This article is featured in Red Pepper Issue 223: Feminist Futures.
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Researchers and critics have argued that comic books have played an important part in cultures all over the world. From the Franco-Belgian bandes dessinée (such as Hergé’s Tintin stories) to British comics anthologies (think 2000 AD) to Japanese manga (One Piece, Naruto, Dragon Ball), comics are an important art form often used to comment on and inform national politics—as well as being shaped by them. American comic books are often most associated with the figure of the superhero. It is no accident that the first comic featuring Captain America, released in 1941, featured the titular hero punching Hitler in the face on the cover. Captain America was intended and acted as a symbol of national hope relating to the ideologies of that period.
On the other hand, the traditional figure of the superhero can seem quite limiting. Usually, the superhero narrative is restricted to ideals of white, heterosexual masculinity, relating to the underlying need for the hero to be physically strong, protective and (if need be) violent.
The relation between gender representation and superheroes has become a big topic of discussion recently, in part due to the success of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman film in 2017. Before this, there had been few films featuring solo superheroines – and those that did exist, like Catwoman or Elektra, were almost universally panned by critics. Films centring on male superheroes, however, have had wide exposure since the early 2000s, drawing mainly positive reviews and consistently large audiences. This is indicative of the gender imbalance in both mainstream Hollywood and the comic book genre of superheroes itself. Despite having a diverse readership, comic books continue to be thought of as a hobby for boys.
Yet superhero comics have an interesting relationship to feminism. Wonder Woman herself appeared around the same time as Captain America during the second world war and played a similar role in responding to ideas of nationality and heroism, as well as gender. Created by William Moulton Marston, inventor of the lie-detector machine, the character has been popularly imagined in relation to commonly held ideas about femininity and what it means to be a heroic woman in a society dominated by men.
The character still exists today and has been adapted to address developing trends in society and gender equality – for instance, difficulties faced by working women, women’s sexuality and feminist solidarity. Superhero characters such as Wonder Woman can help to complicate widespread ideas of ‘appropriate’ femininity, as well as expand notions of heroism. Undoubtedly, the character has become a symbol for feminism – for example, appearing on the first issue of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pittman-Hughes’ influential magazine Ms, released in 1972 during the second wave of feminist activism.
While Wonder Woman may be a household name, Captain Marvel (or, as she was previously known, Ms Marvel) is less well-known. Published in the 1970s by DC’s competitor Marvel, the character, Carol Danvers, was devised as a direct response to second wave feminism. Through a series of convoluted events typical of superhero comics, Danvers became the heroic Ms Marvel, fighting crime and protecting civilians – all while facing issues such as the gender pay gap in her personal life as an editor for a women’s magazine. Her heroic alias Ms Marvel was an incorporation of the ideas promoted by feminists at the time in their endeavours to question women’s roles in society. The character of Carol Danvers has therefore always had a distinctive connection to feminist goals, whether real or imagined.
Danvers was revamped in 2012 by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick as part of Marvel’s company-wide attempts to make their comic books more inclusive. Ms Marvel was reinvented as Captain Marvel to reflect the character’s professional status as a US Air Force pilot (with the swagger and hubris of Top Gun’s Maverick combined with attention to women’s solidarity). The first story arc of the relaunched Captain Marvel comic series featured Carol confronting not only her past, in her reinvention as Captain Marvel, but also feminism’s past, as she travels back in time and encounters Amelia Earhart-like women pilots who contributed to the war effort (but who were rarely acknowledged in historical accounts).
Cannily released on 8 March, international women’s day, the Captain Marvel film is poised to echo if not surpass the success of Wonder Woman. Like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel articulates feminist issues through discourses of militarism and national identity, making her relationship to political feminism somewhat complex, at best. The leftist politics that shaped radical feminisms were staunchly opposed to war and the masculinist ideals surrounding it. Still, Wonder Woman ended up being one of the most profitable films of 2017, demonstrating that there is audience demand for superheroines – and therefore a commercial incentive to make comic book films with female leads (despite what the critics of Elektra claimed).
Characters such as the relaunched Ms Marvel, now a Pakistani-American Muslim teenage girl named Kamala Khan, made headlines in 2014 for breaking the rules in what we think of as traditionally white, masculine supherheroism. When a far-right hate group placed Islamophobic adverts on the sides of San Francisco buses, anti-racist activists responded by pasting images of Khan over them. Such actions reveal the significance of superhero characters beyond the pages of comics or cinema screens. More recently, Latino Spider-Man Miles Morales has reached mainstream audiences in Into the Spider-Verse, achieving critical and popular acclaim – and again proving there is demand for inclusive storylines.
Given what we know about feminism’s place within the superhero narrative throughout history, as mentioned above, it’s important to look back at characters such as the X-Men, mutants who were born with extraordinary and often disfiguring superpowers. Their struggles to be embraced by a society that cast them out for being different were at the centre of comics throughout the 1960s, providing pointed commentary and empathetic response to contemporary debates around civil and LGBT rights.
In 1982, Marvel launched The New Mutants, an X-Men spin-off comic, helmed by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod, that featured an international cast: devout Presbyterian Scot Rahne Sinclair, Afro-Brazilian Roberto Da Costa, working-class Kentuckian Sam Guthrie, native American Danielle Moonstar and Vietnamese Xi’an Coy Manh. This truly diverse team of superhero allies still resonates with debates todays around identity and representation. A film adaptation is set for release later this year.
With these varied historical, ideological, and financial motivations in mind, we must be wary of pronouncing a new era of positive gender representation via superheroes – while still celebrating more diverse portrayals of heroism. One important point that remains, though, is the superhero narrative’s ability to inform and respond to important social issues of justice and equality.
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