Superhero Comic Sexism – A Futile Fight?

It’s a classic question: is it futile to complain about sexism in superhero comics?

What I can’t understand , though, is why a lot of women continue to read the superhero titles that are obviously sexist, then blog about how sexist they are. Are superhero books that good? Am I missing out on something? Or has the situation gotten even worse?… There’s simply no getting away from the fact that Superhero books, and probably anything published by Marvel and DC, will be sexist.

She goes on to ask that people spend the time talking about “more positive, pro-female comics or female-created comics. Like….eh, there’s tons. But if [you] tell me “Terry Moore,” I’ll laugh at you.” I love that last bit. Too many people assume that all women enjoy Strangers in Paradise, a title I gave up on when the miniseries was over.

Earlier today, I found myself pondering a similar question as that blogger. I miss the days when there were just a few places to get good discussion about comics online — now it’s all so fragmented, and there’s no central discussion point, and most of the women seem to be over on livejournal, a forum I have no interest in joining. It’s weird to me seeing them talk about Green Lantern and Batgirl, because my superhero fangirl days seem so far away. Although I still love a good escapist adventure comic, there are so many other good things I enjoy reading I just don’t have the time to keep up with mediocre titles.

I can’t be sure whether my perception on this is accurate, but it seems that people spend more time complaining than they do talking about what they like. It’s true that it’s easier to talk about what’s wrong; writing praise is harder than writing denigration. If my perception is inaccurate, than that’s another example of how feedback affects content: negative posts also get a lot more attention than positive, and I may only be noticing the attacks.

I do understand the desire to want to fix something you’re interested in. I don’t know whether adults read superhero comics out of nostalgia or habit or because they’re the easiest kinds of comics to find or because they’re comfortable entertainment or because they really like the genre best. But after a certain point, I have to wonder if it isn’t easier to go read something aimed more at you instead of trying to change the cow into a giraffe. Yes, it’s important to point out that there are women who read superheroes, that it’s not all just men… but it is majority male, and most women who read comics prefer to read other things.

Maybe I’m settling, now that I’ve lost my youthful willingness to fight the good fight rabidly. Maybe I don’t know what I’m trying to say, but I want to continue the discussion. Along those lines, I’m happy to see Ragnell start a new feature, listing five female geek blogs every Friday.

Similar Posts: Superhero Comic Readers Still Mostly Male § Women in Comics Roundtable § More Thoughts on Females, Superheroes, and Blogging § Once More Into the Breach § My So-Called Secret Identity a Female-Friendly Take on Superhero Comics


27 Responses to “Superhero Comic Sexism – A Futile Fight?”

  1. James Schee Says:

    I guess age may have something to do with it. I think another is that there are so many things wrong with many of today’s superhero comics that focusing on any one aspect can besort of futile.

    Plus with manga and other companies launching great graphic novels, there are just more options than there once was. You don’t have to fight for things to be better in some book, because there are options out there for you.

    I noticed this myself the other day when I saw potential in a book, but it had things I didn’t like too. Instead of waiting around to see if it would reach that potential, I decided to just try something else that I might like better without having to settle.

  2. Sarah Says:

    Well, it’s awfully convenient that women are trained in this society not to want to be too negative; it’s a lovely way to make sure that they don’t rock the boat too much, and since the status quo is rarely in their favor to begin with…

    Me, personally, I would still not be happy about sexism in superhero comics even if I didn’t read them, because I still have to live in a world with the boys (and then the men) who *do*. When I went to see “Sin City” and heard the men around me audibly enthusiastic for the rancid forms of masculinity and femininity expressed in the film, I was honestly a little scared. In other words, there’s a big difference between something that’s just not being marketed to you and something actively denigrates you (implicitly or explicitly). And I just don’t see the need for superhero comics to be sexist–because I don’t believe that men can only enjoy material that expresses an underlying contempt for half humanity. Call me a crazy old liberal optimist.

  3. Ragnell Says:

    I’ve found that most things that are aimed at women are not necessarily aimed at me. I’ve always had interests that match up better with what is aimed at men, at least until its so overtly aimed at men that it’s becoming exclusive to women.

