Treatment of Female Superheroes in Comic Books

By Kyra Ferguson

When Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle, became one of the first female superheroes in 1940, written by Fletcher Hanks, it was difficult to imagine the hurdles that heroines would have to overcome if they ever wanted to become a dominant figure in comic books. Since 1940, superheroines have been absolved or forgotten, or subject as nothing more than side characters or eye candy for readers and characters.

While Fantomah was credited as the first superheroine, very few readers were aware of her. Fantomah only had a four year printing span, a total of 44 issues. Fantomah never had definite powers like popular superheroes do- her powers constantly changed based on the plot of the comic. In fact, Fantomah was never granted the right of having a secret identity or name, only called Fantomah, and only given the background of being a pharaoh or an adventurer. Fantomah had never been important to comic book writers or readers.

Wonder Woman, unlike Fantomah, has been printing since her first appearance in 1941, and is one of the most popular superheroes to date, selling alongside Batman, the Flash, and Superman as part of the Justice League. Wonder Woman, aka, Diana Prince, is not without being subjected to the same absurdities other heroines are. Wonder Woman, since creation, wore little clothing and without much support- certainly not the right clothing to suffice in battle and flying, which, as an Amazonian, Wonder Woman does constantly.

Creator of Diana Prince, psychologist Charles Moulton, understood the reason for a low readership among girls, and used Wonder Woman as an attempt to appeal to them. He once said, “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Of course, Wonder Woman was described as being six foot tall, and 130 pounds, which doesn’t exactly read “allure of a good and beautiful woman” to me, that reads unhealthy and malnourished.

Not every character has been made with the intent of drawing in female readers. Black Widow, who has been rising in popularity since Scarlett Johansson’s appearances in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, first appeared in 1964 as a KGB agent antagonist, and is one of Marvel’s longest printing female superheroes. Hints at her background, such as coming from Russia and defecting to the United States because of her love for Clint Barton, later started to arise during her guest appearances in comic books. In fact, Black Widow was a side character, only appearing in other superheroes’ comics, until she starred in her own series in 1970, which ended after a year, began co-starring in a series of comics with Daredevil for four years.

These characters aren’t the only ones who have been subjected to sitting on the sides. Black Canary, Storm, Starfire and Emma Frost are often objectified for their looks. It becomes difficult to search these four, extremely powerful superheroes, without finding them portrayed in a sexual manner. Characters like the Spoiler, Ms Marvel (and later Captain Marvel), Zatanna Zatara, and Huntress, are ignored or side characters when they could potentially be a part of strong plots.

There is more to female heroines than their abilities to support male characters. Writing strong characters, writing realistic characters, that is what brings in female readers, and encourages good comics to become better.

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