Women in comics: Part II
Web article for Sideshow Collectibles
In the previous article we looked at the role of women throughout the history of the comics industry. This time around, we’ll focus specifically on the depiction and roles of the female comic book characters themselves, primarily in mainstream and superhero comics.
The role of female comic book characters in mainstream comics has historically been that of a supporting character, an accessory to their leading men counterparts. Often, they are given the “Bride of Frankenstein” treatment, simply the female reflection of the male character created to serve as a companion. This is commonly evident just by their superhero names alone, altered versions of the male character name with an added gender description, Batgirl, Supergirl, She-Hulk, Spider-Woman, and so on.
Female characters also often posses what have been described as “soft” powers such as magic or telepathy. The Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four comics can vanish from sight. Marvel Girl has mental powers. Kitty Pryde can phase through objects. Mystique can change her appearance. Whereas, the male characters, more often than not, posses physical powers such as super strength, invulnerability or super speed. Over the years, much of this has changed. Female characters initially created to possess “soft” powers have gained or learned to wield their powers in more physical manners, such as Psylocke, a character with telepathic powers who became a ninja warrior. Even the mental abilities of Jean Grey, known as Marvel Girl or Phoenix, evolved so much that she became one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe.
In the early days of the comics industry, female characters seemed to possess a “good girl” quality that went hand in hand with the “pin-up” art of the day. Characters like Sheena, who in 1942 was the first female character to have her own title, was depicted as attractive and athletic. She was adorned in a leopard skin outfit that, while, bikini-like, was actually less skimpy than her male jungle king counterpart, Tarzan. Sheena was smart, heroic and had a male sidekick. Later comic book trends would lead to the popularization of the “bad girl” archetype, such as Vampirella, Black Cat, and The White Queen, who is generally dressed in tight, fetishized outfits that would be more plausible for swinging around a stripper pole than on the streets fighting crime. Somewhere along the way, the idea of the female comic book character transformed from attractive role model to sexpot fantasy, and that doesn’t stop with just the costumes.
One of the main differences in how female characters are portrayed in comparison with male characters is in the general anatomical representations. While male characters are muscular and fit, female characters are unrealistically illustrated with oversized breasts and waif-thin waists in poses that seem right out of adult magazine pictorial. In fact, a group of scientists performed a study about the comparative body mass index of male and female characters in the Marvel Universe as compared to real world standards . Using data based on official character profiles and excluding teenagers and characters who can alter their body mass or sex, the results showed that 28% of the Marvel women tested were underweight, compared to 0% of the men. The rest of the female characters still tended to be on the low end of normal. Almost none of the women were in the overweight or obese ranges, while 40% of the male characters were obese or overweight, reflecting that it is more acceptable for male characters to have realistic physical qualities, while women are expected to either be extremely fit with low body fat or very underweight. This also suggests that it’s more important for female characters to look like supermodels than to have any sense of biological realism.
In part, this is considered to be the product of a male dominated industry catering to a predominantly male audience. However some of it stems from the nature of comic book art in itself. Comic book artwork is usually done using a “shorthand” style of drawing. Similar to charicatures, certain drawing techniques are used to exaggerate characteristics for the sake of visual explanation and distinction. Many instruction books about the artform encourage prominent hip and bustlines in female illustrations to indicate that the female is an adult, rather than a teen or child. Adult women are depicted with fuller “hour glass” figures, while younger female characters are depicted with slender figures and less defined hips. The desire to over-exaggerate these aspects varies from artist to artist. While some illustrators like Adam Hughes and Frank Cho are well-known for drawing “pin-up” girl style characters, others such as Chris Bachalo’s version of Death, are slender and less curvy.
In recent years, there has been a great deal of outrage by fans over the depiction of female characters. One such incident has lead to the formation of a collective movement to change the status quo. Known as “Project Girl Wonder,” the collection of sites is a “response to a rising level of frustration at the treatment of female characters, creators and fans.” The mascot for the site is Batman’s female “Robin” sidekick, Stephanie Brown who was tortured and murdered in the line of duty, yet received no monument or memorial in the Batcave, unlike previous Robin characters. The incident is also considered a case of what is referred to as “Women in Refrigerators” syndrome, where a female character is either murdered, tortured, raped or otherwise degraded as a plot device to propel a male character’s motivations or emotional distress with little regard to the importance or effect on the female character herself.
Obviously, there is a double standard, but before I seem to be simply painting the picture of an industry now capable of only negative stereotypes, there are several exceptions to the rule. Many of the female characters in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series are clothed in normal outfits and have realistic physical attributes. The Birds of Prey comic book series has often been credited as a great example of strong, self-reliant female characters who are just as good at the hero game as the guys. Kitty Pryde of the X-Men has long been an example of a character that has grown beyond the “kid sister” role, to that of a mature leader. In fact, Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator, Joss Whedon credits her as major inspiration for his Buffy character. It should also be noted that for every female character with “soft” powers, there are also many strong, physical female characters, like Ms. Marvel, Wonder Woman, and She-Hulk. An article in the premiere issue of Comic Foundry explored the idea of She-Hulk as an icon of female liberation and empowerment suggesting that, while her un-super Jennifer Walters alter-ego is a symbol of frailty and vulnerability, her “hulked out” persona is one of “confidence, power, and glorious, unapologetic sexuality.”
One of the female characters with the most significant history as a positive female icon is Storm of the popular X-Men comic book series. Storm, created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, first appeared in “Giant-Sized X-Men #1” in May 1975. She was one of the first black heroines and the first to play a major role within either of the “Big Two” comic book companies, Marvel and DC. Most notably, Storm became a team leader and later even went head to head with Cyclops, defeating him in a challenge for the leadership position even though she had lost her powers at the time of their duel. Marvel Comics’ Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada, was once quoted as saying that Storm is, “one of the greatest female characters ever and certainly the greatest African character ever conceived.” Demonstrating that some of the issues being overcome regarding the depiction of female characters are not only issues of gender equality, but of diversity. For example, a few current comics titles are now presenting stories about lesbian and bisexual characters (Batwoman, Poison Ivy) and single mothers (Jessica Jones, Black Canary).
Another major iconic female comic book character is Mary Jane, from the Spider-Man series of comics. Having gone from Peter Parker’s girlfriend to his wife, she has played a big role in the history of the series and has even starred in her own spin-off series, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, which was a teen drama aimed a teen female audience. The series is set to return with a new writer and artist team later this year. She wa also featured in a popular novel written by Judith O’Brien which retold the origin of Spider-Man, but from Mary Jane’s point of view. The novel was a hit among teenage girls and has helped to create a crossover appeal to non-comics reading girls, helping to propel the character from beyond the pages of the Spider-Man comics. A follow up novel is also being released.
The positive representation of female characters in comics is riddled with a history of give and take. Many inroads have been made amidst numerous and continuing setbacks. The comics industry is far from perfect and there is certainly a lack of balance in the portrayal of female characters compared to men. However, the endurance of the characters over the years is an example of how beloved they are by the fans. These are characters that readers have grown to know and genuinely care for. From Sheena, to Jessica Jones, women in comics are more than just “babes,” they are heroines and role-models with a vast and rich history.
"I now realize I am a warrior as much as I am a woman of peace. I can never place one half of my soul above the other. Heroine. Demigoddess. Soldier. Peacemaker. I am all of these things in part, yet none of them completely." - Wonder Woman