This article may be unbalanced towards certain viewpoints. (May 2017)
The portrayal of Women in American comic books have often been the subject of controversy since the medium's beginning. Critics have noted the roles of women as both supporting characters and lead characters are substantially more subjected to gender stereotypes, with femininity and or sexual characteristics having a larger presence in their overall character.
During the Golden Age of Comic Books (a time during which the medium evolved from comic strips) women who were not superheroes were primarily portrayed in secondary roles, with some examples being classified as career girls, romance-story heroines, or lively 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 working jobs that non-wartime women of the era typically worked. Romance heroines were popular in the romance genre, pioneered by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Typically, the heroine was either a "good girl" or "bad girl", with both roles having small effect on a male character's decision. In the Archie Comics, the titular character can never definitively chose between his two love interests Betty and Veronica, who typify this dichotomy between the good Girl-Next-Door and the dangerous allure of her foil respectively. The duo got their own title in 1950, Betty and Veronica (comic book), which quickly became a popular comic, featuring the two lead characters continuing to obsess over boys and fight over who would get to date Archie.
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, whose sex appeal is what helped launched her comic series. 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.
One of the earliest female superheros 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 (Feb. 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 an October 25, 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 in 1942.) 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. At that time, 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 Hollowy'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[a] and as a modern-day Incan Sun God,[b] 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. According to Marston this imagery of bondage was a reflection of the suffrage movement's use bondage as well. He insisted it was important that she could be seen freeing herself, both literally and symbolically, from man-made bondage. But he also upheld some ideals of submission to "peace, restraint and good judgement." 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".[c] But under the control of other writers Wonder Woman often fell into more conventional female positions. After a conducting a survey among Justice Society Readers Wonder Woman was admitted to the organization in All-Star Comics # 11. Although published concurrently with Marston's run in Sensation Comics the writer of Justice Society kept Wonder Woman in the limited position as Secretary of the League, rarely involving her in action. In 1947 Marston died, and despite his widow's petitioned to be hired as writer DC instead hired Robert Kanigher. Under his direction Wonder Woman's physical prowess declined. She was no longer depicted in chains she became more and more submissive, and her priorities shifted to a more conventional for her gender role. Between crime fighting, Diana Prince's engaged in more feminine jobs as a babysitter, fashion model, or movie star and in her classic job as Steve Trevor's secretary with a new dedication to marrying him. A new form of bondage that Wonder Woman craved was the mantle of wife and mother. In one Sensational Comics issue, Wonder Woman tells a woman that she envied her life as a mother and wife.
During World War II, women assumed jobs formerly occupied by men, becoming truck drivers, stevedores, and welders. The same was reflected into the comic books as heroes such as Hawkman needed help and turned to their wives or girlfriends, creating a new form of heroines: the partners. Many women after World War II refused to give up their newfound freedom, creating a massive crisis in formerly naturalized definitions of masculinity and femininity. The femme fatale (prevalent in The Spirit comic book) exemplified this crisis-a strong, sexually aggressive woman who refused to stay in her traditional "proper" place.
This was post-war tension affected the comic book industry directly when a Senate Subcommittee was created to address a perceived rise of juvenile delinquency. Influenced largely by Fredric Wertham's book published that same year, Seduction of the Innocent, a public hearing was held to determine if juvenile delinquency and comic books were linked. Wertham had specifically attacked the portrayal of many comic book women stating: "They are not homemakers. They do not bring up a family. Mother-love is entirely absent ... Even when Wonder Woman adopts a girl there are Lesbian overtones." Comic books were deemed to be a threat to the stand of American decency and instead of undergoing government regulation the Comics Magazine Association of America agreed to create and adhere to its own code of self-censorship. The code explicitly censors violence, sexuality and "abnormal" romance for the implicit purpose of "emphasiz[ing] the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage," and a reenforcement of traditional gender roles.
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 a.k.a. 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.
During this time frame, the comics of the Silver Age of Comic Books published by Marvel and DC were different enough that if you liked one, you were liable not to like the other. If you wanted the classic feel of the original 1940's superheroes, you were a DC partisan. If you wanted fast action mixed with the emotional angst reflecting a world where social unrest was slowly coming to a boil, you 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 the newly named Marvel Comics was the Invisible Girl, a.k.a. 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. Supergirl of DC Comics went through such a struggle as she fights against the title of "Superman's kid cousin" to earn her own title as Power Girl.
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.
Meanwhile in the underground comic circle The Women's Liberation Basement Press began published a one-shot comic titled That Ain't Me Babe in 1970 that featured many of the most famous female comic icons. "Supergirl tells Superman to get lost, Veronica ditches Archie for Betty, Petunia Pig tells Porky Pig to cook his own dinner." This would evolve into Wimmen's Comix, an underground anthology series that would run through 1992, dealing many controversial women's issues.
The character 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, 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. The controversial Ms. Marvel rape was handled poorly by Marvel Comics: first having Ms. Marvel be the victim to a man's attempt of escape from Limbo, give birth to said man that raped her, her teammates confused as to why she would not want the child, and subsequently fall in love with him and move into Limbo with him.
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 over in the Avengers, Wasp chaired the team.
