6.02.2008

Waking the Feminist inside the Fangirl

by Cindy Cooper


I should start off by admitting that I’m not a very good feminist. I love comics, and not just Sandman and Indy comics. No, some of my very favorite comics are the male power fantasy superhero ones, like Batman or Daredevil. Often in this type of comic, women are either absent, peripheral or physically mal-proportioned at best. I enjoy superhero comics so much that I recently sat watching Iron Man with a ridiculous grin stretched from ear to ear, experiencing what I can only define as a fangasm. I am such a bad feminist that it didn’t occur to me until days later that there aren’t any decent female superhero movies. Since then, how women are viewed, by the comic book and movie industries has been on my mind quite a bit.

It’s no secret that most women do not read superhero comics. We aren’t their target audience? Therefore, the marketing towards women and girls is largely non-existent. But, I don’t think it’s because we aren’t interested in the subject matter. If you’re between the ages of say 30 and 40 you might remember a show called Wonder Woman. I know for a fact that my sister and I weren’t the only little girls spinning until we were nauseous in the hopes that we’d spontaneously combust into an Amazon princess. We followed her adventures breathlessly every week, between November 1975 and September 1979 when the TV series, starring Lynda Carter ended.

She was strong and fierce, but decent, honest and graceful in spirit. She was something to aspire to, even if we’d never be able to bend bars with our bare hands. We could still aspire to her courage and complete fabulousness. She affected us in a way that would stick with many of us for years to come.

Wonder Woman the TV series occurred during a time of burgeoning girl power in popular culture. The same time period would give us The Bionic Woman, starring Lindsay Wagner and arguably even Charlie’s Angels. These growing from shows like Mary Tyler Moore and That Girl. Shows where female characters were the protagonist and making their own way, often, gasp! without the aid of a man to pay her rent. It was a good time to be a little girl watching TV.

So why didn’t those little girls watching superheroes grow to be a generation of women reading about superheroes? Part of it is socialization. Little girls have historically been steered away from superhero comics, in the same way they are steered away from toy trucks and those little plastic army guys and towards pink Barbie and baby doll type toys and books. Also, comic book stores can be daunting for a woman sometimes. The staff sometimes stares at you as if you’re an alien and scores of giant chested women stare down from the walls of these stores. Look, we have fashion magazines made specifically for us that make us feel bad about ourselves. We don’t need to go to a special store for that treat. And like I stated earlier, the stories themselves often write women more as props than well-developed characters. I believe this last is the real issue.

Women don’t just like a story because it is about women. We like stories that are well-written and well-developed, just like anyone else. There’s no need for Lifetime comics. As comic story lines become more grounded in the real world, the fact that often their female characters are mere sketches becomes more apparent. That is not to say that there aren’t more developed depictions of women in super hero comics. One example is the push to make Ms. Marvel a major player in the Marvel U, a heroine with some authority. I appreciate moves like that. However, it’s a small step and since the marketing is not there how are girls and women to know that there might be a story they'd enjoy coming from the Big 2?

So, what is the next generation of girls to do for heroes? I suppose there’s Dora and Hannah Montana but what about women of courage and power little girls can hope to emulate? What character is filling that bill for this generation? I have a 10 year old niece who, until recently, looked up to Brittany Spears, a fact that I find terrifying. My other niece is 7 and like her aunt has a thing for the superheroes. However, when you ask her who her favorites are she will tell you Superman and Spider-Man. And they are fine role models, but where have all the heroines gone?

If you ask around, the word is that stories about women don’t sell. It’s a fabulous atmosphere for maturing girls. Get your Hannah while you can, girls, because by the time you hit your late twenties, the only place you’ll see anyone you can identify with on the big screen are romantic comedies, with the exception of the occasional indy movie. You’d like to read stories featuring women in lead roles? Hit the chick lit. It’s the best you’re going to get. I don’t even want to tell you about what happens once you hit your 30s and 40s, girls.

What are we telling them about their place in life? Go find yourself a nice man. Be sexy. Be desirable. Learn to be the arm candy. Don’t be too strong. Don’t be too funny. The best you can hope for is side kick, kid, unless you get some really big boobs. No one wants to hear your story. It’s just not profitable.

It’s true that, movies about super heroines haven’t delivered financially. The reason being is that the efforts, for example Elektra and Catwoman, have been abysmal. It seems movies featuring super heroines as the title characters haven’t been given the same amount of respect as movies featuring their male counterparts. Just look at the recent Catwoman costume. You can’t look at that costume and tell me there was respect involved. It goes beyond sexy and into the realm of the costume bargain bin at Party City. It’s as if they weren’t even trying to get anyone to care about these characters.

This summer, two movies are hitting the theater, based on very popular serialized stories with female leads. Sex and the City was one of HBO’s most successful series of all time. This past weekend the movie opened in theaters. According to Bloomberg.com, the movie brought in $55 million this weekend, in US and Canadian theaters, knocking Indiana Jones out of the top spot. The success of a movie about 4 women in their 40s says a lot about the power of women in movies.

At the other end of the girl power spectrum, Kit Kittredge: An America Girl will open in theaters on July 2nd. For those of you who haven’t been near a 10 year old girl at all in the past 10 years, American Girl is a doll company that created a line of historical dolls from different periods in American history. Kit is a little girl growing up during the Depression. Incidentally, all of the historical dolls in the American Girl line are represented in a line of serialized books that detail their experiences. These books have been very popular with little girls over the past decade.

Will these movies finally prove that stories about women and girls sell? Dare we hope that the success of these movies could finally lead to seeing our beloved Diana Prince on screen? Is it possible that more super heroines and even regular powered women will be written with the same respect as Tony Stark? My sister and I are poised to buy tickets for our entire families when the day comes.

30 comments:

Jon Quixote said...

Betty Banner went through a great transformation in the late 70s & 80s, from being "the girl" who was defined by her men (Banner, Thunderbolt, Talbot), to being an empowered, independent woman with a unique skill-set and a proactive role in the books. She ditched her husband, stood up to her father, changed her hair, started a life for herself, became a pilot, etc.

And then John Byrne gave her a pimp.

The General said...

I think that Jon's point is sort of a good one. It really seems like it takes a lot of work to take an existing female character, and make her into a good roll model. But, it only takes one bad writer who wants to fetishize her to completely undo all that work.

It feels like every good female character (Wonder Woman, Invisible Woman, Wasp, Rogue, Storm, and on and on) has had periods where they've been great female characters and roll models... and periods where they are little more than male fantasies. And, what they are at any given period is really determined by the creative team.

Jon Quixote said...

I talked with Geoff Johns a few years ago, and he was gushing over Greg Rucka's WONDER WOMAN - mostly that Rucka had an interesting take on her as it related to many social and political issues, giving her an organic, complex point-of-view that was part warrior, part mother, and that defied labeling.

And then, I think it was a week or two later, I read a Newsarama interview with Chuck Austen regarding his JLA run. And he described WW something like "very left-wing."

So yeah, I'd agree that characters are only as good as their writers. It's easy to get caught-up in pigeonholing.

Cindy Cooper said...

I agree with everything you two have said. Like I said, there are some writers out there that are writing complex female characters in superhero comics, but it feels a little few and far between sometimes.

And like you point out, one writer can come in and undo what another writer has done.

If you're a woman who doesn't read comics, say someone like my sister, but you really like the idea of superheroes. You have a nostalgia for them, even. What is going to get you to walk into that comic book store for the first time? Or even go to the trade section at Barnes and Noble? No one's reaching out to those women, except for their fangirl sisters.

And what's going to keep them coming back? Editors need to start thinking a little more carefully about the writing job being done on these books. For example, you know I love my DD, but looking back at Bendis' run, I'm not sure what the hell he was thinking when he wrote Milla, or as I like to call her Milla Vanilla. She didn't really become anything close to an actual character until Brubaker took over, eh and even then, she's still a woman wringing her hands from worry over her man.

They just have to do better than that.

Chris Ware said...

Cindy, I really enjoyed reading this. Very good post!

My strong female superhero movie character is probably Michelle Pfeifer's Catwoman. She pwned that role.

guttertalk said...

Cindy, I think the heroines are out there, as I'm trying to help my six-year-old daughter find them. It's strong heroines like Gwen in Ben 10 (who's not just a sidekick), Raven and Starfire in Teen Titans Go!, the female characters in the Legion of Superheroes (DC kids version). But when she gets older, if she's still reading comics, the pickings will be more difficult.

FWIW, I posted some observations about my daughter's comic reading, including why comics are important for her.

Cindy Cooper said...

