Are Superheroes Sexist?
Sexism in comics is not at all a new portrayal. The fantasy playground for generations of men since the late 1930′s, comics have seen women go through various incarnations whether it be: Scantily clad crime fighting vixens, plucky gal reporters, subconsciously over-sexual Amazons, seductive villainesses, spunky teen side-kicks or strong feminine role models – the list goes on and not to everybodies approval.
And it’s hard to dismiss claims that women have been stereotyped, objectified and at times degraded over the history of comics. And while we enter into a new era of a more inclusive bull penn of writers with a more layered approach to female characters, the old ghosts of sexist past still linger on many a comics page and the issue is far from being put to bed.
This article is in essence a reaction to that, and to two very prominent bits of scandal that rung out across the comics community recently: The objectification of Catwoman and the Hyper-sexualisation of Starfire (formerly of Teen titans, currently of Red Hood and the Outlaws affiliation).
Both characters in their respective titles saw a wave of disapproval from many readers come their way due to their recent depiction in DC’s New 52 relaunch. I’m not going to judge the way those characters were portrayed on here, but what I am going to do is provide you with is both sides of the argument. So below without further ado are some points on the existence of sexism in comics, what’s being done to amend things and where the accusers have simply and got it wrong :
The Eye Candy Argument
When you read a comic, any comic really, but mostly those of the superhero variety, the majority (by which I mean 99.9% of the cast, including background extras) are incredibly athletic, muscular, attractive and in the case of the heroines stacked to the rafters. This is made slightly more obvious for women in comics, when they are rendered most often in glorified stripper outfits striking poses that would make a porn actress blush, all the while saving the day in a thong made out of dental floss.
This isn’t an issue for the overly muscled male heroes who are comfortably covered by (up until recently) their underwear on the outside with everything downstairs nice and strapped down. But for women in comics they aren’t just bearing a lot of flesh, they are being objectified (to an extent) with their revealing outfits and poses right out of Hustler.
Now as the sole stomping ground of men, only recently infiltrated by women, comics have had a tendency to draw fantasy class porno model heroines and have made no apologies about it. And in honesty there is absolutely no defending the renditions (yet, keep reading) other than to say the male audience who enjoys seeing super-heroines in swim suits are totally appreciative of the eye candy on offer.
Now some women, (but not all) who read comics are obviously going to have issues with this, and although there are comics out there written by female writers or effectively handled by male writers that portray strong, interesting, well developed female characters (Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Storm and Rogue spring to mind) there is always going to be that level of sexualisation attached that would seek to undermine this.
Wonder Woman may now be regarded as a feminist Icon due to her strength and equality among the most powerful men in the DCU. Batwoman is one of the most well rounded characters from a cultural, religious and sexual perspective. Starfire may be a strong, independent and in control of her sexuality woman (albeit of extraterrestrial origin). But none of this will detract from the imagery, which is all of these characters are drawn as incredibly hot women, in some very revealing outfits.
Yes, the men are as fit and handsome, but are the women actively objectified? Quite possibly, and when it comes down to it, these depictions can be summed up with a very simple adage: Sex sells. And this applies across a much broader range of industry than just comics.
Is it right? Thats a question you will have to decide for yourselves. The Comics industry does it as much as the Games industry or the Movie Industry or the Music Industry. We wouldn’t take an interest in Lady Gaga half as much if she wore a shroud or a Burka. Who would be interested in Lara Croft if she kicked ass in a frumpy dress? Megan Fox doesn’t get movie roles because of her incredible acting ability.
So if you want to condemn Marvel for depicting Ms Marvel wearing a swimsuit that’s been artistically poured on over her top ten physique in order to fight Galactus when the planets in danger, then call for a halt to all Bra ads, say goodbye to Chun Li from Street Fighter, ban Beer commercials featuring hot women, cancel fashion shoots, FHM covers and music videos where Beyonce gratuitously shakes her ass.
This effectively objectifies women, sells millions, makes companies millions and the women who work for them millions too. And they love it. The difference is, the women in comics are portrayed and not paid. They are fantasy creations of the guys who write them and this is the root of the problem or perceived problem. But again this is slowly but surely on the change.
My advice for anyone having problems with this type of comic, marketing and or product is this: the best solution, in fact the only solution is not to buy it. Because in not buying it you make your point clearer than any complaint. Because complaints don’t strike at the pocket.
It’s a Man’s World
As mentioned in the above segment, the comics industry has up until lately been a largely male one. With the exception of very few titles, the majority on the racks are male written and male drawn, and this has been the staple diet of comic book creative teams for decades.
This of course is changing. Nowadays there are a lot more female voices being heard not just among the writing community but among the fans. Complaints about the lack of female writers have been heard by the major comics giants (most notably DC) and they are being addressed in the creative teams and in the depictions of their female characters across the board. Female writers currently working in the big leagues are Ann Nocenti (Green Arrow and creator of Typhoid Mary and Longshot), Lynn Varley (anything by Frank Miller), Louise Simonson (Power Pack), June Brigman (Power Pack artist), Gail Simone (Secret Six,), Marjorie Liu (Daken: Dark Wolverine, X-23) and Devin Grayson (Batman) but to name a few.
