May 11, 2016 Girl Power
Guest blogger, Reid Gaede.
Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario:
It’s 1938. You are the ace reporter for the Daily Planet in Metropolis. You live and breathe in order to get the story first and fastest, and you’re quickly rising through the ranks at the Planet offices. Everyone takes note of your drive to succeed just as much as they do your stunning good looks. Basically, everything in life is going very well for you. Nothing can slow you down or escape your will.
Until he shows up.
One day, a man with a red “S” emblazoned on his chest starts running about town in a red cape and underwear breaking stuff, destroying slums, and generally giving certain people a really hard time. After a few run-ins with this freak, you are hopelessly in love with him. You sway and you swoon. You try to bring him in with all the charm you’ve got, but nothing works.
We’ve all been there, Lois Lane. We’ve all been there.
The hopelessness of Lois’ attempts to attract Superman in Golden Age Superman comics is not a universal theme in superhero comics, but it does raise feminist questions about how much control Lois really has over her life. While Lois does control her professional life through her formidable ambition, said ambition is powerless to affect her relationship with Superman. For a comic published in the late 1930s, this is a topsy-turvy portrayal of women, for the traditional, stereotypical perception of women was that they were powerless professionally, but that their ambition and desire gave them all the power in matters intimate and romantic.
Looking deeper into this switcheroo, we can establish that Lois Lane, as envisioned by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is emblematic of a divide between the feminist, progressive ideal of an active woman with complete control over her entire life, and the traditional, conservative vision of a passive woman whose control either does not exist, or submits before that of others.
This “active/passive divide” is a recurring theme for women in the world of superhero comics. This is not to say that in every case where we find this divide, the female character in question is in control of her professional life while utterly powerless to capture the man she wants. Rather, these characters, while uniquely powerful and in-control in one sense, show traits of passivity that at the very least ingratiate them to the authority of men.
Take, for example, Black Canary (a.k.a., Dinah Lance) in Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow, published during the Silver Age of comics. Black Canary is an expert martial artist and love interest of Green Arrow (a.k.a., Oliver Queen) who, while capable of being helpful (and indeed, sometimes crucial) to victory for Green Lantern and Green Arrow, shows a tendency towards being unable to fend for herself when she is fighting on her own. The active/passive divide is evident when fighting alongside Green Lantern and Green Arrow, she is capable of making game-changing differences in the heat of battle. However, when she is fighting solo, she is almost disappointingly relegated to the role of “damsel-in-distress”, waiting for timely rescue by Green Lantern and Green Arrow.
Moving to the turn of the new millennium, if we take a look at Mina “Miss” Murray in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we still see an embodiment of the active/passive divide. Mina Murray, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is unquestionably the leader of the British government’s Victorian-era band of super-powered miscreants and washed-up heroes – despite the fact that she herself is a woman. She is often shown leading the League’s meetings and planning their strategies. Even though she is the League’s leader, however, she is still beholden to Victorian-era standards of feminine etiquette and gentility. Under different circumstances, Miss Murray’s strict subscription to etiquette would serve as a negative adherence to traditional passivity. However, Miss Murray, in a break from our previous two females, uses this etiquette as a means of control. In one instance where Hyde, the beast-side of the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde multiple personality disorder dynamic duo, is grasping her wrist in anger. Murray, looking directly into Hyde’s primal eyes, states that his grasp is hurting her wrist, that she will not allow it, and that she would be grateful if he would release her. Hyde, pausing for a moment, begrudgingly does so.
Using Lois Lane, Black Canary, and Miss Murray as proxies for women in general in comics, it is evident that over time, the active/passive divide – the divide between the feminist ideal of an active woman who completely controls her life, and the traditional ideal of a passive woman beholden to the authority of others – still exists, and will likely always exist in some form. However, it is also evident that women in comics have gained much more active control and influence over their realities. In the case of Miss Murray, it is even the case that she uses her prescribed passivity to reach desired ends.
How do we explain this evolution of female portrayal in superhero comics? At the simplest level, we can write this off simply as the natural course of social liberalism. That is, that as time moves forward, the portrayal of historically marginalized and humbled groups (read: women, minorities, etc.), will become increasingly liberalized in the sense that members of these groups may be given more power, given a more active role, portrayed in an increasingly positive light, etc.
This surmising, however, does not quite fit the model of the comic book industry. Creators are beholden to the free market. One of if not the primary concern of comic creators is to publish a product that will reap a profit. If comic creators want to sell their product, they will try to appeal to the widest demographic possible with material that does not threaten peoples’ sensibilities, right?
Yes, to an extent.
While some comic creators are conservative in their socio-political views, others have more liberal views than most of the populace. Dennis O’Neil, writer of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, for example, spearheaded DC Comics’ dive into feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s which resulted in a Wonder Woman without superpowers. This iteration of Wonder Woman did not prove popular with devoted fans, and subsequently did not have great publishing longevity. Wonder Woman would regain her powers not long afterwards, but echoes of this embrace of feminism can be seen in Black Canary in Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Comic creators such as O’Neil, while appealing to conservatism, still slip their liberal views in as they can without disturbing the fan base.
But this does not mean that all comic creators have a specific political agenda. If we look at Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, it is not so easy to establish that they desired to subliminally influence readers towards liberal views. Rather, in the words of William D. Romanowski in an interview with Jeff Sheler, “Popular art reflects the culture that it helps to create.” If this is the case, then Siegel and Shuster, along with countless other comic creators, create their content based on the society around them, and their content serves to refortify the society as it is – not quite as it should be.