Portrayal of women in American comics
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Women have been portrayed in American comic books since the medium's beginning, with their portrayals always the subject of controversy. Sociologists with an interest in gender roles and stereotyping have outlined the role of all women as both supporting characters and as potential leaders trying with no success to be accepted as equals. Another point of study has been the depiction of women in comics, in which, as in other forms of popular culture, body types are unrealistically portrayed.
Golden Age of Comic Books
During the 1930s–1940s period that fans and historians call the Golden Age of comic books, a time during which the medium evolved from comic strips, women who were not superheroes were primarily portrayed three ways: as career girls, romance-story heroines, or perky teenagers. Career-oriented girls included such characters as Nellie the Nurse, Tessie the Typist, and Millie the Model, each of whom appeared in comic books geared toward female readers using the types of jobs that non-wartime women of the era typically worked. The second role was evident in the very popular romance genre, pioneered by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. A woman in those stories could be the good girl or the bad girl. A good girl gets her heart broken while the bad girl breaks all the boys’ hearts. The third role was as a perky teenager. This is embodied by characters such as those in titles such as Betty and Veronica. The lead characters were both boy-crazed and completely fun-loving teenagers. Betty and Veronica spent all their time fighting over who would get to date Archie. Josie and her band, the Pussycats, always managed to find their way into some sort of adventure but emerged unscathed.
Female costumed crimefighters were among the early comics characters. One of the comics' earliest female superheroes appeared in newspaper strips, the Invisible Scarlet O'Neil by Russell Stamm. The tough-fighting Miss Fury, debuted in the eponymous comic strip by female cartoonist Tarpé Mills in 1941. One publisher in particular, Fiction House, featured several progressive heroines such as the jungle queen Sheena, whose sex appeal is what helped launched her comic series. As Trina Robbins, in The Great Women Superheroes wrote:
[M]ost of [Fiction House's] pulp-style action stories either starred or featured strong, beautiful, competent heroines. They were war nurses, aviatrixes, girl detectives, counterspies, and animal skin-clad jungle queens, and they were in command. Guns blazing, daggers unsheathed, sword in hand, they leaped across the pages, ready to take on any villain. And they did not need rescuing.
The first known female superhero is writer-artist Fletcher Hanks's minor character Fantomah, an ageless, ancient Egyptian woman in the modern day who could transform into a skull-faced creature with superpowers to fight evil; she debuted in Fiction House's Jungle Comics #2 (Feb. 1940), credited to the pseudonymous "Barclay Flagg". The first widely recognizable female superhero is Wonder Woman, from All-American Publications, one of three companies that would merge to form DC Comics. In an October 25, 1940, interview conducted by former student Olive Byrne (under the pseudonym 'Olive Richard') and published in Family Circle, titled "Don't Laugh at the Comics", William Moulton Marston described what he saw as the great educational potential of comic books (a follow up article was published two years later in 1942.) This article caught the attention of comics publisher Max Gaines, who hired Marston as an educational consultant for National Periodicals and All-American Publications, two of the companies that would merge to form the future DC Comics. At that time, Marston decided to develop a new superhero. In the early 1940s the DC line was dominated by superpowered male characters such as the Green Lantern, Batman, and its flagship character, Superman. According to the Fall 2001 issue of the Boston University alumni magazine, it was his wife Elizabeth's idea to create a female superhero. Marston introduced the idea to Max Gaines, cofounder (along with Jack Liebowitz) of All-American Publications. Given the go-ahead, Marston developed Wonder Woman with Elizabeth (whom Marston believed to be a model of that era's unconventional, liberated woman). In creating Wonder Woman, Marston was also inspired by Olive Byrne, who lived with the couple in a polygamous/polyamorous relationship. In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, Marston wrote:
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.
Wonder Woman is an Amazon Princess, the Amazons were created by Aphrodite according to the stories and were made to be stronger and wiser than men.
Some of Marston Moultons early stories included Wonder Woman as president of the United States [a] and as a modern-day Incan Sun God,[b] both non-traditional roles for women. Despite such portrayals of women in leadership roles, however, editor Sheldon Mayer was disturbed by the recurring bondage imagery. If Wonder Woman's bracelets were chained together, she became as weak as any other woman. One issue dealt with Wonder Woman losing control because her bracelets had broken; she was driven mad because the bracelets represented restraint, and stated "power without self-control tears a girl to pieces".[c] Another form of bondage that Wonder Woman craved was the mantle of wife and mother. In one Sensational Comics issue, Wonder Woman tells a woman that she envied her life as a mother and wife.