    I don’t think all superhero comics are at the point, even in the wasteland of Nineties Art Hell. But I don’t see how anything can be gained by leaving them be as is, they do tend to slide towards exclusivity when they think it helps. I also don’t see futility in calling them out when they get complacent, because if the women who are already interested lose interest, we’re sliding into a segregation of the sexes here. In that situation, people like me who’s interests and abilites don’t conform to a strict gender-role environment suffer first.

    And I don’t think singling out men or women is good for anybody. We should be working in the opposite direction, integration of the sexes in every part of life, even little wierd side-streets like comic books. I don’t want to see “marketing for men” and “marketing for women” unless we’re talking physical hygiene. If I were to give up on superheroes, I imagine that would mean I’ve given up on comics altogether because sadly, I am one of those fans.

    For me, superhero comics are just a little part of the larger picture.

  4. Dave Carter Says:

    Based on the entries I’ve received from women for Free Comic Book Month–where I ask people to send in the names of five titles they enjoy–I’d have to say that women’s taste in comics varies just as much as men’s. Super-heroes, non-super-heroes, etc.

    Given a large enough sample, one might be able to say that women tend to prefer Comic X more that Comic Y, but you’ll still find women who don’t like Comic X, and women who read Comic Y. Any statistician will tell you that you cannot take a set of general trends and apply that to any one individual’s choice.

    (The same goes for men and their taste in comics too, of course…)

  5. Ragnell Says:

    Oh! And thanks for the link! I’m getting lots of hits off of you, and hopefully the other ladies are getting hits that way.

  6. Rachel Says:

    I stopped reading superhero comics back when Scott Campbell started only pencilling half of Gen 13. I wasn’t even thirteen myself! I can’t say I’ve ever had the urge to go back.

    What annoys me most is watching comics publishers attempt to spruce up ho-hum superhero stories that have been running for longer than most soap operas to give them a “gender positive spin.” Take those Mary Jane spin-offs of Spiderman. They are still about Spiderman. They are still boring to me, a young female reader. How many times can a comics company re-tell the same story? How many times can L’Oreal repackage “advanced aging treatments?” The answer: forever, because it wasn’t that good to begin with.

    I would like to see Marvel and Image and DC and whoever each put out ONE comic featuring a female character aged 14 to 34 that doesn’t feature super powers and keep that comic running for a full year.

    Hmm… I feel a rant coming on. I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

  7. David Oakes Says:

    Why should Marvel or DC publish any comic without superpowers, regardless of the gender of the protagonist? (Ignoring for the moment VERTIGO and books like FABLES and BOOKS OF FAERIE, under the assumption “Magic = Superpowers”.) They have put a lot of effort into creating a brand based on escapist power fantasies, so why should they throw that all away just to reach some apochryphal “female audience”. It would be like insisting that Harlequin start publishing Mack Bolan books to attract men, or TOR start a line of self-help books to get more women to read Gor.

    There is nothing inherently “male” about superpowers. If anything, themes of powerlessness and true self should ressonate even stronger with women than with young boys. It’s just that the common presentation of “fighting crime in high heels”, well, let’s just say it’s obviously not what young girls want. But if you aren’t going to read a well-crafted story about an emotionally complex woman in an active leading role simply because she can fly or shoot lasers from her eyes, I don’t think the failure lies in the genre.

    (Not that boys are getting well-crafted stories about emotionally complex male figures, either mind you. What can I say, we’re shallow.)

  8. Rachel Says:

    Making a non-superhero book with a female character wouldn’t ruin a publishing company’s long-standing line of titles. It would add another dimension to their catalog if anything. It wouldn’t be throwing anything away, as David put it, but rather it would only serve to strengthen the company in the long run by slowly getting their feet wet with contacting a new, untouched set of readers. That could mean great things fifty years from now. Think of all the women who buy Cosmo. All the teenage girls who buy Seventeen. Wouldn’t it be nice to have even a small slice of that pie? By putting an effort into just one title, publishers could make in-roads for future generations of readers.

    But, I am reminded of an old joke. “How many comics publishers does it take to change a light bulb?” Response: “CHANGE?!”

