A recent comic book cover of Spider-Woman in a ready-to-pounce crouch sparked a furor in mainstream media around the sexualisation of women in comic books. Was this simply an uninformed, knee-jerk reaction or does the argument add value to the equality debate?
The comic book industry has a long history of portraying women as supporting characters and throwaway storylines. Female characters were written in a manner to conform to gender roles and stereotypes of the respective time, and a shift away from this frankly sexist portrayal in favour of a more equal one slowly started happening towards the end of the 20th Century. As the equality movement started gaining real momentum over the last couple of years, comic book publishers started warming up to the idea of introducing female superheroes with more in-depth storylines into the comic book realm.
Then in August this year, Marvel proudly announced the cover of its first dedicated series of Spider-Woman comics, complete with an alternative cover by veteran cartoonist Milo Manara. It was supposed to be great news for female superheroes because very few have had their own series in the traditionally male-dominated comic book superhero arena. Instead, all hell broke loose with many arguing that she was yet another female character being sexualised.
Marvel was slammed by everyone from Elle Magazine to The Guardian and even Time magazine for the supposedly sexist representation of Spider-Woman as she crouched on the ledge of a building she had just scaled.
Megan Friedman from Elle drew first blood, accusing the cover design of being almost pornographic, adding that if Spider-Man was drawn in this manner the concept would never fly. Elianna Dockterman from Time weighed in by saying the cover took the “sex-factor” to a new extreme, and that men would never be placed in such a compromising position.
The backlash to their criticism began with internet humourist Maddox calling the critics out on their ignorance of comics in a video. This cites countless examples of male superheroes, predominantly Spider-Man himself, in equally “compromising” positions.
But why the ruckus over comic books? The attention from the mainstream media is quite baffling and it’s difficult to figure out why comic books have suddenly become a hot topic of conversation in publications whose readers are more than likely not comic book readers. What are they trying to achieve in the name of equality? Perhaps it’s the fact that nearly half of comic book readers are female and it’s their welfare that concerns these critics so much, or maybe it’s because young boys (and girls) are supposedly being fed the wrong message about what women’s bodies are supposed to look like.
In his video Maddox points to the hypocrisy of the very magazines which in turn drive sales on the back of unrealistic looking women in compromising, over-sexualised positions.
In an LA Times column entitled The great Spider-Woman sexist derriere debate, blogger Charlotte Allen points to the harmful impact on feminism that uninformed criticism such as that by Elle and Times can have on the fight for equality.
There’s no denying that sexism in comic books still exists and is something that needs to be addressed, particularly as comic books start entering the mainstream via numerous successful Hollywood blockbuster films. However, while this controversy over Spider-Woman’s sleek derriere has sparked a renewed debate around the issue, coming out guns blazing is the wrong way to go about things. It puts the equality movement in a bad light and paints its proponents as ignorant alarmists. Instead, the focus should be on changing the perceptions from within the community (and not just comic books), as artist and writer Kelly Sue DeConnick has been doing with great success through her own well-placed and constructive criticism of the comic book industry.
The wave of the equality revolution is definitely taking us in the right direction, but we need to be careful not to lose focus.