During World War II, women assumed jobs formerly occupied by men, becoming truck drivers, stevedores, and welders. The same was reflected into the comic books as heroes such as Hawkman needed help and turned to their wives or girlfriends, creating a new form of heroines: the partners. Many women after World War II refused to give up their newfound freedom, creating a massive crisis in formerly naturalized definitions of masculinity and feminity.The femme fatale (prevalent in The Spirit comic book) exemplified this crisis-a strong, sexually aggressive woman who refused to stay in her traditional "proper" place.
The Silver Age of Comic Books
Between 1961 and 1963, one of the top two comic book genres was romance comics. Many influences from this genre overlapped in the superhero comics of the era. Although superhero titles would eventually become the leading genre, DC Comics’ Young Romance would end its thirty-year run in 1977.
After the implementation of the Comics Code, DC Comics implemented its own in-house Editorial Policy Code regarding the portrayal of women, which stated, "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". Most of DC's Silver Age superheroes each had a major female supporting character. These included three career women: journalist Lois Lane, who worked at The Daily Planet with Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent; Jean Loring lawyer and girlfriend of Ray Palmer aka The Atom and aircraft manufacturer executive Carol Ferris, the boss of Green Lantern's alter ego, Hal Jordan. Iris West was the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the Flash's alter ego, Barry Allen.
Batman's supporting cast, beginning in the 1950s, occasionally included journalist Vicki Vale and heiress Kathy Kane, whose alter ego was the motorcycle-riding masked crimefighter Batwoman. With a tip of her cowl to the Harvey Comics character the Black Cat, who preceded her by 15 years as a superheroine on a motorcycle, Batwoman used weapons as well, although hers included powder puffs, charm bracelets, perfume, a hair net, a compact mirror, and a shoulder bag utility case with matching bolo strap. The need to include a Batwoman however was purely to soothe angry parents, who accused DC Comics that they were promoting homosexuality and underage sex.
During this time frame, the comics of the Silver Age of Comic Books published by Marvel and DC were different enough that if you liked one, you were liable not to like the other. If you wanted the classic feel of the original 1940’s superheroes, you were a DC partisan. If you wanted fast action mixed with the emotional angst reflecting a world where social unrest was slowly coming to a boil, you were more likely to read the Marvel offerings When Atlas Comics became Marvel Comics in 1961, many brand new women superheroes were introduced; these superheroes were given a supporting roles. The first female superhero from Marvel Comics was the Invisible Girl, aka Susan Storm, charter member of the Fantastic Four.
Although female characters would develop and become cornerstones of the Marvel Universe, their early treatment would resemble a struggle to be recognized as equals. Supergirl of DC Comics went through such a struggle as she fights against the title of "Superman's kid cousin" to earn her own title as Power Girl.
The Bronze Age of Comic Books
The Bronze Age of Comics reflected many of the feminist tensions of the era. The number of female characters, both heroes and villains, increased substantially in the 1970s, in response to the feminist movement, and in an attempt to diversify readership. However, these characters were often stereotypical, such as the man-hating Thundra or angry-feminist parody, Man-killer.
The character Ms. Marvel is an example of Marvel's struggle with the issues of feminism. Debuting in 1977 at the height of the women's liberation movement, with the honorific "Ms." part of her cryptonym, the heroine's name was a strong symbol of feminist solidarity, as was her civilian job as editor of Woman magazine (a reference to the then-new Ms. Magazine). The first couple of issues of her self-titled comic book even included the cover line "This Female Fights Back!" The reality, however, was decidedly mixed. The controversial Ms. Marvel rape was handled poorly by Marvel Comics: first having Ms. Marvel be the victim to a man's attempt of escape from Limbo, give birth to said man that raped her, her teammates confused as to why she would not want the child, and subsequently fall in love with him and move into Limbo with him.
Throughout most of the Silver and Bronze Age, women in comics were not given leadership positions. In the 1980s, under writer-artist John Byrne, Susan Richards found new uses for her powers and developed an assertive self-confidence to use her powers more aggressively. She changed her alias from the Invisible Girl to the Invisible Woman. Eventually, the Invisible Woman would chair the Fantastic Four, while over in the Avengers, Wasp chaired the team.
