Friday, March 4, 2011

Bunched Underthings: The Portrayal of Gender in Comic Books

Comic Books have often been labeled as a proverbial Boy’s Club - a secret area from which girls are excluded. From the early 1930s until modern day, comics have been seen as a negative influence on women, portraying them as nothing more than objects to be subjected to the male gaze. From spandex costumes, to situations where female heroines find themselves bound and gagged, it is hard not to understand the opinion that the dialogue, splattering art filled pages, is merely a disguise hiding the truth:  Comic books are nothing more than Playboy for children.

In the early years of comic books, often called the Golden Age, women were nothing more than archetypal characters fulfilling either the role of Good Girl, or Bad Girl. They were dutiful, subservient, girlfriends – the object of a male desire; or, they were ruthless heart breakers trouncing on the emotions of men everywhere. To see an example of these archetypes that has lasted for seventy years, one need look no further than Betty and Veronica.

While one could argue that these characters take on lives of their own, and have a deeply developed personality, it would be hard to list any of their hobbies beyond chasing Archie in an attempt to win his favour. In the early days women were nothing more than accessories, acting to enhance the male’s story, without ever furthering their own.

Times change. War comes to Europe. December 1941 Wonder Woman takes centre stage. Originally invented to fight the Axis, enemies of America, Europe, and their Allies, she may have been seen as a herald of change in the comic book industry.

Here was a woman who cared nothing for the men in her lives. She was from an island populated by women. And she could kick butt. No longer were women relegated to the kitchen to bake pies, and cookies in an effort to win the favour of their man. No – they were taking charge in a world overrun by the evil of its day.

And for some time, this illusion may have held. However, closer inspection of this Woman of Wonder reveals her as little more than an object to perverse male fantasy. While technically fully clothed, Women Woman wore a skin tight costume which did nothing to hide her more-than-shapely figure.

Often as not, she would find herself, rather than her enemy, bound by her golden lasso.  These images of the heroine tied, all power removed, were not limited to just Wonder Woman. Rather, they ran rampant through all genres of comics, and all publishers. These once powerful women were now little more than toys for their captors, as well as the male readers.

In 1961 Marvel Comics attempted to change the world of comics once more. They introduced characters that had personality; they introduced characters that grew. And as a result, women could now evolve along with their male counterparts. First to step onto the stage was Susan Storm – The Invisible Girl (who would later become The Invisible Woman.)

While she would eventually grow into a character of some strength – holding together a family, removing her children from the presence of an abusive father, and defeating the Hulk is an all out street fight – the early years saw her as constantly being kidnapped by Namor (prince of the seas).  She was a damsel in distress.

This may seem like little more than a new costume for an old archetype, but the difference was that Susan Storm would overcome her problems using intellect, friendship, and personal qualities which she had developed independently from others. She was more than the two-dimensional costumed crime fighters which had come before. For lack of a better word, she was becoming a person. However, not even she would be free from the sexualization of her costumes as the decades churned on.

In the nineteen seventies, and eighties, comic books were becoming more widely distributed, and the public was taking notice. The idea that comic books were rags for children was becoming outdated. Academics who had grown up with the books were now beginning to teach them, and shine light upon themes once over looked.

Now was the time for women to become leaders. The Women’s Movement was putting pressure on publishers to show the potential of females. And the industry took notice. Thus began the “Ms.” movement. Every male character received a female version. Sure, they were but a shadow of the male – but, they existed. The industry took notice, perhaps just not enough. Welcome Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, Spider-Woman, Hawkgirl. The list goes on.

While the 1980s would see women make strides forward (The Wasp leading the Avengers, and Susan Storm helming the Fantastic Four, it wasn’t until the early nineties that girls really stepped out of the shadows of their former portrayals.

Tank Girl burst onto the scene in a time when self-printed zines were flooding the underground, threatening to spill over into the mainstream. While she may have worn less clothes than some of the previous characters, she was no object for the judgmental male gaze. More likely than not, Tank Girl would have stabbed at those eyes, plucked them from their socket, and eaten them – all without breaking a sweat.

