Female Superheroes: A Historical Perspective by Allison Phillips

As comics grow more popular, conversations about comics and inclusivity have grown more prevalent and perhaps more virulent. In a recent piece for The New Yorker, Harvard Professor Jill Lepore made a disparaging evaluation of the portrayal of female superheroes after taking her sons to see Avengers: Age of Ultron and reading the premier issue of A-Force. Lepore ultimately concluded: “Maybe it’s not possible to create reasonable female comic book superheroes, since their origins are tangled up in magazines for men” (Lepore, 2015). The article ignited an intense online discussion, including a response from G. Willow Wilson, a comic creator and part of the team behind A-Force. Wilson commented repeatedly upon how Lepore’s interpretation was made without context, particularly when considering a genre (superheroes) that heavily relies upon tropes (Wilson, 2015).

Wilson also hinted at the inherent complications of a Harvard professor evaluating a form that has traditionally been considered “low culture” (Wilson, 2015). This online conversation echoes many other recent cultural discussions about female superheroes: the lack of a standalone Black Widow movie, the widely panned trailer for the upcoming Supergirl television series, and several failed attempts to create a Wonder Woman movie. In her defense of A-Force, Wilson rightly stresses the importance of understanding the context and history of how female superheroes have been depicted (Wilson, 2015). By better understanding the history of female superheroes in comics, it is easier to understand and contextualize current discussions.

When considering the depiction women in comics, the prevalence of the male gaze is unavoidable. It is important to understand that the idea of the male gaze has long permeated Western culture, and exists extensively outside of the purview of comics (Calderon, 2015). Many classical paintings and statues provide examples of how the male gaze has long dominated visual art. Although men have always been more prevalent in the field of comics, several examples of female creators stand out. Comics created by and for women began appearing in the 1930’s, primarily in women’s magazines such as Calling All Girls. These comics did not involve superheroes, but focused more upon telling stories about daily life. One notable example of an early comic series created by a woman is Patsy Walker by Ruth Atkinson. These magazines were available publicly, primarily in grocery stores and gas stations (Landsbaum, 2015).

When Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, many of these female-centric comics suffered. While Wertham was comparatively lenient towards superhero comics, he was especially critical of the romance, mystery, and thriller stories that tended to be more popular amongst female readers. Comics became less widely available, and comic sellers tended to have a seedy reputation, which may have been a deterrent to some women (Heer, 2008). During this period, women in superhero comics usually functioned as love interests and plot devices intended to drive the storyline. It was a common occurrence for the female characters to be killed or attacked in order to inspire and justify the rage of the main character. Comic creator Gail Simone referred to this trend as “women in refrigerators” after an infamous 1994 Green Lantern storyline in which a woman is chopped up and stored in Hal Jordan’s fridge (Landsbaum, 2015).

It would be remiss to discuss female superheroes without devoting some attention to Wonder Woman, a formative character. Wonder Woman was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston in 1941, and has been almost continuously published through the present day (Lepore, 2014). Wonder Woman’s first appearance on the big screen will be in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman film, but the character rapidly gained popularity during the 1970’s television series starring Lynda Carter.

Casual comic readers are likely unfamiliar with the creator of Wonder Woman, but William Moulton Marston was the subject of some controversy during the censorship efforts of the 1950’s. Many have commented upon Marston’s unconventional personal life: he is credited with inventing the polygraph test, and lived in a polyamorous household with his wife and two other women (Lepore, 2014). Marston’s most lasting contribution is the creation of Wonder Woman, a character that has appeared in many variations over the decades. The original Wonder Woman of the 1940’s has been compared to the Rosie the Riveter archetype of a strong yet feminine American woman during World War II. The character has since seen numerous iterations over the years, often reflecting the current zeitgeist. For example, comics published in the 1960’s depicted Diana Prince in charge of a mod-style clothing store (Landsbaum, 2015). Wonder Woman is especially notable as the only commercially successful standalone female superhero until very recently. A few other female superheroes appeared in comics during the period from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, but ultimately disappeared after the publication of a few issues (Landsbaum, 2015). With the exception of characters working as members of a male-dominated team, female superheroes have not been able to secure commercial staying power until the last decade (Dockterman, 2015).

