Girls, Girls, Girls: Women in Comics, Part I: Films

Well finally.

I apologize in advance for the formatting. For some reason, WordPress hates MSWord.

When I was 14 years old, someone handed me a copy of this comic:

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(That is Chris Claremont’s autograph across the title. That is the only autograph I own of any famous person. *That* is how much that story meant to me.)

It defied everything I thought I knew comics to be. The art was not clean lines and bright colors. The story was less superpowers than it was brooding, almost Hitchcock-ian suspense. (And in reading back I found the lead up to this confrontation *was* very Hitchcock in that people around her thought she was crazy to the point she began to fear she was crazy.) The hero lost. Most importantly, the focus of the story was a young woman. A young woman wading out into the snow with little more than a down jacket and a bow and arrow to do battle with her inner and outer demons.

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I was hooked forever.

The portrayal of women in traditional superhero comics was a HUGE part of why I started to read them, and why many other women started to read them. Reading the first Marvel comics of the 1960’s is torturous exercise in chauvinism (you would shocked at how many female superheroes were models in their spare time *chuckle*), but superhero comics grew quickly and by the time I started reading them in the 1980’s, they were ahead of their time in how complex and powerfully women were portrayed, in both outer and inner strength. (Especially Claremont women.)

So having recently seen and heard many “feminists” bitching about how sexist comic books are, I’m going to tackle this in four parts:

The Films

The Characters

The Art
The Women Behind the Women of Comics

So let’s begin…

The Films
Many people love to criticize the portrayal of women in comic books, but many of these people have not actually read them. Most of those people are making their judgment from the films which are not representative of female heroes and superheroes in their source material.

DC
Batman, Batman, Superman, Batman, Batman, Batman, Superman, Batman, Batman. Dear Gods guys. Move ON already!

Catwoman was a prop in the last Nolan Batman film, and frankly one that was not terribly necessary. The Halle Berry Catwoman film does not exist in my universe.

People really have no idea how many awesome female characters in the DC Universe that are being ignored. Wonder Women and Catwoman are only the tippiest tip of the iceberg.

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Or my personal favorites:

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Don’t you love a super-heroine that shows up dressed for the occasion?

And…

BoP Lady Blackhawk
But more on Big Barda and Lady Blackhawk later.

The Marvel Entertainment Franchise:

The Avengers

Notice how Thor, the Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man all have film series of their own, but the Black Widow does not? Sure, neither does Hawkeye, but as long as Natasha Romanoff had been involved in the movie M.U. (Marvel Universe) in both the comic books and the films, she deserves some individual development of her own.

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Granted, BW is not a favorite character of mine. She’s rather clichéd. But if you are going to use her, if she is going to be the LONE female heroine in the landscape, put her on equal footing with her male peers.

Joss Whedon himself missed a step when he chose to not use the Wasp in the Avengers. Janet Van Dyne is one of the first female characters in Marvel Comics and, like Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor, a founding member of the Avengers.

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But then, she would have needed an establishing film to set her character up…

…which she still is not getting in favor of Ant Man. *head desk*

The next girl to be shown in the films will be the Scarlet Witch who is crazy powerful, and also very emotionally unstable and easily manipulated. Quite often, bat-shit crazy.

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Yeah, thanks guys. Love the way we’re being portrayed.

Captain America
Cap’s films have actually done o.k. with female characters. Granted, Betty Ross, Sharon Carter and the Black Widow are all in supporting roles, but they are all strong women. They just weren’t featured enough.

Thor
Sif. We need to see more Sif.

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Some more development from “bad ass chick” would be welcome.

Frigga actually got an upgrade from her comic book self which was more of the traditional mother goddess. The movie Frigga was wise, maternal and when she had to, kicked ass.

Iron Man
Pepper Potts is another one that is ignored and was actually decent, I think. I don’t read Iron Man regularly, but my impression is Pepper of the comic book is not quite so damsel-in-distress-y. However both the print and film versions are smart, strong, common sense women. I liked that Pepper of the film did something very sensible and so rare to action movies: She went to the authorities when they were in trouble.

What was nice is that in Iron Man 3 they put her in the suit, which is a nod to Pepper’s eventual development into becoming Rescue in the comic book.

