Women in Comic Books: There are Problems
I came across a story on Facebook titled, “Marvel didn’t need a controversy to eliminate this UNDERBOOB.” The story itself is somewhat important, but what drew my attention more was the roughly 50/50 split in comments.
“Do feminists even read comics? Or do they just troll around looking for reasons to be offended?”
“Good. That costume was ridiculous.”
“This is pandering at its finest. Change a costume that’s suppose to be outrageous to make it PC so that it might sell to a segment of the fan base.”
“I’m normally 100% pro-underboob, but in this case I agree with marvel’s decision, if only because the costume was really ugly.”
The change was rather needed and has been done many times before with other characters. The character featuring excessive underboob is Madelyne Pryor, the Red Queen, and she has had this particular costume for quite a long time. This is where those deeply against these changes make their stand. This or that character, costume, whatever, has been like this since some decades point in time. A general stance that things should stay the same.
Everything is always changing
That argument flies in the face of comics history. Despite the generic common themes of heroes in costume fighting an evil doer, comics are constantly in a state of flux. Allegiances and situations will resolve themselves.
Surprisingly often, heroes will change altogether. Sometimes it is as simple as a character changing name and costume. In Marvel’s Ultimate universe, Kitty Pryde changed name and costume several times as a result of inspiration and emotional distress.
Occasionally, a hero’s name is actually a title or position. Green Lantern in the DC Universe is the local arm of the Green Lantern Corps and is considered a position. When one dies, another takes their place. To date, there have been 6 different men that have held the position of Green Lantern.
In August of 2014, Marvel made headlines when they announced that the new person to wield Mjolnir and take on the title of Thor would be a woman. They even made it explicitly clear that she would be THE Thor, not a female counterpart or temporary position holder. There was a largely hateful reaction from the community. Despite, or maybe because of, this there has been over a 30 percent increase in issues sold over her male counterpart.
The largest part of the constant change and uncertainty in the industry is the multiverse. Earlier, when discussing Kitty Pryde, I mentioned Marvel’s Ultimate universe. There are many, many continuities. For example, there are 297 variations of Wolverine across all media. Now, to be fair, the vast majority exist as part of one shots and the What If? series consisting of hypothetical scenarios. However, there are still several strong continuities that have conflicting information about his real name, age, even his status of being alive.
DC and Marvel have both dealt with many of these problems crossing over with large scale crossover events. Currently, DC is winding up its Convergence story arch that ties up the universe after introducing the last major paradigm change. Marvel is in the beginning phase of their massive event, Secret Wars, that seeks to meld the array of alternate universes into a single universe. Fans are generally in favor of these events as they mix up scenarios and provide new story arcs.
Yes, there is sexism
Now, there are many sexist problems concerning female superheroes. However, one of the key points in their favor is character. Comics in general have a very wide cast of female characters with unique personalities and backstories. They regularly pass the Bechdel Test and avoid the Smurfette Principle. This is a more modern change as there was a time when Wonder Woman, someone who can stand toe to toe against any of the members of the Justice League, was forced to be their secretary because that’s what ladies did.
One of the more common complaints is against the bodies of these women. In February of 2015, Bulimia.com introduced a series of pictures to show what assorted comic book characters would look like if they had the body of an average American. This was received well and was an interesting experiment.
The vast majority of these characters should be sporting bodies in absolute peak level condition. They are constantly adventuring and engaging in life threatening physical combat. There are no issues of Captain America where he spends a day eating pizza and binge watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. It makes logical sense for them to be adonises.
However, some variation in body type is needed. Female bodies are largely the same. Long legs, small waist, and large breasts. Many of the females could not be distinguished by their silhouettes alone, all fitting a single template. Some variation in heights as well as differentiation to basic endo/ecto/mesomorph categories could solve a portion of this problem.
The other portion of the bodies that needs attention is posing. In each frame, the characters are positioned in action oriented positions, sometimes engaged in battle. When standing in a room, they will invariably have a hand on their rocked hips, holding a runway pose. There are very often impossible poses. Not to mention the agressively arched backs thrusting the busom forward.
