Given the events that have been unfolding in major cities across the globe recently, Superhero Subculture examines the role of female characters in modern comics, focussing mainly on solo titles. While this will focus on the role of characters in either team books, or in female led titles, it must be noted that there are a number of female characters who provide lesser roles in comics, but to look at all of these characters would require a significantly longer post (although based on feedback this may become a separate post).
The first point to consider is the actual number of comics led by female characters. Ignoring team books, DC currently have 7 female led titles, including Green Lanterns which features both a male and female lead, out of a total of 21 solo books. Marvel are currently publishing 17 female led titles of their 45 solo books. In terms of percentage, this puts DC at 33% and Marvel at roughly 38% for female led solo titles. It is interesting to note this split of roughly a third of solo comics featuring female leads, as this percentage is comparable to the difference in pay for men and women in the same jobs, and in a recent study of film men were found to have roughly two-thirds of dialogue on most films. While this percentage split is not representative of the gender divide in the real world as a whole, a number of the male led titles feature more well-established male heroes from earlier in Marvel and DC’s publishing history. The publishing of these books is potentially seen more as fan service than it is any sort of statement on gender stereotypes, although this was the case in the origin of many of these heroes. While this is not really a ‘get out of jail’ card for either publisher, both of these companies have made progress towards a more equal split in male vs female led comics in recent years, so we can hope that both companies are looking to make themselves more representative in the future.
One thing that has always been somewhat disappointing to me though is the number of female led comics that are effectively spin-offs of well-known male heroes. I am excluding the current Green Lanterns series for this, as a key part of the mythos of that book is the selection of new Green Lanterns whenever a previous Lantern has died. DC’s titles include Batgirl, Batwoman, Supergirl and Superwoman, all of who have powers similar to their male counterparts. Similarly, Marvel currently publishes Silk and Spider-Gwen, who are both variants on Spider-Man from different universes, Gwen-Pool, who is somewhat like a female Deadpool, and a female Thor. The fact the many of these heroines are somewhat overshadowed by their male counterparts, be they super powered or not, is a shame. It would seem to suggest that neither company feels that the development of new female characters is not seen as worth the time and effort, and that potentially these comic books are not as profitable for publishers. That the female characters often tend to ride on male characters coat-tails it suggests they still need a guiding figure, and that these female characters are following the examples set down by their male counterparts. However, both companies are also publishing a large number of titles with individualised women who do not have a comparable male character in their universe, which is refreshing to see.
Despite a number of female characters being overshadowed, in name at least, by male characters, each female character has been given a very different and distinctive personality and backstory than the men who have held the titles before them. For example, the Jane Foster Thor is a far more human version of Thor. She is fighting both as Thor and as Jane Foster against a male dominated world, both on earth, in her seat on the council of realms, and as Thor against a rather patriarchal vision of Asgard. Similarly, DC’s mythological heroine, Wonder Woman, constantly fights to defend her place in a world dominated by male characters. It is refreshing to see Steve Trevor’s role reduced in these stories as well, as it places far more emphasis on the power and determination of Wonder Woman.
Equally, more and more of these female characters are also members of ethnic or religious minorities. Ms. Marvel is the first Muslim Marvel character, which has often placed her in a difficult position in the American setting of Marvel’s comics. This has also become more of a feature in Champions, Marvel’s new team made of teen heroes who are determined to tackle the social problems that this generation is currently facing, including racism and sexism. Jessica Cruz, one of DC’s two new Green Lanterns, is a young Hispanic who is battling against anxiety whilst trying to summon enough willpower to successfully use her Green Lantern ring. Both these characters, and many others, use the challenges they have faced in their civilian lives to help them find the courage, power and bravery to tackle the villains.
More and more female characters are now champions for alternative sexualities. Many of the heroines are bi-sexual, such as Harley Quinn. Greg Rucka has recently, and somewhat controversially, stated that Wonder Woman is canonically queer, if not bisexual. Kate Kane, the current Batwoman, is also openly homosexual. Some could look at this as potentially catering to the male gaze, and while in some comics this is somewhat evident, such as a recent issue of Harley Quinn in which both her and Poison Ivy spent the issue visiting a nudist colony, this seems to only be true in the cases of characters who have used their sexuality to their own advantage previously. Again, this may somewhat be catering to male audiences, or an implication that women’s power come mostly from sex, but again this is rarely the case. Rather, the characters’ sexuality is more often approached with care and explored in a way similar to most heterosexual relationships in comics. While I am pleased to see that Marvel and DC are using their comics to promote inclusivity and acceptance of alternative sexualities, I feel both should be careful to make sure they do not make any changes purely to try and be more inclusive, as this can alienate audiences, particularly those who are of these sexual orientations, but also because it can appear that the writers are treating this subject area as a far more trivial matter than it is for many people.
One of the more impressive things that I have also noticed recently, is the prominence of female characters in the team books that both publishers print. From the Justice League to the Suicide Squad, and from the Avengers to the Thunderbolts, almost all of the team books that are being published currently feature strong female characters as a part of their roster. Moreover, in many of these titles, the female members of the team take on major roles, and in some cases even lead their teams, despite being surrounded by super-powered men. Ms Marvel is somewhat the leader of the Champions, although no formal leadership seems to be in place for this team yet. Batwoman is often in charge of the team in Detective Comics, and Katana is one of the leaders of the Suicide Squad in the field. Of all the female characters in these team books, Amanda Waller is possibly one of the most impressive. Despite her lack of superpowers, and the fact she is normally surrounded by super-powered heroes, and more often villains, she is unflinching and in total command of the entirety of Belle Reve prison. She demands unwavering loyalty from her allies, and the Suicide Squad through a combination of fear, intimidation and command (and in the case of her squad, brain bombs). She is undoubtedly one of the strongest women in the DC universe.
While the overall state of affairs for female leads in DC and Marvel comics still leaves something to be desired in order to make it fully reflective of the larger world, both publishers have made significant strides towards addressing this inequality. The rise of more female superheroines, as well as their position in both their own titles and team books, has given a new generation of young comic fans a whole new set of personal heroes for them to follow. Hopefully the ideals set forth by these heroes will lead this new generation to a sense of liberation and self-belief that the situation in their own societies may not be instilling them with at the moment.
Thanks to Sarah Lawrence of Boshemia for consulting/advising on this article. The study on the split of dialogue between male and female characters in film can be found here.