Heroine Addict: Female Representation in the Comic Book World

by Julia Fields

I grew up in a world of comic books. My father draws cartoons for a living and has worked for many of the largest comic companies in the country. There are boxes and boxes of comic books stacked up in my basement, and prints and drawings line my dad’s studio. As a young girl, I was an aspiring artist and spent a lot of time with my dad learning about all the different superheroes that existed in the many universes. My dad is a walking encyclopedia on all things Marvel and D.C. I am sure I had a phase of wanting to be Batgirl or Supergirl, but my earliest memories come from me picking Batman as my favorite superhero. Female superheroes never made it into the consideration of my favorite hero, mainly because there was such little written about these heroines. My female superhero fix came solely from Black Widow for the longest time. Now, more and more female characters are being introduced into the public eye and given recognition, which sheds light on the previous problem of lack of representation and the current problem of how these women should be represented today. 

The comic book industry has always been male dominated; Comic books were written by and for boys of varying ages. Thus, women were drawn in a way that would be appealing to the target audience. In the 1960’s, the comic book “it girl” was Sue Storm, mothering figure of the Fantastic Four. Also known as the Invisible Girl, Sue represented the ideal housewife and the ideal female superhero companion- an invisible one. Parallel with the 1950’s standard for women, Sue “kept [the Fantastic Four] together, admonished them for fighting, apologized for her own (insignificant) role and reminded them of their moral duty” (D’amore). Of course, Sue could very well do all of these things as well as be an amazing and aggressive hero. Instead, she acted as the damsel in distress. At one point, when she has the chance to defeat a villain, “it is her body, her beauty that enthralls the villain, and her superpowers are useless against him” (D’amore). Even when given the opportunity, Sue cannot escape her sexualization made possible by the writers and artists of the comic. Therefore, Sue remains destined to be the beauty of the group’s operation, playing the part of the maiden who needs rescuing from one of the male members of the team.

Sue finally gets the chance she deserves in 1964 when she discovers her powers to use force fields to shield and protect. In this way, Sue remains visible while making other things or people invisible. Thus, Sue emerges from the shadows of her gender and assumes a larger role in the group. Her new-found power “is the ultimate feminist fantasy, making women apparent for their strengths, while minimizing interference from others” (D’amore). There is irony in Sue being visible when using her powers to their full capacity. Being known to hide her entire life as an invisible hero, Sue could never experiment as a visible one. By not giving Sue the chance to be seen, the team as a whole missed out on a vital tool at their disposal. This represents a very popular male belief to overlook female assets and immediately assign them to gendered tasks. Sue lived for three years as a useless pretty face who cleaned the spaceship and wore bikinis, until she was deemed worthy for a chance to show herself. Even when this chance arose, Sue needed the guidance of her teammates to harness her powers because as a female, she could not handle this task alone, still portraying her as a damsel in distress even when needing help from her fellow male superheroes. At her origin, Sue is unable to “[minimize] interference from others” as she still needs the help of males (D’amore). Hence, Sue’s eventual independence represents the earliest pushes towards a feminist hero.

Sue had her revelation the same year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed and made discrimination in employment based on sex illegal in the United States (D’amore). Sue made small gains in her comic book universe as women made strides in the real world simultaneously. In this way, Sue was the perfect superhero for her time. She started out as every man’s fantasy- someone to cook and clean while wearing skimpy outfits. As she progressed through her transformation, she became more powerful and independent, as did the women of the United States. It cannot be said that Sue is a great example of feminism in the D.C. Universe, but she was able to change with the times. As the years progressed, her character continued to grow, as it does today in recent installments of Fantastic Four films. In terms of the world of female superheroes, Sue should be remembered for her humble origin and transformation, but not idolized as an ideal model. 

Sue existed as a woman of the 1960’s. As Marvel and D.C. introduced more and more female superheroes into their comics, they would continue to reflect the time period that they were created in. This meant that as women gained more rights and feminism went through three waves in America, these superheroines had to adapt to fit these standards. In the past decade, more and more women of different races and sexual orientations have been introduced into the comic book world. In addition, major comic book companies are hiring more female writers to accurately depict these women in a feminist light (Cardo & Curtis). With each new character, these companies move closer and closer to reaching adequate female representation in comics. Whereas in the past, comics were marketed for males of various ages, today, more and more females are beginning to read comic books. As such, females currently account for 46.67% of comic book readers (Schenker). With a changing audience comes adaptive content and with this increasing female reader population comes females of different races, ethnicities, and seuxal preferences. In order to satisfy a massive fan base, Marvel and D.C. must appeal to these differences among their readers.

