This one time when I was at the bar (and by one time, I mean Tuesday night), I got into one of those taboo conversations about feminism and the treatment of female characters in fiction. The conversation inevitably made its way to comics; I mean this is me after all. Then my nemesis, we’ll call him Baby Bird, made the obvious and seemingly inevitable hasty generalization that men are just as objectified as women in comics. And well, that kicked me into high gear with points about inequity, marginalization and visual representation (see Kelly Thompson’s articulate essay that inspired my vein-popping rant).
Baby Bird may not have been up-to-speed on the gender bias prevalent in comics and fiction in general, but the discussion on the topic has grown exponentially over the past several years. Much of that conversation is spent calling out the bullshit. Rightfully so. While I live for a good row just like the next girl, I think it is pretty clear what the problems are. So how do we fix them?
As my mother continues to try to impress upon me, sometimes you’ve got to focus on the positive. What does “positive” mean for female character representations in comics? Well, I have some ideas about that.
We, comic lovers, have our favorite characters for various reasons. Currently, I find Forever Carlyle to be impeccably competent and perfectly enigmatic. Who doesn’t resonate with a little girl being trained as a killer and starved from love so she’ll become the soldier her family needs her to be? That training has turned her into a highly skilled tactician and warrior who’s near invincible. So, you know, that’s really cool in a Batman kind of way.
I also adore Kelly Sue’s Captain Marvel (Carol Corps in the house!). She’s all moxie and trash-talking, and then she goes on ahead and backs it up. In between alien brawls and arguing with Rocket Raccoon, she’s sort of finding herself. Sure, she’s super-powered, but she also has these great moments of vulnerability. And in case you didn’t know, real bravery and strength are born of those moments.
What about Gail’s Red Sonja? She’s just a goddamn riot. Oblivious and unconcerned to the finer things in life that extend beyond liberty and sustenance; she can’t be bothered to bathe when attempting to get laid. Let’s not forget her absurd temper, especially when her favorite pub has been closed at the hand of an unjust tyrant. Despite how entertaining it is when she’s all bull-in-a-china-shop, it is her battle prowess and thirst for justice that makes her one undeniably admirable woman.
There are many, many more great girl characters in the world of comics, and I hope to explore them based on what we establish through this essay. But right now, reflecting on the three above, what are some of the common threads?
Amy Reeder recently posted something on her Tumblr discussing portrayals of women, and the importance of personhood. I think this is huge. According to the omniscient Google, personhood is defined as “the quality or condition of being an individual person.” I’ll take that a step further and say then that the character is not born of cookie-cutter tropes and feels like an authentic individual, and most importantly – for better or worse. Women in real life are infinitely nuanced. Qualities like good, bad, ambitious, arrogant, determined, meek, brash, demure, stoic, passionate, playful or harsh only touch the tip of the iceberg.
Why does that nuance matter? In order to relate to fictional characters, we need to see something of ourselves in them. In order to see something of ourselves, these characters need to be “people.” Personhood makes way for the kind of complexity that is human and relatable. Forever, Carol and Sonja have that.
The next thing that comes to mind is agency. Omniscient Google was not as helpful in this regard. The definition of agency is a bit too general for this conversation – “a thing or person that acts to produce a particular result.” The definition does suggest an element of choice. I like choice. This is where the “sexy lamp” comes in.
“… if you can remove a female character from your plot and replace her with a sexy lamp and your story still works, you’re a hack.”
Sexy lamps don’t have agency (or personhood).
I also happened across this gem of a blog post that discusses character agency in games. The author does a lovely job of expanding the idea.
Characters should possess a sense of agency and ego, which is to say that they should be making decisions “themselves” based on their own desires and ideas.
So, agency results from established personhood and moves the character through the plot in a believable way. I think an example of this is would be a travel-weary Red Sonja attempting to have sex even though she stinks to high-heaven or Captain Marvel’s choice to take flight to save New York City even though it meant losing everything she’d ever known. No lamp could pull either of those off.
This conversation isn’t complete without mentioning the Bechdel Test because even with personhood and agency; if female characters are solely motivated and/or focused on the men in the story, then that is problematic. I want the female characters I read to have their own motivations. I want the story and dialogue to reflect that. The Bechdel Test provides a simple measuring stick.
Considering personhood and relatability, agency and authenticity, and the Bechdel Test – which of those do you think are most important? What other qualities or aspects of character development do you think makes for a solid character whether she be protagonist, antagonist or somewhere in between so long as she’s the subject and not an object? Who are some of your favorite great girl characters? Discuss in the comments!
In the spirit of schooling those who are not in the know, please let me know your thoughts in the following polls.
Below are some of my favorite essays/sites/videos on the treatment of female characters in comics.
Women in Refrigerators
Why I Write “Strong Female Characters” – An interview with Greg Rucka
I hate Strong Female Characters
The Bechdel Test and a Sexy Lamp: Detecting Gender Bias and Stereotypes in Mainstream Comics
No, It’s Not Equal
The Hawkeye Initiative
Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines