The Role of gender in Comics Books- Focus on DC Cimics and Marvel
I will investigate the role of gender in American comic books such as DC and Marvel and the modes of imagery representation (also known as semiotics) of the female in the these mainstream comics.
When drawing elements of gender stereotypes to explain media material we tend to focus on these elements. According to Dines and Humez ‘Ideologies of gender promote sexist representations of women’ (Dines and Humez,1994, p.7). This is just the basic interpretation of gender stereotypes. The term ‘gender’ has now become broad and as Gerard Jones believes ‘these images reflect the fact that women are challenging the male monopoly on power and aggression, a shift that has broad ramifications for how gender is constructed.’ (Inness, 2004, p5)
Comic books are created by an industry of male dominated writers/artists and targeted to a male dominantly heterosexual audience. In the mid nineties, highly sexualized nature of action females ‘dominated the struggling comic industry’ (Inness, 2004, p61). ‘In a blatant attempt to attract the attention of the predominantly male adolescent comics consumer’ (Inness, 2004, p61). This has changed slightly over the years as now we have female writers/artist for mainstream comic books, women as the main characters (heroines or villains) where all are not only heterosexual but also the introductions of bisexual and lesbian nature in comic books which were not seen before. One such character of this in Marvel’s X-Men Comics is Mystique who was the biological mother of Nightcrawler and Graydon Creed. Later Mystique formed a life long loving relationship with Destiny, Irene Adler, and adopted Rogue who later joined the X-men in fighting evil mutants, even Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. In DC Comic there has been speculation of the portrayal of a few characters, the likes of Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn and poison Ivy. The speculation of Wonder Woman rose due to subtle clues derived from the comics. One of the obvious clues and most prominent is the origin of Wonder Woman from Paradise Island where it is ‘completely inhabited by women’ (Comic Vine (2010) Available at: http://www.comicvine.com/women-in-comics/12-43357/ – Accessed on 10/03/2012). Bruce Timm portrays in his drawings the sexual relationship of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, which has led to speculation of their sexual nature/preference. This speculation can be taken further to imply that Poison Ivy is DC’s equivalence of Marvel’s Mystique as she uses her ‘looks to manipulate men and women into doing her biding’ (Comic Vine (2010) Available at: http://www.comicvine.com/women-in-comics/12-43357/ – Accessed on 10/03/2012).
When reading comic books you instantly realize there are more male characters in relation to female characters in the comic universe, DC and Marvel. Women did not develop a role in comic books till the Golden Age, 1930-1940. They were portrayed as career females who works as news reporters, receptionist etc but were not given the job roles which were thought of as male orientated.
We are presented with the first protagonist female super heroine known as Fantomah, immortal Egyptian women who fights evil, in the Jungle #2 in 1940 by Fletcher Hanks the writer/artist. This also led to the debut of Invisible Scarlet O’Neil in a newspaper comic strip on June 3, 1940. From this it can be determined that Marvel and DC Comics, the two comic book giants, were not the first to introduce females into the comic industry. DC Comic’s introduction of their first female protagonist character was by William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth who debuted Wonder Woman in All Star Comics #8. The creation of Wonder Women was Marston’s approach to create a positive role model for the females around the world as the comic books was failing to address this matter as he states, “America’s woman of tomorrow should be made the hero of a new type of comic strip. By this, I mean a character with all the allure of an attractive woman, but with the strength also of a powerful man. There isn’t enough love in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. What women presently lack is the dominance or self-assertive power to put over and enforce her love diaries. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force, but kept her loving. It is my hope to make this strip as appealing to adults as it has proved to kids.” (Comic Vine (2010) Available at: http://www.comicvine.com/women-in-comics/12-43357/- Accessed on 10/03/2012). Marvel’s first female character in a protagonist role was Susan Storm (Invisible Woman) from the Fantastic Four.