Enormous impact was made both within comic book storylines and amongst 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.
Younger/teen-age female super-heroines, which heretofore had been portrayed as inept or limited in power, were re-examined by the portrayal of Kitty Pryde, who at age 13 became the youngest member of the X-Men. In the 1980s, the X-Men met with the Morlock tribe in which they kidnapped Kitty Pryde and forced her to marry one of their own. When Kitty escapes, she meets with a Japanese Sorcerer who uses mind control on her and she escapes from him as well, but changed greatly. Much credit for the "turnaround" of portrayals of female super-heroes that happened in the 1970s could be given to X-Men writer Chris Claremont: his portrayals of Storm, Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde, Rogue and Psylocke 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 "Claremont Women": smart, powerful, capable, multi-faceted women super heroes.
During the events of Alan Moore's iconic work Batman: The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl is crippled by the Joker. She eventually made the best of her situation to become Oracle, a vital information broker for the DC Universe's superhero community who also leads her own superhero team, the Birds of Prey.
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.
Due to the fan-based nature of the comic book industry, many of the readers feel, either directly or indirectly, that they are involved in a social practice. The attachment to the titles and the characters obtains a life all its own. There is a sense of social contact with the books and the characters themselves. A unique relationship is developed by the reader upon adopting these properties. This relationship has various effects in the way women are presented in comic books.
This portrayal would be put to the test in the Modern Age. While there were many examples of strong, female characters getting their own titles it was not uncommon that sex was used to sell comics as well. 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.
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 new 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.
Portrayals of women characters as sex objects continues to attract comment and controversy: 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. Harley Quinn of DC Comics is most famously known for her torrid love affair with the Joker and her sex appeal to the male audience. Even if a female character isn't sexualized, there are still characteristics that give way to womanhood. There is a habit amongst cartoonists when they characterize their animals as females. Around the 1980s was when the over sexualization between both male and females rose. Males became even taller, muscular, and smarter. Females, too, became taller, but only in the legs. Their breast proportions became exaggerated, as well as their waist.
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.
Prior to the Silver age of comics, comic books of all genres were available, including romance, adventure, crime, science fiction and many others. This began to change in the late 1950s and continued into the 80s, and as the superhero genre grew, others shrunk. This also began the marginalization of female voices in comics. The portrayals of female characters and superheroes' were targeted towards a predominantly male demographic, rather than towards female readers. After decades of self-perpetuating male creators did not focus on what women wanted to read about, and therefore didn't try very hard to include female stories. Although many female superheroes were created and featured in comics, very few starred in their own series or achieved stand-alone success outside straightforward erotic works. Most female heroines in comic books were merely supporting characters; for example, the Wasp and the Invisible Girl were both introduced as team characters, fighting alongside male superheroes, and Batgirl and Catwoman both debuted as supporting characters in the Batman comics.Wonder Woman is the only female heroine studied who earned her own comic book title. It has been debated whether the perceived lack of female readership was due to male writers being uncomfortable with writing about or for women, or whether the comic book industry is male dominated due to actual lack of women's interest in comics.
There is a historical context for the lack of female representation in comics. In 1954, the comics industry was attacked by concerned parents, psychologists, and politicians. These individuals were concerned that comic books were unfit for children. Superheroines, who had made their debut in 1941, were a major focus; "Foremost on the agendas of the anti-comics crusade were concerns that gender roles were bent in the stories, allowing characters like Wonder Woman to act out lesbian and sadomasochistic fantasies." Hollywood, which had undergone similar attacks in the past, had created a self-governed Production Code, which was then imitated by the comic book industry with the creation of the Comics Code Authority. "The code policed the visual, textual, and thematic content of all comic books published after 1954, and is still active--in diluted form--today. Because of this, superhero comics made after 1954 tended to appease conservative ideology, and gender roles appeared rooted in tradition."
The enforcement of gender roles within comics continued well past the 1950s. The roles of women in comics during the 1960s and 70s shifted to become more diverse and began to extend past traditional roles as a result of the civil rights movement, second wave feminism, and the sexual revolution, when more women in society were taking on predominantly male professions and advocating for social rights. In the 1970s, female characters in comics and other mainstream media were sometimes depicted as "playing with the boys" and taking more traditionally male-dominated roles, though they still tended to be cast as love interests or to take maternal roles. Prominent superheroines that were introduced during this period in comics were Spider-Woman, Ms. Marvel, the Cat, and Valkyrie.
Despite the industry's historically and culturally backed creation of a male-dominated market, there has been an increase in female readership, as well as an influx in convention attendance deemed to be largely female.
In addition to historical censorship, the male-domination of comic book culture has been self-perpetuating. The view that comic book reading was a hobby strictly for males created a hostile environment for the female comic book reader. Women that read comics were often viewed as "doing womanhood wrong" or as individuals that "read comics wrong." This led to a cyclical pattern of hostility towards females in the comic book audience. Author Douglas Wolk states "I remember seeing a Marvel sales plan, sometime in the early '90s-a huge document, several hundred pages long; near the back, a little section labeled "Female Readers" listed the two titles Marvel published for half of their potential audience: Barbie and Barbie Fashion."
