Someone once said that comic fanboys only get to see a half-naked girl when they read comic books. Since Robert E. Howard’s 1952 comic run of “Conan the Barbarian”, comic books have almost always freely depicted scantily clad women. Anyone who witnessed the 1990s Image Comics renaissance will recall uber-sexualized characters such as “Witchblade” and “Gen 13’s” red-headed bombshell, Caitlyn Fairchild. These sexy, female characters were the norm for teenage boys at the time. However, a lot has changed in today’s society as we move forward in terms of gender, feminism, and over-sexualized females in general. Emphasis is being put on developing balanced female characterization and connecting with young female readers.
When Disney and Marvel merged back in 2010, many thought this would be a way for Disney to solidify a market for both boys and girls. Instead, the Disney/Marvel merger may be the beginning of a mainstream entertainment trend focusing on “gender equality,” transforming the portrayal of women in comic books, movies, and other media. Gone are the days of Ms. Marvel, who once showed off her iconic long legs and large breast; now replaced with the character Captain Marvel, along with a more militarized battle-ready outfit for her superhero adventures. Such changes are evident among female superhero characters across the board. Popularity and longevity were always an issue with superheroines in terms of sales and collectibility, but that has changed as comic runs of iconic male heroes now being outsold by their female counterparts. Comic book companies are noticing the trend and changing their female characters in ways that promote diversity and equality.
Disney/Marvel is still learning as the company seems to have mixed messaging between its movies, comics, and toy marketing. In the world of comic books, Marvel is making big moves to expand its racial and female diversity, yet Disney’s online store hasn’t followed Amazon’s lead in eliminating gender tags. As a result, girls are having a hard time finding Black Widow merchandise without having to jump into the boy-centric Avengers line. Toy companies are also falling behind, misrepresenting female characters in all aspects of marketing. This would have been overlooked a few years ago, but now this issue is instantly controversial among fans demanding to know why a female character is excluded. Such controversies have caused Disney/Marvel to rethink its strategy, and the company recently announced it would include more females in its toy lines.
Female superheroes are catching on culturally. For instance, the social media movement #ItWasNeverADress is turning women’s bathroom symbols into female superheroes wearing red capes. More females are gravitating toward images that empower them without making them feel sexualized or forced into gender stereotypes. Female attendance at comic book conventions is on the rise due to interest in the material; not cosplay, like it was in the past. Even when they do cosplay, they do not feel the need to portray themselves as sex symbols. Instead, they can become symbols of heroism.