From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Objectification of Women in Comic Books

A handsome intelligence officer of the United States Army, Colonel Steve Trevor, crashes his plane on “Paradise Island” (an island full of Amazon women, what else would it be called, right?). Trevor is found by a beautiful Amazon Princess named Diana, who nurses him and subsequently falls in Love with him. When she learns about the war against the Nazis, she dons a costume of America’s red, white, and blue, and departs for the “Man’s World.” She is Wonder Woman — “beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, stronger than Hercules, and swifter than Mercury”. She can fly like Superman, she can hurl heavy objects like the Hulk, and if you really make her mad, she’ll crack out her golden lasso and tie you up (especially if you’re male).

Wonder Woman

At first glance, she may look like an empowered, kick-butt, feminist super-heroine amidst a realm dominated by male super-heros. But is Wonder Woman really empowered? Is she really the icon of feminism in graphic novels? Is her message really all about defending sisterhood, freedom, and democracy?

1. The Damsel in Distress

Originally, women played a very small role in comic books. In the late 1930’s, super powered heroes like Superman and Captain Marvel dominated the stage while women scarcely made any presence. Specifically, they were depicted as dependent and “damsels in distress” — victims that needed to be rescued by the male protagonist; a prize that needed to be won by either the male villain or hero. For example, in the first issue of Superman, news reporter and future love interest, Lois Lane, is kidnapped by criminals and eventually rescued by Superman. No relationship gets developed and nothing else is learned about who Lois is — Superman simply saves her, flies her to safety, and then flies away. Women were also portrayed as the “girl-Friday…seductive vamp, or perhaps, the long-suffering girlfriend” (Lavin, 1998). The stereotypical gender roles were quite obvious: men alone are capable of succeeding independently and being courageous, while women are subordinate figures in the background. These early attitudes towards women in comic books are implicative of common gender role stereotypes where women are thought to be less intelligent than men and only have a place in the house as a caretaker and/or source of emotional support. As New York cartoonist Jules Feiffer states, “the ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, Lil Abner’s, or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them.”

2. Women as Sex Objects

The role of women changed dramatically during World War II when patriotic characters emerged and surprisingly attracted the interest of new readers, who were both males and females. Arguably, the most noteworthy character was Wonder Woman. As mentioned above, she possesses enormous super-human strength, has the ability to fly, and can overcome any obstacle that comes in her way. . Even more interesting is how her love interest, Colonel Trevor, is constantly being rescued by her, as if he is the male version of the aforementioned Lois Lane. Rather than the male rescuing the female all the time, it is reversed in the Wonder Woman comics. In the following years, other strong and super heroine characters surfaced like Miss America — the female version of Captain America — Mary Marvel, Super Girl, She-Hulk, and many others. They carried the symbolic message that “girls could do anything boys could do, and often better, especially if they stuck together” (Robbins, 2002).

However, despite these new portrayals of strong and powerful female characters like Wonder Woman, something else was occurring: they were being depicted as sex objects. As stated by Michael Lavin, “powerful super-heroines like DC’s Wonder Woman or Marvel’s She-Hulk may easily overcome the most overwhelming threats and obstacles, but they are invariably depicted as alluring objects of desire, wearing the scantiest of costumes.” The images of women with large bust sizes, slim figure, bare legs, and half-naked appearance became enormously popular after the success of Wonder Woman. Believe it or not, comic books were filled with so many sexual images of women that they were known as “headlight comic books” — a crude and stereotypical reference to the female anatomy. Comic book historian Ron Goulart writes: “In the days before the advent of Playboy and Penthouse, comic books offered one way to girl watch” (1986). A prime example of “headlight comics” was in Bill Ward’s “Torchy,” a series that ran from 1946 to 1950. The comic books contained dull and uninteresting storylines where the scriptwriters were merely making an excuse to draw Torchy as a tall, bare legged blond, who walked around in her underwear.

