Today, our world is overflowing with different types of pop culture; we have social networking sites, television, film, novel’s, comics, video games; and for every one of those types of pop culture we have an infinite of sub genres. It is a lot to process and yes some of it is just silly cat videos, or someone tweeting an awkward date they are currently experiencing. However, these types of media can be very useful in bringing to light social issues in our world, some even go so far as to affect change. A pop culture source that is rapidly gaining popularity is the comic; since the turn of the century those who would classify themselves as nerds or geeks have seen a decrease in the amount in which they are ostracized. This has given rise to a love of comics by not just children and “nerds”, but by people of all backgrounds and peculiarities. With more people actually investing time in reading comics, it has become a great form of media to express social issues.
One of the most significant social issues that comics of all genres have really taken a stab at correcting is the negative view woman get in our society. The idea that a woman has to be an overly sexual being relying on the whims of men just isn’t true, and the use of the comic to express this is great because it is still a very open source of media. There is very limited censorship, nothing like that of television or film; and one of the biggest contributors to comic art and storylines is the independent sector, meaning there are thousands of social issues covered. Recently, the role of a strong female leads has become more pronounced in comics, and I would like to share a few of the series I find to have the most powerful impact on our society.
Saga, having won numerous Eisner and Harvey Awards and the 2013 award winner for best graphic story, has been noted for its diverse portrayal of ethnicity, sexuality and gender social roles. It’s easy to love a space opera, but a space opera that is bold enough to start with an opening line of “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting!”, that takes the cake (Vaughan). And, once you realize that this is shouted by one of the main female leads, it takes on a whole different meaning. Alana, who is giving birth in the first scene, is a badass warrior woman, but she makes leaps and bounds over that cliché. She is at any given point cocky, vulnerable, stubborn, loving, short-tempered; never afraid to express her feelings or thoughts, often times cussing to get her point across. It is clear that she enjoys sex, but she is never overly sexualized; there is nudity, but you’ll never see Alana in a skin-tight suit with her breasts popping out. Her outfits fit whatever terrain she is currently trying to traverse; you’ll never see her trying to climb a mountain or hike through snow in 4-inch-high-heels. In fact, Alana is surrounded by a slew of significant female leads including her mother in law. There is one female role, however, that blogger Maddie Rodriguez describes as a feminist nightmare. The Stalk embodies all the common stereotypes, “bleach-blond, pillow-lipped, busty, Barbie-wasted and constantly topless.” Why would the creators of Saga do this? It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that in addition to all the cliché’s described above, The Stalk is also a ruthless, half-spider, assassin. (Rodriguez) Essentially Saga lives to push the boundaries of what we perceive as acceptable in our society, a line equally pushed by the next comic I will talk about.
Like in Sage, Paper Girls immediately throws you into a situation where the socially acceptable version of a woman is thrown into question. One of the main characters, a twelve-year-old papergirl named Erin, is accosted by some older boys on Halloween, looking to take advantage of a “weak, helpless girl.” Then, the view pans and you are greeted by a full page spread of three commanding looking paper girls on bikes; with a speech bubble above the girl in lead saying “Cool costume, faggot.” This line is immediately followed by “You heard me, AIDS patient. Get lost.” (Vaughan) Now to be fair, those two lines hit pretty hard on some other social issues, but Mac, so called by her friends, is called out on that by those very same friends. Right off the bat, this comic hits you in the face, and it’s saying that this isn’t going to be another story where the hapless, helpless girls are saved by the macho heroic man. This comic is clearly aimed at an audience of girls closer to their early teens; through vulgarity and badass-ery it try’s to teach girls that they don’t need to be afraid of expressing themselves. The main girls aren’t dressed scandalously, showing no more skin than their forearms, neck, and face. Paper Girls even attempts to impress upon its audience that it is okay for girls to branch out into fields previously not occupied by women; shown when Erin recognizes Mac as the first girl paperboy. Furthering the punk machismo tone of this story Mac goes on to light up a cigarette and verbally go toe-to-toe with a police officer, not backing down until he drives away. Its obvious that Paper Girls doesn’t send the best message to children, and girls in particular; but the correct intention is there, and they do a damn good job at showing that women can be empowered.
Although technically the next two comics I want to talk about started out as television shows, I felt obligated to include them due to the nature of their strong female cast. Both Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were created by writer Joss Whedon; I don’t know what led to Whedon’s fascination with the strong female role, but he pulls it off in an unbelievable fashion. Firefly, a western set in space, introduces one of the strongest female leads I’ve ever seen. Zoe, described by her husband as a “warrior woman” takes no shit from anyone, and although not explicitly sexualized, still retains both her sexuality and allure. It is clear from the beginning that she does not need a man to make her happy; she is with her husband, not out of necessity, but because she loves him. In fact, Zoe and her husband Walsh basically switch classic gender roles. She is the one who goes out, fights battles, takes on jobs, and does most of the heavy lifting; while her husband stays home, or in this case the ship, and watches over things. There is another strong female lead I would like to mention, Anara; she is what the Firefly universe refers to as a Companion, in essence an escort. However, unlike how escorts are viewed in our society, Companions have unbelievable social standing, unfettered access to the core planets, and are viewed as spiritual leaders as well as sexual companions. This paired with Anara’s combat training makes for one powerful woman, and although she accepts cash for sex, she chooses her clients and has total control over her situation.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another series with a strong female presence; Buffy is the chosen one, picked to defend our world against the forces of evil. However, unlike Zoe in Firefly, Buffy’s attitude outside of her late night vampire ass kicking’s is very feminine. She wears makeup, dresses in clothes that although not scandalous, are not modest either, and she gets crushes. Though, there is always the underline concept that she can take care of herself. The great thing about this series is the diversity of the female lead, and that is covers several aspects of female empowerment including sexual freedom, or a woman’s right to choose her sexual partner regardless of race, gender, or in some cases mortality.
