Women in Comics

I want you to watch this video (apologies for including one that has other clips edited in, I couldn’t find the sequence in its entirety as originally presented):

Now then, I’m sorry to resurrect your memory of that terrible sequence, when we see close-ups of George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell’s crotches, asses and pecs (complete with rubber nipples) as they get into costume in the absolutely terrible Batman & Robin film.

But now I want you to tell me, what is the difference between that opening sequence and this one, from DC’s Catwoman #1?

If your answer is “nothing,” then congratulations, you get a gold star. It’s just as ridiculous and gratuitous as the opening from Batman & Robin. And yet, I’ve seen the very same people who complained about the opening from Batman & Robin being ridiculous try and defend this scene from Catwoman #1. The only real difference is that Batman and Robin are male and Catwoman is female. And I can’t say I’m surprised by this. Because not only was this issue written by Judd Winick, who can barely write a comic story without a sex scene inserted somewhere, but it’s something that’s all-too common in comics. And it’s something that needs to stop.

And this brings us to the main content of my post, which is Red Hood and the Outlaws #1. I was intrigued by the premise of this book. I’m not a fan of Jason Todd’s resurrection, but I was curious about it, wanted to see how it all worked out. And I was completely disgusted by the book’s portrayal of Starfire.

For those who don’t know, Starfire is Koriand’r, Princess of the planet Tamaran who was enslaved and sexually exploited. She eventually escaped and came to earth, where she joined the Teen Titans.

In Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, she’s involved in a sexual relationship with the Red Hood and, according to him, has no memory of the Teen Titans or her old friends. She spends the majority of the issue prancing around in a bikini that leaves very little to the imagination, posing provocatively and propositions her other teammate, Arsenal, for sex.

The argument in favor of this portrayal is that Starfire is “sexually liberated.” But no, that’s not what’s happening. It’s exploitation, pure and simple. She’s portrayed as little more than a plaything for both the Red Hood and Arsenal, there only to please them.

I’ve seen a lot of people (men, mostly) say that this doesn’t matter, that men are drawn with exaggerated proportions just as much as women and both are put into dynamic poses. And yes, that’s true. That’s not my objection. My objection is with the context and the portrayal. The male hero is always emphasized by characteristics of strength — chiseled jaw, bulging muscles, etc. The female heroine is always emphasized by her sexuality — breasts, ass, crotch, etc. You almost never see close-up crotch or ass shots of male characters in comics, but you’d be hard-pressed to NOT find close-ups of women’s breasts or asses or crotches.

But that’s not all. Frequently, female characters are victims of the Women in Refrigerators syndrome, coined by writer Gail Simone. It happened with Barbara Gordon in Batman: The Killing Joke, where she was shot through the spine by the Joker and then put in sexually suggestive poses for the Joker to photograph in order to drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, insane. It was a disgusting scene in an otherwise great book, and it’s something writer Alan Moore has admitted was a mistake and a terrible one at that.

It happened again in Spider-Man and the Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do, when it was revealed that the Black Cat was a victim of rape. It happened in Identity Crisis when it was revealed that villain Dr. Light raped Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man. It happened to Ms. Marvel when the Scarlet Centurion effectively rapes her and impregnates her with himself. It was so disgusting that writer Chris Claremont basically retconned the story (comic historian Carol A. Strickland discussed it in her article, “The Rape of Ms. Marvel”). Catwoman’s origins were changed by writer/artist Frank Miller in Batman: Year One to make her a prostitute (which is just one in a very long list of examples of Miller being incapable of writing a female character who isn’t a whore).

And these are just a few examples.

This kind of thing is not “empowering” for women. It’s not “edgy.” It’s not “mature.” It’s juvenile, exploitative, and any writer who engages in it should be be ashamed.

There is a stereotype of superhero comics. That they only appeal to adolescent males (or males who still think like adolescents) and exploit and objectify women. It’s definitely not true in all cases and there has been some wonderful work done with female characters in comics (the evolution of Barbara Gordon after The Killing Joke into an extremely strong character, done by writers such as John Ostrander and Gail Simone in the pages of Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey comes to mind).

But comics like Catwoman #1 and Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 only serve to perpetuate that stereotype. It does not help the industry. It does not draw in new readers. It’s demeaning and sickening and it should not be encouraged.

I pose a challenge to any comic creators who might be reading this — stop thinking like twelve-year-old boys with a permanent hard-on and start thinking like intelligent creators. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

For more on this issue, I direct you to Laura Hudson’s article, “The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and Their ‘Liberated’ Sexuality.” She states it far better than I can.

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