Feminist Criticism of Society and Comic Books’ Past
In 1940, prominent American psychologist, inventor, and comic book enthusiast William Moulton Marston became frustrated with what he described as the “unfulfilled potential of the comic book medium” 1. Max Gaines, the comic publisher who owned two of the companies that would merge to form DC Comics, suggested to Marston that he should create a female superhero. A year later, in December 1941, Wonder Woman was born in the pages of All-Star Comics #8.
Since those days of the Golden Age, women in comics have faced decades of adversity. A temporary need for feminist patriotism during World War II gave rise to the first heroines of the medium, and society’s lack of need for feminism after the war led to their decline of importance. Though this phenomenon may have been incredibly unfortunate for the women on the pages, it is fortunate for feminists and sociologists today that the stories of comics have been so well preserved, as comics are a valuable resource for analyzing historical attitudes about women. From hundreds of thousands of pages of comics, we can analyze the role of women and the social attitudes towards women at the particular point that a story is published.
Fulfilling Society’s Need
Wonder Woman was conceived through the absence of women in illustrated fiction, but she was not the first female comic book star. There were other mainly short-lived and irrelevant female superheroes before her, and females, by-and-large, were represented as being either a sidekick or a “damsel in distress”—an objective to be saved—as can be seen in very early versions of Clark Kent’s love interest Lois Lane. One other woman of comics whose stories are still published today also had her first appearance in December 1941: Betty Cooper, one half of Betty & Veronica, two points of a love triangle who have fought over Archie Andrews for over seven decades.
The simultaneous births-on-paper of Wonder Woman and Betty Cooper provide an intriguing juxtaposition that we can analyze: one character was born from one feminist’s perspective on the absence of strong women, intent on challenging the status quo, while the other was created to be a status quo-friendly and relatable character for a target demographic: preteen girls. Regarding the social purpose of Wonder Woman, Marston wrote the following in a 1943 article of The American Scholar:
Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman. 2
Though the terms he chose might be considered objectionable by feminists today, we can discern from this the societal need that Wonder Woman was to fill. In the same month as her first appearance, America was brought into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. There was a sudden need for independent and strong-willed women to fulfill duties that men typically fulfilled while the men were away at war, and as such, Wonder Woman fulfilled a similar role similar to the iconic wartime character Rosie the Riveter. Wonder Woman often found herself in the bondage and chains of men who wanted to suppress her, and only her determination to break those chains would set her free. This was meant to arouse determination in the women who may read these stories and instill in them the idea that they too could break free of their own bonds.
And on the other hand, we have Betty Cooper. Pep Comics and Archie, the two books in which she and Veronica Cooper were featured in their early years, were marketed directly to girls aged 6-13. Their first years were not affected in any way by the war, and life in their comics just went on as usual if a war was not even happening. This is not surprising, as reaching out with such storylines would not be relatable to such a young demographic. Betty and Veronica’s lives were that of a typical 1940’s teenaged girl. Hobbies included cooking, fashion, and making their own clothing. Recreation would be had by driving around the block. More famously, the two constantly battled over Archie’s attention and the two often seemed only to exist to serve as prospective love interests.
What can we infer from this? When a need for strong women was created by the war, Wonder Woman served to rouse them from their homes and into shipyards and factories, while their daughters sat at home reading Archie. One could theorize that the writers and publishers of Archie knew that the war would not last forever, and that the need for strong women would be short-lived. By the time the war was over, girls who had grown up idolizing Betty and Veronica’s exploits in Archie would have little reason to deviate from the pre-war status quo.
The Silver and Bronze Ages
In response to a public worried that comic books would devolve into stories of horror and perversion, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was formed in 1954 as an alternative to government regulation to let comics publishers self-regulate the content of their media. The code stated that good must triumph over evil, that government institutions may not be painted in a bad light, that any “sex perversions, abnormalities, and illicit sexual relations” were not to be printed, and that any depictions of “violence or lurid gruesome illustrations” would be banned 3. Any publisher creating a comic must submit the book to the CCA in order to show that their books were code-compliant. Any book not found to be in compliance could not display the code’s Official Seal on its cover, something that many comics retailers required.
In response, DC Comics created a policy of its own which stated that “the inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities” 4. Given that women in that time were typically not writers anyway, and that the creative staffs of both DC and Marvel were 100% men, the code inherently discouraged any portrayals of women and nobody cared to protest. As a result, female readership of superhero-based comics underwent a rapid decline with most women opting for romance comics, which were just as popular as superhero comics at the time.
The Thawing of Women
Over the next forty years, this institutionally-mandated female exclusion would lead to a phenomenon that would go largely unnoticed by anyone except for the few women left reading comics: Women were at first only used as background devices, but over time, those women who did break through the barrier of irrelevance often found themselves meeting a gruesome end. Many feminist movements arose in the late 90s and early 2000s to raise awareness to this trend.
