Feminism 101: Comic Books and Their Portrayal of Women

How do nerdy feminists reconcile their ideals when it comes to sexist comic book tropes?
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 09/09/2016 at 7:23 AM EDT

Welcome back to Feminism 101 where our fabulous feminists answer *your* questions! Today’s question is on a topic near and dear to many Grokites: Comic books. More specifically, we’re looking at how comic books treat and portray women. Our question comes to us from Grok Nation reader Susan L.:

When female superheroes or characters are sexualized in comic books, graphic novels, and movies based off these stories, do you get frustrated as a feminist and/or a woman?

Not really because male superheroes are no more physically realistic. Sure it would be great to see more typical sized people in all forms of media, but this is not a molehill I would want to die on.” — Amanda Rose Adams

There are a lot of women in comics who aren’t sexualized, especially in indie comics like Bitch Planet. And yes…hate it when women superheroes are sexualized because, well, they are superheroes! They have people to save! We should be in awe of them for that, not because they are being drawn with their butt as their focal point.” — Veronica Arreola

It’s super frustrating to see women hypersexualized in comics because it’s a reminder this type of literature (like other industries) is male-dominated. It’s more difficult for me to break into the field, and of course children aren’t exposed to diverse authors.

I deal with it by going out of my way to read comics written by marginalized folks, which sometimes (but rarely) includes cis men.” — Danielle Corcione

I think that most of where I got my internalized idea that some kind of hourglass figure is just how a girl’s body is supposed to be was actually the comic books I grew up on. Without even knowing I was a girl at that age, I took that information down and stored it for later. I drilled it into my brain in my own comic-book style art. I only drew girls with one basic body type. Because those were the only girls’ bodies I was aware I’d seen.

As recently as a few days ago, I was convinced that one of the unavoidably ‘trans’ features of my body was my relatively broad waist. My best friend found pictures of a famous cisgender actress for me to look at, in a bikini, out in the ocean. Her body looked like mine, and my best friend told me that that’s a common body type for women, called the rectangle. That women who have this body type tend to hide it with clothing that creates the illusion of, you guessed it, more of an hourglass. That my ‘hip dips’ or ‘violin hips’ (which I call FIDDLEHIPS now forever btw) were also perfectly normal and relatively common.

I know this question was supposed to be about sexualization, but honestly I’m stuck just at the basic body stuff. One body type had all the leading roles, and all other body types got supporting parts. At least, that’s what I remember from about 20 years ago, and that’s what I’m still unlearning as of basically now.” — Seranine Elliot

I am constantly frustrated by the way we sexualize ‘Badass’ women. They shouldn’t have to be sexual objects to be powerful. If the women were sexually empowered and obviously making their own choices, that would be different. But in the cases of superheroes, it’s mostly that they are being sexually displayed for readers.” —  Casey O’Brien

When female characters are sexualized in their on-screen portrayals, it’s always frustrating to me from a feminist perspective, whether they’re superheroes or not. But what’s especially vexing when superheroic women are sexualized is that in the process of sexualizing them, they are usually robbed of the opportunity to *appear* strong and powerful. Feminine fragility is considered pleasing to the male gaze, so when female superheroes are made to fit mainstream beauty norms considered appealing to men, we wind up with superheroic women who are thin. They are svelte. They lack visible muscles. Rather than being built like athletic women, they look more like supermodels. And that’s a problem.

As I explain in my book Growing Up With Girl Power: Girlhood on Screen and in Everyday Life, one reason why this is a problem is that in the viewing audience, girls (and women) who enjoy shows and films about female superheroes are shortchanged. They see the same basic female body type that we see in the rest of our media environment, over and over and over again. Their potential role models are made to fit the same old stereotype that prioritized sexiness over all a woman’s other characteristics. Furthermore, it’s a standard of appearance that is almost impossible for the majority of women to attain.

On-screen representation has real-life implications, and if most male superheroes have physiques that indicate their strength, more female superheroes should, too. I would love to see a wider range of women’s body types embraced by the media, and the limited portrayals of women even in the superhero genre proves that we have a long way to go as a culture.” — Dr. Rebecca Hains

I love this: “How To De-Objectify Women in Comics: A Guide.” It’s not only helpful for artists who create the comics, but it’s also a real ‘aha’ moment for anyone reading them. We get so used to a certain presentation of female characters, that we don’t even see the problem until it’s broken down right before our eyes.” — Therese Shechter

If one is into Doctor Who, the women in the issues released by Titan Comics are very capable, smart individuals that are not sexualized. It’s kind of refreshing, honestly.” — Sara Habein

I grew up with a dad and brother obsessed with all things comic books. I love comic books and graphic novels but some of the main voices in these worlds (R. Crumb, Robert Williams, S. Clay Wilson) have very problematic depictions of women in their work- some might argue to a pathological level. I feel very conflicted about it, and it’s hard to separate the artist from the content for me. Graphic gory depictions of rape and abuse of women and especially children don’t sit any better with me illustrated than they do photographed. I have no good solution except to be grateful I don’t have daughters. I plan to wait until my sons are much older to show them these artists’ more controversial works, and even then it would be served up with a healthy dose of reality about what these depictions mean. I feel a bit less conflicted about superhero females because the world of superheroes is so much rooted in fantasy but I don’t really understand why comics are such an extension of the heterosexual patriarchy and its obsession with big breasts and small waists. I once heard an artist say that only juvenile men become comic book artists so maybe that’s why the depictions of women are so ‘junior high.'” — Mayim

For those interested in checking out comic books with less sexist storylines and illustrations, check out these recommendations from our cabal of feminists:

Ms Marvel (2015 – )

Captain Marvel (2014 – )

Thor (2014 – )


Squirrel Girl


Tank Girl


What comics do you recommend?


And remember, if you have a question for our cabal of feminists, email it to Avital Norman Nathman at

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