The Women of Marvel and Geek Subculture

Whilst scrolling through the internet, trying to find the Women of Marvel variant covers which celebrate Women’s History Month through showcasing female artwork on comic book covers, I came across my favorite superhero, as her previous incarnation, Ms. Marvel. As I inspected the image from 2008 I was keenly aware of how this version of her was drawn. The cover features Carol Danvers, hair down, lips pursed together, in a v-neck camouflage uniform that features her pushed together breasts. She exudes nothing of the feminist, corny joke-making, stubborn air force pilot she was created to be. Instead, she is presented to be an over-sexualized shell of herself.

As a fan, I was disheartened. However, in comic book stores, where hundreds of different titles are displayed on the walls, readers are beginning to see a change. More and more female-led titles are finding their way onto paper and into comic book stores. Not only do these comic books have female protagonists, they feature female superheroes who are given a chance to be equal to their male counterparts. As a female who recently got into comics, I found this new variety a refreshing change from the scantily clad and over-sexualized images of the past. Yet, not all approve of the new approach to superheroines. Some long-time fans and artists within the comic book industry decry the recent alteration of the superheroines. One school of thought is that female superheroes can be empowered and be scantily clad. Jeffrey Brown in his essay, “Gender, Sexuality, and Toughness: The Bad Girls of Action Film and Comic Books,” argues that an over-sexualized (or over-feminized, as Brown would put it) woman who is also empowered is quite revolutionary and strong. He says, “She [the sexualized female superhero] refutes any assumed belief in appropriate gender roles via an exaggerated use of those very roles” (Brown 49). While Brown may have a point that the sexualized female superhero exudes a form of exaggerated gender, by being both overly feminine (through oversexualization) and overly masculine (if strength and power are seen as a masculine traits), he choses to ignore the effects the superheroines’ appearances and personalities have on their readership. Moreover, a superheroine may be a combination of genders but is she really defying them or is she just being written within the gender roles many are comfortable with?

Others find issue with the new costumes superheroines are donning, such as Erik Larsen, a founder of the comic book company, Image Comics. He recently commented on Marvel’s superheroine’s costume changes. He argues that the costumes are not attractive (an opinion he is entitled to) but the issue becomes clear when he replies to the criticism of that argument, “[he] ‘[l]argely [blames the] vocal critics on the web who get in a tizzy every time a woman character looks attractive’” (emphasis added) (Pantozzi). Larsen’s comment is just an example of the problem not only the comic culture faces, but a problem the geek culture faces as well.

Looking at movements like Gamergate, in which females working in the video game industry were harassed and threatened (through rape and death threats) by gamers irate about feminist criticism of some video games in which women are objectified, provide examples of how women are sometimes seen as outsiders in this subculture. Moreover, this issue arises in the comic book industry as well. Janelle Asselin, a former editor at DC Comics, commented on a Teen Titan’s cover that DC released. She states her opinion on the art style and critiques Wonder Girl’s oversized chest and impractical outfit on the cover. After her comment, she revealed that she was not only harassed, but her, “bank accounts were compromised after her article was published online” (Yu). Of course, this behavior is not representative of the whole geek culture, just a subset of the population. However, this is quite a problem geek culture faces. Women should not be harassed this violently because they have an opinion. Moreover, this is an issue of not only how comics influence how we perceive ourselves through gender roles and body image, but of how we can fix the problem gender roles create within the culture itself. The increasing amount of female leads in comics helps to sooth this vitriolic culture in which many women are harassed and viewed as outsiders.

