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Gender violence: A look at female comic book characters

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.


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.


5 thoughts on “Gender violence: A look at female comic book characters

  1. While I think this critique is generally right-on and that female comic characters are grossly oversexualized and significantly weaker than their male counterparts, I think it’s also really important to note that in Watchmen, Alan Moore is critiquing the very notion of superheros. I think the novel presents the attempted rape scene as a critique of gender role in comic books rather than a simple re-inscription of the norms. It does a really great job of showing the tension between the fantasy of sexy female heroes and the reality of objectified women. So, while the characters are blaming the victim, the book itself isn’t.

  2. That’s not cool to bring Power Girl into this, do you know WHY she has the hole there????

    You probably don’t

    : (

    Not one of your Websites articles that I favored.

  3. Just wanted to note that Gail Simone does some awesome writing of women superheroes for DC, and she’s back on Birds of Prey – which was the first series I could actually stomach that featured women. Sure, Black Canary wears fishnets and a black leotard, but she comments on how annoying those things are. There’s Lady Blackhawk (Zinda Blake) who is never drawn with the traditional “cleavage” bodies – in fact, she’s an awesome fighter pilot from WWII. Oracle can still kick a ton of ass from her wheelchair, not to mention on her computer. (They do a better job of dealing with disabilities than most tv shows.)

    I think the problem lies not only with the story lines, but with the artists – you can see, for example, the difference in artists with the character of Huntress – in some, she’s just as “naked” as Canary, in others, she looks more like Catwoman.

    Cassandra Cain was an amazing Batgirl who overcame a lot of personal stuff to choose her own destiny in the end, fight against her “genes” and not become just objectified. And Stephanie Brown actually became Robin for a while, which is a different can of worms.

    So I agree that some titles are still problematic, but I think with the introduction of more female-driven titles (BoP, Manhunter, Batgirl, Batwoman, Secret Six) women (and lesbians!) have made huge strides, and I love it when things like gender issues or sexuality isn’t even raised as a concern – it’s just part of the character – which is a huge step for this medium.

    (side note: when Birds of Prey first started, Chuck Nixon was writing it. Canary got the traditional torture-rape-objectification storyline. You can tell immediately when Gail Simone took over, and the series all of a sudden is actually about girl power, and not being objectified for it – or, acknowledging the tradition of objectification and kind of throwing it back at them.)

  4. just to follow up on Power Girl – whether right or wrong – here are the main two reasons she gives for her hole in the costume and why she doesn’t mind it:

    “she receives the reply that the costume “shows what I am: female, healthy. If men want to degrade themselves by staring, that’s their problem, I’m not going to apologize for it.”

    (which I think is an interesting twist of the objectification debate)

    and she says to Batman in later issue:

    “the first time I made this costume, I wanted to have a symbol, like you. I just…I couldn’t think of anything. I thought eventually, I’d figure it out. And close the hole. But I haven’t.”

  5. Singling out Watchmen is unfair. If you’ll recall, the story was being told in flashback by Hollis Mason, who does not blame Silk Spectre. He openly displays his disdain for the Comedian, not just for the act but for who he is as a person. The scene does not portray Silk Spectre as having deserved the attack. The characters of Comedian and Hooded Justice do.

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