Portrayal of Women in Comics

Women of Marvel by Bruce Timm

Women have been portrayed in comic books since the medium’s beginning, and their portrayals are often the subject of controversy. Sociologists with an interest in gender roles and stereotyping have outlined the role of women as both supporting characters and as potential leaders finding limited success at being accepted as equals.

Another point of study has been the depiction of women in comics, in which, as in other forms of popular culture, body types are unrealistically portrayed.

There was a time when more girls read comics than boys. One of the first books geared to these readers was ‘Archie Comics,’ starring a group of all-American teens. During the 1930s–1940s period that fans and historians call the Golden Age of comic books, a time during which the medium evolved from comic strips, women who were not superheroes were primarily portrayed three ways: as career girls, romance-story heroines, or perky teenagers. Career-oriented girls included such characters as Nellie the Nurse, Tessie the Typist, and Millie the Model, each of whom appeared in comic books geared toward female readers using the types of jobs that non-wartime women of the era typically worked.

The second role was evident in the very popular romance genre, pioneered by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. A woman in those stories could be the good girl or the bad girl. A good girl gets her heart broken while the bad girl breaks all the boys’ hearts. The third role was as a perky teenager. This is embodied by characters such as those in titles such as Betty and Veronica. The lead characters were both boy-crazed and completely fun-loving teenagers. Betty and Veronica spent all their time fighting over who would get to date Archie. Josie and her band, the Pussycats, always managed to find their way into some sort of adventure but emerged unscathed.

Female costumed crimefighters were among the early comics characters. One of the comics’ earliest female superheroes appeared in newspaper strips, the ‘Invisible Scarlet O’Neil’ by Russell Stamm. The tough-fighting ‘Miss Fury,’ debuted in the eponymous comic strip by female cartoonist Tarpé Mills in 1941. One publisher in particular, Fiction House, featured several progressive heroines such as the jungle queen Sheena. As Trina Robbins, in ‘The Great Women Superheroes’ wrote: ‘[M]ost of [Fiction House’s] pulp-style action stories either starred or featured strong, beautiful, competent heroines. They were war nurses, aviatrixes, girl detectives, counterspies, and animal skin-clad jungle queens, and they were in command. Guns blazing, daggers unsheathed, sword in hand, they leaped across the pages, ready to take on any villain. And they did not need rescuing.’

The first known female superhero is writer-artist Fletcher Hanks’s minor character Fantomah, an ageless, ancient Egyptian woman in the modern day who could transform into a skull-faced creature with superpowers to fight evil; she debuted in Fiction House’s ‘Jungle Comics’ #2 (1940), credited to the pseudonymous ‘Barclay Flagg.’ The first widely recognizable female superhero is Wonder Woman, from All-American Publications, one of three companies that would merge to form DC Comics. In a 1940 interview conducted by former student Olive Byrne (under the pseudonym ‘Olive Richard’) and published in ‘Family Circle,’ titled ‘Don’t Laugh at the Comics,’ William Moulton Marston described what he saw as the great educational potential of comic books (a follow up article was published two years later). This article caught the attention of comics publisher Max Gaines, who hired Marston as an educational consultant for National Periodicals and All-American Publications, two of the companies that would merge to form the future DC Comics.

Marston decided to develop a new superhero. In the early 1940s the DC line was dominated by superpowered male characters such as the Green Lantern, Batman, and its flagship character, Superman. According to the Fall 2001 issue of the Boston University alumni magazine, it was his wife Elizabeth’s idea to create a female superhero. Marston introduced the idea to Max Gaines, cofounder (along with Jack Liebowitz) of All-American Publications. Given the go-ahead, Marston developed Wonder Woman with Elizabeth (whom Marston believed to be a model of that era’s unconventional, liberated woman). In creating Wonder Woman, Marston was also inspired by Olive Byrne, who lived with the couple in a polygamous/polyamorous relationship.

In a 1943 issue of ‘The American Scholar,’ Marston wrote: ‘Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.’ Wonder Woman is an Amazon Princess, the Amazons were created by Aphrodite according to the stories and were made to be stronger and wiser than men.

Some of Marston Moulton’s early stories included Wonder Woman as president of the United States and as a modern-day Incan Sun God, both non-traditional roles for women. Despite such portrayals of women in leadership roles, however, editor Sheldon Mayer was disturbed by the recurring bondage imagery. If Wonder Woman’s bracelets were chained together, she became as weak as any other woman. One issue dealt with Wonder Woman losing control because her bracelets had broken; she was driven mad because the bracelets represented restraint, and stated ‘power without self-control tears a girl to pieces.’

During World War II, women assumed jobs formerly occupied by men, becoming truck drivers, stevedores, and welders. Many women refused to give up their newfound freedom, creating a massive crisis in formerly naturalized definitions of masculinity and feminity. The femme fatale (a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire — prevalent in ‘The Spirit’ comic book) exemplified this crisis-a strong, sexually aggressive woman who refused to stay in her traditional ‘proper’ place.

Between 1961 and 1963, one of the top two comic book genres was romance comics. Many influences from this genre overlapped in the superhero comics of the era. Although superhero titles would eventually become the leading genre, DC Comics’ ‘Young Romance’ would end its thirty-year run in 1977.