The sexualized superwoman affects not only females but males as well. In a TED Talk, entitled “How Movies Teach Manhood,” Colin Stokes addresses this issue. He argues that movies like Star Wars promote achieving a goal through violence and that when that goal is achieved the reward is a woman. Stokes is not trying to single out Star Wars. It’s an anecdote. However, if this hypothesis is connected to the sour reaction from a subset of fans and artists about the evolution of the superwomen of Marvel, the result is eerie. Erik Larsen, who opposes the costume change superheroines are receiving, comments, “’[p]eople seem to assume that I’m championing sexy costumes and curvy women–this was never stated….The goal now seems to be to create something which an artist can’t make look sexy[sic]’” (Pantozzi). The statement itself is an equivocation, a logical fallacy. Moreover, Larsen’s comment follows the goal-reward idea that Stokes presents. Larsen advocates for the woman in the sexy costume and that is something he seems to think he and the readers are entitled to.

This goal-reward system that Stokes recognizes in film is paralleled in the comic book world. Only recently have superwomen been revamped, so the old idea that women in comics are prizes (or expected to be scantily clad) has not yet cycled out. Research suggests that comic books impact readers’ views of gender roles and their place in the world. In their essay, Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz and Hillary Pennell discuss the effect of comic book stories on our perspective of gender. They mention this idea after introducing a study that examined the effects a sexualized and non-sexualized version of a video game character had on its participants. “Research suggests that the impact of sexualized superheroines might be even greater for heavy consumers of the genre… avid fans may be more likely to develop attitudes and beliefs about women that are in line with gender stereotypes in superhero stories” (83). If we go back to Larsen’s comments, which follow in line with Stokes’ goal-reward idea, it is not out of the realm of possibility to say that comics impress gender roles on some fans, following this idea of having a “woman as a prize” theory. Additionally, the question arises: are the ideas of “women as prize” and gender roles in comics affecting how women are treated and seen in the geek culture? It would certainly provide a reason to account for the violent actions towards Janelle Asselin and the women who were threatened during Gamergate. How are gender roles affecting our actions and our perceptions of us?

In a world where more females are reading comic books and taking part in comic and geek culture, Marvel’s move to add more female lead titles is a smart decision. At its core, it really is a business decision, especially considering this Facebook statistic from blogger Brett Schenker, “40 percent of comics fans are women[1]” (Berlatsky). It has been historically difficult to collect data for this subject, but in a society that is becoming increasingly diverse, it is important to recognize the different types of protagonists stories can have. Having more diverse leads gender-wise is especially important when looking at the female reaction to superheroines, who are drawn to be empowered in a male power fantasy.

It is important to distinguish that there is a difference between being sexy and sexualized. This idea is best put in a comic strip created by David Willis, pictured above. He addresses the idea of the male power fantasy verses the female power fantasy. (For the sake of simplicity, the female power fantasy is how a female would see herself as being powerful and the male power fantasy is how the male sees himself as powerful.) So when a woman is drawn, and even written, in the context of a male power fantasy, she is not empowered in the way she is in a female power fantasy. In a female power fantasy, a woman, a superheroine, can be sexy but she is not a sexualized object. Kelly Sue Deconnick, a comic book writer, addresses this sexualization of women in her “sexy lamp” test which she uses to see if a female character can be replaced with a sexy lamp. She comments in an interview,

The test that I always give young writers is if you can take out your female character and replace her with a sexy lamp and your plot still functions, you’re doing it wrong…You would be surprised how many times this is actually done. These women are purely there to inspire or motivate or reward or sometimes decorate. I don’t want all of our female characters to be good or be role models. I just want them to have an interior life (Dockterman)

If a woman can just be replaced with a sexy object then she is being sexualized. When she is just there to support the hero and follow him then she may give the message that women have a subservient position in relation to men. This is quite harmful to the female self-perception. In the Laura Croft video game research Behm-Morawitz and Pennell reference in their essay, “The Effects of Superhero Sagas on Our Gendered Selves,” we can see how harmful the sexualization of female characters can be: “…research suggests that the mere sexualization of powerful female characters may negate the potential positive effects of such characters” (Behm-Morawitz 83). So when superheroines are sexualized in comics, the media, or just in general, it means that any positive aspects of their personality—their intelligence, their humor, their fighting skills—are overshadowed by their overly sexual appearance.

