Female Super-Hero Characters and Sex: Creators Explain How Comics Can Do Better
There has been a lot of discussion — and controversy — recently about the presence of women in super-hero comics, both in terms of the relative lack of female creators and the problematic way that female characters are sometimes represented. We’ve heard numerous fans and professionals hashing out the issue, and asking what mainstream comics can do to improve the way female characters are written and drawn. ComicsAlliance spoke to comics writers, artists and editors across the industry — including two porn creators — for some concrete answers to that question. Kieron Gillen, Greg Rucka, Kurt Busiek, G. Willow Wilson, Jeff Parker, Jess Fink, Brandon Graham, Sana Amanat, Jamie McKelvie, Erika Moen and Rachel Edidin weigh in below.
Kieron Gillen: I write the Uncanny X-Men. When the events of the recent months started to blow up, I found myself glancing at my team in Uncanny and sort of breathed a sigh of relief. My Uncanny Team for the relaunch is 50:50 in terms of gender ratio. Four men, four women and a robot. The oddest thing is that I didn’t even have to think about it. It’s the main advantage of writing Uncanny X-Men. I’m exploring the terrain populated by a lot of progressive, socially minded writers before me. I just picked the appropriate characters for what I had in mind and it creates a balanced team.
Which isn’t to say I haven’t my own problems, and I thought it may be worthwhile to talk about a little one I deal with on a daily basis. She’s called Emma Frost.Emma always risks being every bad cliché about women in comics, simply because half the time she’s a tendency to look as if she’s just wandered out of a retro-themed sex party. Which she probably has. I think Emma gets away with it for a few reasons, and they’re reasons I keep in mind whenever writing pretty much anything.
First one, is something I think is as close to objective as anything craft-based gets. It’s about storytelling. Not a character’s actions, but how you choose to frame those actions for the reader. This includes the poses a character strikes. You could have a character reciting feminist theory, but if you’ve shot them so they’re leaning over to give a cleavage shot and come-hither eyes up at the reader, it overrules anything else you could be trying to do.
In other words, her costume’s actually a secondary concern compared to how you choose to frame the person wearing that costume. Take a look at Whedon/Cassady’s Astonishing X-men for a masterclass in Emma. She’s her usual semi-clothed self throughout, and Cassaday never does anything to draw attention to it above and beyond what the story demands.
If you treat your characters as objects instead of characters you are, by definition, objectifying them, and if you constantly objectify your female characters you come across as sexist. Male characters, despite the similar unlikely physique, are simply not objectified in the gaze of the reader in the same way as female characters often are, to the detriment to the drama. Because if the reader is thinking “Nice ass” or “Oh God, tacky!” on a panel that’s meant to be about something emotional and true, your choices have betrayed the story.
Second reason why Emma gets away with it links to the line-up. This is a team which includes a number of other women. In terms of my team, two are in unisex jumpsuits (Magik, Hope) and one is in something a little more elegant (Storm). We can have a character like Emma simply because not all characters are like Emma. If you dress all your characters like Emma, it sends – no pun intended — an explicit message.
Third reason is the flip of the first reason. That was about how you choose to present the story. This is the content of the story of itself. Emma’s unique dress-sense is absolutely part of the story. It’s for a reason. It’s for a reason which other characters respond to, both positively and negatively. If you’re going to have a character like Emma, you have to accept it’s a thing and roll with it.
In short: If you treat your characters as characters, you can get away with pretty much anything. As a final thought, it’s also worth noting that the deepest plunging cleavage in my X-Men team is actually Namor who’s close to being the masculine inverse of Emma in terms of amount of skin versus appropriateness of showing that amount of skin. Which, I suppose, is my own attempt at playful sexual egalitarianism.
G. Willow Wilson (Mystic, Air): My perspective on both art and life in general has changed radically since having a baby girl. Before Maryam was born I just sort of laughed off the more questionable portrayals of women in comics. It didn’t affect me personally; I’m an adult, I know my own worth. But it kills me that there are so few comics I’d feel comfortable sharing with her. Or with any kid for that matter… Whenever we’ve got kids under 14 in the house and they start rummaging through my comics collection, I have to dive in and make sure they don’t innocently pick up some superhero book and run into what amounts to softcore porn. Never before did it occur to me how bizarre that is — having to keep a kid away from comics.
