In this blog- firstly we will look at the comic book industry, and why it is so pervasive in today’s culture. Secondly, we will assess how the underrepresentation of women in the comic book industry negatively affects the way that women are portrayed.
i. The power of the medium
The human mind operates in mainly visual parameters (Teampău, 2015, p143). This contributes to storytelling that utilises images like comic books, in being such a powerful medium. The readership of comic books was incredibly high during post-war America in the 1940s, with comic books widely available (Nyberg, AK 1998, p.1). The proliferation of comic book material being read during post war America lead to this period is commonly referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Comics’. The power of the medium had brought forth at the time public anxiety, which was highlighted by the work of American Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s ‘Seduction of the Innocent’. The publication heightened fears that the consumption of comic books would lead to an increase in teenage delinquency. This lead to the formation of the ‘Comic Book Code Authority’, which enforced strict censorship on comic book literature (Tilley, CL 2012, p.384). (Wertham’s objections to comic book readerships effect on children have subsequently been comprehensively discredited and the heavy censorship of the Comic Book Code Authority abandoned.) Comic books have since outgrown their humble beginnings of being created for pure entertainment, and this is evidenced by Art Spiegelman’s Maus being awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
Imaginations of gods amongst men have long mesmerized the zeitgeist. Whilst it may seem that the presence of comic book superheroes is ever pervasive in popular culture today, narratives of mythical beings have been captivating people, arguably dating back to Ancient Egyptian empire. Similarly to the Egyptian Hieroglyphics, comics tell their stories through combinations of words and pictures, when read in sequential order. Comic book literature began to flourish after the materialization in 1938 of what would become the superhero archetype: Superman (Every, M 2004, p.2289).
Comic books have since become synonymous with superheroes. Regardless that the level of comic book readership today not being what it was previously, it is undeniable that we are currently in the midst of a superhero renaissance; superheroes are inescapable. The multitude of contemporary comic book film adaptions is clear evidence of this. Hollywood producers have proclaimed that the post X-Men boom in comic book adaptations has in fact resulted now in ‘the Golden Age of Comic Book Filmmaking’ (Liam Burke, 2015, p. 14). Amid an era where superhero films can earn roughly a billion dollars each, American academic Zachary King argues comic book studies have begun to ‘earn a concomitant academic reputation’ (King, Z 2016, p.167). Furthermore, Australian academic Liam Burke contends that comic book films have shown a ‘discernable shift from generalized interpretations to more faithful films’ to the source material (Bourke 2015, p.14).
ii. Where do women fit in?
Despite comic book readership being roughly equal between genders, with market research suggesting that 46% of comic readers are female, men overwhelmingly dominate the comic book industry as professionals. American academic Karen McGrath acknowledges that there have been numerous studies focusing on the issues of gender representation in the media, but she notes that these studies have primarily focused on television programming and advertising (2007, p.271). She states:
[as] with most major corporations in the United States, men are typically in positions of power ‘‘behind the scenes’’ in creating these comic books, from writers, to artists, to inkers, to editors-in-chief, and authors of the books that teach artists how to draw women in comic books tend to focus more on women’s bodies (objectifying) than their talents, even if they are women.
Where men are depicted as emotionally strong, independent, rational, aggressive and in superior roles; women are more often ‘nurturing, caring, emotional, dependant, irrational, submissive, and in subordinate roles’ (McGrath 2007, p276). For example- Hulk and She-Hulk comics perpetuate the stereotypical hypersexualized superhero bodies that have come to characterize the comics industry, as well as stereotypical views of personified intelligence. American academic Elizabteh Settoducato suggests that She-Hulk is ‘sexualized and kept traditionally female (in both personality and appearance) so that male readers might more readily accept the evidently threatening notion of an intelligent female protagonist’ (2015, p.281). This hypersexualization and femininity may in this case be interpreted to serve as compensation for the assumedly masculine qualities of intelligence and physical strength.
Superhero bodies are represented using techniques that are objectified to reveal their superhero strengths, but she notes that this objectification is especially problematic for female characters as it is most commonly their sexualisation that is most prominent (2007, p. 272). Mainstream superhero comics have a reputation for portraying scantily-clad women with idealised bodies, posed in sexualised and sometimes physically impossible postures. The Broke Back Test, used as analysis tool by academic Carolyn Cocca, is a simple test, which shows if a woman can really stand in that pose without breaking her back- she passes. You do not have to look far to see a plethora of examples of this-
We can see the ‘damsel in distress’, and ‘women as the victim’ storyline being repeated ad nasuem in that they form the normative superhero narrative of the (male) protagonist’s journey time and time again. This is highlighted no better than in female comic book writer Gail Simone’s now infamous ‘Women In Refrigerators’. Simone published a list of female characters that were depicted being depowered, raped, or murdered (notably a character in Green Lantern #54 being ‘cut up stuck in a refrigerator’) in comic book storylines. The list now ‘frequently serves as a [tokenist] example of publishers efforts to support female creators’; yet female creators are still treated as ‘surplus’. (Scott 2003, p12.) The Women in refrigerators list is a lightning rod for the issue if women in the comic book industry, women in comic book readership, and the portrayal of women in comics for a number of reasons. Like comics themselves, visual metaphors as a tool can be particularly helpful in understanding concepts that may be difficult to describe.