Enormous impact was made both within comic book storylines and amongst comic book fans by the radical portrayal of women in the UNCANNY X-MEN comics, which had been relaunched in 1975. Previously existing female characters were given huge increases in power-levels, new code-names, flashier costumes, and strong, confident, assertive personalities: Jean Grey went from being Marvel Girl to the nigh-omnipotent Phoenix, and Lorna Dane became Polaris. New creation Storm (Ororo Monroe) was unique in many ways: not only was she (and still is) the most famous black superhero in history, she was portrayed as incredibly powerful, confident and capable from her very first appearance.
Younger/teen-age female super-heroines, which heretofore had been portrayed as teeny-boppers with some super-powers, were completely reinvented with the fascinating, brilliant, multi-faceted Kitty Pryde, who at age 13 became the youngest member of the X-Men. In the 1980s, the X-Men met with the Morlock tribe in which they kidnapped Kitty Pryde and forced her to marry one of their own. When Kitty escapes, she meets with a Japanese Sorcerer who uses mind control on her and she escapes from him as well, but changed greatly. Much credit for the "turnaround" of portrayals of female super-heroes that happened in the 1970s could be given to X-Men writer Chris Claremont: his portrayals of Storm, Jean Grey, Kitty Pryde, Rogue and Psylocke in The Uncanny X-Men (as well as his work on Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, Misty Knight and Coleen Wing) became known in the industry and amongst fandom as "Claremont Women": smart, powerful, capable, multi-faceted women super heroes.
During the events of Alan Moore's iconic work Batman: The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl is crippled by the Joker. She eventually made the best of her situation to become Oracle, a vital information broker for the DC Universe's superhero community who also leads her own superhero team, the Birds of Prey.
The Modern Age of Comic Books
In the 90s, a popular feminist comic book girl was Tank Girl (by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin), who sported punk-influenced clothing and a shaved head. After becoming a figurehead in Deadline magazine, her popularity was such that a movie was eventually made. She represented the new modern woman as one who no longer had to live under traditional images of beauty or manners.
Due to the fan–based nature of the comic book industry, many of the readers feel, either directly or indirectly, that they are involved in a social practice. The attachment to the titles and the characters obtains a life all its own. There is a sense of social contact with the books and the characters themselves. By adopting these properties, a unique relationship for the reader develops. Due to this relationship, the context in which women are presented in comic books can have various effects.
This portrayal would be put to the test in the Modern Age. While there were many examples of strong, female characters getting their own titles it was not uncommon that sex was used to sell comics as well. In the 21st Century, the roles of many women have changed. Roles and choices such as single parenting, same-sex relationships, and positions of power in the workplace have come to define many women in modern society. These roles have found their way into the comic books of the 21st Century as well. Lesbian relationships were initially featured in underground and in alternative titles, before entering the mainstream.
Lesbianism has become increasingly common in modern comic books. In 2006, DC Comics could still draw widespread media attention by announcing a new, lesbian incarnation of the well-known character Batwoman, even though openly lesbian minor characters such as Gotham City police officer Renee Montoya already existed in the franchise (Renee would become the new Question in the same story arch revealing the new Batwoman, and in fact the two were past lovers).
In 1999, a new website was launched entitled Women in Refrigerators. It featured a list of female comic book characters who had been injured, killed, or depowered within various superhero comic books and sought to analyze why these plot devices were used disproportionately on female characters.
Portrayals of women characters as sex objects continues to attract comment and controversy: In 2007, Sideshow Collectibles produced a 14.25-inch "comiquette" statuette designed by Adam Hughes that appeared to depict Mary Jane hand-washing Peter Parker's Spider-Man costume. The statuette has received criticism for MJ's ostensibly highly sexualized and objectifying pose. Harley Quinn of DC Comics is most famously known for her torrid love affair with the Joker and her sex appeal to the male audience.
Characterizations of women as sex objects has declined in recent decades, as have depictions of women as victims of physical brutality have significantly decreased over the past 20 years. Additionally, recent comics indicate a possible reversal of the trend of portraying characters according to rigid gender stereotypes.