What can we do to fix it? Well, for one thing, buy the good books instead of just retweeting them. You vote with your dollars. I don’t just mean books with “strong female characters”; I mean good books, period, whether they deal overtly with women or women’s issues or not. The comics that are going to turn the tide will not be Strong Woman is Strong comics, they’re going to be the Mouseguards and the Life on the Golden Fields-es and the Scott Pilgrims, books that broaden the palette of what is considered marketable. This is not going to work if we make it into a propaganda campaign, because a propaganda campaign is not going to make publishers any money. We have to trick the consumers of boobsplat into buying books they wouldn’t normally buy.
The other thing we have to do is realize that men do not get to dictate what it means to be a “strong woman” or a “liberated woman” or an “independent woman.” This is the fig leaf behind which a lot of apologists have been attempting to hide. Ironically, it reminds me of nothing so much as the conversations that go on in the more conservative corners of the Muslim community, in which ultra-orthodox men attempt to dictate exactly the same thing — except in our case the “strong woman” is usually completely covered up as opposed to practically naked. They’re two sides of the same coin. Paternalism is paternalism, whether it wears a burqa or a thong.
Kurt Busiek (Kirby: Genesis, Astro City): My argument, over and over, is that “sexy” isn’t the problem. Sameness is the problem. Don’t make all women look the same. Don’t make them act the same. Give us a range of portrayals, like the men. I think Power Girl’s a terrific character — she’s brash, she’s loud, she’s aggressive, she flaunts her sexuality and she doesn’t take any shit about it. As a result, she’s visually distinctive, she’s got a strong personality that goes with the visuals — she stands out. She’s a vivid and memorable character, which is pretty good for someone who’s core concept is that she’s a variant version of a derivative character.
I don’t have a problem with Voodoo being a stripper. Could be an interesting world, an interesting background to build on. I don’t have a problem with Starfire wearing a skimpy purple metal outfit. It fits the character as Marv and George designed and presented her. I have a problem, though, when the debate is posed in a way that says that either Power Girl should be toned down, or else it’s okay for any female character to be like that. Really? If Batman is all grim and dark and obsessive, is it okay for Superman to be the same way? For Spider-Man? Booster Gold? I don’t think so.
One of the things that made the original Starfire work so well was that she was on a team with Wonder Girl and Raven. Starfire was the sexy bombshell without any body issues, and that helped her stand out and be distinctive, standing next to the more conventional Donna Troy and the reserved and repressed Raven. There was variety, there was a range, and it made the characters memorable. What was important to Marv and George was making these characters distinctive and memorable, the women as well as the men.
And that was a nice step forward from the ’60s, when most female characters seemed to be cut from the same cloth, with rare exceptions. But in recent times, it seems female characters are being cut from the same cloth again, just a different pattern than we used to get. Now, they’re all Victoria’s Secret models, cocking their hips, arching their backs, pursing their lips and teasing their hair. I saw a team shot recently that looked like a varied bunch of male heroes and three clones of the same woman, just in different costumes. Women should be varied. They should look different, think different, act different, talk different… Just as surely as the men, because they’re all individuals and we want the characters we read about to be distinctive and memorable.
Ms. Marvel/Warbird/Carol Danvers: She’s ex-military, a tough, no-nonsense fighter who’s endured sexism all her life, starting with her own father. Should she pose like a model? Or should she straighten her spine, square her shoulders and her jaw and act like an officer? One’s the generic choice, and the other says more about who she is as an individual, so I go with the one that’s distinctive.
There’s nothing wrong with sexy. I don’t want to change Power Girl. She works really well as a character. What’s wrong is when everyone’s sexy, and in the same way, too. Playing it that way even hurts the characters who are meant to be sexy. If Storm and Kitty Pryde look and stand and act like Victoria’s Secret models, then how do you make the White Queen, who is supposed to be strikingly sexy and vamp-ish, stand out? Make her look like a Hustler model? That doesn’t come off as sexy; it comes of as ludicrous. But if everyone gets presented the same way, it’s harder and harder for the characters to be distinctive, even the ones who _should_ be presented that way, because it’s no longer possible to tell that that’s a choice, not a default. No range, no distinctiveness. Would Catwoman need to hump Batman on a rooftop to establish how hot and sexy she is if everyone else wasn’t crowding into the “sexy” end of the scale?
