The Rise of Feminist Superheroes
The comic book landscape seems to be in flux. You could argue that it has been shifting for some time, with comics, graphic novels and wordless books all blending into one another and leaking out into the wider literature world, and you’d be right - but this most current change seems to be a seismic shift of epic proportions.
Feminists are cropping up in comics.
No longer just the immaculate waif-like creatures waiting to be caught by Superman as they fall from inexplicably unsafe skyscraper windows, comic book women are taking their own places in the superhero cannon and being drawn in a few more dimensions than normal. Marvel’s new female Thor is outselling her male predecessor by 30%, and the writers of the comic are even indulging in wry fourth-wall-breaking comments that such a character might receive in real life.
It may not seem so important to have women taking on the role of heroes in comics – after all, for the most part they’re still all draped in curve-hugging latex with boobs the size of their heads and thighs that go up to their nipples. But despite how they look, the very existence of female superheroes challenges ingrained gender roles that reverberate in real life. When Marvel’s Absorbing Man roars 'Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to call you Thor? Damn feminists are ruining everything!', it’s more than a cheeky aside to raise a giggle: it’s a recognition of the long-standing gender imbalance that’s been implicit in comics – and in life.
With this in mind, here’s a celebration of five fantastic feminist superheroes.
Talented criminal defence lawyer by day, huge green brute by night, Jennifer Walters became She-Hulk when she received a blood transfusion from her cousin Bruce Banner and began to undergo the same rage-driven transformations as he did. At first bewildered by her situation, Jennifer learned to love her more assertive, confident green self and retained her hulk-form on a semi-permanent basis for some time. Jennifer was invited back to practice law in Single Green Female, under the condition that she remain in human form whilst at work – an inclusive and flexible working agreement that many employers could learn from.
As the bookish teenage Muslim daughter of Pakistani immigrants, Kamala isn’t exactly the type of woman you’re used to seeing in comics; in looks, she’s nothing like her long-legged blonde idol, Carol Danvers. Yet when Carol took over the Captain Marvel mantle (an important moment in itself), Kalama inherited the Ms Marvel codename and so dragged the franchise into the 21st century. Kamala can shapeshift and, like many teens, is struggling with her religion, cultural identity and ridding her home city of nefarious types.
One of the few lesbian superheroes and certainly the only one to be both gay and Jewish, Kate Kane was a promising student at the United States Military Academy who was found to be in a relationship with another female student. On being asked to disavow it by her superiors, she refused, and after a brief stint as a partier returned to Gotham to dedicate her life to fighting crime, just like her male counterpart. Interestingly, Batwoman was first conceived as a love interest to Batman, after a writer claimed that comic books were the work of the devil and that Batman was gay, and therefore a bad influence on children. This might make Batwoman the first ‘beard’ in comic book history.
I really couldn’t write this list without including Barbara Gordon, possibly the world’s only super-librarian. After Barbara, an educated, career-minded young civilian, was shot in the spine by the Joker and had her spinal cord severed, she found herself confined to a wheelchair with paraplegia. However, Barbara knew that her vast intellect, computer hacking skills and super-librarianism could be of great use to other superheroes, and she, as Oracle, eventually rose to be the head of a female crime-fighting team. I could make the point that all librarians, really, are superheroes…but I won’t.
She may have the least practical superhero outfit in the history of comics, but Princess Diana of Themyscira is the quintessential feminist superhero. An Amazonian demi-god, she’s been fighting for peace, justice and gender equality since 1941, which means she’s most likely older than your mum but looks a bit more badass in a tiara. She also gained her powers by eating Nutella, which legitimises the consumption of delicious chocolatey goods for a whole new generation of readers.
And a special mention goes to…
Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, the original comic book BFFs. Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel was a noted, respected psychologist who threw her life away and discarded her massive intelligence (literally dumbing herself down) when she fell for the psychopathic love of the Joker. Dr. Pamela Lillian Isley was a promising botanist seduced into a life of crime then poisoned by the man who led her there. Not only are both of these women super smart characters who’ve been turned 'bad' by mistreatment, but they are genuine friends, with Poison Ivy repeatedly attempting to drag Harley out of her abusive relationship with the Joker and reinstate her real personality and self-respect. An amazing contrast to the usual female frenemy relationships we see in comics and cartoons, and very useful fodder for the buddy-girl superhero movie that we’ve unfortunately yet to see.
She-Hulk by Badly Drawn Dad
Comic Book Struck by Nawal Al-Mashouq