How Feminism is Actually Improving Comic Books

For the past seven or so years, since Marvel’s Iron Man first appeared in theaters across the world, there has seen a visible influx of comic book readers which seems to increase daily. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has arguably opened a door to the general public, allowing them to take an interest in comic books due to the wildly successful movies they have been releasing over the years. Previously, comic books were stigmatized (to an extent) as something that was exclusive to the nerds who “live in their parents basements”, to kids or to guys who “can’t get girlfriends” but they are slowly becoming a medium that everyone can enjoy. While many argue that comic books still aren’t at the all-inclusive level they should be, they have definitely been taking massive steps in the right direction. In recent years the feminist movement has tried to push for a more inclusive comic book world, one that openly welcomed all people; not just in theory but in practice. You see, feminism is about more that equal rights for women. Most feminists believe in equal rights for all people including LGBTQ+ people, people of color and other minorities of all genders and ages. Feminism also works towards inclusion of these minorities into mainstream media and in this day and age that means mediums like video games, cinema, television series’ and comic books. Contrary to the beliefs of some, feminists aren’t trying to control any of these mediums, thus ruining them (apparently), but instead are trying to make them more fair to all people through diversity and inclusion.

comicsdiverse

Modern comic books can be traced back to the 1930’s and have since become a large staple of popular culture nearly 90 years later. It’s inarguable that for almost all of those years comic books have had one primary target audience: young boys and men. Not only are most major comic book heroes male, historically, but even female heroes were created/designed with men in mind. Without giving an in-depth history lesson, I am going to assume that most people reading this know what I am talking about. It’s not hard to pick up a comic and see the target audience in the way the comic is written or drawn (muscular male characters appealing to male power fantasies, scantily clad females serving as sexual objects for the male gaze, etc.), but that is all changing, taking a turn in a more inclusive, more progressive direction. Though it hasn’t been a smooth transition thanks to certain folks who would prefer that comic books remain stuck in the old ways.

Since the aforementioned influx in comic book fans began, there has been a constant push back from those who I’ll call gatekeepers – the crowd of people who were into comics before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) took off and who actively ward off newcomers. Much like with long-term fans of anything imaginable, there is always a specific group of people who are reluctant to accept newcomers. Not all people who were into comics before the MCU are reluctant though, in fact I’d say most of them are welcoming to new age fans, but there is definitely a portion who are against newcomers. To be clear this is the toxic minority in theory; the loud yet relatively small portion of people who are against inclusivity and diversity on principle because, oh I don’t know, they are stuck in their ways and feel that these changes will somehow implode the comic book multiverse. Honestly I can’t figure how their mindset makes sense but regardless, you see them around the web posting hateful things and being generally sexist, homophobic and racist any time minorities are included into the comic world or when a slight change is made to a comic book in order to be more inclusive (ie a costume change so that a female character isn’t mostly naked while fighting crime, etc.).

With newer character designs and characters representing a wider range of sexualities, genders, religions and ethnicities, the comic book world is aglow with a general sense of growing diversity, a thing that I feel everyone can appreciate. The major benefit of this is that people who maybe didn’t know what to read before as newcomers to comics are seeing characters that they can relate to, characters that they can understand on a more personal level, characters that look more appropriate, or even just characters that are downright cooler than they ever have been. So these people are getting into comics and supporting the industry through their purchases which leads to more comics than ever before being available now, regardless of whether or not you can personally relate to the diversified characters. This is all due to writers, artists and comic book companies trying to make their products more accessible as well as feminists pushing for a more diverse and inclusive space in the world of comics; one that doesn’t solely attempt to target young males and boys as it did in the past.

