Comic book feminism

Comics are a funny one…they fly under the radar a lot, often associated with an image of geeky, spotty teenagers and adults that haven’t grown up. But comics are graphic art, graphic novels, stories told through image. Perhaps it’s the association of picture books with young children that creates this impression. Whatever it is, comics, and people that read them, have often received bad press.

In the last decade or so there have been a large number of films made that portray comic book characters, as well as a general increase in the popularity and acceptance of fantasy films in general (Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter being the most obvious examples). As a consequence, the image of comic book characters has evolved, moving away from ‘mega-geek’ towards a more positive image in the mainstream media. However, the portrayal of women in such films and in comic books hasn’t changed from the male-dominated world whence they came.

I came across this webpage with drawings of female comic book heroines from the Marvel comics, but with one vital difference. The women are fully clothed. The artist, Michael Lunsford, insists that he is not trying “to push some moral code” but is merely partaking in an exercise in character design. Whether intentional or not, there is a political message within these drawings – his clothing of the heroines draws attention to their habitual nakedness.

I find it frustrating that, even in graphic art, women are being portrayed as impossible ideals that over-sexualise the female body to satisfy the male gaze. There are certain comic book artists that challenge this stereotype. Alison Bechdel, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Roberta Gregory and Lynda Barry are all female comic book artists that deviated from the mainstream representation of women, becoming involved in the underground comic book feminist movement that aimed to change this representation by drawing ‘real’ women. Their stories represent women not as superheroes that save the world in a bikini, but real women with everyday problems and issues, with sagging boobs and PMS and bad hair days.

Every representation of women that challenges the mainstream media’s portrayal of the female body is a step in the right direction.

Here is one image from the website of a fully clothed superheroine:

Superwoman

Superwoman

Just as a small note: on the webpage these characters are referred to as “female superheroes”. I prefer the use of the word superheroines, which places the female reference at the heart of the word itself rather than as an addition to the male form superhero, which implies that the masculine form of the word primary, the reference to women secondary. Secondly, this character is referred to as “Supergirl” on the website. I have referred to her as “Superwoman” because so often women are referred to as girls, infantalising the woman by the simple use of the youth reference. Men are rarely referred to as “boys” yet somehow women are often referred to as “girls”. In protest, I try at all times to avoid referring to grown women as girls. Language usage is half the battle.

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