Last week at the “Life, the Universe, and Everything” science fiction and fantasy symposium, I attended a presentation by Andrew Bahlman titled “Superheros and Gender; What it is and why it matters.” I enjoyed it so much that I would like to share a condensed version of that lecture here that’s only slightly tainted by my own opinions.
If you would like to see the actual presentation, there is a copy of the slide deck here.
It’s pretty clear that men and women are not equals when it comes to comic books. Heck, we can’t even achieve equality in real life, but that’s a topic for another blog.
We start by talking about what feminism really is. He defines a feminist as someone who acknowledges that there are differences between men and women. Simple as that.
The problems come when men and women get unfair treatment because of their gender. One example of this is the way female cosplayers are treated at conventions. Yes, they are dressed sexy. Some are wearing very few clothes to accurately represent their character. However, this does not mean they want people to feel free to touch them in inappropriate ways.
A memorable example is when a cosplayer dressed as Tigress (pictured on the left) had a gentleman slip his hand into her bikini bottoms. She was horrified and her friend dressed as Catwoman chased him down and beat him with her whip. Some would say that she asked for it, that her manner of dress somehow gave men permission to abuse her.
Wrong. Unwanted touching is never asked for, it is never deserved, and it is completely inexcusable.
The lovely to look at fellow dressed as Leonidas from 300 (who was also nearly naked) did not receive the same treatment. Neither did his friend dressed as Xerxes.
Comic books are no better. In general, men are portrayed as powerful, muscular, and dominating. The women are drawn as sexy, submissive, and helpless. The movie adaptations are no better. It’s rare for there to be a strong female lead who is not just a sex symbol. The few exceptions are Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy, and Black Widow from the Avengers Universe. While they are still sex symbols, at least they have active and vital roles in the story.
This mentality, that women are seen as objects and things to be used, has created a culture where we see increased violence against women. The statistics are mind blowing. 1 in 33 men will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. For women it is reported as 1 in 6, although evidence suggests that it might be closer to 1 in 3.
Merchandising hasn’t helped. In Target there are women’s shirts that say things like “Training to be Batman’s wife” and onsies for girl babies that say “I only date superheros.” Whereas for the men there is the “Superman gets the girl” shirt and “Future Man of Steel” onsie.
Why can’t girls be heros as well? Why are we perpetuating the belief that only men can do heroic things?
Even when a franchise has embraced a strong female character, she rarely gets top billing. Gamora is often excluded in promo posters and merchandise.
What’s the moral here? If you are a writer of heroic fiction make an effort to change up the stereotypes. Give a girl a strong role. Don’t use the obvious, overused trope of super dominant male lead with a wimpy female clinging to him. Not a writer? Seek out comics and other entertainment that treats women with respect. Support artists and authors who choose to do so.
My friend Ginger Mann is doing a series of interviews on her blog called Character Walks where she sits down with characters from different short stories, including mine, and has a conversation with them. It’s fun to read and a great way to learn more about creating a backstory for your characters. Go check it out!