The escalating amount of sex and violence in comic books eventually led to complaints, particularly by psychologist Fredric Wertham who held a symposium in 1948 on the “Psychopathology of Comic Books.” He also wrote a book, Seduction of the Innocent, which correlated a connection between “juvenile delinquency and comic book reading” (Lavin, 1998). As a result, the Comics Code Authority established a written code which set the guidelines for comic book publishing. During this time, the comic book industry took a remarkable new turn where the constant objectification of women was seized. But this period where comic books were geared more towards girls and teenagers wouldn’t last long. Superheroes reemerged in the late 1960’s, along with their scantily-clad super-heroines and damsels in distress. Women were drawn in the same stereotypical fashion, but this time, the artists took it one step further on the skimpy scale. Consider the White Queen, a female villain that appeared in the X-Men comics during the 1980’s. She was “the stuff of male sexual fantasy: a push-up bustier, panties, and high-heel boots, all in white” (Lavin, 1998). Observe the image below and judge for yourself:

Emma Frost

Today, women are becoming more and more sexualized. As described by Jones and Jacobs (2005): “Females, perpetually bending over, arching their backs, and heaving their anti-gravity breasts into readers’ faces, defied all laws of physics… the Victoria’s Secret catalogue became the Bible of every super-hero artist, an endless source of stilted poses ripe for swiping by boys who wanted their fantasies of women far removed from any human reality.”

One study conducted by Jessica H. Zellers shows an examination of how women are depicted in eighteen graphic novels. She finds that “of the suggestively clad, partially clad, or naked individuals, about three times as many were women (296) than men (107).” From the graphic novel sample where there were 1,768 male characters and 786 female characters, only 6% of all males were suggestively clad, partially clad, or naked; while of all the females, 38% were suggestively clad, partially clad, or naked. Additionally, of all males, 2% were naked, while of all females, 24% were naked. Zellers writes: “It is incredible that almost one out of every four females was, at some point, depicted in the nude” (2005).

3. Exploitation and Sexism

While some comic book artists argue that drawing women voluptuously and provocatively is a symbol of their strength and power, there are other points that can be emphasized upon to argue that women are being exploited. Consider the creator of Wonder Woman: a psychologist named William Moulton Marston (pen name: “Charles Moulton”) who also invented the lie detector. Revealing Marston’s intentions and goals on the character of Wonder Woman sheds light upon new attitudes towards women in the world of graphic novels. The fact that Wonder Woman comes from a matriarchal “Paradise Island” is enough to indicate male fantasy, but Marston also states, “give [men] an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to, and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves.” Though Wonder Woman is not subordinate or weaker than her surrounding male characters in terms of strength and powers, she is being exoticized and idolized by her male creator. Her weapon is a golden lasso, which critics have called an erotic symbol of sexual control since she uses it to make her adversaries obey her commands. Marston has been criticized for his bonding fixations — a recurring theme of Wonder Women tying up both men and women. It was so prevalent that the editor of DC comics, Sheldon Mayer, was so uncomfortable with it and tried to tone it down (but was unsuccessful). In one 1948 story of Wonder Woman, there are no fewer than 75 panels of Wonder Woman tying up men or women in ropes.

One may also find sexist undertones in how many other female characters have abilities and superpowers ranging from being skilled in mundane arts like gymnastics and mind control (Maher, 2005). Female characters like Madame Mirage, White Queen, and Malice have the ability to use mind control to manipulate their opponents, mostly men! White Queen specifically uses her powers of mind control to manipulate and deceive men in order to gain wealth and power (Lavin, 1998). Yes, typical woman! The voluptuous Catwoman uses her beauty to manipulate Batman, Poison Ivy uses her seductive and deadly love potions to gain what she wants, and Malice is able to control the emotional centers of the brain. Hmm, what’s next? A female character that marries a rich old man only to have him killed off just to inherit the wealth and property? Wait, they already have a character like that: White Rabbit from the Spider-man comics!

What significance does Elektra’s “Electra Complex” serve?

