Interviewer: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
Joss Whedon: Because you’re still asking me that question.
This exact change may be a tad apocryphal. The rhetoric is too biting, too effective, even for a wordsmith like Whedon to toss out on the fly. The quote comes from a speech Whedon gave on gender equality, and it’s the well-scripted button on the top of an extremely well-crafted, well-reasoned argument for normalizing equality. The reason his response cuts so deep is because it is an intuitive truth. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve patted artists on the back for not being lecherous fuckers, or how frequently we need to sing the praises of a writer that creates female characters with real agency. We are so used to the imbalance between quality female characters and quality male characters that simply resisting this trend is often greeted as progress. This needs to change.
I’m going to be discussing the representation of women in comics published by the Big Two publishers — Marvel and DC. I understand that these two publishers do not make up the entirety of the modern comics landscape, but they do act as ambassadors for the medium, and as gateways for most fans. They are the cultural touchstone, and a common reference point for conversational purposes. This conversation is about characters, and not creators or fans, though we all play our parts in this drama. I do not presume to have any answers here, or even all the information. These are some curious observations I’ve made, and I’d like us all to talk it out, as a big, loving community. Okay, disclaimer over.
First, Some Numbers
Marvel announced 31 new on-going titles, and two mini-series, as part of their All-New Marvel NOW initiative. Of those 33 titles, only five bear the names of female heroes on their covers (Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Elektra, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk). There are also a few team books that might maybe count as having a strong(ish) female presence (Fantastic Four, Inhuman and X-Force), so let’s be generous and say that eight of the All-New Marvel NOW series feature female characters. That’s less than a quarter.
DC’s numbers are even worse: of the 49 comics solicited for May (New “52” be damned, I guess), eight feature the names of female characters in the title, plus Birds of Prey and Worlds’ Finest both have overwhelmingly female casts. That’s about a fifth. This is not substantive critical analysis, this is statistics. Unfortunately, the sales numbers suggest that both companies are right to keep up this 1 : 4 ratio. Comichron’s sales figures for March 2014 lists one female-centric title in the top 25 – Harley Quinn 4 sold particularly well (but that may just be indicative of a different set of problems). Diamond’s list of top 100 comics for February 2014, has 20 titles featuring female characters (though, that number ends up looking a little more reasonable than it ought to — three of those issues are My Little Pony, and two are one-off specials featuring Lois Lane and Joker’s Daughter).
This could well be a chicken-and-the-egg thing: do the publishers only put out a number of comics featuring female characters that the market will support or does the market buy mostly male characters, because that’s 80% of what’s being published? Does the onus lie on publishers to create more female characters or on the public to demand them? And as long as we’re making demands, what new female-lead series would you like to see produced?
Sexualization of Female Characters
I alluded to this above, but one of the more troubling aspects of female superheroes is the way they’re frequently overly sexualized. This is a delicate issue, because there’s also nothing wrong with a character of any gender or sexual orientation expressing their sexuality. The line between exploitative and empowering is fuzzy as shit, but artists often draw female heroes with a blind eye to the issue. This isn’t always the case – Darwyn Cooke’s Catwoman is a great example of a character that is purposely — and powerfully — sexual. Or Poison Ivy: part of that character’s strength is in her ability manipulate both men and women with pheromones, so the skimpy outfits are thematically appropriate and speak to her unique abilities. There are a million ways to be fun and sexy, and this isn’t about limiting those opportunities at all. I know Shelby’s excited for the DC Bombshell covers, and it’s hard to blame her: the couple we’ve seen so far are awesome and tasteful, and they celebrate the characters and classic pin-up art.
The problem invariably arises that female characters are drawn in ways that do not celebrate the women, their form, or their sexuality. Instead, the drawings play to the straight male fantasy. We’re not blowing the lid off anything here, this is true in all entertainment, advertising and real life, but comics seem to be holding on to its baggage longer than most. Why is that?
There’s a historical answer for that. Superhero comics were written for little boys, then those little boys grew up and the images in the books changed to reflect adolescent tastes. Those fans continued to grow up both those attitudes toward women, objectification and marginalization, had firmly planted roots. Suddenly, books with adolescent views on women were the entry point, and ingratiated themselves to their readership as the platonic ideal of comics. I wasn’t reading comic books in the 1990s, so I have no subconscious affinity for the era typified by excesses of both sex and violence. A surprising amount of that attitude was carried over to DC’s New 52, and many of the same creators were once again put in positions shape the comics industry. We’ve all seen the way Starfire, Wonder Girl, Catwoman and Bleez were treated in their stagnant “reinventions”.
It seems intuitive, but let’s get into it: why is this a problem? What’s wrong with sexualizing female characters? The industry’s juvenile attitudes toward the female form hurt women, they hurt men, and they hurt the industry. We try to approach comic books as pieces of art and literature, worthy of the kind of close attention those labels imply, and it’s always hard to do so when the material also gleefully objectifies women. Embarrassing, even. I hate that, in my efforts to explore the smarter parts of a work, I ignore stupid cheesecake art, as I did in our conversation of Inhuman 1. That means, on some level, it’s become commonplace to me. I never want that kind of objectification to fly under my radar because I’m desensitized to it.
The “Girl-Friendly” Comics
You know who always had this shit figured out? Archie. Archie Comics have been publishing comics that are accessible to both men and women for over 70 years. The stories are always grounded, and driven by the emotions of its characters, and not by whatever craziness dictates the events in the universe. But Archie also features two of the strongest, most dynamic female characters in all of comicdom: Betty and Veronica. Honestly, outside of Marvel and DC, things don’t look so bad for gender equality. Image has a host of sex-positive series featuring women: Sex Criminals, Velvet, Rat Queens, Saga.
A comic book doesn’t have to feature only women to be “girl friendly” — in fact, there are a number of books with all-women casts that suffer from the worst sexism. I know it had its supporters in the comic community, but Fearless Defenders played with a ton of negative stereotypes, and the art ventured into some serious broken-back posing. A title like Hawkeye plays very well as “girl friendly” comic, partially because Kate Bishop is featured prominently, but also because Clint is a real character, responding to real emotional stimulus. Or how about Loki: Agent of Asgard, which actively inverts the gender formula by sexualizing Loki. I feel like my list of “girl-friendly” comics is just too short, especially from the Marvel and DC (but especially from DC). What qualities do you look for before recommending comics to your female friends? What current comics do you consider the most “girl-friendly?” Also, what’s up with the weird intersection between girl-friendly and young adult (other than the obvious answer, which is Young Avengers)?