One came in the form of a list by then-enthusiast and now-comic writer Gail Simone titled Women in Refrigerators. In 1999, Simone wrote a letter to dozens of comic writers and executives requesting their insight on “superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator. […] Some have been revived, even improved, although the question remains as to why they were thrown in the wood chipper in the first place” 5. The title of her letter comes from an incident in Green Lantern #54, in which Green Lantern finds that his girlfriend had been killed by a villain and stuffed into the fridge.
Among the unlucky on the list is Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker’s dead girlfriend; the miscarriage of the Invisible Woman’s second child; and the first Ms. Marvel, who had run the gamut of being “mind-controlled, impregnated by rape, powers and memories stolen, cosmic-powered then depowered, and alcoholic” 6. The point that Simone made was that women in comics were being tortured and punished in ways wholly disproportionate than their male counterparts. Moreover, they were objectified to such a degree that their primary importance was to be killed to punish the males in their lives. Simone only included superheroes and famous characters on her list—another list could be made featuring the women who were introduced only to be background characters and companionship for the males for a time while they waited for their inevitable slaughter.
The Girl Wonder
Writers in the industry had a cool reception to Simone’s letter. Many admitted that they were not mindful of the phenomenon but conceded that they understood her point, while others responded in an almost defensive manner. A few wrote back that several male characters had met grisly ends as punishment for male characters, and one cited Jason Todd as his example—otherwise known as the second Robin. After the original Robin, Dick Grayson, left Batman’s side to become an independent superhero known as Nightwing in 1983, Jason Todd took over the title of Boy Wonder. Five years later in 1988, Todd found himself kidnapped by the Joker, beaten by a crowbar, and left to die in a warehouse with a time bomb. Batman arrives too late and cannot save him. A large funeral is held and Batman is wracked by guilt for many issues afterward, even setting up a memorial display in the Batcave featuring Jason’s uniform that serves as a constant reminder that he must stop the Joker. In short, Bruce Wayne is severely affected by this death for many years.
Tim Drake would inherit the title of Robin until 2004, when his father eventually forces him to hang up his uniform and go to boarding school for a while. In response to this, Tim’s girlfriend Stephanie Brown (also known as the superheroine Spoiler) takes the opportunity to craft her own Robin uniform, sneak into the Batcave, and convince Batman to train her as the new Robin. Four issues later, Batman would decide that she is too unskilled for the role and “fire” her. Stephanie, undeterred, would steal one of Batman’s plans and attempt to carry out one of his tasks in an attempt to prove herself. That plan would go horribly wrong, and Stephanie found herself kidnapped by the Black Mask and brutally tortured with a power drill. Batman arrives in time to find her alive, but she would eventually die on a hospital bed from her injuries.
Batman’s response to her death, in comparison to Jason Todd’s is brief and almost non-existent. Life would go on just as usual for Batman and Bruce Wayne only a few issues later, and many fan websites now do not even mention Stephanie as ever being a Robin in Batman lore. An activist movement rose when a feminist group calling themselves “Project Girl Wonder” took exception to several inconsistencies between the deaths.
First, while Jason was portrayed as being heroic in the last moments of his life, Stephanie is portrayed as being helpless and her torture has sexual overtones. Second, they took exception to the fact that her death was celebrated with a Black Mask action figure, in which two accessories happen to be the power drill and hacksaw that he used to get her to talk. Third, after the torture, Batman finds her body “splayed and twisted unnaturally with an angle that emphasizes her figure, with her uniform ripped on the breasts” 7. Fourth, Batman and Tim forget about her as soon as she is gone. And fifth, perhaps most importantly, Stephanie’s death was not immortalized with the same Batcave memorial that Jason Todd received. Their cause stirred such a backlash that DC eventually retconned her death (as comics usually do) and Stephanie Brown eventually came back to don the cowl of Batgirl.
The two examples cited here were only two of a few of a very vocal minority of comic readership, but two that made a lasting impact on where comics would emerge from after the 1990s.
In 2011, in an effort to appeal to new readers and expand its readership, DC Comics rebooted its continuity with an initiative called the “New 52.” Soon after its launch, a report by DC Comics 8revealed a 93% male/7% female gender gap among New 52 readership. However, as of September 2015, an article by The Guardian 9 reported that, based on a survey of Facebook “likes” and social media activity, 42.8% of comic fans are female. DC’s low female readership at the time could be attributed to backlash from female comic fans when New 52 launched, as only 1% of creators 10 at the time of launch were female. As of January 2017 that number has risen to 19.4% 11, with 147 women out of 759 total creators.
In response to feminist activism and criticism, Spawn creator Todd McFarlane defended his craft. In 2013, while promoting the PBS documentary “Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle,” McFarlane said that “The vast majority of dudes [are] doing this high testosterone sort of storytelling, and so we put our fantasy on the plate on the pages.” He went on to explain that, as comics are historically male-driven, superhero comics may not be the best medium to empower women: “I’ve got two daughters, and if I wanted to do something that I thought was emboldened to a female, I probably wouldn’t choose superhero comic books to get that message across.”
Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress wrote a response to McFarlane’s comments, refuting his arguments that she construed to be a defense of biological determinism:
These arguments ignore that superheroes don’t actually exist, and that the production of superhero comics is not actually a biological function determined by whatever bodies we’re born with. A lack of equality in the nobility’s ranks in the medieval military hasn’t kept Tamora Pierce from writing dozens of fantasy novels involving female knights, because that is a thing that you can do in fiction. If superheroes actually existed, and their ranks were exclusively male, writing fantastical fiction to consider how women might handle that sort of power, and how the world might react to their use of it would be a perfectly legitimate subject for superhero fiction to explore. 12
Today, incidents of sexism do still happen, though they are noticed quickly and sometimes stopped due to social media backlash. The most recent example came in March of 2015 when DC planned to release a Batgirl variant cover featuring the Joker. In 1988, Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) was shot in the spine by the Joker to punish her father, Gotham Police Commissioner Gordon, in the Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke. The incident left her in a wheelchair for over a decade until the New 52, when DC gave the cowl back to Barbara.
The moment is obviously a very traumatic one in her life, but Barbara has grown to be one of the most celebrated women in modern superhero lore. When DC announced that they were releasing a cover featuring a tearful Barbara helpless in the Joker’s arms (who happens to be wearing the same outfit he wore when he shot her 28 years ago), there was a resounding negative response. The hashtag #changethecover became a rallying cry within online comic communities and a massive boycott of all DC Comics was threatened by feminist communities. Within two days, DC announced that they were pulling the cover.
Since those dark ages of the 90s, more and more female staffers have joined the ranks as writers and artists. There is still an “old guard” of veteran writers and executives that are vocal about their wishes of maintaining the status quo of yesteryear, but there are an equal amount of talented and beloved newcomers that provide a counterbalance. Though both still exist, objectification and sexualization of women have been greatly minimized in today’s comics. Thanks to independent publishers and crowd-funded Kickstarter campaigns, women are a growing voice in the creative process of comics and can disperse their work to a much larger audience.
As stated earlier, comics are a wonderfully-preserved medium that are perfect for feminist critique because the treatment that women receive in comics can be easily traced to the role that society expected women to follow at that point. Later on in the 1990s, it shows where a medium would evolve to if women had no say in their production or writing over a period of 50 years. Men were left alone to control the medium and women were pushed to the background, used solely as sexual objects disposable fodder to punish the male characters in their lives. And it wasn’t until women started taking notice of these inconsistencies and became a vocal nuisance that the publishers began to change their ways.
Just as comics preserved the diminutive role that women served in the mid-20th century, it preserved a remarkable turnaround that shows how much improved a medium can grow when women have a vocal role in its creation. Feminist theory states that women’s viewpoints and input have been silenced as they have not had an active role throughout history, and that history is worse off for it. If anything, comics are a perfect example that proves that theory right.
- Lyons, Charles. “Suffering Sappho! A Look At The Creator & Creation of Wonder Woman.” ComicBookResources. N.p., 17 Aug. 2016. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. ↩
- Marston, William Moulton. “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics.” The American Scholar Vol. 13, issue 1. 1943. ↩
- “Comic book code of 1954.” Wikisource. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Comic_book_code_of_1954 ↩
- Uslan, Michael. Batman in the fifties. New York: DC Comics, 2002. Print. ↩
- Simone, Gail. “Women in Refrigerators.” Web log post. Mar. 1999. Web. 06 Mar 2017. http://lby3.com/wir/ ↩
- Simone, Gail. “Women in Refrigerators.” Web log post. Mar. 1999. Web. 06 Mar 2017. http://lby3.com/wir/ ↩
- Borsellino, Mary. “Project Girl Wonder.” Project Girl Wonder. Feb. 2006. Web. 06 Mar 2017. http://girl-wonder.org/robin/ ↩
- “‘New 52’ Appealed to Avid Fans & Lapsed Readers.” ICv2: The Business of Geek Culture. 09 Feb. 2012. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. http://icv2.com/articles/comics/view/22113/new-52-appealed-avid-fans-lapsed-readers ↩
- Barnett, David. “Kapow! The unstoppable rise of female comic readers.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 Sept. 2015. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/18/female-comic-book-readers-women-avengers-a-force ↩
- Collins, Sean T. “Listen to Dan DiDio respond to the fan who told DC to ‘hire women’.” ComicBookResources. Aug. 2016. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. ↩
- Johnston, Rich. “Gendercrunching November 2016 – Marvel, DC, Boom, Titan, Dynamite And Valiant.” Bleeding Cool. 09 Feb. 2017. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. ↩
- Rosenberg, Alyssa. “Legendary Comics Creators Dismiss Sexism Critiques, Say ‘The Comics Follow Society. They Don’t Lead.'” ThinkProgress. 08 Aug. 2013. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. ↩
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