Women in Comics: A Response

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Chase Magnet

There is a common argument in comics culture that asserts both men and women are sexualized in comics and that this is not a significant problem. When I read these arguments and articles supporting it, the point seems to be that as long as treatment is equal then there is no problem. They tend to take specific examples from pop culture, like the casting of actors with sex appeal in Marvel Studios' films rather than take a look at the collective culture.

The point is that men are objectified to a similar degree as women in comics, specifically superhero comics. Due to the nature of their highly muscled bodies and skintight costumes, they ought to be perceived by women in the same way men perceive women in tight costumes. These articles and arguments are almost always written by a man.

As a man and someone who speaks with lots of other men about comics on a regular basis, I do not agree with this premise that men are often objectified in mainstream comics. I cannot recall more than a few instances in which I have been told by another man that he was made uncomfortable by the depiction of a man in a comic book. Typically, this sort of complaint has to do with the depiction of genitalia which may bear a stronger connection to homophobia than having a sense of being treated as an object. When I look at men like Batman and Spider-Man in comics, I see an ideal that I would like to achieve. They are strong and handsome. I don’t expect to ever look like a superhero, but I go to the gym in order to improve my physique and be happier with my own appearance.

Art by Adrian Alphona

This is where my experience with the subject ends though. I am a straight man. My perspective of the world is shaped by being a straight man. Although I consider myself to be a feminist and a passionate supporter of equal treatment, I cannot speak for women, nor should I try. To do so would be to attempt to remove women from this conversation and that would be wrong.

Rather than forego writing this article, I decided to seek out a diversity of opinions to include and help shape my own thoughts. I spoke with, e-mailed, and messaged women from a diverse variety of backgrounds. They were selected to represent comic readers from across the United States and Canada, to display a variety of educational backgrounds, and a diversity of experience with comics. Some of the women I spoke have written theses on the comics form. Some have only discovered comics in the last year. They are all comics fans.

I posed a single question and asked for a brief response of three to five sentences. The question was: Do you feel that male superheroes in comics are depicted in a similar fashion to female superheroes? Why?

The response I received was tremendous. No one was able to restrict their answer to the requested three to five sentences. There was simply too much to say. All of their answers were passionate and thoughtful. All of them displayed a love for the comics medium and a sensitivity to how their gender had been commonly presented in it.

I am humbled to have received the sort of feedback I did within 24 hours and feel truly lucky to have had their assistance. Their responses are presented below, entirely unedited.* For anyone interested in having a conversation about the portrayal of women in comics, this is a must read.

Art by Cliff Chiang

Anne - M.A. in Library Science

When you posed this question I had to wrack my brain for the last female superhero oriented comic I had read. I generally don't read female superhero comics for two main reasons. First, I find the plots to be too tied up in her romantic interests/prospects. Second, I often find their personalities unrelatable when they're portrayed as a tough as nails heroes with little emotion other than anger or vengeance. As a result I read mostly about male superheroes as I find their stories more fulfilling and personalities more complex. Obviously, there are exceptions, but the fact that I stray from female-led stories because I don't think they'll be satisfying is pretty telling of my personal perceptions of male and female superheroes.

Mia - Writer at DC Infinite

Objectification happens to both genders -- to say that it only happens to women is na├»ve  But that definitely does not mean that the amount of objectification is balanced. I could talk about how these women are made to wear hardly nothing, are put in impossible and overtly sexualized poses, are given impossible proportions and are only given one-dimensional personalities because they're only there to be eye candy, not an actual character. I could talk about how many women -- girlfriends, sisters, mothers, and daughters have been killed off just for the sake of developing the male protagonist's character (or "women in refrigerators," as Gail Simone calls them). But that has all been mentioned before by countless female writers and critics (who are trying to express how fed up they are).

While I do see many men in comics with exaggerated appearances as well (overly-toned muscles and tight-fitting costumes being the most obvious), these men are also balanced out by the ugly characters, who are for the most part men as well. In addition, these men with more exaggerated, impossible bodies are also given actual depth, intelligence, and development in their character that women don't get as much of. And I rarely see any woman other than Katana who does what they do out of vengeance for a dead male character -- in other words, there aren't any "men in refrigerators." So while there is a share of objectification of men (which I personally don't even find attractive anyhow), there's still a much longer way to go for women.

