Superhero comics have come under fair criticism for their sexism, and it’s been a long uphill battle from Women in Refrigerators on to get anything resembling equal representation on the pages. However, there were always at least some characters that women could read without wincing multiple times a page at sexist tropes. Storm and other women of the X-Men haven’t been perfect, but they have been consistent at least since the early ‘80s in giving the world female characters who are defiant, complex, and fiercely autonomous. In this way, superhero comics are an intrinsically feminist medium.
On the other hand, critiques of objectifying art and one-dimensional women are more than well-founded and continue to be a source of angst for many readers. There is no single trope that defines this view of superhero comics as being oppressively anti-woman; rather, the tropes exist as a spider’s web, ensnaring female-led series that are initially full of potential and weighing them down with weak villains, redundancy, sexism from other characters, and ultimately, cancellation. The specific cliche under discussion in this article is that of the condescending romantic interest for female characters in solo books, who mansplain and talk down to the female hero and fail to offer anything to the story. It’s more common than one would think and has been bringing down the quality of female-led series since they were first tested to the comics market of the ‘70s.
The many mansplainers of She-Hulk
While Jennifer Walters has undergone a great deal of character growth from her early days, the original She-Hulk series was created by Stan Lee because he was afraid DC or a television studio would trademark a like-named character before Marvel got the chance, thus making money off of his concepts. That's not a great or particularly substantial real-world starting point for a superhero, but, in all fairness, the creative process behind many female superheroes tends to be about business rather than inspiration. Batwoman and Batgirl would not have ever existed if there hadn't been an editorial mandate to bring more women in order to make Batman seem more wholesome (i.e. “straighter”). While many classic male heroes are original concepts, comparatively few female heroes are, and we end up with a lot of low-concept female superheroes with origin stories, power sets, and costumes that are direct references to male heroes. While it is problematic, this process has, almost by accident, gifted us with some of our favorite superheroes, including but not limited to She-Hulk. Importantly, even from the beginning, although She-Hulk’s powers positioned her to be nothing more than a lady version of the Hulk, prone to the same angry outbursts, her psychology was significantly more complex.
In the early issues, Jennifer Walters was a highly intelligent lawyer, although she suffered from self-doubt and self-esteem issues. Like Bruce Banner, she didn't want to be the Hulk, but over the course of that first series, that changed. By the end of its 25-issue run, Jennifer had actively stated that she wanted to be She-Hulk only, delighting in the power and confidence she gained in her role as a superhero. This made her unique among superheroes of the Marvel Universe, often known for their angst and their reluctance to don their uniforms night after night.
Despite this ultimately feminist message, the original series also tends to focus on its comparatively incidental male characters. Jennifer Walters' best female friend is killed in Savage She-Hulk #2, and she very seldom encounters other women throughout the rest of the series, with small exceptions via delightful guest appearance from Valkyrie and Hellcat, and a couple of mostly unimportant female villains that center in on their hatred of She-Hulk seemingly out of a lack of anything better to do with their time. Jennifer's dad appears as an intolerant, awful person, who somehow changes his whole line of thought by the end of the series to suddenly accept his daughter, but her dependence on his approval plays a big part in the overarching plot of the series.
Then there's her childhood friend, Zapper, who is told from the start that Jennifer is only interested in friendship with him, and thus becomes the archetypical Nice Guy, hanging out and meddling in Jennifer's life and relationships until he pretty much gaslights her into falling in love with him by wearing down her self-esteem and telling her that he’s upset with her for not “rewarding” his “kindness.” After the series ends, we see very little of Zapper, which is for the best. Jennifer's other love interest of the time was a deeply self-pitying jobless man known as Richard Rory, who writer Steve Gerber had created in the series Man-Thing. It’s generally agreed upon by Gerber's peers that Rory was intended as a stand-in for the writer himself. Rory mopes about not being good enough for Jennifer and maintains that he'll only ruin her life, but when she finally agrees with him, he's upset.
Mansplaining from beyond the page
Completely throwing tact out the window, there is an issue of She-Hulk in which John Byrne, then the writer and artist and from his place as a creator, commands a naked Jennifer to jump rope as an atonement for losing a bet. She-Hulk protests and is strongly against the idea, as anyone likely would be, but Byrne persists, “handing” the rope to her through the page and forcing her to go through with it. This whole thing goes on for 11 pages and is played for comedy, but it hasn’t aged well. The discomfort of the scene is further compounded by various moments of sexism that occurred in that particular run. She-Hulk regularly insists that women just don't read comics, thus excusing the series from making any attempt to captivate a female readership. It is true that there are many women who shouldn't read that comic specifically because the lack of consent in the jump rope issue alone would put many readers a bit on edge.
That said, Byrne gave us many elements of the She-Hulk that remain worthwhile, such as her tendency to break the fourth wall, her constant and hilarious car troubles, an incredibly cute friendship with Ben Grimm, and a growing preference for her Hulk form over her Jennifer Walters body, but most of his run on the series is a rough read if only because you never really know when he’s going to pop in as a character and make She-Hulk jump rope naked, for instance.