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Sony: Spider-Man
Sure, let’s just focus on Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy, girlfriends who need to be saved on a regular basis. Why would Sony Pictures ever use his other girlfriend, the one with her own life who doesn’t need to be rescued all the time: the Black Cat? Or Ms. Marvel, a friend that Peter Parker actually has no romantic interest in?

20th Century Fox: X-Men and Daredevil.
O.K. they Got Elektra right in the first Daredevil film (the Elektra solo film does not exist in my universe).

But the X-Men films have some of the most egregious devaluations of female characters.

First of all, can we PLEASE stop putting Wolverine at the center of every goddamn story?

*ahem* Moving on.

Mystique is o.k.. Compared to the strength of her comic book counterpart, she is a let down. She was a leader in her own right, she was not Magneto’s Girl Friday. In the comics she is also frequently armed because shapeshifting is not an offensive ability and she is not stupid. I also do not know why a shapeshifter who can mimic clothing has to be naked the majority of the time except to serve as eye candy.

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She is also one of the first bisexual characters in traditional superhero comics, sharing a decades-long deep love affair with a pre-cognitive named Irene Adler/Destiny.

Jean Grey/Phoenix was good (though again, the Brett Ratner disaster of X3 does not exist in my universe).

Kitty Pryde’s portrayal is just lame. I think Ellen Page is perfect and if given Kitty’s full personality she would have a lot more fun with the role, but in the films Kitty is written as a mechanism, not a character. As I pointed out her use in X-Men: Days of Future Past was disappointing (she was the main character who went back in time in the comic) and made no sense (her powers have nothing to do with telepathy or time travel). More importantly she has been a mainstay of the X-Men for 34 years. We have watched her grow from smart, naive young teen into a smart, idealistic, kick ass woman. She needs to be more involved and prominent in their stories.

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And then, there’s Lockheed.

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But the two portrayals which were epic failures, devaluing the characters and pissing off fans to no end, were Storm and Emma Frost.

Storm is one of Marvel’s personifications of feminine strength. She often takes a motherly role towards the rest of the team (Kitty especially in the beginning), but she is not a woman you want to mess with.

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She can even get Wolverine to back down from a killing rage, just by the force of her personality and leadership.

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And Logan’s respect for Ororo grew to be mountains more than it has ever been for Scott/Cyclops. Logan would walk into hell if she told him too. Not because of any romantic feelings, but because he respects and cares about her that much.

In the comic Storm took over leading the X-Men when Scott took time off. And when his heart wasn’t in it anymore but he would not step aside, Storm kicked his ass in a Danger Room duel. And she was depowered at the time!

Halle Berry was woefully miscast (Angela Bassett would have been my choice, just to give you an idea of the kind of energy the character should have had), and in the scripts Storm was relegated to being an almost faceless supporting character.

Emma Frost’s portrayal was downright insulting. Emma Frost is a former member of the Hellfire club and associate of Sebastian Shaw, true. But she was never Shaw’s moll. She had her own agenda and schemes. Emma’s focus has always been the kids. In her earlier portrayals she was exploiting them for the Hellfire Club. But as she was developed and became a hero and her past was revealed (and as her entire team of kids died at the hands of another, future, member of the Hellfire Club) her interest became that of a protecting lioness, teaching the next generation of mutants how to survive in a rough world.

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X-23 was one of her students who was still being controlled by clandestine Weapon X program. You do NOT fuck with the children under Emma’s care.

Born to the economic purple, when her telepathy emerged her severely dysfunctional family put her, the little girl hearing voices in her head, in an insane asylum. Emma escaped to make her own way in the world, using her telepathy to create her own corporate empire. (Imagine the insider trading potential if you could read minds.) Her teaching methods are hard because she sees the world as a brutal place that kids need to protect themselves against. And yes, Emma uses her sexuality as part and parcel of how she manipulates and guards against that world, but she is by no means arm candy. (Or she should not be.)  Her past and protective motivations do not excuse her actions, which as seen above can sometimes be quite cruel, but she is much more than Hollywood allowed her to be on screen.

So comic books have not given female characters the short end of the stick, Hollywood has. But as I pointed out before, since 2000 the Entertainment Industry has been pretty dismissive of the ladies in general.

Next, who women in comics are and what they say about us.

And speaking of the third chapter, here is a perfect example of the real problem with how women in comics are protrayed these days: The Art

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