Sexism in Comics

The spectrum of sexism in American Graphic Novels.

Let me start off by saying that, as a man, I am remarkably feminist. I am not, how ever, a perfect feminist. I don’t believe that things which involve women and men are generally sexist. I think mostly that sexism is something measured on a scale rather than as an either or, but for the most part, I think men are just inconsiderate of the female perspective on issues, not that they (we, really) are anti woman, but just ignorant of the struggle that faces most women.

I once read a feminist text book that, in one portion, said that opening doors for a woman is sexist because it mocks the woman’s social standing and also implies that she is weak. I think this is overly aggressive. I open doors for everybody, male or female, because it is the polite thing to do.

That being said, the rest of this is me bitching about blatant sexism in comics. Like I said, tough, sexism is on a scale not an either/or. Sexism can be found in pretty much any context, even when the writer or artist is a woman, simply because it is an example of other works that may be harmful to the political atmosphere, the social atmosphere or the religious atmosphere and how those atmospheres effect women.

After I list a few examples, I will talk about ways to overcome the sexist stereotypes and how to make a story better for women readers, and also the social, political and spiritual worlds that each of us is a part of.

Extreme Exaggeration of the Female Anatomy

When I first began looking for an artist in the comics field I put up advertisements stating that I wanted well drawn, natural looking women. It was a requirement. Out of the 50 or so pages of submissions I got only one or two of them had bothered with sending submissions of women that had been drawn well and respectfully. The vast majority of submissions were by artist who exploited the female body to try and gain financial profit. I’d asked one artist, who’s work was otherwise extremely well drawn, if he could draw women with breasts sizes that weren’t exaggerated and his reply was that he wasn’t going to compromise his artist vision for profit. Yikes. That is how some people define artistic integrity? Okay, well, he won’t be getting the job from me. The thing that sucks is he is almost certain to get it somewhere else.

What gets me upset about this is when people talk about how men are drawn with just as much exaggeration. I used to be one of these people, to be honest, until I looked at it a little closer. The women’s bodies are almost always identical. If you take women from a specific comic and remove details from her costume that would identify her, you would have no idea who she is. The only differences between women characters are hair style and sometimes one will have a cleft chin. The men have exaggerated bodies, too, but they are varied and reflect the personalities and powers of the hero. Captain America is very different from Spiderman, Wolverine and the Hulk.

Comics are, for the most part, written by heterosexual males, writing about heterosexual males, for heterosexual males. The sexuality is only obvious when it comes to women. The vast majority wear next to nothing most of the time or dress in clothing that emphasize the breasts, buttocks and thighs. A prime example is Power Girl. Her breasts were abnormally large for a teenage girl as Supergirl, but as a grown up Power Girl they are enormous and her costume has a hole cut out to show cleavage.

The thing of it is, though, it isn’t just the breasts being too large or overly exposed. The vast majority of body parts are exaggerated on the women in ways that men simply aren’t. The stomaches are made extremely thing, the thighs are muscular and the heads, hands and feet are smaller than normal.

Recently a woman, Jodi Picoult, was hired to write Wonder Woman and asked DC comics if she could alter Wonder Woman’s costume. One of the things Jodi had wanted to change was a simple addition of shoulder straps. DC said no. I assume they thought that it was vital to the character profile that she not have shoulder straps.

After Jodi’s short run on Wonder Woman, DC comics hired Gail Simone to replace her. Gail argues that the fact that Wonder Woman makes the eyes pop out of your head is what makes her special. Gail Simone once stated on a message board I frequent, that she believes the fact that Wonder Woman is a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman is what makes her a feminist icon.

Women In Refrigerator

Gail Simone has a history of fighting to improve the standard treatment of women in comics. She once wrote about how women in comics tended to be little more than plot devices. Women are mostly used as a way to motivate the hero and are often killed in horrible ways, like, being chopped up and left in the Green Lanterns fridge. Yucky. Creepy. It seems that, extremely often, female characters are killed or abused in bizarre ways. This is something I understand and am repulsed by at the same time. I understand wanting to make the girlfriend of the hero the victim because it creates an immediate need for the hero to do something. However, at the same time, it is a damn shame that the stories default setting is girl in trouble and guy saves her.

As I posted on Jennifer De Guzeman’s blog, I believe there are times when a character needs to be misogynistic, in order to express how bad that can be, you sometimes these really bad people have to do something really nasty to women. What we really need though is for a truer to life balance. When women can be intelligent, strong, well written characters and you have a blatant sexist in the story, fine, but when it is rehashed garbage that is simply written to perpetuate a story of girl in trouble and guy saves her, well, then you just suck at writing or an obviously only think of women in terms of weak and defenseless. In other words, you lose.

