In the comics, the role of the Wasp has been filled almost exclusively by Janet Van Dyne, with a couple brief stints by other characters—first, by the designer of the technology and Janet's ex-husband Hank Pym, then more recently by his daughter Nadia in the Unstoppable Wasp series. Mostly, Janet has been the Wasp for a good 50 years now, and what a wild ride it has been.

While mainstream comic books of previous decades aren't particularly known for their unbridled embrace of feminism, some of their female characters can still be considered feminist simply by virtue of their actions. Meanwhile, the Wasp is unique among female comic superheroes because she has a distinctly feminist character arc.

Janet Van Dyne made her first appearance in Tales to Astonish #44 as a young debutante and daughter of a wealthy scientist in New Jersey. Her father is killed by an alien, and Janet takes on the mantle of the Wasp to avenge him by bringing about the demise of said alien. She gets the Wasp tech from Hank Pym, the inventor and scientist also known, at the time, as Ant-Man. Janet has an immediate crush on Hank and makes no attempts to hide it, immediately asking him to ask her out. Hank is frozen with self-doubt and feels it's too soon after the death of his first wife to date again. (He's actually kind of right in that regard.)

Janet continues to pursue him, and while Hank seems to enjoy the fact that someone is interested in him, he continuously turns her down and refers to her as nothing more than his partner. He does continue to lead her on, though, and gets jealous when he and Janet join the Avengers and she openly flirts with Thor. Eventually, against his better judgment, they being dating, but even in the beginning it's rocky. He talks down to her and orders her around quite a bit, and Janet, who genuinely respects and admires him, tries to do as he asks. When she shows independence, he has a habit of storming off in anger. Hank desperately needs approval, and, as time goes on, he begins to suffer from mental and emotional instability. Janet, for her part, tends to act out for attention. It's not the best match.

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This all happened in the 1960s, during the early days of the Avengers comic, still written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, followed by Don Heck. Lee specifically was known for creating female characters that were more powerful than anyone else on the team, yet writing them as weak and in need of men. Fortunately most of those characters, like Sue Storm or Jean Grey, would have writers years later who knew how to utilize them.

The Wasp, on the other hand, is capable from day one. She doesn't even have offensive capabilities for the first several years of existence, so she uses her powers and the villain's underestimation of her for subterfuge. She doesn't get a starring role in the Avengers for some time, but when she does show up she's usually annoying Hank by doing whatever she pleases or causing a clever distraction for the other Avengers. Janet was even the one to name the team the Avengers, with her knack for marketing and style developing into a full-fledged passion over time.

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Slowly, we see Janet's personality evolve. She goes from basing her existence on Hank to openly calling him out for trying to control her. It doesn't stop there; she's vocal towards other team members, supervillains, everyone. As her temperamental honesty grows, so does her skill. She insists on being given offensive capabilities, and so Hank invents the Wasp's Sting. She begins studying to be a scientist herself by watching Hank as he works. She capitalizes on her love of fashion and her design skills to build dozens of costumes for herself, as well as redesign costumes for the entire team on several occasions over the years.

Hank and Janet do get married, but the marriage itself shows evidence of their dysfunction. Hank dramatically changes in both costume and personality to the more aggressive Yellowjacket. Janet seems disturbingly unconcerned that his mental instability seems to be directly responsible for his proposal, and the two are wed. Meanwhile, the Circus of Crime attacks and she very nearly gets murdered by a python on her wedding day—and you have to admit that's a sign. If you get attacked by a circus-themed group of criminals at the altar, maybe take that last opportunity to rethink the marriage. Janet is a headstrong lady, though, so she goes through with it, even bragging about the legality of the wedding at the end of the issue. During her marriage to Hank, the Wasp is only a part-time Avenger.

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On one specific trip to Avengers Mansion in Avengers #83, Janet comes in to be greeted by Valkyrie, who has reshaped the female members of the Avengers into a feminist sect known as the Lady Liberators. Valkyrie talks trash on all the male heroes, and Janet more or less concedes that she also finds them somewhat chauvinistic.

