By Hazel Romano | July 19, 2017
After monopolizing the comic film market since 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel announced in 2014 that they were planning to release Captain Marvel, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to headline a female superhero. The move was a much anticipated, but much delayed, response to the male-dominated roster. DC beat them to the punch with their surprise breakout hit Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot as Diana, Amazonian warrior and new poster child for the feminist heroine.
The success of Wonder Woman revived conversations concerning the representation of female characters, specifically within the medium of comics. Of course, it definitely wasn’t the first female-led superhero movie; Catwoman and Elektra burst through the scene long before it in the 2000s. But unlike those abominations, Wonder Woman was the first one that worked. Achieving an impressive 92% Rotten Tomatoes score, the film more than met high expectations, managing to break a record or two. Oh, the surprising things that can happen when you put a woman in charge.
It was a slow-burn in the making. Feminism is far from a new concept, but it took decades for it to really manifest in comic narratives. When Wonder Woman was first introduced, readers immediately looked up to her as an empowering figure. But the character took an unwanted turn when her stories of heroism were traded in for sexist portrayals in later revivals of the series. The revert back to traditionally feminine roles was a disappointing blow, but also reflective of the unstable status of women and the many obstacles impeding the pursuit of gender equality.
The development of a more positive portrayal of comic heroines since then can be attributed to the increase in opportunities for female writers and artists. Since the inception of the modern comic in the 30s, times have significantly changed. Still, as of 2017 women make up just under 20% of credited creators within each of the top comic publishers, underscoring the significance of elevating female voices. The minority of female writers who have accrued more agency are now empowered to portray the nuances of their own lives as accurately as possible by either breaking down trite tropes or avoiding them altogether.
The current wave of comics popularity has allowed for more inclusive female voices to achieve mainstream success. Modern series like Saga and Rat Queens reveal that there are plenty of series that can demonstrate female leadership. Jody Houser’s interpretation of Faith, a member of Valiant’s Harbinger series, has developed a steady following and critical praise. At first glance, Faith is an unapologetic, atypical superhero. Houser built up Faith to be a quirky, body-positive figure, and her inclination to depart from stereotypes proves that you don’t have to resort to gimmicks to win over an audience, signaling that there’s plenty of room for an assortment of female narratives.
In the present day, feminist comics are shutting down notions of misogyny and making up for a lack of cultural imagination. Studies on intersectional feminism spearheaded by scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks illustrate the need for diversity in all aspects of society. And creatives, like author Marjane Satrapi, are answering the call; Persepolis is but one example that chronicles her childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution in graphic form. The positive feedback engendered by progressive characters such as America Chavez and Kamala Khan, a revamped Ms. Marvel, have proven the importance of the feminist movement in making significant strides in the sociocultural arena.
Even with such milestones and Wonder Woman’s acclaim, it still isn’t enough for some critics. In December 2016 the United Nations declared Wonder Woman an honorary ambassador, only to revoke it because strident critics deemed her too sexual. The condemnation of Wonder Woman as a feminist ambassador revived the tired debate over the depiction of female sexuality, exemplifying how women are perennially judged against an unfair double standard.
Though the comic industry does suffer from an objectification issue, outright dismissing women on the grounds of sexual expression, in and of itself, is equally worse. It’s an epistemological foundation that is ambiguous to begin with, the standards of which are constantly being redefined over generations. To an extent, calling attention to the female form is required to establish a politically meaningful essence of “womanhood.” There’s no question that liberation from antiquated, oppressive social standards is an essential tenet of feminism.
Conflicting views in the struggle to define what constitutes “real” feminism is much of the reason why feminism is still very much a dirty word. The word conjures images of unruly women, cursing men, or ardent protestors and advocates for non-issues like hairy armpits. That feminism involves or strives for an erasure of men’s perspectives or participation is just one of many frustrating misconceptions that, like the glass ceiling, begs to be shattered. It’s simply ridiculous to think that prioritizing female-led stories only cater to that specific gender; on the contrary, a feminist lens allows a widening of perspectives as systemic gender biases first need to be acknowledged in order for them to be transcended.
While feminism continues to rise through the ranks and propel characters to new heights, the comic landscape remains reassuringly welcoming and receptive. The more female perspectives are told, the faster the myths that seek to discredit feminism will be drowned out. Though there’s still progress to be made and mistakes to be corrected, in the long-run it’s a battle worth fighting for. Women have made it this far, why throw in the gauntlet now? Mrs. Incredible said it best:
“Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so.”
Hazel Romano is a content writer and recent UC Berkeley grad. When she’s not geeking out over fantasy and sci-fi movies, she likes to travel and spend time with her furbabies, Remus and Noah. You can see more of her work at wiltedink.wordpress.com.