There is already so much out there that people have written about the portrayal of female comic characters. In fact, beyond that – the treatment of women in comics and their portrayal as characters. There is so much in fact that it is almost impossible to sift through the blogs, newspaper articles, fan-sites, forums, and academic papers on the subject. So much so, that I’ve wondered about weighing in with my own point of view, because really do I have anything more to add to this deluge?
One thing we all have in common is agreeing on the fact that there is a problem with how women are portrayed in comic books, and by extension, often in the media spins off from these, including live action and animated films and TV shows, video games, memorabilia and toys, etc.
So rather than reiterate the arguments we have read and continue to have over the subject, I’m going to tell you what effect it has on me personally. For these purposes I am going to concentrate on one strand of this – the visual portrayal of women in comics, because in my opinion this is where it starts, and with the constant images of women in a “brokeback pose” it is endemic! In even the most “innocent” of comics (where we would not likely find something so extreme as rape), the women are still demeaningly portrayed visually.
My problem with these portrayals (and many other things in life) is my complicity. I do not believe in or approve of the way women are portrayed in comics, in fact I oppose it. However, I enjoy reading comic books. The very reading of these comic books thusly makes me complicit in this portrayal.
I’ve discussed before in my blog the need for portrayals that better reflect the readership and society as a whole by bringing in more prominent characters that don’t fit the “norm” of white/male/straight. Seeing portrayals of women that are hypersexualised and objectified in a way that their male counterparts are not does nothing to help this. And so reading these comics and viewing these images not only makes me complicit, it also makes me feel voiceless, because other than ranting online I have no way to object to this, other than the obvious – stop buying the comics. But then, this does nothing to actually change the situation. It would simply be ignoring the problem exists.
A lack of respect for women is at the root of all of this. Take for example the comments from some comic creators that comics aren’t meant for women (warning: discussions of rape in comics contained in this article). This is ridiculous for the obvious reasons that regardless of whatever poll (or lack thereof) these people have taken – women do buy and read comics and their associated consumables, they write about them too!
But let’s, for argument’s sake, just say they aren’t for women. Even more extreme than that – that no person of the female gender has ever picked one up, and that the contents found between those covers is an absolute secret only visible to the male gender – does this give the creators/editors/writers/artists a right to portray women poorly? If you substitute the word women here for black or Asian for example, you can see the problem (and actually it often applies to them too!). Every time they portray a woman poorly they are adding to ideas we are constantly fighting on how women should be treated.
Women, to varying degrees, have to deal with everyday sexism, socially acceptable abuse, and the constant drain of rape-culture, and this is in Western societies alone! At the very least we have to deal with a fundamental and constant lack of respect. Everything in the world around us disrespects women to some degree or another – from advertisement to television shows, from unequal pay to gas-lighting. It is something we are constantly exposed to, but the fact that it is so prolific doesn’t make it right. Every disrespectful portrayal or circumstance adds to the acceptance and propagation of the disrespect.
So too the portrayal of women in any medium, regardless of whether it is intended for the consumption of women or not, should be respectful. If we are to believe that comics are only bought by teenage boys and men, shouldn’t we expect as human beings to be portrayed respectively anyway? Wouldn’t that be ethical and moral? If I picked up something that was only intended for white people (and again completely secret from anyone who wasn’t), would it be moral or ethical to portray offensive stereotypical information or images of non-white people? Sadly, it is quite possible such things as these do exist out there – which again does not make it right or acceptable!
Moreover, I can’t be the only person that sees the correlation between the disrespectful portrayal of women in comics (and similar media) and the disrespectful treatment of female cosplayers? If we live in a society that constantly tells both men and women that women are not deserving of respect, shouldn’t we start trying to change this? If the male consumers of comics and similar media are being taught that women who dress as superheroes (etc) are not deserving of respect, then why would they show respect to female cosplayers?
If you don’t read comics, or you are oblivious as to how their portrayal of women is disrespectful, I will try here to lay it out.
As with male representations in comics, we cannot expect that they will 100% realistic. This is for two main reasons, firstly that they are drawn and not photo-real, and secondly, they often portrayal extraordinary people – superheroes, gods, etc. As such, I will within reason accept that the vast majority of female characters are portrayed in what their producers creators/writers/artists to be the most aesthetically pleasing way. I will concede that this happens to male characters too, but as you can see previously on my blog, I believe there is an argument that this does not demean men in the same way it does women. And whilst the men may be muscle bound hunks, they are rarely hypersexualised (when was the last time you saw one with his legs akimbo outside of the Hawkeye Initiative?)
So, this aside, the way in which women are portrayed (and that men are not) are as follows –
- Unnecessarily revealing clothing – sometimes women might want to wear something revealing like maybe on a date, no woman would wear something revealing in which to fight crime – it’s completely impractical!
- Where clothing is not revealing, it can be ripped to make it so – seriously, we don’t need to keep seeing Power Girl’s boobs!