It turns out that Valkyrie in this specific incarnation is a manifestation of the Enchantress, who despises men and uses the female Avengers to attack their teammates for her own ends. Writer Roy Thomas seems to have intended this story as a general criticism of feminists for “going too far,” as Valkyrie is a manipulator and her hatred of men in this case is irrational, but Janet calmly supports her female teammates in a battle against the men, then quips that the Lady Liberators probably had a pretty good point overall when Goliath insults “women's lib” at the end of the issue.

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Ultimately, Jan kicks Hank out of their house for his unstable actions towards her, and, without him to fall back on, she really begins to take control of her life. This is where her innate stubbornness and ambition really begin to flourish into straight-up feminism. Janet shows up, smiling and putting on a brave front for the other Avengers. They're all nice guys, so they pat her on the back and try to take it easy on her. Janet, who is not having that, uses this moment to completely blindside them with a bid to become the new chairperson in the middle of a meeting. The others hem and haw for a moment, but Janet more or less demands an answer on the spot. The group concedes, and Janet goes on to become the Avenger who has held the mantle of leader longer than anyone, save Captain America.

Admittedly, the dynamic between Steve Rogers and Janet is deeply heartwarming, and while his friendships (or just plain 'ships) with other Avengers garner a lot of discussions, people often gloss over his incredible partnership with Janet. The two of them have a tendency to understand what exactly needs to be done in any given situation, and despite needing to readjust slightly to taking orders instead of giving them, Steve gives Janet all the space in the world to lead the team while proving an invaluable consultant to her. The two of them approach situations in much the same way, muttering strategies to one another under their breaths with one of them suddenly piping up to take control of the problem while the other serves as back-up.

One of Janet's most important characteristics is her desire to zero in on her work even while her personal life is a shambles. This is consistent throughout her history and a rarity for female superheroes. While the day jobs of heroes such as Superman and Spider-Man are hugely influential on their lives and the stories told about them, few women in comics focus on their careers in such an impactful way. Janet never has to work a day in her life, but she chooses to out of passion for the job, and it's the moments when she's allowed to take a project and run with it that she really shines.

In her early days, many other characters and readers alike complained that Janet only became a superhero to impress Hank Pym, but she surpassed him decades ago when it comes to effectiveness and genuine interest in the work. Janet Van Dyne as the Wasp is one of the few superheroes in general that does it because she genuinely loves doing it. Even when she's in terrible danger, you see her giggling from the excitement as she barely survives. She's an adrenaline junkie, and she loves every second of life as a superhero, from the fights to the fame, which makes her one of the most refreshing characters in an increasingly somber universe.

When Janet later resigns as leader of the Avengers, she passes on the mantle to the then-rookie Captain Marvel of the time, Monica Rambeau. Monica is intimidated by her role on the Avengers, and often questions her own abilities. Even with that in mind, Captain Marvel is definitely the best choice. Janet's bright optimism in the face of possible death is replaced by Monica's quiet determination, but it's a seamless transition. Monica's own character grows leaps and bounds in her time as leader, while Janet is free to pursue her other interests—such as founding a hugely successful company that she uses to help fund the Avengers for years.

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Janet's support of other women has been legendary. Even as one of her very first acts as the leader of the team, she insists they recruit more women, which leads to the Avengers offering memberships to both Captain Marvel and She-Hulk. Janet serves as an important confidant for both, urging Marvel to believe in herself while pushing She-Hulk to explore fashion with her. She has a deep love for the Scarlet Witch, and often feels compelled to protect her. Even the Black Widow, who Janet immediately distrusts, is treated respectfully. Janet is all about having other women's backs and not asking for anything in return. Although she handles her own problems alone and without much fanfare, she goes out of her way to be supportive of other women and center them on the team.

Most recently, Nadia Pym has been the primary person to fulfill the role of the Wasp, and her series, The Unstoppable Wasp, has introduced us to a scientifically-savvy, often more serious, occasionally insecure version. On the other hand, the highlight of The Unstoppable Wasp series was a casually-dressed, deeply calm Janet Van Dyne showing up to offer counsel to the young Avenger. We follow Janet's inner monologue as she offers support to “the kid,” and, in a memorable moment, she thinks to herself, “My secret power is that I get things done.” It's a line that perfectly sums up why Janet Van Dyne should be praised for being one of the most openly feminist characters in comics.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.