What’s Wrong with Women in Comics?

So DC Comics are mired in controversy once again. This time they’ve posted an open call for new artists and given them a page to illustrate. Harmless enough, except that they’re asking their prospective artists to draw Harley Quinn, female villain, naked and about to commit suicide.

You can imagine how the Internet reacted to that one.

Me, I’m entirely unsurprised. This is the comics company that recently hired Orson Scott Card, a writer so homophobic he’s touted revolution as the answer to legalised gay marriage. This is the comics company that banned creators from ever showing Batwoman’s gay marriage on panel. Hell, this is the comics company that gave rise to the Women In Refrigerators trope.

Comics have a bad reputation when it comes to women and it’s not hard to see why. Walk into any comics store and you won’t see many superheroines with their own series. And what superheroines you will see won’t be dressed for a warm day. (But check out Michael Lee Lunsford’s superheroine costume redesigns; you’ll realise how daft the “real” costumes look after seeing his take on them!)

A lot of people will argue that this is all fine. That superheroes wear daft costumes too. That heroes of both genders are idealised to the extreme. That it’s just comic books. And hey, Harley Quinn is insane. She probably would get naked and try to kill herself.

This latter argument holds weight with me. Harley is one patient short of an asylum. Getting into the tub and dropping a hair dryer into it doesn’t strike me as too out of character for her.

But this panel can’t exist in a vacuum. While men can be anything but women must be sexy, while men get costumes that cover their what-nots but women go chilly, and while men aren’t being put into refrigerators naked into tubs with hair dryers, DC can’t be so unaware as to think that this image is okay.

I’ve been reading comics for years and there’s always been talk of comics as an art form, of trying to get the mainstream to take comics seriously. Some people say comics have finally made it because of the success of films like The Dark Knight and Avengers.

I say that film studios have figured out that superheroes make for good action movies. In the meantime, the mainstream can call comics juvenile and backwards as long as DC refuse to treat anyone other than straight, white men with the respect they deserve.

What do you think? Are women still getting the short end of the stick? Or am I making a whole lot of noise over nothing? Let me know in the comments.

(Don’t forget I’ve written a superhero short story of my own. The Homeless Hero is out now!)

2 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Women in Comics?

  1. Elizabeth Barone

    I definitely don’t dig the new Harley costume. I feel like DC just keeps defiling her character. (And yes, I know she’s a couple bats short of a belfry, but still.) Then again, I am mighty attached to Timm and Dini’s Harley. In my eyes, that is the one and only.

    I don’t really know how I feel about the contest. On one hand, it is pretty in-character. A downtrodden, recently-dumped-by-Mister-J Harley might very well try to kill herself. However, I think they could have picked a better pose for the contest. Yes, you could argue that the contest audience is of adult age, but it’s a public contest, and the Batman franchise has young, impressionable readers.

    I know DC is in a tough place. They’re trying to keep readers interested, which is no easy feat considering their recent changes. I don’t think this is the answer, though.

    Then again, I mostly just relive the Timm and Dini days via Batman: The Animated Series, and the only comics I read anymore are published by Image. My opinion is probably totally invalid. :P

    Reply
    1. James

      Having Harley shown trying to kill herself on-panel was always going to be a controversial move. But, as you point out, you can argue that it is in character. That’s a strong defence, even in the face of the fact that Batman would never be shown doing such a thing.

      But having her do it naked just makes it…icky. That, for me, is where they lose any shred of creative dignity and it turns into just another example of women being made to look “sexy” and expendable.

      Timm and Dini’s Harley is fantastic and, whilst I know comics characters grow and evolve, I definitely agree that theirs was the best incarnation. Part of Harley’s charm was that she was crazy yet bright and bubbly about it all. She was delightfully nuts!

      Reply

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