When it comes to comics, gender is more than just a number

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Sep 8, 2017

To say that women are underrepresented in comics is not a groundbreaking statement. It’s not even an interesting observation anymore. We know that there are far fewer female characters in the pages of the Big Two superhero comics than there are of their male counterparts. It’s a fact that is slowly changing as the demand for these characters becomes louder. Often the concern isn’t about the quantity of characters, but the quality of their representation, and now a new study is taking a hard look at that representation to find out how the comic book industry really views women.

Comics have a complicated history with female characters. There have been endless conversations about the ways artists and the industry have sexualized female heroes. We’ve dealt with decades of bizarre poses, skimpy costumes, ridiculous high heels, and Power Girl’s boob window (not to mention the fact that her boobs should not be bigger than her head). Female characters have been used as pawns in the conflicts between male heroes and their villains, murdered, brutalized, and depowered, pushing forward his story at the expense of hers.

But there are far more benign ways in which women are represented differently than their male counterparts. Writing for The Pudding, which compiles and contextualizes data visualization, Amanda Shendruk looked at 34,476 comic book characters in an effort to get a better idea of the ways in which female superheroes are represented on the page. She found that there are obvious, marked differences in physical strength, power distribution, and even something as simple as naming conventions.

We all know Wonder Woman, but how many other superheroes can you name who use the moniker “woman”? It’s okay, I’ll wait. Not many, right? Now, how about those who use the term “girl” in their name? That’s a whole lot more. All right, one more question for you. How many heroes can you name that use the word “man”?

According to the study, of the many ways female hero names are gendered, those who use “woman” make up only 5.7%. That’s compared to 30% of male heroes who utilize the word “man” in their own name. Among male heroes, the most popular gender monikers include “man” at 30%, “Mr.” at about 20%, and “King” at just under 10%. Heroes who use “boy” make up only about 5% of all gendered male characters.

On the female side of things, the top gender labels include “Lady,” “Mrs.,” “Girl,” and “Queen,” all of which come in at around 12-14%. That’s four different labels which appear twice as often as “woman,” and the majority of other descriptors are just as bad, creating a diminutive or weaker view of the female character just by nature of her name. “Man” draws images of power and strength, whereas “Girl” or “Lass” or “Ms.” conjures images of weakness or smallness, certainly in comparison.

According to Shendruk, “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.”

It’s not just names that make the superhero, it’s also the superhuman powers, and according to the study, there are some pretty obvious differences in the way powers manifest themselves in female characters compared to male. One might even go so far as to say that there are a few abilities that are, due to the way they’ve been used historically, inherently male or female. Take, for example, something like pheromone control or prehensile hair. Even less specific abilities that manifest across both genders are seen more often in one vs. the other. Mental abilities are generally associated with female characters, while physical strength appears much more frequently for male characters.

Perhaps least surprising of Shendruk’s findings was the fact that, when it comes to superhero teams, there is an obvious and large gender imbalance. With 2,862 teams spread over the DC and Marvel universes, you’d think maybe a few would value women over men, and “a few” would be about right. Only 12 percent of those teams have more female members than male, and when you omit the teams that are exclusively female (teams like A-Force), you’re left with only 4.8%. Compare that to the 30% of teams that are exclusively male, and you start to see the issue. Part of this has to do with the larger number of male characters overall, leaving fewer opportunities for female characters to join teams in the first place.

Shendruk even goes so far as to discuss the way these teams are named, once again noticing a pattern that appears along gender lines.

“A third of all exclusively female team names reference their femininity in some way, and if we look at the all-female teams that are five or more members, that number jumps to half. These groups have gendered names in the way that the male teams generally do not. Only seven percent of their male counterparts with five or more members have a masculine naming reference. Given this highly gendered naming pattern, it seems that exclusively female teams are often specifically defined by their femininity.”

Some of these numbers are slowly starting to change, thanks to new efforts being made by DC and Marvel to increase their slate of female heroes. The massive success of Wonder Woman this past summer, which quickly became the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, and the highest-grossing film of the summer, is a step in the right direction. It’s also proof that the market exists for these characters. With Captain Marvel due to enter the MCU in 2018, with films starring Harley Quinn and Batgirl on her heels, one can only hope that the same study will look quite a bit different in the years to come.