Wonder Woman was the first of many of a long line of female protagonist superheroes in mainstream comics such as DC and Marvel. We see the introductions of Miss America, Sun Girl, Blonde Phantom by Marvel Comics and the revival of Phantom Lady and Black Canary by DC Comics.
The 1960-70 is referred to as the silver age of comicswhere comic books took up the notion of romance. During this era female characters were dominantly demonstrated as secondary characters, help support the protagonist male and the move the story forward but do not have a major impact on the story. These women were not given super abilities or portrayed as sidekicks. Characters that we can relate to provide evidence for this statement from DC Comics are Lois Lane working with Superman, Carol Ferris (before becoming Star Sapphire) the boss and attracted to Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) and Iris West the on-off girlfriend of Flash. All the characters of secondary importance where displayed with the connection of love/romance towards the protagonist male character. Marvel’s use of secondary role females in comics during this era were Mary Jane the girlfriend of Spiderman, Betty Rose the on-off girlfriend of Hulk and the complex love triangle relationship of Angel, Jean Grey and Cyclops all three part of the X-men (all three were action characters of the X-men comic but during this relationship Angel and Jean Grey had a minor role compared to Cyclops).
Female action characters were also introduced into comics as secondary character with bit of romance, but more as an action/aggressive character. These can be seen by the names given to the female characters such as Supergirl, Superwoman, Batgirl, Batwoman, Catgirl, Catwoman, She-Hulk, Spidergirl, and Miss America. The names given to these characters depict that these are secondary characters as sidekicks to move the story forward. Also the name can imply that in the comic industry male characters are still portrayed as dangerous, superior, and more powerful and have authority over female characters. This is clearly evident from the Batman comics where he is portrayed more powerful and with more authority acting as the mentor over Batwoman and Catwoman seduces Batman to get out of trouble as he is depicted more powerful. We also see in DC’s Justice League the main powerful characters portrayed to us are Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman with Superman the leader of the group. This is also seen in Marvel’s Avengers where the main dominant characters/heroes are Iron Man, Thor, Hulk Captain America even though female action heroines, Black Widow and Ms Marvel are part of the team from the inception of the super hero group. This notion can be taken further to say the secondary female characters of action or romance role are merely being objectified by the reader’s gaze. This latter point is also associated with certain female action protagonist role clearly shown by the characters such as Star Fire and Catwomen.
The roles of women in comics not only as secondary character but also as female protagonist characters changed. This result can be related to the changes that took place in the women’s real lives and which in turn had an effect of changes in the popular culture. As mentioned before the Female’s characters were depicted as career girls. But during the modern age (early 90’s to this day and still going) most women in comics were/are not given the careers of the stereotypical female jobs of secretary, nurses as before but were given careers that were once believed to be male oriented jobs such as detectives, adventurers, bosses/ company owners, soldiers, doctors etc. This portrayed women as independent, challenging the parameters of gender roles and ‘no longer could women be represented in the same stereo typical ways as they had been in the past’ (Inness, 2004, p6).
This portrayal of females gave rise to female action heroines and they were presented as more aggressive, powerful and masculine than before. The action heroines gave the women in real life something they can relate to offering them different roles that were available to them. Action heroines displayed themselves not only as career girls but more independent then before as they never needed to be rescued or wait for the male hero to rescue them from trouble. This can be seen with Jean Grey from the X-Men comic that she soon realizes the potential of her powers and how dangerous they can be. She is the most powerful Mutant, A-Class Mutant, in the X-men comics and Storm who later becomes the leader of the X-Men after Professor Xavier dies. Wonder Woman does not need Batman or Superman to save her as she is capable herself. This female independence was a stereotypical characteristic of the action heroine stating she does not need any support and is well off on her own. This in return questioned the scope of gender stereotypes implying that ‘women are fighting to escape conventional gender role expectations that, in the past, have kept them from being aggressive’ (Inness, 2004, p7).
