This is an article I never felt I was going to write, but with more and more scrutiny coming on the comic book medium recently with its portrayal of women- now feels like the time to address this as a long time comic book fan- or at least to share my thoughts on this.
The representation of women in society and all forms of media has changed massively since I was a child, women are more equal within society (as they should be) and are better represented in terms of being strong lead characters in all forms of media rather than the standard damsel in distress that needs saving response. However not all of the changes within media are positive- we still see women represented as eye candy (Michael Bay movies I’m talking about you) or being updated to a more sexy look to draw in a younger male audience. This is almost everywhere- just look at music videos and video game representations of women, and you wont see anyone appropriately dressed to fight (Dead or Alive) or dressed for a music video. But is comic books now falling victim to this move towards sexualising its characters?
The above cover from Milo Manara is really what sparked the massive online debate about whether comic book companies were falling victim to sexualising their characters to attract a younger male audience instead of building strong female characters. But this isnt the only cover to come under fire- we recently saw a cover of Riri Williams, the new Iron Man who’s a 15year old girl, in a very overly sexualised pose for someone of her proposed age. Then there was the image of the Joker with Batgirl that implied sexual violence towards women, and all of these covers were pulled from commercial release by the relevant companies. But does having to pull covers mean there’s an issue? Well this isn’t really an easy one to answer, but the covers themselves don’t really hint at the issue, yes some of them were poorly thought out or drawn with weird proportions but this doesn’t mean the medium is tainted.
Theres also an argument that the covers have seen a double standard- if we use the SpiderWomen cover shown above and compare this to a Spider-Man cover (seen below) it becomes clear that the body posture- and the enlarged emphasis on the bum- is exactly the same but there were no issues with the cover portraying a male! So why is this? Is it simply that males are viewed differently within society and the bum of Spider-Man wouldnt be a sexual image to attract women- or is it simply that as society we are now focusing on making images of females less sexual due to the huge boom in sexual imagery.
As you can see above the postures are identical- so why is one appropriate and received no complaints but the other got banned? While I agree with the recent image of Riri Williams being a little close to the line, the Spider-Women cover didn’t bother me at all as there are far worse images of women on music television at midday that are aimed at younger children- and there’s the bigger issue. However comic books aren’t even blame free for the over sexualisation of their characters in film and television- Suicide Squads Harley Quinn is the most recent example and possible the worst case of a company adding an overly sexy feel to a character to sell tickets!
The image at the top is how I love my Harley Quinn, and when I think of her I think; madness, violence, Mr J and unpredictability. Shes a tortured soul, who has been mentally and physically abused for years by the man she loves (this is in no way reciprocated, he simple sees her as his possession) but is still strong enough to carry on and continue to fight. However in recent years there has been a slow but very obvious change with Harley Quinn from how she was to how she is seen now. Over time she has been losing some of the tortured soul image and being built as a strong an independent women- who is almost an equal in her relationship with Joker and this I honestly have no problem with an think its a logical move for the character given the length of time shes been around. However DC have also made one of the most obvious attempts at sexualising a character that has happened in comic books!
Yes that is an image recently used by DC comics- and its a stark contrast to how I love Harley Quinn. This is a blatant attempt to sexy up her character and draw in a younger male audience as was her character in the recent Suicide movie and the ‘undressing scenes’ as it all feels too much for a comic book. While this isn’t the normal look for her character- the attire isn’t too far off what she is normally seen wearing in the pages of her titles now! And if I’m being honest I no longer enjoy stories were Harley Quinn is the lead as their is too much emphasis on the sexual appearance of the character and her sexualised behaviour towards team mates. It feels like a new generation wont know Harley Quinn they way I do and love her for it, but will simply respond with ‘Shes so hot’ as my students do now- and this worried me. While I’m all for writers and companies telling the stories they desire this is one move that has been way too much for me, and is ruining the character.
Harley Quinn isn’t the only one however both Wonder Woman and She Hulk have seen there attires become so skimpy in recent years that there is no way there practical to wear while fighting super powered villains. However these characters haven’t changed at their core and it feels more acceptable due to this, but there are titles and series where characters have changed (I’m not talking Sex Criminals as you get what it says there!) and for the most part I personally feel these titles have suffered as have the characters in question.
But its not all doom and gloom for the female superhero- there are cases where things have been done very well and handled brilliantly, for example the new Spider-Women series sees her balancing being a mother with being a superhero brilliantly, the new Thor is brilliantly handled, Kamala Khan has been a superb addition to the Marvel Universe and Harrow County has done brilliantly with a troubled and powered teenager as has Deadly Class. DC have even launched ‘DC Super Hero Grils’ that aims at a younger female audience, and does brilliantly with its representation of women as strong and independent characters in great stories, so much so that my daughter is hooked and I couldn’t be happier! So while there are clear examples of characters suffering on the whole the medium is probably handling women better than it has since the 90’s where artwork took a turn for the beyond curvy approach.
Over sexualisation is an issue with all media in society- but for the most part comic books have managed to stray away from this and have made more and more strong female lead characters that stand up as equals to others. However where it has occurred to certain characters, it really has been a fast downward fall for them and is ruining there stories and credibility but on the whole for now the comic book medium is booking the obvious trend to appeal to younger audiences with sexy images and is still all the better for it. Long may the story telling and characterisation keep the lead and all other aspects come second in my opinion.