Originally posted on my blog, The Comics Cove, not too long ago...
I recently had a conversation with my teenage little sister that led to something of a comic book quandary. It was both somewhat frustrating--I'm used to having all the answers for the new and uninitiated when it comes to comic books--and a little satisfying, as I enjoy finding the answers to questions I don't know about, particularly in this arena.
It started off in about as positive a way as it could have. She made the comment that superheroes are so cool these days--she's excited about The Avengers coming out in May, among other superhero films--and we started talking about comic books in general. I mentioned a few of my favorite heroes, and then she asked me what women superheroes whose exploits and adventures I thought she should follow.
This question actually caught me off guard. I remember hemming and hawing about it for a bit, not actually able to give her a quick, immediate answer that wasn't "Buffy."
I read comic books of all stripes and types, though I make no apologies about favoring superhero comics. I can list off plenty of good superhero comics. I can list off plenty of good children's comics. I can list off plenty of good comics with strong girl characters. But that wasn't what my sister was asking me.
She was asking me about female superheroes. And I just didn't have any ready answers.
Tough? Yes. Admirable? Yes. Relatable? Not
Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of recognizable and admirable women superheroes out there. But when viewed through the lens of the question, "Do I want my little sister to emulate this person?" it became a lot harder to really put their names forward for consideration.
I told her as much, explaining that, while I have plenty of superheroines I admire, for various reasons, there were too many stigmas I attached to them as being good enough or accessible enough for me to want her to look up to them. Wonder Woman was a prime example: super-strong and powerful enough to sometimes give Superman a run for his money, she was also from a culture that removed her worldview from that of a typical teenage girl. In many ways, she was characterized like a man, only with a woman's body and costume. She could be hard to relate to for that reason.
And, of course, there was the cheesecake factor.
Can not recommend to aspiring girl
And that factor is a big deterrent for me in terms of recommending a superheroine for her to follow regularly. There are plenty of women superheroes I admire, but it's overwhelmingly difficult for me to separate them from the perception and depictions as fan service characters. The recently reviewed Black Cat is an excellent example of this. Does she have stories where she is compellingly written and portrayed as a three-dimensional character? Yes, thanks especially to Kevin Smith. But how many stories are written about her where she's not flashing cleavage or titillating the reader in some other way? To be honest, nothing comes to mind.
As much as I like Felicia--and as much as I personally like the cheesecake images of her--I would never recommend her as a hero I want my sister to follow and emulate.
Same thing goes for She-Hulk. And Power Girl. And Catwoman. And so many of the women superheroes out there.
We finally solved this question by visiting my local comic shop and asking for help from one of the knowledgeable salespeople there. At first, he initially had the same problems I did, particularly when I explained why so many popular women heroes were not acceptable. After a few tentative recommendations, including the Jessica Jones title Alias, the Batgirl trades featuring Stephanie Brown, and perhaps some of the X-23 material out there, he finally hit upon a title that we both smacked ourselves for not thinking of from the get-go.
I've personally never done more than skim the Runaways books, but I didn't need to. I can tell from the writing credits alone that I should have thought of these immediately. Joss Whedon. Terry Moore. Brian K. Vaughan. I've read enough of their work to know that not only would it be good, but the depictions of women and girls--girls with powers--would be nothing short of stellar. I've also seen enough of the titles to know that, when I finally do get to sit down and read them, I'll enjoy them.
I took my sister to the area where they were, had her look at the summaries for some of them, and she quickly got excited about the premise. I ended up buying her the first two volumes, which she devoured in a matter of a couple days. A few days later, I got a message from her, saying that they were REALLY good, and she wanted more, please.
It's the kind of thing that makes me smile, even when I'm having a rough day.
So now, when I'm looking for comics, I keep an eye out for stuff for my sister. I still enjoy the cheesecake female superheroes, but now I look at them in a slightly different light, or at least, a more developed way than I had before. That they're so widely portrayed this way, with so few alternatives that make for positive portrayals of strong women characters, says that this is something that needs to change.
As a male, I do enjoy and want the guilty pleasure portrayals to continue, at least a little bit. As an older brother with a cool little sister who's getting into comics, however, I want them to not be so widely distributed as to be the expected norm in superhero comics.
There needs to be more Buffys in comics. There needs to be more solo titles for women that don't depict them purely as objects of lust and titillation. And there needs to be a variety of them.
I want to be able to take my sister to the comic shop, and for her to have a hard time picking and choosing the titles of her favorite superheroes because there are just so darned many of them--a quandary I'm constantly in. I want her to have that same experience. And I don't think, the way comics are currently set up, that it's really possible.
It's something I would urge comic readers to keep in mind when they think about how women are portrayed in comics. Just ask yourself, "Is this what I would want my little sister/cousin/niece/daughter to emulate?" If you're the object of admiration for a young female comics geek, and you want the best for her, chances are that answer will be no.