WOMEN IN COMICS
CELEBRATE THE RISE OF EQUALITY IN COMICS
At last, Wonder Woman has her own blockbuster film, and it only took seven and a half decades!
You read that right. It’s been over 75 years since the 1941 debut of everyone’s favourite Amazon in AllStar Comics #8. Since then, Wonder Woman has starred in her own long-running comic, been the centre of a beloved TV show, had her face printed on everything from kids’ pyjamas to an exclusive limited makeup range at MAC, been appointed as an honourary UN Ambassador, and become perhaps the bestknown female superhero in Western pop culture. Yet 2017 is her first big-screen outing as a solo superhero; compare that to Batman, who’s been headlining films since 1943, or Superman, whose cinema career spans a period of almost 70 years. So why wasn’t Wonder Woman considered filmworthy until now? The answer to this question lies in a problem that’s plagued superhero comics for quite some time: women in comics almost never get the respect they deserve, whether on the page or behind the scenes. And while gender representation in comics is distinctly better than it used to be, we still have a long way to go. Wonder Woman is, in fact, an excellent example of how these issues play out. Her genesis is credited to author William Moulton Marston and artist HG Peter, who introduced the character in All-Star Comics #8 (1941). The concept for Wonder Woman was rooted in Marston’s belief that women were superior to men due to being more naturally inclined toward “loving submission”, and that a female superhero would enforce justice by encouraging others to follow similar ideology. To push this concept further, the character was situated in an all-women society of Amazons on the utopia named Paradise Island. Marston and Peter could therefore present their new character as a feminine alternative to the aggressive male heroes of competing comics; by the time All-Star Comics #8 rolled around, Batman had already racked up several kills in his own strips, which included pushing a criminal into a vat of acid and hanging a man from the Batplane. In contrast, Wonder Woman often conquered her enemies not by punching them in the face, but by teaching them about the power of submission and love. It helped that Peter drew her as a sort of patriotic neoHellenic glamour girl with perfect curls and mascaraheavy eyelashes, because peace is easier to stomach when preached by someone conventionally attractive.
Nevertheless, Wonder Woman managed to defeat a whole slew of enemies ranging from Nazi masterminds to evil misogynistic scientists to members of the GrecoRoman pantheons, via powers that came from a 100 per cent female society. She also joined the Justice Society of America, because why not. Not too shabby for a woman in comics during the 1940s.
Unfortunately, she had many more gender equality battles left to fight. For one thing, since she was the only woman in the Justice Society, she ended up working as their secretary. Then there
so why wasn’t wonder woman considered filmworthy until now?
was her secret weakness, namely that her Amazonian powers disappeared whenever a male opponent chained her bracelets together. (Did we mention yet that Marston was a bondage enthusiast?) The idea that all it takes to stop a powerful goddess is a man and a strategically attached chain doesn’t jibe well with the claim that Wonder Woman was meant to promote female supremacy.
During Marston and Peter’s time on the comic, readers were also treated to numerous scenes of Wonder Woman chained up or binding other women. While many of these scenes were presented as playful, they still raised questions about Marston’s motives. Maybe he was trying to shed light on themes of consensual kink so that it could be seen as healthy, or maybe he wanted to see drawings of women in sexualised situations.
Then there’s the issue of who actually created
Wonder Woman in the first place. Although it’s fairly undisputed that Marston did the scripting and Peter did the art, several sources – including a 1992 article in the New York Times – state that Marston’s wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, was the one who told her husband that his new superhero should be female. In other words, the Western world’s most famous superheroine owes her gender to a woman who was never officially credited in any comics, cartoons, or merchandise, or even by Marston himself. It seems that female supremacy was easier to write as fantasy than it was to put into practice.
Despite these marked flaws, Wonder Woman’s
popularity paved the way for numerous female heroes and villains in subsequent years. These women were not content to sit back and take meeting minutes for the Flash; they were on the front lines battling evil, fuelled by a new independence that stemmed from the burgeoning feminist movement. In The Fantastic
Four, Sue Storm, also known as the Invisible Girl (later the Invisible Woman), wore the same blue jumpsuit as her male teammates and fought monsters with them. Jean Grey, who started out as the superhero Marvel Girl, deployed her telekinetic powers alongside her fellow X-Men to help protect the innocent. Comics also acquired new female variations on existing male heroes. For instance, Batman books had Batgirl, who was first introduced as Robin’s love interest Betty Kane before getting rebooted as Barbara Gordon, Gotham City’s head librarian and the daughter of the city’s police commissioner.
On the other side of the law, there were characters like Catwoman, an elite thief who carried a whip and tended towards wearing thighhigh slit skirts, or, in more modern iterations, tight black leather. There was Poison Ivy, a femme fatale with a plant theme whose kisses were literally toxic. Women began appearing across superhero comics as villainous assassins, martial artists, telepaths and magic adepts who could snap spines without blinking or could manipulate the fabric of reality itself.