Gutter,

I checked out your article. Good stuff! I LOVE Gwen from Ben 10. My son watches it.
Here's hoping the industry shows some growth in it's depiction of women as your daughter gets older.

Christine said...

Really interesting post and great comments too. I'm a female comics reader in my early thirties (started devouring Daredevil religiously about a year ago and have gradually started branching out), and I agree that there is a lack of good female characters. It probably has to do with writers "writing what they know" and that often doesn't include a very realistic portrayal, or interpretation rather, of female characters.

Even so, I am rarely downright offended by anything I see in comics related to women's issues, it's just not something I'm particularly sensitive about. I do care about characters that I can relate to, however, and that's where more interesting female characters would be a big plus.

Speaking of Daredevil (and check out my blog devoted exclusively to Daredevil comics if you're interested), I agree about Milla. And she was always a character I really wanted to like. Heck, I still like her in theory. But I agree that Brubaker was the writer who first made any attempt to flesh her out. But we still don't know exactly what Matt saw in her, what they did together as a couple, what they talked about or Milla's opinions on anything.

To Brubaker's credit, I'm totally in love with Dakota North, and I think Becky Blake was a great addition (reintroduction) to the cast as well.

Mister said...

This is a cool blog, this article in particular was well written. Some very valid point, though there are many strong female characters, you just need to dig around for them. Artesia being an important, and often overlooked strong female character,

Cindy Cooper said...

Christine! Nice to hear from another fangirl who loves Daredevil as much as I do. I agree with you about Dakota and Becky Blake. I like what he's doing with them as supporting characters. Like you, I'm rarely grossly offended reading comics, though it does happen. It's really more of a sin of omission, usually.

Mister, thanks for the kind words.

I think my main complaint is that I don't want to dig around for well-written female characters, but I continue to be hopeful that things are changing.

Mister said...

The digging around isn't limited to finding strong female characters in comics, it is finding good quality comics. Yes a lot of mediocre crap is published, but if you look beyond the main books (there are good comics published by DC and Marvel too)you will find some very interesting stuff out there.

Dan said...

Glad you found your Everywoman Superhero in She-Hulk.

big-wired said...

That was a very good post, and you've stated points that I've seen elsewhere by other people, and yet still have to be reiterated until the point finally sticks home.

I often find myself wondering why the Big 2 Superhero Comic Companies write so few good female superheroes. Gail Simone did wonderfully with the Birds of Prey, Marvel is really pushing Ms. Marvel, there's also the Manhunter, but for all of those good titles, there are many more horrible examples of writing, such as Judd Winnik's depiction of Black Canary in the new Green Arrow/Black Canary series, and Sean McKeever, who wrote Mary Jane so wonderfully in Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane has been doing a horrendous job of writing in Teen Titans.

There doesn't need to be some wholly different standard for female characters (or different series like DC's Minx line), just some common sense, good writing, and the knowledge that women, depending on breast size, need something good for support.

And flat shoes.

Ironically, since getting back into comics for good inspiration on how to write female characters, I've found MUCH MORE on how NOT to write them.

Roxie said...

Great article.

Color me surprised...no mention of Buffy? I am sad they ditched the Whedon Wonder Woman project.

I love comics, superheros, sci-fi, and fantasy and you're so beyond right. So now, I try specifically find things that treat their female characters as whole people.

Recently, I've been reading the Twilight series and what's interesting is that author (Stephenie Meyer) has actually talked about being fan of comics herself...so I'm interested to see where that goes.

writeinmayorfaith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ms.Growing Lotus said...

Another movie that did make it forever ago, albeit pretty campy, was Super Girl. It was a favorite for me and my sister when we were little. And since people seem to be listing cartoons, She-Ra kicked harcore ass too. :D

Cindy Cooper said...

"Glad you found your Everywoman Superhero in She-Hulk."

Thanks for that, Dan. I plan to do a lot of catching up on her title. I really enjoy her as a character. Reading Dan Slott's run was so refreshing and fun.

Cindy Cooper said...

Big Wired, I really enjoyed Gail Simone's Birds of Prey as well. I recently read Ms. Marvel: Best of the Best and really enjoyed it.

"There doesn't need to be some wholly different standard for female characters (or different series like DC's Minx line), just some common sense, good writing, and the knowledge that women, depending on breast size, need something good for support.

And flat shoes."

And, Amen to that Big Wired! :-D

Cindy Cooper said...

