Do the Sirens Call to Female Readers?

The introduction to this week’s NYT Graphic Books Best Seller lists notes the rise of Gotham City Sirens, a new series from DC Comics featuring the misadventures of iconic female antagonists: Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and the Joker’s main squeeze, Harley Quinn. DC Comics frequently feature enticing female characters who are also strong, smart, independent, and well able to stand up to the big boys of the DC Universe including Batman, Superman, and the whole host of Justice League men. Birds of Prey, a long-running series following the crime-fighting trio of Oracle (Barbara Gordon, once Batgirl), Black Canary, and the Huntress, remains one of the few titles to feature an all-female team bristling with both smarts and fighting skills.

You’d think that these series would be a natural place to engage with a female audience. Strong female characters? Check. Action crime plots? Check. All of these women, as written by writers including Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, and Chuck Dixon, are well able to give Buffy Summers a run for her money. The big difference? Take a look at the cover for Gotham City Sirens. The image is clearly, overwhelmingly intended for readers who want to ogle women: teenage and adult guys. It’s not just the cover, either (click for a preview of the first issue from Newsarama.) Female superheroes not only have to contend with ridiculous costumes (check out Project Runway guru Tim Gunn smartly tearing apart the costumes designs in this priceless video), but are drawn in poses that defy logic to emphasize actual physical prowess. Good girl art, as such sexualized, pin-up style comic art has been termed, is still a frequent style in superheroine tales. Women may deduce right alongside Batman, but their body shapes and fighting contortions make it very clear their purpose is to be on display.

Of course, manga has its fair share of pin-ups too. Rosario+Vampire, currently occupying the top spot on the NYT manga list, is a fine example of scantily clad young ladies squarely aimed at a male audience. However, manga balances out such titles with two things: comics for girls, like Gentlemen’s Alliance, Black Butler, and Nightschool on this week’s list, and comics that cater to girls’s desires to ogle pretty boys, as with Gentlemen’s Alliance and Alice in the Country of Hearts. Harem manga, aimed at young male readers in Japan, features a hapless young man surrounded by a bevvy of buxom young ladies who all want to date him. Think Judd Apatow comedies with about ten bombshell starlets instead of just one.  Reverse harems feature instead an ordinary girl suddenly gaining the romantic attention of a wide array of gorgeous young men, and Alice in the Country of Hearts is a classic example.  In the manga publishing world, there is at least that balance, while in the U.S. mainstream comics world, comics for girls are almost nonexistent and comics for those who like a little male eye candy are even more scarce.

So what’s a woman who wants female heroes to do? Mainstream superhero comics give you very little choice: either you ignore the cheesecake pin-up art and read for the stories or you stop reading and go find your superheroines with more normal body types somewhere else. Comics outside mainstream continuity feature a plethora of excellent, intriguing female heroes who need not fit the spandex suit. For younger readers there’s Emily Edison, Alison Dare, Rose from the world of Bone, and GoGirl!. For adults there’s Tara Chace in Queen and Country, Liz Sherman in Hellboy, Maya Antares from Red Star, and Jenny Sparks in The Authority. Many female readers, teens and adults alike, turn to manga for their kick-butt women. Favorites include Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Nobara in Crimson Hero, Miura Ito from W Juliet, Arena Pendleton from Train + Train, Nana Osaki in Nana, Alice Malvin in Pumpkin Scissors, and Rukia from Bleach.

I’m all for readers enjoying the sexiness where they find it, but as a reader, I get tired of conflicting messages. If there aren’t fully-realized characters to balance out the sex bombs and vixens, we’re left with the message that sexy posing is all women are good for in the superhero world.  To those who claim that the men are just as exaggerated and sexualized, I say until there’s a comic where Batman periodically preens in his bedroom and then runs around fighting crime in only a speedo, there’s nothing in the portrayal of male heroes that compares. Do these pin-up comics sell in the short term? Of course. Do they lose a potentially large audience? Speaking for the many women open to reading comics who glance at such covers and immediately turn away, I’d say, yes.

13 Responses to “Do the Sirens Call to Female Readers?”

  1. Jo Says:

    This was a great post! Thank you for voicing what I’ve been thinking for a long time. It’s disappointing to have something like Gotham City Sirens turn out to be the usual female superhero ______ (feel free to fill in that blank). I don’t mind going outside of the mainstream, but hey, it’s 2010 — let’s shake up the mainstream and make it more realistic (i.e. no more of these ridiculous costumes and poses, please).

  2. Shelly Says:

    I’m female (and middle-aged, too!) and I read Gotham City Sirens. It’s been around for about a year now, so not that new. It’s very entertaining. Birds of Prey was canceled a year ago, but is starting up again this month. There are a lot of female readers of these comics and of the male superhero books. I just don’t know how significant we are in terms of stats. But we’re here and we’re reading.