The way I see it, there are three main ways in which comics are becoming a pastime for everyone: through proper presentation, greater diversity and general inclusion. As many know, the gatekeepers have been hard at work in bawking at every changed costume, every diverse addition to a comic book series, and every thing that comic books are doing to be inclusive to all people. Too many times have I seen someone comment that “feminism is ruining comics” or that “thanks to feminists and social justice warriors, the comic book industry is becoming garbage”. I’d like to counter those comments by pointing out all the ways in which feminism is actually helping the world of comics rather that “destroying” it.

Proper Presentation

In recent news, as in within the past year or so, many female comic book characters have been given redesigned costumes and bodies. These redesigns typically consist of a more natural appearance for women (and even some men) which makes them look less like muscular barbie dolls and more like actual human beings. One top of more realistic bodies and appearances, a few have also been given better costumes that are sometimes more practical and sometimes simply more covering, or both. This is a huge part of the overall goal of becoming inclusive because when women look overly sexualized in comics it tends to turn new female readers away due to the implication that this is something meant for males. Even many women who have been reading comics for years have been getting sick of the ridiculous ways in which comic book heroines have been drawn and designed (example here).

I’d like to note beforehand that I talk about practicality in regards to armor/costume designs a lot throughout this article and I want to clarify that I am indeed aware that these are fictional comic book heroes and thus shouldn’t be held to real world practicality standards. That being said, there is a level of practicality that I expect from a superhero and I detail that expectation when applicable. Most of these characters have gone through plenty of costume designs over the years, but typically their past designs, while still more covering in some cases, were still geared towards heterosexual males via their obvious focus on sex appeal. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Spiderwoman

With Spider-Woman’s new design we not only see a more realistic presentation, we see a more relatable character, appearance-wise. This is not to say that simply being super skinny in the waist yet super muscular in the arms and legs with painfully large, unsupported breasts is necessarily unrealistic, but given that she glides around and kicks ass it is an impracticable design for a fictional character. Even the new version is slender, maybe even too slender to some, but she isn’t unrealistically proportioned nor is her costume a thin piece of latex. The former Spider-Woman was all sex appeal and no realism, which may have been fine for a time but given that comic books are reaching a broader audience that includes females, children and teens I think it was time for a redesign.

MarvelAngela

Marvel’s Angela, a character originally created as an Angel/Bounty Hunter appearing in Spawn comics then later being rewritten as Thor’s lost sister in the 2014 Original Sin storyline, was also given a new costume design recently. Her former costume, seen here, was little more than a bikini, a large belt and thigh-high boots and was another example of obvious sex appeal with a lack of practicality (even for an Angel/Asgardian). I think this example shows that new costume designs for female characters aren’t necessarily done with the sole intent to make a character not sexy, which gatekeepers tend to be most angry about in regards to character costume redesigns. There is nothing wrong with looking sexy yet still being practical and Angela’s new design is proof of that. I’d say Angela’s new appearance is equal parts sexy and warrior badass.

WonderWoman

The newest Wonder Woman design, seen above, will be featured in DC’s major post Convergence Event relaunch. Superman and Batman have been given new looks as well, but I’d like to focus a bit on Wonder Woman here as this is far from her first costume redesign. Wonder Woman has been given various costumes over the years with varying degrees of coverage, armor and overall design. She’s worn pants, skirts, leotards, leather jackets and everything in between. This is the first time, however, that the famous Amazonian has been given a full coverage costume that features what appears to feature a hefty amount of armor. While still maintaining her iconic feminine physique, Wonder Woman will now have proper armor for battle which I find to be really positive and also downright cool.

Batgirl

Batgirl received a newly redesigned costume last year which is being paired with a more hip Barbara Gordon in an effort to appeal to a younger fanbase. Batgirl is the perfect candidate, in my opinion, for a character who deserves such a re-envisioning. She is young, she is smart and she is strong, the latter two being great qualities to glorify for youthful readers. Her previous costume wasn’t necessarily impracticable, nor did it focus too heavily on sex appeal, and frankly there wasn’t a lot wrong with it. Nevertheless I find the new design to be fitting to Barbara’s new, more youthful personality and does a great job of visually bringing in a younger generation as well as others of all ages to a great comic series starring a wonderful woman.

