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Published:July 3rd, 2007 20:43 EST
The Case of Miss Taken Identity: Superheros

The Case of Miss Taken Identity: Superheros

By Sean Stubblefield


It is a mystery to me why superhero comics so often diminish and devalue female characters by treating them as expendable support personnel for male characters. Females are only useful in as much as they further the male hero`s story? Nonsense! I`m more interested in and familiar with DC, so I`ll focus on that universe, but as far as I can tell, all superhero comics publishers are guilty of this habit.

Westernized " society in particular has an odd sense of women and womanhood. An assumption permeates our culture in which women are to be protected and coddled and sexed. Men are not supposed to hit women, but it`s ok for women to hit men? Women and children first, and who cares if the men folk get hurt?

Leave the dirty & dangerous work-- like crime fighting and world saving and adventuring-- to men. Pft!

In the new Justice League of America, 4 members are women, as opposed to 7 men. DC Comics currently publishes about 11 male titular characters. There are only 5 females with their own titles.

Dynamic, vibrant, substantial women like Zatanna, Power Girl and Huntress go title-less, and typically appearing in male dominated titles to assist other male heroes. Zatanna-- a magician and sorceress of occult magic-- is considered a respected reserve member of the Justice League. She has the reputation of being DC`s "greatest minor" hero.

Strangely, Kendra Saunders is known as Hawkgirl, and Karen Starr is named Powergirl-- even though the former is 20-something and the latter is over 30; this seems a subliminal undermining, since girl " is perceived as a lesser form of female than woman . Powergirl has powers to nearly rival Superman, and she was recently promoted to Chairman of the Justice Society. And yet she still doesn`t have, and never had, her own title. Renown for her costume choice that displays her ample bosom, she is both annoyed and accepting of her breasts-- because she realizes she is more than her body, stating: "shows what I am: female, healthy, and strong. If men want to degrade themselves by staring and drooling and tripping over themselves, that`s their problem, I`m not going to apologize for it."

Bonus points to DC for this elegant inside joke, commentary on the industry and a reasonable utilization of big breasts. But how does a potent character like that not have a book?

Sure, there is the Birds of Prey series, which stars Barbara Gordon, Black Canary, Huntress and Zinda (and formerly Batgirl), with guest appearances by other DC universe women heroes (like Powergirl). But they are combined into the same title " as if any one of these characters wasn`t good enough for her own book. Black Canary-- who recently got another short mini-series-- was just elected leader of the Justice League, for cripes sake! Of course, there is Wonder Woman-- the most and only prominent of DC`s female heroes, but she is iconic-- and largely because of her token nature.

And Supergirl got her own book. But otherwise, nothing.

Have you noticed how many female heroes are derivative of male heroes who came before? Batgirl, Batwoman, Supergirl, Wondergirl, Hawkgirl. Why couldn`t they be given their own original identities?

Although several female heroes exist in the DC universe, most of them are either part of a team, or visitors in someone else "s book.

There are a few team books, but most members are male, usually-- or at least traditionally-- with male leaders. There have been 5 Green Lanterns of Earth--- none of them female.

Seven people have had access to the Speed force that created The Flash-- only one of them a woman and a marginal character.

Huntress and Zatanna have had a few mini-series, but never their own books.

Batgirl had her own title for a while, but then she turned into a bad guy and the book ended.

A new Batwoman recently appeared for a year-- not in her own title, while Batman was away " then was stabbed and promptly left the scene.

For a short while, the Batman titles featured a character named Onyx, who was not only a strong, capable woman-- but also black! And then suddenly and inexplicably, she just wasn`t around any more--- shortly after her male partner, Orpheus-- who also happened to be black and her boss -- was killed in battle. Keep in mind that both of these are people who Batman approved of to work in his city. That says a great deal about their stature, as Bats is very territorial and selective about who he lets operate in Gotham. It took several years before Huntress-- a superbly competent vigilante-- to earn Batman`s approval. Onyx and Orpheus were accepted within days. But after a relatively short term, they were gone.

Batman once had a significant female partner called Sasha Bordeaux, who slipped into the background as a cyborg member of a para-military group. Shondra Kinsolving, another important black female in Batman`s life, was psychologically traumatized and swept aside.

Stephanie Brown was a teen female vigilante, named Spoiler, who was determined to prowl the streets at night despite Batman "s urging against it. So when she volunteered to be trained by him, he made her a Robin. The main reason Batman recruited her was an attempt to improve her chances of not getting hurt or into trouble. Compared to his previous three Robins, she received virtually no training, and was soon dismissed when she proved incapable of obeying his every command. Striking out on her own to prove herself, she was captured, tortured and left to die. She could have been saved " except Batman`s longtime friend and confidante, Dr. Leslie Thompkins-- a woman who until now took the credo of do no harm " seriously-- let Spoiler die to teach Bruce a lesson?! Because she died as Spoiler and not Robin, she apparently didn`t merit a trophy case in the Batcave like a previous Robin who died in the line of duty. Although Robin (the boy wonder) was dating " Spoiler, he was shown to be distraught over the death of his best friend Superboy, but by comparison seemed to hardly care that Spoiler died. A series of events that have many female readers not just disappointed, but livid. Yes, amazingly and despite this tendency to minimize females, girls also read comic books. The hero`s journey can have a place for women, too.

No, comic books aren`t just for boys, or even kids, either. Not only that, but superhero " isn`t the only kind of comic book there is. But I digress "

And where are all the bad gals? You could count the number of Batman`s female bad guys on one hand.

The bad buys-- on the other hand-- I "ve lost count, there are so many.

What kind of image or impression are comics trying to instill in the subconscious of-- mostly impressionably young-- readers? What are you telling us about females? The point that superhero comics are written primarily for young males does not explain or excuse such a pitifully casual disregard for female heroes. That is just bad story telling. And a cop out. To say or suggest that males-- readers and writers-- cannot sympathize or identify with female characters is ludicrous, and intellectually lazy. Any good writer (and reader) knows that these are essentially people, and character comes first; all other classifications, like gender and age and race and even superhero, are secondary. Many illustrations over sexualize the text or over textualize the sex.

Because the artists/writers are either trying to appeal to adolescent males, manifest their own maleficent fantasies, or because they don "t understand the female beyond stereotypical sex object. In which cases, they have no business doing serious comics. It not only demeans women, but also the creators, and the audience and comics in general. Don`t insult our intelligence. If you`re emphasizing not the story and characters, but instead sexy " women with perfect " shapely bodies who are scantily clad or in skin tight clothing on the verge of soft p[o]rn, and if your ladies are more super model " than super hero " you`ve got nothing but a waste and a shame. To be believable, stories must integrate a sense of realism, be based on reality.

If you don`t know how to write a female, the simple solution is to write a good character who just happens to be female " or ask females " or have females write it. Don`t stereotype, cookie cut or fake her.

Misogynistic, dismissive and disrespectful portrayals of women are not realistic, nor beneficial, nor interesting. These are superheroes, damn it! Icons. Let`s treat them that way and show some respect. More than that, these are people. And even more than that, respect your audience. Readers, respect yourselves enough to demand better consideration and depiction of women in comics.

Especially if we want to attract more female comic book readers.

Which we do totally want. Why should the boys have all the fun?