"Great article.

Color me surprised...no mention of Buffy? I am sad they ditched the Whedon Wonder Woman project.

I love comics, superheros, sci-fi, and fantasy and you're so beyond right. So now, I try specifically find things that treat their female characters as whole people.

Recently, I've been reading the Twilight series and what's interesting is that author (Stephenie Meyer) has actually talked about being fan of comics herself...so I'm interested to see where that goes."

Roxie,I just recently got into the Buffy series. I've been buying the Omnibuses. Goodness, but those are loads of "can't put this down" fun! Although I don't enjoy all of the art, the writing makes up for it.

I'll have to look into this Twilight you mention. Thanks!

Cindy Cooper said...

"Another movie that did make it forever ago, albeit pretty campy, was Super Girl. It was a favorite for me and my sister when we were little. And since people seem to be listing cartoons, She-Ra kicked harcore ass too. :D"

I remember all of those cartoons! I used to watch the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends cartoon just for Firestar!

Genevieve said...

First of all, I adore your header.

Secondly, I find myself agreeing with everything everyone has said at this point. I'm only getting into western comics in the past 3 years on and off, and I just keep finding myself insulted, either by bad writing, bad art, or bad characterization (usually of women). For example, I read a collected World War Hulk my dad borrowed, and it was really interesting to me up until the Hulk's romance with this grey lady assassin... who'd just been trying to kill him and within two issues of her debut wanted to have the Hulk's babies. I'm serious.

It's also sad that cartoons and cartoon adaptations of comics tend to do a lot better representing women and minorities because since the audience is so much wider, there's less tolerance for prejudice against potential consumers in TV-Land. JLU is a good example of this. I adored Rogue in X-Men TAS as a little kid; if X-Men became The Beast and Rogue Show I would have watched. (Hank McCoy was my nerd hero, Rogue was my girl hero. As a baby nerd, and a baby of nerds, I was already substituting Jean-Luc Picard and Geordi LaForge for Xavier and Cyclops.) I look to the X-Men comics now and I'm just disappointed. Who's that sad woman with the giant boobs in the red? Is that the Scarlet Witch? WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT'S ROGUE? The X-Men movies didn't help matters any, with Jean Grey, who I never liked, Storm, who was sadly as boring and aloof as ever, and a newly maladjusted and depressed Rogue who gave up her mutant powers? This was addressed in the TV show! In the first season!! In one episode, Rogue angsted and got over that shit and showed up for work smashing robots on time the next morning thank you very much! Anna Paquin and Marvel execs DESTROYED MY CHILDHOOD HERO.

Luckily I had Sailor Moon and the Powerpuff Girls to fill the void left when X-Men went off-air, but girls don't have that anymore because they aren't aired anymore. And Sailor Moon sucked, even though most other anime is so horrendous, that it's not too bad comparatively.

I think if DC is smart, they'll make a movie based off the JLU cartoon, or a really good Wonder Woman action film to lessen the "boys' club" feel of the superhero movies thus far. I think a movie with Hawkgirl would kick so much ass. Marvel has lost my trust already with Elektra and Catwoman; and honestly, there aren't a whole hell of a lot of strong female characters in the Marvel U that could carry their own movie and be financially successful. Ah, who am I kidding, they'd mess it up.

This is why I read Hellboy!

Jessika said...

Very good post. My hubby is way into comics more than I, but I do enjoy reading stuff other than Superheros. Like classic stuff (Preacher, Watchmen, V for Vendetta) and newer stuff (Y the Last Man, Walking Dead).

Baby Grrl, who is now 2, loves Spider-Man and goes with her daddy when he goes to the comic book store. I also hope that by the time she's a little older there are more strong female role models. Not only in comics, but in general. The thought of her wanting Bratz and liking characters whose goals are shopping and looking pretty depress me.

And we would be proud if she wanted to author/ink/draw/start her own comics!

Cindy Cooper said...

"Baby Grrl, who is now 2, loves Spider-Man and goes with her daddy when he goes to the comic book store. I also hope that by the time she's a little older there are more strong female role models. Not only in comics, but in general. The thought of her wanting Bratz and liking characters whose goals are shopping and looking pretty depress me."

I worry about the same things with my nieces. At the very, very least the Barbies we grew up with occasionally had jobs, astronaut, teacher or a veterinarian. You don't see that as often now.