As you can see, these redesigns as well as many others serve to improve the appearance of the character, to make them look more realistic rather than completely impracticable. As I said, practicality in comic book appearances can be stretched a bit considering it’s fiction, fantasy and aliens, but at the same time I find it hard to take a character seriously when they look more like strippers and less like crime fighters/action heroes. This is important because if comics are trying to appeal to more people, specifically young girls and women, then it’s key to take a step away from the in-your-face sexual objectification that was previously accepted due to the target audience being heterosexual males and take a step towards designs that can appeal to everyone. Feminism is helping in this venue by directly calling out the sexual objectification of female heroes including all the downfalls included with such portrayals. Working to promote practical designs not only gives comic book heroines a better look, but also helps to create comic books that have the potential to appeal to all kinds of people.

*Note that I am in no way implying that male characters are not subject to improper presentation simply because I used only female examples. I simply think that female presentation is the most skewed and that females are more sexualized and objectified than men in the comic book medium.* 

Greater Diversity:

The definition of diversity can be boiled down to simply meaning variety. I find that a variety of people is extremely important in the media, in pop culture and especially in mediums like video games and comic books. When I talk about comic book diversity I mean to talk about the addition of variety into comics themselves. This means adding characters with varying genders, religions, ethnicities, abilities, and sexual orientations. There have always been female comic book characters, or people of color in comics, but a handful of characters isn’t quite enough to represent the vastness of diversity that is present in our everyday lives. . Over the past year or so we have seen a good deal of variety added into the world of comics via major characters being diversified.

Last year we saw Steve Rogers hand his shield over to Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, in order for Wilson to assume the role of Captain America due to Rogers’ loss of strength, vitality and youth. This is the first time a non-Caucasian man has taken on the role of Captain America.

SamWilsonCap

This year we saw a new Asian-American character in the Spider-verse named Cindy Moon, AKA Silk. She was bitten by the same radioactive spider that bit Peter Parker (as it fell from his hand it bit her on the ankle) and was thus given super powers similar to that of Spider-Man.

Silk

This past year we also saw a brand new Thor, one that is notably not a male. Having the power to wield Mjolnir, Thor is now part of a new line of comics in which she stars in alongside other classic Asgardians as well as the previous Thor.

Thor

The title of Ms. Marvel has been passed down to a new women named Kamala Khan. She is a young girl that not only appeals to a younger demographic due to her age and personality, but is also the first Pakistani-American and Muslim character to headline a comic series.

KamalaKhan

Another addition to the Spider-verse is Miles Morales, a half Black, half Hispanic boy who has recently (follow the events of Marvel’s Secret Wars) become Spider-Man.

MilesMorales

Midnighter, an openly gay superhero, has recently received his own comic series. Other notable LGBT heroes appearing as leads of their own series include Batwoman, Catwoman and Northstar.

Midnighter

There are many more examples of diversity in comic books via a variety of different characters with varying backgrounds. If you look at independent comic book series (such as Rat Queens and Lumberjanes) you will find a plethora of uniquely diverse characters from all walks of life. With this handful though we see that within the past year both Marvel and DC, the big two, have taken big steps to diversify their character line-up. These characters not only seek to show that there are more than one or two kinds of people in the world of superheroes, they also add variety to the comics they are in which provides us with different stories told through a greater variety of perspectives. This is hugely important as a way to give everyone something new, exciting and inclusive to all fans and prospective fans of comic books. Having characters that appeal to more people, that others can relate to, not only boosts sales (see the new Thor outselling previous Thor) but also draws in more people which in turn makes the world of comic books that much more inclusive to readers everywhere. I can’t say this is all thanks to feminism alone, but feminists have been on the front lines of the discussions relating to diversity in comic books and strive to see more variety in comic book characters.

