Sexism in Comics

There’s been a lot of buzz recently about sexism in the comics industry. The comments tend to specifically attack two things: the lack of relatable female superheroes and the oversexualized manner in which the existing female superheroes are drawn.  As a lifelong comic geek, I can one hundred percent acknowledge and agree with both criticisms. That being said, it also feels like much of the criticism comes from people on the outside, and a number of their attacks and assumptions are more about making noise than change.

I’m not going to defend comic books. The overt sexualization of the female characters, which has always been around, has gotten worse. My friends and I used to joke that every female superhero had an additional power of gravity-defying bosoms. If a horny teenager that gets excited seeing a bra strap knows they are drawn over the top and unrealistic, there’s a problem.

Some of the defenders of the comic industry point to that socially-awkward, horny teenage boy as the poster child of the comic fan. They say that, since comic book companies need to make sales to those boys, they need to draw the women that way.  This is bullshit, because I was buying plenty of comics without any women in them. I never once remember buying a comic because of a nice rack on a superheroine. Nor did I ever put a comic back because the women were too plain.

This is borne out by comic sales. The most voluptuous women appear in Zenescope comics. These women aren’t just sexualized, they are straight-up fetish. Fairy tale characters wearing knee-high stockings and garters with panties visible under their Britney Spears-esque school-girl skirts. Little Red Riding Hood, Dorothy, and, hey look, Alice is giving you a glimpse of her very own Wonderland. Go ahead, look at their website.

So if sexy women drove comic sales, Zenescope should be a marketing force to deal with, right? Grimm’s Fairy Tales should regularly wresting the top spot from the various Animal-Related-Men. But nope. In January, their best-selling comic ranked #276, ranking right above Scooby Doo, Where Are You? And not far behind such modern-day powerhouses as Flash Gordon and Powerpuff Girls.

So if it’s not for the fans, why are the women drawn that way? I’m pointing the finger at the artists. Let’s be honest, many of them started as those very same awkward teenage boys. I was never able to draw worth a damn. Still can’t, which gives endless entertainment to my students when I try to draw a cow or a map of Europe on the white board. But most of the guys that I knew in high school who had the ability to draw tended to draw the same thing over and over: the hourglass shape from a woman’s armpit to her mid-thigh. Well, that and penises, but I’m guessing Marvel and DC frown upon overt phalluses in their comics. (I mean, come on, it’s not The Little Mermaid.) So when the guys that spent their teenage years drawing idealized female forms get hired to draw comics, we get controversies like the recent Spider-Woman cover.

So although the sexist drawings draw more ire from social activists, I don’t think they have much of an effect on comic’s fandom. Even if every woman (and man, I suppose)were drawn “normal,” I don’t see a lot of the people who are up in arms about this flocking to their local comic book store to drive up sales. The lack of bona fide female superheroes, though, might be more on topic.

Here again, the general argument is the overwhelming majority of male comic book readers. But we could be looking at a chicken-and-egg argument here. Do the lack of female readers equate to fewer female superheroes or do girls not flock to comics because they have no heroes to identify with?

Most of the female superheroes that exist today are derivative. Batgirl. Supergirl. Spider-woman. She-Hulk. Most of their stories are derivative, as well. And I can’t tell you how many times they need to team up with their male counterpart to truly accomplish anything.  She-Hulk might be the one that breaks the mold, seeing as she is a lawyer and she can keep her rage under control. Very rarely is there a Hulk/She-Hulk crossover.

Wonder Woman is one of the few well-known female superheroes that is not just a carbon copy of an already existing male superhero. And really, Wonder Woman only stands out as cool because she’s on the same team as Aquaman.

A lot of this, however, is endemic of another major problem in comics today – the lack of new creative characters.  Most of the characters I mentioned, both male and female, are over fifty years old now. There were a couple of golden ages of character creation – the DC characters in the late-1930s, the Marvel characters in the early-1960s. Most of the characters the average American has heard of (the possible exception being Wolverine, from 1974) came from one of those two eras.  And the comic book writers from that age were absolutely sexist. As was pretty much everyone in America. And the idea of gaining female readers would be laughable.

Since then, there have been concerted efforts to add more diversity in comics. Some have been successful, but most have not. Part of this is because they seemed to pander. But part of this is indicative of a larger lack of creativity, not just with female or minority heroes. None of the heroes created in the past forty years have gained much resonance with the public.  Exhibit A is Dazzler, a mutant created during the disco era who can turn sound into light. She wore roller skates and a silver disco-ball suit. Since then, she has lost the roller skates, but do we honestly wonder why no female readers today are identifying with her?

And lest you think Dazzler is weak because she’s female, bear in mind the male equivalent of Dazzler, the Hypno-Hustler, thankfully disappeared after disco died. The fact that Dazzler still around as a viable character speaks to both their attempt to diversify, as well as how sparse the landscape of “new” heroes is.

