Friday, 1 November 2013

From silver, gold and onwards: a look at sexism in comic books.

The medium of comic books has provided an ample base for creative inspiration and freedom. As such comic books enjoy a long and decorated history of wildly imaginative stories, iconic characters and dazzling storytelling. However, the industry also harbours a seedier history of hideous sexism and misogyny. From powerful women being crowbarred into secretary roles or even stuffed into fridges. 

The best way to look at the prevailing problem of sexism within the comic book industry would be to look towards the 1940s and the 1950s. During this era of comic books one of the most enduring female comic book characters was created.

Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist who invented an early model for the polygraph. Marston was inspired to create Wonder Woman due to the lack of strong female characters within the comic book industry which was prompted by suggestions from his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston. William Marston pitched the concept of Wonder Woman as “all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman”.  Marston wrote Wonder Woman with super strength and agility, flight and arguably Wonder Woman’s most iconic features: a pair of bullet deflecting metal bracelets and a golden lasso that forced the bound to tell the truth (inspired by Marston’s belief in bondage equalising gender roles in sex.)

However, despite Wonder Woman being relatively progressive, she was still victim to the prevailing gender stereotypes that existed during the 40s and 50s. Most notoriously when the ‘Justice League of America’ comics were first published Wonder Woman was made secretary and kept in a non-action position playing a subservient role to non-powered characters like Batman, apparently super strength and speed doesn’t hold a candle to a rich bloke in a rubber suit.

This was a reflection of contemporary gender ideology which ran throughout the comic book industry, with other examples including women who were written as tough and independent but ultimately were dependent on their male partners.  An example of this would be Lois Lane and Superman who, in one Silver age story, married Lane and locked her away in the fortress of solitude. This was treated as an utterly logical and correct thing for superman to do.

This is notable for showcasing how comic books could both be used as a vehicle in which to both buck against oppressive views of gender within society as well as to purport them.
As the Industry moved on from the Golden and Silver ages the ideology that was reflected within the comics began to change as well and many of the secretary positions super heroines previously filled were left forgotten. However this should not be mistaken as significant progression for the role of women within the comic book medium as, though many gender stereotypes began to  fall out of use, there were many more which rose up to replace them.

As the comics industry moved away from the idealism and kitsch of the Silver and Golden Ages and moved into the Dark Age of comic books ushered in by ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. This new era was characterised by dark, gritty and cynical stories with a focus on violence and titillation as spectacle.

As such the role of women in comics began to change in order to fill the darker and more pulp settings that were now the norm within the industry. A notorious example of this would be the use of female characters as prostitutes, the use of which became widespread and was particularly abused by Frank Miller (who will become a constant feature within this article). 

Furthermore, the role of women as disposable plot devices became even more widespread, with female characters frequently being the victim of rape and murder in order to induce pathos for male protagonists.  The defining example of this trope came from a storyline in the ‘Green Lantern’ series in which Kyle Ratner returned home to find that his girlfriend had been killed and stuffed into a fridge (made a frequent source of mockery due to Ratner’s bizarre expression ). This phenomenon became known as “Fridging”, a phrase coined by Gail Simone.

As a result of this the role of women in comics began to change in a way that made women appear to have moved away from sexist portrayals from the Silver and Golden age where female characters were corralled into traditional gender roles. However this is merely superficial as the new roles that women occupied were arguably even more toxic as they sexually objectified women and were primarily focused on making women into victims in order to act as a plot mechanism to further the stories of male characters.

As mentioned earlier, a writer who holds particular responsibility for this change in dynamic is Frank Miller. With ‘Batman: Year One’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ Miller helped to popularise the writing techniques and tropes that influenced a generation of writers to misrepresent female characters. Miller’s writing used the worst excesses of noir writing, in particular his use of women as manipulative femme fatales and, notoriously, as prostitutes.  In doing this Miller laid down groundwork throughout the 90s that was used by a generation of writers.