Mine is more a craft argument than a political argument, but the political statement hiding underneath it is: Women are individuals. The trick to treating them well is to acknowledge that, and seek to bring that individuality forth, rather than going with the generic. It doesn’t matter if the generic is “Sports Illustrated swimsuit model,” like today, or “fainting overwrought female” like much of Sixties Marvel — if it’s generic, it’s lazy and undistinctive and dumb. Let’s go for distinctive. Let’s go for variety.
Let’s see Power Girl and Voodoo and Catwoman, fine, but let’s see nerdy women, too — and funny women and repressed women and confident women and everything in-between and beyond. Give us the strippers, but give us the librarians (and not just the “sexy librarian,” either) and the Congresswoman and the cop and the junkie and the single mom and on and on. And even within those roles, not all Congresswomen are the same. Not all single moms, not all biker chicks, not all grad students.
[And if your female cop looks indistinguishable from a cop in a porn movie who's about to handcuff the lucky burglar and have her way with him, maybe you're doing something wrong.]
One size shouldn’t fit all, because that’s boring. So my answer to the question of how comics can do better with female characters is, stop looking for ways to fit the mold and start looking for ways to stand out. Look for what makes them individuals, not what makes them generic. If nothing else, it’s a whole lot easier for an orange-skinned babe in a purple metal bikini to stand out as sexy with just a line or two if everyone else isn’t wearing as little as possible and looking as breathy and bosomy as possible too.
I don’t want to tone down Power Girl, because she’s fine as she is. We just need female characters as distinctive as she is in other ways. Let’s not limit the portrayals, because that gives us less. Let’s have more, instead. More variety, more distinctiveness, more individuals.
Greg Rucka (Punisher, Detective Comics): First and foremost? You’re writing character, not gender. Gender certainly influences character, and in some (rare!) instances, may even be the driving force behind character, but it’s not the same, and you confuse the two at their peril. As a writer, I’d argue that your job is to write — or serve — characters to the best of your ability. This is heavy-lifting work, it requires thought, and consideration, and care. Cheating, cutting corners, is immediately apparent to the audience, and should you do so, you will lose them, you will turn your characters into caricature.
Heavy-lifting not withstanding, it’s not as hard as it sounds. You know women, presumably; you’ve talked with them before, you may even — gasp! — have women as your friends. Think. Engage. Consider. And don’t cop out.
Talking about comics, we all like sexy. Don’t mistake sexy for naked. Don’t mistake sexy for an image — sexy is an attitude, a manner, an action. Characters become sexy when they are seen to be desirable, and desire is only one-part physical attraction. The far more potent element is action — what your characters say and do is more crucial than what they’re wearing (or not wearing) when they do it…
it was something that took consideration and effort, something that I worked at, and continue to work at. I solicited input from people I trust, and I constantly went back over my work and second-guessed myself. But most importantly, as said, I made a conscious choice to know the character, and to refuse to make gender the deciding (or only) factor in who they are. The key word is “think,” here. Because that is, I believe, the real problem — many writers simply don’t think through what they’re doing with their characters.
Jess Fink: (Chester 5000) When people talk about this issue they use the word “comics” to refer only to super-hero comics and it kind of gets under my skin. There are so many amazing indie comics out there that treat female characters the way they should be treated. People keep asking how they can make female characters in super-hero comics better and it’s just so frustrating because it’s right under their noses, indie comics already do it. I could name so many.
A perfect example for me is Nausicaa. If Nausicaa was a main stream US super-hero comic her t*ts would be the size of her head and she’d be dressed as skimpy as possible. She’d probably look like something out of Heavy Metal magazine. It makes me feel like some comics publishers don’t think readers can take a woman seriously unless she looks like a hot piece of ass.
