Hero or Whore? Feminine Characterization in Comics

The concept of the female form and its portrayal in comics has been a hot topic for as long as I can remember, and has grown in volume over the past few years.  Many groups, often comprised of women speaking from a feminist perspective, claim that comics are rife with superficial and overly-sexualized female characters.  They state that the physical depictions are unrealistic and unnecessarily revealing, perpetuating the ideal that women are meant to be objects of male lust and little else.

With this, I must heartily disagree.

I write this having been on both sides of this argument.  For most of my adult life, I subscribed to the belief held by many, that comics were filled with scantily clad women in order to fulfill some perverse male fantasy.  Having never actually read a comic at that point, I was basing my opinion solely on the covers or individual panels I had seen in passing.  At that time, I had no stories to associate with the images.  They seemed in all regards to be gratuitous and  highly sexual in nature.

This concern stayed with me even as I began reading comics.  At the onset of this blog, I worried what I might feel as I read comic after comic, knowing I would likely be seeing a host of half-naked women gracing the pages before me.

I am an expert by no means, but having read over one hundred and fifty DC trades (trade collections, not individual comics) spanning six decades, along with a host of other non-continuity comics, I feel confident that I have a fairly decent grasp on the comics world and how it chooses to present its characters.

From all of this reading I have learned that yes, many female superheroes and villains alike are often dressed in skimpy or skintight outfits and yes, they are often drawn with certain body parts a bit over-emphasized.

I have also learned that in many respects the same can be said about male comic book characters as well.

Male superheroes almost exclusively wear skintight outfits, meant to accentuate every rippling muscle.  While not often during battle, these same characters are also often shown shirtless or even naked, allowing virtually no secrets to what lies beneath the costume.

Is this demeaning to the character?  Most would say no, not at all.  The tight costume allows their physical strength to be emphasized while also serving the tactical purpose of not getting in the way during a fight.

I’ve never once heard someone suggest Batman trade in his skintight costume for loose-fitting jeans and a tee.

For some reason, when this same question is posed in relation to female comics characters, people are instantly up in arms.  Their costumes are demeaning, because these characters shouldn’t be fighting while half-naked, nor do they need to have such voluptuously drawn breasts or perfectly lithe, petite bodies.

Is this really true, though?  Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Big Barda

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Big Barda was one of the first scantily clad women I came across in comics.  Created by Jack Kirby in 1971, Barda is one of the New Gods, a warrior raised on the dark planet of Apokolips.  The image above might offend some, as Barda is certainly leaving little to the imagination with this outfit.

To focus solely on her clothing though completely belittles what a fierce woman she is.

Barda was fierce and fiery long before strong women were a common trope in comics.  She is the toughest warrior on Apokolips, and her strong will is only outmatched by her own physical strength.

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Yes, she’s wearing a barely-there bikini, but she’s also lifting a cannon over her head with one hand as though it’s nothing.  What’s more, she has no tolerance for people who would question her or offend her in any way, and is all too quick to defend her own honor.  Were any man to ever make a degrading or insulting comment towards her, he would be lucky to walk away alive from the altercation.

Barda quickly became one of my favorite characters because she was allowed to be strong and sexy.  She trades in this skimpy bikini for more battle-appropriate armor when entering a fight, but she’s comfortable enough with her body to show it off.  She is sexy, yes, but she’s also strong, loyal, and unflinchingly tough, charging into battle without ever looking back.

Barda is a perfect blend of fierceness and femininity, proving that a woman can look good and be comfortable with her body while still having a well-developed personality all her own.  What’s more, in a time when so many people focus on the “impossibly perfect” bodies women in comics are sometimes drawn with, they forget characters like Barda.  Barda is quite frankly a massive woman, towering over nearly all the men she meets, and while she’s curvy, she is anything but skinny.  These features hardly meet the “perfect body” ideal supposedly promoted by men.  Her physical appearance is of little importance though when her characterization is so perfect.

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is perhaps the most recognizable female comic book character of all time, and quite possibly the most frequently attacked for her physical appearance.

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It’s really not surprising that she’s the topic of such debate. I mean, look at her.

Here’s a strong, independent woman, raised by women to promote ideas of peace and understanding in the world of man, yet also strong enough to protect the people she cares about with her life, and here we are debating her fashion choices.

