Culture & Society

Wonder Woman or Fetish Object?

Mikey Lilley will be exploring how women are treated in Western comic books. Looking at famous super heroines, he will discuss how even they are not safe from sexist treatment.

With women making up 48.13% of comic book sales, you would be forgiven for thinking that the female characters would be treated as equal to their male counterparts. This isn’t, and has never, been the case. As I’m sure you know, Marvel and DC are the two leading comic book creators, and while both have never been innocent in regards to their female representation, I’m going to mainly talk on the latter.

Wonder Woman. The Princess Diana of Themyscira. You know her name. You know her costume. She was and still is arguably the most iconic female superhero, part of DC’s ‘trinity’ (along with Batman and Superman), as well as being a feminist icon. Despite this, bondage and slavery are engrained into her design and history – her ‘bracelets of submission’ and ‘lasso of truth’ are classic, they are iconic. They’re an image that nearly everyone will think of when they picture her. But they are undeniably a product of their time, a time when strong women had to be held back.

Yet even today, bondage plays a role in her series- 2016’s Wonder Woman: Earth One cover features Wonder Woman in chains, as well as bondage being featured in the series itself. Now this could be seen as empowering as it’s a woman taking control of her sexuality, but largely it just suggests the patriarchy suppressing and tying her down, and making the general public roll their eyes at a feminist character now in chains.

Last year she was made an honorary ambassador for the UN and the title was taken away only two months later, mainly because her idealistic body and scantily clad costume was culturally insensitive to different parts of the world. This is NOT to say that Diana can’t dress how she wants, but it isn’t the character’s choice – it’s the (usually male) writer’s and artist’s choice to have her dress this way, probably for their own fantasy fulfilment. I mean, come on – in 2015 she got a new costume which was more in line with what her teammates wore, something that made more sense for a person to wear when fighting mythical gods and creatures, and that lasted only a year! There’s a point where the argument of “But it’s a classic costume!” turns into “We don’t want her to wear anything that covers her body.” I mean, the backlash when her design for the DC reboot was meant to have trousers (while still being distinctly Wonder Woman) was so insane they stuck her back into her panties. Classic…or sexist?

DC have shown time and time again that they are not afraid to go dark, but arguably their first time (and probably still their darkest story) happened in 1988, with The Killing Joke. Barbara Gordon, freshly retired from being Batgirl, was shot, paralysed, stripped, and it has been debated on whether she was sexually assaulted by the Joker. All of this in an attempt just to drive her father and Batman to the point of insanity.

The author, Alan Moore, has since said that when he asked if he could cripple Gordon, the then Executive Editorial Director told him “Yeah, okay, cripple the b**ch.” Just let that sink in. Batgirl. Up there with Wonder Woman and Supergirl in popularity. “Cripple the b**ch”. Batgirl.

This is a horrifying, but clear example of how little female characters have meant to the actual companies that create them, with little to no consideration on how these events may affect their readers, specifically their female readers. This isn’t even keeping in mind that this is Batgirl, one of the most famous super heroines! DC never intended to use the character after this, which would have meant her final role was her being there only to cause man-pain before being disposed of. Gordon eventually took the codename Oracle and became one of the very few disabled heroes in Western comic books as a computer hacker for the superhero community.

While there was a positive end-result, the fact that there was originally no intention to use Gordon after her sadistic mutilation shows that female characters are seen as just objects to further the story of their male characters. It is also simply no excuse for what happened – “But look! She became an icon for disabled heroes!” Great. Awesome. Dandy. It didn’t have to happen in that manner, though. Hell, they could have just created a new disabled hero, not brutally cripple an icon. This clearly wasn’t just a product of its time- 13 years ago, the storyline War Games featured the teenage Stephanie Brown, the first female Robin (and only Robin of 2 issues by this point), being kidnapped and tortured, with the torture scenes being drawn very provocatively, before dying from her injuries. I mean, why not, right? Why learn from previous actions when you can just repeat them 16 years later?

Gail Simone, author of Birds of Prey and the rebooted, fresh out of her wheelchair Batgirl series, coined the term “Women In Refrigerators”, a phrase and website based on how female heroes were mistreated, abused and killed to further male storylines, based on a story where Green Lantern returns home to find his girlfriend murdered and placed in his refrigerator. The massive list of examples she collected shows that female characters have always been mistreated in comparison to their male counterparts, with even the doomed characters not being given the chance to meet their end heroically, suggesting that when it comes down to it, women are unable to truly be heroes. ‘Fridging’ is nothing new, but comic books are one of the worst culprits of this.

Despite the extreme negative examples presented above, there are some more contemporary examples of how DC Comics have started to represent their female characters in a more positive light; they’re clearly focused on diversity by making the lesbian character Batwoman a major character with a solo series and currently leading a team. They are literally forcing readers to see characters that do not represent the norm of Western society and are pushing a leading LGBT character at a time when they are scarce in comic books and graphic novels.

A similar situation is with the return of the second Batgirl, Cassandra Cain, who is the best-selling non-Caucasian female lead due to her own series in the 2000’s. DC have also been pushing the African-American Vixen in comics, cartoons and TV since she has a leading role in Legends of Tomorrow. This is clearly in their best interest since women make up nearly half of their readership and portraying a wide variety of women in a positive light can only help their image.

Yes, I’ve specified DC when other companies such as Marvel are just as bad, but I’m not saying Marvel have not done their fair share of fridging (Gwen Stacy), just that the examples here are some of the most iconic, making them the go-to for sexism in comics. Since they have made a few steps towards improving how they portray women, it’s now just a waiting game to see if they have truly learnt from their past mistakes or will repeat them. Again.