Feminism in Comics: How Wonder Woman, Lois Lane & Other Females Have Fared Over the Years

Not exactly the image of strength people have in mind when they think about Wonder Woman.
Not exactly the image of strength people have in mind when they think about Wonder Woman.
Image from DC Comics Wonder Woman via the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund web site

According to Houston's Taryn M. Gray, writer Brian Azzarello who just finished a 35-issue run of Wonder Woman, was successful because, "He didn't focus on the fact that she was a woman. For 35 issues, it was just her being her and not using her body to sell the point. She became the god of war and took over for Ares--beat the crap out of him, in fact. It was about her doing her job. In the past, she herself has been the "woman in the refrigerator." She's had to count on being rescued by Batman, Superman, Steve Trevor - any man who happened to come along."

Gray, an employee of Bedrock City Comics on Washington and lifelong comics reader, will tackle this and other observations at a University of Houston - Clear Lake lecture on March 3, entitled "From Wonder Woman to Ms. Thor: Feminism in Comic Books."

Gray also writes reviews on comics for the Dorkshelf web site. Her lecture will depict how popular representations of powerful women often reflect society's anxieties about female liberation.

For example, Wonder Woman has long been a symbol of female strength, but many early issues featured Wonder Woman tied, bondage-style, to trees and chairs.

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Fast forward to the era of "Women In Refrigerators," a term coined by comic booth author Gail Simone for her web site, which brought attention to female characters who have been killed, raped or otherwise have had their lives ruined in order to fuel the stories of males. (More specifically, the term refers to a 1994 Green Lantern storyline in which Kyle Rayner comes home to find girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt literally dismembered and stuffed in a refrigerator.) Simone has had acclaimed runs on Batgirl and Wonder Woman, among many others.

That's a far cry from today, where Ms. Marvel has been promoted to Captain Marvel, Thor is now a female and Wonder Woman is finally getting her own movie. Captain Marvel is getting a movie, too.

Even with the big strides forward, it's not like everything's fine now and there's no anti-feminism in comics today. For instance, there's a lot of concern about how Azzarello's successors are going to handle the Wonder Woman character. Writing duties have been taken over by Meredith and David Finch. After taking over the book, David Finch said in an interview with Comic Book Resources, "We want her to be a strong--I don't want to say feminist, but a strong character. Beautiful, but strong."

The comment provoked strong reactions from comic readers, including Gray. "So, you can't be attractive, strong and feminist. If you're a feminist, then you must be a man-hating she-demon--a horrid creature who will say everything that men do is wrong."

Finch said later on Twitter, "I wasn't saying Wonder Woman is not for being equal, and therefore a feminist. I just want her to be a human being, fallible and real. I certainly apologize to anyone who can see how it could be interpreted that way, but it couldn't be further from my heart." Wait, feminists are infallible? Sign me up.

Regardless of Finch's protests, Corrina Lawson at the GeekDad web site was mightily unimpressed. Her December 2014 article, entitled "DC Doesn't Want A Feminist Wonder Woman," is a diatribe of disgust at the Finches' first effort. She writes, "Wonder Woman [is] the product of a murderous, male-hating society now, her mother's been killed off, and an evil female witch from that society commits human sacrifice to drive Diana away for daring to care about men." Sounds like a giant step backwards, doesn't it?

Gray says that due to mishandling of Wonder Woman's character over the years, there are better examples of feminists in comics. "Compare Wonder Woman to Lois Lane. When Lois Lane was introduced, she actually had more of a role in fighting and combating the bad guys than Wonder Woman! I remember watching the Superman cartoon when I was young. [Lane] would jump on a train or grab a machine gun and start shooting. She was more like Agent Carter, who now has her own show." (Agent Carter is a spinoff from Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger movie.)

When it comes to representing strong, independent females, DC's biggest competitor, Marvel Comics, is winning the game. "I'm more excited about Captain Marvel than Woner Woman at this point," says Gray. "Marvel [and writer Kelly Sue Deconnick], has taken Carol Danvers and made her an awe-inspiring beacon of hope for all females in the comics industry. She's led The Avengers. Wonder Woman has never led the Justice League. She's never risen to that level. We even have young men and boys coming into Bedrock city looking for the Captain Marvel comics. People are watching with a great deal of interest and that says a lot about how Marvel is handling Captain Marvel better than DC is handling Wonder Woman."

Another strong female is Princess Leia from the Star Wars movies. Gray says, "There's this scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Leia is surrounded by stormtoopers. She escapes for half a second to tell Han and Luke they're walking into a trap. She spends most of her time doing what needs to be done, even at the risk of her own skin."

It's difficult finding comics with good female role models for girls. Gray recommends a book called Princeless for nine- to 12-year-olds. "In the universe depicted, princes are trained and groomed to save princesses. One decides to save herself. She teams up with the daughter of a dwarf blacksmith and her dragon becomes her mighty steed. She has seven sisters and has to go and save them. Some don't want to be saved. It's a great book for parents of girls to know about."

What about mainstream comics for girls? "Marvel and DC don't make anything for that age group, other than Gotham Academy, which I think is going to end up being canceled." says Gray. "It's a shame, because girls and their parents come in looking for Batgirl books all the time."

Gray's lecture is scheduled for 3 p.m. March 3 at the University of Houston - Clear Lake's Bayou Building Garden Room at 2700 Bay Area Boulevard. Free.

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