“It’s About Time Wonderwoman Was Given Her Due”: How the mainstream comics industry can attract more women and keep them interested

As a young girl, Grace Morris felt inspired and empowered by Starfire, a Teen Titans T.V. series character. Morris, an aspiring comics artist, recalls the miniskirt and crop top-wearing Starfire as a role model, as someone who, in Morris’s words, could fight with the best of them and loved pancakes. But this positive representation, says Morris, has changed drastically as she’s grown up.

In DC Comics’ reboot of the series, The New 52, Starfire seems less a role model, says Morris, and more a sexual fantasy. She was dressed in three straps of purple material and a necklace and posed her in seductive ways, and writers emphasized a sexuality that had little to do with Starfire’s heroism.

“Starfire was very poorly done in this reboot: oversexualized to the max,” said Morris.

Morris believes that sexualizing female heroes can give little girls harmful impressions of what is expected of women societally.

“I think about a little girl like me, who grew up watching this show, for whom Starfire was a great character – that was a tough female character,” said Morris. “‘Yeah, that’s who I want to be when I grow up!’ And then you go to a comic book store, and you see the way your hero is being portrayed in ‘grownup media.’ And actually, she was just a whore, according to 52.”

Morris says that when sexuality is emphasized over female heroism, women who may have become comics fans can be left feeling disrespected and disgusted by mainstream comics.

In fact, much of the debate surrounding depictions of women in the comics industry centers on how the industry fails to consider female fans. Repeatedly, the journalists, comics artists and fans I’ve talked to in the last month have pointed out that women are not new in comics culture: according to some, the medium has had a significant female fan base since its inception. Like Morris, though, many worry that the size of this base is not reaching its full potential due to sexism perpetuated by mainstream comics companies.

Though the depiction of Starfire and other characters discussed last week may stem from purposeful misogyny, some sources attribute these issues to sexism perpetuated passively through flawed business models. Marisa Stotter, a producer at Respect Films, believes the comics industry has not taken larger steps to include women because it often fails to factor female audiences into business strategies at all.

“(The mainstream industry’s) business model, for several decades, has been predicated on cornering the adolescent male audience,” said Stotter. “If these companies looked at (calls for more female representation), they would maybe try to feature more female superheroes in major titles (and) give them the attention they deserve.”

Erica Friedman, a blogger at Okazu, agrees. Pointing specifically to superhero movies, she says failure to profit from larger female audiences stems from studio managers who refuse to invest in female superhero-centered media. Friedman indicates that while studio executives choose to make movies about less popular heroes like Flash, Wonderwoman, the third highest grossing superhero, has been ignored. Friedman says this choice can be traced to general devaluation of media popular among and featuring women. As an example, she points to the Twilight enterprise, which is economically successful among female readers and which Friedman says is vilified exactly because of its gender association.

“The best-selling manga in America is the Twilight manga,” said Friedman, referencing a Japanese comic book and graphic novel style. “Never has a manga sold that kind of numbers in America. (But) critics, fans, publishers, everybody disses it because it’s ‘only girls,’ right?”

Friedman is annoyed with comics culture, but not specifically because it often lacks female characters. According to Friedman, mainstream comics culture lacks character, period.

“(American comics writing has) ceased to be about character at all,” said Friedman. “Now, if you try to read a comic, about every six to 18 issues, depending on the popularity of the series, they reboot the whole thing. Everything is written like a bad soap opera.”

Friedman’s disappointment with mainstream American comics writing has led her to other markets, such as those of Japanese manga and anime. American comics failed to keep her interest, and she now rarely follows them.

Stotter shares this boredom with mainstream comics: her interest in superhero comics soon died because she, like Friedman, experienced a lack of plot and character diversity. Stotter soon turned to web comics, which she believes have held her interest because of diversity among creators. Stotter insists that comics can only grow better if more female creators are involved.

“Female creators have an entirely different perspective on the world from their male counterparts that inherently creates a richer tapestry of experiences,” said Stotter. “Because the male perspective has been involved in the majority of comics out there, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a female creative perspective concerned with matters women are interested in.”

Lauren Berkley, a journalist at GeeksAreSexy.net, agrees. In addition to hiring more female writers, Berkley believes the comics industry needs to develop how women are depicted instead of perpetuating attitudes that were common 75 years ago, when the industry began growing. Berkley believes that comics perpetuate, but also reflect, societal beliefs and actions, and points to the power of comics fans, in addition to the industry, in changing the status quo.

“Comics are unique in that they have a chance to affect society,” said Berkley. “Comics have changed lives, they’ve changed the world. Can you argue that comics aren’t reflecting society? No, they kind of are. Is that the comics companies’ fault? Yes and no.” 

Berkley believes many comics companies won’t take steps toward change until fans make an economic statement by refusing to buy comics they disagree with. Even if they do take these steps, Berkley warns against expecting quick change.

“These 75, 100 years of comics have been about men, written by men,” said Berkley. “People are crying out for change. They’re not wrong, but it’s not going to change overnight. You can’t erase (that history) or the attitude in just one week, or a month, or a year.”

Berkley says that to make a change, companies need to be aware that there’s a problem in the first place. She indicates that some mainstream comics companies are working toward gender inclusivity, and points to companies like Dark Horse Comics as places where gender concerns are discussed and solutions are developed.

Morris agrees with this approach, pointing out that even the most criticized companies, DC and Marvel, have female creators. According to Morris, though, this doesn’t make a large difference if artists still have to go through comics companies with entrenched stereotypes and practices.

“I obviously love my DC and Marvel comics,” said Morris. “I want them to get better, and I want to have good, strong female characters. But those companies have a lot of traditions, good and bad, and a lot of stuff that they need to get past before they can do that.”

Morris looks to web comics as having the most ability to create change within the industry.

“I have read comics that discuss religion, ethnicity, nationality and sexuality. There are comics looking at every hard topic imaginable. I could give a list of web comics and comics in real life – published comics – that deal with controversial or difficult topics with varying degrees of success — comics that gently handle all sorts of issues and are hard to talk about in today’s society.”

Comics companies can – and some have already — meet women’s needs by hiring more female creators, including better female and male characters and perhaps looking to web comics as inspirations to base new strategies around. The question now is, how much of the industry will listen?

Other articles in this series:

Realism or Idealism: Sources Find Different Ways to Female Empowerment in Comic Book Culture

It’s Complicated: Women’s vexed relationships with “Nerd,” “Geek” and Comic Book Cultures

Support, Oppression and Potential Salvation: The role of bullying in “Nerd,” “Geek” and Comic Book Cultures

Pin-ups or Powerhouses? Examining Gender Issues in “Nerd,” “Geek” and Comics Cultures

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