Comic Books’ Scary Sexism Isn’t Going Anywhere
Female superheroes still have to dress like prostitutes to get published.
Wonder Woman has a movie coming out next summer and you can already see the headlines: Is This The ‘Year of the Woman’ for Comics? There will be panels at conventions, articles and flame wars about the role of women creators in the comics industry, and the representation of women in comic books themselves. Cue the collective groan from male comic book readers everywhere.
Publishers like Marvel say it’s hard to know what percentage of comic book buyers are female, because most books are sold by small shops that don’t keep such records. But research by Comics Beat in February 2014 show the numbers of fanboys and fangirls are nearly equal.
“The Facebook universe of self-identified comic fans grew to a new high of over 24 million fans in the United States. Of that 24 million, women account for 46.67% of that population. Since I’ve been tracking these stats, that’s the highest percentage of women recorded.”?—?Brett Schenker
Around the same time this data gained credibility among journalists, Marvel announced its new Thor series would feature a female God of Thunder. Writer Jason Aaron said the gender change wouldn’t affect how he wrote the character. While laudable, Aaron is in the minority, as 78 years of comic book sexism shows.
Sheena Queen of the Jungle first appeared in 1938 as the white ruler of a black African tribe who was most comfortable in a skimpy fur-kini. The character’s success launched a slew of copycats, and soon “the jungle was literally packed with gorgeous white women,” writes Mike Madrid in “The Supergirls.” These super sexpots were a big hit with male readers in the 30s and 40s. Their likenesses even flew into battle on airplanes. “In the days before the advent of Playboy and Penthouse, comic books offered one way to girl watch,” writes comics historian Ron Goulart.
“Like those ancient cave dolls devoted to fertility that are nothing but breasts and hips, the “good girls” (and their flip sides, the “femme fatales”) make adolescent boys stop in their tracks and adolescent girls avoid looking into mirrors.”
— Burl Burlingame, Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Into this salacious environment stepped two psychologists, William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston. The inventors of the polygraph lie detector, the two also believed women were superior to men, in both morality and skill, and thought comic books had tremendous educational potential. Marston landed a job as an educational consultant at what would become DC Comics. The couple conceived a female hero who would inspire young girls, by using love rather than violence to fight crime. Wonder Woman debuted in 1941.
Then it got weird. You see, the Marstons were also members of a polyamorous sex cult, which believed the best way to combat male authoritarianism was loving female submission. While Wonder woman was not drawn as particularly voluptuous, Marston made sure the scantily-clad heroine was tied up in every story. (She did a lot of tying up herself.) The whole bondage thing lent kinky undertones to the feminist comic.
“It is the secret of women’s allure?—?women enjoy submission, being bound. And because it is a universal truth, a fundamental, subconscious feeling of normal humans, the children love it.”
So…this didn’t sit well. Psychologist Fredric Wertham tapped a wellspring of public distaste in 1948, declaring a link between comic book sex and violence and juvenile delinquency. In response, comic book publishers self-regulated with the Comics Code Authority, which clamped down on sexy portrayals of women in comics, along with other objectionable content. The Golden Age of comics was at an end.
Readers often requested Superman spank Lois Lane for “being too nosy.” DC obliged.
But one kind of repressed kinkiness still found expression in the buttoned-up 40s and 50s?—?Spanking.
Lyra Radford recently published a whole gallery of corporal punishment, noting, “At one point, it was close to impossible to find a comic that didn’t have some lady spanking somewhere in its pages.” The rationale? Usually the women had tried to “wear the pants” around the house and needed to be “put in their place.” Fantastic Four’s Thing even spanked the Invisible Girl ,with the blessing of her husband, Mister Fantastic. Readers often requested Superman spank Lois Lane for “being too nosy.” DC obliged.
When they weren’t being physically abused, female characters were merely marginalized, systematically, as this excerpt from the DC Comics editorial policy of the 50s illustrates.
“the inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities.”
Thus, in the early 60s, the priority for a Silver Age heroine like Supergirl wasn’t fighting crime, but finding a husband, even though she was only a teenager.
Batwoman was afraid of mice (typical woman), and fought crime with “powder puffs, perfume and a compact mirror”?—?when she wasn’t preoccupied with her appearance, that is.
Batman constantly berated Batwoman for being, well, a woman. Bats finally professed his love for her in 1962, as they faced death on an alien planet.
After they escaped, his first thought was, “how do I get out of this?” He dumped her, claiming he only said he loved her to make her final moments happy. Wimp.
