A Woman on Women in Comics

My mom sits in the car next to me. I know that the time has come. The time to come clean. I’ve thought about this long and hard and I’ve come to a conclusion: The lying and the hiding have to end. The strange packages in my room demand an explanation. My tongue feels stiff and my palms are sweating. This is the woman who raised me, she loves me no matter what happens, I keep telling myself. “Mom”. Her head turns and I know I just need to spill it out. “Mom. I’m a comic book fan”

It all started with The Phantom, like so many stories do (they don’t? Odd.). My big brother was a hardcore Phantom fan, he even belonged to the Phantom pen pals club. He kept his comics in neat files in chronological order (a habit I’ll probably never tackle). One time he wasn’t around so I took some magazines and started flipping through them. Before that I had only read Donald Duck and some Garfield, which both I liked, but not as much as those Phantoms! The pages were full of action, gorgeous women and handsome muscular men punching bad guys with sounds like “Pow!”

I kept my new interest to myself, but soon it became out of control: I realized that you could actually buy magazines, which were twice as cool as the Phantoms. I dived into the world of X-Men and Batman faster than Quicksilver travels to Rome and back. As a teenager I started to seriously accrete my very own comic collection with classic Batman graphic novels and other series I liked. Although from the very beginning I liked all kinds of comics, such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis books, I never really got over the whole superhero comic genre.

There’s something wonderful about a world where there’s ultimate justice, which can solve big and scary problems; where ordinary people get super strong because something bites them or they are born with the right genes; where puberty could bring you other cool powers, not only the power to grow huge zits on the top of your nose.

However, from the very beginning of my superhero fanhood, I realized something: The female characters were portrayed in a very different way than the male ones. Their appearances, attitudes and portrayal were different. When talking about superhero comics, I speak mostly about the Batman/DC universe and the Marvel Universe heroes. I’ve followed these magazines in Finnish and collected graphic novels from abroad for many many years now. So even though these are only the opinions of one comic book fangirl, at least she has some experience with her subject matter.

First thing anyone reading superhero comics notices about the women in them is that they are portrayed…the same way. When flipping through my magazines over the years it’s noticeable that their bodies are exactly the same: tall, big breasts, long hair (it was a scandal when Storm cut her hair, luckily now it’s back to her thighs), narrow waistline, but really big muscular thighs. And not only are their features similar, but so is their whole outline. They actually look like they came out of the same crazy alluring-hottie gingerbread mold.

One could argue that hey, the men are all muscular and big, there’s really no difference. But I disagree: For example when thinking about the Marvel universe and the X-Men, even the main male characters are different: Wolverine is clearly portrayed shorter and stuckier than for example Cyclops. Iceman is way thinner than both of them and the beloved Beast is much chunkier than the rest of his team. Even obesity is reserved for male characters: In the X-Men there’s a permanent character, Blob (even though he’s a villain), who is obese. I remember one obese female character from the series some years ago but she was killed in a shooting something like two pages after her introduction.

Another trend in the X-Men is that radical mutations only appear in the male characters. In a storyline published in Finland around 2004, a fly girl and a chicken boy mate and have children. Other mutants are shocked, because they have no idea how deformed the kids of two radically altered mutant parents will be. They both are referred as radically changed and yeah, the boy, Barnell Bohusk, is covered in feathers, has a beak, wings and two enormous round black eyes. But the girl’s, Angel’s, radical genetic change is the fact that she has beautiful transparent insect wings. Super rad. Oh, and the kids were fine, I think Angel named them after the Jackson Five or something.

A second major noticeable thing about female superheroes are the legendary scarce outfits and the poses that make sure their backs sure as hell hurt in the evenings (try doing the ass and tits pose ten times a day and you understand). The costumes always have their defenders: “But they’re so handy and convenient for their powers! Psylocke must not wear any pants so she can wave her katana in the air freely! No, not even the really tight ones, they would umm.. ruin the… Yeah”. When the male characters need something that’s convenient for their powers, it doesn’t matter what it looks like: the potty in Magneto’s head is the best example.

Also when looking at some classic X-Men couples you can see the difference clearly. While Cyclops has pants and a shirt, Emma Frost has something on her that cannot stay up without superglue. Polaris has some kind of green swimsuit with holes on her while her partner Havok has an overall. Black Panther has an overall and a matching mask but Storm doesn’t need pants. You would think that a friggin queen could afford some pants and not only a black swimsuit/disco aerobic outfit!

And don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong in being sexy, it’s just that comics keep telling us that there’s only one kind of sexiness. The one with swimsuits and ass ant tits pose.

Not only are the female characters similar outside, they resemble each other inside too. The classic villain scheme for male villains from Brain to Magneto has always been world domination. For female villains the interests and motivations are a little different. The worst female character to rock the Marvel universe in years was Scarlet Witch gone bad. And her motivations? She used her magic to get pregnant and give birth to two sons, but the other mutants tried to tell her they weren’t real. She also got really pissed off with her dad, Magneto. So the reasons for her to kill her husband and close friends and to turn the world upside down is…daddy issues.

So what is the effect of portraying female characters always the same way? Nothing less than that they lose a part of their personality in the process. When the most important thing for women characters is looking pretty and sexy at all times and their actions circle around it, this leads to a point where their characteristics cannot be advanced very far and they become only objects (the case with Wonder Woman) or disposable. The latter generates new kinds of phenomena, such as the “Women in refrigerators”.

Because my Phoenix telepathic skills still need some practicing, I cannot tell you exactly why this is the comic reality, I can just guess and deduce. One classical, not so original, guess is that all the cartoonists and readers are men. Well, for obvious reasons that ain’t the truth, but there’s a seed of truth on the top of that strawberry. Many superhero comics seem to be marketed for men. Maybe there isn’t enough faith that female readers are interested in heroes too. Here’s a crazy thought for you: maybe if the reputation of superhero comics wouldn’t be all that ass and titties stuffed in leather, the magazines would catch more girl fans. Just a thought.

In addition one could imagine a much grimmer reason behind all this. Maybe all of this comes from the fact that in our society, women cannot have great plans to rule the world and the most important thing is to take care of your precious womb. Maybe the cartoonists think that female characters don’t deserve more characteristics, they’re fine as puppets and objects.

Naww. Just that I don’t lose my good night sleeps, I’m going with the reason that drawers cannot draw proper women and should do some anatomical studies (no, the breasts cannot be bigger than her head and the hips and shoulder are approximately the same width).

So, after reading these comics and observing the issues above, why do I still read them? Many have asked how I can call myself a feminist and still read all that crap with those ladies whose ultimate power seems to be bending their backs into unnatural positions while making a duckface? Well, because often the plots are actually pretty good, you get attached to the characters (no matter how shallow sometimes) and luckily, this industry has showed me that there still are drawers who master the art of drawing women beyond beauteous orbs and writers who appreciate the women enough to give them proper motivations and roles in the storylines. In the X-Men saga going on at the moment in the Finnish X-Men the main characters name is Hope, maybe she’s a sign.

(You might be wondering, what happened with my ma? In the end, she still cooks when I come over, so I take it that she still loves me. I even let her get used to the idea of her daughter being a comic geek before telling her about my dinosaur obsess-- hobby.)

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