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Women in Comics: Red Sonja and Power Girl – A New Hope?

Elasti-Girl had kicked the door open for women heroes to be treated as equals at DC, and with second wave feminism well under way, and a decade of sexual revolution behind them, it's no surprise that the 1970s saw more female characters than ever appearing in mainstream comics. However, Woman's Lib still wasn't taken very seriously by many writers, and several feminist characters failed to find an audience amongst the established comics audience.

Those women characters that were successful had two things in common: a passionate desire to be treated as equals, and either a care-not attitude about skimpy clothing, or downright pleasure in flashing their tits and asses. At a time when feminists were seen as "bitches", and feminism itself treated as a passing fad, a good cleavage has been described as the sugar that helped the medicine of progression go down.

"Why you little chauvinistic piglet! I thought you understood... I'm my own woman!"

Red Sonja and Power Girl

In 1966, a new character was introduced to Detective Comics preceding her appearance in the popular Batman TV series. The newcomer was one Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl. There had previously been a Bat-Girl in the comics, Betty Kane, niece and sidekick to Batwoman and very much of the same era. Like her aunt, Betty had been just another character to prove the rampant heterosexuality of the two main men – while Batwoman chased Batman, so Bat-Girl chased Robin. Both of these Bat-women were now completely out of step with society in the US, and had disappeared from the Batman titles in '64.

Yvonne Craig as BatgirlBut how did her hair work?

This Batgirl was a different woman entirely, stepping up beside Elasti-Girl as an equal to men. Babs had been on her way to a masquerade ball dressed as a female Batman when she fell into a life of crime-fighting. Commissioner Gordon's daughter was no easily manipulated girl that could be bullied out of her vocation by Batman. Instead, Barbara was a grown woman with no romantic interest in the Dark Knight at all, crucially robbing him of any emotional control he might have had over the feisty female. But society had moved on, and Batman could never have treated Barbara in the way he'd browbeaten Kathy Kane a decade before.

Barbara's day job was that of librarian, a respectable career and one that few readers could really have any qualms about a woman having; even if she was – gasp! - the head of the library itself, with a phD. She wore prim clothing, had glasses, and generally looked like your stereotypical librarian (the glasses mysteriously vanished soon after). But as Batgirl, Babs was a red-headed sensation who could beat the men at their own game. It's a bit of an obvious metaphor for the empowerment women were seeking in the 60s but wow, was it welcome.

Screw you guys, I'm not going home.How did she build the bike so fast?!

While the Batman TV series was not to last much longer, Batgirl was a huge hit with the comics audience, who lapped up her pure altruistic motivation and lack of a tragic past. While Batman and Robin were understandably morose about their grief-inspired careers, Batgirl was free to prowl the night unhampered by misery, and rarely needing the men to help her out. As her character was expanded upon, the mousey librarian gave way to a confident and secure career woman who was very much in charge of both her identities. Batgirl needed no superfluous motivation for her crime-fighting, she simply chose to become a hero.

Unfortunately, this progressive writing didn't quite reach the other female characters in Gotham. The Comic Code was being gradually relaxed, allowing the glamorous criminal Catwoman to return after her exile. Selina immediately returned to lusting over her beloved Batman, ready to drop any of her independence at a hint of affection from her chosen man. She was a strong woman still, but saw Batgirl only as a rival for Batman's love, and was rather a gimmicky character. It's clear that Catwoman was written at this time to be more of a direct opposite of Batgirl, to further strengthen Batgirl's position as a strong and independent woman. Perhaps the idea of having two progressive women in the same comic in the 60s was just a step too far.

Yeah baby!Groovy baby. Groovy.

The late 60s were an interesting time for Wonder Woman too, as she was stripped of her powers and became simply Diana Prince, karate champion and owner of a Mod boutique. Wonder Woman had remained trapped in a Golden Age limbo until then, and her reading figures had fallen sharply. The modern Diana was now independent, relied more on her strength and wits than ever and generally oozed coolness. She wasn't however particularly any more feminist than she had been the previous decade: Diana had been revamped, not restored. Arguably, de-powering her in order to give her more independence was reminiscent of the compromises many women felt they had to make in their lives if they wanted to be seen as equals.

In '73, Diana was back in her costume with full powers again, helped greatly by acclaimed feminist Gloria Steinem's campaign. This was just two years before Lynda Carter was to help Wonder Woman see huge success once more. Off went the less revealing Emma Peel type mod outfits, and on went the new shorter than ever swimsuit costume. Wait, a feminist was responsible for Wonder Woman revealing more skin again? It surprises many, but perhaps there's more to whether a character (or person!) is feminist or not than what she wears.

Fierce!Lets just show re-runs of this, no?

