Female Superhero Representation in Comics
Black Widow. Wonder Woman. Scarlet Witch. Cat Woman. These might be some of the characters that come to mind when asked to think about female superheroes. Now, think about what they’re wearing.
Ever since the dawn of superhero comics in the early twentieth century, women have been objectified within those square windows, no matter how powerful or likable the character is. This is often done through their skin-tight and usually suggestive costumes, gender ratio, and more. However, over the years, women have been gaining more ground in the comic book world. According to Graphic Policy’s article about “Comic Fandom on Facebook“, in July of 2015, women made up approximately 42% of American Facebook users who “like” comics and anything associated with them. Eventbrite states that 40% of people who attended fan conventions in 2014 were female.
Women are becoming more and more prominent in the comic book world, especially as people grow more confident with bringing issues to the forefront. It can be assumed that the more people talk about feminism and its representation in superhero fiction, the more women will feel better about admitting that they like comics, even if those same issues still exist (for now).
When someone pictures Black Widow, what is she wearing? Probably a skin-tight leather catsuit. Catwoman? The same thing. Wonder Woman wears a colourful unitard and various accessories. Scarlet Witch wears a unitard as well, also with various accessories that don’t cover much. Furthermore, Emma Frost and Starfire are both well known for being scantily clad.
Several female superheroes have iconic uniforms, but does that mean that they should always save the day without wearing any forms of protection whatsoever? As times change, so does fashion and the need for a sense of realism in comics. Comic book duo David and Meredith Finch, who drew and wrote Wonder Woman #41 respectively, took Diana Prince’s original costume and came up with a new design created to represent her status as an amazon queen. It was designed to look something along the lines of what she would really wear to a fight. The new costume was made up primarily of armour in her signature colours, leaving only her hands and face bare.
In an interview with CBR News (where you can take a look at the costume), Meredith Finch states that,
“… [Wonder Woman is] also a warrior, so I wanted [it] to be a really strong, solid costume. It hints at the Amazon culture but also fits in[to] the modern world… It’s strong and reflective of who Diana is, and is still very recognizable as a Wonder Woman costume.”
Some fans complained about the lack of skin showing, claiming that feminists think women should cover up everything. Comic book artist J. Scott Campbell (known for his work on Danger Girl) made a comment on the design as well.
“I rarely comment about comic book industry matters on my personal [Facebook] page, but I gotta say, shoulder pads, especially big bulky metal ones NEVER look good on women. Everything about them is unfeminine and lacks style. No grace to this approach at all. And on a side note, I find the continued knee-jerk reaction to internet message board critics demands to keep female heroines covered from head to toe in fabric an overreaction. She’s an Amazon Warrior, she’s NOT in the Taliban!”
Campbell brings up an interesting point. The notion that fans want superheroines to be completely covered is unrealistic in and of itself. It’s illogical to think that just because you can’t see a woman’s skin that she’s being correctly represented in comics. Captain Marvel’s latest uniform covers all except her face (except when she wears her mask) and she is loved by critics and fans alike. It’s not because she isn’t showing any skin. The Finch couple’s decision to completely cover Wonder Woman appears to be a stylistic choice based off the fact that they wanted it to be form fitting and stylish, but useful in battle. While the storms about overt sexualization of female characters in comics may have influenced their decision, a character does not need to be covered head-to-toe in order not to feel like she’s showing too much.
Take She-Hulk, for example. Her costume consists of little more than a one-piece bathing suit, yet it covers what many other superheroine costumes don’t. There is a lot of skin showing, but that’s because she doesn’t need armour – what she needs is free movement. It suits her character perfectly.
Feminism in comics doesn’t consist of wanting to hide women’s attributes; it consists of not blatantly showing them off to appeal to the male audience while the character completely lacks development. If the reader can’t answer the question of “Why would this person wear something like that to a fight?” then it is not a realistic representation of female superheroes. Granted that the word “realistic” must be used lightly in correlation with the world of superpowered heroes, mutants, villains, and aliens, but part of what makes comics fun to read is imagining what the world would be like if these ridiculous things actually happened. If they did, it is probable that women wouldn’t wear barely-there clothing in battle, especially if their abilities don’t prevent them from getting into close range combat.
Modelling for Males
Not all women are gymnasts. Many of them can’t pose the way they often do in comics. There are poses in comic book covers and pages that are drawn mainly to show off a woman’s butt and breasts at the same time, which is hard to do in real life. Their body parts are usually twisted so that the outline of their curviest parts is clearly visible.
Last year, one of Marvel’s variant covers for the female-driven comic Spider-Woman sparked enormous controversy (see it here). Spider-Woman is pictured as if trying to climb a wall… on the roof. Her posterior is the most defining and eye-catching of the entire cover and it has been described as overtly sexualized. The artist, Milo Manara, is known for his erotic drawings and many fans question the decision to have him create that particular cover for that particular series.
In response to such unnecessary contortionism, fans of comics have created The Hawkeye Initiative (click here to see some of the fan art). The basic idea behind the initiative is to draw superheroine poses from actual comics with male characters (particularly Hawkeye) in their stead and see if they look just as appealing. If it looks ridiculous and impossible, then it’s considered sexist.