The Gender Validator
But Marvel, DC, Image and beyond have always had strong female characters regardless of the gender behind the pen. And as I previously mentioned these characters have unfortunately been at times overlooked due to their overtly revealing outfits.
Storm from X-Men is one of the strongest females (and ethnic females at that) ever portrayed in comics, thanks largely to the work of X-writer and visionary Chris Clairemont. Jessica Drew is one of the most realistic and entertaining portrayals of a female heroine ever penned in Alias thanks to writer Brian Michael Bendis. Scandal Savage is not only a ruthless killer and a born leader with real life issues, but she expresses an explored sexuality that rounds her out as an outstanding anti-heroine under the guidance of series writer Gail Simone in Secret Six. And these are just a few examples (Wonder Woman, Rogue, WitchBlade, Kitty Pride, Jean Grey, Selina Kyle, Emma Frost, The Magdalena, Mystique, Ms Marvel, Buffy) the list goes on and on.
All of these characters are brilliant, strong and interesting women commonly written off by critics or naysayers as sexist or degrading due to the choice of attire. But just like Superman’s long time wearing of his red Y’s on the outside that frankly look ridiculous, it’s most often the case that the costume of the character doesn’t affect the layers of quality invested in the writing of them. For example Electra may dress like a ninja hooker, but as a reader I still view her as a deadly assassin and a multi-layered character with a deep and complex past.
Educational Consultant and creator of Wonder Woman William Moutlon Martson once wrote of his heroine:
“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.”
In short, it’s easy to be pass remarkable about the fantastical depictions of heroines (and indeed heroes) in comics. They dress flamboyantly, sexually and can at times be depicted in a way that would seem to appease the appetites of the (largely) male creators who write and draw them. But the same characters are now being equally portrayed by women writers, which is not to undermine the male writing that has went before. It’s more the case that the women who write comics now are helping legitimise it.
The Fan Feeling
It seems that a lot of the critics of sexism or implied sexism in comics come from outside of the comic community, from folks who don’t actively read comics themselves. And again this isn’t exactly new from the whole prejudice stance. Even the infamous Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist best renowned for whipping up a frenzy of anti-comic book propaganda with his notorious 1954 bestseller called “Seduction of the Innocent” extolling the dangers lurking in comic books, wasn’t an avid comic book reader. His bold as brass statment; “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry,” showed just how little he knew about the subject material, instead reverting to making sensationalist statements to sell his book.
But the concerned parents of today needn’t be so concerned about the sexy, violent fantasy content of comics if they stopped for five seconds to read the label rating to ensure that little Joanie/Johnny isn’t reading something unsuitable for her/his age bracket. And like I’ve optioned: if your a strong feminist and feel that women are degraded by sexy outfits then simply don’t read the title. And on the off chance that your a guy who feels downtrodden and insecure by the overly muscular depictions of male Adonis’ that stride the inside of most comics, then the same applies.
But the above criticisms seem to be in the minority. Men who read comics don’t have a problem with the depictions of the fantasy characters they read about, and nowadays neither do the majority of women readers. Perhaps one of the biggest and best celebrations of this is Cosplay where both male and female fans dress up as their favorite super-types and go to conventions to celebrate their love of the characters by becoming them, themselves.
The guys love to dress up as male superhero power figures and the gal’s as opposed to viewing their superhero choices as slutty or degrading to women, see them as sexy and empowering. These women celebrate their comics icons by looking flamboyant, over the top fantastical and gorgeous. Are they objectifying women or degrading them by parading around conventions in outfits designed to catch the male eye? It’s doubtful they would think so.
The Cosplay Reclaim
If anything these women are empowered, sexy and in command of themselves. They have the balls to dress this way and it looks great. Girls love it, the guys definitely love it, but overall the fans love it. Could it be misconstrued as sexist and objectifying? Only if those girls who enjoy Cosplaying choose to stand for the accusation, and they don’t. As gorgeous, glamorous and empowered women they are anything but. They are capitalising on their brilliant skills to craft awesome costumes and wear them with absolute pride. So if looking great and showing yourself off is a crime, then arguably the fashion industry needs to be dismantled and women need to be covered up to protect them from the ever wandering ‘guy eye’ that would seek to stigmatise them as a simple object of lust.
This, is obviously a hypothetical fascist move and thus will never happen. Because women enjoy being sexy for themselves, for each other and for the guys who admire them for it. This is the reason why women have glamorous women on the covers of magazines specifically targeted at women. And guys should realise that when women dress to impress, it’s to actually impress other women. Not men.
This relates back to comics in that we are judging an industry that depicts sexy, often scantily clad women (albeit strong, feminine and multi-faceted women). But what critics have failed to account for is that women like to be viewed as strong and sexy. The fans of these comics, both male and female love reading about the exploits of these over the top looking fantasy characters instilled with real values that can make us relate.
So are comics sexist? It seems they can definitely be viewed as such by the casual observer. They could be seen as a male dominated industry depicting women from a male fantasy perspective. But with the industry changing and for the better, more women are legitimising comics now as more than just a male interest, both as fans and as writers. These women are passionate and interested, and will soon be equally represented.
So again, are comics sexist? Maybe once, but not for long.