Comic Books and Sexism: A History of the 2nd-Class Caped Crusader

How women have been objectified and downplayed—and black women made invisible—in comics. 

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Wonder-Woman
Superman and Wonder Woman

DC Comics

Back in 1975 the Wonder Woman television series gave thousands of imaginative girls and young women a superheroine that was a force to reckon with. She was faster and stronger than most men, more beautiful than most women and wiser than most kings. Though the version of Wonder Woman portrayed by Linda Carter was campy and tongue-in-cheek, it was seen as a start down the road toward equality in comic books and science fiction television and film franchises.

Things didn’t quite go as planned. Since then, there have been no television shows based on female characters from Marvel or DC Comics, although when it comes to films, we had Catwoman and Electra. But they were both grand disappointments, and we have been left waiting on a new TV series based on a female comic book character for nearly 40 years.  

From the beginning, American comic book publishers have struggled with the idea of creating viable and acceptable female versions of the super-powered male staples like Superman, Batman and Captain America. The first popular female superhero was Fantomah. Her tagline? “Mystery Woman of the Jungle.” She was created by Fletcher Hanks and first appeared in Jungle Comics No. 2 in 1940. With all these references to jungles and mysteries, it’s a bit of a surprise that she wasn’t black and was depicted as a tall blonde whose face transformed into a blue skull when her powers were activated. 

She was predated, however, by Sheena, the Jungle Queen, who debuted in her own comic book in 1937. Both Fantomah and Sheena predated Wonder Woman, who first appeared in Wonder Woman No. 1 in 1941. All three of these women—all white--were clearly inspired by the Western world’s fascination with Africa and other far-off lands around the dawn of the 20th century. Sheena’s comic book tagline reads, “Trek the jungle trails of killer beasts and savage men with Sheena, Wild Beauty of the Congo.” She was basically a female version of Tarzan, who first appeared in the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Tarzan of the Apes in 1912.

An interesting fact about Wonder Woman creator, and inventor of the polygraph, William Moulton Marston is that it was his wife, Elizabeth, a prominent psychologist, who suggested the character, according to a 2001 issue of Boston University’s alumni publication. In fact, Marston believed she represented the quintessential Wonder Woman of his day and based many of the fictional character’s attributes on her. 

Wonder Woman and the female superheroes who appeared in comic books before her share several similarities: They were stronger than most men and came from some far-off, exotic location. Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess from mystical Themyscira, while both Sheena and Fantomah are from the Congo and ancient Egypt, respectively. Yes, Africa was considered a far-off and mysterious location by many in the Western world during the early 20th century, and that mindset remains largely unchanged today. 

Though Wonder Woman was created with good intentions, it was still written by a staff of white men who did not have a clue how to portray a strong female figure. Wonder Woman was clearly a revolutionary character in the 1940s, but misogynist viewpoints would creep in. For example, Wonder Woman editor and writer Sheldon Mayer expressed consternation about Wonder Woman’s weaknesses inspiring bondage imagery that had been a part of the Wonder Woman lore from the very beginning. If her bracelets are chained together, she becomes as weak as a normal person. When they are broken, she loses control of herself; she once stated that “power without self-control tears a girl to pieces.” Even the magic lasso, which some felt symbolized feminism, was often used against her by adversaries, thus symbolizing the misogynist view that feminism was more of a hindrance to women than it was worth.

In the 1970s, DC Comics implemented its in-house editorial policy regarding women, putting in writing a patriarchal stance on women in comic books: “The inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities.”

Despite the code, female superheroes continued to proliferate in comic books throughout the decade. But the writers were products of their time and continued writing characters along stereotypical lines during the heyday of the feminist movement. Characters like Thundra, a Marvel rip-off of Wonder Woman, was from an alternate timeline where the sexes were divided into warring factions, and the original Man-Killer was anti-male. Batwoman, introduced in 1956 in Detective Comics No. 233, used powder puffs, perfume and a compact mirror as weapons. 

The first superpowered woman of note in Marvel Comics was Sue Storm, aka the Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four. Even she struggled for equal billing with her male counterparts early on, since her invisibility power was often used as a defense mechanism rather than as an offensive capability when she was battling bad guys. Her counterpart in Marvel’s Avengers was Wasp, a wisecracking woman who could shrink to the size of a wasp and shoot energy blasts from her hands. Both would be written exponentially more effective and potentially lethal as time went on, and they would gain equal footing with many of their male counterparts. 

Read more at the Shadow League.