4 Ways to Tell if Women Comics Characters Are Empowered
It only took one day of full-time graduate work for me to feel that I had made a terrible, terrible mistake. Everyone in my classes seemed to know exactly what they were there for, and many had already published papers or presented at conferences. When I admitted that I wasn’t sure what I would study (yet), I registered barely-concealed shock on their faces. I don’t think I’d ever been so embarrassed in a classroom before.
Over the next couple of years I embarrassed myself a lot more. I proposed and rejected a lot of different potential thesis topics. In the end it took a lot of nerve for me to suggest “Female Representations in Marvel Comics” as a worthwhile focus. I didn’t believe that other academics were interested in comics, but my proposal was approved; I eagerly began analyzing the comic world for good (and bad) representations of women.
Though I still read comics eagerly, the project definitely changed me. It made me think a lot about the types of characters I can idealize, and who I can encourage other women to idealize, too.
In case you don’t feel like writing a graduate thesis, here’s an easy-to-digest list of the four main qualities that I look for when I evaluate the women on our pedestals.
1. I want her to star in her own title.
Did you know that a major technique with female heroes throughout history was to introduce them as love interests or in team settings? Storm was around for literal decades before being considered for a short-term, independent title. Even Greg Pak’s Storm, which was supposed to be ongoing, got cancelled— and that was as recent as 2014.
If there’s one thing evident from the last couple of years of mainstream comics, it’s that publishers are starting to pay attention to the increasing female readership. I just picked up a copy of Gwenpool #1, for instance. I think that speaks for itself.
2. I don’t want her to get drowned out by men.
Even if you haven’t heard of the Bechdel-Wallace* test, you’ve probably heard about the recent complaints that Disney heroines have fewer lines than their male supporting characters. It’s not just in Disney films, unfortunately; this phenomenon has been a major aspect of mainstream comics since their inception. Even in female titles I find myself asking: are the women given actual voices in this text? Are they drowned out by the males in their lives? Is the story actually about our hero, or is it about someone else?
Let me give you a quick example. When the Goddess of Thunder stepped in for Thor Odinson in Jason Aaron’s new series, I was really excited. But as cool as it is that Thor is a woman, the first full story arc was more about Odinson’s identity crisis than it was about the mysterious woman behind the hammer. Certainly it’s exciting to leave her big-identity-reveal to the very end of the series, but the quantity of time devoted to Odinson is really quite surprising. Look into it, if you don’t believe me.
3. I want her costuming/body typing to be done well.
I think that, at this point, this is mostly a no-brainer. Sure, mainstream comics continue to have some heroines with completely ridiculous costuming, but it seems to be getting better all the time. In fact, this bothers me less than the others, as long as the character in question has a reason for dressing crazy. Does it legitimately suit her character, or does it detract from the story? Frankly, if an artist represents a women with regular-sized breasts, an athletic body, and reasonable shoes, I’m usually pretty happy.
4. I want her posing/framing to be tasteful, or —preferably— awesome.
I never would have anticipated it, but posing and framing have actually become far more important to me than costuming. Think about it: even a woman in full spandex looks crazy in the Brokeback pose, though that particular posing faux pas is, thankfully, going out of style. Nowadays it’s more common for a woman to be framed like a sex object, and it’s a bit more subtle.
Next time you read a comic, think about how the creative team has total control over what they show in each panel. They don’t have to reposition actors, or sets, or anything like that. They can literally write “shows Catwoman without her head, in panties,” and get it drawn up. So, are you seeing women’s T&A in a panel all by itself, or are you able to see your heroine’s face? Is the former at least the exception to the rule?
When you’re playing close attention, and you notice framing done well, you’ll find it’s really amazing. It can make up for any number of miscalculations, including over-sexualized costuming.
Compare the pictures below, for instance. The first is the opening to a comic from a few years back, Catwoman #1. In it, the title character is literally “without her head, in panties.” She’s wearing the type of bra that would show lines through a t-shirt, let alone be comfortable, supportive, or discreet under her catsuit. She is clearly framed and costumed as an object of sexual desire.
Now check this out:
This is a picture from the recently released Captain Marvel #1, where Danvers undresses completely and showers. Here they could have said “Reader views Danvers through a thin veil of steam,” but they didn’t. There’s nothing sexual about this action (appropriately) because of the framing of it. Tell me: why is it sexy for Catwoman to get dressed to go do her job? It wouldn’t be, except they made it that way.
I’m happy to say that no amount of close-reading and textual analysis has ever ruined my love of comics, but it’s definitely changed the way I read them. In the end, I’m really very happy about many of the female titles I get to read today. There are a ton of strong Marvel titles now, and indie comics like Monstress, Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly are jam-packed with cool women. These four qualities are just some of the things I think about when I’m reading comics these days, and I hope beyond hope that you’re thinking about them, too.