Women in Comics
On Inclusivity Within the Comics Industry
“[In comics] representation is absolutely vital.” – Kelly Sue DeConnick
In 2014, the comics art organization Sequart produced the documentary She Makes Comics directed by Marisa Stotter in an attempt to trace the history of women in the comics industry since the early 1900s. Throughout the hour and ten minute documentary one thing is made perfectly clear, as comics writer and editor Kelly Sue DeConnick states, “representation is absolutely vital” (Stotter 0:0:57). For some time now, the comics industry has taken flack for its lack of diverse representation within its creative teams as well as the comics that they produce. While representations of race and queer bodies have made some impact on the industry, the lack of women both within the comics as well as working in the industry has taken a front seat in the drive forward for better representation in comics.
In her article “Breaking the Mold with Humor: Images of Women in Visual Media,” Sheri Klein examines the history of women in comics and how women have been historically represented within comic books, comic strips, and other visual media forms. Klein posits that the depiction of women in comics is largely created for the male gaze precisely because the assumed audience of comics is predominately male. The female body is thus flattened, objectified, and consumed as an object of desire within the space of the comics panels, but never permitted to show desire themselves (Klein 61). Klein considers the possibility of there being a space for separation between the representations and the objectification of women’s bodies and social constructions of gender and sexuality, and thus comes to the conclusion of "No." Women, as shown in visual media, are historically linked with representations of romance and domestic life (Klein 62). “The sexuality of women in mainstream comics is defined by accentuated legs, eyes, mouth, and breasts to connote beauty and allure” (Klein 62). Throughout many comics, women are shown with long flowing hair as a symbol of sexual power — this notion is one that stems from long ingrained notions of femininity and feminine sexuality. However, the representation of women in comics was about to change. Rather than women in comics being relegated as secondary characters to a male protagonists adventures, or being represented as meek, mild housewives and mothers, the coming of World War II brought within political and social change that reflected itself into the panels and narratives of the comics industry as well.
December 1941, the American population and the world were introduced to Wonder Woman, the first female superhero to grace the pages of the American comic book. First appearing in All Star Comics #8, Wonder Woman was a force to be reckoned with for audiences across the globe. Created by William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was thought, by Marston at least, to be the answer to all the problems within the comic book industry. As a female protagonist that could rival the strength and power of Superman, Wonder Woman was assumed to be the key component to evening out the playing field of gender representation in the American comic book industry. Wonder Woman was targeted to be representative of the post-World War I liberated woman. She exuded power, force, and strength — all the characteristics that were much desired by many young female readers and viewers but were typically only given to men whether in film, literature, comics, etc.
While some scholars believe that Marston created Wonder Woman to be a positive image for young girls during a time where the American comics industry was dominated by chiseled, powerful men, others believe that, in reality, all Marston succeeded in creating was a sex symbol for male audiences to fantasize about endlessly. Regardless of these two opposing views of Wonder Woman’s creation, what is most apt to remember about her entrance into the comics scene is how she brought with her a small army of new readers — girls!
Wonder Woman’s place of origin Paradise Island, later referred to as Themyscira, is a matriarchal dreamland where men are excluded indefinitely from ever stepping foot on their sacred grounds. Paradise Island, at its very core, is a safe haven from the hardships and limitations of patriarchal society. In his article “Qu(e)erying Comic Book Culture and Representations of Sexuality in Wonder Woman,” Brian Mitchell Peters posits that Paradise Island is also a response to patriarchy. Much of Peters’ article examines Wonder Woman, in all her incarnations, as queer. As Peters states,
“In short, Diana’s powers encompass iconography and abilities that envelop both ideas of femininity and masculinity… Wonder Woman’s queerness […] stems from her inherent combination of traditionally male and female stereotypes, grouped together to form an ideal woman-hero. For Wonder Woman is ideal because she speaks to and empowers at least three cultural minority groups: women, lesbians, and gay men” (Peters 4).
That being said, Peters also remarks on how the comics genre inevitably backpedals itself into a corner, thus alienating this very same audience that is, on one hand, liberated by reprimanding queer characters for being too queer. The creation of Wonder Woman inevitably allows for stronger, more independent women to be showcased within American comics. However, even this is problematic in and of itself because by showcasing a strong white heterosexual female protagonist, there are multiple subsets of female readers that are inevitably marginalized by these comics — i.e., non-white women, disabled women, queer women, etc.
Since the creation of Wonder Woman, the comics industry has seen a variety of other strong feminine characters worthy of praise. However, as Jeffrey Brown and Melissa Loucks state in their introduction to the women in comics specific issue in University of Florida’s journal ImageText, “A Comics of Her Own: Women Writing, Reading, and Embodying Through Comics” — “In recent years […] an unprecedented number of women have become fan favorite writers and artists [within the comics industry]” (Brown & Loucks). Writers and artists such as Gail Simone, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Becky Cloonan, Amanda Connor, and many others, are creating women who exist outside of the normative practices of the comics industry. Characters, both male and female, are being rewritten, within canon, to represent women of other ethnicities such as Captain Marvel/Kamala Khan; Thor, Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer) deciding canonical Norse God Thor is no longer worthy of its power, thus transferring itself to the hands of Jane Foster — previously Thor’s known love interest.