    I don’t mind the chessecake art. Just give me my fair share of beefcake, too, please. :)

  3. saranga Says:

    I agree that there is way too much objectification in comics and that women get a raw deal, but I really like Gothma City Sirens. It is focused on the sexy but they are also portrayed as real 3D characters and the art inside doesn’t make them look plastic or give them blank faces, they each have personality and you can tell each character by their face shapes, not just their costume.

    This for me makes all the difference and means that GCS is a world away from comics with male leads where any women featured are given jack all to do apart from bend and pose in impossible ways whilst wearing next to nothing.
    (Well this was the case until the last 2 issues when the art has changed and now Selina/Harley/Ivy look far more like blank canvasses.)

    I would prefer to have female characters who aren’t hot, who do look normal (why isn’t renato geudes getting more work? he draws knees!) and who have costumes they can actually fight crime in. there are some out there, i recently started a blog reviewing non objectionable comics (it should come up as the link to my name) and we have found quite a few books to feature. but I fear there aren’t enough.

    On the topic of men being objectified (or not), I found this a couple of years ago and now point everyone to it:

  4. Andromeda Says:

    Worth noting that _Queen and Country_ (which you rightly point out is awesome) is a Greg Rucka-written series as well. (There’s one volume which has Chace drawn with superhero proportions and it’s genuinely jarring — the art before and after that volume is more realistic, and fits in much better with Rucka’s story and perspective.)

    Also in the strong-female-characters (but not superheroes) genre is Rucka’s _Whiteout_ and its sequel _Melt_ — Antarctic mystery/suspense with a gritty female protagonist (whose body you can’t even see most of the time due to thick parkas, and whose face is indifferently attractive — it’s quite something).

    His novels tend to strong female characters as well, in at least one case with a female POV character.

    Why yes, I have been on this enormous Rucka-reading binge this year ;). Just wanted to make sure the second paragraph didn’t leave the impression that Rucka is necessarily tied to superhero-sex-bomb art.

  5. Robin Brenner Says:

    @Jo Thanks! I’m glad to find some support in my points.

    I admit, with Gotham City Sirens, at least these are characters who are known for using their sexuality, especially Catwoman and Poison Ivy. In Birds of Prey, the pin-ups were more egregious as, while they were all supposed to undoubtedly be attractive women, they did not use their sex bomb status like Catwoman or Poison Ivy does.

    That’s all I’m really asking, Jo — that we have some complex, non-pin-up characters in 2010. It shouldn’t be that hard. The Manga industry has been doing it for at the very least thirty years. What’s the hold up?

  6. Robin Brenner Says:

    @Shelly, I definitely agree that there are many female readers out there, and many of us read great series in spite of the cheesecake (or, as you say, just enjoy it and move on.) I used to be much more indulgent of the art. I didn’t mind it, and I was still getting great stories most of the time. Over time, though, it was more and more irritating — no matter how much the characters were portrayed as strong, independent, intelligent women, they were drawn as sex kittens and seductresses. Birds of Prey particularly fell into that pattern, and I was so sad to see that happen. I got tired of feeling like an audience that didn’t apparently deserve respect. Then, when I read reading more and more manga, I realized that it didn’t have to be that way — there could be comics about strong women that were not about the T&A.

    Just because I’m a female reader doesn’t mean I have to put up with the still strong sentiment that women are an additional audience to men. If you look at Hollywood and mainstream media, there’s the general rule of thumb that women will go see men’s entertainment while men won’t go see women’s entertainment — so why bother making entertainment for women? If we’ll shell out the bucks for media aimed at men and just ignore the obvious targeting, then the powers that be have very little motivation to create media that doesn’t first attract a male audience. No matter how many times the female audience proves itself as a money-spending, fan-driven audience (dare I mention properties such as Sex and the City and Twilight?), the kinds of stories women and girls enjoy are still second tier.

  7. Robin Brenner Says:

    @saranga First off, yay Courtney Crumrin! (She takes the cake for great grumbly, flawed, strong teen girl character.) Great blog, and I really like how you’re taking apart each title. Your reviews would be very useful to librarians (readers, take note!) as they give a lot of solid information on each series and title.

    I hadn’t really thought so much about the blankness of faces (although I do totally know what you mean.) Gotham City Sirens I’m pulling out more as a surface example of a problem — I don’t know that I would ever look past the cover because of the art. When I flipped through it initially, I was put off again by the art, not because of the faces but because of the obvious prominence of these ladies sexual attributes. That bottom panel on page three of the preview? Really? Does she have to contort so that her butt is shining and, of course, roll back her shoulder so we get a nice shot of her breast when she’s facing away from us (and just kind of bra is she wearing that does that anyway)?

    Maybe I’m not giving this particular series the benefit of the doubt, but as I said before, that’s kind of my concern. After reading a lot of series from the superhero world, I’m tired of just letting it slide. The sheer amount of cheesecake makes me less and less willing to take a chance. Sometimes it’s worth it for the great writing, but more and more I’m just going to find (and buy) my comics from other sources.