To put it lightly: she was nobody’s bitch.

The nineties brought with it the growth and evolution of females in comics. Finally they were equal to the males in the magazines. While the costumes may have left little in the way of imagination, women were taking to the streets, cracking heads better than the boys, solving problems with all the grace of the World’s Greatest Detective, and drawing attention to issues that have plagued females for decades (such as domestic abuse, sexually transmitted disease, and rape.)

Gen 13 hit the pages in 1994. Tired of the super-heroics often seen in Marvel Comics, the publisher Image wanted to present a more realistic view of teenaged superheroes. Theirs was a world where sexuality and responsibility for their fellow man combined.

Yes, on the one hand Caitlin Fairchild was a woman of high intelligence, having double majored in computer science and electrical engineering. But on the other hand, she was a large-chested bombshell whose clothing was often ripped to shreds by the end of every battle.

Feminists were left in a state of disbelief. Some shouted that she was nothing more than a sex-object, no different than Wonder Woman. Others took the stance that there was nothing wrong with a woman being both intelligent and attractive.

Rapidly the world Feminist was becoming the new “F-Word” where few girls wanted to be associated with the term which had become linked with militant thoughts, and rebels telling them how they should and should not act. Ironically the closing wave of feminism was attempting to enforce strong rules upon female behavious; the same thing that they were fighting to free themselves from, years prior.

Lost was the knowledge that the word Feminist simply implied one who feels men and women are equal.

As the millennium closed, Warren Ellis introduced the world of comics to one of its toughest female protagonists. Jenny Sparks. She was one hundred years old, though she had not physically aged for the last seventy five years of her life.

Jenny Sparks was the type of woman who would fight against the government, stand up for injustices as she saw fit, and take the evils that plagued the world to task. She was tied down to no sense of obligation, save for her own morality. She was the ultimate hero. And as if to reinforce this notion of female empowerment, she did it all with a B-Cup bust, and baggy cargo pants.

Popular Culture as a whole began to reflect the idea that a woman could be powerful without a man feeding her instructions, or even patting her on the head, telling her what a good job she had done. This was an age where a woman could be strong, for the sake of her own self. Buffy the Vampire Slayer stormed the television screens, while self-actualizing super heroines flooded the pages of those, once considered, funny books.

With the dawning of the third Millennium, women in comic books were being presented in all manner of ways. Yes, there were still some sexualized objects. Yes there were still some strong rebels. Yes there were some with lifestyles that may have been questioned by the media as being ‘less than wholesome,’ but for the first time – it seemed as if rather than simply filling archetypal roles, these women? They were just women.

Just as with the girls one passes on the street, says, “hi,” to in class, or bumps elbows with at clubs, dinner parties, and work meetings – females in comics came in all shapes, sizes, and personalities.  Trying to claim that any of these roles was inappropriate for a female character is offensive and debasing in and of itself.  Somewhere, there is a strong woman, proud to be exactly that.

Another Perspective
So just what was it that people had against the portrayal of women in comic books? Was it their skintight costumes? Was it the way they often found themselves in sexualized positions, bound in a such a way as if they might be more at home in a soft porn magazine, than something created for the entertainment of children? Was it their one-dimensionality?

Sure. It was all of these things. And there’s no denying that it was true. Females in comic books were portrayed in some terrible ways. In fact, even to this day the strongest of the strong may find themselves sexualized for the titillation of their readers.

But the question is, is this something that only plagued females? Were males spared from these stereotypes, and potentially offensive portrayals?

Marvel’s first mutant, Namor was presented to the world as a hero, but unlike the females with whom he shared the spotlight, he seemed to wear even less clothes. Just as females in comic books present unrealistic standards of beauty, so too did the men. Namor was of a physique that would have led Charles Atlas to blush.