After the implementation of the Comics Code, DC Comics implemented its own in-house Editorial Policy Code regarding the portrayal of women, which stated, ‘The inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities.’ Most of DC’s Silver Age superheroes each had a major female supporting character. These included three career women: journalist Lois Lane, who worked at The Daily Planet with Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent; Jean Loring lawyer and girlfriend of Ray Palmer aka The Atom and aircraft manufacturer executive Carol Ferris, the boss of Green Lantern’s alter ego, Hal Jordan. Iris West was the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the Flash’s alter ego, Barry Allen. Batman’s supporting cast, beginning in the 1950s, occasionally included journalist Vicki Vale and heiress Kathy Kane, whose alter ego was the motorcycle-riding masked crimefighter Batwoman. With a tip of her cowl to the Harvey Comics character the Black Cat, who preceded her by 15 years as a superheroine on a motorcycle, Batwoman used weapons as well, although hers included powder puffs, charm bracelets, perfume, a hair net, a compact mirror, and a shoulder bag utility case with matching bolo strap.

The comics of the Silver Age published by Marvel and DC were polarizing. Readers wanting the classic feel of the original 1940’s superheroes preferred DC. Those desiring fast action mixed with the emotional angst reflecting a world where social unrest was slowly coming to a boil, were more likely to read the Marvel offerings. When Atlas Comics became Marvel Comics in 1961, many brand new women superheroes were introduced; these superheroes were given a supporting roles. The first female superhero from Marvel Comics was the Invisible Girl, aka Susan Storm, charter member of the Fantastic Four. Although female characters would develop and become cornerstones of the Marvel Universe, their early treatment would resemble a struggle to be recognized as equals.

The Bronze Age of Comics reflected many of the feminist tensions of the era. The number of female characters, both heroes and villains, increased substantially in the 1970s, in response to the feminist movement, and in an attempt to diversify readership. However, these characters were often stereotypical, such as the man-hating Thundra or angry-feminist parody, Man-killer. Ms. Marvel is an example of Marvel’s struggle with the issues of feminism. Debuting in 1977 at the height of the women’s liberation movement, with the honorific ‘Ms.’ part of her cryptonym (codename), the heroine’s name was a strong symbol of feminist solidarity, as was her civilian job as editor of ‘Woman’ magazine (a reference to the then-new ‘Ms. Magazine’). The first couple of issues of her self-titled comic book even included the cover line ‘This Female Fights Back!’ The reality, however, was decidedly mixed.

Throughout most of the Silver and Bronze Age, women in comics were not given leadership positions. In the 1980s, under writer-artist John Byrne, Susan Richards found new uses for her powers and developed an assertive self-confidence to use her powers more aggressively. She changed her alias from the Invisible Girl to the Invisible Woman. Eventually, the Invisible Woman would chair the Fantastic Four, while the Wasp led the Avengers.

Enormous impact was made both within comic book storylines and among comic book fans by the radical portrayal of women in the ‘UNCANNY X-MEN’ comics, which had been relaunched in 1975. Previously existing female characters were given huge increases in power-levels, new code-names, flashier costumes, and strong, confident, assertive personalities: Jean Grey went from being Marvel Girl to the nigh-omnipotent Phoenix, and Lorna Dane became Polaris. New creation Storm (Ororo Monroe) was unique in many ways: not only was she (and still is) the most famous black superhero in history, she was portrayed as incredibly powerful, confident and capable from her very first appearance. And younger/teenage female superheroines, which were portrayed as teeny-boppers with some super-powers, were completely reinvented with the fascinating, brilliant, multi-faceted Kitty Pryde, who at age 13 became the youngest member of the X-Men. Much of the credit for the turnaround in female superheroes has been given to ‘X-Men’ writer Chris Claremonte: his portrayals of Phoenix, Storm, Polaris, Kitty Pryde and Dazzler in ‘The Uncanny X-Men’ (as well as his work on ‘Ms. Marvel,’ ‘Spider-Woman,’ ‘Misty Knight,’ and ‘Coleen Wing’) became known in the industry and amongst fandom as ‘Claremonte Women’: smart, powerful, capable, multi-faceted women super heroes.

In the 90s, a popular feminist comic book girl was ‘Tank Girl’ (by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin), who sported punk-influenced clothing and a shaved head. After becoming a figurehead in ‘Deadline’ magazine, her popularity was such that a movie was eventually made. She represented the new modern woman as one who no longer had to live under traditional images of beauty or manners. However, while there were many examples of strong, female characters getting their own titles in the modern age of comics, it was not uncommon to see sex sell comics as well. In 2007, Sideshow Collectibles produced a 14.25-inch ‘comiquette’ statuette designed by Adam Hughes that appeared to depict Mary Jane hand-washing Peter Parker’s Spider-Man costume. The statuette has received criticism for MJ’s ostensibly highly-sexualized and objectifying pose.

In the 21st Century, the roles of many women have changed. Roles and choices such as single parenting, same-sex relationships, and positions of power in the workplace have come to define many women in modern society. These roles have found their way into the comic books of the 21st Century as well. Lesbian relationships were initially featured in underground and in alternative titles, before entering the mainstream.  Lesbianism has become increasingly common in modern comic books. In 2006, DC Comics could still draw widespread media attention by announcing a new, lesbian incarnation of the well-known character Batwoman, even though openly lesbian minor characters such as Gotham City police officer Renee Montoya already existed in the franchise (Renee would become the new Question in the same story arch revealing the new batwoman, and in fact the two were past lovers).

In 1999, a website was launched entitled ‘Women in Refrigerators.’ It featured a list of female comic book characters who had been injured, killed, or depowered within various superhero comic books and sought to analyze why these plot devices were used disproportionately on female characters. However, characterizations of women as sex objects has declined in recent decades, as have depictions of women as victims of physical brutality have significantly decreased over the past 20 years. Additionally, recent comics indicate a possible reversal of the trend of portraying characters according to rigid gender stereotypes.

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