In 1968, Barbarella hit the cinemas, a film I'm sure most readers are familiar with. If not, and in brief, Barbarella is a science fiction movie, starring an often scantily clad Jane Fonda, with a tongue in cheek style and a whole lot of sex. Depending on who you ask, it's either a film about Barberella's sexual liberation, or a man's cheesecake fantasy. The film was based on the Barbarella comic strip that ran in the early 60s and caused a great scandal in its native France, often referred to as the first adult comic book, filled with nudity and sex. The movie had no such scandalous impact: by the end of the decade, the Hays Code was finished, and the cinema screens were full of cavorting women in James Bond films, and women using sex as a weapon in sexploitation films such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill. Strong female characters inevitably, of course, ended up being a cautionary tale for viewers.

That must be a bit breezy...Ah, us Europeans and our nakedness.

It's difficult to overstate just how greatly society in the US had changed in its attitude towards sex in the media in the span of the 60s, but one woman in comics is demonstration enough by herself.

Just one year after Barbarella hit the screens, Forrest J Ackerman debuted his new comic character with a tribute name; the lady-vampire Vampirella landed on Earth fresh from the planet Draculon with one hell of an eye-popping costume. Reminiscent of the Phantom Lady's sensationally distracting outfit that had so outraged Fredric Wertham in the 50s, Vampirella's costume was truly physics-defying. How did it stay on?! Vampiric powers of course.

Okay, maybe some double sided tape too.Cor blimey, she'll catch her death in that!

Despite her sultry looks, Vampirella was in fact a rather sweet character, and virtuous too. Nobody in her comics ever remarked on her quite remarkable costume, and Vampirella herself saw nothing wrong with her clothing despite it being so different from those around her. She drank a blood substitute and only occasionally snacked on a dastardly criminal. Originally none too blessed in the brains department, Vampirella quickly became a more mysterious woman of the night. And day.

Vampirella then was clearly no "bad girl", and although her origins were later revised, originating from a planet where blood took the place of water didn't exactly make her a stereotypical vampiric fiend. In reality, Vampirella was a good girl with just a touch of badness to her, a sexpot whose bark was worse than her infrequent bite. Her main feature though was, of course, that costume. One of the most revealing in comics history, and in many ways far more titillating than had she been stark naked. Her outfit cleverly caressed her most obvious erogenous zones leaving the rest of her skin exposed, dragging the readers eye straight to the breasts and crotch. It would be ridiculous to suggest that there are no people out there who love Vampirella primarily for her sexualised costume and posing.

Whew, getting a little hot in here...Look - nipples! Very rare beast in comics, those.

Many have pointed to Vampirella as the stand out example of objectified women characters in comics, but her costume was in fact designed by Trina Robbins, the famous female underground comix artist who has championed women in comics throughout her lengthy career.

Robbins was the driving force behind Wimmen's Comix, a hugely influential all woman underground comix anthology that was to run for decades. Underground comix had boomed in the late 60s and early 70s, as the counterculture had railed against the oppressive censorship of comics. Independent press had no such issues, and artists could churn out their own comics to sell hand to hand or through alternative shops.

Drugs, sex and violence were the topics of choice, but while the 60s were revelling in free love and the growth of feminism, the underground comix were turning out to be just as misogynistic as the mainstream. Artists such as Robert Crumb seemed to specialise in particularly graphic and violent sexual imagery of women. The tone was that of humour, but as Trina Robbins stated "It's weird to me how willing people are to overlook the hideous darkness in Crumb's work... What the hell is funny about rape and murder?"

Wimmen's Comix #1Ah, the moustache era.

The popular underground comix were seemingly run by an impregnable boys club, but the very nature of the media allowed women to form their own anthologies and press. Wimmen's Comix was not the first all woman comic (that would go to Robbins' earlier It Ain't Me, Babe Comix) but it was to last for 20 years, inspiring many other independent women publications and comics.

The 70s saw mainstream comics sexing up more and more female characters. Red Sonja first appeared in the Conan the Barbarian comics in '73, and by popular demand soon received her own title. While Conan was based on the original Robert E Howard stories, Red Sonja was an original comics creation, only loosely based on a Howard character. His Red Sonya had not been part of the Cimmerian tales, but a Polish-Ukranian mercenary of the 16th century. She was in fact one of several warrior women from the proto-feminist's pen. "From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather came to her mid-thighs which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches."

You wouldn't want to mess with this woman.Now that is a warrior.

Red Sonja, as she first appeared in comics, was strikingly similar to this description, albeit without the breeches. She wore a chainmail shirt, exposing less skin than Conan himself. Sonja is first introduced as leader of an army, and saves Conan twice in her first comic outing. She rebuffs the admiring Barbarian's advances, conspires with him in pilfering some riches, and ultimately betrays him and rides off into the sunset laughing her head off.

