Issue 4, Semester 2, 2019
Time for something a bit different to law. I want to talk instead about comics. Most of my friends know that I am a massive nerd. I love fantasy, sci-fi, video games and movies. Growing up as a teenager, this choice was not the most popular. ‘Ew, aren’t comics for boys? They’re soooo juvenile.’ This attitude amongst young women is a shame. Growing up, I remember reading Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet, Erica Henderson’s Squirrel Girl, and Kurtis Wiebe’s Rat Queens, and thinking that these were exactly the kind of positive female-driven stories that were so desperately lacking in popular culture. Superhero movies have become our biggest media franchises, and the bean counters at Disney and Warner Brothers are finally waking up to the commercial appeal of female audiences with the release of female-driven films such as Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, and the announcement of Black Widow and female Thor movies in the near future. Given all this, I thought now would be a good time to look back over the history of the marginalisation and mistreatment of female characters and audiences by an entertainment industry built around the financial malpractice of pandering exclusively to adolescent boys. Because it’s a shame—comics are awesome, and I want more of them written for me.
A major contributing factor to the way in which females have been historically depicted in comics has been an editorial landscape dominated by the belief that superhero comics have been intended for, and exclusively consumed by, male readers. In the period now commonly known as 'the Golden Age of Comics', in which the superhero genre first gained widespread popularity, spreading from the late-30s to mid-50s, comic readership was actually predominately female. However, this readership was constrained along gendered lines, stemming from social ideologies about the respective roles and norms of males and females. Females, socially intended to be interested in domestic and superficial dimensions, were conventionally restrained to romance, teenage heroine and career stories, depicted in popular titles such as Archie Comics and Josie and the Pussycats. Conversely, genres depicting adventure and violence, such as crime and Western comics, were regarded as typically 'masculine' and intended exclusively for consumption by male audiences. The superhero genre, arising from the popularity and readership of crime and adventure comics, carried over conceptions of a male-dominated audience, and early publishers would carry on with business models of writing and marketing for a male adolescent readership. Indeed, the intended male audience was in many cases even used as a marketing ploy in and of itself—from June 1946, All-American Comics ran with the tagline 'comics for all-American boys'; and in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Timely Comics (the umbrella publisher that would develop into Marvel by the ‘60s) even went so far as to publish many of their horror titles with the tagline 'no girls allowed'.
Resulting from the dominance of male audiences has been a history of female representation in comics defined in relation to a masculine, heteronormative matrix. The attractiveness to the audience of stories that reinforced self-serving conceptions of hegemonic gender identities, and the unattractiveness of stories that would challenge sexist beliefs and generate cognitive dissonance in readers, would lead publishers with commercial incentives to retain and increase readership, to craft their representations of gender that reinforce beliefs of male privilege and social dominance. Females have historically been represented as secondary concerns in comics; unimportant and subservient to their male counterparts. In early comics, females in popular titles predominately performed the role of romantic interests, friends or family members; silent and unimportant, save for those occasions when they would be required to drive the narratives of male heroes. Frequently, they fulfilled the role of 'the damsel in distress'—in need of saving, and a prize to be fought over between heroes and villains. One worrying result of this tendency is the disproportionate commodification of female characters as plot devices used to drive the stories of male characters—an extreme manifestation being the ‘women-in-refrigerators’ trope, in which female characters are killed, depowered or maimed in order to provide motivation or characterisation for a male hero, with famous examples including Spiderman's Gwen Stacy, the Green Lantern's Alex DeWitt, and two different Batgirls.
Additionally, many female characters only gain acknowledgement at all through their relationships to male characters. One popular method for publishers to rapidly expand their ranges of marketable characters was the construction of distaff counterparts—where female characters are merely gender-swapped versions of established male characters, including such popular heroines as Supergirl, Batgirl, Spiderwoman and She-Hulk. The result is a class of heroines who are shadowed by, and intrinsically tied to, the fates of their male progenitors for characterization and meaning. Between 1960 and 2007, 43% of female heroine with 'popular' titles (over 5,000 issues circulated per month) were distaff conversions, compared to a mere 2% of the inverse, implicitly suggesting that female heroes are merely subversions of a default male ideal.
Luckily, these trends have finally begun to reverse themselves in recent years. As female fans have become more visible, and have all-importantly started voting with their wallets, publishers have gradually responded to commercial incentives to write rich and meaningful stories led by female characters. Originally confined to underground and independent titles, mainstream publishers have now begun to include greater representations of diversity in their line-ups. In 2015, the character of African-American teenager Riri Williams was introduced in the form of Iron Heart, to take over the role of the Iron Man series, whilst that same year the first volume of the new Ms Marvel series won the Hugo Award for best graphic story with the first ever depiction of a female Muslim superhero from a mainstream company. In spite of these advances, however, the comic world is hardly free from sexism. Unnecessary sexualisation and pandering of female characters remain rife, whilst male writers and artists continue to dominate editorial and writing teams. The embarrassing length of time it took for the inclusion of female headlines in cinematic spin-offs is testament to the painfully slow speed of progress.
I don’t know if anybody reading this is likely to care that much. These mediums are still seen by many as disposable and inconsequential forms of entertainment. But if like me, you’ve ever harboured a secret nerd, I encourage you to consider browsing some books at your local comic store. As cliched as it may sound, these stories form part of our cultural mythology. The way that we support them shapes not only the ink on pages, but the stories we leave for the future.
Amy is a First Year JD Student. Her name has been changed at her request.