Later, in the Dan Slott series, we were introduced to a fellow lawyer known as Pug, whose entire role was to show up issue after issue and stare at She-Hulk and take up page space. He again, plays the role of the Nice Guy, although his great revelation, in the end, is that he truly loved both She-Hulk and Jennifer Walters, for which he surely deserves a medal. Pug hasn't really shown up much since the end of Slott's run, but that's because there was no reason for him to exist to begin with. The next series by Charles Soule did better by the character in focusing on She-Hulk's work partnerships, her desire to run her own firm, and, for once, the women in Jennifer's life.
Valkyrie and the unwanted kisses
In the early days of the Defenders, Valkyrie started off as a character for whom we saw writers consistently partnering her with men that told her what to do for years. Through the entirety of the original Defenders series, one can count at least four different occasions in which a male character (usually heroes, and only once a villain) grabbed Valkyrie by the shoulders and forced a kiss on her, telling her it was what she wanted. Today, writers have been compelled to give a more believable depiction of the sword-wielding warrior, and it would be exceedingly difficult for modern fans to imagine any male character trying to pull that on Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie and surviving the experience, but it does make early appearances of Valkyrie exceedingly difficult to read.
Although the series underwent a name change and became the New Defenders, and we enjoyed a much queerer, much more interesting version of the character, the first several dozen appearances of Valkyrie in the Defenders read as tedious, in no small part due to the introduction of an arbitrary male character claiming to be the ex-husband of her mortal identity who showed up issue after issue to try to convince her to give up on being a superhero and move back in with him. Some good moments are still to be found in Valkyrie's response to the negative, but the sheer amount of pages dedicated to that guy is absurd. Those pages would have been better served giving our Valkyrie actual fight scenes and character growth, not lingering on patriarchal ideas of control by a male character that was completely unimportant to the team and who has not been seen since.
Zatanna and Jeff Sloan
When Zatanna was given her own one-shot in the late ‘80s, her stage manager, Jeff Sloan, took up most of the spoken lines. Meanwhile, Zatanna, who wandered around fighting evil witches and saving the day and whose name was on the cover of the comic, came off as the secondary character. Sloan's entire role in the stories seemed to be to deride Zatanna, call her out for what he perceived as stubbornness, resent her for not agreeing to date him, and talk over and criticize pretty much everything she said or did. It does not make for a great read, which is sad because the art and overall plot of that special are both really good, and Zatanna was more than due for a good solo story. In this way, pairing female heroes with these mansplaining characters cost us a lot of great stories over the years. When writers fear and refuse to understand the women they’re writing for and need to saddle them with unknown and unlikable male characters, it’s a recipe for failure.
Wonder Girl and Terry Long
The trope of the mansplaining male got a great deal of play in the New Teen Titans in the '80s. Donna Troy, otherwise known as Wonder Girl, was spiraling from trauma and attempting to establish her own identity when she met Terry Long, a recently divorced professor at her school who asked her out shortly after they met. She accepted, and the two of them were eventually married, but Terry was by far the absolute worst. He took up space in Donna Troy's stories for around 20 years, so rather than get to know her, we were bombarded with the much louder, more talkative Terry, who from the very beginning popped into conversations to do things like compliment Donna by insulting his ex-wife in comparison, pitting the two women against each other from the very start. There is no good way to describe this guy. He is a male professor that came on to the much younger, emotionally vulnerable Donna Troy when she needed guidance and friendship, moved right the hell in, and started flirting with her likewise teenage teammates.
In the end, he, his daughter, and Donna's son all died in a car accident, but that was after he asked for a divorce and even a restraining order against Donna, claiming her life was too dangerous to be allowed near her own son. He came back temporarily in Blackest Night just so that Donna could punch both her hands right through his chest, and while we all know it's wrong, it just felt so right.
It’s true that there are some “gender-swapped” versions of this relationship — Lois Lane appearing at Superman’s side for decades to tell him all about what he’s doing wrong is just one example — but the power dynamic is completely different. Superman is not only omnipotent, he is likewise given every opportunity at the Daily Planet, while Lois has to struggle to escape her fate as a so-called “sob sister” due to sexism in journalism. When Lois delivers cutting one-liners, the difference between her and Terry Long is that she’s actually insightful, and it takes a great deal of courage to stand up to someone like Superman. One of the strengths of Superman and Lois Lane’s relationship is the fact that Lois is one of the few people that sees his flaws and isn’t afraid to tell him about it despite the power he holds. Terry Long, however, seeks to subjugate and depower Donna Troy and indeed all women, and therein lies the difference.
While superhero comics have undeniably changed over the years, they still have a ways to go before they live down the Jeff Sloans, the Zappers, and the Terry Longs of the past. At any rate, the easiest way to avoid this negative trope going forward is to build female characters that aren’t desperately in constant need of male approval and who can stand on their own without a badly thought-out adult sidekick attempting to pose as an authority figure over them. These mansplainers can’t even offer our heroes the autonomy and respect that we the readers want for them, and as such, they have no place in the supporting cast of these comics.