Elektra

Ah, Frank Miller. The comic book writer/artist who is notoriously known for his racist (see “300″) and sexist undertones. The hatred for women in his comic books are too obvious to be missed. Elektra (pictured above), for example, is a troubled female Assassin and anti-heroine. Miller named her after the Greek mythological character of the same name. Like the myth, Elektra’s character develops a sexual attraction to her father (which is the symptom of the “Electra Complex” in psychology). Early in her life, her Elektra complex is strengthened when her father rapes her, but then she is told that it never really happened. “It was only a fantasy… and she wanted it to happen. Her belief in her desire for the father grows, but her father dies before she can resolve the Electra complex” (Baughman, 1990). Frank Miller has also subjected other female characters to subordinate positions, such as Ava Lord in his series “Sin City.” Ava Lord says to a male character: “You’re right about me! I’m nothing but a selfish slut who threw away the only man she ever loved . . . I’m such a fool. Such a selfish stupid slut” (Maher, 2005). Another character he sexualizes incredibly is Vicki Vale in his new Batman All-Stars graphic novels. She is drawn in her pink bras and panties while thinking about her upcoming date with Bruce Wayne (aka Batman). On one panel, she is sucking her finger while showing her entire figure, and on the bottom panel, there is a shameless close-up of her buttocks. Below is an image from the comic book; the caption is from Frank Miller’s script for artist Jim Lee. It speaks for itself:

Miller's shameless "ass shot"

As analyzed by a feminist comic book reader, Vicki Vale’s character is there to “reassure the readership of their hetereo-masculinity.” She is quintessentially “watched by male watchers: the writer/director (Frank), his artist, and the presumed male audience that buys the book” (Finally, A Feminism Blog, 2006, para 7).

4. The Male Gaze

One could argue that what is in work here is the concept of the “male gaze”. This feminist theory was first introduced in the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975. Male gaze is described as “the concept of the gaze as a symptom of power asymmetry”. A defining characteristic of male gaze was how the heterosexual male lets the camera “linger on the curves of the female body”. The male gaze “denies women agency, relegating them to the status of objects.” When applied to comic books, what we see presented is through the gaze of the male. The women are presented as men would want to see them. These same images are presented to women as something they should aspire to be if they want to be with a man. In other words, the power and control that characters like Wonder Woman have may be perceived as a woman’s control or power over a man, but it is in fact fake control. The male writers can take it away at will. Consider the following “adjustments” made by male writers on the storylines of female characters: “Batwoman is killed, Batgirl is paralysed, Mirage is raped, while Black Canary is tortured, made infertile, and de-powered!” (Maher, 2005). In other words, femininity has no control at all, as long as male writers and artists persist with these depictions and attitudes.

I found countless images of female characters in extremely provocative poses; bending over, arching their heads back, tossing their hair, fighting in the rain, etc. Even the popular characters like Wonder Woman, Storm, Super-Girl, and Jean Grey were not spared. This image of Wonder Woman in her traditional Amazon attire, for example, is especially crude and repulsive:
Example of the “Male Gaze”

Male Gaze

What is the Future for Women in Comic Books?

The comic book industry is by far a male dominated industry. Just go to a comic book convention where fans are “treated to the sight of several scantily clad professional models dressed in the costumes of popular comic book babes. These models are hired by the comics companies to promote the publisher’s wares. For a small fee, any fan can immortalize the fantasy by having his picture taken with one of the role-playing women” (Lavin, 1998).

This is not to say that there are no female comic book readers — there certainly are — but one may argue that as sexualization of women continues, the rate of female readers will decrease significantly. According to Trina Robbins, a female comic book artist, “Women just don’t go into comic-book stores… A woman gets as far as the door, and after the cardboard life-size cut-out of a babe with giant breasts in a little thong bikini and spike-heel boots, the next thing that hits her is the smell. It smells like unwashed teenage boys, and it has this real porn-store atmosphere.” Just by looking at the covers of comic books like Wonder Woman or Catwoman today, it seems like the artists and writers are more concerned with how the characters are depicted than with storyline.