A cover for an issue of Spider-Woman was announced that was immediately drawing controversy for its sexual nature, but also for how the position was physically impossible for a human body. There was even response from Matthew Inman showing some equal treatment for Spiderman. The cover was eventually released to the public with the minor change of covering her backside with the Spider-Woman title.
The most notable artist to feature regular depictions of all characters, especially females, positioned in impossible poses was Rob Liefeld. His male characters were always impossibly muscled while his female characters would be bent and twisted in such a way as to show both breasts and butts.
Characters not dressed for success
Costume is the area of biggest concern. As a primarily visual medium, it is the primary way of getting characteristics across. During the golden and silver age, the quality of printing was considerably poor. This forced artists to work in simple color patterns with symbols. Mostly seeking to identify a character among similar shaped people.
But the creators also had their own code to hold themselves against called the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Many stores would not stock books that did not contain the CCA stamp of approval. Despite blocking things like zombies, werewolves, and vampires, the code kept sexual content out of books as well as gruesome violence. One line of the CCA is one that could stand to be brought back in as a standard, “Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.”
Due to advertisers no longer committing their dollars to comics featuring the stamp, all publishers have since abandoned the CCA. With an audience having grown in age and maturity, they wanted to be able to cater to those audiences as well. As a result of that, publishers began instituting their own ratings systems to make readers aware of the type of content held within.
These changes gave way to what is considered the modern age of comics running from the late 80’s through today. This lead to a great deal of change in content and costumes. You would see far more exposed skin and exaggerated physicality. Bright, vibrant colors became way more common along with purposeless straps, pouches, and shoulder pads. The most insulting item of clothing is high heels. There is no reasonable explanation for engaging in battle in stilettos. Artists were set loose creating much of what is both some of the best, most iconic works in the medium’s history as well as bringing out most of the worst aspects.
The industry has been doing a very commendable job of self censoring and taking steps to making the work more generally accessible and politically correct. Costumes have been mixing some of the traditional aspects with the added layer of functionality. For example, Madelyne Pryor’s underboob laden costume is incredibly impractical. Imagine the amount of tape needed to keep that in place.
These steps have also been fed by a tonal shift in American pop culture towards a dark, gritty tone and overall public acceptance of racial and gender mixes. A new character took over the mantle of Ms. Marvel, teenage outcast of Pakistani descent, Kamala Khan. Her story somewhat mirrors that of Spiderman. She has her own set of powers and problems and has been accepted strongly by fans.
The largest obstacle standing in the way of making positive meaningful changes are the old guard of fans. Not all of them, mind you, but the vocal objectors. They can find the changes to be scary. Scary in the way that this thing they have enjoyed for so long could be irrevocably destroyed. They can also have trouble accepting others coming in to this world after having been ridiculed for being a fan in the first place. Most of their arguments against changes in costume, character, or casting rely heavily on how things were. The CCA dictated that females were typically mostly covered with minimal cleavage and almost no focus on the buttocks.
Things are getting better
One of the key things to keep in mind with comics is that it has been a very progressive industry. The struggles of the X-Men have long mirrored those of the LBGTQ community, battling for fair treatment and equality. There has been regular changes to characters to make them less overwhelmingly white. Ms Marvel being muslim. Black hispanic teenager Miles Morales taking up the mantle of Spiderman. Nick Fury changing into Samuel Jackson. There is even a fantastic subplot in the Ultimate X-Men comics where Nightcrawler, a blue mutant who has been discriminated against for looking how he does, displays disgust for the openly homosexual Colossus, claiming he is destined for hell.
Geek culture has experienced a massive boom the last ten years, meaning a large influx of fans and artists into the comic industry. New polls indicate that over 40 percent of readers are now female. Meaning the industry has been moving towards mass appeal. With these larger audiences there has also been an increase of indie artists and publishers able to tell far more unique and niche stories.
The industry is taking a lesson for the heroes themselves. There is a long history of fairness and equality in comics. Fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Be a hero to those who have been put upon. Give them a champion. And while there are and have been social problems littered throughout comics history, it is an accepting and socially progressive industry and will do the right thing.