The initiative has garnered a lot of attention from over fifty different websites and media platforms, including the Canadian and British Broadcasting Corporations. With plenty of submissions by artists and comic fans alike, the uproar about sexism and the need for its depletion is quickly rising in popularity. Things like The Hawkeye Initiative raise awareness about the representation (sexual or otherwise) of women in comics with the hope of one day creating a superhero world with gender equality to parallel our own (eventually).
The Carol Corps
One superheroine who’s viewed as a feminist is Captain Marvel, also known as Carol Danvers, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. She’s considered to be so strong and popular a character that Marvel Studios has decided to give her a movie of her own in 2018. Captain Marvel will be the studio’s first foray into a film led by a female superhero. The film is expected to be based heavily on DeConnick’s version of the character, as she has revamped the previously mistreated Ms Marvel (who started out strong, but was neglected and shunted in the latter half of the twentieth century) into Captain Marvel. The series has been praised for its quality storytelling and presentation of a strong female character with a distinct lack of sexism.
Because of its strong run, enthusiastic fans have declared themselves the Carol Corps and made Captain Marvel a phenomenon in the comic book world. With powers similar to Superman, Captain Marvel is a powerhouse with an attitude and DeConnick says that she thinks Carol’s desire to do better and be better is part of what makes her so relatable.
Reviewing Gender Ratio
Going back to Wonder Woman for a minute, while she is definitely THE superheroine icon, she’s also the only woman in a team of males. It could be argued that it is a misrepresentation of gender ratio to assume that only one woman would be on a superhero team. Even the cinematic version of the Avengers only included one female Avenger, the Black Widow, until Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, when Scarlet Witch changed sides and joined the team. Still, the two women are undoubtedly outnumbered by their male teammates. In the first incarnation of the Avengers in comics, the only woman is Janet Van Dyne, whose alter ego is the Wasp. The Fantastic Four, affectionately known as Marvel’s first family, consisted of three men and one woman.
For years, super women have been on teams of superheroes and are usually outnumbered by the men. Even the X-men, who are known for having several powerful female characters, started out with only one: Marvel Girl. Since then, characters like Phoenix, Storm, Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Jubilee, Psylocke, and Mystique have been associated with the team in the comics and films, yet they still seem outnumbered.
In the real world, the number of men versus women is even more skewed than in the comics. According to a study conducted by comic book historian Tim Hanley, in June of 2014, only 10.1% of DC comic credits belonged to women. In the same month, 12% of Marvel Comics credits belonged to women. Credits include editors, colourists, writers, editors, and more. While the women behind the pages are few and far between, they have always been there.
The documentary She Makes Comics explores the history of women in the comic industry. From eighty-eight year old comic book artist Ramona Fradon to Captain Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, She Makes Comics emphasizes the larger than previously assumed contribution of the female population to the comic book industry.
This industry has come a long way from its golden age. Marvel currently has a podcast entitled The Women of Marvel which is run by a squad of females working for Marvel Comics who talk about the Marvel Universe and many female-related topics within that universe. In May of 2015, Marvel published its first all-female roster of Avengers titled A-Force. This is one of Marvel’s several female-driven comic series’ currently running and on the way to store shelves. Others include Silk, Captain Marvel, Spider-Gwen, Thor, and Princess Leia. DC Comics has also been praised for its newest incarnations of Batgirl and Gotham Academy, both mostly led by girls.
Aliases and Alter Egos
There are currently a lot of superheroines and supervillainesses and many of them have great character and personality. However, there is something to be said when several of these women have alter egos associated with the male superheroes who came before them. She-Hulk. Batgirl. Spider-Woman. Supergirl. Why do they have to be associated with their male counterparts? Why couldn’t they have grown into their own, independent super identities? Why must their names distinguish them as females instead of being gender neutral? Why couldn’t the X-men have been the X-Mutants?
Good examples of gender-neutral names include Captain America, Falcon, Green Lantern, Daredevil, Phantom, Green Arrow, the Atom, the Flash, the Shadow, Angel, Rogue, and apparently Thor. Yet many superheroines have the female distinction when it’s unnecessary. Why? Why couldn’t She-Hulk have been distinguished by her lawyer status? Why couldn’t Spider-Woman have been called the Arachnid? Maybe Batgirl could’ve been Sonar in reference to an actual bat?
Sexism and sexual discrimination were still very prominent in the time when superhero comics were becoming popular. Back then, women weren’t seen or treated as equals. Now, comic book companies (and hopefully everyone else in the world) are changing the way they treat women, fictional or otherwise. The television show Marvel’s Agent Carter, a female-driven spy/thriller derived from Marvel comics with a gender neutral alias, demonstrates the kind of sexism common in the nineteen forties while also proudly showing off the type of powerful woman that fans and feminists alike want to see onscreen and on the page.
Total gender equality is coming and comics are one more stepping stone to the representation of said equality in fiction.
What do you think? Leave a comment.