Guest Post: Women and Comics: The Worst–Part 2

women and powerNate is an economist and EmilyCC’s spouse and co-Cubmaster.

Jessawhy’s post a couple months ago ago made me want to look more closely at how women are treated in comics. Obviously, comics have a serious superhero misogyny is a problem that has been well documented in dozens of articles, blogs and TED talks, but no one has made a decent list of the best and worst of feminist comics.  So in Part 1, I’ll show the comics that seem to be at least marginally feminist, and in Part 2, I’ll list the flat-out misogynist characters, storylines and themes we see in this genre (insider tip: the worst are better than the best):

The Worst

5. Women and Power –  So one of the main themes that is endlessly recycled in comics is the idea that power corrupts.  For male superheros, this usually means some internal conflict, a big fight, and then they conquer their own inner demons and learn to control the power.  However, for female superheros, this means they get power, have internal conflict and then either turn evil, die, or choose to give up the power because they can’t handle it.  Yeah.  Thanks for that.

Even the Dark Phoenix series that made #2 on the “Best” list includes a heroine that repeatedly gives in to her ambition and desire for power.  In the end, she conquers all, but she loses a great many battles going down that path.  In one of them, she destroys a planet and all of its inhabitants.  <snarky> I guess women really just can’t handle it. </snarky>

Trigger Warning: the next image depicts violence against women

sexualization and violence4. Sexualization and Violence – We get it, sex sells.  Ridiculously huge breasts, tiny hips, and a perfect ass are prerequisite for 99% of female superheros.  Now to be fair, the same is true for male superheros.  Where there is a divergence, and this is very important, is skin.  Female superheros are almost always wearing bikinis, miniskirts, thongs, and/or dom-boots.  The kind of outfits that keep the YW General Presidency up at night.

This is a big deal because of Marvel and DC’s target market, of 10-16 year-old boy, That demographic is not reading comics for the outstanding writing, intricate plots, and complex characters (although I would argue that a good comic has all three).  As a young boy, I bought X-Men because superheros, Emma Stone, Storm, and Psylocke were the closest thing I could get to Hustler.

Now add to this that those scantily clad and highly sexualized female images were getting beaten and bloodied multiple times in every single issue, and you have just combined sexual objectification with extreme violence in a tidy little packages that is marketed without regulation, and shipped via the USPS or email to every impressionable pre-pubescent boy in the United States who wants to see it.  For most comics, kids can see 2-3 issues for free online and the sites are not flagged as porn or violence.  Virtually all public schools and libraries allow access to Marvel and DC’s websites.  The porn industry has been trying to get this angle for years, all they need to do is start their own comic.

Please also remember that this age group is also just beginning to understand sexual attraction, cross-gender relationships and intimacy.  Images like this one (from Marvel’s X-Men series) are helping form both boys’ and girls’ understanding of sex and women.  I mean really, they didn’t even draw her bra strap.

The Fury of the Femizons3. Femizons – Moving from the systemic problems to the blatant attacks on women, Marvel, in all their wonder, tried to combine feminism with the idea of wild warrior amazons.  The resulting “Femizons” series (that really was the best title they could come up with?) captured everything bad about comics’ portrayal of women and overlaid a demeaning sheen of pseudo-empowerment to its characters.  The Femizons are a future society ruled and controlled by women.  Men were used as slaves, entertainment, and breeding stock.   All birthing is done in labs, and any unneeded male babies (apparently 90% of them) are left to die in the wilderness.   However, not all the abandoned male babies die, and those that survive become a stronger, wilder, and apparently even more misogynistic group of men.

So with that basis, you have a good start for a feminist comic, right?  With that set up how could you possibly go wrong?  Don’t worry, Marvel is super creative, just when you think you know where they are going, BAM! a plot twist.  In Marvel’s collective pre-pubescent 1950’s era mind, that story background can only treat the Femizons as an evil and wicked villain society of feminists.

