Female Leads in Comic Books Might Help to Change Our Culture

I’ve been reading comics since the early 1980’s (and I haven’t stopped, except for a brief pause during some lost years in the 1990’s). Growing up, the female characters in comics were all pretty sexy with wonderful come-hither looks (you really should click on this). Even Batman’s female villains were all pretty buxom (enjoy). The few girls in my school that were interested in superheroes all worshiped Wonder Woman, who pretty much just looks like a stripper in Captain America panties (I prefer Woman Woman to be heavily armored and quite violent). I know, she’s iconic. I’m not looking to get into a flame war.

Clearly, art has reflected our culture.

Research reports teachers (despite being overwhelmingly female) tend to call on and interact with boys more than girls. By the time they are teenagers, girls (either consciously or unconsciously) begin to play down their intelligence. This leads to the unfortunate belief by many people that girls are not as smart as boys. In college, despite making up a majority of the student body, women make up less than 40% of student government. Don’t even get me started on Halloween costumes.

In the internet era, the vitriol directed at women who assert themselves can be vicious and disgusting. Women who work full-time earn 70, or 77, or 85 cents for every dollar that men who work full-time make (there is a fight over those statistics, but people generally agree that there is a gender pay gap). Only 24 women head a Fortune 500 company (4.8%). All of these statistics are worse for women of color. The secondization of women is also reflected in our films. In the top 100 grossing movies of 2014, only 12% of the protagonists were females (it was 15% in 2013).

But while these statistics are disheartening, no one can deny that circumstances are better for women now than they’ve ever been before in human history. We are seeing an upward trajectory. This has also been reflected in comics since 2000. We are living in a golden age of strong female protagonists. These are characters that are so well-rounded and interesting that they not only appeal to women, but they appeal to men (they’re still pretty good looking, but at least they have a lot more to offer now).

In 2000, Maryjane Satrapi’s Persepolis was released. Written and illustrated by Ms. Satrapi, it is an absolute literary classic that details the author’s childhood in Tehran and her education in France. Her family were well educated, semi-secular Muslims living under a fairly oppressive regime in Iran. It’s a coming of age story that is easily one of my 10 favorite comics.

Also in 2000, Brian Michael Bendis introduced us to Deena Pilgrim, a smart, young detective who investigates super-powered related crimes (she has a dirty mouth…not sexually dirty, just nasty). While Ms. Pilgrim is not really a role model, she doesn’t have to be. But she’s interesting, and that was a welcome change. Other characters followed. In 2002, Bill Willingham began a multi-award winning series called Fables. One of the main characters is Snow White. She is smart, hardworking and fierce and I will miss her character when the series ends this summer.

In 2007, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was released (it was made into a Broadway play this year). It’s an autobiographical story about Ms. Bechdel’s childhood, education, family and especially her relationship with her father, a closeted gay English teacher from central Pennsylvania. It was a finalist for the National Circle Book Critics Award and in 2010 the LA Times named it as one of the 20 classics of gay literature.

Marvel made headlines over two years ago with the introduction of Ms. Marvel, a teenage girl of Pakistani decent who lives in Jersey City. It is written by G Willow Wilson, and while it is not a book that I read (I read the first story arc), I am very happy that it exists. It is in the news again because of a controversy, but that should help add a few readers and drive sales for a bit.

The last few years has seen an introduction of a number of glorious characters. They include Velvet, Lazarus, Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman, Scott Snyder’s Pearl Jones, and Saga’s Alana. These aren’t forced attempts at being PC or grabbing new market shares, but instead quality characters in good stories.

This is progress. It is a signal that our culture has changed and is changing. I believe these characters will influence men and women to look at females more progressively, and that our culture will reflect our art.

Alana from Saga, illustrated by Fiona Staples