I hear (well, read, I'm talking about the Internet, here) a lot of talk lately about how badly women are exploited in superhero comics. So, let's take a look at that.
Women in superhero comics are undoubtedly portrayed unrealistically. Their physical appearances are distorted to a nearly grotesque degree, making them exaggerated visual clichés of adolescent male sex objects. Their behavior is even worse; what personalities they have are generally rudimentary or even vestigial, and the roles they occupy are always subordinate to any male superheroes, and for that matter, most other male characters, they appear with.
Throughout the history of superhero comics, female characters have played these demeaning, humiliating roles. Non super powered female supporting characters are simply there as arm candy and plot fodder – “Gosh, Superman, Lois and Lana have both been captured by Lex Luthor’s X-Androids!" This represents, essentially, the entire feminine gender reduced to the status of ongoing nuisance which the hero has to deal with, over and over again. (Lois Lane herself may very well be the epitome of the misognystic witticism "women -- can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em". In Superman's case, apparently, he can't even let her die, either.)
Super powered women, on the other hand, fall near-universally into two subordinate categories in superhero comics – The Inevitable Girl in an otherwise all male superhero team, or The Distaff Version of the Stronger Male Superhero, i.e., Captain Hero With A Boob Job. (Some characters, like the Wasp, fill both categories; she began her career as a weaker version of her senior male crimefighting partner, Ant-Man; a bit later, she also became The Inevitable Girl in the original line up of the Avengers.)
So, on the one hand, the visual portrayal of nearly all women in superhero comics is distorted and grotesque, clearly designed to fulfill the sexual fantasies of the predominantly male readership. In addition to this exaggeratedly libidinous graphic depiction, pretty much all women in comics, with super powers or without, remain in subordinate, supporting roles to stronger male characters.
It doesn’t take a master’s degree in rocket science to understand why this is now, and pretty much always has been, the norm in superhero comics – the sub-genre is entirely designed for, and largely supported by, adolescent males of all ages. To the adolescent male (whether he’s 14 years old or 44), this bizarre and absurdly unrealistic depiction of femininity represents on some very basic, emotional level the ‘ideal woman’ – always sexy, perhaps often annoying, but presenting no real problems or difficulties that the competent, dominant male in their lives can’t solve relatively easily, through straightforward confrontation with the inevitably weaker and inferior forces of obfuscatory evil.
Is this a demeaning portrayal of women in general? I wouldn’t argue it. In fact, I think you could fairly cogently make your case that it’s demeaning for everyone involved; any man who honestly believes that the first forty years of so of Lois Lane’s appearances accurately represent female behavior to any degree is pretty frickin’ stupid. Further, any man who understands that real women aren’t like Lois, but wistfully wishes they were, is beyond stupid and well into a level of emotional retardation nearly transcendent of actual human behavior… but I won’t deny that guys like that also exist... and give the rest of us a bad name, too.
But, still… I think it may be worthwhile to note at this point that, just as pornography demeans both the men AND women who appear in it, so too do comics offer an equal opportunity to both genders for exaggeration and distortion of physical appearance and psychological behaviors.
Which is to say, the men in comics don’t exactly resemble me, or any of my geek buddies, either.
Assuming that the vast slab like chests, brobdignagian shoulders and deliriously ripped musculature of comics’ super powered male mesomorphs are, to any sane or rational eye, at least as distorted and, from a realistic point of view, grotesque, as the similar and equitable anatomical exaggerations hung on all the female characters (and pointing out that the relatively few female superhero fans in the audience seem to enjoy admiring Green Lantern’s ass as much as the vastly greater number of male fans out there like to look at Power Girl’s magnificent gazongas), we’re still left with the insultingly subordinate roles female figures invariably assume in superhero comics.
So, even if the overly sexual physical caricaturing ends up being a wash, as it is just about equally applied to either gender, we're still left with how generally annoying the women in comics are, or how inferior the gender roles they tend to play are in comparison to what the guys get to do.
It’s also worth noting, as we move along, that the present day scarcity of superwoman in comic books does not represent how things have always been. In Comics Golden Age (circa World War II; as with the Silver Age, no two scholars can agree on an exact date range when the Golden Age began or ended) there were a plethora of super powered women in comics, few of whom were in any kind of super team and very few of whom had anything to do with male superheroes. Male superheroes were far more numerous, but still, characters like the Blonde Phantom, Phantom Lady, Black Fury, Sun Girl, Venus, and Miss America abounded in those more innocent times… along with other females more clearly derived from male predecessors, like Namora and Batwoman.
