Sci-Fem

Sci fi, fantasy and being female in a futuristic world.

Love conquers all with violet light!

Love conquers all with violet light!

Posted on by Lily

Guest blog by @mortari

DC comics’ portrayal of female characters has been the subject of a lot of discussion recently, following their ill-advised and highly sexualised reboot of popular characters Catwoman and Starfire.

Recent comics featuring these female heroes have shown them as primarily sexual objects through both visual effects and content. As a comics fan and a feminist, I too am fed up of seeing comics which are clearly intended for a heterosexual male gaze which treat women as objects for consumption.

I’d like to offer a defence, however, of Carol Ferris, also known as the hero Star Sapphire, who is a regular character in the Green Lantern series. She is the ex-girlfriend of Hal, the main character of the series, and the two remain on good terms. Despite her extremely sexualised portrayal, there are positive elements to her character, and Geoff John’s recent run of GL has made me a big fan of her. Let me explain why I think she’s a great female hero using examples from Green Lantern issue #57.

 

Meet Carol, our hero.

At an introduction to a story about a female hero, this cover neatly optimises many problems with the treatment of women in comics. Our hero, Carol, is on her knees, chained up and powerlessly submissive before her male oppressor. Not only is she wearing a costume which is deeply structurally unsound (trust me, boobs do not work that way), but this sexualisation is particularly unpleasant in the context of her being dominated. It unrepentantly sexualises the implied violence against her.

The problematic construction of gender is even more glaring when you consider the background to these characters. Carol is a member of the all-female Star Sapphires, a group of powerful beings who can create energy constructs through their rings, which harness the “power of love” (excuse me, I just threw up a little bit). This love is always heterosexual and directed towards men, and hence the group are literally defined by their sexuality. Here we meet, for the first time, the entity who embodies the power of the Sapphires, the Predator. He is the symbol of their corps, and he is in some ways their spiritual leader. He is, of course, male. What a relief to find that this group of women has finally seen sense and put a man in charge.

In this issue, there is a scene in which Carol saves the day by kissing a man, fulfilling his need to be loved and releasing him from being possessed by the Predator. She uses her sexuality as a weapon (although here she uses the weapon for good), and to some extent reinforces the idea that even the most twisted bastard of a man is actually just in need of the love of a good woman.

However, there is an interesting twist here. In the right of this page, Hal’s face of grouchy disapproval shows his rather petty jealously that his ex-girlfriend is kissing someone else. He is petulant and immature, letting his emotions get in the way of an important mission. Carol, meanwhile, takes this in her stride – she has a job to do, and she’ll do what she needs to get it down. She frequently sets aside her own emotions in order to pursue a more important goal; which is saving the world. In a subversion of usual gender roles, Carol is decisive, determined and professional, while Hal is overly emotional and thinking only of his needs rather than the bigger picture.

 

“Strong Female Characters”.

I hate the term “strong female character”. I believe the problem with this trope is that it mistakes physical strength for emotional strength. The idea that you can create a complex female character by taking your young, attractive, delicate and emotional woman and just making her physically strong is disingenuous. Overthinking It have a great post on how pop culture shows women being strong:

No more would female characters be Damsels in Distress.  No, there should be Strong Female Characters in cinema– emphasis on “Strong.”  While these women would still be young and hot, of course, they’d also have one characteristic that made them more masculine.  That could be physical strength or a superpower (see Liz Sherman in the first Hellboy movie), the ability to shoot a gun properly (see Princess Leia), or it could be something more metaphorical, like being able to out-drink a guy (see Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark).

I love Joss Whedon, but he’s a frequent culprit of this: see Buffy, Echo and River for some egregious examples of taking women who are childlike, fragile and abused, and making them physically strong at the expense of more thoughtful character development.

The theme here is that the way to make women stronger is to make them more like men. To be strong is to be physically tough, emotionally distant, independent and rejecting of the help of others. It can be interesting to see these masculine qualities are transposed onto a female character, but there are other kinds of strength which this trope misses.

 

Hal and Carol: tough vs. strong

Carol, in her modern incarnation, is an interesting inversion of this trope. Her power comes not from a desire to hurt others, but from love for them. She is heroic because she scarifies what she wants in order to make other people’s lives better. She gives up on pursuing a romantic relationship with Hal when she realises that it will be destructive for both of them, but still takes up the ring when he needs help. Female romance interests are often portrayed as passive targets of the actions of male main characters, but Carol is an active agent who takes on the responsibility of helping Hal.

Now, I am deeply sceptical about the idea of magical gendered traits like “women’s intuition”. While some aspects of the traditional patriarchal model of femininity can be positive, such as kindness, gentleness and empathy, these are still stereotypes and contribute to benevolent sexism. To ascribe certain qualities to all women is patronising and inaccurate.

However, there are situations in which it’s beneficial to have a perspective other than that of the traditionally masculine male. In leadership, for example, women are generally more persuasive and flexible than men, which is obviously an advantage in a business setting. And as a superhero, Carol represents heroism based on selflessness and caring for other people. Her emotional connection to other people, rather than making her a “hysterical woman”*, is the source of her power.

So for that I’ll defend Carol, despite the dreadful lingerie costume, the sappy lovely-dovey lady corps, and all that bloody pink. Because she is a woman who acts on her own terms, who rejects an aggressive and violent kind of action in favour of changing the world for the better. And that makes her unusual, not just in comics, but in pop cultural generally – not a female character who is strong like a man, but a character whose power comes from a rejection of social norms about violence.

* see here for more on the history of the word hysteria and why it is only applied to women.

 

Beautifully written by Georgie, you can find her on Twitter as @mortari

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One Response  

  1. Heather says:

    This is awesome. Thank you for writing this!
    I completely agree that most comic book women are degraded and set at a lower level than their male counterparts. The only reason why this is still so is because the demographic that comic book companies want to reach are young to middle aged men. That age and gender usually means they don’t want a properly covered woman who is strong mentally and not just physically.
    It’s a sad affair that I hope in the future changes due to the escalating attention on comic books now thanks to the fantastic movies that have come out in recent years. Fingers crossed.

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