To learn more about the Women In Refrigerator syndrome of the comics world, please visit the Women In Refrigerator website.

Pin Ups

Okay, I understand the women in comics are sexualized beings from the get go(see the first portion), but why are Pin Ups almost always copied from pornography? Is there really a need to see Catwoman take off her clothing, in a full colored two page splash, when her clothing is so skin tight that we can see the excellently researched muscle patterns? No, it isn’t necessary. There are times when nudity and sexual expression are appropriate, but this goes far beyond that. It is tasteless and disrespectful to the serious art and story telling that is taking place, often in the same comic.

1/3rd the Population

On average, the female population of the comic book world is less than 1/3 of the overall population. Why is it that we can write men to fill in all of the little blanks, like say the bank teller when Clark and Lois go to try and cash his first pay check, or the mechanic who fixes the batmobile, or a doctor who operates on Tony Stark, why are they always men?

Secondary characters are an important part of story telling, they can be used to be the victims in a superhero tale, and furthermore can be seen as simply a blank slate in any given situation. An example would be, say, in the Punisher. Let’s pretend that Frank Castle is out shooting bad guys or what ever. Now, there are a number of stories in this simple example, but why not write one from the perspective of a woman who happens to see him?

And please, if you write something like this, don’t make it all about her kids. Women don’t have to be moms. Variety is the spice of life. Women can be anything.

Fully Defined

Women should be written the same way the men are. They should be written with the intent of telling a story about how people act and we as writers need to look past our own perspective. If you are a 20 year old male and are writing your first comic, think to yourself about how your actions will define the story later on. Are all the sketches of your male characters vivid and full of life? Probably not, but compare them to the female characters. Don’t think of female characters as a place to draw what you find attractive but rather draw the women you think would best aide the story. Write about people who are flawed and yet honest representations of women you know.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Women do not need to be any of the following types of characters. They can be. And sometimes that particular role NEEDS to be a woman, but if you are writing a woman please think of her as a human before any of the following:

  • Mother
  • Sister
  • Daughter
  • Model
  • Hottie Girlfriend
  • “Girl Next Door”
  • Shrewd Unmarried Professional
  • Prostitute
  • Nurse
  • Victim
  • Popular Girl who Ignores Hero
  • Sexy Girl who is at all times thinking of sex

Each of those is a tired cliche. If you need to write a characters mother for some reason, do so and write her as a person, not as a mother. Get it? No? Let me elaborate.

While women are mothers, daughters, sisters, and so on, they do not think of themselves as this, not primarily. When people think of themselves they do so thinking of themselves as the center of the world. This isn’t meant to be snide or suggest that women are spoiled. All people are self centered. People can give frequently to charity, fight for the rights of the under privileged and will still think of themselves as a complete and undefinable person. When men tend to write male characters, they write them as whole beings with entire personalities all their own. When it comes to female characters, how ever, we find that most men write them either with out personality or as a very tired cliche.

Virgin Mary vs Mary Magdalene

One of the weirdest things about sexism is how obtuse it can be. We’ve discussed the hyper-sexualization of women, but what about making women completely asexual? Women through out history are portrayed in many art forms, even the bible, as either being completely asexual or virginal or the very opposite, a prostitute or an incredibly sexualized woman. Women exist on this spectrum in many ways, shapes and forms.

An example of this is best in Spider-Man. I have a very limited knowledge of Spider-Man, but from what I’ve read the nerdy Peter Parker dates(and eventually marries) mega-hottie Mary Jane Watson. His poor Aunt May, however, never seems to date anybody. In fact, the only times I remember seeing Aunt May take an interest in ANYTHING other than providing for Peter Parker was when it directly related to the story. If Aunt May says that she is going to church, a bad guy attacks the church later in the issue. If she goes to coney island to play skee ball, a bad guy attacks coney island.

Just Who Do These Things Happen To Anyway?

Something that I’ve noticed is that when a woman is attacked or harmed in a comic, her personality, disposition, world view, and sense of self is never altered. She is essentially the same being she was before her super powered boyfriend accidently sent her into a coma.

I’ve watched Superman nearly kill Lois Lane several times and she hugs him afterwards. Superman will feel tons of grief, anger, disillusionment within himself, but Lois remains unchanged. The incident doesn’t even register. The same can be said for many other girlfriends or wives to superheros.

It isn’t just this, when a villain attacks the girlfriend of a super hero, she never leaves the superhero. She never confronts him about her own safety or questions if the relationship is in her best interest. What does she do? Usually she gets kidnaped and rescued, but other than that, she does nothing. Again, women are portrayed as weak. They are portrayed as little more than plot devices and sexual fantasies of bondage and dominance.

How Can We Overcome This?

In the interest of fairness, I’d like to point out that DC comics is branching out and trying to create a market for the girl readers. They are hiring talented writers who have written prose books for young adults and asked them to write stories that young women can relate to. I love these books and I’m a male. I think this will usher in more women writing comics as more might start reading them.

Success comes in a lot of ways and this is just one. Hopefully, eventually, I can stop talking about this stuff.

What can you do? If you write comics, and I hope that you do, you can think about women as more than something you enjoy looking at. Consider their personal goals, ideals, weaknesses and strengths.

Another thing you can do is show the people in your life just how wonderfully written women can be in comics by showing them books that feature strong female characters. There are wonderful comics out there which are on the lower end of the sexist spectrum than what we’ve discussed. Know the individuals interest, first, because everybody has their own taste. Some will gravitate towards wonderful stories like The Sandman while others still towards Persepolis and even still others will love books like One! Hundred! Demons! Or, and this is a long shot, they may like all of them. Show these books to men and women both, because both genders should see women as unique individuals, not as plot devices, sexual fantasies and mothers.

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11 Comments
  1. d-MENTAL
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    Well written my friend… and although I’ve never been bothed by the over exaggeration of comic book charactors physiques, your article has a good point. It’d be refreshing to see a change, with both sexes. One of my favorite comics ever, Rising Star, I believe is the only one I’ve read with SOME normal looking people.

  2. Heli Copter
    Posted April 10, 2009 at 3:50 am

    True that!

    http://girlintherefrigerator.wordpress.com/

  3. stivikivi
    Posted April 16, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    i read it and must say that the changes you wanted to make wouldnt be interesting in a comic for me
    i dont want too see aunt may dating sb. i want to see spiderman swinging around in NY
    there re shure other girls like the “cliches” you pointed out AND THERE RE other BOYS then mentioned in a comic

    not always be the rowdy on school or the whny lil geek or a FATHER

    but it wouldnt be interesting

    so lezz make them interesting
    i dont want to read about a girl or a boy that lives a normal life

    and why do everybody have a issue with good built girls in comic there so many good built boys and i dont care if i dont look like that

    just a few thing i could make up

  4. Posted April 17, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    Stivikivi, the main difference is that the women are regulated to those positions but men are given the option of being ANY kind of profession. It’s also very rare for the women to have personalities, interests or what ever that are different from the context of a story, ie, aunt may never shows interest in anything other than what later becomes involved in spider mans actions.

    I like stories about people living extrodinary and important lives, but that doesn’t mean that all the women need to be some horney 12 year olds sexual fantasy. While mens bodies are exagerated they are not sexualized. The women are drawn by men who have severe psychological problems about women and for people who are severly screwed up in their minds about their attitudes of women. Plus the men have versatility and the women do not.

    Also, men are rarely written into stories as specifically fathers or specifically geeks, or specifically jocks, the personalities of the men dictate how they relate to the world how ever any time a female character is introduced it is usually the relationship that is defined and the woman who comes in under developed.

  5. stivikivi
    Posted April 18, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    k i agree that women are most of the times drawn unrealistic
    but for me its like every other chara then the main chara has no own interest when the dont have to do with the main chara
    i read the comics return to wonderland/beyond wonderland
    i think you wont like them because every women there has big breats but no mention that the main charas are always women and every other chara just life to interect with the main chara and sometimes for a rly lil subplot
    i dont see that just women have no interest in comics

  6. Posted April 23, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    I think a lot of the second and third teir characters have their own interests. Sticking with spiderman, look at flash thompson. Flash is a highschool football star, later joins the army, later becomes an alcoholic as a symptom of post traumatic stress. His name allegedly comes from his football success but has been revealed to also come from a sexual encounter. That is a lot of understory that exists where his female counter part, say felicia harding, doesn’t have. Black cat is a reformed cat burgler, but what else is she interested in? what life experiences does she have that are more about her than spiderman? None.

    I haven’t read those comics, but googling them I find that I doubt I would enjoy them very much.

    I refuse to read comics by zenescope because of the blatant sexism. I was considering writing another article similar to the one we are discussing but only focusing on zenescopes work “Grimm Fairytales” because I was given it as a gift and was appauled. The main characters are women but they are repeatedly sexually assaulted, all they seem interested in are boys and sex and the dialog is next to horrible.

  7. Jezebel1669
    Posted May 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    If you’re talking about Felicia Hardy then originally she started out as a cheerleader but was driven by her father to never be second best and so ended up as a basketball star for the school.

    Later on she followed in his footsteps becoming a catburglar, mainly due to being date raped in her freshman year and training herself in combat skills and athletics in order to get revenge on her now exboyfriend, only to have him killed in a car accident before she had the opportunity to kill him herself.

    In college she studied journalism, planning on becoming a reporter, but with her midnight excursions drawing more attention she eventually changed these plans after uncovering the Kingpin’s activities in New York. Changing her focus to battling the crimelord she began to associate with Spiderman more and more frequently, eventually forming a romantic relationship with him.

    When she developed ‘hex’ powers, which began adversely affecting Peter’s own powers, the two seperated as crime fighting partners, and after uncovering Peter’s secret identity Felicia broke off their romantic relationship too, mainly due to Peter’s need for a ‘civilian’ side to his life.

    During this time Felicia began working as a private investigator, starting up her own company known as Cat’s Eye Investigations, proving that she was not only a formidable combatant but also that she had fienly honed investigative powers as well.

    Due to her negative relationships early in life (her father being a cat burglar himself and her first boyfriend raping her) Felicia prefers to submerge herself in the Black Cat persona, often using it to avoid serious relationships as she did with Spiderman. This extends into her social life with much of her time taken up with investigatiosn and patrolling New York’s rooftops, something which often contributes to her unsuccessful romantic relationships.

    Any questions?

  8. RobertTidwell
    Posted May 15, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    Good posting. I’m not a huge spiderman fan so finding that information wasn’t easy.

    Very little of what you said though comes from any women in her life or of her own interests.

    She was a cheerleader but her father said no, do basketball.

    She became a cat burgler like her father after being raped by her boyfriend.(and since when do women who are raped become crime fighters?)

    In college she studied journalism(yay she has an interest of her own!) and gave that up because she saw that a man was doing something illega and became romantically involved with spiderman.

    I’m going to skip the one about her and peter because while that is about her relationship with the title character it shows she made a decision.

    She becomes a private eye because, I suppose, she needed something to do that readers would enjoy.

    and you sum it up rather nicely that because of her relationships with men she has decided to just be a sluethe. yay her.

    Though, to be honest, I’m happy to see such depth provided to her. (I’m taking your word on it.) I doubt the same could be said for other women, in that franchise or in many others. and I do admit that what you’ve presented is far more depth than I could find so kudos to you.

    But the truth is most comic creators don’t give that much attention to the female characters they write.

  9. David
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    Im a male and I agree that comics do need a change. I think Power girl has became an industry joke ,lets see how big we can make them before someone says anything. I’ve been a a fan of Spiderman my whole life , and Aunt may has dated a lot. She usually dates one of Peters enemies though, of course she was found in bed with JJ Jameson sr. You cant compare the libido of a 23 year old party girl with that of a widowed 80 year old.

  10. Feeonaaa
    Posted September 18, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    I really liked your article. I have read about “Feminist Readings” but it’s fascinating to see it applied to the world of comics.

  11. kitty tooth
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 2:40 am

    Great article… I just wanted to mention some great comics with fantastic female characters… They’re all from smaller publishers though.

    First, Love and Rockets by the Hernandez brothers. Despite the odd sex fiend and the occasional huge boobs and what have you, there is a huge female cast and a huge range of personalities, which is refreshing. Also, every women has a completely unique anatomy, some of which even change over time! People never seem to age or get fat in comics.

    Second is Wet Moon by Ross Campbell. Again, every woman has her own physique, style and personality, and their interactions are very honest.

    Last but in not least in any stretch of the imagination, Tank Girl! The girls physically are pretty standard comic book fare, but they play rough and have their gross moments, and every girl I’ve talked to who has read Tank Girl idolizes her. It’s nice to have a female lead who kicks ass and has to haul her man out of the fire instead of the other way around.

    Also, I just wanted to bring up the X-men, as a study of a series from a big publisher with a lot of female characters. Within the X-men and all the various X titles there are a ton of female characters, and a lot of them have a lot of depth. True, they are drawn to be fit, slim, always with full, perfect breasts and not much clothing, but as characters some of them really rock.

    But the thing is, with such a long and varied history, it really depends on the writer and artist who’s handling them at the time. In the Chris Claremont issues of the late 70s and 80s Storm could be totally naked and not really be sexualized at all, but into the 90s you get panels where Jean has something important to say and you wouldn’t know it from the playboy photo shoot pose she has going on… In other words, the girls are sexualized even when they are just fighting the good fight.

    Food for thought…

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