Feminism Lost in Comic Books: Hyper Sexualization of Female Heroes Alienates Women


It’s a good time to be a black superhero. Not so long ago, to be a black superhero was to be a token, a sidekick. You never had any really cool adventures. You might’ve been a part of a group that saved the day, but you weren’t necessarily an indispensable part of the victory. As a young black comic patron, I have been excited to see Marvel dusting off 70s-era characters such as Misty Knight (an obvious throwback to Pam Grier), Black Panther, and Luke Cage. I was encouraged to see Cage become an Avenger, and to see Panther and Knight take more prominent leadership roles during the big story lines. Heck, they even recently made Spider-Man black! Further, Marvel is gearing up to give Cage and Black Panther their own films.

As a minority, I feel for the plight of women in comics. After all, though there may be far more white super heroines, women have hardly gotten a fair shake when it comes to their portrayals as characters with depth and personality, and even when they have been written well, they far too often sported unrealistic, semi-pornographic uniforms. Sure, Ms. Marvel (one of my favorite characters) may be worth reading. But most males are probably more interested in her unrealistic proportions.

I don’t suspect that the creators of comics are malicious. But I do think that one can hardly expect a different result when the two big comic companies, Marvel and DC, are staffed mostly by white males. The two companies represent centers of power in the industry, and therefore what they create is what most people see. Minority voices can be unintentionally marginalized and drowned out.

Yet, the Los Angeles Times recently criticized DC for its portrayal of hyper-sexualized females. From the Times:

"In Red Hood and the Outlaws No. 1, extraterrestrial princess Starfire strikes a Playboy-like pose, bursting out of her purple bikini as she propositions Red Hood. And Voodoo, a shape-shifting half-alien hybrid, spends half of her first issue stripping. Comics blogs buzzed with debate, and critics cried sexism, pointing to the company’s predominantly male creative staff. DC’s rival Marvel Comics often faces similar criticism — the superhero comics genre historically has been a boys’ club."

Last year writer Laura Hudson also criticized DC on the Comics Alliance website, declaring "I have long maintained that to bring in more female readers, superhero comics don't even need to specifically target women as much as they need to not actively offend them. This is not an insanely hard thing to do, and yet here we are."

What is interesting about the Times article is that rather than spending time tearing down the comics industry, it magnifies the growth of entrepreneurial women in indy comics. These ladies create their own comics and market them via the internet. Says the Times, “Young female comics creators are coming up through the internet, unhindered by the tastemakers and gatekeepers that guarded comics 30 years ago.” These ladies are blazing their own trails without the help of the so-called big two. 

Heidi MacDonald is quoted as saying, “They’re [Marvel and DC] just terrified of getting the girl cooties on there and losing their audience … they have a different goal, a different corporate mandate. Certainly for Marvel, they are absolutely part of Disney’s great master plan to have more boy readers…. For DC, as part of the corporate structure, that is more where they fit in.” 

The tides may be changing in years to come. If more women become interested in comic books, it stands to reason that they, like myself at one point, will feel a bit alienated at the portrayal of women in the best-selling books. Frustrated, they will turn to the open arms of the indy circuit.

The big two had better watch out, for if the status quo changes too much, they might find themselves alienating lucrative female readership.