A lot of writers don’t seem to be able to write female characters unless there is a need for them to be female. What I mean is that women are treated like cake icing, something to make the story sweeter, sexier, to give the reader something nice to look at amid all the violence. It feels like if you asked one of them to write a female character who wasn’t overtly sexual, like they do with males all the time, they’d look at you like you had two heads and say, “Well then, what’s the point of the character being female?” The simple solution is to stop treating women like icing,a pair of boobs, a pretty face, just treat them like people.
Obviously I don’t have a problem with sex; I draw porn comics most of the time. But even in my comics when the characters aren’t getting it on or about to get it on I am considering their personalities and their situation and I dress them accordingly. Just because Priscilla highly enjoys sex with a robot doesn’t mean she’s going to walk down the street in Victorian society with nothing but her knickers on. So why then do so many women in super hero comics do JUST THAT? They fight crime in things that look like they should be hanging in the window of Fredericks of Hollywood. You can’t wear a thong on a Victorian street but super-hero ladies wear floppy corsets, skin-tight tube tops, thigh high, g-strings and high heels to fight crime and they AREN’T EVEN IN A PORN COMIC.
Jeff Parker (Thunderbolts, X-Men: First Class): A cultural aspect that I think influences the Bro/Boy’s Clubhouse feel of many comics is that they’re created in heavy isolation, and most of their referents for society become other entertainment, often big glamorous and provocative action movies playing in the background.
When those creators finally get a chance to get out and meet the wider industry community, it’s at comics shows where fans who like girlie art turn out in disproportionate numbers. Go see- the overwhelming commission requests and auction winners are of female character cheesecake. After you draw or see your collaborator next to you draw a vamping Batgirl all weekend, you can go home thinking that this is the entirety of the audience, this is what they want.
I’m ridiculously lucky to work in a studio that usually has as many women creators as men working in house, often more. It helps keep me mindful of the whole other half of the population, plus I get to see the kind of comics they like to make and read. Also without any extra effort, I constantly hear how real women talk, see how they interact, dress, everything. So my environment informs my perspective on fictional females more than say, Sucker Punch.
I don’t know how to make that happen for other creators though, but instead of lambasting the creators for becoming insular, maybe help them find more representative influences. I don’t know, invite them to your workplace or something. Go to the con and commission some less naughty works of art. Everything matters. We won’t change much by griping about it; even if those complaints were acknowledged you’d likely get a very artificial attempt at balance as a result. We determine our own culture, help shape it from your end as best you can, and it will come back to you. I believe that.
Sana Amanat (Editor, Marvel Comics): First, think sexy, not slutty. I’d ask [a creator] to visualize a woman or women in his life that he admires. It could be girlfriend, a mother, a best friend, and then step back and think of the reasons why he loves/cares for this person. Is it her bosomy ferociousness? Or possibly her smile, her simplicity, humor, moodiness, etc. that draws him in? I can understand exaggeration for artistic purposes, but I’d try to understand the core of the character first and if that type of sexual exaggeration is necessary to her personality. After a while the skin tight, skimpy-clothed, sexually-deprived female thing is so repetitive that all of our female characters start to blend together. How can he distinguish that character visually then? I’d suggest reading fashion magazines or websites, to get a better grasp on clothing and various styles. Varying up characters fashion sensibilities helps distinguish their personality without mitigating their sexiness…
I’m not sure how it works at other companies, but at Marvel we have read out editors who specifically flag content that seems to conflict with internal rating guidelines. Granted every read-out editor might have a different take on what is “acceptable” for a particular rating, but I think this is important step in the editorial process. If a content is borderline offensive, having a few different eyes and perspectives on it can help balance the scales. If one person is offended it could be taste, if two are, then it’s a problem. Overall we just have to be aware that there are different types of people reading the content who may not be as liberal or conservative as we are, and try to find a balance… Sure female editors/creators offer different life experiences that could help vary up the type of material, but on the other end, there has to be a desire from readers on a mass scale for that type of content. I think it does start with creators & editors though, who have to plant the seed and let it grow. Ultimately though, it’s about a mindset that’s open to changing the game a bit, and I think a male or female editor can have that influence if they decide to.