Comics have also gotten darker over the years, so sadly the one female character to stand out over at DC is Harley Quinn. But just because Kevin Smith named his daughter after her, one should not think she’s a hero. She’s borderline psychotic and is obsessed with the Joker. So instead of focusing on the halter tops she wears, we should maybe, I don’t know, be looking at her as the villain she is.

That being said, there are still a large number of very good female characters, especially in Marvel.  The problem is that they don’t have their own books. They are members of teams. I’ll put Kitty Pryde up as one of the most fully-realized characters out there. She has her strengths and weaknesses, she has grown from teenage rookie to effective leader. Storm was also the leader of the X-Men for quite a long time. Invisible Woman, despite being often portrayed as “mother first,” is clearly the glue and moral center of the Fantastic Four. Although the Phoenix force has been overdone and was ruined in X-Men: The Last Stand, in the original telling, Jean Grey proved to be one of the most grounded and tragic characters in the Marvel universe.

Recently, perhaps in response to a lot of that criticism, Marvel has been trying to put more female led comics out there. Carol Danvers is now Captain Marvel (she had been Ms. Marvel for years) and has her own comic and allegedly a movie coming, although the merging of Spider-Man into the Movie Universe has pushed back the release of this movie, as well as Black Panther, the first African-American superhero.  So once again, we see a desire to promote diversity, but only until we can jam another Spider-Man movie in.

The new Ms. Marvel, taking Carol Danvers’ place, is not only female but a teenage Muslim living in New Jersey. And as an added bonus, she’s drawn in an in-no-way-sexualized manner. Thor, as I’m sure you have heard, is now female. And this new female Thor ended up taking it from both sides: some complained that it was pandering and others complained that she was too hot.  Um, those people do know what the male Thor looks like, right? Most of the women I know thought Thor: The Dark World would have been much better if they had just extended the Chris Hemsworth shirtless scene for 120 minutes.

This is where it gets placed on the people purchasing the comics. The female-led comics don’t sell well. Thor has done okay, but I wonder if that will drop after they reveal who the new female Thor is. She-Hulk was canceled, Captain Marvel has trouble breaking the top 100. Storm currently stars in her own series, but in February it came in at #152, right behind Batman 66, a comic based on the old Adam West TV Show. Pow! Zap! Whomp!

There is an all-female X-Men title and it is usually the worst selling X-Men title. Fearless Defenders was another all-female group. One of the best issues of any comic book last year had all of the Fearless Defenders’ boyfriends whining and getting in fights at a bar, waiting for the ladies who were busy kicking asses, to show up for date night. This comic lasted a whopping 12 issues.

So at this point, you can’t overly blame Marvel or DC for looking at the sales and relative popularity of their comics. They might really want to give Kitty Pryde or Lana Lang (who is currently being written as an awesome non-powered character in Action Comics) their own series, but when they look at the numbers, they just decide to add another Batman title.

What the people that complain about sexism in comics ought to be doing is not maligning the entire industry. They ought to be finding the comics that do have strong, reasonably-drawn females, and encouraging people to buy them.  But what fun would that be if they can make more noise by NOT purchasing the comics, then complaining loudly to whatever media are near when they get canceled?

One Comment

I think the problem is threefold. It starts with the actual writers. Most of them are male. Not surprisingly the current Ms Marvel, which is apparently well received, is written by a female. Wonder Woman was the result of to minds, one of them being female. And so on. I am not saying that males are generally unable to write female characters. But most writers are most comfortable with what they know. They don’t necessarily like to write about foreign cultures either, unless they are part of them.

The next step is are the adaptations. I think the argument that there are no break-out characters in comic books because the “big ones” are the safer bet is pretty weak when one really examines why the “big ones” are so big. Are those comics really that much better? Sometimes, but what really makes a comic book big is a good adaptation. Batman wasn’t doing well at all until the 1966 series became a hit. The Superman movies boost the comics. And I am ready to bet that the current run of the Guardians of the Galaxy has now more readers than ever. But since the thinking is “Those characters are not well known enough for an own show or an own movie”, even positively received comics don’t get the push they need to become mainstream.

And then there are the people who work on said adaptions. The X-Men movies are a perfect example. X-Men is easily the most diverse comic and has a ton of interesting female characters. But neither Rogue nor Storm nor Jane Grey are portrayed that way in the movies. Rogue is a whiny teenager, Storm is just there and Jane Grey is mostly there so that Cyclops and Wolverine can fight over here. You can call those movies just as well all “Wolverine 1-5” with First Class being the one notable exception, and that movie focusses mostly on Professor X and Magneto instead, with a side-dish of Mystique. Marvel studios is thankfully getting better with treating females as characters instead of arm-candy, but there is still a long way to go.

So, no, I don’t think the audience is truly the problem.

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