Where is Superwoman? [#32]

Khoi Vinh recently linked out to an article by Amanda Shendruk looking at the data behind female inclusion in comic books. As both Khoi and Amanda state, it should come as no surprise that the overall trend is that women are under represented in mainstream comics (DC and Marvel being the focus here), but the analysis takes a more interesting approach and dives deeper into the roles, powers and names that female superheroes share disproportionately.

Again, there are clear biases and tropes, most of which are definitely problematic but also not unexpected. Female heroes are more likely to rely on agility than strength, more likely to have emotional or mental manipulation powers and are more likely to be a minority character on teams. It does highlight some factors which are slightly surprising (though again, not when you really think about them) and definitely worrying, like the trend for all-female teams to be defined by their femininity rather than their powers, goal or shared history. For example, DC’s Birds of Prey is a fantastic team name: evocative, clever and iconic; on the other hand, DC’s Female Furies is a terrible team name: dull, boring and telling you nothing about who is involved or why the team exists. All-male teams, on the other hand, are rarely named along gender lines. That’s something I feel comics writers can, and should, address right now.

However, I do feel the article points the finger a little too strongly at female hero names. To be clear, I’m not saying that female characters aren’t disproportionately named along gender lines – they clearly are and the data supports that. But the following conclusion, I feel, isn’t supported as well:

Females are more than twice as likely to be given a name that may make her seem weak, less dangerous, less aggressive and not on equal footing with male characters.

The data shows female heroes are twice as likely to have gender-specific names. But it’s a bit of a leap to state that means those names have been chosen to reduce their standing amongst the other heroes; at least, not because of their gender. There’s clearly a problem here, but I don’t think Amanda has correctly identified the root cause.

The issue, as stated in the article, is when gender-specific names use diminutive forms. In other words, when Superwoman becomes Supergirl. By using “girl” rather than “woman”, the character automatically appears weaker and more immature, which seems to match Amanda’s quote above. However, Supergirl is more immature. Her whole character and respective arc is about here being a young Kryptonian developing her powers. Her name hasn’t been picked because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s a teenager. The exact same logic is the reason we have Superboy within the DC universe as well.

Possibly a clearer example would be to look at two women in the Batman comics with gendered names: Batgirl and Catwoman. Both play the role of supporting heroes to Batman himself, but the gender forms used directly convey their comparative standing to the titular hero. Batgirl is a trainee, an apprentice; she’s young and immature. Catwoman is a seasoned criminal before we ever meet her, at the top of her game, not just for Gotham but for the world. Hence, one is girl, the other is woman.

Now, to be clear, there are definitely instances where diminutive forms are used to take female heroes down a peg. I’ve already mentioned Supergirl, so it would be wrong of me not to address Powergirl, the name she takes when she steps out from Superman’s shadow and becomes an independent hero. The argument can be made that a total name change would have been more confusing, but lets face it: Powergirl is a pretty terrible name, so why not just drop the gender specificity entirely. The issue of these immature names sticking does become problematic. When Superboy eventually take on the mantle of the red cape, he goes by Superman. When Batgirl dons the cloak in Bruce Wayne’s absence… she doesn’t become Batman (or Batwoman).

I’m not arguing that female naming conventions in comics are perfectly acceptable. They aren’t. All I’m saying is that I don’t think these characters having diminutive forms are necessarily writers trying to keep them trapped beneath a superhero glass ceiling. I think they’re chosen for different narrative reasons, most of the time, and whilst biases likely play a role the intent isn’t as clear-cut. I also don’t think it’s necessarily problematic.

What is problematic is the issue of female protégés never managing to take on the mantle of their mentors. Superboy can become, literally, Superman but Supergirl never has. I accept there are issues with gender naming in general if you’re trying to do this, as it never really makes sense for Kara Starr to be called Superman, but the issue persists even for non-gendered names. Artemis, Green Arrow’s teen titan, never becomes Green Arrow. She-Hulk is never simply the Hulk. There are some instances, such as Zatanna, but they tend to be retconned; the female character having been known first before the ‘original’ is introduced. Really, the only big-name swap I can think of is Captain Marvel, who spent years as Ms. Marvel before finally accepting her proper mantle.

At any rate, the article does make note that the winds, they are a-changing. Female character creation is increasing at all publishers and more female heroes are getting their own on-going titles. I think an easy next step would be to have some gendered-names becoming genderless, especially when it comes to teams, but at least we’re moving in the right direction. Still, Amanda’s research clearly shows that there remains a long way to go before female representation can actually be called representative.

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