    It’s just a thought. I think it makes sound business sense, but who am I to talk? Just a female reader who doesn’t buy anything published by the Big Three :)

  9. Lyle Says:

    IMO, the big problem is that superhero comics are still thought of as “mainstream” comics, everything else (including stuff that sells more product) is seen as a niche. So when superheroes become increasingly sexist (as well heterosexist and a tad racist because the resistance to new characters keeps the characters from when superheroes were exclusively white dominant) it still reflects on the entire medium.

    Rachel, a bit part of the problem is corporate cowardace. The big problem is that comics that don’t cater to the core market don’t sell like gangbusters out of the gate and, unless Marvel sees potential for the title as a digest, they’re too risk adverse to try to nurture an unprofitable title that might be able to reach new readers.

    Worse, this attitude is something comic readers are aware of and have adjusted accordingly. Titles like Manhunter and Hard Time have an even greater struggle because customers expect them to have a short and unsatisfying run… I think even the people (like me) who try to support these titles expect the title to get minimal marketing support and to end prematurely — we just try to enjoy it while it lasts.

    Frustrated readers like me, however, are finding more opportunities to get more than “enjoy it while it lasts, even if it will end in disappointment” because of manga and the way some small press publishers have been able to take advantage of manga’s presence in bookstores. I expect, DC’s reaction will be to embrace the core audience even further at that point.

  10. James Schee Says:

    Rachel,

    Did you ever see the Andi Watson concept drawing of Barbara Gordon? He was interested at one point in doing something with her, not as Batgirl but Barbara. Which would have been fun I think,

  11. Johanna Says:

    Excellent points, everyone, thank you.

    I guess maybe I should draw a distinction between outright sexism (“female characters should have big boobs because they’re there to be looked at”, for example) and simple exclusion (“why aren’t there superhero comics aimed at women?”). I think the former, as pointed out, can be dangerous in the attitudes it fosters, but the latter is more neglect than attack.

    I should probably also say that I used to empathize a lot more with the situation Ragnell mentions (liking boy stuff more than girls’) before than I do now. I don’t know why, but as I get older, I get more girly. Maybe it’s the accumulated years of societal pressure, I dunno. :)

    Ragnell, your first comment seems to be confusing superheroes with all comics, and then you contradict yourself. There are comics for everyone today, but I think superheroes are the comic equivalent of Mac Bolan books (just as shojo is the comic equivalent of Harlequins). Saying “comics shouldn’t be gender-segregated” doesn’t mean that there won’t be some genres of comics aimed more at boys or girls, right? (And I’m glad I could send some traffic your way.)

    Rachel, I have to second David’s questions (although hopefully in a kinder way): why should those superhero publishers you list try to do something they’re clearly no good at when there are so many other publishers out there filling those gaps? (Leaving aside Vertigo for now.) They’d have to be willing to run a project at a loss, perhaps for years, while they tried to break long-standing associations in the public mind about their products as well as developing new sales outlets (since the direct market is superhero-centric for the most part). It’s just not good business.

    Lyle, I agree with you that the “mainstream” perception (a word I usually refuse to use because of its inaccuracy) is the real problem, but I think that’s on the verge of changing, if it hasn’t already, with the graphic novel bookstore/publisher boom.

    But you know, I’m sitting here working on a review of the Baby-Sitters Club, a graphic novel for girls by a woman and released by Scholastic, so maybe it’s just giving me rose-colored glasses as the light reflects off the pink cover. :)

  12. Johanna Says:

    Oh, and Rivkah has some thoughts at her livejournal about the subject as it relates to manga.

  13. Sarah Says:

    I can’t help but wonder if there will be *any* female superhero comics audience in a few years. Women my age who still read mainstream comics got into the Claremont X-Men or the old Teen Titans when they were kids–there weren’t any other options. I’m pretty sure that the current twelve-year-old equivalent of me is reading some whacked-out manga that she happily buys in a chain bookstore. When she grows up and gets more disposable income, I can’t imagine why she’d ever set foot in a direct-market outlet.

