Women may be appearing in comic books and on the big screen, but appearances aren’t enough any more…
In the real world, gender inequality, misogyny, sexism and cissexism still exist. But what about a fictional world? A universe where superheroes rule, where evil is always defeated and good always wins. A world that supposedly embodies equality, representation, and fair opportunities for all. Could women thrive in a fictional utopia such as this?
Unfortunately, the answer is a little more complex than most would like to hope for.
Sean Carleton is a PhD holder and also popular culture columnist for Canadian Dimension Magazine. In one of his articles, he talks about the issue of how the women that do exist in comic books, are represented. “This graphic form commonly represents women as deferential, submissive, and highly sexualized,” he says. “Even the empowering attributes of superheroines, of which there are admittedly some, often take place within an overarching patriarchal framework and thus adhere to stereotypically constricting gender roles.”
“Even the empowering attributes of superheroines often take place within an overarching patriarchal framework”
Devoney Looser is an English Professor, and in her review of the book Wonder Women: Feminisms and Super heroes, she talks about her surprise at the amount of sexual storylines. “I was amazed to learn that the early Wonder Woman series included a fair number of S & M subplots, featuring a sorority named Beeta Lamda and that bondage appears in almost every issue,” she explains.
Women tend to be sexualised in many industries, such as Hollywood, modelling, and clearly even comic books. All we have to do is look at pictures of the outfits that they are drawn in. They are not only strong but very often have cleavage bursting out of their outfits, and the little fabric they’re wearing is generally extremely tight. Although superhero men are often drawn in similarly tight costumes, the women tend to have much more skin on show. For example, the staple outfit for Wonder Woman before the most recent film was a skimpy leotard. Another popular superheroine is Storm, who is drawn in a similarly skimpy leotard.
Although there is nothing wrong with a woman expressing her sexuality, when this one body-type is all that’s being represented and their assets are claiming so much attention, it begins to feel as though they’ve been drawn in this way for the male gaze.
But, even when the outfits aren’t drawn in such a sexual manner for unnecessary reasons, there is another huge issue.
Diana McCallum is co-creator of the From Superheroes network, and she sees a real problem in the way in which women characters are used. “In terms of sheer numbers, there are technically a large variety of female superheroes in comic books,” she says. “But a lot of these characters are given secondary roles in team books and rarely lead their own titles and some are just created for a short arc then forgotten about. Looking at the scope of male to female heroes, we definitely have a ways to go.”
“A lot of these characters are given secondary roles in team books and rarely lead their own titles”
In the current DC Cinematic Universe, Superman has his own stand-alone film and a shared film with Batman. Iron Man and Captain America both have three stand-alone films as well as starring in multiple other movies in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The big similarity with these characters, though, is the fact that they’re goodies. But characters such as Wonder Woman, Black Widow, White Canary and Scarlet Witch prove that women can be just as heroic, strong and righteous as men.
Abbey Plumb previously worked in the comic book store, Forbidden Planet and now works in the gaming industry. She’s been a comic book fan since she was a child, and she’s a bit more optimistic that McCallum about the representation of women. “There are some incredible female characters out there!” She says. “There are some wicked female villains too, but I wouldn’t be against seeing some new ones.”
Megan Byrd is a former comic book shop employee and began the Comic Book Candy blog in 2009. She agrees with McCallum that comic books are still showing gender inequality. “Because the most well-known cape titles are released by two publishers (Marvel / DC), and they dominate sales in the direct market, their content drives a lot of the conversation in terms of representation,” she says. “Both have done better in recent years with titles like Batgirl and Ms. Marvel, but there are nowhere near enough by comparison to the number of male led titles.”
Meanwhile, the likes of The Joker and Loki — who has in fact been both man and woman in the comic books — put the baddies on the map, made them interesting, had people wanting to watch and read more about them. Hela, Killer Frost, Poison Ivy and Mystique are a few amongst the many villainous women that are no less evil, mischievous and memorable than their male counterparts.
But, McCallum believes representation of villainous women is no better than representation of superhero women. “Women can be such fun, interesting villains,” she says. “But there are very few of them outside of maybe Batman’s rogue gallery. What I’d really like to see are more female villains with straight up super strength. It seems like most of the female villains are magic users and I really want to see a woman just punching people.”
“It seems like most of the female villains are magic users and I really want to see a woman just punching people”
Marvel and DC are the two comic book publishing giants that are not only ruling the comic book world, but also Hollywood. Although Marvel has been creating films in the current MCU since 2008, their first superhero film led by a woman is scheduled in 2019 (Captain Marvel). It has taken 11 years and 20 previous movies to reach the point of creating a Marvel comic book film about a superhero that also happens to be a woman.
DC hasn’t been much better. Although they released Wonder Woman earlier this year and received the third highest box office earnings of any DC film, there was a lot of controversy around the casting of Gal Gadot. She didn’t look physically strong or as curvy as the character does in the comic books for starters. She also didn’t have the bodily hair that you’d expect from an Amazonian woman being introduced to the modern-day world for the first time.
Once Twitter picked up on Wonder Woman’s shaved armpits, social media users everywhere were showing their disappointment.
@MoiraWyton tweeted: “The most amazing thing about Wonder Woman was that her armpits!! were still! smooth!! when she lifted that tank after 5 days on the run!!”.
@spakhm enjoyed the movie, but still had something to say about the lack of under-arm hair: “Saw Wonder Woman. Shaved armpits == mass markets beat feminism. But still a great movie”.
@riderbynight used some whimsy sarcasm to get their point across: “Hi I’m wonder woman I live on an island with only warrior women and I don’t know what a skirt is but I have perfectly shaved armpits”.