Jamie McKelvie (Phonogram, Generation Hope): I should start by saying I don’t think it’s a conscious decision for many comics artists to present female characters in a sexist way. There’s just a lot of elements feeding into it — including the way women are generally portrayed in media — that all add up, and I think a lot of it is people not realizing what they’re doing. So I guess what I would say is take some time to think about the art you’re making.
First, I’d suggest you read up on the concept of the “Male Gaze“. It goes a long way to explaining a lot of problems in mainstream comics and their representation of women, and a lot of this is subconscious, so it’s worth thinking about it and looking at how it applies to what you do. Secondly, when you’re framing a shot, ask yourself if you would draw the shot the same way if the character was male. If not, why? Too often you see panels focused on a female character’s behind or chest, for no storytelling reason. You may not see the harm in it, but what you’re telling the reader is that the character’s primary reason for existence is titillating the (straight male) audience.
Look at the way you are dressing your characters. Why are they dressed that way? Is it in keeping with their personality? Or are they dressed in a way you find “sexy”? Which of those serves the story better? When you’re drawing a character who, say, has a zipper on the front of her costume, why would she have it undone to her belly button? Is it just to expose her cleavage? Think about the way they characters are posed. Again, ask yourself if you’d draw a male character in a similar position. If not, why? Are you drawing the character in a “sexy” pose for the sake of it?
There is an argument that it’s OK to draw women in this hyper-idealized and sexualized way, because male characters are idealized too. The difference is, more often than not, women are idealized primarily in a sexual manner, and men are idealized in a way that emphasizes power and strength. These are not the same thing, and send a distinct message to the reader whether you realize it or not. I guess my overall point is just to think about what you’re drawing, and why you are drawing it.
Erika Moen (DAR, Bucko): Now I understand this is not perfect, but I suggest that the artist/writer take the female character they’ve devised and then replace her with a male character, just for a minute. Does her dialogue still sound like something a fleshed out person would say, now that it’s coming out of a male character’s mouth? The way she is standing, does it still look appropriate in the setting when it’s a man? Again, this isn’t a perfect test, because men and women, typically, have different postures and ways of carrying their bodies– but as far as a quick ‘Did I draw a female character or object of lust?’ I think that gender-swapping will help. (Provided, of course, that your characters are sticking to the traditional male/female cisgender binary and are not intentionally playing with/re-defining what their gender roles and identity are in their setting. But that is probably a subject for another day!)
Personally, my eye is very used to seeing women portrayed in sexy poses, so much so that I hardly even notice that they’re “sexy” and as an artist it’s easy to fall into the habit of just drawing pretty ladies being pose-y because you’re so used to seeing women depicted like that. A recent photo series by Rion Sabean called “Men Ups!” actually helped me re-evaluate how I view “sexy lady” pin-up images. When I saw these, my first response was to laugh because these men looked so absurd. The helpless, ineffective and submissive poses they took on looked completely out of place to me, but had they been done by women I wouldn’t have thought they were “helpless, ineffective and submissive” at all, I’d just think they were pretty photos. Which is not to say that I do not still enjoy sexy lady pin ups! Because I totally do. And I still enjoy drawing sexy ladies. It’s just helpful to be aware of the different ways ladies and dudes are depicted so you can use that knowledge to create images that convey exactly what you intend and are appropriate to the interaction you’re drawing in a scene.
Having lady characters in sexy, pin-up-y poses is totally appropriate if the scene calls for it; such as a lady trying to seduce another character or flirting. But if your lady is just having A Conversation where sex is not on the horizon, it is just kind of awkward for her to be arching her back and sticking out her butt, you know?
Artistically, it’s really, really important to consume more than just modern day superhero comics. Make sure you read indie comics, comics from a variety of decades, old newspaper comics…. Just a big ol’ smorgasboard of different style to see how other artists have tackled depicting their female characters. If you restrict yourself to just superhero comics, you’re just going to recycle the same superhero stylistic tropes that have already been recycled for decades in the superhero genre. You gotta find inspiration and influence outside of that!