  14. Ragnell Says:

    “Ragnell, your first comment seems to be confusing superheroes with all comics, and then you contradict yourself. There are comics for everyone today, but I think superheroes are the comic equivalent of Mac Bolan books (just as shojo is the comic equivalent of Harlequins). Saying “comics shouldn’t be gender-segregated” doesn’t mean that there won’t be some genres of comics aimed more at boys or girls, right? (And I’m glad I could send some traffic your way.)”

    No, I was resisting the idea of a “Pink Aisle” like you see in the toy stores. An entire section of the store that screams “Girl stuff.” Going through a toy store, I always knew the Barbies were meant for me, and I’d take a look but ultimately walk away with some lego sets or some Voltron action figures from the “Boys area.” And that’s okay, because the toys in the “Boys area” of the store aren’t misogynistic by virtue of being marketed for boys.

    In comic book stores today, there’s usually an indy rack and a managa section for a little “Pink Aisle” and then you have the superhero books on the other side of the store. I like buying from the other side of the store, it appeals to me. The problem comes about when the stuff in the “Boys area” of the store becomes downright unfriendly to women simply because the makers don’t think women will be interested anyway, and they shoudl spend all of their time seducing the dark side of masculine immaturity.

    i don’t think comics should be gender-segregated in that way. Where “marketed for boys” becomes “marketed exclusively for boys” because I’m nto going to find much in the Pink Aisle.

    (Thanks again :))

  15. Rachel Says:

    Johanna, how can a publisher be “no good” at publishing something? Publishers don’t make comics, creators do. They can hire good creators to make good comics. They can make a new imprint for said comics to help disassociate the new comics with their brand. Why should they do this? Well, if other companies are stepping up to the “comics about and for women” plate, that means competition. If, many years from now, those other companies have all the best creators and all the market share for that genre, what happens if they are more successful than the Big Three? The Big Three become the Small Three.

    The Big Three don’t only publish super hero books. They just don’t publish anything with females in them that aren’t somehow related to superhero books.

    I’m saying that traditional companies need to stake a claim now. It is within their powers. They have access to the talent and the printers and the marketing. A stake in a large future market could be worth a few small losses in the initial years, too. But, I don’t think there would be losses. If the story has heart, if the books are appealing, they will gain both male and female readers.

    Why all this stubborness? People say, “Oh, they can’t do that! They only publish superhero books!” Isn’t that like saying, “I can’t swim! I’ve never been in the water!” You have to get into the water to learn how to swim. It starts with a single step forward and ends with a splash.

  16. Johanna Says:

    Sarah, the good direct market outlets are managing to transform themselves into speciality bookstores or pop culture stores or other non-superhero-dependent outlets. I have hope.

    Rachel, publishers (or their imprints) specialize. That’s why these large book publishers that are getting into graphic novels often set up labels like Graphix or First Second to indicate a target audience and a grouping of material. Marvel is specialized as a superhero publisher; so is the main DC imprint (what used to be the bullet).

    It’s more than just the creators — it’s overcoming public expectations associated with the label and getting radically different material into the right outlets. DC/Marvel may not have the leeway or staff or knowledge or patience to do something radically different. (As it is, DC’s imprints, which once upon a time meant something along those lines, have been weakened and greatly muddied in their focus. Paradox is gone, best I can tell; Vertigo now signifies an age difference; WildStorm is more superheroes; and CMX has a whole host of issues.)

    Why should they compete in an area they’re not interested in when they make plenty of money firming up their hold on an area they dominate? And why should they launch radically different books when the market right now won’t even support new books in their dominant genre that aren’t already familiar to readers?

    Long term guesses aren’t compelling as a business case, unfortunately. If the launches of CMX and Marvel digests are anything to go by, then it’ll take several years of someone else having astounding success with comics aimed directly at women for DC/Marvel to even try dipping a toe in the market. They’re large companies, they don’t move quickly or first.

  17. Four Color Comics » Blog Archive » Sexism in Superhero Comics Says:

    [...] Johanna, host of the always-brilliant Comics Worth Reading, seems almost resigned, defeated. She’s willing to surrender and move on to other types of comics. I don’t know whether adults read superhero comics out of nostalgia or habit or because they’re the easiest kinds of comics to find or because they’re comfortable entertainment or because they really like the genre best. But after a certain point, I have to wonder if it isn’t easier to go read something aimed more at you instead of trying to change the cow into a giraffe. Yes, it’s important to point out that there are women who read superheroes, that it’s not all just men… but it is majority male, and most women who read comics prefer to read other things. [...]