Also, I do think you're right. The entertainment industry in general needs to change how they view women and little girls.

Cindy Cooper said...

"Rogue was my girl hero."

I HEART ROGUE! I think I remember the cartoons you're talking about. The one from the eighties, right?

Genevieve said...

@ cindy: Yes, the same X-Men, although I remember it being broadcast in the early 90s? That's when I watched it. X-Men is now being shown from the beginning at 6am EST on Jetix/Toon Disney!! I think they are only 3-4 episodes in, too, so if you have cable/satellite that gets Jetix it's definitely worth a shot. It's one of the few X-Men interpretations where Jubilee consistently has brown eyes vs. blue and Wolverine is appropriately short and Canadian! (The Rogue episode I was talking about is season 1 episode 9 "The Cure"; there are 5 seasons of the show.)

@ everyone: Sorry for the previous crazy long post... prescription strength tussin does crazy things to you when you haven't been sleeping.

Cindy Cooper said...

''@ cindy: Yes, the same X-Men, although I remember it being broadcast in the early 90s? That's when I watched it. X-Men is now being shown from the beginning at 6am EST on Jetix/Toon Disney!! I think they are only 3-4 episodes in, too, so if you have cable/satellite that gets Jetix it's definitely worth a shot. It's one of the few X-Men interpretations where Jubilee consistently has brown eyes vs. blue and Wolverine is appropriately short and Canadian! (The Rogue episode I was talking about is season 1 episode 9 "The Cure"; there are 5 seasons of the show.)

@ everyone: Sorry for the previous crazy long post... prescription strength tussin does crazy things to you when you haven't been sleeping."


Oh it was the nineties, I guess. Honestly it's all a blur for me now. ;-)

I'll have to check those out.

Hope you feel better, Genevieve.

Supervillainess said...

I had the very same thought on my blog when "Sex and the City" surprised everyone by actually making money: will SATC be a trailblazer for better superheroine movies?
http://femalecomicbooksuperheroes.blogspot.com/2008/06/whats-your-dream-superheroine-movie.html

Cindy Cooper said...

"I had the very same thought on my blog when "Sex and the City" surprised everyone by actually making money: will SATC be a trailblazer for better superheroine movies?"

I know I'm sending some happy thoughts in that direction, Supervillaness! Here's hoping!

Jennifer K. Stuller said...

Cindy--

I am so pleased that you wrote this impassioned and thoughtful post. I too have similar questions inspired by my childhood love of Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman, my adult love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and observing a frustrating lack of powerful women in entertainment media.

These same questions you ask led me to write a book exploring possible answers. It's part history, part reference, and part exploration of themes. It's a critique, but it's also celebratory. And your post is reassurance that there IS an audience for this work. (Yay!)

Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, should be published early next year.

A description is below, and at my website
http://www.ink-stainedamazon.com/

*****************************
Female spies, superheroes, detectives, meta-humans and action heroes in films, comics and television over seven decades, as well as their writers, directors, performers, illustrators and consumers are investigated in this comprehensive, engaging and thought-provoking history, inquiry, critique and reference guide to Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors.

Women have been led to believe that superheroes and heroism are not for them, and that they are little more than love interest, or sidekicks who stand by their Supermen. This is a false proposition argues Jennifer K. Stuller, as she uncovers the true history of how notable superwomen are represented in popular culture. She reveals how, from Wonder Woman to Buffy Summers, Emma Peel to Sydney Bristow, Charlie’s Angels to The Powerpuff Girls, the female hero in modern mythology has broken through the boy’s club barrier of tradition for shining, if all too brief, moments.

The book details the key differences in how women and men are represented as heroic in modern myth. Love and compassion, spies and sexuality, daddy’s girls, and the complicated roles of superwomen who are also mothers are all explored. The spotlight is also turned on to men and women who have created modern myths with a strong female presence and Stuller concludes by speculating on the future of gender representation in superheroic myth.

A useful Appendix offers resources for further information about feminist fangirl blogging, activism, and fiction, and the book features a Glossary of modern mythic women.

Jennifer K. Stuller is a writer and journalist, specializing in gender and sexuality in popular culture, who has been researching and speaking internationally on superwomen over the past decade.

Cindy Cooper said...

Jennifer! Thank you so much for your kind words. I look forward to reading your book. It's so cool that there are other people out there thinking about this. Maybe this means that eventually the entertainment and comic book industries will have to take notice.