In the article “Thor Takes a Swing at Gender Norms” written by Chandler Banks on comicsbeat.com, Banks points to the notion that recreating Thor, a traditionally male/masculine character, as a woman creates a huge backlash for many readers within the comics fan base. However, what he also points to is comics' continuity: for decades now, Thor’s hammer has chosen various other persons worthy of wielding its power, while there have been male characters to wield its power such as Captain America and Hulk, Mjölnir has also been known to allow women to carry it as well, like Black Widow. Thor represents an idea of a hero, not necessarily masculine. What is interesting however is the notion that a female Thor would somehow reconfigure the character to be feminine — to become weaker than the male superheroes. Comics writer Jason Aaron stated, at the “Marvel Proudly Presents Thor” event, “This is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before” (“Marvel Proudly Presents Thor”). Marvel’s new Thor, unlike many female superheroes, is clad in armor; she is given functional, protective armor unlike many of the (ultimately) bathing suit clad women within the superhero genre of comics.
To quote Chandler Banks, “In the past, women in comics have either come off as matronly figures or hyper sexualized heterosexual male fantasies” (Banks). However, strides are being made to remedy this epidemic, and Marvel’s Thor is a step in the right direction. “Women have waited long enough for more diverse representation in comics, and now all they ask for is the chance to prove they are worthy of taking power” (Banks).
What Banks calls attention to in this piece is the close relation between femininity, power, and the female gender. Historically within the comics industry, female characters within the superhero genre of comics have typically been given weaker powers than their male counterparts. Banks sees this as an attempt to maintain the American patriarchal status quo that women must always be subservient to men. In the article "'Oh c’mon, those stories can’t count in continuity!' Squirrel Girl and the Problem of Feminine Power,” author Michael Goodrum writes,
“Through repetition, certain elements of superhero comic books become accepted as the stable ground from which narratives can emerge; that repetition also ultimately comes to police what is acceptable in terms of both continuity and gender. Borders of acceptability are defined and defended through repetition, with breaks in this repetition being seen as undesirable because of their disruptive impact on established norms” (Goodrum 100).
Taking the ideas that both Banks and Goodrum hint at a step further, and perhaps complicate things a bit, it is interesting to then, in turn, look at those rare female characters that are instead given supreme powers to men. Characters like Jean Grey/Phoenix and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch are given powers that prove to be more powerful and more useful than those provided to many of the male characters around them, however these powers are often stifled, if not all together extinguished through the employment of mental instability as shown within the character. Jean Grey, unable to contain her powers due to a lack of mental capabilities becomes the Phoenix, an unstoppable force that is inevitably consumed by her own powers. Wanda Maximoff, on the other hand, having the ability to manipulate reality, shifts reality after suffering a severe mental breakdown after losing her children, in order to recreate their lives, inevitably erasing mutant DNA from the planet entirely.
Women within comics as creators, and male allies as well, are attempting to rectify the problematic depictions of women within comics, however, for every step forward the industry takes three steps back. For every powerful, able bodied female character that American audiences are provided with, there is more than an equal share of misogyny and chauvinism dished out to these very same characters. As mentioned above with Jean Grey and Wanda Maximoff, feminine power is something that, by hegemonic standards, needs to be policed and contained, and if it cannot be, then it is quashed. Another example of this deals with feminine power, agency, and disabled bodies. Popular DC Comics character Batgirl (Barbara Gordon), early on in comics contemporary history is paralyzed, raped, and photographed by famous DC villain, Joker, all for one reason — to move the plot along and anger Commissioner James Gordon, as well as Batman (See The Killing Joke). Barbara Gordon, as a feminine superheroine: strong, independent, ingenuitive, is not allowed to exist as such a character. Paralyzed, she becomes the woman behind the curtain, the eyes on the street — Oracle. Oracle as a character is strong and intellectual, but can serve no other purpose aside from aiding the mostly male characters within the Batman universe.
The unfortunate portrayal of women within comics has begun its journey down the road to recovery, however, as William Brooker, author of the comic My So-Called Secret Identity, a digital comic that features a female PhD student as a superheroine with the power of intelligence, states in an interview with themarysue.com’s Adrienne Trier-Bieniek,
“I think we need more women working in comics, as editors, writers and artists. Men can certainly have good intentions and there have been some positive changes since 2011, but I think to see genuine and substantial, sustained improvement we need more women working in the industry at all levels” (Brooker).
Until the comics industry itself, at its very core, can become more inclusive of women writers, creators, artists, editors, etc., there is only so much that can be done in an attempt to fix the issues that have been building for over 75 years. With new female comics writers and artists becoming more well known, and comics like Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe, Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction, and Saga by Brian K. Vaughan being heralded for their inclusive feminist ideologies, clearly the comics industry is moving forward. However, that being said, these are only a handful of comics in an industry that produces thousands of titles per year; there is still a long way to go.
Brooker, William. Interview by Adrienne Trier-Bieniek. "My So-Called Secret Identity‘s Creator On Why Smart Is A Superpower & The Future Of Women in Comics.” The Mary Sue. N.p., 6 May 2015. Web. 14 May 2015. <http://www.themarysue.com/interview-my-so-called-secret-identity/>.
Brown, Jeffrey A. and Melissa Loucks. "A Comic of Her Own: Women Writing, Reading and Embodying through Comics." ImageTexT 7.4 (2014): n. pag. Dept of English, University of Florida. Web.
Goodrum, Michael. “Oh C’mon, Those Stories Can’t Count In Continuity!’ Squirrel Girl And The Problem Of Female Power.” Studies in Comics 5.1 (2014): 97-115. University of Essex. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
Klein, Sheri. "Breaking the Mold with Humor: Images of Women in the Visual Media." Art Education 46.5 (1993): 60-65. Print.
“Marvel Proudly Presents Thor.” Marvel. Marvel Entertainment, 15 July 2014. Web. 15 May. 2015.
Peters, Brian Mitchell. "Qu(e)erying Comic Book Culture and Representations of Sexuality in Wonder Woman." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 5.3 (2003): 1-9. Print.
She Makes Comics. Dir. Marisa Stotter. Sequart, 2014. Digital Download.