It should be noted here that while these women varied greatly in terms of their powers, costumes and so on, a particular racial uniformity persisted – ie most of them were white. The few superwomen of colour who graced comic book pages included characters like ex-detective Misty Knight, a black woman who sported a bionic arm and a gorgeous Afro, and Mantis, a martial artist/ former prostitute/“Celestial Madonna” from Vietnam. If you catch a whiff of stereotyping in the air, you’re not alone.
At any rate, no amount of superheroism or supervillainy on the page could stop these women’s greatest foe: the need for portrayals of female power to avoid threatening maledominated social structures. One way of negotiating this was to objectify comic book women as much as possible. Sure, they could kill you with their mind or lift trucks over their head one-handed, but what really mattered was T&A. Costumes became a competition to show off the most skin without getting arrested for indecent exposure. Take Poison Ivy, who started out in a leafy leotard and progressed to being practically naked; Star Sapphire from Green Lantern, whose costume left almost the entire front of her torso exposed; or Harley Quinn, who used to wear a commedia dell’artestyle harlequin outfit but in the end had to get her assets out for the lads like the rest of her colleagues.
These poor women were also frequently drawn in poses ranging from unnatural to anatomically impossible that further portrayed them as sex objects. Granted, perhaps some superpowers cause women to develop 360-degree spinal flexibility so their breasts and bums can be on maximum panoramic display at all times.
It has to be that. Otherwise it’s just ridiculous and sexist.
To be fair, the problem didn’t wholly lie with poses and costumes. Sometimes the body being contorted into yet another “sexy” pose or squeezed into an outfit smaller than a postage stamp had proportions so exaggerated that any attempt at realistic stances and costuming would have been futile. The 1990s was especially bad for this; 44HHH chests atop waists so tiny they left no room for internal organs were standard female physiques. Such
aesthetics sent the message that women in comics didn’t need to look like individual humans. Better they should look like dolls, subject to their owners’ whims.
Preposterous clothing and figures were just the tip of the problematic iceberg, however. There was a deeper issue at work concerning the fear of women’s agency over their own bodies. After all, what exemplifies female bodily autonomy more than a woman with superhuman abilities? Clearly these formidable women had to be kept in their place somehow, and it turned out the easiest way to do that was to depict female power and sexuality as evil.
Thus superheroines who turned to the dark side got more revealing outfits to illustrate their lack of morals. When Madelyne Pryor, a clone of Jean Grey who was married to Cyclops, became the demon-manipulating Goblin Queen, she ditched her comfy shirts and sensible jeans for what can only be described as an underboob top and a loincloth, plus black thigh high boots.
Likewise, when Sue Storm briefly became the villain Malice, Mistress of Hate, she ditched the bright full-body jumpsuit for a skimpy black number that was basically a bikini with a long cloth drape at the bottom, a black hood covered in spikes, and a spiked collar. And thigh boots, naturally. The whole ensemble was very S&M chic.
Significantly, as the Goblin Queen and Malice, Madelyne and Sue didn’t just acquire new stylists – they also grew more powerful. Before turning to evil, Madelyne had no powers except for a short stint as a healer, thanks to Loki granting average folks a taste of superhumanity through magic. As the Goblin Queen, she could control minds and transform people into demons. Although Sue could already turn invisible and generate force fields, as Malice she learned to use these powers aggressively, creating unseen weapons from her force fields to carve up her enemies. Wanting to gain power is evil if you’re a woman, dear readers. That’s why Madelyne and Sue had to wear dominatrix gear; it’s the same reason why Catwoman carries a whip and wears black leather. Only bad women want to be in control, whether sexually, mentally, or in any other way.
And if we’re talking about the evils of female power in comics, we can’t forget the Dark Phoenix Saga, where Jean Grey developed cosmiclevel powers and murdered a planet as a result. It all kicked off when Jean bonded with the Phoenix, a manifestation of the universe’s prime life force, which gave her
tHE WHOLE ENSEMBLE WAS VERY S&M CHIC
Left: Power Girl is a prime example of how women’s superhero outfits aren’t practical and focus on ample bosoms Above: Witchblade barely coves the nipples with her skimpy non-outfit Below: Madelyne Pryor gets a loin cloth and thigh-highs but very little else...
Above: Originally, all a man had to do to defeat Wonder Woman was chain her wrists together Top: Wonder Woman’s first appearance in All-Star Comics #8 Right: For a long time, Wonder Woman was the only female in the JLA
Above: Sue Storm, or Invisible Woman, originally had the same masculine costume as her male team mates
Right: When Batgirl was introduced she was Robin’s love interest Betty Kane before being reinvented as Barbara Gordon
Top: More often than not, female counterparts to male heroes or villains will have the skimpiest of impractical outfits Above-middle: Often female characters are portrayed in rather uncomfortable positions Above: She-Hulk is a main perpetrator of women being sensationalised in art Above-right: Catwoman is often guilty of displaying a lack of spine for her breasts and bum to always be on show
Above: For a brief time Sue Storm became Malice, Mistress of Hate and her outfit was very S&M Left: Female characters have continued to have perpetual ‘broken back’ syndrome Below: The Hawkeye Initiative was created to show the injustice in presentation, here a clear example of men vs women