Lyra, the Femizon princess, falls in love with her male slave and together they work to overthrow the evil Femizon empire.  However, they get caught and Lyra is forced to kill her love in order to prove her loyalty to the Femizons (which she does).  In the culminating moment just after Lyra slays her lover, the thankfully short-lived series ends with the phrase, “When a man is but a slave – it is the women who live in bondage”.

I couldn’t make this kind of stuff up if I tried.  That’s how I know Marvel is the real deal.

Big Sister batman and superman2. World Without Men – Marvel’s Femizon set the misogyny limbo bar so low that their competitors had to dig a pretty big hole to beat them.  Lucky for us, DC Comics had some shovels.  In the 1970s, DC Comics decided to one-up the competition.  Their solution was a one-issue comic featuring the teenage sons of Superman and Batman that is so bad, DC’s editor-in-chief would probably be invited as a guest on Dr. Phil and/or Fox News if they published it today.

In the special issue, “World Without Men”, the Superteens go to a town where the men have all been jailed for being mean to the women and “Big Sister” is in charge.  Again, the scene is set for some good feminist stuff.  Once the scene is set, a woman who is repairing her roof falls and dies right in front of super/bat/boy.  The obvious conclusion?  She was doing “man-work” so she died (a conclusion reached by one of the women. See what they did there?).  Oh yeah, and the all-powerful super-batty-boy team who can save the world without breaking a sweat, were pretty much helpless when a woman falls 8 feet right in front of them.

The DC brain trust quickly unravels the mystery and finds that Big Sister is actually a giant evil one-eyed alien intent on one thing and one thing only,

The alien wants to make all women ugly.

Thankfully, the Plants vs. Zombies precursor intent on uglifying women everywhere is dispatched by the same supermisogynists that couldn’t stop a woman from dying when she fell off her roof.

But the fun doesn’t end there.  DC needed to put a healthy layer of sexual subservient icing on the institutionalized oppression cake to take the misogyny title from Marvel.  Even though the Pea Shooter is dead (see Plants vs. Zombies), the women are all still going to turn ugly unless…

Big Sister Sybil At this point, DC has clearly bested Marvel at woman-hating, but a champ cannot stay a champ without going the extra mile.   DC absolutely owned comic-based gender discrimination by, as a public service, gave this particular issue away for free to every school who asked for copies.

Good sirs, I tip my hat to you.  You killed it.  No one does comic book misogyny as well as DC.

1. The Silent Hate

Bridging further from comics to the real world gives us the number 1 worst feminist issue in comic history,  in part because it is real, and in part because it ongoing.  In 2011, at a comic book convention one prominent female comic book writer for Marvel, Kelly Sue DeConnick, was asked if she thought women faced a glass ceiling in the comic profession, she answered:

“I can only count two women in the last fifteen to twenty years who I would consider having made it to A-list writer status, and both of which, more often than not, I hear get called crazy… I have trouble finding a woman I would say reached A-list artist status, and I think that is beyond curious.”

Beyond curious indeed. This has become a big enough issue that websites are now tracking real-time how DC and Marvel continue to discriminate against women.  Each comic book issue has a credits page, so it is fairly easy for someone to use those credits as a proxy for gender equality on comic creative teams.  Because most comics come out once a month, we can track Marvel and DC’s progress in almost real-time.

As of May, 2013, DC had 11.8% of its comic credits going to women and Marvel had a slightly less bad 13.2%.  Worst of all, these scores were approximately a 5% “improvement” over the same tally in May, 2012.  This stat reminds me of some words of wisdom my grandfather once gave me.  He said,

“Nat, if you can’t beat em, they are not going to let you join them.  They are going to walk all over you, take everything you have, and expect you to thank them for the privilege of getting your ass kicked. So you better figure out how to beat em.”

This is something I really need to think about before running off to see the next Marvel/DC movie, play the next comic themed game, or even visit Marvel’s website.  Also important to remember is that Marvel is now 100% owned by Disney, and still the discrimination continues.  It pains me to say it, but no matter how hot Chris Hemsworth looks in the trailers, no more comic-themed movies for me until at least a path to gender-equality both in product and production is established.