The modern age where female action heroines were starting to be portrayed more as the protagonist character giving them their own title comic books. The tough action protagonist female was more masculine or muscular than the female characters in secondary importance/supporting role. Another typical stereotypical element of the female heroine was that she was made muscular but not too muscular or muscular as the male protagonist characters of the comic universe whether it was Marvel or DC. This was due to her toughness should be impressive for a female but should not challenge the boy’s masculinity, whether by making the reader question his masculinity or posing as a threat to the male she stars alongside. When observing comics such as the Justice league or the Avengers this is clearly expressed as a group of superheroes coming together to save the world from chaos and destruction. But the group consists of mostly male superheroes and their powers and abilities are of no match or challenge for the female action heroine. Hence the male, reader or hero(s), are still more powerful and superior to the female.
Even though these female action heroines are depicted as tough and aggressive they are still made to look feminine and attractive, presented as fear and desire. The action heroines or female characters are represented as beautiful, desirable, and heterosexually appealing. Some may even identify these action heroines as ‘“figurative males”, “masculinized female bodies”’ (Inness, 2004, p48) or ‘pseudo males’ (Inness, 2004, p51) as they are attractive but possess traits of aggressiveness that are believed to be male orientated. Some protagonist female characters are displayed as objective and some as subjective. This can bee seen from Star fire and Catwoman being displayed as objective and Wonder Woman and Storm are subjective. One can argue that the later two are also objectified to a certain extent. These points are discussed later on in the essay.
We see all Female characters are depicted as sexualised hyperfeminine; ‘huge gravity-defying breasts, mile-long legs, perpetually pouty lips, and perfectly coifed big hair’ (Inness, 2004, p63). This means that all female characters especially the aggressive/action protagonist are over sexualised and over exaggerated as their bodies are biologically impossible and throughout the comic we are displayed with poses that are impossible to achieve. The female heroine kick- ass in outfits that deem ‘more suitable for seduction than combat’ (Inness, 2004, p37). One can also counter argue stating the male superheroes are also depicted as hypermasculine, ‘excessive representation of the male body’ (Inness, 2004, p61), where they are ‘routinely drawn with arms as big as couches and chests the size of minivans’ (Inness, 2004, p61). This exaggerated body form is also biologically impossible to achieve.
This point is best expressed by exploring the characters Catwoman and Star Fire in comparison to Wonder Woman.
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Star Fire is introduced to us in the Red Hood and Outlaws even wearing less skimpy clothes than Catwoman and in a seductive posture of submission with her head down while hovering in air after she has destroyed three tanks and yet the focus is on her. The only characteristic that is noticeable of Star Fire after destroying the tanks is her huge breast.Available at: http://www.thedollarbin.net/storage/thumbnails/1270854-14526158-thumbnail.jpg?__SQUARESPACE_
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The comic continues and we are presented with her in the water sexually posing in a bikini at awkward angles. The next few drawings of her, focuses on the front of her body, mainly at her breast and at her back, her bottom. We’re also shown a little boy, being a voyeur, taking pictures of her in these sexually seductive poses informing us there is no problem in being a voyeur. In addition, we can also imply that the little boy represents the reader who is also a voyeur, looking at Star Fire with pleasure without being seen.Available at: http://www.blogcdn.com/www.comicsalliance.com/media/2011/09/screen-shot-2011-09-22-at-12.38.02-pm.png -Accessed on: 16/03/2012″”]
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While on the other hand When Wonder Woman is introduced to us in All Star Comics #8 she is naked in bed. But soon takes charge in the comic and plays an active role. She does not use her attractiveness to seduce the male character or get out of trouble but uses action, her whip. But can be argued that Wonder Woman is fetishized to a certain extent. She wears a miniskirt and a top that looks like a corset and which is normally not ideal in fighting. Her golden lasso (whip) is a symbol of phallic cliché ‘when men are bound with it, they must submit to her will’ (Inness, 2004, p65). This notion can also imply that when men are bound with her whip they have lost or she has stolen their phallic/physical power. Therefore, she is deemed to be over powering the men. This is also clearly evident with Catwoman who uses her sexuality to overcome trouble by seducing Batman and the Russian mobster as mentioned before. Another character who acts on this notion is Rogue, from X-Men, who can steal a man’s power/psyche by touching her flesh with his. But she chooses to do this by kissing the man being her preferred method.Available at: http://www.thedollarbin.net/storage/articles/cheesecake022.jpg?__SQUARESPACE_CACHEVERSION=1318013847266 -Accessed on: 16/03/2012″]
The sexualised hyperfeminine depiction can be argued to compensate for the female heroine taking on the masculine role but also combine the ‘manliness’ (toughness) with the ‘womanliness’ (feminine characteristics). It can be argued further to compensate the notion that ‘toughness does not need to be conceived as gendered trait’ (Inness, 2004, p63). Also the use of whips, and tools can be said to mark the heroines as more as dominatrixes rather than masculine as the tools subject them to fetishization through the use large weapons and tools.