- Drawn at angles that portray hypersexualisation – arched back and ass shots whilst fighting, really?!
- The fact that a large number of the female characters look facially, and sometimes bodily, identical – the creative teams just change their hair and outfits to create a different character – ‘cause, y’know, women all look the same.
For a great expansion on some of these check this out!
Further issues, which I have not touched on here include –
- The number of women portrayed in comics are not reflective of society- women make up roughly 50% of the human race, but not according to comic books
- Rebooting female characters into male characters, or making them vanish completely
- Rebooting female characters into new versions that aren’t as nice, powerful, or representative as their previous incarnation
- Female characters who are two-dimensional and/or behave in an stereotypical way, including overly flirtatious behaviour
- Violence, sexual violence and rape of female characters
- Specifically the use of violence, sexual violence and rape of female characters to serve as plot devises for male characters – see Women in Refrigerators
- The decline of other comic genres other than that of superheroes
- The hiring of a predominantly male creative teams
- Seemingly happy not only to not encourage a female readership, but rather alienate it
Although many of these criticisms go across the board, it must be noted that women often fare better in independent comics, but big hitters Marvel and DC appear to be moving backwards in time…
The New 52
I’m not singling out the New 52 as that which above all others have portrayed women badly (though they don’t do a great job), but simply because they are my main frame of reference. Although I have seen portrayals of women in various other comic books, it is DC’s New 52 that I regularly read. I have always enjoyed DC comics and have read Superman and Batman comics for quite sometime. When New 52 was launched, I decided to jump into some other titles as it gave me an accessible starting point.
It is this re-launch, however, that makes me think that New 52 is exactly the right place to start this discussion. New 52 (and Flashpoint before it) wiped out the previous DC title’s continuity and allowed the Editorial Board to start afresh. This relaunch took place in 2011.
I say it again to drive home the point that this relaunch was not in 1911, it had every opportunity to update the titles to better reflect the society of today in both demographics and equality, and better represent those other than their perceived “norm” (male/white/straight). This missed opportunity is rather disappointing, with still considerably less women, less non-white character, and poor gender and racial representations compared to their main title characters. Touching on race is a whole other issue – with one of the few black characters, the Justice League’s Cyborg, unlike the rest of the JL doesn’t get his own standalone title and instead has a hurried and introduction as part of the first story line of the JL title… this is just one example among many and there is some great reading to be had here!
In regards to gender alone, the overall representation could be better, but it is specifically the artistic portrayals of women that has been particularly bad. Of the titles I read that feature main female characters (Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Justice League, Earth 2 and World’s Finest), the representations are appalling and I am hard pushed to go an issue without muttering with disgust over how the women are drawn in hypersexualised and objectifying ways.
What I plan to do next
Reading all this, you must wonder why I continue to read them at all. Well the truth is, this isn’t something that is limited to comics, it happens in a great swath of television, film and video games (to name only the biggest mediums). And if women were to boycott all of these things, in reality, it wouldn’t change anything. Because if we don’t continue reading (watching, playing, etc), forming an educated opinion about what we did and didn’t like about them and why, then we could lose our voice to counter act them – to rant or protest.
To stop buying the comics would make me no longer complicit, and it would take away the very tiny and insignificant proportion of profit that I give to DC, but it wouldn’t really change anything. I think sometimes, to change something, you need to know it well. It’s very difficult to argue that you disagree with something that you do not partake in (I mean along the lines of genres, sports, etc). So, here is what I plan to do, and please feel free to join me in this – the next time and every time I see a portrayal that I am unhappy with I will do two things –
- I will create a blog post called “Nope!” with details of what and why I am unhappy.
- I will write a calm and considered letter to the responsible publishers, etc to ask them to rethink the way they portray women.
Below is the template I am going to use for this letter, with the main reasoning mostly staying the same (though on occasion it may need to be flexible) and details of the particular offense on this occasion. Please do feel free to use this if you have any wish to, alter to suit your recipient, or be inspired to create your own! I will be using their website contact form until I can (hopefully) track down a more direct postal or email address.
I am writing in complaint of the portrayal of [character name] in [title, issue number and date] by [creative team names]. [Description of the portrayal and why I found it offensive].
Women in all cultures have to endure on going disrespect and everyday sexism. How can we expect this change whilst mediums such as comics encourage the acceptability of such disrespect and sexism. Even if you believe that your main fan base is male, does this give the creative teams a right to portray women poorly? Is it ethical or moral to do so? Every time a woman is poorly portrayed you are adding to ideas we are constantly fighting on how women should be treated – every disrespectful portrayal or circumstance adds to the acceptance and propagation of the disrespect.
I enjoy the stories of [comic book producer] and wish to continue buying and reading them, however I do not agree with the portrayal of female characters within them. This leaves me having to choose between not reading them or being complicit and accepting of those portrayals. Therefore, I ask you reconsider the portrayal of women in your comics and strive to make changes moving forward.
You can read my first “Nope” post, including a copy of the message I sent, here!