  8. Robin Brenner Says:

    @Andromeda Greg Rucka is one of my favorite writers for just that reason — he writes women beautifully, with fierceness and flaws intact. Renee Montoya in Gotham Central (and that whole series) is a great example. I remember that arc in Queen and Country — it was so bizarre! Whiteout and Melt are equally great, I agree. (And I must admit I was terribly amused when I watched the recent film of Whiteout and they of course HAD to work in an obligatory shower scene just so they could show that Stetko was hot underneath all of the covering.)

    Glad you stepped in to make the clarification about Rucka, though. And really, I do feel that at least equal opportunity objectification (a la the world of manga) would be preferable to having the one-sided objectification (of women only) we have now. If we must objectify, at least let’s objectify equally. I also really can’t blame the artists particularly — they are doing their jobs, and many of them are fine artists. I think it’s a culture-wide problem, and one that is all too slow to change.

  9. Jonathan Nolan Says:

    IndyPlanet has a bajillion comics, or thousands anyway- including some just as misogynistic as DC and Marvel… but also hundreds upon hundreds of great titles that address and many many other similar issues in comics! And no I don’t work for them, it’s just the truth. Lot more comics out there, of all kinds. I don’t know why there is this conspiracy of silence against IndyPlanet. It’s nuts.

  10. Cy Says:

    Fantastic post! I’m so glad someone is finally pointing out the inherent problem that undercuts every “attempt” at making a female-friendly mainstream American comic. Those stupid poses! Those retarded, skin-tight or skin-revealing costumes! These comics seem to tell women that every woman *truly* wants to bare all and be ogled every minute of the day. Uh–NO? @_@; I hate that our male-dominated comics creation industry has such a need to cater to their own fantasies and dominance that the only way they’ll allow a semi-powerful/competent heroine into the story to fight alongside Batman, etc, is to make sure she’s smoking hot, constantly posing in those “cheesecake poses” you mentioned, and wearing all sorts of impractical sexy/S&M gear to “feminize” her and keep her appealing-looking for male readers, rather than wearing the fully-covering battle armor or comfortable army fatigues or whatever a practical fighter would wear. Little wonder manga has such a one-up on American comics with female readers.

  11. saranga Says:

    @Robin: Thanks for the compliments about the blog.
    When GCS was first solicited I was mildly put off by the cover (or at least roleld my eyes a little), but then decided to give it a go because I’m a fan of the 3 main characters. I also appreciate that GCS is at least upfront about it’s eye candy factor. I prefer that to comics which pretend to be about ‘strong’ (whatever that means) women, and then completley denigrate the message or detract from the story by inserting copious t & a.
    I think there’s room for hot lady comics (with decent storylines and good personalities) so long as we have decent non objectification stuff as well. As I said earlier (and I think we all agree!) there is some of the latter out there, but not enough.

    Fair play to you ir you’re sick of it the sexism tho. I haven’t got to that point yet, i’m not sure if I want to or not.

    One of the things I find interesting about manga is the subgenre of yaoi, where women’s sexuality/sexual desires (are they the right words?) are targeted and addressed.

    But that’s probably off topic and a different conversation.

  12. Lesley K Says:

    I remember when I started getting into comics thirty years ago, standing in front of a mirror trying to get into ANY pose in which both my boobs and butt were shown off. I couldn’t do it, and I was a heckuva lot more flexible back then.

    I remember getting hooked on the original Birds of Prey because I was just so darn grateful that Canary wasn’t fighting in stiletto heels!

    Yeah, I used to be a huge superhero comics fan, and overlooked the cheesecake for the stories. But as others have said, years of years of this grind down on you; and once I discovered indy comics and manga, I haven’t seen any reason to go back.

  13. Robin Brenner Says:

    @saranga I definitely agree — the point is to have variety and a counterpoint to what we see, and so far, I haven’t seen much on the other side of the scale.

    Yaoi is a definitely a good topic for a similar discussion — it certainly objectifies men as much as any pin-up comic, although I’d argue it’s less of a problem for the reasons that we’ve all touched on. Manga is already much more diverse than U.S. or Western comics, and the sheer variety of their erotically charged works far outpace what we see here. And in yaoi, unlike superhero comics, the point is romance and sex, so it feels more expected and part of the subgenre to bring out the sexiness.

    @darkcyradis I do give props to folks that acknowledge that costumes would be much more battle ready. I always loved Darwyn Cooke’s version of Catwoman’s costume — certainly it was still sexy, but it also looked far more practical.

    I always remember when I brought up the whole idea of Batman running around fighting crime in a speedo or thong to a straight male friend of mine (a guy I like a ton, and who is in no way misogynist or unaware of the complications of cheesecake art). His immediate reaction was a look of horror and an exclamation of, “Aah! I don’t want to see that!” And my reply was, “Yes. Exactly. Are you seeing my point?”