Feminism & the Portrayal of Women in Comics – Part 2

I am extraordinarily pleased to see that our article about feminism and comic books continues to be one of our most read pieces, as feminism is something near and dear to my heart personally that will always be important to Android Dreamer as a website. That being said, the conclusions drawn in the article were called into questions by some readers who brought up very important points in the general discussion of the portrayal of women in comics that are absolutely worth addressing. Although it is hard to argue that comic books are inherently pro-women, I still believe that super hero comics as a medium are neither inherently feminist nor sexist; it is really a matter of the individual creators.

The first point brought up is that although it is true that women and men are both portrayed as near impossible standards, that these portrayals are specifically a male ideal of what women and men should be. Batman may be unrealistically portrayed as a Mr. Universe contestant, but that is because it is what men want to look like rather than what women want men to look like. Although the idea of what is attractive and what isn’t is definitely subjective, it is worth examination. Without the finances to conduct an official survey of what women find physically attractive in men, a quick Google search doesn’t really give the information required to give a real answer. Generally recurring answers to the questions of who the most attractive men are include people like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, when it comes to lists of all people living and dead, and men like Brad Pitt and Robert Pattinson in talking about the hottest men of today. You are no more likely to find Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti on the hot men list than you are to find Kathy Bates and Queen Latifah on a list of the most attractive women. This isn’t because they aren’t extraordinarily talented people in their fields, but because both men and women when talking about averages of the entire population prefer people who are physically very fit when it comes to attractiveness on a completely superficial level. This holds up in the portrayal of both genders in the comic books, as both the men and women are portrayed as exaggeratedly fit. There are individual artists that may go a step too far in the way they draw their women, but on a pure eye candy level there is generally a level playing field.

Another point mentioned that frankly shouldn’t have been missed is that it is equally if not more important that women in super hero comics are written well rather than how they are portrayed physically. The first example of an extraordinarily strong female character that springs to mind is Barbara Gordon, the first Batgirl who later became Oracle after being shot through the spine and left in a wheel chair by Joker. As Batgirl, she was an asset to Batman, and was successful operating on her own. As Oracle, she has proven that physical fitness and martial arts were not the only tools in her repetoire, as she is indisputably one of the most intelligent characters in the DC Universe. Despite her handicap, she used computer technology to communicate remotely with Batman and other heroes to feed them information. If Batman was in a public building, Oracle is there with the maps. If there’s a security system that needs breaking into, Oracle can hack through it before Batman even has to ask. Oracle is a wonderful character who ought to be a role model, and is proof that extraordinarily strong female characters exist in comics. It is only one example (Wonder Woman and Black Canary could also both be discussed) but she is at least proof that the genre is capable of feminist leanings.

It would be impossible to form an argument that pleases everyone when it comes to the topic, but it is worth continuing to discuss. We still don’t think that super hero comics are inherently sexist, but that writers and artists who portray women poorly ought to be called out for it. Characters like Starfire, a sexual liberated and gorgeous alien from a culture that doesn’t understand humanity’s hang-ups about sex, walk a very fine line between feminist and sexist, and it is important that the creators of these books are kept in check.

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Feminism & the Portrayal of Women in Comics

Whenever discussion of comic books as a medium comes to anything beyond simple plot discussion and goes into the sociopolitical ramifications of super hero books in particular, the portrayal of women is often the most highly criticized point. No one doubts that comic books were ground breaking in discussion of topics of great social importance, such as when Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy was shown to have a drug addiction in Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow series in the late 1960s, or when the uncomfortable and enraging subject of domestic violence came to forefront in the pages of Avengers when Ant-Man struck his wife. Still, when looking at the pages of a modern comic book for the first time, it is hard not to notice the way most artists draw their heroines; they are almost always voluptuous, sometimes to the point of bordering on unrealistic. But there are a few points that are worth mentioning before we condemn superhero comics as sexist.

Generally speaking, when a woman is being objectified, she serves no purpose other than being the object of sexual attraction. Fiction as a whole is full of these kind of characters, across all of the visual mediums. In the case of comic books, however, the superhero women who are depicted as extraordinarily well-figured are generally also shown to be highly intelligent. While Catwoman may be dressed a bit provocatively, to say the least, she also shows time and time again that she is not only charismatic but capable of outsmarting just about anyone who comes in her path. The same can be said of Wonder Woman, who is not only an Amazonian goddess of exceptional beauty, but is also highly intelligent and among the most powerful characters in general in the DC Universe.

One of the main criticisms for portraying women with an exaggerated level of attractiveness as they are in comics is that it sends out the wrong message to young women who read the books. It is feared that by portraying these superheroes as being the standard of beauty they should aspire to that young girls will develop issues with their own body images, something that no self-respecting feminist would ever hope for. This may be a genuine concern, but it should be noted that the “absolute perfection” of these characters is not limited to the women alone; male characters throughout all major comic books are given physiques that would only be seen in competitors for Mr. Universe. Aside from bring possibly the smartest man alive, Batman is also built so ridiculously (once again dependent on the artist at the time) that it borders on the impossible. The same can be said of Superman, most incarnations of Green Lantern, Aquaman, Hawkman, Captain America, and more than half of the male X-Men. It is actually easier to list the men who aren’t designed that way. So although the unrealistic body image portrayal is definitely a part of the way these characters are drawn, it is not a gender issue.

Despite not thinking that superhero comics are inherently sexist, there are individual aspects that need addressing. In general, everyone in comics wears spandex. Man or women, teenage or senior citizen, the vast majority of those fictional men and women who take on secret identities are dressed in skin-tight clothes that leave nothing to the imagination, and that’s okay. For every Wonder Woman leotard there is a Green Lantern black and green skin-tight body suit. Despite that, there is one particular costume that we find hard to swallow, that of DC’s Power Girl. She may have personality, and she may be written okay from time to time, but Power Girl’s costume is one thing that is blatantly ridiculous, no matter how tongue-in-cheekedly it is explained away by the writers.

In the end, it is hard to see comic books being any more exploitative of women than they are of men, and certainly no more driven by sex appeal than any other medium. We would conclude that as long as the women are smart and powerful, and that neither of the major comic book companies introduces a new character called Hooker Woman or Brothel Girl, there really isn’t anything here to be angry about. There may be a topic of discussion for the sociology of depicting either gender as being physically ideal, but it is not a male vs. female issue so much as a cultural portrayal of people against the truth of existence. Comic books may sometimes have important things to say, but in the end it is escapism. Once the hole on Power Girl’s costume is filled, all will be well.