Alex - Comics Reader / Cosplayer

I often feel that men are portrayed as the strong hero, and women, even if they are the main hero as well, are shown in pin-up style drawings, most of the time with outfits that cover less than half of their bodies. And I get it: The main demographic for comic books is men, so artists will dial up the sex appeal of its females to attract readers. However, that doesn’t make it okay to do.

I didn’t realize this was a huge issue until I wanted to try and cosplay at a convention. My typical dress style is very modest and comfortable, basically jeans and a t-shirt. When deciding who to cosplay as, I had to essentially ditch the characters I knew well for a character who had a costume that would cover up a lot of my skin. Limiting myself to DC characters as a rule with friends, do you know the best character I came up with? Zatanna. Zatanna who wears high heels, fishnet stockings, black underwear, and sometimes a corset with an exposed upper chest. But I chose her because in some styles she wears a tuxedo shirt that eliminates any cleavage. So, cool, I made my choice.

Then came finding reference photos, which was uncomfortable to say the least. Every time I searched for images to use as examples, I had to skip all the pin-up style drawings of Zatanna with boobs the size of her head popping out of her corset, or a back side image of her butt with her black underwear looking more like a thong. I ended up having very few reference photos, not because I was picky, but because it was extremely difficult to find modest pictures of Zatanna. I ended up wearing my costume with skin-colored tights underneath my fishnets to be comfortable showing that much leg. But I shouldn’t have to do that to be able to cosplay a woman superhero. Male superheroes, though often drawn ridiculously built and with perfect V-shaped bodies, never have panels drawn for the sole purpose of a female reader to go, “Damn, I would have sex with that man.” Females do.

If you don’t believe me, please, search for images of your favorite female superhero in comics and tell me you cannot find an objectified image of her. I dare you.

Rhonda -  Teacher

I think that women (and empathetic men) want to believe that the old social constructs concerning sexuality and gender are dead or at least dying, and that we should see that reality reflected in literature.  We want equality to be the norm, and for women to be able to hold their own as characters.  But women in literature are still constructed as needy vixens and sex objects, and men are still constructed as strong protectors--and sex objects.  I believe it is every bit as true in comics as in other forms of literature.  

This fall I taught Watchmen to my very intelligent, enlightened 11th grade English class. They almost unanimously agreed it was the best piece of literature we analyzed all year, finding material ripe for discussion in nearly every frame.  But one thing troubled me, and remains troubling in light of your question.  A group of students--mostly young women--found Dan Dreiberg to be repulsive and uninteresting as a character.  One girl grew irritated every time we discussed him and it became a running joke for her to say, "Oh, Dan.  You're useless."  Clearly Moore has crafted Dan to be a vulnerable and weak hero, even building his sexual impotence into the storyline.  But Dan is arguably the kind of man most women say they want--he values Laurie, listens to her, fights and rescues others alongside her, and honestly shares intimacy with her.  Yes--he wants her as well, but most women don't mind being desirable.

In contrast, the students who despised Dan were intrigued by Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and even Adrian Veidt.  Some went so far as to call Adrian the true hero of the novel ( a clear mis-reading of the text, but I digress).  Those men--especially Adrian--are more typical heroes in terms of strength and masculinity, albeit alongside more sexist and even villainous words and deeds.  Whether it is the social constructs intruding on our enlightened sensibilities or whether there's some sort of biological need in women to consider strong, bullying men "sexy" ( I much prefer the former explanation), this is the reality that I saw in my classroom.  

Ray Sonne - Writer at Eat Your Comics and DC Infinite

Because we are discussing a visual medium, allow me to use visual examples.

Photo one is from #10 of The Authority: The Lost Year by Grant Morrison, Keith Giffen, and Brandon Badeux. You will notice that this version of The Midnighter has clothing that completely covers his body and does not permit definition around more commonly sexualized areas, such as the chest or posterior. Even when his back faces the viewer, his butt is partially covered by his hands and is in no way emphasized.

Photo two is fanart, obviously, and presumably created by an individual sexually attracted to men and created for people who are attracted sexually to men. His back is purposefully curved in the infamous S-shape that has been rampant in female characters since the 90s (although in this situation it makes anatomical sense since he’s grabbing onto something) for the very purpose of emphasizing his butt. He is also less clothed than in the original comic, closer to showing more skin like female characters typically do in mainstream comic books.

This is how Badeux chose to portray Jenny Quantum in the same issue.