After these two initial stories though, where Red Sonja had been portrayed as a mysterious warrior woman and an equal to the ultimate man's man Conan, her costume and lack of origins were to change. For her own title, out went the practical long sleeved chainmail shirt, and in came the infamous chainmail bikini which greatly helped with the tits and ass focused covers. And as if that wasn't enough, she got slapped with the classic "rape as a backstory" trope. Sonja, it transpired, had seen her family slaughtered by mercenaries that also brutally raped the young girl. A goddess granted Sonja great warrior skills, asking that in return Sonja must not lie with a man unless he defeats her in fair combat.

Well at least Conan is more naked.Something seems to have changed, if only I could tell what it was...

One interpretation of this has been that Sonja can only engage in sex with a man who first dominates her with violence, thus reliving her rape. However, in the original comic, the goddess also adds "Something that no man is like to do after this day". This suggests that the oath is less about only having sex with men who defeat her, and more about the fact that men aren't going to be able to defeat her anyway.

Another accusation levelled at Sonja is that her attire is a provocation for her primarily male attackers, that she is, in many ways, "asking for it". Putting aside the fact that a comics character is hardly responsible for clothing herself, Sonja has stated throughout the comics that her costume is very handy in battle – it distracts the enemy! It's unfortunate that this oath has put the focus firmly on fighting off men who would otherwise try to bed her, the bikini ensuring that our eyes never stray for long from her desirable body.

Still pretty damn scary.An evil unicorn?! Sweet!

Still, Red Sonja was a strong, independent, intelligent woman who fought her way through a man's world and did a pretty kickass job. Costume and all too predictable back story aside, there is a lot of fun to be had with a sword and sorcery title starring a woman, and indeed Red Sonja has a large feminist following.

Back at DC, and ten years after the new empowered Batgirl had made her debut, a new superwoman burst onto the scene in '76. Power Girl was the alternate world version of the earlier Supergirl, tough, strong, and empowered. In many ways she embodied the popular view of feminism at that time as militant and angry, but with a costume that was far more reminiscent of Vampirella than Batgirl.

I really, REALLY love her hair.Power Girl arrives to save the day.

Unlike the demure Supergirl of the 50s, Power Girl refused to be spoken down to by the men, and demanded that she be treated as an equal. She was angry, but rightly so: Kara could not understand why her being a woman had any bearing on how she should be treated. Her build was slightly stocky, her hair a short cute cut, and her costume stylish. She let no sexist remarks slide (don't call her a girlie!), angrily calling out the men for their ignorance while slamming doors or breaking the furniture. Power Girl was angry as hell, but why shouldn't she be? Determined to step out from her cousin's shadow and be taken seriously, Power Woman was one of the first outspoken feminist characters in comics.

A lot of the above isn't so well known. One aspect of Power Girl tends to overshadow everything else, and even leads people to make judgements on the character without actually reading any of her stories. Y'see, Kara has a really famous set of assets – large breasts that her costume certainly makes the most of. Her outfit has a circular peephole that shows off her cleavage, and certainly distracts the eye. And it would appear that when confronted with breasts, many people suffer from what I can only describe as melting brain. She has large boobs and shows them off so she must be... slutty? Dumb? Attention seeking? Really?

Eyes up!I think she's talking to you.

Power Girl is a highly sexualised hero, of that there is no doubt. But her costume, and her breast size, do not determine whether or not her words and actions had a feminist message. Kara demanded respect from her male peers, forced them to take her seriously, and never apologised for being female.

Kara's costume changed often, the peephole came and went. The story that Wally Wood increased her breast size in every comic is a common myth, it was far later on that her boobs started to expand at an alarming rate. The popularity of this myth is perhaps testament to how unsurprised readers would be at creators having so little respect for their female characters.

What an eejit.Oh, that must be satisfying.

At one point, a male colleague presents her with her own emblem – making the rather insensitive mistake of designing it exactly like Superman's. Power Girl takes this none too kindly, and went without an emblem for her entire career. Arguably, her cleavage is her emblem, a direct reminder that she is a woman and a hero nonetheless. Kara's explanation of her costume window to Superman is often quoted: "the first time I made this costume, I wanted to have a symbol, like you. I just…I couldn’t think of anything. I thought eventually, I’d figure it out. And close the hole. But I haven’t." (resulting in the infamous "fill my hole Superman"! Photoshop job). However, this exchange didn't take place until 2005, when Power Girl's characterisation had become so confused it was easy to believe she had no idea who she was any more. The original Kara had no such issues.

