Or: why comics are disappointing their female fans
By AMY LOUISE MAYNARD.
Let’s get one thing straight – Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is not sexy.
Is she attractive? Yes.
Is she alluring? Yes.
Is she the biggest bad-ass with an underweight BMI Index to ever grace a crime novel? Damn straight.
But she is also a rape survivor. Which is why DC Comics’ graphic novel version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is so off-the-mark it’s frankly a little disturbing.
Lisbeth is naked from the waist up, and looking over her shoulder. Her gaze is soft and sensual, and from between her pouted lips she blows out cigarette smoke. The only thing missing is some hustler with a greasy Errol Flynn moustache looming up behind her and asking her solemnly, ‘Was it good for you, darling?’
In the actual novel, the first time Lisbeth appears naked is when her sadistic guardian is subjecting her to brutal sexual abuse. The rest of the time, she is dressed to do battle in head-to-toe black leather. The rest of the time, she is fighting violence with violence, refusing to be cowed because of her gender, and seeking vengeance on those who choose to hurt her, or any other woman.
And the rest of the time, when she consents to sex, she is not a passive object of lust; she is on equal, respectful terms with the male protagonist. As Kelly Thompson writes in Comics Should Be Good: Comic Book Resources, the cover “strikes the wrong tone right out the gate“.
The Goth Hottie with the Dragon Tramp-Stamp debacle aside, this is not the first time that DC has come under fire from its female fans.
At the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con, a female cosplayer who goes by the pseudonym Kyrax2, grilled the DC panel about how why their most prominent male superheroes got female spin-offs, but it was not the other way around (for example, Batman > Batwoman, Superman > Supergirl, Wonder Woman > What?).
To be fair, Marvel aren’t too great in the feminist respect either (She-Hulk, anyone?).
But Kyrax2 went on to raise more questions to the DC panel at Comic-Con: why was Wonder Woman omitted from the Justice League solo-titles line-up at the presentation? Why didn’t the Justice League panel have any female panellists?
Things got really heated though when DC publisher Dan Didio, when replying to somebody else’s enquiry about why the number of females working at DC Comics had fallen from 12% to 1%, replied, “What do those numbers mean to you? Who should we be hiring?”
When Kyrax2 pressed the issue further, she noticed that the audience had become hostile towards her, calling out “Gail Simone!”; the name of a prominent female DC writer.
Undeterred, Kyrax2 kept questioning Didio if DC were committed to hiring more female writers. Didio asked the women in the audience if they would like to work for DC. For those that answered yes, he told them to send their stuff in.
The only problem? DC doesn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.
Working on DC’s major line, The New 52 (their superhero line), there are only two women – Gail Simone, and Amy Reedus.
As well as a distinct lack of female creators at the publishing company, female characters are also a minority in DC’s superhero comics.
Of the 28 solo character titles, only six starred a superheroine, and of those six, two were spinoff characters from male superheroes.
As for the portrayal of those superheroines, the great comics theorist Scott McCloud once said: “Any man who designs a costume for a female superhero should have to wear that costume for a whole week.”
For example, in a post on the website i09.com, a mother details how her seven year old daughter was left disappointed and uncomfortable by the changes made to her favourite heroine, Starfire.
The little fangirl loved the old Starfire character because she was smart, brave, and helped out her friends. She only mentioned that Starfire was pretty after listing the above attributes.
But the rebooted Starfire? “She’s not fighting anyone. And not talking to anyone, really. She’s just almost naked and posing.”
DC’s response? A tweet about parents being responsible for picking out the most age appropriate comics for their children.
Blogger Ms. Snarky is outraged that Catwoman, a feminist icon and one of the strongest superheroines in the DC universe, is treated like a ‘faceless piece of meat’ during a sex scene with Batman, the emphasis being on her breasts and buttocks swathed in tight black Spandex.
“That isn’t about showing consensual sex between two adults,” says Snarky.
“It’s about titillating the audience (read: the male readers) at the expense of the female character’s humanity.”
As for me? My favourite graphic novel of all time is Watchmen. Alan Moore is a writer who unabashedly champions smart, strong and capable female heroines, and Silk Spectre II is no exception. She’s fiery, independent, and brash. Yeah okay, every now and then when she has issues with her big blue boyfriend she cries over a cup of coffee, but then she beats up a whole bunch of crims in Sing-Sing and is all smiles again (as you would be). In the film version, the character was essentially the same.
But the marketing. Oh, the marketing.
The movie poster shows Silk Spectre II standing on a street corner with her butt hanging out, and in bold letters to her left, the statement: ‘I am used to going out at 3am and doing something stupid’.
First of all, the male Watchmen characters get way cooler statements than that. Stuff like ‘This city is afraid of me, I’ve seen its true face’, and ‘We were supposed to make the world a better place’. You know, stuff that sends the message, ‘I’m intimidating!’ or, ‘I’m brave!’ What’s written on Silk Spectre II’s poster sends the message, ‘I’m reckless and dumb’.
Even worse, when you also add in the image, it’s as if she’s not a crime-fighter; she’s a prostitute.
And oh my sweet Lord, are those her erect nipples poking out of her costume?!
I think what really stings for me though, and probably for a lot of women, is that DC has done some great stuff for female characters, and creators, in the past. With the help of that word-wizard Neil Gaiman, they gave us the character of Death in The Sandman, a fun and quirky fan favourite. Zatanna, the crafty magician, came from DC. The all-powerful Promethea. The tough-as-nails Witchblade. And of course Oracle, who, as a paraplegic superheroine, is a landmark in comics for not only women, but for the disabled.
And let’s not forget some real-life heroines. Jenette Kahn helmed DC as Editor in Chief in the 1970s, and was the first to grant writers royalties for their work. Under her reign, DC’s sales skyrocketed.
Karen Berger is the Executive Editor of DC imprint line Vertigo, and has won the Eisner Award for Best Editor three times. DC even briefly had an imprint line called Minx, which aimed comics at teenage girls.
Men are also beginning to speak up about DCs treatment of superheroines.
Andrew Wheeler urged DC to embrace their female fan base. Like Ms. Snarky, he called on male writers to try write female superheroes who “wear pants for 20 whole pages”.
Memorably, he says that the reboot leaves no room for diversity, just ‘straight male wank bank codswallop’.
And back at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2011, Paul Cornell, a writer for DC, came and spoke directly with Kyrax2 after the panel.
Cornell told her he had heard what she’d said, and that he was making a concentrated effort to include more female characters in his new comic, Demon Knights.
Kyrax2 said afterwards, “[Cornell] made me feel like he cared about my opinion, both as a fan and as a human being.”
Women have always read comics, and will continue to read comics. The only thing we ask is that comic book creators and companies respect us in print – and in the case of Comic-Con, respect us in person.
Hire us. Listen to us. Respect us.
As Laura Hudson writes on an incendiary yet vital opinion piece on Comics Alliance,
“But this is what comics like this tell me about myself, as a lady: They tell me that I can be beautiful and powerful, but only if I wear as few clothes as possible. They tell me that I can have exciting adventures, as long as I have enormous breasts that I constantly contort to display to the people around me. They tell me I can be sexually adventurous and pursue my physical desires, as long as I do it in ways that feel inauthentic and contrived to appeal to men and kind of creep me out.”
Lastly, for those of you who are sick of seeing female superheroes or fantasy heroes posed in ridiculous positions on the covers of books (or comics), check out author Jim C. Hines very hilarious, very pertinent rebuttal.