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Gender violence: A look at female comic book characters

By January 25, 2010 5 Comments
Comic book superheroine Power Girl

Comic book superheroine Power Girl

A previous version of this blog was posted on AAUW Dialog.

The other morning I was chatting with Alli, my friend and colleague at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), about a recent posting she read on Feministing about female comic book and graphic novel characters.

The post mentioned that while some argue that strides are being made for better representation of women in this particular medium, many comics and graphic novels still lag behind.

The Feministing post highlighted Power Girl, a female superhero with powers that rival Superman’s, with an alter ego who works as a female CEO. While this all sounds well and good, comments on the post discussed other issues such as the extreme sexualization of the character:

Panels from a Power Girl comic book

Panels from a Power Girl comic book

Alli pointed out that the author makes an interesting note at the beginning of her post about the “women in refrigerators” syndrome, which refers to the de-powering of female superheroes. Generally speaking, when a female character loses her powers or is injured or attacked, she is less likely to bounce back.

Oracle

Oracle

Being a Batman comic fan, I thought of Barbara Gordon: After being paralyzed from the waist down, she gives up going out on the streets to fight crime as Batgirl and takes up the role of Oracle instead (whereas in Knightfall, Batman recovers from a broken back and continues fighting crime as Batman).

But how does this all relate to gender violence, specifically?

An image that comes immediately to my mind is the attempted rape scene in Watchmen. (It is present in both the graphic novel and the movie, but I’ll just discuss the graphic novel depiction here.) While the sequence does not glamorize rape, it does contain victim-blaming language.

watchmen1 The Comedian (a.k.a. the perpetrator) justifies his attack by saying,

“C’mon, baby. I know what you need. You gotta have some reason for wearin’ an outfit like this, huh?”

Of course, he is referring to the Silk Spectre’s revealing costume.

Another member of the superhero group walks in after the Silk Spectre has been beaten to the ground and stops the attack. Even though he helps her out, he says to her as she’s bleeding on the floor,

“Get up … and, for God’s sake, cover yourself.”

This solidifies the victim-blaming justification used earlier and reinforces the notion that, even though she’s a crime fighter, she can still be degraded, overpowered, and controlled by men.

Even though she is strong, her power as a superhero — and as a woman — is taken away.

What do these depictions of female superheroes and comic book characters say about our society? How do they influence how the audience perceives women in real life?

Even if these women are powerful in fighting crime and in their personal lives, they are objectified. Even when they are a contributing member of the team, they are sexually violated and abused.

When there’s room for so much growth and better representation for women in this medium, why are these recurring themes and plot devices still prevalent? Perhaps the answer is that with all the sexual violence that exists across the globe, these themes just mirror real life.

–Katherine