There have been controversies surrounding women in the comic book world since the very beginning of the industry, their gender roles, stereotypes, and unrealistic body type depictions. The women that have starred as leaders, supporting characters, have both succeeded and failed throughout each comic book age in justly women representation. They have gone from damsels in distress, to sexualized objects, being drawn by men and created for the male audience. Their advancements towards a positive progression have been slow, and have only recently positively become identifiable and pleasing to the industries rapid growing female fans.
The Golden Age of comic books was between the 1930’s until the 1940’s, when they were first introduced, and women in comic books then were commonly portrayed solely as the subordinate character in the background or fitting into generic stereotypes. In independent comics geared primarily towards a female audience, women were either career girls trying to make something of themselves or romance story heroines. In the Golden Age, Superman from DC Comics and Captain Marvel from Marvel Comics dominated the stands, without a sign of any female characters in the front covers. The women inside these first comic book pages were the damsel in distress archetypes, or as seductive distractions that could lead the superheroes astray from their responsibilities.
Lois Lane, the now well-known independent, passionate and career oriented journalist and Superman’s love interest, was introduced in the first issue of Superman only as another woman the hero saved without any hint towards character development. This was a common theme in the Golden Age of comic books, women were portrayed as dependent, a source of emotional support and helpless, needing to be whisked away in the arms of a “strong, reliable and protective” man.
Boys read and could aspire to be heroes, saving the day and protecting the girl, while girls read they couldn’t handle the world without expecting a man to save them from it. Comic books can be described to fit into the social learning theory for boys and girls. The gender stereotypes were heavily implied in the early comics, and they were a source of media depiction of where society stood.
World War II took place during the end of the Golden Age of comics, and started to change the audience reading them, an older generation and rise in female readers. This was simultaneously the time period that the first wave of feminism was beginning to take place, women were taking on male oriented jobs while they were at war, and gaining a louder voice for their pride. The iconic Rosie the Rivetor was created, with her “We Can Do It” clenched arm and hand on her muscle poster, symbolizing the women’s new sense of belonging. In 1941, Wonder Woman was created by DC Comics to go hand in hand with the new vision of female power, intelligence, and patriotism. She was a representation of feminism from the beginning, and later inspired the creation of super heroines like Miss America and Supergirl. Wonder Woman could be argued to have been a product of agenda setting, the comic books as a whole as well. She was born out of a time period when women were seeing themselves in a new light, and wanted to be shown that way.
Wonder Woman was primarily a success, but also underwent scrutiny and controversies. Wonder Woman wore armbands, that when chained together, she became as weak as a woman without superpowers. This heroine was continuously finding herself in trouble by being tied up, chained, with bondages, or ropes, with sexual implications when she was powerless. Even her weapon, the golden lasso, has been criticized as a tool of sexual empowerment, as if a women could only control the situation by using her sexuality. Her popularity died in the fifties from the female audience when new writers made her weaker and dainty, but she returned stronger than after the second wave of feminism in the 60’s. Now, the character will star as a leading role alongside Batman and Superman in Zack Snyder’s 2016 film, and soon to debut in her own personal movie in 2017, hopefully as strong and independent as her origin.
However, Wonder Woman became the first of many women in the comic book industry to be criticized for depicting unrealistic body archetypes. Female characters have continuously still been objectified as sexual objects even when they have the power and strength like their male superhero counterparts. Their outfits are the first and most distinguishable controversy, with tiny skirts, bare legs, and unrealistic large bust size to match their tiny waists. In the article by Fantasy-Magazine, the Objectification of Women in Comic Books, there was a study by Jessica H. Zellers of how women were depicted in comic books, and found that “of the suggestively clad, partially clad, or naked individuals, about three times as many were women (296) than men (107),” Zellers also adds, “It is incredible that almost one out of every four females was, at some point, depicted in the nude.”
Comic book heroines are being exploited and objectified as much as the women on the cover of Sports Illustrated and television commercials. The sexual undertones of mind and body manipulation have been a prominent method of control for these female characters, both heroines and especially villains. Catwoman flirts and teases Batman with her looks, Poison Ivy has always been seductive with whomever gets in her way, and even Super-Girl has been presented with no other choice but to use her looks to get out of trouble. Why can’t these women use their intelligence instead? Catwoman could easily be portrayed as mischievous instead of flirtatious, Poison Ivy as clever instead of seductive, and Super-Girl brilliant instead of the blonde girl next door.
The comic book industry is prominently made for men and written by men, and the primary theory of the wrong and underrepresentation of women comes from this statistic. However, according to market research, 46.67% of comic book fans are female; but in the comic book world, according to a blog titled Five Thirty Eight, “females made up only 29.3 percent of the DC character list and 24.7 percent of the Marvel roster.” The numbers have steadily improved since the earlier ages of comic books, it isn’t by much. The ratio still stands and remains at an average 30%, according to this chart by Five Thirty Eight.
Marvel’s editor in chief, Axel Alonso was quoted in the comic beats report on the market share’s research saying, “If you go to conventions and comic book stores, more and more female readers are emerging. They are starved for content and looking for content they can relate to.” Women have become a part of the dominant audience, and need an equal realistic representation in the comic book entertainment industries, both in the work field and inside the pages.
A large improvement and sign of positive progression has recently been introduced with a DC Comic villain from the Batman series, Harley Quinn. Also notably my favorite comic book character. She was formally known as the Joker’s girlfriend and sidekick, trapped in an abusive relationship but remaining loyal and infatuated with the infamous clown. This was her character archetype for almost a decade, until DC Comics made a reboot of many of their heroes and stories in 2011. The new Harley Quinn had the same origin story, but instead of choosing to stay by the Joker’s side, she made the decision to leave and begin her own story. Harley has been arguably the most identifiable female character with many of comic book readers, including myself. Harley Quinn is the most realistic humane character, despite being a villain. Her popularity rose so high she debuted in her own comic book spin-off. This character has received the most character development tying into the change in women representation over the years in media.
However, there is a still a long way to go. Although Harley Quinn as a person has become an independent, intelligent and passionate new woman, her character development did not come without its downfalls. Harley Quinn’s original outfit was a full piece body suit resembling a jester, and now, she wears tiny shorts, high socks with a tiny corset showing midriff and cleavage. For every two steps forward, there is a step back it seems in women equality. Her clothes completely vanished despite her new feminist approach, which doesn’t make the progression a complete success. Her character might appeal more to the female audience, but her appearance was solely created for the males, disappointing fans of the character everywhere.
Women portrayal in comic books has fluctuated with the time periods of the world, and there is more than just this issue inside the industry. There are race issues, religious issues, the list is endless, but I chose to focus on the women representation because I have been a fan of comic books ever since my dad hooked me into them from a young age. I hadn’t noticed how underrepresented they were or wrongly done over the years until this class had me analyze my favorite characters in a new way. Female characters still have a long way to go before they are represented in a justly way that appeals to women, and not just men, before the industry can say they have created a successful and equal gender franchise.
- Women Objectification:
- Wonder Woman history from Yes Magazine: http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-radical-roots-of-wonder-woman
- Charts and data from Five Thirty Eight
- Data from Diamond Comics:
- Market Research: