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Female Superheroes From a Feminist Perspective

Discussion in 'Comic Book Culture' started by Mynd Hed, Nov 30, 2005.

  1. Mynd Hed

    Mynd Hed Holy blue on a popo!

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    My girlfriend-- who has this annoying habit of viewing every bit of pop culture, no matter how miniscule, through a harsh feminist lens-- is always complaining to me that there aren't enough good female superheroes.
    She says that besides Wonder Woman (who has problems of her own), most high-profile female superheroes fall into the category of lame (her word, not mine) "spinoffs" of male superheroes. Ex: Batgirl, Batwoman, Supergirl, Spider-girl, etc. Her perspective is that most female superheroes are there for fanservice.
    I try to give her counterexamples-- there are plenty of great lady mutants in the X titles, for example, including some of the most powerful supers in the Marvel universe-- but she seems unconvinced.
    And it's true, most of the counterexamples I can come up with are sufficiently low-profile that your average non-comic-reading citizen wouldn't have heard of them, making them less-than-useful for the purposes of our discussion (she doesn't read comics, but is decently well-versed in superhero cartoons and movies if only from her long association with my own nerdy self).

    What's your perspective? Is this a real problem, or just in her head? Are there enough empowering lady crimefighters in superhero comics for a discriminating young feminist to choose from? And do those that exist get enough exposure?
     
  2. Sharklady

    Sharklady Active Member

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    Well, I think there are a number of respectable superheroines around these days- ie, women with thoughtfully developed personalities, who can carry a story on their own. Storm would be an example

    But I'd agree there still is a *big* 'fan service' element in comics, as evidenced by the abundance of improbably large 'chest-measurements' and preposterously impractical wardrobes. I do keep wishing some of these comic book artists would try wearing some of those chillingly perforated/ insecurely engineered/ unhealthily tight outfits through one workday, just to experience what they're putting these poor heroines through.
     
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  3. melibell21

    melibell21 She's a marshmallow

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    I'm not one of those feminist/activist types of girls. I think that when superheroes first came out, they kinda had to be male to go with the society of the times. Those same heroes are around today but there are others. They kind of live in their shadow anyways. I mean, wonderwoman is cooler than superboy. starfire's cool too (dont like her outfit----most girls will agree:) the boys definitely wontl:evil:. i like supergirl, all the birds of prey (extremely strong in their own ways) etc

    i think there are plenty of strong women and advancing strong women just for the sake of doing it would be too obvious and in turn provide a weak character. a person's a person, a hero's a hero. i luv em all
     
  4. Sandoz

    Sandoz Thin Man Fan

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    I think there is some truth to what's she saying. After all, the last new superheroine that Marvel heavily marketed and pushed forward was X-23, who is literally a clone of the company's most popular hero.

    The comics industry is now taking a strong interest in garnering a female readership; while that's admirable, they really don't focus on superheroes. There seems to be a general idea that women readers will be pulled in simply with romance or manga-style art (The on-again/off-again series Mary Jane is an example of this, though it's a good book in its own right). For years people have said, "If you want to get a woman to read comics, give them Strangers in Paradise," but I know many women who hate that book and prefer the type of stories told in mainstream superhero books.

    There are strong, empowering female superheroes: Phoenix, Shadowcat, Storm, the Birds of Prey, and the ladies of Runaways are all examples. I could list more positive, well-written female comic book characters (like Agent 355, Christine Spar, Snow White, Death) but they aren't traditional superheroines. But the fact that comics are now, and perhaps always will be, a male-dominated industry means that there will always be scantily-clad, stacked heroines like Shanna the She-Devil or Lady Death on the shelves. I don't think the industry is as bad as it was once in this regard (remember the "style and no substance" theme of the 90s) but some criticism is valid.

    I'm reminded of the short-lived Emma Frost series. It was a book about a popular female heroine and was actually written for an audience of young women, yet most of the covers were cheesecake pinups featuring a hot blonde in hotpants and pasties--never mind that Emma didn't even look or dress like that during the time period in which the series was set.
     
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  5. Duke

    Duke Truer Words Were Never Spoken

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    It's not as if the guys aren't fanservice either. After all, they are all well-built with rock-hard abs that always show through the spandex and almost always look like manly men. It's not quite the same kind of fanservice as in manga, but it's still fanservice.
     
  6. Sandoz

    Sandoz Thin Man Fan

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    The difference is that while women readers can certainly enjoy superheroes as eye candy, buff male heroes really aren't designed for that purpose. Shanna and Lady Death are buxom and barely clothed so that they have sex appeal; Batman and Superman are buff so that they can fill the "hard-muscled action hero" role idealized in American film and fiction, and possibly even serve as wish-fulfillment for some of the male readers.
     
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  7. Duke

    Duke Truer Words Were Never Spoken

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    But there's a difference between being buff and having paper-thin spandex.
     
  8. Mynd Hed

    Mynd Hed Holy blue on a popo!

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    True enough, but any time I bring that up with my lady friend she rattles off "What about the Thing / Beast / Blob / Martian Manhunter etc. etc. etc." And she's got a point-- while as a general rule superheroes are all total beefcakes and babes, it's certainly possible to find more counterexamples on the male side of things than the female.
     
  9. Anthonynotes

    Anthonynotes Active Member

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    An episode of Powerpuff Girls (Equal Fights?) had a new feminist heroine (who, well, turned out to be not-so-heroic by the episode's end) point out the lack of superheroines that aren't female counterparts of pre-existing male heroes (i.e., Supergirl, Batgirl, etc.)---which I assume is what your girlfriend is getting at, Mynd. Maybe mentioning heroines who aren't in the above mold and don't appear mainly as a supporting character in a team (the X-men, JLA, etc.) would help...
     
  10. Binker

    Binker Member

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    My point is that the superheroines now aren't just sidekicks or damsel in distress anymore. They're tough, can handle themselves with no guys next to them. I have no problem, and I'm on her side on the feminist perspective.

    But since the characters themseleves aren't like, what I said as sidekicks or damsels in distress, I see no problem. I mean has any of the male heroes went to the heroines and said "Sorry honey, this guy is too great for you to handle, let me handle him." NO! Because things have changed. And since I don't think there are angry letters from feminists to DC/Marvel/etc about anything on the lack term of female superheroines then I guess everything is fine then.

    Besides, she isn't looking at the big picture. She's just looking at, maybe small amount of comics. How about animes like Sailor Moon? And if she says fan service, keep in mind that the show has elements of space, greek, roman, and japanese themes. The greek and roman elements may remind us of another superheroine who is a icon like...lets say...WONDER WOMAN.
     
  11. Christopher Glennon

    Christopher Glennon Punch Drunk Flounder
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    Aside from Wonder Woman, I'd immediately say The Invisible Woman, Storm, and the Wasp. Yeah, they are all from team books, but each of them has been leader of the team at some point.

    If you could look beyond the copy of male heroes thing, you'll find some great female heroes (and Elektra can't be considered a female Daredevil, right?). Three of my favorite comic books are Spider-Girl, She-Hulk, and Birds of Prey. These women have their own titles and aren't overshadowed by their male counterparts (has The Hulk even appeared in Dan Slott's She-Hulk?). I think She-Hulk is a much cooler character than the Hulk and Barbara Gordon is one of the greatest female comic book characters of all time. She'd serve as a great example since she's Oracle now and hasn't been Batgirl for a while. I also think Black Canary is way underrated. The general public knows who Catwoman is but not Black Canary.

    And I'm with Sandoz, Snow White rules.
     
  12. AdamYJ

    AdamYJ The Saturday Morning Kid

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    The problem is that there are only a very small number of superheroes in general that make it into the consciousness of the mainstream public. Usually, a character has to be at least a borderline icon to make it into the mainstream. That's why we largely see a few female heroes and a fair chunk of them being ones connected to the legacy of a male hero. Characters like Supergirl and Batgirl come as a package deal with Superman and Batman. The truth of the matter is that only a small amount of any hero, male or female, make it to that level. I remember having this same conversation with my mom once and she made the same argument that Wonder Woman was practically the only superheroine out there. I then proceeded to list a whole bunch of X-Men heroines and mom just kind of brushed it off saying "The X-Men have only been around a little while, they don't count." Now, most major X-Women have been around since the '70s, which is a pretty good lifespan in superhero comics. What she meant was that she had only known about them since the '90s when I became an X-Men fan and they didn't make much of a blip on her pop culture radar, so they didn't matter to her. So, the problem isn't necessarily a lack of female heroes as much as it is the belief that just because a heroine hasn't been featured on a lunchbox or can't support their own comic book for decades (a heroic feat for any character) that they don't matter.
     
  13. Ed Liu

    Ed Liu That's 'Cause I ATE IT!!!
    Staff Member Moderator Reporter

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    Howdy,

    This, like AdamYJ's experience with his mom, makes me wonder if the question that's being asked is really the one that she wants the answer to ;).

    As I see it, there are really two questions being asked here: are there sufficient comic book superheroines to satisfy a woman looking for them, and have any of those heroines achieved "iconic" status independent of a male counterpart (or at least broken free of the shadow of the male version of the hero). The former is a requirement for the latter, but the two issues can be considered independent of each other.

    It's always tricky to talk about who's "iconic" or not, but I would agree with AdamYJ and say that not that many comic book superheroes have really achieved the kind of worldwide recognition that Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman have. I do find it interesting that WW is the only one who doesn't have much of an identity past "Lynda Carter," but she's also the one who's gone through the most drastic changes over time. I have no idea whether this is evidence that she is a reflection of the changing roles and perceptions of women over time, she is not as compelling an icon except as "the first successful woman superhero," just plain misused, or a combination of all of the above. That's about all I have for the "iconic" issue, really.

    I would agree that Storm and the Invisible Woman, at the very least, ought to make the cut for satisfactory heroines with identities of their own, and I'd probably add Kitty Pryde to that list as well. If being part of a team diminishes their identity, one could argue that their "team identity" diminishes the men of the team equally. About the only real breakout hero of the X-Men is Wolverine, but I don't think that makes Cyclops, Colossus, or Nightcrawler any less compelling. I really can't see Mr. Fantastic driving a series of his own, and I even have doubts about Dan Slott's Thing.

    I would also agree that the original pair driving Birds of Prey all make the cut as well. I'd say Black Canary achieved that even before BoP, even if people have issues with her victimization during Mike Grell's run on Green Arrow. I would also say that Barbara Gordon achieved independence from Batman once she took on the Oracle identity. The cheesecake of the artwork is still extremely problematic to me, especially after Gail Simone took over the writing, which is still giving feminist comic book fans fits.

    Catwoman is probably the other heroine other than Wonder Woman who is a headliner in her own right, but there are lots of feminists and comic book fans that are upset by her current origins as a prostitute. Elektra is another one who stands on her own. In either case, I'm not quite convinced that either one quite makes the "role model" grade, seeing as one is a thief (admittedly reformed) who still operates in the legal gray areas and the other is an out-and-out assassin.

    She's definitely not iconic, but Zatanna has achieved independence from being Zatara's daughter. For some reason, I think the fact that she's a daughter rather than just a spinoff mitigates her roots in a male character.

    -- Ed/Ace
     
  14. Thad Thawne

    Thad Thawne Banned

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    The "spin-offs" are actual characters no different from Nightwing or Impulse (spin-offs of Batman and Flash respectively.)
     
  15. kid rabbit

    kid rabbit Active Member

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    ironically I see more verily in female super villiens
    with charters like mystique and cheetah harly quinn poison ivy
    and madam masque
     

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