Are comic book authors addressing deep-rooted sexism through their narratives?
We have been debating sexism in comic books from time immemorial. Even as the format gets wildly popular, every year we have voices of protest like c star Scarlett Johansson, who recently called her character sexist and hyper-sexualised. The point in reference is the way the Black Widow was introduced in the comic canon in early ’60s — she was after all eye candy for Tony Stark. Despite being a skilled agent, her abilities didn’t get her noticed in Iron Man 2; instead, we find that often the other characters referred to her desirability quotient. Though with Black Widow the hyper-sexualised tone of the character is definitely minimised, her attractiveness continues to be the primary focus.
While we concede, we have come a long way from the early ’60s — when DC comics Supergirl wasn’t fighting crime, instead she was finding a husband. And Batwoman was brought onboard for sexy costume trends like that prim and proper skirt under the dramatic suit. We now might have superheroines who are far more complex and nearly as extraordinary as their male counterparts. However, things have not changed enough. The Catwoman fetish costumes are gone but superheroines still fight in catsuits and short skirts to show off their stunning bodies. The subtle sexism still plays a strong part by ensuring they are beautiful and attractive. But the good news is that there is a perceptible movement where it matters — on the drawing board!
Now we have stock fashion, authors and designers expressing their dissent by redrawing and reimagining the characters and their depictions along with the narrative. For instance, India’s first feminist superhero novel ‘Priya’s Shakti’ by Ram Devineni, first released in 2014, has a survivor of rape, as a new female superhero. Priya rides a tiger and through her ideas she embarks on a journey to change. Ram decided to go against the conventional approach to a comic book that hyper-sexualises female superheroes to initiate a cultural shift. “Her (Priya’s) idea is much more powerful than Superwoman’s strength or Wonder Woman’s magic lasso. Comic books can create a cultural shift and start a conversation about equality,” Ram explains.
The latest edition to the series is Priya’s Mask where she is fighting to stop the misinformation around COVID-19. And the upcoming edition Priya and the Swarm focuses on the influence of online pornographic and voxxing (negative propaganda on social media) on teenagers in India. Similarly, an ardent fan of comic books, Shreya Arora’s series Sexism in Comics (2018) cuts through these derisive stereotypes while highlighting deep-seated sexism in the comic industry. She replaced female heroines on comic book covers with men posing as women to highlight the absurdity in her series. For instance, a semi-naked mask-wearing Spiderman posing with a beach ball and Marvel’s sensational She-Hulk is replaced with Spiderman. While contemplating the change, Shreya argued the objectification of women and sexual liberation and the fact that men would never be portrayed in that way. Her other project which caught eyeballs was Logue Kya Kahenge? (what will people say?) which highlighted how women should dress to avoid being blamed for sexual assault.
The early portrayals of women in comic books easily convey gender role stereotypes where women were seen as only belonging to the house and as a source of emotional support. This is precisely the reason author Aparna Jain chose to title her book, ‘Like a Girl: Real Stories for Tough Kids’ (2018) which narrates the stories of real-life inspiring women. “The idea was to show real-life women who are doing amazingly well in all fields. I never wanted to make them superheros in the book but put them in entirety with their positives and negatives,” says Aparna, who, in her book features women from all walks of life (including the first female doctor, pilot, prime minister, gymnast and a warrior, in chronological order). “I wanted to show an everyday women and included women who are on the receiving end of discrimination- caste, religion or disability- and yet showcase their incredible strength.,” she elaborates.