While I’ve never donned a superhero costume to test its functionality, I can readily assume that it is much easier to move your limbs and run around in a bathing suit versus a full suit of armor.  Given the fact that Diana has super powers which protect her from physical harm, the need for full body armor is slim.

Honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact some men (and let’s be honest, many women) would slut-shame me to death for doing so, I would dress like this all the freaking time if I could.  That costume is sexy and gorgeous and depending on the material, likely very comfortable.  All pros in my book.

Yet we would criticize women who want to show off their bodies, resorting to bullying and name-calling.  We go so far as to critique a fictional character, with some claiming Diana is anti-feminist because of the clothing she wears.

Excuse me…have these people ever even read a Wonder Woman comic?  Diana is THE feminist in comics, a strong promoter of women’s rights and equality since her initial conception in the 1940’s.

The only aspect of Wonder Woman’s self that overshadows her choice of clothing is how artists choose to depict her.

I have read countless reviews of comics noting that Wonder Woman’s breasts are too prominent, that she’s too statuesque and perfect.

SHE IS AN AMAZON.  SHE’S SUPPOSED TO BE PERFECT.

It is repeatedly stated in the comics that the Amazonian women from Paradise Island are beautiful, tall, graceful women.  They are not meant to represent the female race as a whole.  They are separate entities, graced with their own powers and skills who have willingly separated themselves from the world of man for generations.  Wonder Woman has never been intended to represent the “average” woman.

Yes, she is often drawn with exaggerated breasts, but in many cases these images are coupled with exaggerated everything, with her form being more akin to a female body-builder than a super-model.

In these depictions, Wonder Woman (or any over-drawn character) is usually depicted in the midst of a fierce battle, in which strength is of the utmost importance.  Their physical appearance is emphasized to add to the overall story, and show the amount of strength that is required to survive in these fantastic battles.

The majority of the artwork I’ve seen that actually depicts comics women in overtly sexual poses or barely-there outfits, making them look like Playboy models more than anything else, are fan-created pieces and aren’t found in published comics.  Every conceivable fetish has its own niche market, including sexualized, porn-star style comic book characters.  Just because a faction of fans might enjoy these depictions is no reason to vilify the entire medium.

It’s interesting to note that while male characters are likewise shown with over-exaggerated, rippling muscles, yet nobody ever complains about the commodification of their bodies.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen a barrel chested, rippling Batman or Superman grace the pages of a comic, flaunting more muscles than any human body could ever have.  Why do we attack Wonder Woman’s depictions as overly-sexualized while accepting the male characters’ as the norm?

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Male characters are allowed to be physically strong or over-muscled, even naked in some scenes, yet female characters are criticized no matter what they wear or how they’re drawn.  Characters like Wonder Woman and Big Barda are critiqued for being “too perfect”, and yet when artists choose to depict more realistic female forms (ie: Wonder Woman‘s Etta Candy) these characters are criticized for promoting unhealthy behavior.  Is it because for decades, the vast majority of writers and artists were men?  Do we as women feel that men do not have the right to comment on the female form, be it in a critical or appreciative manner?  Decades ago I might have supported this belief, but there is an ever-growing number of female voices in the comics community, and the overall opinion of how female characters are portrayed seems to have shifted.  Many (though admittedly not all) in the community believe in and support the idea of realistic representations of female characters, and strive to create real change in how these characters are depicted.

Squirrel Girl

The recent publication of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, a resurgence of a Marvel character originally created in 1992, supports these strides made in the name of body-positive, relatable female characters.

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Doreen Green/Squirrel Girl is an average college student, snaggle-toothed and all-around average looking, but completely relatable and likeable.  She is tough, dedicated, and funny, and possesses a body which much more closely resembles the average woman.  Still, when fighting bad guys, she wears a skin-tight costume, because it’s functional.  I haven’t read any reviews that criticize Squirrel Girl’s outfit choices, and I’m left wondering if it’s because she’s not physically perfect.  If that is the case, we are only creating further limitations for ourselves, claiming to seek equality and acceptance yet criticizing the depiction of physically fit women who acknowledge and embrace their bodies.  If we want to promote body positivity in comics, this must extend to ALL body types, including those that are seemingly perfect or “ideal” to many.