If ever we needed a visual reminder of the issues that the underrepresentation of women in the comic book industry, we can look no further than the way 20th Century Fox Studios chose to advertise the latest comic book based film- X-Men: Apocalypse.
Feminist director Rose McGowan stated “there is a major problem when the men and women at 20th Century Fox think casual violence against women is the way to market the film. There is no context in the ad, just a women getting strangled. The fact no one flagged this is offensive and frankly, stupid.” In response to the public outcry Fox has taken steps to remove the billboard, and released a statement saying that, “[in their] enthusiasm to show the villainy of the character Apocalypse [they] didn’t immediately recognize the upsetting connotation of this image in print form.” It begs the question to be asked- how many women were in employed in the background that this image passed? Yes, it is a pivotal image in the story arc of the film, but the connotations that the image evokes are not difficult to see.
So, where to from here? Henry Jenkins has argued that a “politics of participation starts from the assumption that we may have greater collective bargaining power if we form consumption communities” (2006, p.249). In light of this, many female comic book fans have taken it upon themselves to construct alternative, fangirl-friendly spaces. For example, the Hawkeye Initiative redraws absurd supereroine poses with Hawkeye- in order to highlight how the gender is differently portrayed. Both of the two largest comic book publishers Marvel and DC, are slowly recruiting more female artist and writers, with more female characters in their line of books. Suzanne Scott suggests that, as a result of greater participation, we are witnessing a potentially transformative intervention in which gender is one of the primary axes of change, in which the “how” and the “what” of comics are being placed in meaningful conversation (Scott, p.12). Clearly what we need to see is a continued participation in the comic book industry. With a female directed Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel due in the coming years, it will be interesting to watch the development continue.
Burke, L 2015, The comic book film adaptation : exploring modern Hollywood’s leading genre / Liam Burke, Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 2015.
Cocca, C 2014, ‘The ‘Broke Back Test’: a quantitative and qualitative analysis of portrayals of women in mainstream superhero comics, 1993–2013’, Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics, vol. 5, iss. 4, pp. 411-428.
Davis, Lauren, 2012 ‘The Hawkeye Initiative redraws absurd superheroes poses with Hawkeye’, 2nd of December, i09, viewed on 1st June, < http://io9.gizmodo.com/5964969/the-hawkeye-initiative-redraws-absurd-superheroine-poses-with-hawkeye>
Every, M 2004, ‘Golden Age of Superheroes (1938-1954)’, in Superhero Book, Visible Ink Press, p. 228.
Gardner, Chris 2016, ‘Rose McGowan Calls Out ‘X-Men’ Billboard That Shows Mystique Being Strangled’, 2nd June, Hollywood Reoporter, viewed 3rd June 2016, < http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/rambling-reporter/rose-mcgowan-calls-x-men-898538>
King, Z 2016, ‘The Superhero Historicized, Theorized, and Read’, Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 167-170.
McGrath, K 2007, ‘Gender, race, and Latina identity: an examination of Marvel Comics’ Amazing Fantasy and Araña’, Atlantic Journal of Communication, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 268-283.
Nyberg, AK 1998, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS
Schenker, Brett 2014, ‘Market Research Says 46.67% of Comic Fans are Female’, 5th of February, COmicsbeat.com, viewed on 1st June 2016, < http://www.comicsbeat.com/market-research-says-46-female-comic-fans/>
Scott, S 2013, ‘Fangirls in refrigerators: The politics of (in)visibility in comic book culture’, Transformative Works & Cultures, vol. 13, p. 12.
Settoducato, Elizabeth 2015, ‘Savage sexism: Examining gendered intelligence in Hulk and She-Hulk comics’, Journal of Fandom Studies, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 277-290.
Simone, G 1999, Women In Refrigerators, weblog post, March, viewed 8th May 2016, < http://www.lby3.com/wir/>
Teampău, Gelu 2015, ‘Comic Books as Modern Mythology’, Caietele Echinox, vol. 28, pp. 143-155.
Tilley, CL 2012, ‘Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics’, Information & Culture: A Journal of History, no. 4, p. 383.