The changing role of women in comic books

Although the trend is changing, too many comics treat their female characters as little more than decoration. Jennie looks at the changing role of women in comics...

It’s a time of change for comic books. The last few months have seen a lot of hype around the new DC Universe, and a push to increase diversity and appeal to a wider market of readers. With controversy also being caused by the medium’s uneven gender portrayals, it has become more important than ever to examine the role of women in mainstream superhero comics.

Comics have always had difficulty maintaining not only a female readership but also female characters. While romance comics aimed at teens thrived decades ago, and currently millions of manga books are sold to an audience of enthusiastic otaku women and girls, the Big Two publishers of superhero comics have struggled to consistently provide appealing comics that attract female readers, or feature superheroines.

Although superheroines exist in the worlds of both DC and Marvel, they don’t have a history of being treated well. Scantily-clad, big-breasted and generally a bit useless, ladies in lycra have received criticism from female readers for many years. This ire has extended into additional aspects of the Marvel and DC output – after all, what exactly was Black Widow’s role in Iron Man 2 except to look good in that catsuit?

Possibly the most notorious criticism of the treatment of women in comics was from the website Women In Refrigerators. Begun in the late-90s by writer Gail Simone, this site was set up as a response to the treatment of females in comics at the time. It gained its unusual name for the infamous scene when then-Green-Lantern Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend was dismembered by the male Major Force and found stuffed in a refrigerator. The site suggested that women in comics should not be abused, depowered or reduced to plot devices.

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DC and Marvel have both had campaigns to promote comics to women, but there have been bumps in the road. An attempt to desexualise Wonder Woman by having her don trousers was removed during the run-up to DC’s soft-reboot, due to a supposed lack of favour for her new look.

Marvel Comics tried to showcase some of its female talent with Women Of Marvel in 2010, which included special limited-series runs featuring some of its female characters such as the Black Cat, and all-female creative teams on Girl Comics. Such attempts have proven mostly unsuccessful at drawing in readers or preventing critical accusations.

In general, the ill-treatment of women is still commonplace in both mainstream universes. Even The Marvel Super Hero Squad Show has a consistent, blatant depiction of Ms Marvel as a ditsy blonde who is relegated from missions and frequently treated with disdain by her male counterparts. The changes to Harley Quinn’s costume by DC provides a potent example of reducing women to a sexual fantasy: initially dressed in a head-to-toe spandex coverall, fitting for her gymnastics background, then relegated to a naughty nurse – insulting given her medical degree – and finally to a corset and hotpants as the only female member of the Suicide Squad.

Harley is not the only character whose reboot-y has received negative appraisals because of her looks. Starfire of Red Hood And The Outlaws was the centre of a storm of controversy due to her busty depiction in a tiny bikini in that series’ first issue.

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The implied and sometimes explicit promiscuity of both Starfire and Catwoman in the new DC universe has prompted many people to ask just what the roles of these characters are in comics. What kind of role models and relatable stories are they providing for readers?

Two things are required to achieve true equality in comics featuring superheroines: a good plotline that doesn’t resort to storytelling centred on the character’s gender, and female characters who have consistent core values and dress and act with themselves in mind rather than a male readership.

With this in mind, it seems appropriate to give examples of comics that deliver on both of these aspects. Yes, they do exist! Both are from the DC Universe – sorry Marvel – and feature traditionally good and bad characters.

Representing the villains is Gotham City Sirens (2009-2011) and fighting for the side of good are the Birds Of Prey (in particular the 2010-2011 run). These books have women as the central cast with an additional supporting roster of both men and women, and are primarily focused on the Bat-corner of the DC Universe.

Gotham City Sirens has had many writers, but for me they saved the best until last with Peter Calloway’s final arc featuring Harley Quinn’s insane attempt to break the Joker out of Arkham Asylum. The story itself is clever and compelling; it wonderfully mixes Quinn’s devotion to Joker with her skill and genius, as she outwits the guards and even her best friend, Poison Ivy. The book strongly centres around the characters’ relationships with each other, but somehow manages to show the villainesses in a compelling, and sometimes shocking manner that kept me excitedly reading the full run.

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Contrastingly, Birds Of Prey followed Oracle, Black Canary, Huntress and Lady Blackhawk: a team of heroines who tackle the problems that Batman can’t deal with. A recommended run is the opening arc of the final pre-DCnU volume that features White Canary, in which the Birds use all their abilities to track down and unmask a new enemy who threatens to expose them to the world. The women in this series are capable of amazing feats and have a complementary mix of intelligence, strength and cunning, making them a great team to read.

I would like to stress that Birds Of Prey is a book that both my fiancé and I enjoy, and its former author Gail Simone is one of the few writers whose work really seems to appeal across the sexes. Simone is now writing the well-received and decidedly masculine Firestorm: The Nuclear Men as part of DC’s New 52.

Unfortunately, neither Gotham City Sirens nor Birds Of Prey went untouched by DC’s company-wide revamp. The former has been completely dissolved. Harley Quinn is now the token female in Suicide Squad, while Poison Ivy is, eventually, moving to the new Birds Of Prey – a book that had a lukewarm start but may have some promise – and Catwoman returns to her own series.

The first issue of Selina Kyle’s latest adventures has proven to be a talking point due to her highly sexualised character and a graphic, anonymous tryst with the Dark Knight in the closing pages. It seems many readers have a love/hate relationship with Judd Winick’s new Catwoman; on the one hand it’s fair that a woman should be able to exercise her sexual rights, but on the other it felt like a relationship that has existed in the comics for many years had been tainted by casual treatment.

I feel that Catwoman #1 was written and drawn to elicit a strong response from readers before a complete plan for the book is revealed. Loved it, hated it or, as I did, set it down still undecided, a lot of people will be picking up the second issue.

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For me, there are only two of the New 52 that seem to push women to the forefront while featuring genuinely exciting writing and art: Gail Simone’s Batgirl, and JH Williams III’s Batwoman. However, neither of these books is without their own points of debate.

Batgirl features the reinstated Barbara Gordon, having miraculously recovered her ability to walk, and removes her status as one of the few prominent disabled superheroes in comics. This choice by DC undermines Babs’ good work as information-genius Oracle. That said, the first issues are very well done, covering Gordon’s return to the cowl and the emotional damage she must work through as a consequence, and the quality of the book is deservedly reflected in the sales figures and critical praise.

Batwoman, although less overtly popular, is not only a visually beautiful book but also shows a lot of promise in its well-written opening issues. The title character’s lesbian alter ego, Kate Kane, does earn DC some extra diversity points too, despite the apparent loss of her on-again off-again tie in with The Question.

While in some ways the DC revamp is promising, many female characters have been controversial at best. I feel it is important to remember that, in comics, canon is made to be broken; anything that doesn’t – or does – work will eventually be changed. Hopefully, some of the things that are lost for the moment can be brought back.

It will be interesting to see how Marvel responds to New 52. DC have been one step ahead of Marvel for female-oriented books, with Ms Marvel, Black Cat and Black Widow having disappeared from comic store racks. Perhaps Marvel can learn from DC’s experience and start putting things right for their ladies.

For now, it seems that integrating the female voice into superhero comics is still as challenging as ever, but there are signs of positive change. Some very good comics featuring women are garnering public and critical success. More crucially than ever, change needs to be driven by the readers to keep women heard in mainstream comics.

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