**Speaking of comic books, it’s not to late to be part of iPlates: Vol. 2 and see women in the Book of Mormon come to life in this graphic novel.

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6 Responses

  1. Emily U says:

    This was an interesting window into comics. I’ve never owned or read any, but the misogyny doesn’t surprise me. Apparently the video game industry is similar, based on what a woman I know who worked as a programmer at a game company told me. She was one of the only women there and it was, she said, a horrible workplace for women, to say nothing of the content of the games.

    I guess the best I can do is (continue to) not buy this stuff. I’ve half-heartedly watched Marvel movies with my husband, but I think he’d in most cases be fine with watching something else.

    • NateCC says:

      I think this is one place where men who are sympathetic to the feminist cause can make a difference. As a mid 30s white male with a graduate degree, I am exactly Marvel and DC’s target market. Marvel and DC count on me to show up, buy subscription, movie tickets, and games based on superheros. But it goes beyond that, these companies have achieved the holy grail of American consumerism. Marvel and DC count on me to introduce my children to X-Men, Thor, and Superman. Comics are one of those iconic bonding moments between fathers and their children similar to the first baseball game or teaching them how to ride a bike.

      Men who participate in the cultural tradition of comics may not intentionally, but are actively condoning gender inequality. By just consuming those entertainment products, we teach our children that a good story and pretty pictures are more important than gender equality.

      We have other options that are equally effective bonding experiences, why not do those instead? Even if comics and movies really are that important, taking a few minutes to explain to children why and how those forms of entertainment perpetuate discrimination can make a difference.

  2. Em says:

    I appreciate your tie to the movies at the end. I feel very disconnected to the comic world, I never read them and neither does anyone in my family. I have seen all the movies though. I squirm at the obvious sexism and the totally invisible women who are obviously nothing more than objects to be saved at the climax of the story. But I never thought of boycotting them. In some ways that is a hard call because in fact women are mostly absent from most hollywood productions. I’ll have to think about this

    • NateCC says:

      As I was writing the essay and coming to terms with how much of my favorite kinds of entertainment I was leaving behind, I was shocked at how pervasive the problem is in this particular industry. While women are under-represented in Hollywood, there are concrete efforts, strong organizations and considerable progress being made overall in the entertainment industry. Not so with comics. The stories of professional abuse and discrimination in the comic industry are heart-wrenching and current.

      And as for the size of the problem? In 2012 alone, consumers purchased more than 57 million comic books. For comparison (all numbers are combined electronic and physical sales):

      The top 20 children’s books in 2012 sold a combined 5.3 million copies. For every one young adult book purchased on the top 20 list, more than 10 comics were purchased.

      The top 100 books in 2012 sold a combined 29.5 million copies. Almost 2 comics were purchased for every book on the top 100 list.

      More comics were printed in one year (2012) than copies of the following books since they were first published:

      Hunger Games-2007 (23 million)
      Harry Potter-2001 (54 million)
      Charlotte’s Web-1952 (45 million)
      Gone with the Wind-1936 (30 million)
      The Great Gatsby-1925 (25 million )
      Anne of Green Gables-1908 (50 million)
      Peter Rabbit-1902 (45 million)

      Excluding scriptural text, only 13 books have sold more copies since they were first published than comic books sold in one year (2012).

      If consumption is an acceptable proxy for cultural influence, comics dwarf all other forms of literature. It is that serious.

      • Brem says:

        Thanks for the numbers on this. I don’t read comics so I had no idea that they were this popular. The sexism in comics is even more concerning when you consider the reach and impact they must be having with sales numbers like those.

  3. Caroline says:

    Nate, this is a great rundown on the rather depressing depiction of women in comics. I myself have never read a comic, so it’s sobering to think about the messages that target audience of 10 to 16 year old boys is getting about objectified women and violence.

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