In the 1980s there was a shift in the way comics were written; instead of treating each issue of a comic as if it were the reader's first issue, or an "on ramp", as it had been done previously, comics began to be written in a way that demanded continuous readership from the beginning of a series in order for the plot to be understood. It is possible that this may have led to a further decline in female readership, as the female readers that might have tried to start during this era would find themselves confused and lost.
Carol Danvers, a superhero who has been known as Ms. Marvel, Binary, and Captain Marvel, is one of Marvel's most popular female superheroes, and has been considered a feminist icon. She is considered one of the strongest superheroes created by Marvel.
During the late 1980s, comics had undergone a stylistic shift in terms of character proportions. The sexual characteristics of comic book characters became more exaggerated, which affected both male and female characters. Male characters were typically drawn with bigger muscles, smaller heads, broader shoulders and chests. Female characters developed larger breasts and rears, very thin waists, longer legs, large lips, and more revealing costumes. While male characters generally had a variety of poses, females often were drawn in suggestive poses that further accentuated their breasts and rears. Female characters that were deemed to be empower feminist views were also portrayed in a sexualized manner. The trend has become the target of satire by feminists, especially on websites like The Hawkeye Initiative.
In addition, many female readers sway towards independent works, where there is a lot more female representation. The independent comics industry, whose products are often referred to as indies, have become a huge source of authentically represented females in comics. More women than ever before are becoming comic book artists and writers, and many of them have flocked to the independent industry. This, combined with a large female readership, has resulted in greatly increased numbers of female-driven stories in this industry. Manga, another form of graphic novel, has also led to a rise in female readership of comics. The trend towards hyper-sexualized female characters in mainstream comics is part of the reason that independent comics have become so popular among women; independent artists, regardless of gender, tend to draw both male and female characters in a similar style. When those characters do have noticeable sex characteristics, such as breasts or broader shoulders, they are not exaggerated to the point that they are in the mainstream comic book industry.
Recently LGBTQ superheroes are becoming more prevalent and available. In 2011 Batwoman DC reinvented Batwoman from a casual sidekick in need of saving to an independent, lesbian superheroine. This version fights back against female stereotypes, and lacks the traditional female superhero physique. Her body sports more muscles and less chest and hip padding. She also lacks the traditional long flowing hair, instead sporting a short cut. She fights the more grotesque images of womanhood including the gorgons, her undead mother, and the ghost of her previous incarnation.
In 2016, Wonder Woman was announced by Greg Rucka, comic book writer, to be bisexual. Although in her early comics, Wonder Woman was known to have possible same-sex attraction subtext, her sexuality was downplayed afterwards.
The first openly transgender character in a DC Comic was Alysia Yeoh, a roommate of Batgirl, in 2013. She is the first mainstream comic book character that is openly transgender. The character is also bisexual, and may eventually become a hero of her own. In 2015, Alysia married her longtime girlfriend.
There were very few people of color in comic books prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Because of this, women of color in comic books did not start appearing regularly until the 1970s, in the Bronze Age of comic books. One of the first black female superheroes, and one of the most popular female black superheroes to this day, was Storm of the X-Men, who had the power to control the weather. She first appeared in 1975. In several reincarnations of the X-Men, she is the leader.
Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau) first appeared in 1982, and received her own comic in 1989. Captain Marvel had the power to transform herself into any form of energy, and obtains the properties of that energy. She has also joined the Avengers on several occasions. There are several other characters who have the name Captain Marvel, one of the most famous being Carol Danvers, who is white.
Despite the growth of women of color in comic books after the Civil Rights Movement, there still continues to be a lack of women of color in comic books. When women of color are presented in comic books, they are often not fully human, like Storm, and are given stereotyped features and powers. Oftentimes, black comic book characters are stereotyped with ghetto characteristics. Black people in comics are also more likely to be considered sidekicks rather than superheroes, and they are less likely to have their own comic series about them.
The portrayal of women in comics is still highly contested. Despite the more realistic portrayal of women in independent comics, the mainstream comic book industry still sometimes struggles with portraying women realistically. There continues to be a difference in the way female superheroes are treated (by both their on-page counterparts and their writers) when compared to male superheroes of the same caliber. However, more recently steps have been made towards equality and de-sexualization with specific stories and comics.
There is a distinct effort being made by some to address these issues however; there is a Gender in Comics panel at San Diego Comic Con which, in 2014, "included noted comic book journalists, editors, writers and behind-the-scenes figures all currently working to further awareness of the gender issues within the comic book industry." One of the panelists, Laura Hudson, said this in regards to gender roles in comics and the criticism that they are facing:
"The panel spoke about how ingrained a lot of these false gender-based ideas have become thanks to decades of unchallenged existence. "A metaphor I use a lot is it's like working in a bell factory," explained Hudson. "If you work in the bell factory long enough you stop hearing the bells. I think super hero comics has stopped hearing the bells for a long time, but now you have other people coming in from the outside and [the gender issues in super hero comics are] very apparent. Having the Internet, having these other perspectives that are suddenly in front of us and are not subject to gatekeepers and are far more able to be heard exposes a lot of [these issues]."