Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Women in comics

Back in March, DC Comics solicited their June 2015 comic book releases. In tribute to the 75th anniversary of their most iconic super-villain, the Joker, DC arranged for Joker-themed variant covers for all of their monthly publications. Unfortunately, a large number of fans and feminist bloggers flocked to Twitter to protest the variant cover planned for issue #41 for DC’s Batgirl series.

On the cover, the Joker is physically restraining Batgirl, whose eyes are filled with tears and fright. The villain, holding a gun, is applying one of his infamous “Joker grins” to the heroine. Although a number of the month’s variant covers show the clown terrorizing various heroes, the Joker and Batgirl have a particularly horrific and sensitive history. The cover heavily references arguably the most famous Joker story of all time, one told in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke. In it, the Joker kidnaps Barbara Gordon (unbeknownst to him, Batgirl’s alter ego), shoots her in the spine, paralyzing her from the waist down, and presumably rapes her. Afterwards, he takes pictures of her bruised, undressed body and sends them to her father, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. Despite the Joker’s eventually defeat by the Batman, Barbara Gordon’s character spent the following 20 years in a wheelchair (this development was recently undone).

A large, vigorous debate – at least for a relatively niche market – arose. Critics of the cover raised two main issues: 1) the cover glorifies violence against women; and 2) the fear depicted in Batgirl’s eyes reduced her to a damsel-in-distress. Surely, they argued, a male superhero would not be robbed of his dignity in the same way. The backlash resulted in DC cancelling of the cover (a decision even supported by the cover artist himself). To some extent, this move proved just as controversial among readers.

According to Time Magazine’s Cathy Young:
Sexism in popular culture is a valid concern. But when feminist criticism becomes an outrage machine that chills creative expression, it’s bad for feminism and bad for female representation. Making artists, writers, filmmakers, and even audiences walk on eggshells for fear of committing thought crime against womanhood is no way to encourage quality art or enjoyable entertainment — not to mention the creation of good female characters.
But to be fair, the comic book industry has not done a great job in creating “good female characters,” historically. And left to its own devices, it’s unclear whether it was ever going to get any better. Throughout the years, women were commonly written into stories as sexual objects that would need saving from super-villains on a monthly basis. Even as women’s empowerment and super-heroines became more prominent in comic books during the 1990s, they were typically depicted with hyper-sexualized bodies in skin-tight suits, big hair and high heels.

It would probably shock no one today that women remain under-represented in the mainstream superhero genre. Although there have been huge strides (Did you know that the comic book Thor is currently a woman?), there is nothing resembling gender equality – either in terms of characters or in terms of creative talent. This is despite the fact that women make up nearly half of all attendees at comic book conventions.

Looking at the titles slated for release in July 2015, only about 10 out of the 83 (12 percent) Marvel Comics issues have a titular female protagonist. Over at DC Comics, it is 11 out of 76 (14 percent). In contrast, Marvel is scheduled to publish 30 male-led titles to DC’s 38. For someone who has followed the industry since the early-1990s, these numbers actually represent a huge improvement. Just more progress needs to be made to excise the sexism in what has generally been a boy’s club.

If you’re a fan of films, you’ve probably noticed that superhero movies have been dominating the box office for quite a few years now. And despite a few notable flops (e.g., Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern, Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Josh Brolin’s Jonah Hex, etc.), it doesn’t look like the super-powered gravy train is about to quit any time soon. Late last year, both Marvel and DC addressed one of the growing concerns among their fans – Will see any female-led superhero films?

At the time, the only super-heroine to make her way onto the big screen in the new universe was Black Widow. And despite her competence in a fight, she has so far been used as a trope – being a romantic interest for Iron Man in Iron Man 2, then for Captain America in The Winter Soldier, and now for the Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The actors portraying Captain America and Hawkeye jokingly called her a “slut” during an interview as a way to explain the way her character has been used, something they apologized for last week.

At the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel responded with plans to release Captain Marvel in July 2018, and DC finally planned to give us our first Wonder Woman-led movie in June 2017. Additionally, Marvel will premiere a female-led series on Netflix later this year. Somewhat similarly, we will also see the first black male-led films of the new universes – Marvel’s Black Panther in 2017, and DC’s Cyborg in 2020.

Still, a lot of soul-searching needs to happen in the superhero industry, as well as in Hollywood generally. Like Disney’s animated movies, superhero movies have historically left a lot to be desired in how women are portrayed in their stories. Tokenism is simply not good enough anymore. Hopefully, they’re up to the challenge.


Jessica S. said...

Hopefully they will begin hearing suggestions, instead of taking stabs at how to include women. There is a large female fan base, and when they acknowledge incidents (like the comments about Black Widow), it is one level above how they've responded in the past.

Hart Ku said...

I'm glad that you raise that point, because it's a section that I ended up cutting out of the entry. In the past several years, we've seen a huge push by readers for more female creators (writers or artists) on Marvel and DC books. The pressure has been enough to get the companies to acknowledge the gender gap, and at least promise to narrow it (ex. And it makes sense that their efforts to highlight more female characters should go hand-in-hand with their efforts to hire more female creative talents.

And we actually see some fans trying to hold them at their word. I can think of several websites and blogs that regularly track how many female creators are listed on each month's solicitations page. Over the last few years we've seen a pretty steady improvement in these numbers, yet its fallen drastically in the last couple of months.

This drop can partially be explained by the fact that both DC and Marvel are arranging for more unified "event" stories to be told across all their publications. And because this involves keeping a lot of details secret, the "insiders" at the respective companies have a larger role in these events. The women that do get hired to work in the industry have a harder time breaking into the inner circle, and typically have a harder time being part of this process.

Heather said...

I agree tokenism is no longer enough, but female portrayals in animation and cartoon present a unique challenge. As you mention, Disney has faced similar scrutiny. Even their attempt at a strong female lead character in the movie Brave was criticized, because Merida is still a princess and her image was beautified. Cartoons are necessarily caricatures. Features have to be exaggerated. The challenge for the comic and cartoon industry is to not exaggerate features that make women overly sexualized. It is time to give women non-stereotypical superpowers and portray them as strong and smart, not just as pretty princesses or damsels in distress.