Feminism and the rise of comic books have been butting rhetorical heads for over half a century, but perhaps circumstances have finally turned a corner. Is it possible storylines have transitioned from super-sexism to superheroes? Is the overwhelming flood of these CGI-enhanced pop culture icons substantially helping or infallibly hurting the modern rhetoric of gender equality? Interestingly, as the first-wave of the Women’s Movement began in the latter 19th century so began the serialized comic book industry.
In 1895, Richard F. Outcault, in the comic strip Hogan’s Alley, published The Yellow Kid, just five years after what is considered the start of the Progressive Era for women. While The Yellow Kid may not focus on women in the same sexualized way future comics would, it does portray women in the stereotypical trope as barefoot and pregnant at home with more children than she knows what to do with. Despite the subsequent introductions of lead characters Winnie-Winkle in 1920 and Blondie in 1930, Americans did not see the first female superhero until well into World War II, in 1941, when DC Comics introduced Wonder Woman. Though it was not readily apparent at the time, World War II brought about a substantial changing of the tides for women around the world.
Women in the latter 30’s and early 40’s were called up to fill the roles men typically held while they were at war, fighting the good fight. These women worked for half as much pay as men, still managed the households outside of their jobs, and took up activist positions in labor unions to combat the intense discrimination they faced. The response? An Amazonian super-female and a “dolled-up” factory worker. Hardly realistic representations of women at the time, but nevertheless accepted unequivocally across the country. The widespread acceptance of Wonder Woman and Rosie the Riveter managed to open the doors to women being portrayed in active roles rather than the passive ones found in comics such as The Yellow Boy and Blondie. It was in 1954 that the Comics Code Authority was thus established to moderate the growing problem of just how these women were depicted. The guidelines forbade “Nudity in any form”, “Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture”, and required that “Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.”
It wasn’t until 1959 however, that comic book characters and feminism would find a common ground, at least for one cover. This was the year DC Comics introduced Supergirl, Superman’s perky younger cousin whom he viewed as a little sister. (Action Comics #252) Her first cover had her proudly proclaiming, “Look again, Superman! It’s me — Supergirl! And I have all your powers!” (DC Comics Action Comics #252 (1959)) It didn’t take long however for the innocent illustrations of Supergirl to morph into hyper-sexualized, full-busted, illustrations of what was clearly a woman. Coincidentally, Superman comic sales were plummeting until the illustrations were revamped around 1967 to display hyper-accentuated features of women. Despite being moved to Adventure Comics in 1969 and becoming the lead strip, Supergirl was featured on covers either as combative toward the beloved Superman, looking for a boyfriend, cowering from a mouse, or being dragged by her hair toward a forced and unwanted marriage to a hideous alien. In 1985 she was killed off entirely.
It was also during this thirty year period that the women’s movement made big strides in equal employment, sex discrimination laws, and holding political offices. It would seem, however, that as women made these advancements to be seen as equals, comic book illustrators would exacerbate their physical traits to further sexualize them. The relentless rhetoric of women to have their voices heard would repeatedly be drowned out by the exceptional number of comics characterizing them as objects drawn in unrealistic, physically impossible, and compromising ways. Journalist, Amanda Shendruk, wrote an article for The Pudding in 2017 that dives deep into not only the gender ratio of 34,476 superheroes, but how females are represented among them. She states quite irrefutably that female heroines, “are often hyper-sexualized, unnecessarily brutalized, stereotyped, and used as tokens.” While women sought to win legislation to further advance their rights, the end of this thirty year period saw the restrictions on comic books not only loosen, but fall to the wayside almost completely. It would appear, things were about to get much worse, before they got better.
With the start of a new decade, the infamous 90’s, came an unprecedented flood of new technology, new villains and heroes, new ideals, and most of all – new illustration styles. Sadly, this would prove to be the darkest of times as far as women in comics were concerned. The rhetoric of popular culture would succumb to hyper-sexualized comics only exacerbating the growing and often ignored problem that was gender inequality in mainstream media. While thirty one new comic book characters debuted in the 90’s, all but two were men. Of the two women, one was in a limited series of just six issues called Gen13, the other would go on to become known as The Flash, Liberty Bell, and Jesse Quick of the Justice Society and later the Justice League of America. Both Caitlin Fairchild of Gen13 and Jesse Chambers of Justice Society were drawn with disproportionately curvaceous features despite the still active, though scarcely adhered to, Comics Code Authority guidelines. Once again though, as comics portrayed women in vastly more risque attire, in more violent circumstances, and under more sexualized conditions, the real world was in the midst of record sexual harassment hearings – the most notable being Anita Hill versus Clarence Thomas. In a 2016 article in Time magazine discussing sexual harassment, columnist Sacha Cohen wrote, “Though Thomas denied the allegations and was eventually confirmed to the Supreme Court, Hill’s decision had immediate consequences: in its wake, sexual-harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled, and payouts from court settlements increased.”