Even characters created years ago can represent relatability in a modern audience, but these traits are often purposefully left out or ignored. Harley Quinn, known for being the Joker’s girlfriend and sidekick, is also a bisexual animal rights activist. However, movies and the media often portray her as not much more than a sex slave to the Joker. She was introduced in 1992 as the Joker’s sidekick and falls in love with him in her first appearance in the D.C. universe. It took nineteen years for Harley to emerge as a character with more to prove than a villain’s henchman. Poison Ivy, Harley’s companion, also represents an independent and powerful woman; She, like Sue, was created in the 1960’s. In the same way as Harley, Ivy undergoes a transformation towards becoming a strong female, only it takes nearly triple the amount of time to occur. Ivy works as a scientist and her male coworkers often grope and touch her at work, but she breaks free from this all too relevant and real scenario to find comfort in another woman. Sometimes the problem is not the writing of a female character, but how other facets aside from comics portray her. Movie producers and TV writers strip away the characteristics that define these characters in a completely different way and leave them as two-dimensional helpless women. These new emerging female characters especially are written with so many layers, yet these are the figures that will never make it to the big screen. America Chavez, introduced in 2011, represents the gay and Latino community. Kamala Kahn, the new Ms. Marvel, is Marvel’s first Pakistani-American superhero. She is a Muslim millennial and a member of the working class who came into being in 2013. They will never be as well-known as the sexy and stealthy superheroes that are popular today. Because of this fact, the focus needs to be turned to either increasing the exposure of these new diverse heroes or presenting old and beloved heroes in a new feminist light (Cardo & Curtis). 

As Marvel and D.C. write more characters that new waves of female fans can relate to, one issue still remains. Sure, we may connect to the race or sexual orientation of a heroine, but we will never look like one. Unrealistic beauty standards are a staple in comic books and have been for over fifty years. The style of comic book ladies originating in the 1990’s is “a style that forced women’s bodies into impossible shapes and inexplicable poses with one, commonly known as the ‘broke back’,” which places women in a deformative, gymnast-like pose that stretches their torso unnaturally to accentuate their butts  (Cardo & Curtis). It comes as no surprise that superheroines are often criticized for their clothing or lack thereof. Being a little girl and walking into my dad’s studio, I often saw pictures lining the walls of these female cartoon characters with minimal clothing in gymnast-like poses. At comic conventions, I would often be rushed past certain exhibits because they included too much female nudity. The trend of middle aged white men drawing their fantasy women is nothing new and it is these men that began to draw these female superheroes at their conception. In an effort to stick to original designs and ideas, these flashy and skimpy costumes prevail across history and make it onto movie and television screens. These beauty standards are unrealistic, but they are also classic and timeless. 

Rebecca Davis reveals a prime example of this sexualized view of female comic book characters in her study on the language regarding men and women in comics. Before delving into the language of feminism, Davis corroborates the presence of sexism in comics by saying, “‘modern female characters are so thoroughly eroticized that it is near impossible to find a superheroine…that is not defined primarily by her sex appeal’” (Davis). Sexism shown through wardrobe is apparent. Now, Davis proves that sexism also lives through the language and writing of comics. Davis studied four superheroes, two men and two women, and the words most often used to describe them. Superman’s most prevalent description was “fast,” whereas, Wonder Woman’s was “beautiful/sexy” (Davis). This sexism was less prevalent in the Avengers characters Black Widow and Iron Man, who were referred to as “sexy” an equal amount. More interesting is Iron Man’s other descriptions of “womanizer” and “arrogant.” In this way, the negatives of the male superheroes “were mostly shaped by the males’ female love interest” (Davis). Thus, an Adam and Eve situation arises where woman’s temptation is blamed for mortal sin. Women superheroes are blamed for the downfall of male superheroes, whether they are too distracting or too tempestuous. If they are neither of these things, they are perceived as boring. No matter how a writer or artist portrays a female hero, she still has the power to be blamed for the shortcomings of her male counterparts. Thus, even when the male heroes seem to be criticized, their failures can still be attributed to the females involved, creating an even more unfavorable scenario for heroines.

