Guest post: Women in Comics–an Independent Research Report, by Erica

Jen Phillips’s 11-year-old daughter wrote a research paper for school which is so good it needs to be published here, which Jen gave me permission to do.

It was first published on J. Robert Deans’s blog in UPDATE #2: Hey, Ladies! (You Are) Comics!

Women in Comics–an Independent Research Report, by Erica

Women In Comics: Panel One

Women In Comics: By Erica

The topic I chose is female superheroes in comics. I’ve always been interested in comics, especially when there is a female main character. I noticed some differences in the way female characters are represented compared to male characters. I think it is important that women and men are represented as equals, so I decided to dig deeper into the creation of the characters. I learned some interesting thing that I will now share with you!

Women In Comics: Panel Two

Black Widow

First, I noticed a big difference in how men and women were drawn. Almost all the men have better powers stances, like “I’m ready for action” and the women look graceful and dainty. It seems as if they can’t look like a warrior and pretty at the same time. Most male superheroes are drawn with normal athletic bodies and usually have adequate clothing. Also almost all the females have long hair that is always down, which is easy to grab in combat Not very practival right? The females often have exaggerated body parts and body shapes, and physically impossible  poses. This matters because if you were a little boy and you read a comic with a great male superhero who saves the day and looks heroic too, then you would want to be that person. But if you were a little girl and all the females in your book had skimpy costumes then you would most likely not want to be them.

Women In Comics: Panel Three

Susan Richards: The Invisible Woman, and a wife and mother

Women In Comics: Panel Four

Jessica Walters: the She-Hulk, and a practicing attorney

We all know superheroes don’t fight every second right? Outside of fighting, most superheroes are important to the world in other ways. For example,  She-Hulk is a lawyer, Captain Marvel is an airforce pilot, Sue Storm (A.K.A. The Invisible Woman) is a mother and a wife, and Storm (from X-Men) is a teacher. These jobs are all very important, but if you compare them to the men’s jobs, there are some differences.  For example, Iron Man is a brilliant billionare inventor, Reed Richards (Mr.Fantasic and Sue Storm’s husband) is a scientific genius, as is Peter Parker (A.K.A. Spiderman).  These men are all portrayed as super smart and acomplished. The women’s jobs are not on the same level.

Women In Comics: Panel Five

Susan Storm, from team “mascot” to its most important member

Superheros get their powers in many different ways. Some, like Mystique, Storm, Emma Frost, and Jean Grey from “X-Men” are born mutants. Others, like the Invisible Woman and the rest of the Fantastic Four, got their powers from being exposed to space radiation. Not every superhero has super powers though, for example Black Widow is great at martial arts and uses high tech equipment. There are many different types of powers, but in general male superheroes have offensive powers for attacking, while the female superheroes have defensive powers for protecting themselves and the team.  I was surprised when I relized that the types of powers weren’t equal.

Women In Comics: Panel Six

Unrealistic Poses

Change can be big or change can be small. The changes of the female characters over the years were big and small. In WWII, (1940s) there were a lot of patriotic superheros. Most of the female characters were drawn so the soliders would have pretty pictures of women to look at. Also in the 1940s, more than half the time Female characters were shown, they were doing chores. If the female characters had children, the child was more likely to be a son. During the 1960s, comic artists tried to draw female characters more equal and powerful but that didn’t work because that wasn’t what the buyers wanted, so they went back to drawing them with not much clothing and unrealistic body shapes and poses. In the past most female characters were sidekicks or assistant to the main MALE superhero. In the past few decades, female characters have slowly gotten more speaking roles and more equal partnerships.

Women In Comics: Panel Seven

Why can’t all comics be like this?

Women In Comics: Panel Eight

Women In Comics: Panel Eight

As history shows, comics have ben mostly drawn for boys and men. Even though changes have happened over the years, in 2010 the editor of DC comics said “The superhero story has been more appealing to boys than girls”. This attitude explains why most comics are still made for male readers. Recently though, more female writers and artists are working in comics and have been giving female characters more speaking lines, cooler roles, and more diversity. But not everybody is happy with these changes. Last month,  Janelle Asselin, a comic book editor and writer, wrote an article criticizing the cover art of the new Teen Titans series. Ms. Asselin thought the teenage girl on the cover was drawn inappropriately and also thought it was bad that the only person of color on the team was way in the background. She felt that the cover art would probably not attract new readers who were girls or people of color. After her article was published, she received hundreds of angry letters and even threats of violence. I can’t believe people would treat a real person that badly over an opinion she had about a comic book character.

I was very interested in learning more about this topic. I don’t like how the comic industry is disrespecting women. There have been some changes in how the characters have been portrayed since they were first created, but the genre is still not very open to women.  As a fairly educated comic book reader, some of the pictures that I see now make me feel uncomfortable and disappointed that someone would draw a human being like that. I think a lot of the stuff I learned was very important and I think comic artists and editors still have a long way to go before their comics will appeal to female readers.  Maybe they can put more women on the offensive side and more men on the defensive side, not completely switching the two, but making them more equal.  I hope some day all the comics will be more equal and diverse. After all, there are more ways to be super than looking super!


  1. lakitha tolbert says

    Well said, erica.

    The comics industry should probably discus the topic of superhero comics with young women instead of assuming they don’t read them.

  2. busterggi says

    At least the Black Widow stopped wearing a veil & smoking. Though that wasn’t until after she met Hawkeye so he’ll probably get the credit for her doing so.

  3. jedibear says

    Storm, of the X-Men, is one of my favorite comic characters, and she’s pretty capable when it comes to offense and possibly the most powerful of the X-Men overall.

    Not disagreeing with the overall trend, but there’s a popular character that bucks it pretty thoroughly.

  4. jenBPhillips says

    for the record, Erica agrees with you about Storm, and mentioned that particular exception in her speech when talking about the general trend.

  5. Pen says

    I love that essay and I’ll be passing it on to my daughter who also has strong views about these things. My daughter is a Japanese Manga and Anime fan, rather than an American comic fan. Things are a little different in that field I think, though still just as sexist. It’ll be interesting to see if she has any comparative views.

    Another thought – my daughter is a keen and talented drawer of Manga characters and comics herself. But the way people learn to do these things is by apprenticing themselves to what’s already been done – copying and learning conventions from other artists. Nobody invents from scratch. So, even as future artists as well as readers, girls are having to consume and reproduce a fairly toxic gender role cocktail. Then ultimately, if they become at all serious about their work, they have to gain patronage from people higher up in the genre – people who are committed to these same sexist tropes.

  6. thetalkingstove says

    The women’s jobs are not on the same level.

    That’s a really great point. It’s not just about how the characters look, but what they actually do. And all the main ‘super-genius’ characters are men.

    In fact, I did a little googlin’ to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anyone. Marvel’s own wiki site has a list of the most intelligent people in their universe. Of the 14 ranked ‘Genius’ or higher, a grand total of one is a woman, and she isn’t at all a well known character as far as I’m aware (Gaea, a god).

    Yikes. I wouldn’t expect a 50:50 split (although why not?) but c’mon Marvel. You can do better than 7%.

    Oh, and in the ‘Below Normal’ category, five out of nine are women. Hmm.

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