Updated: Jan 25
Today’s question is a rather political and difficult one: what is the place of female character in the comics industry? More importantly, what IS actually a good representation of a female character?
As I asked the question around on my Instagram (@lifeofageekymind), I realized most of us have a hard time answering it. It’s easy to say, “I wish female characters were better represented in comics!”, but what defines a good representation?
Let’s go over the recurrent criteria I got as answers:
Not overly sexualized
Organic Development – Growth
Vulnerability and Authenticity
Of course, hyper sexualization is a problem. Not only in comics but in diverse aspect of our society. However, for me, treating this problem is not about removing every particle of beauty, sexiness and innocence of a female character:
Female characters can dress provocatively - although, let’s be honest, fighting in a bikini could be impractical. But I guess Superman fighting in a leotard is not that different. Is it? They can be heroes, anti-heroes, sidekicks or villains, I don’t care: we all have our path. They can be stupid or naïve… After all, we are not all the sharpest tool in the shed!
I personally think the problem resides more in finding the right formula and balance, which is constituted of:
Why? As in: is it relevant to the story?,
And most importantly Where? And When? Because there is a right time and a right place. Meaning: Is it necessary to the story – Does it bring something relevant? Is it suitable for the age she is supposed to be and the environment she’s evolving in? Because there is a HUGE difference in portraying a beautiful curvy killer femme fatale… And a child going to school with the body of a 30 years old woman after thousands of plastic surgeries.
And while we are still talking about beautiful not overly sexualized femme fatale: Josephine – from FATALE (by Brubaker and Phillips) - is one of my favorites. She is dangerous. She is beautiful and sensual. She is quite naïve and simple. But every detail of her character is useful to the story. Her charm is actually her superpower and even if she exudes 1950’s housewife stereotype vibes, she brings something to the table.
Circling back to ‘’why, when and where’’, those questions should probably have been answered while writing the comics. Falling into the point of: a good female character should be well written. Comics being a perfect medium to tell a story, it’s safe to say that good writing is elementary to a good comic. And I guess that’s where we tend to go one way or the other as ‘’good writing’’ can be, for some, subjective. And it’s hard for me to talk about HOW a female character should be written as I often (if not always) find male characters to be lacking the same characteristic. There’s nothing I hate more than a bad written character with no development. Male or Female.
Example: If they just saved the entire universe they better have grown through it, like in BLACK HAMMER – by Jeff Lemire – where the characters, male and female, lived a pretty good change after saving their world.
Bringing an important point raised by my good friend Cidnya (@cidnyareads): we are often looking for organic growth.
I often find in comics than in order to have a badass woman, she had to undergo a traumatic experience to seek revenge or find answers or whatever there is to do. Sometimes, I also feel like the events are taking the turn of a proof pushed to the reader in a way of saying ‘’look how strong she is, look how brave she is’’. A woman can be strong just because she is strong, you know? She doesn’t have to be victimized first to become strong and you don’t have to prove it to us on every page.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s a better example of well written character development than SAGA, when talking about women’s place in comics… How badass are the women in SAGA? They all look different, they all have different layers, different purpose and different goals. But they are empowering, independent and full of emotion. Some of them lived traumatic experiences and some are the just the way they are.
If I had to pick one, I would say Alana is my favorite. She’s a soldier because she’s good at it. She knows how to be vulnerable. She makes mistake. She is true to herself. She can handle her own side of the story without undermining her partner. And everyone would agree she is a truly important participant in the story.
Now thinking about everything I just said and going back to my initial question:
Are comics a good medium for female character?
My answer is yes. Comics are, in my opinion, a good medium for basically any kind of characters. When I think about women empowerment, I know we can find a lot powerful and successful female characters nowadays.
Whether we are talking about Maika (MONSTRESS – Marjorie Liu) a badass soldier trying to get through her own self-battle or the not oversexualized little girls from PAPER GIRLS (Brian K. Vaughan) who are courageously surviving their adventures. We could continue writing names all night as I’m sure you have many other examples to add to the list.
And although I wasn’t a fan, I think MANEATERS – by Chelasea Kain – did a good job at exploring the subject on a satirical tone. It’s an obvious feminist piece, with what I thought was great potential (also in nomination for best new series, if you read my previous article).
So, I guess, to answer my other previous question, when I think about a good female character in a well written book, I’m thinking about a character, whether a main or supportive one, who has the ability to create her own path without it being at the expense of others while bringing something relevant to the story.
I DO think we have a nice repertoire of strong female comics in 2019. Maybe not everywhere, maybe not all the time, but at least we are getting somewhere. I chose to see the glass half full instead of half empty.