It would be unreasonable to say that male superheroes do not also represent incredibly high body standards. However, the difference lies in the sexualization. A male superhero may be portrayed in an idealized way, but their bodies are not sexualized or objectified. These heroes are not clad in revealing outfits that show off their figures. Also, many male superheroes undergo physical transformations which result in these ideal bodies. For example, when Hulk transforms into a monster, he immediately gains huge biceps set of six-pack abs; whereas, female heroes such as Black Widow are humans who have undergone assassin training and are simply expected to look in a specifically perfect way, including an hourglass figure with a tiny waist. A double standard remains for female and male superheroes regarding the sexualization of their always perfect bodies. 

This issue of the representation of the female body appears in the latest Wonder Woman film. Many fans were upset by the unrealistic beauty standard that Gal Gadot displayed in the movie. By casting a beautiful woman to play Wonder Woman that undoubtedly had to go through intense physical training before filming, DC inevitably feeds into these beauty standards that fans criticized. Realistically, there would be equally as much backlash on the film if they were to change Wonder Woman’s costume to make it more conservative than if her costume matched the original drawings. Critics say that “Wonder Woman is a ‘walking contradiction of the competing demands placed on women’s shoulders today’” (Abirafeh). This contradiction lies in Wonder Woman embracing the societal image of the ideal woman: physically fit, outrageously strong and brave, while remaining undeniably sexy. When questioned, director Patty Jenkins said she wanted “her to look like [her] childhood fantasy” (Juris). In the film, Diana dressed as a warrior, as did her fellow Amazonians. Their outfits represent power and strength, especially that of women. Truthfully, Gal Gadot was beautiful before she was casted to play Wonder Woman. After intense training, a skimpy costume, and a plot designed to make her look incredibly strong and heroic, she leaves the body of an ordinary woman and becomes the unrealistic. Young girls watching the film may never grow up to look like her, but is that not the point of a hero? A young girl will never grow up with magic gauntlets and superhuman strength either. The traits of a hero are not supposed to be attainable. Instead, Diana’s strength, determination, and loyalty to her friends and family can be attained and can inspire everyone who watches. Unfortunately, Justice League did not carry over this empowering image of the Amazonians. In this film, the women of Themyscira show much more skin and submit to the beauty standards and costumes that cartoonists all too often draw. These outfits directly contrast the suits of armor that the women on Paradise Island wear in Wonder Women, symbolizing an immediate step backwards in the feminist superhero universe after one huge leap forward. Hopefully, D.C. can recover from this temporary hindrance on their otherwise positive movement towards positive female representation. 

Middle aged white men, the same species who designed Wonder Woman had many problems with the feature film, including nit-picking action scenes and plot points, despite the 571 million dollars made worldwide in the three weeks after its release date. Big media companies such as Variety and Vanity Fair only covered stories on reviews from male viewers, despite women being a majority of the target audience. This proves these male dominated reviews to be the most important. Sheri Linden, writer for The Hollywood Reporter called Diana a “much-needed hero for our times” but unfortunately, these were not the reviews getting covered on big platforms (Linden). Wonder Woman was the first time a female superhero had a featured film since 1964 and Patty Jenkins became the first female to direct a major superhero film (Abirafeh). These facts alone render Wonder Woman a feminist success. However, male critics continue to try to undermine this achievement. James Cameron, best known for directing Titanic, debunked any praise that the film received. Cameron saw Diana as “an objectified icon” and went on to praise the female characters in his own works (Fernandez). His comment appears as a guise to draw attention away from the film which was doing swimmingly and direct public attention back to himself. 

Attempting to abide with the praise Wonder Woman deserves, Paul Feig responded to Cameron’s criticism. Another prominent director best known for Bridesmaids, Feig defends Diana and Jenkin’s honor. Feig tweeted in response to Cameron that “any great leading roles for women are a step forward. Sarah Connor was awesome & so was Wonder Woman” (Feig). Feig references Cameron’s character, Sarah Goodman, from The Terminator franchise, who Cameron attempted to compare with Wonder Woman. Cameron made the mistake of pitting two strong females against one another, a classic anti-feminist move. Feig, who has directed many films with more than one main female character, which cannot always be said about Cameron, recognized the female empowerment that the film emits. Another example of pro-feminist reviews, Gal Gadot herself responded to critics like Cameron by speaking to the film’s success and saying, “‘the world was ready for a female-driven action movie’” (Juris). These are just two examples of the reviews opposite Cameron’s anti-feminist stance on the latest installment of feminism on the big screen. The only review that matters to me, a girl who has been waiting her whole life for her favorite superhero to be a heroine for once, is the one that stated that women across the world were being driven to tears by the sheer strength that Diana emits when emerging from a First World War trench and crossing no-man’s land, shown through articles with titles such as “Why are Women Crying During the Wonder Women Fight Scenes” and “Wonder Woman is as hard as nails- and she moved me to tears” (Stahler, Brockes). And yes, I was one of those girls.

