Superheroes and Sexism

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Though many strong arguments exist against the sexist representation of women in comic books, the most immediate of them all may well be the Hawkeye Initiative. Begun in late 2012 by female webcomic artist Noelle Stevenson, the Hawkeye Initiative is a satirical blog comprised of images of Hawkeye aping female comic book characters in “Strong Female Character” poses, which have been criticized as degrading and unrealistic by feminists, comic book fans and members of the artistic community.

The results are, predictably, hilarious. Those of you who are familiar with the comic series, or with Jeremy Renner’s performance of Hawkeye in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, will doubtlessly find humour in seeing the character semi-nude and twisted like a pretzel, often with a set of pursed lips and a seductive come-hither expression.

But the Hawkeye Initiative also successfully sheds light on the oft-degrading depiction of women in comic books: if we find a male character in these poses so ridiculous, why don’t we react the same way when characters like Elektra, Batgirl and She-Hulk are presented the same way? For that matter, where is that Wonder Woman movie that’s been in development hell for decades? And what’s the deal with all the revealing costumes — wouldn’t armour be more practical?

Most comic books remain as exaggeratedly misogynistic as ever.

The natural conclusion that many cite for the myriad issues under the Women in Comics umbrella is that comic books are naturally a male domain, and artists depict women with the male gaze in mind; that is, as objects rather than subjects. Although this may have been the case in the Golden Age of comics, that was more than half a century ago.

Nowadays women form a sizable percentage of the comic book market, and a comparably large chunk of the industry, especially in the realm of “alternative” comics. Writers and artists like Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), Pia Guerra (Y: The Last Man) and Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant) have done incredible work for the comics medium in the last decade alone, and those are just a few of my personal favourites.

Still, many of the biggest names in the medium seem hell-bent on reminding their fans just how old-fashioned their views are. Tony Harris, the artist behind such comics as Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina, took to Facebook last year with a rant about female cosplayers — fans who dress up as fictional characters — which culminated in an all-caps accusation: “YOU DON’T KNOW SHIT ABOUT COMICS, BEYOND WHATEVER GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH YOU DID TO GET REF ON THE MOST MAINSTREAM CHARACTER WITH THE MOST REVEALING COSTUME EVER.”

More recently, Todd McFarlane and Mark Millar — the creators of Spawn and Kick-Ass, respectively — came under fire for their comments about the supposed inherent masculinity of superhero comics, and their use of rape as a plot device. Let’s get this straight right off the bat: superheroes are fictional. It is entirely up to a given author or artist to depict superheroes in any way they choose.

Calling the superhero genre “testosterone driven,” as McFarlane recently did in a panel promoting a PBS documentary, is missing the point. Just because comics have mostly been macho power fantasies in the past doesn’t disqualify their potential to grow and evolve with time. To deny the possibility for change is laziness, plain and simple. If we all thought this way, we’d still be riding horses to work and bloodletting at the barbershop.

Maybe the reason that so many still see the medium as a boy’s club is that many comic series just aren’t very inviting to women as fans. After all, who wants to see their gender constantly objectified, contorted into anatomically impossible poses and depicted as either virginal and innocent or seductive and sexualized? (Google the Madonna/Whore Complex sometime.) Those of you who’ve seen the Fake Geek Girl meme or who’ve spoken with gamers online know that geek culture can be viciously and unapologetically misogynistic — comic creators and fans alike seem obsessed with preserving this reputation.

Nowadays women form a sizeable percentage of the comic book market, and a comparably large chunk of the industry.

Take Millar’s comments on rape as a storytelling tool. In an article for The New Republic earlier this year, Millar defended his use of rape as a plot device, saying, “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? [. . .] It’s the same as, like, decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”

But Millar’s defense hints at the truth of rape as a storytelling tool: its purpose is, more often than not, to have an effect on the male protagonist rather than the female victim. Though several male comic book characters — Batman and Green Arrow among them — have been raped themselves, it’s always been advance their own character arcs, and to develop them as protagonists.

When female characters experience the same fate, it is almost always in the service of the arc of a male character; the victims are often secondary or tertiary figures, and more often than not, little attention is paid to the physical and psychological repercussions of their experience.

The website Women in Refrigerators borrows its name from a particularly gruesome Green Lantern comic in which his girlfriend is killed and stuffed into a refrigerator by his nemesis. Created by comic writer Gail Simone, the site lists female characters who have been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her.” Compiled in 1999, the original list includes over 100 characters.

Of course, these tropes are common in film, television, literature, video games and music videos, too. But where these mediums have seen a steady improvement in their depiction of women, most comic books remain as exaggeratedly misogynistic as ever. And those are the ones that have the audacity to even include female characters; many modern comic books have scarcely any speaking roles for women at all.

Women read comic books, write comic books, and are affected by their portrayals in comic books, directly and indirectly. Heck, a comic book made Time magazine’s list of 100 best novels of the last century (Alan Moore’s Watchmen) — the medium is gaining respectability every year, and rightfully so. For a genre with so much potential, there’s no excuse for the antiquated, sexist portrayals of women that still plague panel after panel. If there’s any hope for a new Golden Age in comics, this would be a good place to start.

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