It may seem like a pointless argument; in fact some Twitter users expressed how unnecessary they believed the issue to be.
Another twitter user, @BloodRedPatriot decided to make more of a statement: “Leftist women want Wonder Woman to not shave her armpits. They truly are regressive, aren’t they?”
Others felt the feminists against Wonder Woman having shaved armpits were simply getting their priorities wrong: “There are people getting raped and murdered and you’re crying that the new Wonder Woman has shaved armpits,” tweets @wilcoxAysia.
But the reason why so many people were in uproar, and some even deciding to boycott the film was because Wonder Woman is an Amazonian. She lived on an island away from modern civilisation with only women. Therefore, she wouldn’t know that ladies are expected to shave bodily hair. How could she? She didn’t have a TV, she didn’t have the internet, she had no way of knowing that hair is seen as unsightly on a woman.
It wasn’t just sexism that Wonder Woman faced; it was also a form of white washing and Westernisation of a woman of colour. Simply put, she was held to extremely narrow beauty standards propagated by white western men.
This is where the question arises of whether the controversial representation of women is coming from the comic books themselves or the film industry.
Plumb believes there are plenty of women in the comic books, but it’s up to Hollywood to start transferring them to film and TV. “The source material is there, without a doubt,” she says. “There are some incredible female characters that would be great on the big screen! We just have to hope more creators are willing to pick these stories and characters up in the future.”
Although Byrd believes women aren’t getting as many legendary villain roles as men, stating “there are more now, but not near an equal amount to male villains,” she does have a character in mind who could perhaps work as an example of how great they can be. “If you are looking for villainous women in comics, there are many outside of cape comics. One example is Dark Horse’sLady Killer. It’s about a professional killer who is also a housewife in the US in the early 1960’s,” she explains.
She believes the issue lies more in how the women are being portrayed. “It’s not just in terms of quantity, but the superhero women we do see in film and television shows need to be as complex and compelling as the men in capes,” she says.
“The superhero women we do see in film and television shows need to be as complex and compelling as the men in capes”
Time and time again, we’ve seen superhero men in their stand-along films, but characters such as Black Widow and Scarlet Witch have been put into the Avengers films in what almost comes across as ticking a box. They need to represent gender in an equal way to shut the activists up, so they pop the odd woman superhero in there.
“It is exciting to see properties like Atomic Blonde being released now (based on the graphic novel The Coldest City),” Byrd states.
For McCallum, there’s a deeper issue that needs to be addressed, and that’s ethnicity. “Women of colour are extremely under-represented in superhero movies and TV shows. With some notable exceptions, most major female roles in superhero media go to white women, which is unfortunate because seeing a female superhero is incredibly empowering and women of all races deserve to see themselves represented in that space,” Diana explains.
Byrd agrees with McCallum. “In regards to superhero properties, there are still far less women than men featured in film and television, especially when it comes to women of colour,” Byrd claims.
Plumb believes the lack of women playing lead roles in superhero movies is the reason for the bigger lack of women of colour. “The fewer female characters there are on screen provide fewer opportunities to show a wider diversity within female characters, which is a thematic issue,” she says.
Women and Hollywood is a group of people discussing and fighting for gender diversity in Hollywood and the global film industry. Their statistics show that “76% of all female characters were white in the top 100 films of 2016. 14% were Black, 6% were Asian, and 3% were Latina.” These are astonishing figures that prove more than women in general are being under-represented, but actually women of colour are being almost completely ignored.
It must also be mentioned that there is simply no representation of binary trans women on the big screen within the comic book film genre. That’s another group of women that are being ignored.
So, we’ve established there simply aren’t enough women playing lead superheroes and villains in comic book films and TV shows. We’ve also talked about this causing the even bigger issue of women of colour being pushed to the bottom of the diversity food chain. But, there is another issue that’s rooted much deeper than Hollywood.
“A depressingly small number of artists, writers and editors at major comic book companies are women,” McCallum begins. “Having more women in creator roles would almost assuredly lead to better written and represented women in comics. A thing I’m desperate to see more of in the future is female creators getting to write male characters. I think that will be a huge game changer. Men are allowed to work on books starring male and female characters, but female creators are almost always regulated to working on female led books and I think a swing in creative teams would make some really interesting and revolutionary story-telling.”
“A depressingly small number of artists, writers and editors at major comic book companies are women”
This is where part of the problem lies. Women aren’t being given the opportunity in the same way that men are, to create characters. If we look at the author of the Harry Potter books for example, J. K. Rowling. She was advised to use only her initials on the books she wrote rather than her full name as they would likely sell better if she was genderless.
Byrd also talked about the lack of women writers being an issue. She stated: “So many women create comics, but you won’t find many of them on cape comics.” Could the issue of women losing out on equal representation come from the simple fact that not enough women are creating comic books?
Plumb believes it’s easier for graphic novels to create interesting characters of any gender because they have more time. “Overall there is usually a better depth of character in comics in comparison to films and TV shows with female and some male characters,” she says. “I would suggest this is because when you’re reading a series, you can sometimes get years of material to learn about a character, where on screen you’ve got two hours to try and capture everything.”
So if comic books are giving a better platform to represent women superheroes and villains, why aren’t more women being hired to make them? Surely they can create and flesh out women characters better than any man. And, why is the idea of a woman creating a superhero man so absurd, while a man creating a women character is regular?
While films such as Wonder Woman prove to be a success, and shows such as Jessica Jones and Supergirl stay popular, it shows that women aren’t going anywhere. There is a clear lack of representation for women in this particular genre, but they’re proving time and time again that they’re just as badass, popular, and mesmerising to watch as men.
So, how about it Hollywood? Look at the box office ratings and learn from it. We want more villainous and heroic women!