  18. Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] I feel like I should clarify something about my thoughts on battling sexism in comics. I’m saying that I’m uncertain how I feel about it. I’m glad to see others with more energy or different opinions taking the fight wherever they feel it needs to be. [...]

  19. Four Color Comics » Blog Archive » She-Hulk: Single Green Female Says:

    [...] A month ago, Johanna at Comics Worth Reading (and the usual suspects here at Four Color) rightly bemoaned the sexism that runs rampant through superhero comics. In closing the Four Color response, JD expressed a yearning “to see a big-name comic character along the lines of the marvelous Action Girl.” While I am not a woman, nor am I familiar with Action Girl, I here humbly offer up an exception to the rule that superhero comics are the translucently-veiled sexual or power fantasies of men: She-Hulk. (Hmm, that intro would pack more punch without that banner hanging over it, wouldn’t it?) [...]

  20. rich Says:

    “It’s true that it’s easier to talk about what’s wrong; writing praise is harder than writing denigration. If my perception is inaccurate, than that’s another example of how feedback affects content: negative posts also get a lot more attention than positive, and I may only be noticing the attacks.”

    I’ve been saying this for years. Praise requires … well, praise. Criticism opens the door for every “critic” to trot out those one-liners they’ve been saving all year for THAT special movie/comic/whatever.

  21. Jennifer Says:

    I’ve been searching for a superhero for my young son. In a perfect world, this superhero would be compelling and exciting yet not sexist or racist or xenophobic. My 7-year-old daughter reads the original Wonder Woman (Charles Mould), and we have had a lot of meaty discussions about the sexism, racism and xenophobia portrayed in that comic. I would love to find her some more superheroes, but I’m hoping to find a male superhero (whether written by a man or a woman) for my son in particular. He’s at the age of trying to figure out what is male and female and how a boy becomes a man. Texts (whether comics or the most classic literature) form and inform our identities, world-views and dreams. What a gift if those texts are healthy. So if anyone has any suggestions, I would be very grateful. Thank you for such a considered and critical-thinking blog and comment section.

  22. Johanna Says:

    That’s a very difficult question, much more than it should be. I can’t think of a well-known superhero that isn’t a least a little bit sexist.

  23. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Jennifer, I would suggest the Marvel Adventure comics. I haven’t read many, but the ones I’ve read seem to be sensitive to issues of sexism and racism. If you try a few, please let me know what you think.

  24. Hsifeng Says:

    Jennifer Says: “I would love to find her some more superheroes, but I’m hoping to find a male superhero (whether written by a man or a woman) for my son in particular.”

    Have you tried Runaways, especially season two? Chase and/or Victor may be close to what you’re looking for. OTOH they might not be appropriate for your son’s age.

    Johanna Says: “That’s a very difficult question, much more than it should be. I can’t think of a well-known superhero that isn’t a least a little bit sexist.”

    Does Mayor Hundred in Ex Machina not well-known enough, not super enough, or too sexist? OTOH that series is for grownups too.

  25. Johanna Says:

    Oh, yeah, Marvel Adventures. Great suggestion. I especially like the Avengers one for having a variety of characters and personalities.

    I forget about Ex Machina. You’re right about the sensitivity to those issues, but not well-known and definitely not for kids.

  26. Jennifer Says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent start–I got a couple of Avengers graphic novel sets that are for all ages and one of the Hulk (what 4-year-old child doesn’t have anger management issues). We’ve only read The Avengers so far, but they have been a big hit with both children and haven’t required critical dissection along the lines of “Why do you think that the evil character has dark skin?” I’m also going to check out _Runaways_, but my gut instinct is that he needs to wait a few years. It’s all very promising–thank you for getting us started!

  27. Johanna Says:

    Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed them! And yeah, “Hulk smash!” appeals to the kid in all of us.

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