The truth of the matter is, by criticizing the way these characters are drawn/clothed, we are drawing attention away from all of their other defining characteristics.  Wonder Woman is no longer a messenger of peace or a fierce warrior who would defend her loved ones any way possible; she is now nothing more than a set of long legs in a high-waisted bikini.  Catwoman is no longer a fierce and volatile animal rights activist, but a set of breasts in a skin-tight bodysuit.  Although the intention is noble, this focus on the physical appearance of female comics characters draws attention away from their many other positive qualities.

There are certainly instances in which women in comics are portrayed as flat and one-dimensional, serving little purpose but to catch the eye of an ogling reader.  I don’t seek to claim that all female representation in comics is positive.  I merely want to point out that there are a number of well-known characters (and likely dozens more that I either didn’t reference above or am not familiar with) who are so much more than their costume or their physique.  We continue to perpetuate this belief that if a woman is beautiful she cannot be taken seriously, or couldn’t possibly be intelligent or strong-willed.  Isn’t feminism supposed to be the belief that a woman can be anything and everything she wants?  Many women in comics are physically beautiful, but it’s rare (especially in modern comics) that the stories actively point out that these women are so much more beautiful than the average person.  They are simply beautiful in their own right, and our focus on their physical appearance draws far more attention to the issue than the comic itself does.

As a female reader, I’ve found that I don’t often look at a comic and get angry, annoyed, or self-conscious over how a woman is depicted.  In stories where superheroes and aliens are battling to the death, it’s a little difficult to get mad at a story for not being “realistic”.   These stories in many ways are meant to be an escape from our normal lives.  Do I envy Wonder Woman or Big Barda’s body?  Sure, but not because they look good in a bikini. I envy their power and sheer strength. I’m sure if given the choice, many male readers would gladly augment their own physical appearance to have bodies and powers like Superman.  Does this mean comics are offensive to men for promoting an unrealistic ideal?  Most would argue not.  Why then do we create this own disparity for ourselves?

Should there be a bit more diversity in comics? Absolutely.  But I don’t believe we should overlook the strides that have been made in this capacity and seek to criticize that which  ought to be applauded.  We focus on criticizing the portrayal of the female form in comics while simultaneously claiming to support equality and feminist empowerment.  If the comics world was overrun with male writers and artists who criticize women’s bodies and use their work to shame women for being imperfect, or on the flip side use their stories to feed their own sexual fantasies while disregarding any real character development, then I would absolutely understand the widespread anger and resentment.  While this does still occasionally happen, the vast majority of writers and artists seem to have embraced the need for stronger, more fully realized female characters.  They have taken to creating comics that are appreciative of the female body and mind alike.  Perhaps the results are sometimes short of perfect, but should we really be criticizing the medium for at least attempting to promote body positivity and female empowerment? Certainly not.

It’s frustrating to read opinions which tear apart the comics industry, often written by those who know very few details about comics themselves.  I admit I would have once agreed with those arguments, believing women to be under-represented and belittled in the comics world.  I am happy to say that after having read dozens upon dozens of comics, this is increasingly becoming a rare occurrence, with writers and artists instead taking up the fight for female empowerment, with men and women writers/artists alike striving to create more well-rounded (both physically and emotionally) female characters, whom can be looked up to by countless readers.

The comics world, like all mediums, is far from perfect in equally representing the sexes.  I have found that comics are in fact far ahead of the curve when it comes to showing female empowerment, far moreso than other forms of entertainment.  We still have a long way to go until gender representation in comics is truly equal, but perhaps if we as women choose to focus more on the characters themselves, rather than criticizing their physical appearance, we will have a much stronger impact on improving feminine depictions within the comics world.

We live in a world where the maxim “Strong is the new sexy” has become a mantra for many.  Aren’t female comic book characters the prefect representation of this?  Why don’t we focus on their strength and power, rather than how much skin they’re showing?  The world would be a much better place if we could shift our attention away from criticism and focus on promoting the idea of feminine empowerment and self-worth, regardless of how one looks or choose to dress.  If we as readers choose to focus on the characters themselves rather than their bodies, the comics world will have no choice but to follow suit.

-Jess

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One thought on “Hero or Whore? Feminine Characterization in Comics

  1. Quite well put, Jess. I always get kinda cringy when the subject of feminism (or any -ism) in comics arises, it’s such a contentious subject that often devolves into ad hominems (my spell check is asking me to change “hominem” to “Eminem” what a world we live in…) rather than truly discussing the subject matter.

    Thank you for putting together such a thought provoking well-spoken piece!

    Like

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