Prior to the Silver age of comics, comic books of all genres were available, including romance, adventure, crime, science fiction and many others. This began to change in the late 1950s and continued into the 80s, and as the superhero genre grew, others shrunk. This also began the marginalization of female voices in comics. Throughout much of its history, the creators of comic books have assumed their audiences to be mostly male, even though the percentage of female readers is almost 47%. The female characters and superheroes' portrayals were targeted towards a predominately male demographic, rather than towards female readers. This could be due to the industry’s lack of knowledge on how to connect to female readers. After decades of self-perpetuating male domination within the mainstream comic industry, many male creators didn't know what women wanted to read about, and therefore didn't try very hard to include female stories. Although many female superheroes were created and featured in comics, very few starred in their own series or achieved stand-alone success outside straightforward erotic works. It has been debated whether the perceived lack of female readership was due to male writers being uncomfortable with writing about or for women, or whether the comic book industry is male dominated due to actual lack of women's interest in comics.
There is, possibly, a historical context for the lack of female representation in comics. In 1954, the comics industry was attacked by concerned parents, psychologists, and politicians. These individuals were concerned that comic books were unfit for children. Superheroines, who had made their debut in 1941, were a major focus; “Foremost on the agendas of the anti-comics crusade were concerns that gender roles were bent in the stories, allowing characters like Wonder Woman to act out lesbian and sadomasochist fantasies.” Hollywood, which had undergone similar attacks in the past, had created a self-governed Production Code, which was then imitated by the comic book industry with the creation of the Comics Code Authority. “The code policed the visual, textual, and thematic content of all comic books published after 1954, and is still active—in diluted form—today. Because of this, superhero comics made after 1954 tended to appease conservative ideology, and gender roles appeared rooted in tradition.”
The enforcement of gender roles within comics continued well past the 1950s; in the 1960s and 70s, when women were starting to take on professions that were traditionally male, the superheroine followed suit; “superheroines were a feminist fantasy. There was, undoubtedly, subversiveness in the superheroine, particularly in her relationship to women’s rights.” Superheroines would follow the minute shifts in socio-political beliefs about women and the home as second-wave feminism and social rights came to the forefront of society. During the 1970s, “the superheroine was placed on a pedestal of achievement, playing with the boys, and developing strength and identity in areas not traditionally available for women. But as females in a majority male universe, symbolically they had nowhere to go except into the roles of women that were recognizable and familiar. For example, superheroes ate, but who cooked their food? Superheroes wore costumes, but who mended them?” The 1970s were a time in comics (and other mainstream media) where “In some ways females were unleashed, allowed to play with the boys, but in other ways they maintain maternal—nurturing, caregiving, conflict resolving—roles.” Superheroines still continue change as feminism and other social changes shape the way that women are perceived in society, and therefore in comics.
Despite the industry’s historically and culturally backed creation of a male-dominated market, there is beginning to be some change. References to comics in other forms of media have led to an increase in female readership, and the influx in convention attendance seems to be largely female as well. The ratio of female-to-male comic book readers is still perceived to be relatively small, but the women that read comics actually take up 47% of the demographic. In addition, many female readers sway towards independent works, where there is a lot more female representation. The independent comics industry, whose products are often referred to as indies, have become a huge source of authentically represented females in comics. More women than ever before are becoming comic book artists and writers, and many of them have flocked to the independent industry. This, combined with a large female readership, has resulted in greatly increased numbers of female- driven stories in this industry. Manga, another form of graphic novel, has also led to a rise in female readership of comics. This does not, however, imply that the stereotypically feminine roles pressed upon superheroines (and other women in comics) from the 1950s have been completely eradicated.
In addition to historical censorship, the male-domination of comic book culture has been self-perpetuating. The view that comics were “something that guys do” created a hostile environment for the female comic book reader. Women that read comics were often viewed as "doing womanhood wrong" or as individuals that "read comics wrong." This led to a cyclical pattern of hostility towards females in the comic book audience. Author Douglas Wolk states “I remember seeing a Marvel sales plan, sometime in the early ‘90s-a huge document, several hundred pages long; near the back, a little section labeled "Female Readers" listed the two titles Marvel published for half of their potential audience: Barbie and Barbie Fashion."
In the 1980s there was a shift in the way comics were written; instead of treating each issue of a comic as if it were the reader’s first issue, or an "on ramp", as it had been done previously, comics began to be written in a way that demanded continuous readership from the beginning of a series in order for the plot to be understood. These stories, which led to many of the comics today, became so deeply self-ingrained that it was-and is- sometimes difficult for someone who has not done so in the past to begin reading comics; it is possible that this may have led to a further decline in female readership, as the female readers that might have tried to start during this era would find themselves confused and lost.