Girls and women who read over-sexualized comics receive the message that their bodies are not “normal”. What is normal for the female body in commercials, television, and in magazines has been twisted, so for something like this to translate to comics makes sense. The effects of decreasing self-esteem due to depicting girls and women in an overly sexual way cross media platforms. For a superheroine to be dressed and drawn in a way that does not feature her sex organs and celebrates her background and protects her when she fights bad-guys, goes a long way in helping to create more realistic body images for readers. Yes, comic books are fantasies, they are exaggerations, but that does not mean that superheroines should be depicted and written as “sexy lamps”, as Deconnick would put it. Characters like Carol Danvers from Captain Marvel, Jessica Drew from Spider Woman, and Cindy Moon from Silk are women who embrace their powers, who have friends and lives that are their own. They are not confined to being attractive or sexy; they have lives. The most obvious reward of having more body-positive superwomen with in-depth personalities is that they help increase the self-esteem of, particularly, female readers through showing that they do not need to be sexy or sexualized to be powerful or to have good or super lives. Additionally, one reward that perhaps lies outside of the realm of sight is that more realistic superheroines help to create a more realistic depiction of women for males. Moreover, a powerful superheroine who is created to be more equal to her male counterparts helps to counteract the gender roles within us that would cause a subset of the geek culture to react so violently towards women, specifically women who speak their minds.

Gender roles are preconceived notions of how people of different genders should act. These ideas limit our potential, who we could be. Superhero stories are often extremes of gender roles. The ideas of who we can and cannot be are ingrained in readers; we gather the concept of who we are from the information around us. So confining the views of who we are or should be to gender roles presented in media or comics is limiting. Behm-Morawitz and Pennell mention this in their essay on gender roles in superhero comics:

Although less frequent, superhero sagas sometimes portray men and women in roles that do not conform to traditional gender stereotypes. This is potentially positive, because stereotypes are limiting and can constrain personal and social identity….media research suggests such portrayals [characters who do not fall into the stereotypical gender roles] may help to counteract stereotypical notions about how men and women should act. (84)

Based on their claims, having more characters who defy the “gender norms”, like the women Marvel is now creating and reforming, have a positive effect on readers. The superheroines that are landing on pages now range from being tough, to silly, to geeky, to more powerful than her male counterparts, to being afraid of insects. A wider and more encompassing portrayal of women helps to counteract the stereotypical woman, the weaker, the wilder, the sexualized woman that is presented in some comics. When women are portrayed in a wider scope, when they are not just sidekicks or secretaries or in need of male mentoring, they have the ability to rise above their male counterparts. Kelly Sue Deconnick speaks about this level of hierarchy within our society when it comes to male and female characters. In an interview she contemplates:

And when you get into the sociology with status, everyone wants to identify up, to aspire up…So if you are female and therefore lower status in terms of your cultural power, it’s much more comfortable to identify up with a male hero than it is for men to identify down to a lower status…Marginalizing half the population teaches young girls that men’s values and aspirations should come before their own…and it teaches young boys not to view women in their lives as fully rounded human beings. (Dockterman)

This is why it is so important to have more diverse characters, more variety in character traits and personalities. Going by the gender norms and stereotypes hurts both males and females. Introducing a consistent staple of superheroines who are not just sexualized and used for their bodies will introduce a change in thought. Issues would not be so divided between males and females in the comic world. Women would not be harassed for doing and expressing their enjoyment of the things they love just because they are women. If superheroes, male and female, are on a more level playing field, perhaps it will help to change how women are viewed, not just as objects or damsels, but as equals.