Exactly why the World War II era of comic books features so many independent superheroines, and why the post war era saw most if not all of those independent superheroines either vanish altogether, or sink into the same kind of subordinate roles supeheroines still seem mired in today, I could not tell you. It may well have something to do with the fact that in WWII, women stepped up and took over most of the predominantly male roles in both society and industry, out of necessity as the vast majority of men were serving in the Armed Forces… and this seems all the more valid as an observation when one reflects on the quick backlash against this widespread feminine liberation that occurred when the men returned to civilian life after WWII and literally forced women back into their subordinate roles as domestic helpmeets and support personnel in the work force (secretaries, waitresses, cashiers, etc).
This would seem to very closely mirrored in superhero comics, with the vast majority of superheroines simply vanishing, and those that remained (Wonder Woman and Black Canary, most noticeably) serving in turn as Inevitable Girls to the Justice Society of America, and, just to rub their noses in their post war lack of status, the team’s Recording Secretary (presumably because they were the only members lacking a penis, and thus, the only ones who could knew shorthand and could take dictation).
Interestingly, Wonder Woman and Black Canary remain to this day pretty much the only female survivors of comics Golden Age, making one wonder if the inevitable lesson to be derived from this is that, in the male dominated world of superhero comics, if a girl wants to survive, she has to go along to get along.
It’s also worth noting that Wonder Woman and Black Canary are, between them, decked out in two of the skimpiest and most sexually provocative costumes seen throughout the skanky, skeevy visual history of superhero comics. They’re also among the most unrealistically visually portrayed characters ever. Wonder Woman, being an artificial being given life by the gods, can, one supposes, have monumentally massive mammaries if the predominantly male deities she derives her powers from want her to have them, and somehow or other, they won’t get in the way when she power dives onto a villain from a thousand feet in the air, or twirls her magic lasso in front of her at super speed to generate a gale force wind. We can make the same statements for her ridiculous high heeled knee boots – she’s a supernatural being; if she can somehow fight while wearing these things, well, the gods move in strange and mysterious ways, and so too can their mystically animated homunculi.
No such excuses can be contrived for Black Canary, who is supposed to be one of the premiere female martial artists, acrobats, detectives, and gymnasts on the planet. Female athletes who operate routinely at this kind of superb athletic physical level do not have gigantic hooters; in point of fact, they generally have very low percentages of body fat and any breasts they may have are miniscule or nonexistent.
Beyond that, the finest Olympic level athlete in the world would have difficulty doing acrobatics, much less martial arts, in three inch heels. Ginger Rogers is famous for having done everything Fred Astaire ever did, backwards and in high heels, but I suspect even Ms. Rogers would have found it nearly impossible to vault through a warehouse window, kick a hood in the jaw, flip over his still falling body into three of his buddies, and pummel them all insensate, all while wearing three inch heeled floppy buccaneer boots and fishnet stockings – and all while trying to keep her blonde wig from falling off, too.
Do these two superchicks owe their longevity at least in part to the sheer sexiness of their costumes, however unlikely it is that they would be able to actually physically function as superheroines while dressed in, or, more likely, falling out of, such damfool outfits? Well, I wouldn't rule it out.
But, again, if women in comics are shown with grotesquely unrealistic anatomies, men are as well. This is an inherent part of the art form; comics, like most of our entertainment, are about fantasy projection and wish fulfillment. If we didn’t want to be those characters, or at least, hang out with them in their fictional realities for a while, we wouldn’t cough up the green for their adventures.
To sum up – superhero comics are created by a predominantly male creative group and for a predominantly male consumer base. Their essential foundations are fantasy projection and wish fulfillment. Realistic portrayals of these characters, male or female, would cause the commercial death of the subgenre. I like superhero comics, and I even like them to have a certain level of credible internal consistency and versimilitude to them, yet I have no desire to see Batman popping steroids, nor did I particularly enjoy the era where Blue Beetle had a gigantic beer belly, despite the fact that I have one myself (although, as I don’t drink alcohol, it’s more a milk and Pepsi belly, actually).
Female comics fans may continue to clamor for female characters in superhero comics with more modest mammary endowments and who do not dress like topless dancers at the beginning of a three song routine, but the commercial reality of comics precludes the modification of such details, and that’s just how that is.
If we men don’t feel our gender is being sexually exploited by its universal representation as ‘beefcake’ in these four color rags, it seems to me that female comics fans (who certainly don’t seem to mind the beefcake, either) could lighten up a little bit about the cheesecake, too. But, women tend to have different perceptions of sexuality than men do, and in this regard, we may simply have to accept that this particular sub-genre of graphic art is now and always has been predominantly created for (and by) and consumed by males… and leave it at that. Or, as I noted before, declare it a wash and put it behind us.