You seem what viewers REALLY needed in what was supposed to be an emotional panel was her shirt riding up and her underwear sticking out of her pants. You can look as hard as you want in all of The Authority runs, but the men of the team are never undermined by their own protruding body parts whereas the women of the team often are. The closest that comes to sexualization of men is Apollo, who has a skin-tight costume that got ripped to shreds a few times in the original Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch run. Even then, the skin was never shown during emotional moments nor did it ever inappropriately cut into the visual effects. Not to say it wasn’t enjoyable anyway…

Most mainstream comics do not provide sexual enticement for people who are attracted to men so those fans make the sexual stories and art on their own. Sure, men do the same, but their sexual feelings are so encouraged that a number of them feel comfortable commissioning erotic pieces from professional artists. Just ask Adam Warren; the creepy, constant requests for female characters in bondage is what led him to creating Empowered.

The idea that men in comics are constantly sexualized in comics is a joke. Pick up your little sister’s CosmoGirl and see if they still have that feature where you can tear out posters of shirtless men. Then count how many boobs there are in your typical comic against how much bare male chest there is. I really wonder what goes through the minds of men who claim that men and women are treated the same in comics. Do they habitually have sex fully clothed and not ever showing off their assets? Because thinking that characters fully clothed and posed without emphasis are sexy is misunderstanding what sex and sexiness fundamentally are.

Megan - Comics Reader

I can't speak for men and I can't speak for other women- I speak simply for myself. 
I can tell you I do not pick up a comic book because I feel that the starring male superhero is "hot" or "well endowed" or what-have-you. I pick it up because I am interested in the story. In the characters. In the places and the times. 
In fact, I tend to not pick up comics that have a strong male lead- I am vastly more interested in seeing super women. I like to see girls that kick just as much ass as the guys can. My favorites (as of right now) are Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Ms. Marvel. 
I feel that male superheroes are not depicted the same way as female superheroes. Male superheroes have muscles because they're strong and need to kick some villain ass. 
Female superheroes have big boobs and tiny waists because that's what the male readers want to see. And comic readers are largely male. The industry wants to cater to what it thinks it's readers want. 
However, I am a comic reader, too. And I don't want a guy with big muscles and a package to match - I want a normal-looking woman who is wearing armor suited for battle - not a tube top.

Art by Ed McGuiness

When I first asked for responses to this topic, I expected a mix of opinions. I honestly did not expect for every person I spoke with to agree that the depiction of women in mainstream comics was a problem, but they did. If one person says something that is an opinion. When five, or fifty, or five hundred, or more people say the same thing, that’s a pattern. In these comments many ideas recur: that comics are marketed to men, that women are purposefully designed to be sex objects, that men appear much more powerful than women.

This isn’t an accident This isn’t an oddity. This is not something that we can ignore any longer. It is a big problem.

Solving that problem starts by including the people it affects. The responses I received for this article represent the start of many good conversations about how women are depicted in comics, but they are only a start. Some of these women write about comics on the internet, others work in education and share their love of comics there. Creators like Becky Cloonan, Kate Leth, and so many others are having an effect on the industry. More women are falling in love with comics everyday and their efforts will help effect change. They cannot do it alone though.

Men are going to have to admit that there are problems with the media they enjoy and understand how it affects others. It will require both male readers and creators to reach out and have these conversations. We will need to stop making excuses and work to understand how women view the comics industry. As someone who loves comics, I can sympathize that it is not easy to admit something you love is flawed. I once made excuses like “not all men” or “not all comics”. It was not easy to understand how the comics I enjoyed as a high schooler affected other people and how they were affecting my view of other people. But I made the effort to understand, and am better for it.

Articles like this are becoming more common as more women read and create comics. Websites like Comics Bulletin and Comics Alliance collect writers who are aware of this problem and discuss it regularly. The topic is being raised more frequently in stores and on web forums. Creators like Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick are not scared to raise their voice and bring attention to the problem. It’s not enough. It won’t be enough until women feel comfortable to seek out and read comics.

Comics aren’t just for kids. Comics aren’t just for men. Comics aren’t just for “real fans”.

Comics are for everyone.

And we can’t shut up until everyone knows it.

Art by Kevin Wada

* I had a discussion with each woman who decided to respond about how to present their names out of a concern for their personal safety and the potential for being harassed on the internet. In every instance it was agreed that it would be best to either not include the speaker’s last name or to use an alias. The fact that this conversation was necessary speaks volumes about the perception of women in the comics community.

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