A feminist guide to reading comic books- Kat Langton

By Kat Langton

*Content Warning* Sexual Assault, Rape

First of all, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. The pink one, the one who hates men, with the unshaven legsthe checkered shirt and the short hair, swinging a burning bra through the air while trumpeting Respect by Aretha Franklin. Would that be your idea of feminism (maybe minus the elephant)? Admittedly, it used to be mine. Let’s talk about that.  

‘What?’ I hear you thinking. ‘I thought this article was about comic books! I came here for fun!’ Well, as it turns out, addressing controversial topics such as the ‘f word’ can be done in fun, playful ways. No high horse required. Not even elephants. Although ‘being a feminist’ is associated with all those hyperbolic, elephant-esque qualities mentioned above (bra-burning, men-hating and the like), these empty stereotypes and their associated stigma no longer apply to the feminist social movement. In fact, feminism has never been more inclusive of different perspectives. Contemporary ‘third wavers’ are still pursuing equality of the sexes, but with an increased awareness of the overlapping, intersectional experiences of women from varying ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. This approach aims to defy categorisation, and to embrace even seemingly opposing understandings of feminist ideology (e.g. how wearing revealing clothing is seen as objectifying by some, but empowering by others).  

Some of the recently published superhero comics are excellent examples of just this type of thinking, featuring women who are diverse in ethnicity, as well as in their sexual orientation, such as Marvel Comics’ Pakistani-American Kamala Khan (aka ‘Ms Marvel’), or the Hispanic and Lesbian America Chavez (aka ‘Miss America’). Still, we might need a little guidance to appreciate just how revolutionary these comics really are.  

The classic superhero used to be one created by white male writers and artists, for white male readers; when female characters were introduced, it was either as the hero’s love-interest, whose tragic demise one issue later would spur the male hero into action, or they were completely superfluous to the story line. We’ve come a long way from those early days, even if recent adaptations of female comic heroines in films like Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman failed to effectively address sexist stereotypes. The ‘try and fail’ element is just as important. Miss America’s title for example has just been cancelled for the second time, but at least it had another chance, and might yet reappear, as readers are very aware of its subtraction from Marvel’s offerings. Despite their failings, these films and comics are bringing issues of female representation in popular culture to the forefront, making them recognisable, encouraging conversation and – hopefully – improvement too.  

While some academics seem to think that gender representation in ‘low-brow’ popular culture, such as comic books, matters little to our understanding of gender roles in contemporary society, they accurately reflect the attitudes and values of their writers and readers at the time they were published. Since their original target market was young males, these representations are arguably more important than any head-on discussion of sexism and its feminist antidotes could ever be. Comic books reach a wide range of demographics, and therefore have a strong role-modelling capacity, all while remaining accessible and engaging.  

But even when a heroine such as Kamala Khan successfully breaks the mold and gains mainstream popularity, many readers struggle to appreciate that it’s her difference to other main characters and their origins that makes this title great. Instead of celebrating the intersectionality of race, gender and religion that is openly addressed in Ms. Marvel, what readers are automatically trying to do is to assimilate her unique attributes into their own lived experience. That’s not all bad, of course. I’m not saying relatability isn’t important, but at least as important is an acceptance of difference. It’s this open-mindedness that allows us to learn about how members of marginalised communities experience difference, and to acknowledge their struggles, as well as their strengths, both of which few of us could truly understand. After all our banging on about the shortcomings of female comic-book characters and movie-heroines and their portrayal, when a good one comes along, we still need to learn how to ‘read’ them: maybe because it is such a departure from what we are used to.  

And just like how a short, dark-haired teenage girl from New Jersey, with brown-skin and Islamic faith challenges our traditional notions of what makes a superhero, these new readings exemplify that success does not depend on alignment with long-standing norms and value systems. We need to acknowledge that what makes these comics great is how different they are from those that came before them. Their value lies in their capacity to use engaging visuals and absorbing narratives to expand our original understanding of feminist concepts without having to rely on any stereotypical feminist rhetoric or representation. You might even say that’s their super-power: pushing an agenda that not only keeps feminism relevant, but makes it wicked fun (KAPOW!). (There’s never been a better excuse for reading comic books – so go check out Ms Marvel for free at KG library!) 


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