From Silver, Gold and Onwards: A Look at Sexism in Comic Books.

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Words by Daniel Wilks
Comic books have provided an ample base for creative inspiration and freedom, wildly imaginative stories, iconic characters and dazzling storytelling. However, the industry also harbours a seedier history of hideous sexism and misogyny, in which powerful women are crowbarred into secretary roles or even stuffed into fridges.

The prevailing problem of sexism within industry became prominent in the 1940s, when one of the most enduring female comic book characters was created. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston. He wanted to create a strong female character, prompted by suggestions from his wife Elizabeth. Wonder Woman was pitched as ‘all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman’. She possessed super strength and agility, flight and arguably her most iconic features: a pair of bullet deflecting metal bracelets and a golden lasso that forced the bound to tell the truth.

Despite Wonder Woman being relatively progressive, she was still victim to prevailing gender stereotypes. She was notoriously made secretary and kept in a passive position in the Justice League of America comics. This reflected gender ideology in the industry. Women written as tough and independent ultimately depended on their male partners. In one ‘Silver Age’ story, Superman married Lois Lane and locked her away in the fortress of solitude. This was treated as an utterly logical and correct thing for Superman to do.

As the industry moved on from the ‘Golden’ and ‘Silver Ages’ the ideology that was reflected within the comics began to change. However, this should not be mistaken as significant progression for women within the comic book medium. Though many gender stereotypes began to fall out of use, there were many more which rose up to replace them.

Moving away from the idealism and kitsch of the ‘Silver’ and ‘Golden Ages’, comic books moved into the ‘Dark Age’. This new era was characterised by dark, gritty and cynical stories with a focus on violence and titillation as spectacle. The role of women in comics evolved to fill the darker settings becoming the norm within the industry. Women became disposable plot devices, frequently victims of rape and murder to induce pathos for male protagonists. Frank Miller influenced a generation of writers to misrepresent female characters. Miller’s writing used the worst excesses of noir writing, in particular his use of women as manipulative femme fatales. Miller laid down groundwork throughout the ‘90s that was used by a generation of writers.

One of the major carry overs from the ‘Dark Age’ is the use of ‘fanservice’ – the sexualisation of female characters in order to attract readers. This is evident in the costumes, which emphasise cleavage and cover little. Modern readers have criticised this as a blatant and crass marketing attempt. Another modern development is the internet changing the comic book landscape. This allows more fan access and interaction with creators, providing a stronger base on which fans can voice complaints of the product. High profile cases have highlighted comic book sexism in the ‘Modern Age’. 

Despite this, there has been improvement in gender roles within comics. Feminist writers such as Gail Simone and Barbara Kesel have opposed sexism in comics both in the boardroom and within the medium itself and have created critically acclaimed work. Other notable writers include Grant Morrison, Gerard Way and J.H Williams and W. Haden Blackman who had an acclaimed run on Batwoman. Further works of note include Mind the Gap and Saga which too have achieved acclaim and mainstream success.
With more feminist writers and an increased fan support for an end to sexist conceptions it appears that the comic industry may be moving forwards in regards to gender equality and diversity.

This is an edited version of an existing article. To read the full article, see Daniel’s BlogDan studies History at mmu and is an aspiring journalist/comic book writer you can follow him on twitter @SugarCSour 

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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