The emergence of women’s lib in the late 60s and early 70s?—?in comics’ Bronze Age?—?brought female superheroes back to prominence. Comics historian Mike Madrid dubs these assertive new women “Superbitches.” Like Black Canary, who dated Green Arrow but assured the “domineering male” that she could take care of herself.
Power Girl was the first female actually allowed into the Legion of Justice, where decades before, Wonder Woman had served as secretary! Power Girl shouted at male heroes who called her “broad” and asserted her rights like a steamroller: “If I was Power Man. If I was stubborn and headstrong and brash. If I didn’t take to authority well. No one would think anything of it.” It just so happened, however, that the feminist Superbitch was also a bombshell. Her crime-fighting costume featured a cut-out?—?right on top of her double Ds.
“Her D-cup breasts and revealing costume took some of the thunder out of her feminist manifesto,” says Madrid. “The prim skirts of the 50s and the unisex space age looks of the 60s gave way to sexy, flesh baring costumes. Sex appeal was the ‘spoonful of sugar’ that helped the ‘medicine’ of feminism go down.”
Even DC’s Big Barda, who Madrid says “represented perhaps the ultimate male fear of women’s liberation” with her “massive musculature” and “gruff temperament,” had a “jaw-dropping body.”
She also spent a lot of time cramming it into a skimpy red bikini. Author Michael Chabon was 10 years old in 1973, and recalled Bronze Age heroines in Details.
“Boobs were a big part?—?literally?—?of the female superhero package. Almost every superwoman apart from explicitly adolescent characters such as the original Supergirl or the X-men’s Kitty Pryde came equipped, as if by the nature of the job, with superheroic racks.”
As the Bronze age merged into the current Modern Age in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, female superheroines have become far more complex and nuanced characters. But “progress” has been accompanied by a hypersexualization that’s now reached ridiculous proportions, literally. Like White Queen, who dropped all pretense and cold dressed like a prostitute.
“Despite some major advancement for female characters, and an increasing presence of female writers and illustrators, women in the comics continue to be portrayed primarily as sexual spectacles.”
— Sheena C. Howard, “Black Comics”
Today, many heroines seem stuck in an age of pendulous breasts, round asses and impossibly long legs, often showcased in come-hither poses that are impossible in real life, unless you’re a contortionist. When Marvel finally gave Spider Woman her own book in 2014?—?aimed at female readers?—?Penthouse Comix artist Milo Manara drew her in a spray-on costume, in a sexually submissive pose lifted directly from his adult comic “Click!”
“It’s called Lordosis behavior, and specifically means when female animals stick their ass up in the air to attract male mates…In humans, it’s popularly known as ‘face down, ass up.’”
— Rob Bricken, i09
Male readers have often asserted that female characters are not drawn any more provocatively than male characters are. In one of the best things on the Internet, the “Hawkeye Initiative” responded by drawing the Avenger in the same skimpy costumes and supine poses as female characters. Judge the results for yourself.
Another Internet project, Women In Refrigerators tracks what it calls the gratuitous killing off of female characters simply as a plot device to move a male character’s story forward?—?as exemplified by the murder of Green Lantern’s girlfriend in 1994.
Though the industry is still male-dominated, there are more female writers and illustrators today, and they’re doing great work—though they complain of sexual harassment by colleagues and male readers. And while some 30% of comic heroes are female, that’s still not equal to the percentage of female comic-book fans.
Many fans and artists want to maintain the status quo. Amid the furor over the “face down, ass up” Spider Woman cover, artist Kevin Cho took it upon himself to launch a one-man crusade against what he called censorship, repeatedly recreating the image over the next two years.
“Cho is a maverick, and when people step to him to say, ‘this is creepy and weird,’ he fights back by drawing more pictures of women with their butts in the air, and selling them on eBay and at conventions.”
We need to keep pointing out sexism in comics, writes i09’s Rob Bricken, precisely because a double standard has existed for so long:
“And now we’re trying to muddle our way to actual equality. Because comics have been traditionally made for an almost exclusively male audience, and the entire industry built itself around it; because female readers almost equal male readers now and they deserve to be acknowledged and treated with respect. Because like so many things, practices that were once considered acceptable are no longer.”
If you object to charges of sexism in comics, and are already composing your comment, I helpfully refer you to Bricken’s article, “10 Stupid Arguments People Use To Defend Comic Book Sexism.” You’d do well not to repeat them.