Two weeks ago, I addressed the all-too-common practice of using the suffering of women as plot devices for the development of male characters. Now I wish to discuss a more pernicious issue: the rampant sexual objectification of female characters in comics. Comics is certainly not the only medium to treat female characters in a shallow, sexualized way, but the focus on visual images in comics further amplifies the problem.
Like the film and television industries, comics have long strayed away from showing sexually explicit images. The dawn of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, a corollary to the MPAA rating system for films, effectively banned any overt reference to sex in comics. Prohibitions against sexual material sometimes edged on the nonsensical. For example, esteemed writer Neil Gaiman was reportedly not allowed to include a reference to masturbation in an issue of his groundbreaking series Sandman. The loosening of sexual mores in later years did benefit the quality of storytelling, but it also facilitated the representation of women as mere objects of desire and conquest.
The most recent — and perhaps most jarring — example of objectification occurred in 2011, when DC Comics rebooted their entire line of titles in the “New 52” event. One comic to come out of the New 52 was Red Hood and the Outlaws, which featured a team comprised of various minor characters in the DC Universe, including former Batman sidekick Jason Todd, former Green Arrow sidekick Arsenal and Starfire, a classic member of the Teen Titans. Starfire had always been characterized as a free-spirited romantic whose alien background left her a bit naïve of the predatory nature of human sexual interaction. However, writer Scott Lobdell’s portrayal of her in Red Hood replaces this naiveté with an excessive level of sexuality. Starfire appears in a skimpy bikini, with artist Kenneth Rocafort leaving practically nothing to the reader’s imagination, and Lobdell matches Starfire’s titillating appearance with a bizarrely promiscuous personality — for example, she asks various characters to have sex with her and later forgets who she had relations with. Writer Laura Hudson for Comics Alliance analyzes Starfire’s characterization in noting the character’s lack of agency when asking around for bedroom partners. It’s not the sexual liberation of a female character that’s particularly problematic — the classic X-Men seductress Emma Frost pursues men sometimes for nefarious reasons, but always by her own will and in a way that is conducive to her motives and circumstances. Starfire’s New 52 characterization as a bland “sex doll” sharply contrasts with the Starfire from the Teen Titans show on Cartoon Network that most young readers are familiar with. In the animated series, Starfire is likable, funny and kind—a far cry from the Starfire seen in Red Hood. However, Starfire’s fawning obsession with casual sex persists to please a number of fans: “It’s not about what Starfire wants. It’s about what straight male readers want. And they want to see Starfire with her clothes falling off.”
Therein lies the problem: comic book readers tend to mostly be white, heterosexual males.The belief that men need to be sexually aroused by their comics devalues not only the creative potential of the medium but also the intellectual capacities of the readers. Nevertheless, DC’s release of Red Hood was its most significant publishing event of the 21st century. Furthermore, it seems the medium not only caters to heterosexual males but also hinders the representation of other sexualities. Case in point: DC infamously banned a planned lesbian marriage for Batwoman in 2013. The comics industry has gradually incorporated LGBT characters, but marrying off Batwoman (well before U.S. v. Windsor) would have made a strong statement in support of equality for LGBT couples. Unfortunately, DC vetoed the decision, and the creative team behind Batwoman quit the book in protest.
Besides poor and occasionally sexist writing, comics have also objectified women through artwork. Two artists who have gained particular notoriety for their intensely erotic art are Milo Manara and Greg Land. Manara famously illustrated the one-shot X-Women(a comic separate from the current ongoing series and often non-canonical), showcasing the female X-Men characters in various states of undress. The Italian illustrator also drew fan ire with his racy variant cover for the new Spider-Woman series. Manara’s portrayal of Spider-Woman bottom-up in a skintight red suit provoked both criticism and parody. Greg Land has admitted to using pornographic images as models for some of his art pieces, showing just how explicit (and arguably uncreative) some comic art has become. During his mid-2000s run on the X-Men titles, Land reportedly lifted some superheroines’ poses directly from pornographic material. An especially devoted Tumblr page has tracked Land’s more jarring images, including some of his most recent work.
Much of this information is unsurprising yet, frankly, unsettling. With horrific objectification occurring in books as recently as 2011, critics may think the comics industry has stagnated in its diversification of characters and respect for female roles. Without a doubt, the industry has failed in certain respects when it comes to tasteful and meaningful portrayals of female and LGBT characters. However, the widespread critical response by fans to these aforementioned events highlights the growing sophistication of comics fans toward these issues. In addition, creators like Kelly Sue DeConnick have covered significant ground in establishing female leads such as in DeConnick’s Captain Marvel series. Also, Marvel’s recent Storm series puts the X-Men’s badass African weather mutant into a much-deserved starring role.
Superhero comics, like every other medium for creative work, must work to incorporate diversity. But possibly even more importantly, readers need to voice their preferences against derogatory material if we want to see the world we live in better reflected in the comics we read and love.