In recent years Miller’s writing of female characters has come under heavy criticism and, combined with his writing’s decline in quality, his influence has waned. However, Miller has still provided startling bouts of misogyny within the modern comic book industry.

In Miller’s critically reviled ‘All Star Batman and Robin’ one of the most widely criticised aspects was his portrayal of wonder woman. She is introduced shoving a man out of the way in the street and snarling “out of the way sperm bank”, setting the tone for her as a crude caricature of feminism in order to provide a template for Miller’s anti-feminist screed. Later in the issue there is a scene in which Wonder Woman and Superman argue and after Superman overpowers her, kissing her before she states that she wants to be dominated by a powerful man. This startlingly misogynistic sentiment is carried on from his prior work ‘The Dark Knight Strikes Back’ in which Wonder Woman’s dialogue indicates that she was raped by Superman, causing her to fall in love with him for “throwing her down” and “claiming his rightful prize”.

As shown by the example of Frank Miller, sexist attitudes have persisted into the Modern age of comic books and, in a similar manner to the transition from the Golden and Silver age to the Dark age, have adapted with social change.

In the Modern age, many of the sexist ideas and tropes that are used are those that have been carried on from the Dark age of comics. In particular the use of fridging and sexualisation of women are still widely used in comic books. However, the use of female characters as prostitutes in stories has fallen out of practise when compared to the Dark age of comic books.

One of the major carry overs from the Dark age is the use of ‘fanservice’, AKA the sexualisation of female characters in order to bring in readers.  This is usually seen in the costumes, which emphasise cleavage and cover little, and poses of female characters. This has come under particular contention from modern readers and has come under attack for being a blatant and crass marketing attempt.

In recent years the internet has been one of the biggest changes in the landscape of comic books. One of the major ways that the internet has changed the comic book industry is that it has allowed more fan access and interaction with creators and as such has provided a stronger base on which fans can voice complaints of the product.

There have been a number of high profile cases where sexism in the comic book industry has been criticised heavily in the Modern age. One of the most recent examples came from a DC comics Twitter competition.  The basis of this competition was to draw Harley Quinn naked and suicidal in a bathtub with the winner being offered a job at DC. Soon after the announcement DC was hit with a large number of complaints focusing on the disrespectful attitude towards suicide, particularly the sexualisation of suicide. DC’s co-publisher Jim Lee and Dan DiDio went on twitter to lecture fans and complain that the panel was delivered without context but shortly backed down and apologised a few days later. The most telling thing to come from this incident is the large scale incompetence on an executive level in regards to how this competition would be seen. Furthermore it also belies a general ignorance and lack of sensitivity in the upper of echelons of the comic book industry.

However, sexism is not just a part of the administration within the comic books industry as it is ingrained within the comic book fandom as well. Despite an increased level of criticism towards the treatment of female characters in comic books and a market for more equal portrayals, there is also a significant resistance from within the fandom. For example, during the aforementioned Harley Quinn incident there were a number of defenders of the competition who used the guise of its artistic merit as a way to discredit criticism and to protect the decisions of DC’s management. Furthermore there is a large scale defence of the unnecessary sexualisation of female characters usually using the excuse that the physiques of male characters are also idealised (which ignores that this itself is a male power fantasy).

As a result of this this writers are able to use this defence in order to self-justify their writing and actions which in turn reinforces this sentiment within the fandom.

Despite the widespread mainstream sexism within the comic book industry there has been improvement in gender roles within comics. Feminist writers such as Gail Simone and Barbara Kesel have opposed sexism in comics both in the boardroom and within the medium itself and have created critically acclaimed work. Other notable writers include Grant Morrison, Gerard Way and J.H Williams and W. Haden Blackman who had an acclaimed run on ‘Batwoman’. Further works of note include ‘Mind the Gap’ and ‘Saga’ which too have achieved acclaim and mainstream success.

When coupled with increased fan support for an end to sexist conceptions this suggests that, despite recurring issues, the comic industry may be moving forwards in regards to gender equality and diversity.

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