Look at films like “Batman Begins,” “X-Men,” “Superman Returns,” and the “Spider-man” films. They are all not only successful, but critically acclaimed as well. Is there a Wonder Woman film? There have been two films in the past five years with a female protagonist: “Catwoman” and “Elektra”. But these films bombed in the box-office. They’re so bad that they’re laughable. They’re not taken seriously like the aforementioned comic book movies. They were just poor excuses to get Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner to dress in tight and skimpy costumes.

And even if there was a Wonder Woman movie, is she really a complex and three-dimensional character like Batman or Spider-Man? Spider-Man, for example, is filled with so much depth — in the first film, we see him as a nerdy high school student who gets picked on by bullies, in the second film, we see him conflicted with keeping a job, paying his rent on time, and most importantly: he is torn between his obligation of being Spider-Man and his love for Mary Jane Watson. Should he give up being a super-hero and live a normal life where he can be with Mary Jane? These kind of challenges, dilemmas, and choices are what make characters like Spider-Man so interesting and three-dimensional. How can young girls relate to Wonder Woman? She is an exotic beauty from the land of the Amazons. She is more of a mythological Greek goddess than a human being. Where are her character flaws? What are her dilemmas and inner struggles? Besides, do we really want young girls to have Wonder Woman shirts or backpacks after we’ve learned that she is a product of a male fantasy?

The X-Men include powerful female characters who can move things with their minds, control the weather, and run through walls, among other things, but the male characters are at the center of the stage. Also, let’s look at characters like Super Girl, Bat Girl, and Spider Girl. What do they all have in common? They would not have existed if it were not for the original male characters. Superman tells Super Girl that he will take care over her like a “big brother,” but if Super Girl is the cousin of Superman, then why in the world would she need to be looked after? This is an example of how male dependency is prevalent in comic books, both implicitly and explicitly.

As I said earlier, the sexist undertones and stereotypical images are getting worse and increasingly sleazier. Graphic novels have a unique blend of complex narratives and visual art which is what makes it a very popular and appealing form of art, but stereotypes about women are being reinforced — stereotypes about the “ideal” feminine body image: large breasts, thin waists, toned buttocks, long legs. These stereotypes are misleading because they are setting a standard for beauty in women, and now that superhero characters are being portrayed in Hollywood films, more readers are being attracted to graphic novels.

We need new interpretations of female comic book characters; just like how their wardrobes have been reinterpreted in the X-Men films directed by Bryan Singer. Instead of wearing tight leather or spandex, the characters are wearing less provocative clothing (see Anna Paquin’s Rogue). Elektra’s character and her Elektra complex was removed; Catwoman was once a prostitute, but that was changed — and for the better. More realistic, three dimensional, and complex female characters are desperately needed; characters that can we can relate to and we can learn from.

Some admirable efforts include comic book writer Chris Claremont, who introduced “a string of independent, strong-willed, and generally admirable heroines” in the mid 70’s (Lavin, 1998). 14-year old Kitty Pryde (or “Shadowcat”) of the X-Men was an excellent example of a realistic, complex, and 3-dimensional female character. She is a teenager who suffers from anxiety, peer pressure, loneliness, and she has a longing to be treated as an adult. Instead of being drawn as an exotic, large breasted, and bare legged Amazon like Wonder Woman, she is drawn “slim, coltish, and flat-chested.” Another positive female character is also from the X-Men: Jubilee.

More female writers and artists are needed to help make this medium a stronger and meaningful form of storytelling. At the same time, the male writers and artists need to stop objectifying women! Otherwise, if images of women in comic books persist in sexualization, then the great storylines will fade away, just like it did in the late 1940’s during the “headlight comic books.”

Jehanzeb is a film student who writes about Islam, Feminism, Politics, and Media. This piece was originally published on his blog.

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