Another typical characteristic of the tough female protagonist, which we are displayed with throughout comics, is that she is single and childless. We see from the famous action heroines such as Wonder Woman, She-hulk, Star Fire, Catwomen, Star Sapphire, Invisible Woman, Storm, Jean Grey, Black Widow etc are all childless. We also are displayed with super heroines becoming parents and thus decide to leave the super heroine life for their child. This issue becomes more evident when Jessica Jones becomes pregnant and marries Luke Cage, Power Man, and leaves the U.S. to go live in Toronto for their safety as fearing of a civil war breakout in the U.S. This issue is also prominent when the ‘Black Canary also gives up her career of being a super heroine in order to raise her newly adopted child and she seems clearly devoted as she says,
“It’s more important for me to be faithful to you, and that means getting you away from all the costumes and crazies.
See, the mistake mom was afraid I’d repeat was that I wouldn’t spend enough time with my own kid,” in issue #100 which was published in 2007’. (Comic Vine (2010) Available at: http://www.comicvine.com/women-in-comics/12-43357/ – Accessed on 10/03/2012).
From this we can conclude that since the start of comic books we have come a long way from not including females to making them into secondary characters to the protagonist. We also see woman taking on roles of high ranks, as we see Storm become the team leader of X-men after defeating Cyclops over the challenge for leadership. But women characters are still treated as objects, some more than others, and hypermasculine males still tend to dominate the comic industry. The action super heroines led us to question, break down and exploit the boundaries of genders as the display both masculinity and femininity. Thus enacting principles of dominatrixes that can be understood as using masculinity symbols/signs to mock masculinity. These female action heroines have adopted masculine behaviour but are still depicted as the stereotypical female of being feminine, attractive and heterosexually appealing to the reader. Finally, ‘even the most systematically masculinised of’ female ‘action heroines incorporate conventional feminine sexual attractiveness to some’ extent and we have seem is strongly evident with the character of Wonder Women who is a subject of the comic book but is sexualised to a certain extent.
- Dines, G. and Humez, J.M. (ed.) (1994) Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. First Edition. Sage Publications, Inc.
- Inness, S.A. (ed.) (2004) Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture. First Edition. Palgrave Macmillan)
- Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2001) Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture. First edition. United States, New York: Oxford University Press
- Comic Vine (2010) Available at: http://www.comicvine.com/women-in-comics/12-43357/ -Accessed on 10/03/2012
- Slideshow Collectibles (2007) http://www.sideshowtoy.com/?page_id=3606 -Accessed on 10/03/2012
- Comic Alliance (2011) http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/09/22/starfire-catwoman-sex-superheroine/ -Accessed on 10/03/2012
- The Dollar bin (2011)http://www.thedollarbin.net/articles/woman-as-object-woman-as-subject-the-male-gaze-and-the-dc-co.html -Accessed on 10/03/2012