by Luke Healy
The depiction of women in comic books has been a controversial topic for decades. From the Lois Lane comics of the 1960s; where her greatest enemies included weight-gain and ageing; to the playboy-esque characters prominent in the 1980s, comic books have often been accused of misogyny, and the objectification of women.
But are things now worse than ever? The internet at large seems to think so.
DC comics, one of the world’s largest comic book publishers, recently began to reboot its long running comic book series. All of the series published by DC, including ones that have been running for over 70 years were “reset” to issue 1. DC saw this as an opportunity to make changes to some of their existing characters.
Only days after the reboot began, an article by Laura Hudson; the editor in chief of Comics Alliance; entitled “The Big Sexy Problem with female super-heroes, and their ‘liberated sexuality'”; began to receive massive attention online.
In the article, Hudson heavily criticised the depiction of women in DC’s new titles. She accused DC of depicting some of their most popular female heroes as nothing more than ‘dead eyed porn stars’. She also accused DC of writing exclusively for straight male readers, dressing their female characters in underwear, and putting them into suggestive poses, while their male counterparts wore armour, and got busy saving the world.
The treatment of several characters in particular is receiving much negative attention. Voodoo has been altered in the re-launch and now works as a stripper. Starfire, a character who’s powers once came from her emotions, is now an emotionless nymphomaniac. And Catwoman has gone from fighting crime in a full cat suit, to fighting crime with her bra exposed.
The changes to the heroine Starfire have come under particularly heavy criticism, as between 2003 and 2006, a teenage version of the character starred in an animated children’s television show. Another article that has been widely shared online in the wake of the DC reboot includes an interview with a 7 year old fan of the show. She reacts to the new Starfire by saying that she makes her uncomfortable, and while “…grown ups can wear whatever they want… she’s not doing anything but wearing a tiny bikini to get attention.”
Aaron Diaz, creator of the independent comic Dresden Codak, received a great show of support, when he posted his own versions of the DC redesigns on the bogging site Tumblr. According to Diaz, he posted the redesigns in response to the “terribly ineffective” handing of the DC reboot. He again criticised the Starfire redesign saying “I get that the character is supposed to be sexually liberated, and somewhat polyamorous, but dressing like a John Carpenter’s Princess of Mars themed stripper just doesn’t cut it”.
Diaz’s blog posts regarding the DC reboot have been shared over 16,000 times.
Many comic artists and cartoonists have publicly spoken out against the way female super heroes are being presented.
Kieron Gillan, a writer on Marvel comics’ Uncanny Xmen series said “if you are treating women like objects, rather than like characters, then you are in fact objectifying them. Male Characters, despite the similarly unlikely physique, are simply not objectified in the same way female characters are”.
And it is not just other creators and journalists that are voicing concern over this issue, but the fans and readers themselves.
At San Diego comic-con, women brought this issue to DC artists and writers during public Q&A style panels. When these women brought up issues relating to gender inequality in comics, they were heckled and booed by the audience. The responses from the panel were described by blogger Laura Sheddon, as “flippant at best” and “a PR disaster”.
Many believe the reason for such a large backlash is the fact that DC comics had promised that the reboot would lead to a “more modern and diverse DC universe”.
A survey in 2011 showed that 25% of American comic book readers are women.
While the focus right now is on the poor examples of women in comics, those critical of DC’s reboot have also been quick to point out that there are examples of well written female characters out there too.
Cartoonist Jess Fink told Comics Alliance “When people talk about this issue they use the word “comics” to refer only to super-hero comics and it kind of gets under my skin. There are so many amazing indie comics out there that treat female characters the way they should be treated.”
Indeed independent comics have been increasing in popularity in recent times. Film adaptions of independent comics Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and Cowboys and Aliens, have all appeared over the last two years.
Still, calls for more female writers in the industry have been loud, with many fans pointing out that only one woman is writing on any of DC’s 52 new titles.