An online discussion emerged when the lineup for a 2015 Comic Con “Women in Comics” panel was originally composed entirely of men (Jusino, 2015). This event coincides with a shift in the past few years towards more female characters and creators in superhero comics. A number of factors could be credited with this change: the availability of digital comics (removing the barrier of physically visiting a male dominated comic shop), online female fandom, and the rise of female creators with this change (Landsbaum, 2015). Major comic publishers have responded in kind. Marvel recently announced a new and different look for many characters, prominently featuring Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, and Spider Gwen in promotional art (Dockterman, 2015). D.C. comics will be repackaging female superheroes to be marketed to girls aged 6-12, with new toys and media expected to become available in by the end of 2015 (Vincent, 2015).

One common point of discussion is the lack of female-driven superhero movies. After the massive financial success of Iron Man in 2008, moviegoers have been flooded with superhero fare (Landsbaum, 2015). Despite the tremendous popularity of superhero films, it is believed by some that a female driven superhero movie would fail to perform at the box office. During the recent leak of Sony executive emails, it is believed that the CEO of Marvel made disparaging remarks about the critical and box office performance of Catwoman, Electra, and Supergirl (Berger, 2015). While these films were not successful, it is worth noting that they are all over a decade old. Public interest in superhero films has rapidly accelerated since 2005, and a female-driven superhero film may deserve another look.

A careful look at recent box-office demographics indicates that a female-led superhero film could be financially successful. Most estimates place women as comprising approximately 40% of superhero movie audiences, and the massive success of the comparable Hunger Games films suggests that a female-led action film can be profitable (Funkhouser, 2013). If the sales of comic books are any indication, it is clear that female-driven storylines have an audience. In the past few years, Ms. Marvel, Spider Gwen, and other female centric content have boasted impressive sales (Landsbaum, 2015). A current series featuring the female embodiment of Thor is outselling the original male Thor (D’Orazio, 2015). Female comic readership is currently estimated at 47%, and is the fastest growing demographic (Landsbaum, 2015). As librarians, we have a responsibility to be aware of this growth in readership and to help women and girls to access this material.

It seems important to conclude with the importance of good storytelling and good art. The failure of films like Catwoman and Electra lies not with the female leads, but with the quality of the films. It should be noted that there have also been several critical and commercial failures focused around male characters. Rather than pandering or tossing female characters into a work for the sake of representation, comic creators and film makers should make sure to focus upon creating fine work and telling good stories. Comics are lovable and memorable because they tell good stories using an original medium. With the recent explosion in female creators and female readership, it is a good time for women to play a larger part in telling those stories.


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Calderon, Leia. (2015). An Open Letter to Jill Lapore About A-Force. Sub-cultured. Retrieved June 10, 2015, from http://www.sub-cultured.com/jill-lepore-a-force/

Dockterman, Eliana. (2015). Marvel Announcement May Be Good for Female Superheroes. Time. Retrieved June 11, 2015, from http://time.com/3909486/marvel-announcement-female-superheroes/

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Heer, Jeet. (2008). The Campaign Against Comic Books. Slate. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2008/04/the_caped_crusader.html

Jusino, Teresa. (2015). Denver Comic Con’s All-Male “Women in Comics” Panel Causes Concern Among Comics Fans. The Mary Sue. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from http://www.themarysue.com/dcc-all-male-women-in-comics-panel/

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Landsbaum, Claire. (2015). Marvel’s Female-Superhero Renaissance. Vulture. Retrieved June 11, 2015, from http://www.vulture.com/2015/05/marvels-female-superhero-renaissance.html

Lepore, Jill. (2014). The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman. Smithsonian. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/origin-story-wonder-woman-180952710/?no-ist

Lepore, Jill. (2015). Why Marvel’s Female Superheroes Look Like Porn Stars. The New Yorker. Retrieved June 10, 2015, from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/marvel-a-force-female-superheroes

Rosenberg, Alyssa. (2014). She-Hulk is a Feminist Hero, Not a Male Fantasy. The Washington Post. Retrieved June 11, 2015, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/21/she-hulk-is-a-feminist-hero-not-a-male-fantasy/

Vincent, James. (2015). DC is Repackaging its Female Superheroes for Young Girls. The Verge. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from http://www.theverge.com/2015/4/23/8477647/dc-super-hero-girls-age-six-to-twelve

Wilson, G. Willow. (2015). Dr. Lepore’s Lament. Retrieved June 10, 2015, from http://gwillowwilson.com/post/118822887543/dr-lepores-lament

Author Bio:

Formerly a high school teacher in New York City, Allison Phillips currently works in the community engagement department at Lincolnwood Public Library District. She is completing an MLS at Dominican University and will graduate with a certificate in Youth Services.