Moreover, female superheroes introduce a new way of achieving a goal: through teamwork. Much like the belief in achieving a goal through teamwork that Colin Stokes argues for in his TED Talk, female superheroes often achieve goals through teamwork. This does not mean that all male lead comics never achieve their goals through teamwork nor does it mean that all female lead comics are proponents of this idea, but rather this way of achieving a goal is much more prominent in superwoman comics. Jennifer K. Stuller discusses this in her essay, “What is a Female Superhero?”, “Female superheroes reject the ‘lone wolf’ model of heroism that is typically favored by male protagonists…preferring instead to collaborate with and support those around them” (20). Carol Danvers, otherwise known as Captain Marvel, is often seen collaborating with Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) and her neighbors who are depicted to be like family. Even when Carol Danvers takes her adventures to space, she finds a ragtag group of characters to fight with. Similarly, Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel, is faced with the fact that she is weaker alone than she is when she has others to support her. This message is especially prevalent in the second volume of Khan’s story when she realizes she cannot save her friend, all of the people in trouble, and her space dog, so she calls in backup. Achieving their goals through teamwork tells readers that asking for help is not a weakness, that teamwork is important. This is the sentiment that Colin Stokes agrees with in his TED Talk, “How Movies Teach Manhood” when he urges people to, “seek out the heroines who are there, who show real courage, who bring people together, and to nudge our sons to identify with those heroines and to say, ‘I want to be on their team,’” (Stokes). Stokes’ idea extends to Kelly Sue Deconnick’s comments about aspiring up and the female superhero. Stokes wants both of his children, his son and daughter, to identify powerful characters and desire be like them or to work with them. The idea that female superheroes have stories that focus on teamwork and achieving a goal through love, through being motivated by the ones you love should be a universal story; this idea should be a universal concept and goal, but it is not right now. As more female lead comics find their way into comic stores and more of those stories are read, the more that idea of achieving a goal through teamwork will translate to its readers subconsciously. If some of the readers of comics have more stereotypical gender conceptions because of the gender stereotyped superheroes, specifically of the past, it is likely that concepts of teamwork and love can be imprinted upon readers if these stories are read more widely. This changes the thought process, and if you can change the thought process then perhaps it will change the reaction women are getting today from a contingent of fans who believe women do not belong in the geek culture or who believe geek girls are “fake”. So these new female superheroes and their values not only help to instill a rejection of traditional gender stereotypes but help to instill positive values and understandings of teamwork onto their readers, male and female.

While Marvel is expanding their female lead stories, the amount of females Marvel employs is small. Tim Hanley of the column “Gendercrunching”, calculated that, “This past August [2014]…women made up less than 10 percent of the creative teams for all books published by DC or Marvel” (Yu). There could be multitudes of reasons for the lack of female employees but the important part is that people are trying to change this lack of representation. In her NPR article, Yu interviews Jeanine Schaefer, “Marvel’s senior manager for talent acquisition”, who states, “ ‘[We are] aware that we don’t have as many women working for us as we have men….[and that]…The issue of diversity is one that Marvel executives are seriously considering, but the change is going to take some time…” (Yu). So, Marvel is working on finding more female talent to work with. We have already seen what the females who work for Marvel can create: G. Willow Wilson writes Ms. Marvel, otherwise known as Kamala Khan, who is a complex female superhero; Kelly Sue Deconnick writes Captain Marvel and the titular character is another complex female superhero. This is not to say that men cannot write complex female superheroes who are not just valued for their bodies; however, female writers, creators, artists, can bring their life experience as a female to the table, and that experience helps to create realistic female heroes. If Marvel continues to find more females to add to their team of writers and artists, then perhaps complex and realistic female superheroes will become the “norm,” perhaps fans will get past the absence of a sexualized superwoman and accept that girls read comics too, that they want comics that represent their lives, not comics that are just shells of their lives. Schaefer echoes this belief when interviewed by Mallory Yu who repeats, “Schaefer hopes that bringing more women and diverse voices into the creative process will prove to those fans that their favorite stories will only be enhanced by the different perspectives” (Yu). Continuing to change is the best way Marvel can go about this. To create real change they have to ignore the naysayers who criticize their new female superheroes because these superheroines have a chance to change how women are illustrated in comics and how women are viewed as fans. As Stan Lee coined, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Having more females in the industry brings about the female perspective and if the female narrative is changed from one of inferiority to strength then perhaps it will change the attitude of hate from the subset of fans towards women. Luckily, it looks like Marvel is not slowing down anytime soon.

