Female Super-Hero Characters and Sex: Creators Explain How Comics Can Do Better
There has been a lot of discussion — and controversy — recently about the presence of women in super-hero comics, both in terms of the relative lack of female creators and the problematic way that female characters are sometimes represented. We’ve heard numerous fans and professionals hashing out the issue, and asking what mainstream comics can do to improve the way female characters are written and drawn. ComicsAlliance spoke to comics writers, artists and editors across the industry — including two porn creators — for some concrete answers to that question. Kieron Gillen, Greg Rucka, Kurt Busiek, G. Willow Wilson, Jeff Parker, Jess Fink, Brandon Graham, Sana Amanat, Jamie McKelvie, Erika Moen and Rachel Edidin weigh in below.
Kieron Gillen: I write the Uncanny X-Men. When the events of the recent months started to blow up, I found myself glancing at my team in Uncanny and sort of breathed a sigh of relief. My Uncanny Team for the relaunch is 50:50 in terms of gender ratio. Four men, four women and a robot. The oddest thing is that I didn’t even have to think about it. It’s the main advantage of writing Uncanny X-Men. I’m exploring the terrain populated by a lot of progressive, socially minded writers before me. I just picked the appropriate characters for what I had in mind and it creates a balanced team.
Which isn’t to say I haven’t my own problems, and I thought it may be worthwhile to talk about a little one I deal with on a daily basis. She’s called Emma Frost.
Emma always risks being every bad cliché about women in comics, simply because half the time she’s a tendency to look as if she’s just wandered out of a retro-themed sex party. Which she probably has. I think Emma gets away with it for a few reasons, and they’re reasons I keep in mind whenever writing pretty much anything.
First one, is something I think is as close to objective as anything craft-based gets. It’s about storytelling. Not a character’s actions, but how you choose to frame those actions for the reader. This includes the poses a character strikes. You could have a character reciting feminist theory, but if you’ve shot them so they’re leaning over to give a cleavage shot and come-hither eyes up at the reader, it overrules anything else you could be trying to do.
In other words, her costume’s actually a secondary concern compared to how you choose to frame the person wearing that costume. Take a look at Whedon/Cassady’s Astonishing X-men for a masterclass in Emma. She’s her usual semi-clothed self throughout, and Cassaday never does anything to draw attention to it above and beyond what the story demands.
If you treat your characters as objects instead of characters you are, by definition, objectifying them, and if you constantly objectify your female characters you come across as sexist. Male characters, despite the similar unlikely physique, are simply not objectified in the gaze of the reader in the same way as female characters often are, to the detriment to the drama. Because if the reader is thinking “Nice ass” or “Oh God, tacky!” on a panel that’s meant to be about something emotional and true, your choices have betrayed the story.
Second reason why Emma gets away with it links to the line-up. This is a team which includes a number of other women. In terms of my team, two are in unisex jumpsuits (Magik, Hope) and one is in something a little more elegant (Storm). We can have a character like Emma simply because not all characters are like Emma. If you dress all your characters like Emma, it sends – no pun intended — an explicit message.
Third reason is the flip of the first reason. That was about how you choose to present the story. This is the content of the story of itself. Emma’s unique dress-sense is absolutely part of the story. It’s for a reason. It’s for a reason which other characters respond to, both positively and negatively. If you’re going to have a character like Emma, you have to accept it’s a thing and roll with it.
In short: If you treat your characters as characters, you can get away with pretty much anything. As a final thought, it’s also worth noting that the deepest plunging cleavage in my X-Men team is actually Namor who’s close to being the masculine inverse of Emma in terms of amount of skin versus appropriateness of showing that amount of skin. Which, I suppose, is my own attempt at playful sexual egalitarianism.
Read more at ComicsAlliance.
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