Sirens in Spandex

Superhero Comics Struggle with Female Characters

A pale, acne-riddled, 16-year-old boy flips furiously through the worn pages of his favorite vintage copy of Superman. Inflated breasts strain under the impossibly tight spandex of yet another throwaway “heroine,” and with each turn of the page, misogyny becomes more deeply ingrained in his adolescent brain. Or, you know... not.

Comic-book lovers are everywhere, and they certainly don’t fit neatly into any one category. Then again, neither do comics. Demographics depend on the product, and when it comes to comics, “the product” is not so easily defined. A plethora of genres are possible under the umbrella of “comics.” Despite the immediate association most people make with superheroes, the Hulk technically has no stronger a claim to the medium than Persepolis.

Equally diverse are the female characters who inhabit these many genres. “When people hear ‘comics,’ they don’t necessarily realize how diverse the medium is. If you think comics are just superheroes, you’re going to think it’s a very select society of people who read them,” cautions Karen Green, graphic novels librarian at Columbia. “It’s a much broader and more diverse medium, and there’s something for everyone.” However, the superhero stereotypes cannot be ignored entirely. The fact of the matter is that most people unfamiliar with comics, and even some fans, tend to think of capes, biceps, and contrived plots for world domination as the face of the genre—and it’s not always a pretty one.

Exhibit A: the open talent search that DC Comics, one of the biggest names in the superhero game, held in early September. The contest involved drawing popular villainess Harley Quinn committing suicide, naked, with a due date falling right before National Suicide Prevention Week. Harley Quinn is known for being an exaggerated, crazy character, and according to a DC Comics press release, “Harley Quinn breaks the 4th Wall and satirizes the very scenes she appears in.” Satirical or not, the contest still highlights the serious issues of over-sexualization, objectification, and even violence toward women in superhero comics.

Take the “brokeback” pose. The name was coined to describe the physically impossible positions that women are often drawn in in superhero comics—basically, ass and tits to the reader at the same time. Any genre that necessitates that kind of term obviously has some kinks to work out, and unfortunately, that’s not even the half of it.

 

Gail Simone is one of the top superhero writers in the game. She’s the woman behind dozens of volumes of Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman. Many also know her as the inspiration for Women in Refrigerators, a website created by a group of comic fans in 1999. Simone coined the site’s name, which is a reference to the particularly horrific volume of Green Lantern in which the titular hero discovers that his girlfriend has been murdered and shoved into a fridge, effectively launching his story arc. “This is a list I made when it occurred to me that it’s not that healthy to be a female character in comics. ... These are superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator. I know I missed a bunch. Some have been revived, even improved—although the question remains as to why they were thrown in the wood chipper in the first place,” Simone writes on the site. The existence of Women in Refrigerators is an undeniable indicator of a problem, but it’s also a sign that it’s being addressed.

It’s not all bad out there. Historically, the ladies have been allotted more than just fainting, screaming, and dying. Though plenty of people see Wonder Woman as yet another example of an objectified female character, there’s more to her than her skimpy, spangled spandex. William Moulton Marston created her in 1941, just three years after Superman first hit the shelves. “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,” wrote Marston in a 1943 issue of the American Scholar.

So, what does the modern comic-book reader make of it all? “There definitely is a gender imbalance in comics,” says Columbia College sophomore Zachary Hendrickson. But Hendrickson questions the validity of the criticism aimed at superhero comics. “Hyper-sexualization of women—I know that it’s an issue, but what always gets me is the unrealistic expectations of men. I’ll never look like fucking Superman, but nobody ever has an issue with that side,” he says. Hendrickson believes that these exaggerated portrayals are part of what defines the genre. “The style informs how they are drawn ... being ‘super’ means being more than is possible,” he says. “Who would dress up in spandex to do anything? Clearly this is unrealistic.”

Green disagrees. “Readers, and sometimes even writers will say, ‘Well, the men are drawn with incredibly exaggerated features and skin-tight costumes.’ ... Well, they’re not drawn half naked, and there’s no female equivalent of the ‘male gaze’ or history of female objectification that would apply to male superheroes,” she says. As a comics aficionado, Green is frustrated by the misogyny persistent in the superhero genre. “I don’t understand why it’s still so hard to get complex, multilayered, interesting, non-sexualized characters in superhero comics.”

Barnard College senior Julia Wolkoff believes that getting more women involved with comics is the answer. “Why do we see these archetypes? First of all, it’s relatively more recent that more women are working in the comic industry. ... The more women in the industry, the better representation of women,” she says. Hendrickson also sees progress being made. “These issues [of the over-sexualization and objectification of women] are still major, but people are aware and it’s changing,” he says.

The biggest players in the superhero game are, and always have been, Marvel and DC Comics. Marvel’s claims to fame include Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four; among DC’s most famous titles are Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Both companies have re-launched giant collections of their most famous titles with major changes to pull in today’s audience. DC’s New 52 came out in 2011, with Marvel NOW! hot on its heels in 2012. Both attempted to revamp their most popular titles to create characters and story lines accessible to contemporary readers. Anfal Boussayoud, a Barnard College sophomore, sums up the general consensus among those in the know: “Word to the wise: No one likes the New 52. It’s literally a pile of misogynistic shit.” Taking into consideration the existence of the popular website Has DC Comics Done Something Stupid Today?—which is exactly what it sounds like—I’m not inclined to disagree.

Marvel NOW! has attracted less criticism. “Marvel is at least trying to learn from their consumer base,” says Boussayoud. Seven of Marvel’s most prominent titles either star a female superhero or a team of predominantly female characters. Many of these heroes, most notably Captain Marvel, used to be male characters but, through one plot device or another, ended up revamped as women. Wolkoff also gives Marvel the thumbs up. “It’s not very common for a female superhero to have her own series she says. “There are expectations. Marvel in particular, I think, is trying to do something about that.”

Wolkoff has more reason than most to be a fan of the company. She interned at Marvel in 2012, and speaks highly of the experience. “I was very surprised in a positive way. ... Marvel in particular is very interested in hiring more women,” she says. “In every editorial office, there was at least one or two women. More men than women in the office, sure, but they’re making a conscious effort.” The men behind the scenes at Marvel are also taking steps to make superhero comics more inclusive. “It’s not like you walk in and all the men are all misogynistic pigs,” says Wolkoff of her co-workers. “The people I worked with were very conscientious of having badass, female characters who were represented in a positive way. I think you can look for everything sexist happening in comics and you will certainly find a lot, but I think you can conversely look for really positive things happening, and the best thing you can do is support female writers and artists and female characters in the comics you like and show that it matters to you.”

The comic world is rapidly expanding, and there are plenty of new voices out there. “What’s wonderful is that the independent and alternative comic scene has grown and spread and all these independent publishers have become big,” says Green. “You see just an endless array of female voices out there telling all kinds of stories.” Marzena Sowa’s memoir Marzi tells the story of a young girl growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Poland. Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For is a long-running strip that humorously deals with the personal and political lives of a group of mainly lesbian friends. Gabrielle Bell opts to self-publish diary-style 32-page comics annually with titles like Book of Ordinary Things, Book of Insomnia, and Book of Sleep

The next time you feel your soul starting to wither away after hour six in Butler, consider opting for something other than Netflix. Why not take a trip upstairs to see Karen Green, librarian extraordinaire and keeper of the comic keys? Forget the social stigma, and don’t say it’s too sexist. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be unlocked—in fact, there are thousands, and many are filled with incredible art, creative storytelling, and seriously badass women. 

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