top of page

Strong Women: Highlighting Doctor Strange's Zelma Stanton

A few days ago I was reading the forward of Meyer's Life and Death in which she lays out some of the reasons why she chose to do a gender swapped re-imagining of Twilight. This quote in particular stood out to me:

"Bella has always gotten a lot of censure for getting rescued on multiple occasions, and people have complained about her being a typical damsel in distress. My answer to that has always been that Bella is a human in distress, a normal human being surrounded on all sides by people who are basically superheroes and supervillains."

On the surface I agree 110%. "Needing to be rescued" is an incredibly simplistic definition of the damsel in distress trope. Needing help or being outmatched within a certain context does not make a woman "weak," any more than giving a woman a skin-tight outfit and kung-fu skills makes her "strong." There's a whole lot more nuance than that and I'm all for the outmatched characters finding innovative ways of saving themselves. It's why I still adore Jupiter Jones. Simple human facing off against the galaxy's elite in power, influence, and wealth? She can't blast them away with a gun or her fist, so she'll study up on law instead! The problem with Bella Swan isn't that she's physically weaker than the other characters, it's that Meyers doesn't write her in a way that allows her to play an active role in other ways.

But I'm not actually here to talk about Bella. Rather, Meyers' quote helped me finally articulate why I so adore Zelma Stanton.

I've fallen in love with Doctor Strange. I particularly love the 2015 run written by Jason Aaron----and if you're also a fan I should warn you that the rest of this post contains spoilers. Still here? Great. Zelma Stanton is a new character who enters Stephen's life looking for help with a supernatural bug of sorts (she has monster mouths growing out of her skull). Like Bella, Zelma is a normal, human girl chucked into a supernatural world. She (presumably) has no useful skills to bring to the table. Zelma's just a librarian... and a scared one at that. When we first meet her she's wary to even knock on Stephen's door, claiming that she's "never been weird a day in [her] life." With a timid beginning and no magic to speak of (yet), Zelma is primed to be the series' damsel in distress.

However, the difference between Meyers and Aaron's writing is that Aaron is careful about providing Zelma with an active, fulfilling role in Stephen and Wong's life. When things get hairy Stephen immediately hands Zelma a sword. No, she might not technically know how to use it, but she can swing if she really needs to and more importantly, this tells us a lot about this version of Stephen. Far from the sexist womanizer we got decades back (more on that at another time), he's balanced between warning Zelma about the unexpected dangers of his house (don't talk to the snakes, don't open the fridge) and giving her the tools to protect herself. He's wary without being controlling and that kind of respect is refreshing to see.

Not long after this they're separated and Zelma is given the chance to fight her way back on her own. And again, Stephen isn't panicking. He has faith that anyone with intelligence and belief can at least make it back to his living room. Though Zelma has a thing or two to say about Stephen abandoning her to zombies and the contents of his fridge. The point is that Zelma is allowed to prove her stuff, to grow and develop as a character. The key to getting rid of the monsters----or "saving the world" as it's put----is for Zelma to reveal her darkest secrets in front of two men she just met. That takes mental strength, not physical. There's a place for her in the Sanctum because Stephen's library actually is a mess and yes, being able to find the right book quickly enough can really be the difference between life and death. His comments ensure that Zelma and the reader both know that there is true value in her work. Later, after magic is nearly lost for good, Zelma is instrumental in compiling which spells still work and what new ones Stephen is developing. She is the new keeper of this knowledge. When the Orb calls her the Mistress of the Mystic Arts, long before she becomes Stephen's apprentice, the title is well earned.

Am I biased? Absolutely. I adore seeing scared, headstrong, book-loving nerds entering these fantasy worlds because that's an easy way for me to enter these worlds too. Bella is also scared and headstrong and a bit of a nerd, but she's passive in a way that makes real women cringe. Most of us can't see ourselves in her. Not because we don't fall in love and have romantic sides (another complaint that Meyers sights in her forward), but because that's not all we are. Bella's characterization is dependent on the men in her life. Zelma is a fully-realized character before she even sets foot in this world. In a moment outside the Sanctum Sanctorum she references friends, her job, demonstrates a knowledge of Latin, voices opinions about how ostentatious the house is... all of that tells me more about Zelma in a few panels than, frankly, I learned about Bella in three books. Women have lives outside of the men who run their stories.

To me, one of Zelma's best moments is when she watches from the relative safety of the Sanctum as Stephen and his numerous allies fall at the hands of the Empirikul. They were all expert sorcerers. She's a Bronx librarian. What exactly is Zelma supposed to accomplish here? By all logic she's useless in this fight, but in a story where the impossible is commonplace, what we presume to be logic hardly matters. Zelma has to try, no matter how little her contribution is (and it's not little at all). That to me is a strong character. Not their ability to be objectively powerful, but their willingness to help despite their comparative vulnerability.

(Stephen and Wong carved a skull on their creepy cellar door what DORKS)

We throw around the phrase "strong female character" a lot these days and as I've pointed out before, we've fallen into a trap of thinking that this equals a woman who can quite literally kick your ass. But most of the women in the world aren't martial arts masters or secret, badass spies. That doesn't mean we're not dangerous and badass in other ways though and it's refreshing to see that diversity given form in a comic run. Aaron and his editors at Marvel took the concept of "a normal human being surrounded on all sides by people who are basically superheroes and supervillains" and ensured that she found a place there. Zelma is a breath of fresh air; a testament to how engaging the normal character can be when you give them some respect. If we can accept that Stephen is sucking face with a bacterial-sized soul-eater, then we can sure as hell accept that a librarian can save the world.

I've got more to say about the Master of the Mystic Arts, but Zelma had to get the first blog post. To me she's a rare gem in fiction and deserves her fair share of praise.

I mean c'mon. You've just gotta love her:

Image Credit

#1-4: Personal pics, Doctor Strange Vol. 1: The Way of the Weird



bottom of page