However, one thing we do not have to accept is the ridiculously limited, and generally subordinate, roles that female characters play in superhero comics. This isn’t the 1950s any more. If superwomen can be empowered in the 1940s, when all the men were off fighting overseas, they can certainly be re-empowered and re-liberated from demeaning, supportive, derivative gender roles in 21st Century superhero comics.
Which is to say, it’s time and past time for the creation of some super powered women in comics who aren’t either (a) simply there to cook and clean for the guys who make up the rest of their team, or (b) who aren’t simply carbon copies of stronger male characters with tits penciled in on a lightbox. And to that, I'd add (c) who don't necessarily have to prove they're as 'good as any man' by using their powers to win battles and solve problems in exactly the same way as all the super powered men do.
DC, at least, has some strong superheroines in its line up of comics, with the WONDER WOMAN and BIRDS OF PREY titles. Gail Simone’s SECRET SIX also has some fabulous women in it who are neither Inevitable Girls nor Captain Heroes With Boobs. And lately, with much more naturalistic writers on the character, even Power Girl – the ultimate “all I got is my hooters but damn ain’t they somethin’ boys” superwoman if ever there was one – has been displaying a lot of personality nuances never previously suspected. So there’s hope for superwomen, at the one time National Comics, anyway.
Marvel’s treatment of women in their superhero comics has always been pretty embarrassing, however. Even when Marvel's male writers try to empower women, as Chris Claremont did all through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they tend to overreact to an embarrassing extent, creating not so much a credible and realistic portrayal of femininity within the context of superhuman serial fiction, but rather a tapestry of vastly over-aggressive, near sociopathically emotionally independent chicks-with-dicks whose personalities are all entirely interchangeable (“We don’t need no stinkin’ MEN!”) and who can generally only be told apart by carefully scrutinizing their costumes, as well as by noting the different kinds of (almost invariably phallic) weaponry they’re hauling around, in hopes of running into some godawful male they can ruthlessly thrust it into or fire it off at.
Still, all of Claremont’s ultramacho chicks were members of predominantly male teams (all his female X-Men), or were supporting characters in male superheroes’ books (the Daughters of the Dragon). The only solo superheroine title Claremont ever wrote was Ms. Marvel, and she was essentially Captain Marvel with a boob job, and her book didn’t last all that long, anyway.
Jim Shooter, of all people, once rather famously addressed feminine roles in superhero comics in an issue of AVENGERS (#172, I'm pretty sure) where he had Wonder Man think admiringly of Ms. Marvel that she wasn’t like all the other superheroines he knew, in that she didn’t ‘just strike a pose and point’ – her confrontational style, in which she got right in there and smacked the crap out of the bad guys, was ‘like a man would!’
This seemed to lead directly to a decade or more of superheroines who were far more physically confrontational than had previously been seen in comics, women like the Huntress at DC, and the She-Hulk at Marvel, who did indeed ‘get in there and punch... just like a man’. Even Wonder Woman’s ‘fighting style’ became much more physically aggressive and confrontational after her male counterpart so openly admired Ms. Marvel's head knocking capacities. And this was all just a reflection of similar movements that had been going on in TV for ten years at that point, ever since Emma Peel started kicking brawny male attackers into submission on the British AVENGERS… a trend which culminated in the 90s ‘girl power’ shows like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ALIAS, XENA, and LA FEMME NIKITA, to name a very few.
What Shooter, Joss Whedon, and most of the other male writers of these various female battlebots seems to fail to understand is that women are generally not as confrontational or violent as men are. Female superheroines, if written realistically, would be far more likely to employ their superhuman faculties in less aggressive and physically combative ways to resolve the same problems and conflicts that male superheroes invariably attempt to bludgeon insensate. Even female superheroines with very physical abilities, such as Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk, would probably be far more likely to use their strength to manipulate their environment in such as way as to incapacitate their opponents, than they would be to simply wade in and try and beat the holy christ out of their foes. Men tend to be more violently confrontational than women largely because of male testosterone levels, and male superhumans tend to be violently confrontational to fulfill male power fantasies.
All of which is to say, female superheroines in general would be far more likely to try and intellectually outwit their opponents, than they would to attempt to establish dominance on their opponents by beating them into a comatose stupor with a mid size sedan. I’m not saying there wouldn’t be exceptions to the rule – Tigra, for example, might well be more physically confrontational than a normal human woman would be, due to a more animalistic nature – but a woman as generally intelligent and rational as Carol Danvers, it would seem to me, should be far more likely to pick up a giant metal object and use it to restrain a powerful opponent, than she would be to simply fly in and club said opponent into paralytic submission.
This basic dichotomy between how men and woman approach problem solving is one most male writers seem to have little to no concept of. Thus, how male writers tend to script superheroines illustrates an essential problem with creating powerful superheroines who can exist in their own right, independent of the support of any male teammates or surrogates – unfortunately, the average male comics writer generally cannot (or will not) write them so they seem genuinely or recognizably feminine, and the average male comics fan doesn’t really like manly, aggressive, testosterone poisoned superdudes who have tits and vaginas. The same vague male discomfort with powerful women that doomed Tasha Yar early on in Star Trek Jr.'s run also augers poorly for the success of aggressive, physically powerful, extremely violent superwomen.
If we’re going to show some liberated, powerful, realistically portrayed superheroines in superhero comics, we have to find a way to make these characters appeal to female readers – and not just the female readers we already have in superhero comics, but to a vastly expanded audience that would include new female readers, as well. We can't simply create powerful female characters who are little more than clones of powerful male characters, when those powerful male characters primarily resolve conflicts through violence. The dynamic doesn't work well for women; it tends to make them unattractive to most of their target demographic, male or female. We have to find a different model for the modern superheroine, if she is giong to have any commercial success.
Marvel, unfortunately, seems locked into the extremely confrontational, good vs. bad, knock everybody through a building, pick up the car and HIT him with it style that Jack Kirby perfected forty years ago. And locked into it as they are, they don't seem to be able to do anything else with their characters, even their few female ones. There's no reason, for example, why we couldn't have a sorcerer supreme who is a woman, or a female scientific genius who has equipped herself with an array of futuristic inventions of her own creation, or a distaff star-soarer with cosmic awareness -- however, it just never seems to occur to Marvel's editors, or writers, that a woman can not only fulfill those roles just as well as a man, but perhaps even better.
In point of fact, neither Marvel nor DC has a single female scientific genius that I can think of... and given the number of male scientific geniuses in both superhero communities, this strikes me as being a really rather embarrassing lack.
DC, at least, seems to have hit on one approach to creating better superheroines – hire talented female writers to write good, credible, plausibly feminine superheroines. To this I’d add, a few talented female comics artists might be welcome additions to superhero comics, as well… although again, I’d caution; if said female writers and artists go nuts and start depicting their superheroines extremely realistically, in both their behavior and in their appearance, a lot of the escapist appeal of the superheroic continuum is going to be lost.
This may not be a terribly bad thing. It could simply mean that a comic like BIRDS OF PREY would no longer find a predominantly male audience, assuming that all the characters had more realistic measurements, the Huntress stopped dressing like a ho, and they all spent more time gossiping about who is dating who in the League and the Society and the Titans and what happened last night on GILMORE GIRLS, and using their brains to win battles instead of their martial arts prowess (something the character of Oracle does pretty much 24/7 now, anyway... but only because she's paralyzed from the waist down, and therefore, no longer can go out and kick the living bejesus out of the bad guys, the way she did when she was Batgirl).
However, if that were to happen, the theoretical title would need far more support than the current crop of female superhero comics fans could provide; or, rather, it would need to dramatically expand that female superhero comics fanbase.
For myself, I simply enjoy good, nuanced, credible characterization. Having recently read Gail Simone’s first BIRDS OF PREY graphic collection, I found, as usual, that Simone is a terrific writer, but I also, for maybe the first time since I read Alan Brennert’s brilliant Secret Origin of the character way back in 1986, found myself really believing in Black Canary as a person. What did it? Well, Simone had Canary and Huntress exchanging dialogue about the rigorous diets they had to stay on to maintain their figures – something that would have to be true of most superheroines, but that just never seems to occur to male writers – and, even more credibly, at one point Black Canary talked about how she occasionally feels all bloated and puffy while out on a case with the JSA. Again, this isn’t the sort of thing male comics writers tend to be knowledgeable of, but it immediately made Dinah much more ‘real’ for me.
So, to the extent that a female comics writer can make female comics characters more credible, I’m all in favor of it – as long as she can write male comics characters well, too. On the other hand, if Norah Ephron started writing JSA, I’d have no interest in the book; Ephron may write her female characters well, but anyone who thinks that (a) guys really want to nail every chick in the world, even the homely ones (as she had Billy Crystal state in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY) or that guys cry at the ending of THE DIRTY DOZEN (a completely retarded bit of male stereotyping she put in Tom Hanks’ mouth in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE) shouldn’t ever be allowed to write any male character I care about.
As for the rest of it, though, well, superhero comics are inherently unrealistic, and that’s part of their charm. They are also, at least right now, a genre created, consumed, and supported almost entirely by males. Until that changes, I wouldn’t expect to see anything else change… and as a male myself, well, the only change I’m ever in favor of is better writing. But, hey, I like the good girl art as much as anyone else… and I really can’t see anything wrong with that, either.