Male characters also found themselves bound in mortal peril, whilst at the mercy of all their captors, much to the titillation and delight of some readers.

Often time these images went over looked, because comics were – as previously stated – a boys club. Let alone the fact that this creates a world view in which all males are heterosexual, it also tends to discriminate against the idea that a girl, or a woman, would even lower themselves to spend time with something as trivial as a comic book.

One might be better off claiming that comic book characters, as a whole, were degrading to both genders, equally. Another – more logical – perspective would see that the instances of sexualized women was far more prevalent than males. However, even with that view, one can not discount the fact that this is simply a trope of the form.

Modern comics deal with issues far beyond the simplistic, get the girl, kill the Nazi, save the world, and ride into the sunset theme that they were born with. But then, just like any person – after eighty years, things change, things grow, and things become more mature.

Be it through male or female characters, the themes of sexuality, single-parenthood, and coming of age in a world that seems hostile to those who haven’t quite figured out how to fit in, now run through these once children-read-materials.

Yes exploitation still exists. Yes women are still hyper-sexualized in many comics. But options exists. If one doesn’t like what one is reading – they don’t need to read it. People can vote with their dollar in this post-depression era. If something doesn’t sell, it doesn’t ship. One can show the publishers what they want by supporting that which they think is right.

There will always be material someone doesn’t agree with, but, perhaps, like feminists at the end of the third wave, it’s time they begin looking inwards. By telling others how they shouldn’t act, they may – in fact – be doing more harm than good.


  1. I appreciate that you feel this simplistic summary of women in comics is comprehensive and pursuasive, but you haven't actually proved your point, if in fact your point was that there are alternatives to superhero comics where women are routinely objectified. Of your images, only Jenny Sparks and Death are not hypersexualized, and although I've never heard of Jenny Sparks I dislike the implication that women must be forever 25 to be appealing/strong.

    "By telling others how they shouldn't act, they may - in fact - be doing more harm than good."

    Care to expand on this? It doesn't follow from your post, nor do you offer any proof.

    A lot of people have written a lot more detailed and interesting summaries than this. You seem like someone who has just recently started to notice the gender imbalance in comics and want to justify it or claim that because it's better than it used to be, things are just fine these days. This is entirely untrue. Please keep reading and educating yourself. If you'd like resources, I'd be happy to share.

  2. Naw, it's not that I'm someone who has just noticed the imbalance. It's more to the point that I'm someone writing to a specific audience. One who has no knowledge of comics, and needs a large hundred year history in a quick and dirty, four page, piece.

    Jenny Sparks isn't hyper-sexualized, but there is nothing wrong with her being 25 forever. You can claim that this is an act to sexualize her, but it's nothing more than what's required to keep her believable in the environment. We can suspend our disbelief that a one hundred year old woman could appear to be twenty five, but the idea that a one hundred year old woman, who looks one hundred, could fight is beyond. While this may not be true, as a fact, it is important to pander to the buy-in of readers.

    If it bothers you, you can think of her as being one or two years old, as when she died, she was reborn and aged rapidly.

    I'm going to put forward that Tank Girl, and Betty, are also not sexualized in the images here.

    "By telling others how they shouldn't act..." that's dealing with the idea that feminists were putting forward the idea that it was wrong for girls to want to dress in a sexualized manner, as if a woman who chooses to wear tight clothes, a miniskirt, or crop tops, is in some way doing harm.

    In many ways it's ironic in that we see women dressed sexually in comics, and think it's a bad thing - but if this were to be a real-life character, the idea of telling her that the way she is dressed is wrong would be just as anti-feminist a comment.

    I do not claim that things are fine these days. They are, however much better. There is no denying that aspect. Much as women in North America still have not found themselves in the place of equality they deserve, things are far better for them.

    I continually read to educate myself, but if you would like to post any resources, you should feel free. If not for my benefit, than for others who might want further places to branch off.

    Thank you.