In later years, as with all characters with various writers and artists, Power Girl's character changed, and the message became diluted and confused. But in the beginning, while her costume was inspired by the sexual revolution, her demeanour was all down to Woman's Lib. Kara saw herself as an equal, and fought tooth and nail to make everyone else see it too. Truly, she was a feminist hero to equal Power-Girl and Batgirl, and an ever timely reminder that how a woman chooses to present herself should have absolutely no bearing on how we treat her.

Is the onus really on a woman to cover up?It's her hot body, she does what she wants.

With all of these sultry sex sirens, readers were quick to point out their unrealistic body shapes, impossible sexualised poses, and revealing clothing. But blame was almost always attributed to the character herself rather than the myriad of creators and public demand that shaped her to be the way she is. Vampirella was no more responsible for what she wore than Jessica Rabbit (in '88) – she's just drawn that way.

What clothes a female character wore did not make her feminist or unfeminist. It's true that no choice can be made in a vacuum, but equally, a woman has the right to wear what she likes and not be judged for that. Power Girl could be a feminist and wear revealing clothes. Self-identified feminists could prefer a costume on their favourite character that is skimpier than others. Women could choose to sex up the message of feminism to make it more palatable for the times.

Don't call her Power Girlie either.She missed his head. Damn.

The issue wasn't that Power Girl showed her cleavage or that Vampirella's costume was barely there, it's that this was the standard for strong women. When the majority of women gracing the comic covers were showing so much skin, where we ask were the equal number of women characters showing less? The less feminine characters, the non-busty characters, the overweight characters? Lack of diversity was, as always, the real enemy.

It is often pointed out that male characters suffered from such objectified focus as well (eg Conan), however clearly defined muscles and a built body on a male signify strength and power. Exposed skin on a woman posed in a highly sexualised (and often anatomically impossible) manner convey the very opposite: a lack of power, and a lack of autonomy. The women were reduced to sexual objects for the sole purpose of titillation, not to demonstrate their character traits.

Power Boy by vito_excalibur at livejournal.comA peculiar lack of superhero men like this...

If we recognise then that such revealing clothes and sexualised poses were influenced by the sexual revolution and/or used to soften the blow of feminism, to allow readers to see Power Girl as less of a bitch and accept strong woman characters on their comic covers, surely this would become less of an issue as second wave feminism matured and the concept of women's rights was seen as permanent rather than passing? Surely we would see a more diverse cast of women gracing our comics, just as the cast of men was so varied?

Hmm, stay tuned true believers, for Women in Comics: Storm and Phoenix - the X-Women Strike Back.

Women in Comics: An Overview
Women in Comics: The Phantom Menace
Women in Comics: Wonder Woman and the Attack of the Code
Women in Comics: Batwoman and the Revenge of the Supergirls

Comments (7) Trackbacks (1)
  1. This is more complicated than I thought….

    Thanks for this. I hope I continue to learn.

  2. I think that the paranoia about women becoming objects comes from what the society has done with this, a woman becoming an object of desire is not a bad thing per se, It even empowers her as she can be more that a simple subjetivity. The problem is that not everyone can see a woman like a multiple reality of object/person/etc. So by making them “object only” woman are simpler and less dangerous, a whole new field of studies has been done on how the woman even in her “passive” position retained that power, how the wife wasnt allowed to defy the hussband but still had the control of the house, making the husband need his wife despite of the public discourse of the oposite.

    In the places where the male domination is too obvious there is always a feminist whisper, so when the official discourse seems feminist maybe we are in front of some reactionary movement. Thats why you can never assume somehing is sexist or not.

    The example is powergirl. But also that powerboy drawing, the point is not that there should be male heroes showing their butts, or that those heroes would be eyecandy for woman, the thing is that there are diferent needs for woman and man, as they are different, but that is not an excuse for sexism and discrimination.

    Thats what I thought after reading this post, I dissmised vampirella as simple fanservice, now I actually interested in the character!

  3. I enjoyed your article quite a bit. To be certain comics have come a long way, but still have a ways to go with the way women are portrayed. I am a little surprised that the article has a glaring omission. One of the strongest women in comics has always been Marvel’s Storm. Not only was she the first female african hero in comics, but she was the first woman to actually lead a team of superheroes.

    • In a blog post, even one of this length, it’s difficult to cover more than just a few important characters so it’s better to focus on a few relevant examples that bring out your arguments.

      Having said that, if you look at the final line, it appears Storm is going to feature prominently in a future post: “Hmm, stay tuned true believers, for Women in Comics: Storm and Phoenix – the X-Women Strike Back.”

      So there you go =)

  4. It’s still good. Excellent read. The last few paragraphs really made me think.

  5. Damn the martial arts Wonder Woman was cool. Hope Morrison incorporates that part of her story into his new series. And of course, I-Ching!

  6. Actually, we are in THIRD wave feminism now and have been in that category for a while!

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