Who’s the fairest of them all?

Published: November 18, 2012

Heaving bosoms and skin-tight spandex. Are female comic characters doomed to be mere sex symbols?

Heaving bosoms and skin-tight spandex. Are female comic characters doomed to be mere sex symbols? Sheena was the very first female comic book character to have her own series. Heaving bosoms and skin-tight spandex. Are female comic characters doomed to be mere sex symbols? Heaving bosoms and skin-tight spandex. Are female comic characters doomed to be mere sex symbols? Heaving bosoms and skin-tight spandex. Are female comic characters doomed to be mere sex symbols? Heaving bosoms and skin-tight spandex. Are female comic characters doomed to be mere sex symbols? Heaving bosoms and skin-tight spandex. Are female comic characters doomed to be mere sex symbols? Heaving bosoms and skin-tight spandex. Are female comic characters doomed to be mere sex symbols? Heaving bosoms and skin-tight spandex. Are female comic characters doomed to be mere sex symbols?

There she stands: a tall, statuesque leggy blonde clad only in animal skin. Standing with her legs apart, she turns away from a slain black panther on the ground, moving presumably to attack the roaring lion that leaps out at her. With arms akimbo, a sharp knife in one hand and a spear in the other, she looks tough, she looks fierce and she definitely doesn’t look like she needs help. She is Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, in her 1942 debut.

Sheena was the very first female comic book character to have her own series — she even beat out the much longer lasting Wonder Woman. With no superhuman powers, gadgets or special weapons, she excelled in hand-to-hand combat, dealt with wild animals of every sort (men included) and often found herself rescuing her little male sidekick — or ‘handsome escort’ as he was known.

Leaving aside the awkward racial politics involved: Sheena being the ‘white queen’ of the primitive ‘jungle’ tribes (this was all entirely acceptable at that point in history, of course), or how the ‘Golden Girl of the Congo’ stayed so fair while running around mostly bare in the jungle sun all day, Sheena was startlingly modern for a Golden Age heroine.

This was when most of the female characters in comics were considered empowered just for having jobs or managing regular lives without men. Again, all this was in keeping with the prevailing mores of that era.

Sure, Sheena was dressed in a ragged cheetah hide ‘dress’ — skimpy by the day’s standards — but she wasn’t ever presented as a fetish — the age of over-sexualisation of female comic book characters was yet to come.

I’d like to say that Sheena escaped that age entirely, but she did re-emerge decades later, having evolved inevitably into some sort of tacky Jungle Barbie in the 2000s.

While there are a great many examples of positive female characterisation of comic book heroes in graphic novels today, particularly in indie ones (we are far from the days of the stereotypical damsels in distress when the only role of a female character was to either wait for rescue or die violently), there are still a shockingly large number of stories in mainstream serialised comics that would never pass the Bechdel Test — a litmus test for sexism, which requires a comic to have (1) at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man.

Neither of the two largest comic book publishers, DC and Marvel, seem particularly interested in breaking past the stereotype that’s been set up for what’s constantly talked about as a ‘strong female character’.

To many writers, that seems to mean a hyper-sexual woman who is able to knock out a gang of thugs while bursting out of fetish gear while also wearing 6-inch heels. Of course this is fiction, though I’m certain many women would want 6-inch heels to be that practical and comfortable. Of course this is just wish fulfilment and fantasy — but whose wish? Whose fantasy? The lack of women writing for mainstream comics and the excessive number of female heroes and villains dressed in what author Warren Ellis calls “body condom pervert suits” should give you a hint.

The main reason for this is that DC and Marvel seem to believe the comic reading audience is overwhelmingly male. Even the women hired to write for comics starring the entirely female superhero team of Birds of Prey appear to have accepted the status quo. In comic books, even when women write about women, it’s always for a male audience.

But perhaps the smaller publishers will help change this; publisher Dark Horse Comics stands out in its depiction of progressive female heroes. With a line-up of comics that feature stellar heroes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Alien-slaying Ellen Ripley, I’ll even forgive them a dubious run of a Barb Wire series.

But the comics that win the gold standard for having never treated their female characters as mere sex symbols are the ones published by Vertigo, a subsidiary of DC that is aimed at ‘sophisticated readers’. Carrying a ‘suggested for mature readers’ warning (perhaps because immature readers truly believe women crime-fighters can stop bullets with cleavage?), Vertigo has most famously published Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and the longstanding Fables comics, which focus on fairy tale characters who have been thrown out of their homeland by ‘the Adversary’ and are now forced to live as a hidden community in New York City.