One of the ways Marvel is revamping their female superheroes is through their costumes and the way they are represented in their comics. Characters like Captain Marvel are getting new costumes that reflect their personality and are protective for the very thing they do: fight. If one looks at Captain Marvel’s previous costume as Ms. Marvel, one sees the problem the Ms. Marvel outfit created. As Ms. Marvel, which is depicted on the right side of the image, Carol Danvers dons a black leotard with thigh high boots. It is not as protective as her new outfit as Captain Marvel which is featured on the left. Moreover, Carol’s outfit as Captain Marvel shows her Kree super powered origin through the star on her chest while as Mallory Yu notes, “[Carol’s] red, blue and yellow jumpsuit …evokes her Air Force roots” (Yu). Furthermore, one of the bigger aspects Carol’s new outfit provides is that young girls and boys can look up to her. Since she is appropriately attired and not over-sexualized, young fans can find a hero in Carol Danvers through reading her comics.

The costume change is not only a creative marketing strategy on Marvel’s part because it brings in a whole new generation of fans but it also achieves the change comics so desperately need. One of Marvel’s other new superheroines, Kamala Khan who took up Carol Danvers’ title as Ms. Marvel, starts her story with a costume that ties to her backstory and protects her from her enemies. Khan’s costume creation is written directly into her storyline when, after she finds out she has powers, she raids her closet to make a costume to disguise herself. Part of her outfit consists of the burkini which ties back into her Muslim background. As another example, Spider-Woman, also known as Jessica Drew, recently received a costume revamp that consists of a jacket, goggles, and boots. Her previous outfit, shown on the left of the image, while protective, showcases her breasts. The lines of the costume itself outline her breasts, making it hard to draw her so her breasts are not prominently featured. Erik Larsen comments that Spider-Woman’s new jacket looks like a “’potato sack’” (Pantozzi). On the right, one can see Jessica’s jacket is quite form fitting and far from being loose or ugly. Her outfit still calls her spider-powered origins with the yellow spider on her jacket. So why should we care that these women are being dressed to be protected? In past comics, they are fighting against being over-sexualized and seen for just their sex organs, now they are living the female power fantasy of being strong and independent. They are not just there as “sexy lamps” as Kelly Sue Deconnick would put it. Moreover, their new outfits harken back to their roots, their complex personalities, and that teaches readers, young and old, that women, that superheroines are people, that they have personalities and aspirations and goals. While the costume change Marvel is initiating does help to alter the superheroine narrative to change the mindset of those who view women as threats or outsiders in the geek culture, Marvel still has a long way to go towards completely changing their ways in sexualizing their superheroines.

While up to now it may seem like Marvel is never at fault, we should recognize that they have their problems. The company is achieving the positive goals of introducing more female lead superhero comics and attiring them with stylish and protective outfits; however, like any company, they still have more progress to make. The most noticeable example is the Spider Woman variant that was released in 2014 where Jessica Drew is drawn in a pose that many have noted is quite sexual. While some like, Jeffery Brown, argue that this very sexuality is what would make Spider Woman powerful because she is defying gender roles by being over-sexualized and strong, it is just not true. When one looks at the psychological and sociological effects of an over-sexualized female character on both boys and girls, they are doing more harm than good by relating stereotypical gender roles onto readers and creating body image expectations.