Next we have a comic that made huge waves when it was released, Spider-Gwen. In order to understand this comic, you need a little bit of backstory. Marvel recently released a new run of Spider-Man entitled The Amazing Spider-Man, in that run every Spider-Man from every universe came together to stop an enemy. In one of these universes Peter Parker never becomes Spider-Man, instead Gwen Stacy does. She was so popular in The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel decided to give her, her own run, thus Spider-Gwen was born. This is truly a big deal, for two very important reasons; the first being that she basically took over for Spider-Man, one of Marvel’s oldest super heroes. Since comics started their climb up the ladder of successful forms of pop culture, they have really tried to diversify their lineup of superheroes. Incorporating more female leads, and even changing the race and sexual orientation of some of their older heroes. I believe that Spider-Gwen is the current culmination of that effort, her takeover of one of Marvel’s most notorious superheroes just shoes how ready the public is for a society more open to strong and influential women. The second reason why Spider-Gwen is such a big deal is because unlike every female superhero or villain, ever, she is not overly sexualized. Her suit isn’t skin tight, in fact it almost looks baggy on her, her female form although noticeable isn’t over exaggerated, and her shoes are appropriate for the type of work she is doing. I think this is an essential step forward for a genre overrun with leather suit wearing, busty women, generally placed in supporting roles. I’m very glad to see that Marvel is taking steps in the right direction, but why did it take so long to get to this point? Because although significant, it shouldn’t have taken until 2015 to get a female lead like Spider-Gwen, especially considering that the first major female superhero, Wonder Woman, was created in the 1940’s.
Wonder Woman is heralded as both a feminist icon and a failure; in reality she is a bit of both. When World War II began, American men were being shipped over seas to fight, this left a giant hole in the American workforce, and who better to fill that hole then women. There was this great call for women to stray away from their lives of complacency in the household, and to look for work in sectors usually occupied by men. One of the driving forces for this movement was the creation of Wonder Woman by writer and psychologist William Moulton Marston. Marston was a feminist, however, his version of feminism didn’t view men and women as equals but rather women as superior. By creating the hero of Wonder Woman he sought to achieve two goals; inspire women to reach their true potential, and to prepare young boys for the coming matriarchy (Duggan). During this time Wonder Woman was seen as this extremely independent woman, needing no help from men. In fact, she consistently cast aside the idea that all women want are a husband and children, and never being the damsel in distress herself, she is usually the one rescuing the main male figure, Steve Trevor. Now the way in which Wonder Woman was viewed during the war, and after the war was over, are very different and is the main reason there are ongoing discussions on whether she was an icon or failure. At the end of the war Wonder Woman began to transition from this solo superhero who cast aside modern ideals of a woman’s behavior, into this helpless damsel in distress whose main priority was her love life. At one point she even gives up her powers and Amazonian past in order to live a home life with male lead Steve Trevor. Although this major setback lasted until the 1960’s and 70’s, since then she has made a comeback, returning to her wartime ideals. Wonder Woman may be a scandal clad woman with a fixation with bondage (her golden lasso), but she was instrumental in the advancement of women in our society, and I would be remiss if I did not pay her all that she is due.
The equality of women in the eyes of men is something that can’t be changed overnight, nor is it something that one person can fix alone. However, that doesn’t mean that one person can’t make a difference. Expressing your convictions through a source of pop culture is important if there is ever to be significant change. It is more than obvious that people, both men and women, are trying to not only express a desire for gender equality, but are using that desire to exact change in their own work and the work of others. The comic as a media source is rapidly growing in both popularity and influence, and with great power comes great responsibility; what better way to test that power than to fight for a cause that should have been won decades ago.
Duggan, B. (2014). Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon, Feminist Failure, or Both? Retrieved June 05, 2016, from http://bigthink.com/Picture-This/wonder-woman-feminist-icon-feminist-failure-or-both
Latour, J., Rodriguez, R., Renzi, R., & Cowles, C. (n.d.). Spider-Gwen.
Rodriguez, M. (2014, December 3). Brian K. Vaughan’s ‘Saga’ Is the One Comic You’ll Be Hooked On — Even If You Don’t Read Comics. Retrieved June 05, 2016, from http://www.bustle.com/articles/51382-brian-k-vaughans-saga-is-the-one-comic-youll-be-hooked-on-even-if-you
Vaughan, B. K., Staples, F., & Stephenson, E. (2012). Saga. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics.
Vaughan, B. K., & Chiang, C. (2016). Paper girls. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics.