To be a female superhero
It ain’t easy to be a female character in comic books. The pattern goes something like this: a sexily-drawn woman with barely-developed character and history is quickly set up to be raped, mutilated, tortured, brutalized, and whisked off stage to make room for the next doomed ingenue. Sure, shocking exploits are the bread-and-butter of comic books, but the gender differential can hardly be ignored: Male characters exist in far greater numbers, are developed into ambigious characters with an interesting backstory, and they grow and change over time. Women characters? More often then not, they are so much cardboard, existing only catalyze their male counterparts.
The grisly treatment of female characters has been long chronicled by Gail Simone at Women in Refrigerators (a name inspired by a particularly horrific storyline), as well as fan sites such as When Fangirls Attack and Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed). And the rumble’s being heard: The grassroots groundswell by comic fans who want more for female characters is resonating in more mainstream circles.
Charlie Anders recently wrote a piece in Mother Jones headlined: Supergirls Gone Wild: Gender Bias In Comics Shortchanges Superwomen. It smartly draws in the strange-but-true comics history, and looks toward a brighter future:
“Ever since the pulpy era of tales like ‘Lois Lane, Slave Girl,’ women in comic books have usually been stuck as tagalongs, also-rans, and girlfriends who try to tie down male heroes with marriage. With very few exceptions, comic-book writers and artists have been men, and they’ve assumed most of their readers were, too.”
The Guardian’s getting in on the story as well. In “Superheroes need rescuing from sexism,” Ned Beauman chronicles some of the most maddening recent mysogyny:
“First and worst was the case of “Mary Jane Watson: slutty housewife”, when Marvel released a statuette of Spiderman’s girlfriend bending over to pull his costume out of a laundry pail, showing off maximum cleavage and thong. Soon after came two issues of monthly comics with irredeemable front covers: Heroes For Hire #13 showed three busty superheroes menaced by an alien insect called the Brood, which many saw as a deliberate reference to the “tentacle rape” genre of Japanese manga comics; Justice League of America #10, meanwhile, showed Power Girl with breasts that were surreally oversized even by comics’ regrettable standards.
“Superhero comics have always been plagued with sexism. Back in the 60s, the problem was marginalisation - just as every black superhero had to have “black” in his name, female superheroes were called something like Shrinking Violet or Invisible Girl, and certainly knew their place.“These days, there are lots more strong women in comics. But marginalisation has been replaced by objectification: female characters get stuck with implausible curves, skimpy costumes, and stripper poses. Then there’s Women in Refrigerators syndrome - the way male writers seem happy to make violence against women (often sexual violence) into a cheap plot device.
So what’s the good news? Change is happening—if not because of a revolution in gender sensitivity on the part of the comics industry, then because of the potentially enormous lost audience caused by bad press. Because of feminist bloggers and critics, DC to revised that Power Girl cover Beauman refers to. What’s more, we hear from the Our Bodies, Ourselves blog that DC Comics is releasing a new series of graphic novels aimed for its female audience; it’s “a realistic high school story written by Cecil Castellucci, an award-winning author of young adult fiction,” according to The York Dispatch (which, sadly, in that same article claims that Marvel Comics is also connecting with female readers with the “girl-friendly twist” of a storyline titled “”Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane.” Oh, please.)
And Gail Simone—she of Women in Refrigerators fame—is becoming a changemaker on the inside: she’s joined DC Comics and now chronicles the adventures of the former Batgirl and is slated to become the writer behind Wonder Woman. And she’s bringing her feminist sensibilities with her.
That’s what I call a superhero.