Whether looking at her through the lens of her new feature film or as the heroine who was debuted in the early 1940’s, Wonder Woman can be considered a feminist icon for many reasons. William Moulton Marston, her creator, was a large proponent of female empowerment. He had ties to the suffrage movement through his wife and the Planned Parenthood movement through his mistress, ironically. An important aspect of Wonder Woman is that she was conceived without the help of a man. Her mother carved her out of clay, representing women’s reproductive rights (Cardo & Curtis). In the movie, Diana never acts as a damsel in distress and often finds herself saving her male counterpart, Steve Trevor. She proves to be a daunting force in the male-dominated industry of war that exists in the film. 

Wonder Woman continues to prove herself as a viable role model for young girls, yet her image often gets misconstrued by fans in large convention spaces. I have been to New York Comic Convention six times in my life. Every year, the number of women who stuff themselves into skimpy costumes to try to live up to the image of a hero increases. Oftentimes, I will dress up as a male superhero because it is honestly easier. These cosplayers represent the number of women who do not just want to look like their heroes, but act like them as well. Most people who cosplay fall short of the beautiful drawing they try to resemble or the beautiful actress who plays that character in the film adaptation. But, cosplayers understand that they will never be Gal Gadot, Jessica Alba or Scarlett Johansson. However, they also realize that they can be strong, determined, and sexy like these women without replicating them exactly. Cosplay, especially in recent years, has been going beyond who we want to look like and morphed into who we want to model ourselves after. Although I may never be able to squeeze myself into a Wonder Woman costume and look like Diana Prince, that does make her any less of a female role model in my eyes. 

Females can be seen more on television in shows such as Jessica Jones and Supergirl. Batgirl plays a leading role in the television show, Gotham and both D.C. Legends of Tomorrow and Agents of Shield include female main characters. As female representation increases in other genres and medias, superhero films must remain one of them. Superheroines provides an outlet for young girls to look upon as someone strong and capable with whom they can relate to. In this way, females realize that they too can be courageous and able in their everyday lives as men are. These female heroes offer an alternative to the image of a weak princess who needs rescuing which young girls too often look to as inspiration. I look forward to living and possibly raising daughters in a world where females of all different shapes, sizes, races, and sexual orientations are prominent superheroines. I look upon these current achievements favorably and have high hopes for the future of superheroines.

Works Cited –

Abirafeh, Lina. “Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon or Symbol of Oppression?” The Conversation,
The Conversation Us, Inc., 23 June 2017.

Brockes, Emma. “Wonder Woman is as hard as nails – and she moved me to tears.” The
Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 22 June 2017. 

Curtis, Neil, and Valentina Cardo. “Superheroes and Third-Wave Feminism.” Taylor and Francis
Online, 2017 Informa UK Limited , 24 July 2017.

Davis, Rebecca. Fighting like a Girl: Gendered Language in Superhero Comics, Griffith Working
Papers in Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication, 2013, pp. 28-36.

Feig, Paul (paulfeig). “I wish James Cameron would realize any great leading roles for women
are a step forward. Sarah Connor was awesome & so was Wonder Woman.” 25 August
2017, 9:19 a.m. Tweet. 

Fernandez, Matt. “James Cameron Calls ‘Wonder Woman’ a ‘Step Backwards’ for Female
Protagonists.” Variety, 2017 Variety Media LLC , 24 Aug. 2017.

Juris, Yvonne. “Paul Feig Defends Wonder Woman After James Cameron’s Controversial
Comments: ‘Leading Roles For Women Are a Step Forward’.” People, 2017 Time, Inc., 25 Aug. 2017.

Linden, Sheri. “’Wonder Woman:’ Film Review.” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood
Reporter, 29 May 2017.

Mattoon D’Amore, Laura. “Invisible Girl’s Quest for Visibility: Early Second Wave Feminism
and the Comic Book Superheroine.” ProQuest, 2017 ProQuest LLC, 2008.

Schenker, Brett. “Market Research Says 46.67% of Comic Fans Are Female.” The Beat, 5 Feb.
2014, 11:33.

Stahler, Kelsea. “Why Women Are Crying During ‘Wonder Woman’ Fight Scenes.” Bustle, BDG
Media Inc., 5 June 2017.