by CG | Originally posted at Black Girl in Media
[Trigger warning in these posts for mention & discussion of: sexual violence, molestation, rape, and violence against women]
Fiction always reflects the cultural temperature of the times. This could be a good thing, and sometimes be a great thing. But most of the time, it leads to us uncovering not so pleasant parts of our society. Comics have always been an accessible part of that cultural narrative, as their mix of visual and written storytelling have led to them being embraced by fans for decades. Comics and superhero culture are very much at the center of dictating societal norms.
So when we have instances of dictating women’s dress, allowing for female oppression and violence against women for book sales, the issue goes beyond just the individual books or characters in question. It’s about questioning the system that we’ve allowed for this behavior and thinking to flourish enough to reach the success that it has with the comics industry.
This is the state of women in comics.
In part one of this two-part post, I talked about how Wonder Woman and the hypersexuality of superheroine costumes add to the climate of sexism in comics. But of course, it’s far more complicated than a dislike in skin bearing or a color scheme. Comics especially have been a medium where violence against women is commonplace and normalized — almost every superheroine or popular female character has, at some point, been a victim of some crime placed upon her simply for being female. This can range from sexual violence like rape or molestation, to extreme physical disability, and even death.
What’s sparked this urge to really dig deep about this issue? Well, mainly with history repeating itself and sparking outrage with a certain Batgirl cover.
Batgirl is a character that has been revised recently, and along with getting a more conservative costume change that challenged sexual norms for other superheroines, she has been one of the few new DC titles to emerge successful at gaining new fans and avoiding cancellation. However, when the topic of variant covers came to light for Batgirl #41 by Raphael Albuquerque (ahem), with one of the covers being a beautiful, yet disturbing reference to the infamous Batgirl story of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.
The Killing Joke is part of the Batman universe’s dark and twisted treatment of women, and speaks volumes to the larger issue of how sexism and female violence is painted as sensationalism for comic profit. In the original 1988 story, the famous Batvillian, the Joker, kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, and shots Barbara Gordon. This effectively paralyzes her, and later leads to her emerging as the Oracle. However, the disturbance of The Killing Joke comes from how Barbara/Batgirl’s victimization is used as a selling point in the plotline to not only effectively shape the Joker as a tragic villain but to later give new motivation for her male counterparts of the Bat family, and her father.
Simply put, male heroes are given the luxury of being revived and fully healed even after encounters with their corresponding villains that would lead (and sometimes, do lead) to the hero’s death. In the case of Batman, the hero went head-to-head with villain Bane, and went as far as had his back broken over Bane’s knee, yet emerged fully healed a few issues later. One small example of how the unwritten rules of gender and privilege work outside the favor or women in comics.
As Barbara’s journey from Batgirl to Oracle can show, women are not just treated unfairly in comics — they are used as symbols of how nerd culture and comics culture sees the value of women. The Women in Refrigerators trope works at illustrating how important it is that we understand that when women are unjustly portrayed in comics, it does more harm than good. How can we forget when DC launched it’s “Draw a Naked Women Committing Suicide” contest in honor of the Harley Quinn comics? Or when Lady Flash, Huntress, Starfire, and Silk Spectre were all raped in an effort to depower and dehumanize them? For male heroes, it’s a constant threat that they lose an important battle and have the world crumble at their feet, but still remain hopeful that there will be a way to save the day. For superheroines, the threat remains that at any moment, they could be the victims of violent sexism and female oppression that they fight against, and no matter what their powers may be, their writers and artists will ultimately find a way to make them victims of that same oppression that they fight so hard against.
To me, the outrage of the variant covers, Wonder Woman’s costume change, and the disapproval of “vocal minorities” proves that we truly have a longer way to go to reach equality in comics than we had hoped. And though the fans that voiced their disapproval of the Batgirl cover and rejoiced when it was later cancelled, I can’t help but wonder if we are missing an opportunity at addressing a new layer to an age old issue.
It’s not just clothes. It’s not just artwork. It all comes down to the contributions to a culture that has continuously dismissed and discredited a group of people as less than, unworthy, and unvaluable. It’s the constant reinforcement of this state of thinking that leads me to feel nothing but incredible disappointment, frustration, and sobering of my fangirl idealism that a subculture that I could feel so much love and passion for, only feel that quiet resentment back to me.
The small thing that I can do — that all of us can do — is to look at these issues not as isolated ones, but as cogs of a much larger wheel of oppression, and come together to ponder how we can make it right, and finally shift the state of women in comics to a much needed, long overdue, positive and welcoming one.