The style in which comics were drawn also changed dramatically in the 1980s. It was during the late 80s that the sex characteristics of characters in comics became grossly exaggerated. This change affected both male and female characters in many ways. Male characters were drawn with bulging muscle, and their heads were dwarfed by unrealistically broad shoulders and chests. Female characters, on the other hand, developed enormous breasts and rears, impossibly thin waists, large lips, longer legs, and clothing that covered very little. The females, with their new, exaggerated sex characteristics and barely-there clothing, were then drawn in suggestive poses that further accentuated their breasts and rears. This trend, still occurring today, has become the target of satire by feminists, especially on websites like The Hawkeye Initiative. These hyper-sexualized female characters have possibly become a source of fantasy for young male readers, something that seems to be perpetuated by the male domination of the comic book industry. This trend towards hyper-sexualized female characters in mainstream comics is part of the reason that independent comics have become so popular among women; independent artists, regardless of gender, tend to draw both male and female characters in a similar style. When those characters do have noticeable sex characteristics, such as breasts or broader shoulders, they are not exaggerated to the point that they are in the mainstream comic book industry.
There is also the matter of how women in comics are treated when compared to their male counterparts. There is, for example, the contrast between Batman and Batgirl. Batman, despite the fact that he is just as mortal as his female counterpart, is able to withstand intense beatings and dangerous falls. Batgirl, on the other hand, was paralyzed after the Joker shot her in the spine. This difference is reflective of the obsession that society in the 1990s had with male strength.
The Invisible Girl, who later became the Invisible Woman, went through a myriad of changes throughout the history of The Fantastic Four series. In the late 1960s, she married Reed Richards and became pregnant. During her pregnancy, the issue of how to deal with a pregnant superhero became a huge ordeal in the comics. The Invisible Girl, also known as Sue Storm, was isolated within a Manhattan penthouse, “sheltered from the realities of the dangerous world outside lest it cause her undue stress (this still during a time when pregnancy was an ailment). She was delicate, a vulnerable treasure that needed protection (The Fantastic Four #75, 1968).” The genetic mutation that gave her superpowers also endangered the life of her unborn child, and it was her husband Reed that saved both Sue and the baby. Reed’s involvement in “overcoming that obstacle formed the central plot of the issue in which the first superbaby is born. Pregnancy and childbirth (the female domain) took second stage to superheroic feats (still defined by masculinity) in these early days of parenthood.” The balancing act that the character of Sue Storm took up throughout this era was a reflection of women at the time, when a balance between feminism and tradition was raging on; the Invisible Woman was able to balance a career and a family, was regarded as an equal to her male superhero counterparts, and was portrayed in a manner that was appealing to traditionalists and feminists alike. Sue Storm’s role in The Fantastic Four was incredibly different than the roles of her male counterparts, but she reflected a time in which gender equality was coming to the forefront. However, the continual involvement of Reed Richards and his domination of major events in her life (i.e., the birth of their son) arguably overshadowed Sue's feminine accomplishments, continuing to perpetuate a male-dominated culture within comics.
The portrayal of women in comics is still highly contested. Despite the more realistic portrayal of women in independent comics, the mainstream comic book industry still sometimes struggles with portraying women realistically. There continues to be a difference in the way female superheroes are treated (by both their on-page counterparts and their writers) when compared to male superheroes of the same caliber. However, more recently steps have been made towards equality and de-sexualization with specific stories and comics.
There is a distinct effort being made by some to address these issues however; there is a Gender in Comics panel at San Diego Comic Con which, in 2014, "included noted comic book journalists, editors, writers and behind-the-scenes figures all currently working to further awareness of the gender issues within the comic book industry.” One of the panelists, Laura Hudson, said this in regards to gender roles in comics and the criticism that they are facing:
“The panel spoke about how engrained a lot of these false gender-based ideas have become thanks to decades of unchallenged existence. "A metaphor I use a lot is it's like working in a bell factory," explained Hudson. "If you work in the bell factory long enough you stop hearing the bells. I think super hero comics has stopped hearing the bells for a long time, but now you have other people coming in from the outside and [the gender issues in super hero comics are] very apparent. Having the Internet, having these other perspectives that are suddenly in front of us and are not subject to gatekeepers and are far more able to be heard exposes a lot of [these issues]."
- Bad girl art
- Friends of Lulu
- Good girl art
- List of female comics creators
- List of feminist comic books
- List of feminist literature
- Gender representation in video games
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