'Analyzing the Gender Representation of 34,476 Comic Book Characters'
July 19, 2017 4:06 PM   Subscribe

Female characters appear in superhero comics less often than males — but when they are included, how are they depicted?
posted by MrJM (13 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I'm immediately struck by the preponderance of female heroes whose superpower is flight. A couple of the kids' shows that my daughter watches are superhero-ish, and they both feature a flying female hero. (Paw Patrol: Skye; PJ Mask: Owlette.) And yet 95% or so of professional pilots are men.
posted by clawsoon at 4:22 PM on July 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is fantastic, what a lot of hand-coding work. Love the dot diagram of female vs male teams.
posted by Nelson at 4:32 PM on July 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is interesting and I enjoyed the post and analysis more than I expected. My biggest beef with mainstream comics is their slavish loyalty to the past/continuity. Imagine how tough it would be to inherit all these characters created in the 1960s.

By today's standards, a lot of the character conceits are racist, sexist, silly, boring and cliche. Also, old school origin stories are just so dumb.

Old tropes that just don't sit well today:
Sidekicks. Why is a 35 year old man fighting crime with a 9 year old boy in tights?
Names ending in -boy or -girl or -man or -woman.
Animal powers or animal-like personas.
Black characters with the word black in their name. Black Panther, Black Lightning etc.
Silly powers/abilities like trick boomerangs, trick javelins, ability to kick things well etc.

We're really trapped by what writers in the 1960s thought 1960s era 12 year old boys would enjoy. No amount of good writing is going to fix that pickle.
posted by Telf at 4:41 PM on July 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

Seeing the "relevant" and "edgy" writing at both DC and Marvel that happened during the 1990s and 2000s (from the egregious rape-fueled Identity Crisis to the cryptofacism of the Ultimates to pick two of the worst examples), I'd say the problems of having a 1970s Danny O'Neil batman or a 1980s Claremont Xmen aren't so terrible.
posted by bonehead at 5:35 PM on July 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

Telf I think it is slightly more complicated- you have a mish-mash of what writers in the 50s, 60s and 70s and some of the 80s thought 12 year old boys would like. All mashed up into something they are struggling to sell to people in their 30s now.
posted by kittensofthenight at 5:35 PM on July 19, 2017

Sure. I was being lazy. It's more layered than just the 1960s. The trouble is trying to pay homage to relics and at least nod to some cohesive continuity while trying to modernize things. It's a really tangled knot of obligations and legacies.

Also, different generations of readers have latched on to different interpretations or runs of characters. Your Jean Grey might not be my Jean Grey. 60 year old Trump supporter's Batman dances to a different beat than today's teenage comic book fan.
posted by Telf at 6:24 PM on July 19, 2017

Also, changing the subject here, but what do female readers want to read about in superhero comics? Superhero comics are pretty darn limited in their scope. There are so many excellent, non superhero based books out now. The recent NPR list is a treasure trove of female-driven books not just limited to science heroes and underwear perverts.

I bring this up because there is a limited number of superhero archetypes. You've got your superman analogues, your batman-ironman spectrum heroes, your psychic/telepathic characters, your super ninjas/secret agents your tanky hulk analogs, your magicians/mystics. We tend to fall into the same tropes.

My point specifically is that there are certain conventions for better or for worse. There are sexy strong woman characters like She Hulk or Fairchild from Gen13 but they sort of cheat. They're conventionally attractive women, just larger and stronger. Their proportions and body shape are well within normal (read exaggerated) female comic body types.

I'm sure there are others, but the only current female hulk character I can think of that eschews these tropes is Leah Cohen from Uber.

Gillen completely ignores any classic expectations of maintaining sexiness such as giving her sexy chain mail lingerie or having her maintain a classically over sexualized body shape. She's suffered for her powers and her body has become distorted and disproportionate. Also, she was originally a mild-mannered nurse and is now expected to tear super Nazis apart with her bare hands. She's obviously uncomfortable with violence, as most normal people would be. That's a tough ask for anyone. I can't imagine a standalone character like Leah Cohen moving many issues of the racks. That being said, she is one of my favorite characters in Uber. Would people buy a female Hulk or a female Thing? I don't know.

Another blip that confounds this analysis is the clustering of archetypical analogues. There's not just Superman there's Hyperion, Mr Majestic, Ultraman, Supreme, Apollo, The Samaritan etc. All these characters are essentially Superman repurposed. Marvel and DC and Image want to have their equivalents. So there's not just Catwoman we also Black Cat. We have Wasp and Bumblebee we have Hawkeye and Green Arrow. This sort of doubles or triples the problem of ability clustering across gender lines.
posted by Telf at 7:36 PM on July 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

My biggest beef with mainstream comics is their slavish loyalty to the past/continuity.

This + sexism = current uproar over a female Doctor.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 7:28 AM on July 20, 2017

Anyway, I'm a female reader who likes the superhero genre. I like reading about people with superpowers being heroic. I like the action adventure of it, I like the power fantasy, and when done right, the catharsis of people doing the right thing actually accomplishing something. The long continuity with the large publishers is a plus and minus - the complexity and self-contradiction is annoying but it's a kind of worldbuilding that results in eddies and backwaters you can only get with a baseline that long. So basically, comics, and ancient mythology (which I also enjoy).

Writing the whole genre off as, and I just can't get past this phrase, "underwear perverts" is like writing off all high fantasy as the realm of metal underwear fetishists because of all the chainmail bikinis.
posted by Karmakaze at 12:26 PM on July 20, 2017 [6 favorites]

I find it interesting that unarmed combat trends so heavily female despite the lack of many other awesome powers. Wouldn't it make more sense to give these otherwise underpowered women big ass guns?
posted by jacquilynne at 4:41 PM on July 20, 2017

No, women are supposed to be dainty and feminine; they get flying and telepathic powers. That's so much more natural - after all, women always seem to know what guys are thinking anyway. It's like magic! It's totally not like men expect them to spend substantial portions of their conscious life watching men for signs of danger and acting interested at whatever the guys want them to be interested in, and punish them if they don't react the right way.

We can't have women with blaster powers and big guns and the ability to throw tanks around; that might make guys feel uncomfortable. If they do have a strong array of physical combat abilities, plz make sure that they're the "femme version" of an existing male superhero.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 6:12 PM on July 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

The unarmed combat is generally of the gymnastic variety, as opposed to strength based hand to hand. You don't see them punching hard, you see them doing throws and balletic dodges.
posted by Karmakaze at 6:10 AM on July 21, 2017

Usually some kind of leg scissoring, head between thighs choke slam sort of thing. A kind of R. Crumb fantasy meets Kortney Olson with a mix of Sonya Blade
posted by Telf at 3:21 AM on July 22, 2017

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