Brandon Graham (King City, Pillow Fight): I think mainstream comics’ missteps with female characters are part of a larger problem connected with a lack of real diversity in the mindsets in the people making those comics. It’s not just the straight, white, middle aged baseball hat dudes it’s also the people that think along the same lines as them. Just getting more women in would be a start but it’s no help if they’re just making the same types of books as the ballcap dudes.
One of the great things about comics is that every type of person you can imagine who ever enjoyed reading a Spider-Man comic as a kid can and does get into making their own comics. I think it would do nothing but help widen reader interest and the health of the art form to get as many types of creators coming from really different places work pushed to the forefront. Past that I think we need people willing to call bullsh*t on sub par work. So that’s my comic book wish: everybody let in but respect hard earned.
Rachel Edidin: (Editor, Dark Horse Comics) Characters are more interesting when you can get some inkling of what motivates them and where they come from, and more so if you can identify with them, even a tiny bit; assuming that male readers won’t or can’t identify with a well-written female character (or white readers with a character of color, or straight readers with a gay character, or, or, or) is frankly insulting to your audience, and it cheats them out of one of the central experiences of fiction, which is putting yourself in the shoes of someone who is not like you.
That said, paper mirrors matter, too. Remember the first time you saw a character who you identified with in a real and tangible way, and how much that flash of reflection meant? And, putting on your mercenary hat, remember how much loyalty to the character and property that created in you? Diverse representation is good business.
Understand that “female” is not a defining trait. Or, rather, it is, in that it mediates someone’s experience of and relationship to the world around them, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of character development. If you ask most women — or men — to describe themselves, most of the words they use won’t have anything to do with gender; instead, they’ll tell you where they come from, what they want, what they believe in, what they like to do. This goes back to the whole “doing things” conversation: your characters, male and female, should be defined by and significant for what they do, not just what you would like to do to them.
By the same token, women are not a homogenous demographic group. Like men’s, women’s interests and personalities vary tremendously. If you think you can’t identify with a female character well enough to write her, maybe take a look at the aspects of female experience you think you can’t click with and question whether they’re gender-mediated at all. There’s a lot of the stereotypical “female character” package that a lot of women can’t relate to, either, and falling back on traits or habits because they’re “woman things” rather than because they fit the character is just unforgivably lazy writing.
Women have significant relationships with other women. The Bechdel Test is a good shortcut for dialogue, but you can apply it on a larger scale, too. Are there two women in your comic who have a relationship based on something other than a) shopping, or b) mutual relationship to a man? …Chris Claremont gets held up a lot in superhero circles as a guy who writes good female characters, and a BIG part of that comes from the fact that those characters have real and independent friendships with each other. In fact, just go ahead and write women who aren’t defined primarily by their relationships with men. If they’re supporting characters, their roles in stories might be defined by their relationships to the protagonist, but give them lives and stories outside of that, even if they never make their way to the page. Like a lot of these, this one is really just Storytelling 101.
“Empowered” and “sexy” are not universally synonymous. That a woman is not a sex kitten does not mean that she’s any less comfortable or empowered or any of that stuff. See above, re: not a homogenous demographic. Stop making sexiness a universal demand. Let some characters be unsexy. And for f*ck’s sake, please, please stop drawing women who are injured, or dead, or being tortured, or punching bad guys, in sex-kitten pin-up poses. That is bad visual storytelling, and it is INCREDIBLY creepy. Let women be heroes for the sake of heroism. Women don’t have to be damaged or traumatized to be strong, or to want to make a difference. Corollary: Dropping rape into a backstory is not a panacea for making a female character complex and gritty.
Imagine you have a daughter. Imagine the kind of women you’d like her to want to grow up to be. Write them. Write women you’d want to be friends — really good friends — with. Write women you’d get in arguments with. Write women you’d be legitimately scared of. Write women like your mom, like your aunts, like your wife, like your friends, like your nieces and nephews and daughters and bosses and friends. We are not aliens… This, too, goes back to “doing things.” A lot of the time, male characters act, and female characters are acted upon. Let female characters make difficult choices — and sometimes choose wrong — and have struggles and the same real victories. Because without those things, they’re not characters; they’re just window dressing.