General Inclusion:

Inclusion is an act of including, meaning that to be inclusive or to practice inclusion is to try to include as many people as possible, basically. When feminists speak of inclusion in comics we are talking about characters, situations and designs that include everyone. For the sake of this article I’m going to consider inclusion and diversity as separate subjected despite their common usage as a pair. While the above section about diversity discussed comic book characters themselves, this section will cover us, the readers, and how we are being included more in the new age of comics.

At the beginning of the article I stated that Marvel’s Iron Man movie is the straw that broke the back of exclusivity in comics. By that I mean that instead of comic books appealing to a tight-nit crowd like before, they are now appealing to all kinds of people from all walks of life thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s popularity. People who may have previously never entered a comic book store are now being compelled by popular comic book movies and television shows to delve into the world of comics and learn more about their favorite characters from the source.

Sadly, plenty of people are being met with criticism by those dastardly gatekeepers, being told they don’t belong and accused of only caring about comics now because the movies/TV shows are popular and they want to “look cool”. Regardless of their reasoning, people are buying more comics now than ever before and that is only leading to more comic books being written and released. While much of this increase can be attributed to the MCU’s popularity and success, the staying power is in part thanks to feminism pushing for more diversity. This is a big win for comic books and fans of comics alike as not only is the comic industry being encouraged to produce more content due to increased sales but fans are the ones receiving all that content – which is awesome! Inclusion helps to prompt folks into picking up a comic books they may have never touched before. Characters seems more relatable and, honestly, they are (for the most part) better written regardless of their minority status. This is great news for readers which is why I have such a difficult time understanding where the gatekeepers are coming from when they criticize diversity in comics or claim that “feminism is destroying comic books”. I’m typically left with the assumption that the people who think diversity, inclusion and proper presentation of characters are simply racist, sexist or homophobic. If not those, then they are selfish and assume that because they don’t enjoy a specific character or line of comics that no one should.

Personally, I never used to be into comics. As a kid I felt that they were only for adults (go figure, considering some people think of them as childish) due to the scantily clad women and adult situations. I’m sure there were comics at that time geared more towards people my age, but I never saw them. For me, now a 25-year-old who is into comic books, it’s great to see a wider base of fans being included through diversity and proper presentation. Seeing teens and youths getting into comics at an age when I was turned away from them is incredible. There are both gritty and non-gritty comics which I can enjoy. I can enjoy comics like Rat Queens with its gratuitous violence and sexual situations while also enjoying Spider-Gwen with her teenage spunk and less violent action sequences. Basically, there’s such a variety of comics for all kinds of people that I don’t understand how anyone could think comics are a medium that is ruined by that exact same variety. Diversity, inclusion and proper presentation have brought the world of comics to life and there is nothing greater than that.

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These are just some of the ways in which the feminist movement is improving the world of comic books. While some think that our complaints are over the top or that are critiques are too harsh, we do it with this outcome in mind – a better world for us and future generations to enjoy. At the end of the day comic books should be for everyone, not just for an elite crowd of gatekeepers, not for a specific type of person or a specific gender. People of all genders, all ages, all ethnicities and all sexual orientations should be able to enjoy them simultaneously. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to love every comic at all times simply because it features a diverse cast or is generally inclusive, or be fully supportive of all costume redesigns (since not all of them are perfect). It just means that they should be available for those who want them. Of course self-declared feminists aren’t the only ones who are pushing for this new age of comic books, but if anyone shares these ideals then they are on the same side as feminists in their journey to improving the world of comic books. While comic books are far from perfect, and perfection is objective anyway and is a rather lofty goal, they are on the right track; a track that seeks to provide enjoyable, well written, well thought out works which are made readily available to a diverse crowd and that is a great thing to behold.

3 thoughts on “How Feminism is Actually Improving Comic Books

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  2. Pingback: The Gays are Taking Over, and Other Stories – Nerding Out

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