The national controversy of Hill v Clarence once again established the ever growing rhetoric of hyper-sexualization of women in popular culture and the negative consequences surrounding it. During the 90’s though, the Violence Against Women Act was established, record numbers of women were elected into Congress, the Senate, and first terms in the White House. Yet, while all of this was grand and exciting, by the end of the decade hindsight reared its ugly head. A 2018 Time article by Allison Yarrow about gender equality states, “The more women assumed power, the more power was taken from them through a noxious popular culture that celebrated outright hostility toward women and commercialized their sexuality and insecurity.” Yarrow goes on to state, “As women gained power, or simply showed up in public, society pushed back by reducing them to gruesome sexual fantasies and misogynistic stereotypes.” Therein lies the core of the issue between feminism and the rise of their portrayal in comic books. The source material for comics may be fictional, but the presentation is a blatant suppression of gender equality through nefarious means, and we’re only just approaching the new millennium…
The first half of the next decade promised more great firsts for female empowerment such as the first woman to run for president, the March for Women’s Lives in Washington D.C., and a Los Angeles man wins the right to take his wife’s last name. Likewise, the comic medium gained phenomenal momentum in the film industry with no sign of stopping. In just the first ten years of the 2000’s, there were roughly twenty three superhero films based on popular comics, more if you include those not as well-known. Of the twenty three films, one had a lead female superhero, Catwoman. Her character, despite the film being released in this century, suffered all the cliche pitfalls of her fore sisters. The film centers on Patience Phillips described as being a “meek designer” who has discovered a seedy underbelly of the cosmetics company where she works. She is murdered, but gets revived by Egyptian cats which give her the superpowers that make her into Catwoman. She is, of course, also pursued by a male detective. Her status as a hero however, is questionable as Catwoman is often considered to be an anti-hero. Either way, this 2004 film flopped big time. It won multiple “Worst Picture” awards among others. Sadly, these poor ratings meant the next female led superhero movie would not grace the big screen until well into the next decade.
Speaking of gaining phenomenal momentum, superheroes literally exploded in the 2010’s. And so did outrage over sexual misconduct across the board. Women began this decade passively listing sexist encounters on Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project website to ending the decade screaming #MeToo and demanding justice. Though speaking out against countless sexual assaults may have dominated Twitter feeds and the rhetoric of women’s rights, something else dominated as well. Superheroes. With an astounding forty-four big budget superhero films released during this time, again only two starred female heroines as the leads. In 2017 we saw Wonder Woman make a great argument for more female led superhero movies. Her film unquestionably reawakened the rhetoric of gender disparity among comic book heroes in entertainment. She was followed by Captain Marvel in 2019 to overwhelming acclaim. Popular movie news site, Screenrant, states, “Considering Captain Marvel made over $1 billion at the worldwide box office, it’s clear moviegoers are ready for more female superheroes not only in the MCU but at the theater in general.” Though these two films did exceptionally well and are female led, at least eight others are team oriented with multiple female team members. All of the visibility women started receiving during this decade helped propel the rhetoric of women in popular culture toward the conversations that had been brewing for decades.
Where will this conversation lead in the coming decade? Hopes are high that women will start getting the roles they’ve worked hard for and have deserved to be in for a very long time. Umberto Gonzalez of The Wrap, an entertainment and media news site, claims that nine female-led films are due out in 2020, roughly half are superhero based. (Of course as the world’s pandemic crisis unfolds, this is likely to change.) Nevertheless, this marks the first time in cinematic history, and in popular culture, that women would own a substantial piece of the box office pie. Does this mean we can expect to see gender parity at long last? I wouldn’t necessarily go that far.
Though there are big waves disrupting the male dominated entertainment world, sexual harassment is still at an all-time high. While Marvel Studios president, Kevin Feige states that he “envisions a time when more than half the superheroes in the MCU are female”, having female leads in large numbers does not level the playing field. Take Black Widow, for example. Casey Cipriani, a columnist for the women’s magazine, Bustle, states, “…in a much debated storyline in Avengers: Age of Ultron Nat had to undergo forced sterilization during her training.” Not only does this storyline diminish the femininity of Black Widow, it sets her up for death. Cipriani goes on to say, “In Endgame, she pleads to Hawkeye that he should live because he has a family to get back to, and she doesn’t. Once again, Natasha is reduced to her inability to bear children — this time, it’s a death sentence.” Is a storyline where a man is forced to have a vasectomy, in order to “be all that he can be”, even in the realm of a possibility for a multi-million dollar blockbuster film? To say it is inconceivable would be an understatement. So why is it okay to make this a part of a woman’s storyline?
The rhetoric is, unquestionably, changing both for how women are portrayed in comic books and movies, but in society as well. The more than half of a century we’ve spent shouting for equality is finally being heard. Though the struggle is far from over, the victories are starting to mount. Four out of every ten businesses in the United States are women-owned. NPR recently stated, “Women are on track to make up a majority of the college-educated labor force this year, marking a historic turning point in gender parity.” And the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television recently announced, “In 2019, the percentages of behind-the-scenes women working on the top 100 and 250 (domestic) grossing films increased, reaching recent historic highs.” Women may still be butting heads with popular culture when it comes to gender parity, but the modern rhetoric has unequivocally changed. Super-sexism is, slowly, being pushed out by louder voices and more positive female prominence in popular culture. As women continue to stand up against harassment and inequality, we will continue to change our storylines forever.