A Cosmic Ramble through Comics History, Part Three

Posted by on September 3rd, 2010 at 8:50 AM

Universal Press Syndicate’s Lee Salem said in 2004 that “Cathy opened the door for the female cartoonists we love today, but even 27 years later, the reality is you can count the number of women cartoonists in the newspaper almost on one hand.” Today, six years further on, it’s not much better, and the way women are pictured in the comics hasn’t improved either, as Alan Gardner reported lately in his DailyCartoonist:

“A recent paper in presented to the American Sociological Association suggests that female characters in the largest (most read) comic strips in America treat women characters more as props than leading characters (news.ufl.edu/2020/08/18/comic-strips). Conclusions in the report are based on studying Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Family Circus, Hagar, Garfield and Dilbert for one full year. An analysis of six of the most popular nationally syndicated comic strips over the course of a year shows that women appeared less than half the time and when they did the gag was on them, said Daniel Fernandez-Baca, a University of Florida graduate student in sociology. ‘When they do appear, for the most part, women don’t say anything funny or act humorously, but merely set up the joke and allow men to create the humor,’ he said. Other than being a straight man or foil to the laugh-inspiring male character, women were used mostly to reinforce certain humorous stereotypes, such as the harried or henpecking housewife, Fernandez-Baca said.” Gardner added that the study’s author also reports that “accurately depicting female characters in comics is important because it can ‘can encourage incorrect or misleading perceptions of people’ in impressionable children and adolescents who read the comics.”

Comic books may, or may not, be better in the way they portray women: they are at least wildly different. As female superheroes proliferate, women in these four-color frolics are becoming more and more like men: they not only dish it out physically with their foes, but they take it on the chin sometimes, too. Power Girl, Black Cat, Black Widow, Wonder Woman—all respond to threats from the bad guys with fists flayling. And the bad guys hit back.

At the Denver Post recently (August 22), movie critic Joanne Ostrow worried about the motion picture versions of comic book style heroines that combine beauty and brutality. Citing Evelyn Salt, Hit Girl, Nikita, Annie Frost, Annie Walker, Olivia Dunham, and Lisabeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” among others, Ostrow writes: “A burgeoning number of female characters on big and small screens aren’t merely kicking butt. (And we’re not talking catfights.) They’re also taking the sort of beatdowns once reserved for male action heroes—or abuse victims on Lifetime television.” Are such portrayals good role models for young girls? Or not?

Ostrow joins critic Jennifer Merin, president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, in wondering whether “we should celebrate or be suspicious of these daughters of Diana Rigg’s peerless martial artist and fencer Emma Peel and Pam Grier’s blaxploitation mama Foxy Brown? Should we worry for young women thinking they can cold-cock a creep? Or should we cheer images that encourage them to imagine fighting back? Should these images carry a warning—like Cesar Millan’s ‘Dog Whisperer’ or Johnny Knoxville’s ‘Jackass’ stunt outings? ‘Ladies, do not try these kick-butt maneuvers in a dark alley faced with a real assailant.”

Says Merin: “If young girls are being exposed to kick-ass queens and they think they can do that, there’s a danger that they’ll just get smushed.”

Then Ostrow quotes “Denver Roller Doll” Bea Ware, a 28-year-old civil engineer in her day job who is a blocker on the roller derby team, “who knows a thing or two about getting smushed”: “Once you have that experience of being hit or hitting someone and walking away from it,” Ware said, “it’s invigorating. It’s a great feeling. Like you’re truly alive.” Could she take on a guy, bent on hurting her? “Sure,” Ware said, “I absolutely think that.” And if she has daughters, she’ll encourage them to become athletes so they’ll have the same conviction.

Apart from concern over the keister-kicking ladies as role models for young women, Ostrow realizes that “many of these images are intended to hook a young guy audience” so “shouldn’t we wonder what lessons young men are taking away from these images?” Ostrow speculates not much more about this aspect of the issue, and yet her question gets at the heart of the matter. As Merin puts it: “The essential question is ‘Whose fantasy is it, and how does it bubble up onto the screen?’”

The answer may not surprise Ostrow. “Strong women,” as they have been termed in comic book critiques, are not concocted in order to appeal to female audiences: in comic books at least, these tough buxom beauties are the babe magnets intended to attract adolescent males. For this audience, tough girl protagonists who take it as well as dish it out are fantasy enactments of rough sex, which is, itself, a species of the way the Freudian unconscious envisions the sex act. For male audiences, the bum-buster bimbos are about sex, not role models. And we don’t have to go much further than their costumes to verify this interpretation: skin-tight uniforms with plunging necklines are all about sex appeal, and anyone who denies this obvious truth is playing with your head.

And that brings us, as inexorably as the sunrise arriving at daybreak always before breakfast, to Wonder Woman—to the make-over she is currently enduring. Next time.

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