In addition, the representation of Batgirl in a DC Comic’s variant celebrating the notorious villain, the Joker, depicts a frightened Batgirl being held by the Joker . Both of these superwomen are being put in places of inferiority. Those covers relay gender stereotypes onto readers if they are not careful. They tell readers that women are only sexual beings with pronounced breasts and buttocks or that women are weak and can be taken advantage of. This is not the message that should be relayed. Luckily, the Spider Woman variant was taken down and the Batgirl issue never went to print. However, there is still a long way to go to have all well-rounded and realistic women in comics and in the meantime the current changes with more female leads should already be promoting positive attitudes towards women in the subset of geek culture.

In a subculture where women can be viewed as “outsiders” and harassed for wanting equality, comic books that depict over-sexualized superheroines are only feeding the fire. Due to the psychological and sociological effects over-sexualized superwoman have on their readers of both genders, one can trace the vitriolic actions of a part of this geek subculture to the stereotypes portrayed in comics. If all readers ever see are women who are used as plot devices and not as people then they may pick up on the way these women are treated and act this way in their own lives. We learn from stories, be it a film story or textual story, but we learn from them. If gender stereotypes are shown in comics then readers learn that these gender stereotypes are the “norm”. Having more female lead comics with superheroines who are well thought-out characters not valued for their bodies alone rejects the gender stereotype that women are there for sex or to “look pretty”. Moreover, fully thought-out superheroines create positive messages to readers in general; they tell girls, women, boys, and men that women can be many things, not just sexualized beings, that they have lives. Perhaps this change is enough to move towards subduing a loud and reckless part of geek subculture that rejects geeky women and resorts to threats and humiliation to get their points across.

Works Cited

Behm-Morawitz, Elizabeth, and Hillary Pennell. “The Effects of Superhero Sagas on our Gendered Selves.” Our Superheroes, Ourselves. Ed. Robin S. Rosenberg. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 73-93.

Berlatsky, Noah. “The Female Thor and the Female Comic-Book Reader.” The Atlantic Monthly Group. 21 Jul. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

Brown, Jeffrey A. “Gender, Sexuality, and Toughness: The Bad Girls of Action Film and Comic Books.” Action Chick. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 47-74. Print.

Ching, Albert. “DC Comics Cancels ‘Batgirl’ Joker Variant Cover at Artist’s Request.” Comic Book Resources. Comic Book Resources. 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 4 May 2015.

Cross, Samantha. “The False Dichotomy of Superheroines.” The Maniacal Geek. N.p., 25 Apr. 2015. Web. 25 Mar. 2015

Dockterman, Eliana. “Meet Captain Marvel: Fighter Pilot, Feminist and Marvel’s Biggest Gamble.” Time Inc., 4 Nov. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Horn, Greg.  “Ms. Marvel (2006) #29.” Illustration.  Marvel. Marvel. 30 Jul. 2008.  Web.  4 May 2015.

Manara, Milo. “Spider-Woman (2014) #1.” Illustration. Marvel. Marvel. 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 4 May 2015.

Pantozzi, Jill. “Are DC & Marvel Placating a ‘Vocal Minority’ of Fans with Practical Female Character Costumes?” The Mary Sue. N.p., 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Stokes, Colin. “How Movies Teach Manhood.” TED Conferences. Boston, Massachusetts. Nov. 2012. Lecture.

Stuller, Jennifer K. “What is a Female Superhero?” What Is a Superhero? Ed. Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 19-23. Print.

Truitt, Brian. “Marvel Gives Spider Woman a Modern Makeover.” USA Today, 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Willis, David. “False Equivalence.” Comic strip. N.p, 11 Dec. 2011. Web. 3 May 2015.

Yu, Mallory. “Where’s Thor When You Need Her? Women In Comics Fight An Uphill Battle.” NPR. NPR. 10 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

[1] The statistic is faulty because it is a convenience sample–he used Facebook as his method for acquiring data.

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Sage Gentry is an undergraduate student who possesses a love of reading, writing, and all things geeky. You can often find her spending time on Tumblr. She currently resides in Connecticut.

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1 Comment

  1. I liked the article fine, but Carol Danvers is your favorite Superhero? Really?

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