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.