By Rohit Chauhan
Feminism is defined as the belief in the social, political, and economical equality of both men and women. It grew as a movement in the early 19th century in the United States, taking shape of women suffragettes who fought for the right to vote for women. The comic books were no different; Since the medium’s beginning as females were mostly featured in short-lived and inapt female superheroes or female characters shown either as a sidekick or male superheroes love interest like in the early Superman stories. It hardly mattered if a female role made a difference to the storyline.
The onset of WW2 opened a small window for an independent and determined woman who could take the role of superheroes as they were busy fighting villainous Hitler! The birth in 1941 of the first female superhero in form of Wonder Woman was a momentous event in comics history. Sadly, after some time, Wonder Woman was demoted to more conventional female roles. She was rarely part of the action and became submissive. The spark of feminism was left to die a slow death by the same creators who had thought for a bright moment to let women live their dreams. The prevalent social attitude towards women was of sexism, comic books were creatively portraying women as an object of desire. Moral crusaders of that time decided to raise their voice against the comics, branding them as the originators of moral turpitude which resulted in the formation of the Comics Code of Authority (CCA). The comics censorship was an easy way out for publishers and creators to banish women from the comics world; DC comics' in-house Editorial policy code regarding the portrayal of women is a stark reminder of how insensitive the comics world had become to feminism. The policy read that “the inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities”.
The Rise of Women Power
Throughout the Bronze Age of Comics, feminism gained some traction in response to the feminist movement and attempts were made by companies to reach out to female readers with the publication of several female characters. However, as usual, creators were largely ignorant of true feminism as most of these characters were often stereotypical, like the man-hating Thundra. The feminist activists were fighting hard for the change and they came up with a one-off comic called “That Ain’t Me Babe” which later evolved into Women’s comics; A first-ever all-female underground comic that brought many controversial women’s issues into the limelight. Marvel’s, feminist superhero, Ms. Marvel's debut in 1977 is a classic example of how comics were boasting off their support for feminism, but in reality, they had made a mockery of the movement itself. The first few issues of Ms. Marvel even had the cover line “This Female fights back!”. The change afterward was shocking with Ms. Marvel getting beaten black and blue by lower-class villains, her costume torn, and a yielding look. But worst was yet to come when an all-male Marvel staff under watchful eyes of Comics Code, crushed Marvel’s beacon of the modern woman by showing her as a victim of rape and then her wilful acceptance of it as her destiny. The shallowness of feminism was there to see for everyone, it was not going to go away anytime soon. In 1999, comic writer Gail Simone coined the term “Women in Refrigerators” as a response to an incident in Green Lantern #54, in which the superhero comes to his apartment to find his girlfriend killed by a villain and stuffed into a refrigerator. Simone also had a list made of female characters to show how women in comics were first objectified and then killed intentionally to punish the males in their lives; And those women were depowered or tortured in a wholly lop-sided way than their male counterparts. Or was it just too easy to kill the females to make the male character’s story arc move forward? The other big daddy of comics, DC, was not far behind from their rival Marvel comics. DC’s “Woman in Refrigerator” moment came when Stephanie Brown aka Spoiler was brutally tortured to death in the closing stages of War Games crossover. Fans were aghast at the gruesome killing of another female character and the way DC treated Steph at the end, demanding at least a memorial like that of the second Robin, Jason Todd. DC editorial team stuck to their guns with quotes like “She wasn’t really Robin”, generating even more sharp rebuttal from fans. It was the intense pressure from a feminist group called “Project Girl Wonder”, a website dedicated to better treatment of women in comics, that forced DC to eventually gloss it over with a new storyline where Steph is shown to be incredibly alive after going through a senseless ordeal. And the current Robin says to Batman "Oh! You always knew she was alive! No wonder you never made her a memorial case!". Hats off to DC for showing us how easy it was for them to hide their mistakes and still be able to keep their chin up. Was it really a victory of feminism or utter hogwash, DC could care less?
The depiction of women in comics is still highly debatable as far as the mainstream comics are concerned. They continue to struggle with a realistic representation of the woman suffering from bouts of sexism now and then. Take the case of the Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon variant cover that DC planned to release in 2015. It featured tearful Barbara Gordon helpless in Joker’s arms, a chilling reminder of the 1988’s influential Batman story “The Killing Joke” in which Joker attacked and sexually assaulted Batgirl. Soon social media was on fire with the hashtag #changethecover becoming a hot topic for discussion within online comic communities; With feminist groups calling for a complete boycott of all DC Comics. Although variant covers are supposed to be a departure from the norm, it was not hard to see that this specific variant cover was bluntly opposite to everything the young team of Batgirl was trying to do at that time, to celebrate young women. The rebooted Batgirl was meant to show the superhero in a new avatar, fighting to save Gotham City, a superhero comic for everyone. DC quickly got into damage control withdrawing the variant cover based on the artist who had drawn it as they were now listening to their fan’s concerns. It is important here to understand that feminism is much more than how females are dressed up. It is the consistent characterization of female characters or giving them roles, which are in some way or another meant to show them as weak, silly, or dumb that is a cause to worry about. Too much focus on female costumes in comics is bound to create a distraction from real issues concerning females and will lead to the dilution of feminists. However, more recently steps have been made towards equality and de-sexualization with alternative comics leading the march creating stories dealing with real female issues. At Comic-Con fan fest, there is a huge presence of female fans, writers, and artists, eager to see their favorite superheroes or just to have fun. One can see even the Hollywood stars gracing the occasion to much delight of the fans, all due to the distinct effort of noted comic book editors, writers, journalists, and several
behind-the-show people working hard to bring more awareness of gender issues within the comics world. In the creative space as well, we can see a host of new generation writers, illustrators working hand in hand with the industry's well-known writers and editors. The young talent is more vocal, full of energy, and highly creative, providing a much-needed all-around view to creatives that cannot be easily ignored. Comics is a powerful medium to analyze how women were understood in society during different times as the pages of comics reflect the role of women that society wanted them to follow at any given time. The evolution of women in American society can be visualized from the comics of different eras. Comics are indeed a precious medium for preserving societal changes, yet they also send a strong message that if a medium is made gender-specific, with men dominating the industry for a good fifty years or so, we get to see only one side of the story. Hence, it was but natural for women to become vocal against the certain stereotypical portrayal of women and that has slowly and gradually awakened the comics industry from its deep slumber. The present transformation of the comics industry is simply amazing, in terms of top-notch creativity, catering to a diverse audience. Feminism is beautiful and very much part of our daily life in the modern world. We just need to be aware of it to see its true potential. It is a gradual change that is happening around us, for the better. The recent election of a female Vice President, in the world’s longest-standing democracy, the U.S. is a historic moment for a feminist to celebrate. Feminism was glowing as finally a woman got the same opportunity as a man would.