Creator Bill Willingham has taken a free hand with reinterpreting many classic fairy tale characters, and while the women are either all archetypically beautiful or old and haggard/plump (they’re fairy tale characters — what did you expect?), none of them have been fetishised. These are adults — when they need to run their world, fight the Adversary or sort out the problems of others, they tend to keep their clothes on.

Fables’ most recent spinoff has been Fairest, a series which tells the ‘secret histories’ of the female characters in the Fables-verse: Sleeping Beauty, The Snow Queen, Snow White, Rose Red, and in the case of writer Lauren Beukes, Rapunzel. Beukes, the Arthur C Clarke award winning writer of Zoo City, became involved in the Fables-verse after meeting creator Bill Willingham at the The World Science Fiction Convention. Her arc for Fairest is set in Japan — Rapunzel travels there from Fabletown to sort out some secrets from her past.

Here is a rare case — a woman writing a comic book about one of the world’s best known and loved female fairy tale characters — that sad, pathetic, beautiful little girl locked in a tower waiting for a prince to save her. Except that the Fables-verse has never featured such a single-faceted and weak female character. Beukes creates a Rapunzel who — while still with problematic hair — is far from the girl of the fairy tale. This Rapunzel is not innocent: with a turbulent love life that involves affairs with a Japanese fox spirit and having her children stolen away from her, she is in control of her life — if not entirely in control of her hair.

Via email, Beukes recently described the choices for characters in Fairest: “You want heroes who have issues, who make mistakes, who flounder and **** up and still find a way to come through. I think Bill Willingham’s always done an amazing job on Fables with exactly that — creating deep, real people having complex relationships with themselves and each other, using the original fairytales archetypes as a springboard.”

The important thing here is that this can be said about all Fables characters — there has been no difference in the treatment of the female characters, as there evidently is in many mainstream comics. Beukes has taken this same stance with Rapunzel. It’s not a matter of creating female characters devoid of sexuality entirely — just a matter of avoiding the cliché of sexy in a “cleavage-popping-window-in-your-costume kinda way,” as Beukes puts it. And even though she didn’t “write her that way in reaction to more common and problematic portrayals of heroines,” Rapunzel is still refreshing because, as Beukes says: “I wrote the character she needed to be for this story. Sharp, dark, a sensualist with a provocative haunted past.”

So how does a writer or a comic book artist manage a character who is sexual and yet not hyper-sexualised the way Power Girl or Black Canary are? Beukes explains, “We (editor Shelly Bond, illustrator Inaki Miranda and I) were all very sensitive to how we depicted that. I don’t think any of it is gratuitous. It’s there as an essential part of the story and the sex scenes, like the violence or the horror, have to be real. I want readers to really feel it.”

Unfortunately, Fables remains an exception to the rule. Zenescope Comics, for example, also carries a line based on Fairy Tale archetypes, but in a way completely unlike Fables’. Where Fables features a mature handling of female characters, with no desire to depict them as mere sexual objects, Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales is an unmitigated sexploitation extravaganza with every single female character scantily clad in standard clichéd fetish versions of their Fairy Tale wardrobe. All the female characters — all the time — are purely fetish caricatures. Alice grows up a lot — but her little blue and white outfit doesn’t. The Queen of Hearts is dressed in a Halloween-stripper version of what I presume was once a dress. Wendy cavorts with the nefarious Captain Hook while wearing a thong. Tinkerbell straddles and strangles a naked ‘evil’ fairy in mid air, who is ‘clothed’ only in tattoos. The body of each of these characters is interchangeable with the other. That’s fitting, since the prototype for their bodies seems to be a Barbie doll. Zenescope has even published a ‘swimsuit edition’, just in case the nudity wasn’t gratuitous enough in their regular editions.

It’s not enough to simply call these heroes ‘strong female characters’ and have them fight it out occasionally — when that is their only characteristic. They remain single-faceted. Unfortunately, this remains the case with most of the female heroes in serialised comics today: Catwoman is still found in far too many oddly compromising positions — on her knees drinking milk from a bowl Batman has placed on the floor on one DC cover, bursting out of her catsuit on others — for her to be anything other a mere fetish object for what is presumed by publishers to be an aggressively heterosexual teenage male audience. It’s a longstanding tradition of comic books of course, but sometimes, just like the tightly fitting latex outfits, it just doesn’t leave any room to breathe. “Sexism is real,” adds Beukes, “on and off the page.”

A few writers like Bill Willingham and Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffy series and director of the Avengers movie, have tried to change the zeitgeist of serialised mainstream comic books. There’s still too much debate around the need to create well realised female characters instead of just sexual ones. When asked why he wrote ‘strong female characters’, Joss Whedon replied, “because you’re still asking me that question.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 18th, 2012.

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