What’s Wrong With This Picture: Gender Inequality in Comic Books

by: Courtney Rust

Alright readers: are you ready for this? This article is an interactive one. What I need you to do first is stand up. Yes, you! C’mon, stand up! Okay now, position your feet about shoulder-width apart. Good! Now here’s the tricky bit: Rotate a complete 180° and push your chest upward and outward, squat a bit, drop one hip, and make sure you don’t move your feet. Couldn’t do it? I’m not surprised. Even a martial artist/contortionist couldn’t strike that pose. So if this pose is next-to-impossible to achieve, why are so many female characters drawn this way in comic books?

The prevalence of this depiction, to me, shows that a great number of comic artists are ignorant about the anatomical limitations of the female body. Or worse: that they and their readership are able to accept these inaccuracies and reinforce them.

In an attempt to highlight the utterly preposterous positions our superheroines, lady villains, and other female characters are forced into, artists and internet users have heeded the distress signal being beamed into the night sky and have created the ultimate weapon: a meme. Artists have redrawn various ads and comic book panels and covers to highlight What’s Wrong With This Picture. Artist Kevin Bolk looked at the movie poster for The Avengers and decided that it wasn’t fair that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow should be the only one to show off her well-toned glutes. This is the result. In a similar fashion, an artist with the internet username Coelasquid redrew the cover of the latest edition of the Justice League comic so that the rest of the league could strike the same totally-ready-to-spring-into-action pose as Wonder Woman.

Another excellent exposé of the latent sexism found in many comics is the website Escher Girls, which features “pictures of female characters in impossible or ridiculous poses or with disturbing anatomy because the artists needed to show teh sexy.” The site displays images of women from comic books accompanied by commentary describing how these women might have come to find themselves in such compromised positions. It also features anatomically correct redraws in which the women are still hella sexy but are also moving their bodies in ways that allow them to kick ass without dislocating their torsos. Okay one last example: The impromptu “Try to Sit Like Impossible Mary Jane” Spiderman Contest is one of my favorite things to have ever been spawned by the internet, and truly showcases the alien dexterity that female comic book characters possess.

A quick Google search reveals that a great deal of conversation about this topic exists. One commonly found argument denying the sexism in comics argues that the men are objectified as well, and so there is no gender inequality present in comic books.

There’s no denying that the heroes in comics, both male and female, are rendered as possessing body types considered ideal by Western social standards. However, the men are depicted as strong, athletic conquerors, whereas the women don’t exactly look the part of active, powerful, and capable fighters. Superladies are also often posed as passive, pliant, and submissive, and as being more concerned with displaying their ample cleavage than with wielding a flaming sword effectively. Male heroes are posed in ways that emphasize their strength. Female heroes are posed in ways that hyper-sexualize and objectify them.

The costumes of male and female superheroes further demonstrate this disparity. While spandex is a staple for both men and women, the ways in which they are outfitted in it are strikingly different. Men are often covered from head to toe in suits designed for flexibility and protection. The costumes lady heroes wear typically resemble strapless one-piece bathing suits with plunging necklines. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I spend a good deal of time tugging up and adjusting strapless tops, and I feel like that could be quite distracting when attempting to save the planet from impending doom. Speaking of distractions, what’s up with superladies always wearing their hair down? They must use a good detangling shampoo after flying through the air and fighting supervillains like that. And I can understand how high-heeled stiletto boots could be used as weapons in a fight, but I feel like these women might want to have a good pair of tennies along for when they might need to run quickly through rough terrain or rubble or something.

I’m glad that numerous people have picked up on and are talking about the ridiculous treatment women frequently receive in comics. I’ve only scratched the surface here, and haven’t even touched on issues such as lack of diversity. However, I wish it didn’t take redraws of male heroes in poses superheroines are often drawn in to point out how absurd they are. I wish we weren’t so desensitized and conditioned to seeing women depicted like this that such images don’t shock us upon first glance. But some of the articles, discussions, and interviews with comic artists that I came across have me hopeful that this won’t be allowed to continue. The voices will have to get louder and more numerous if there is to be a major change made in this major industry, but I believe it can happen. And that would be pretty super.

Courtney Rust is an undergraduate student at Loyola University Chicago pursuing a major in English and minors in Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies. She leaves her room every now and again to take part in Advocate, Loyola’s LGBTQA organization, where she serves on the advisory board. She is continually attempting to learn what it means to be a good ally to the LGBTQ community. Courtney moonlights as a barista, and has a strong love for musicals, coffee shops, big cities, exploring,Doctor Who, the internet, and most everything else in life. She hates olives though. With a fiery passion.

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3 responses to “What’s Wrong With This Picture: Gender Inequality in Comic Books

  1. You are making a really good point here, it has been going on for years but it is only in recent times I am hearing more people discussing the difference and wanting a change. The characters both male and female are supposed to be superheroes not super sex objects! Also just so you know… I almost threw my back out trying to do that pose!!!!

  2. While a lot of this does exist in the Marvel/DC universe, independent comic book lines are the ones that are straying away from the fanboy catering and creating story lines (and comic book covers) that portray women in a less “tits and ass” kind of light. There are superhero stories out there that aren’t all about ridiculous poses and pouty women, they’re just not the most mainstream ones.

  3. Although true, comic books feature physically impossible poses… is that really what seems most unlikely in a comic book?

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