Narrative evolution of the superheroine
By Brittney MacDonald, Life & Style Editor
There is no question that in recent years female superheroes have found a place in the limelight. Whether this is due to compelling character writing, casting controversies, or any other number of reasons, super ladies are so in right now. However, they didn’t start out this way. As a fan of the dynamic heroine, I have paid my dues and taken my time in carefully examining the evolution of the super ladies, so I want to highlight how we got to this point. How did the Scarlet Witches and the Wonder Women of the narrative world come to be, and what might this growth mean for their futures?
When I mention the “Golden Age” of comics (1930s to 1950s) a lot of people get really excited. This is the time when iconic heroes like Superman, Batman, and Captain America first came into being. However, in terms of the ladies, this was not a good period. In general, women weren’t much a part of the Golden Age in terms of having superpowers of their own. They were the love interests, the damsels, the femme fatales, and the quirky comic relief to fawn over the hero. They weren’t heroes themselves—at least, not yet!
The first female comic book superhero was actually a little-known lady by the name of Fantomah. She was created by Fletcher Hanks, who was working under the name Barclay Flagg at the time. Her first appearance was in 1940 in Jungle Comics #2, near the tail end of the Golden Age. In terms of powers she was mercurial. Her powers weren’t completely set and would often change with each new scenario she encountered. Fantomah was an ancient and immortal witch who inflicted increasingly sadistic punishments on those who threatened her jungle home. Her signature—and her character’s only consistent supernatural feature—was that her normally beautiful face would change into a skull whenever she used her powers. Needless to say, she wasn’t quite as engaging or dynamic as her male predecessors. However, she did inspire a long line of more recognizable heroines to come.
Wonder Woman, who made her debut in All Star Comics #8 (1941), is one of the most iconic female superheroes of all time. In her initial conception, Wonder Woman was basically developed, stylistically, as a feminized Superman. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, also known as Charles Moulton—who, it is widely known, based the character on both his wife, psychologist/lawyer Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and their polyamorous romantic partner, Mary Olive Byrne. To put some things into context, Moulton was also a psychologist and together with his wife was responsible for developing a way of measuring blood pressure as a means of detecting deception, i.e. the prototype of the lie detector—lasso anyone? Their partner, Mary Olive Byrne, was the daughter of Ethel Byrne, who—along with Margaret Sanger—opened the US’s first birth control clinic. So, right from the start, Wonder Woman was always meant to inspire independence and strength in women.
In an essay he wrote for The American Scholar in 1943—two years after Wonder Woman’s first published appearance—Moulton said, “ Although this comment seems a little stereotypical by today’s standards, in 1943 claiming any form of authority or power specifically for women was pretty radical. However, designing a character as a gender swap of another character is no way to create a lasting narrative. Hence why, in order to survive, Wonder Woman and all of the other superheroines to come had to evolve.
By the ’60s and ’70s the super ladies were rising up in the ranks. Headlined by characters like Sue Storm and Big Barda, female superheroes were beginning to develop in their own right, with powers outside of male duplicates. However, major publication houses struggled to come to terms with the popularization of the Comics Code Authority (CCA)—a regulatory committee for comic content formulated in 1954—post-WWII and at the crux of the sexual revolution. Publishers began implementing strict self-regulatory restrictions on their writers and artists. DC Comics had an in-house policy code which decreed, “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.” This was done as a means of avoiding CCA attention, since comics involving women were more heavily scrutinized for violations. These violations could range from anything from “obscenity” to “suggestive posture.”
The code metrics used by the CCA were pretty limiting. Though not illegal to sell comics that did not meet CCA standards, distributors willing to go outside these rules were so few and far between that to put forward a publication outside of code standards was essentially a move towards bankruptcy. The CCA criteria would be revised numerous times in the ’70s and ’80s, becoming less and less stringent as time would move on. By the ’00s adherence to the CCA was no longer expected by distributors and it fell by the wayside in favour of publisher-determined maturity ratings.
As if in response to the de facto dismantling of the CCA, the ’00s marked the rise of oversaturation and oversexualization in comics. Both male and female characters began to take on ridiculous proportions in order to meet some social expectation of hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine archetypes. Nudity also became more common, and the depiction of sexual desire was no longer limited to villains, with the occasional foray by a caped crusader. The creative field of comics was vastly male dominated, with a specific concentration on catering to a male readership, so female superheroes tended to be hyper-sexualized, though still powerful. The dichotomy of heroines became more of a “yes mistress” kind of masochistic scenario, or the character was relegated to being eye candy or, worse yet, torture porn fodder—see Batman: War Games (2004 to 2005) in which Batgirl is tortured to death by a very phallic power drill wielded by Gotham crime boss the Black Mask.
This shift into hyper-sexualization was so extreme that no one expected it to last, and it didn’t. However, this era alongside the Golden Age are the two aesthetic pinnacles that people outside of the comics community seem to draw on the most when prompted to describe comics.
Today, due to female voices demanding better representation in pop culture, we see a growing variety of female superhero depictions. Greater numbers of heroines are now being shown as coming from various social and ethnic backgrounds. In addition, character-driven and independent narratives are becoming the norm. This means that female characters are being spotlighted outside of any male counterpart, and they are being given motivation behind their actions as well as emotional complexity. We have a long way to go, but it’s definitely a good start.
Something I do fear, though, is that feminine representation will go the same way as video games and regress. With new film icons like Captain Marvel stepping up to the plate, there has been a deep-seated focus on equality of the genders. This focus is so hyper-tuned in other forms of popular media, such as video games, that it goes unnoticed when publishers formulate iconic female characters as carbon copies of a male counterpart—much like Wonder Woman once was for Superman. For instance, the latest iteration of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider franchise has essentially become a female Nathan Drake from the Uncharted franchise. With Captain Marvel this would be all too easy, seeing as the original character began as a male—this male version would later develop into the character Shazam. However, with the recent success of female-driven narratives, such as Wonder Woman (2017), I’m hoping this fear is unfounded.