A Celebration of Ladypain in Superhero Comics!
No, really, okay, stay with me!
As comic readers, we talk a lot about “manpain”: story arcs that generally revolve around men’s responses to trauma, often the death or otherwise abuse of women in their lives. While it’s (rightfully) used to deride self-indulgently misogynistic set-ups, I sometimes wince to hear the term, because it gets applied to arcs where characters struggle with real world issues like depression, grief, and PTSD. These kinds of stories can be alienating to some readers, as characters do not always act in expected or satisfying ways, but they are very important to people who have lived through similar experiences. Pain is not the problem, it’s the male lens that causes the problematic stories. To me, it is equally as important to deconstruct the objectification of women in these stories as it is to let women have their own pain.
Ladypain, if you will. I am going to give it this specific term, not because I want to dismiss the validity of feminine response to trauma, but because I want to hammer in my point here. I want women to have self-indulgent, messy, complicated, and alienating stories of their very own.
I wonder if comic writers and readers shy away from this because of the baggage behind it. When we think of women making huge mistakes or having bad things happen to them, we tend to think of women being fridged, shown up by the men around them, or otherwise degraded. Those storylines are awful and ubiquitous in the comics world. However, there’s a huge difference between a narrative with female trauma as a plot point and one where a woman working through trauma is the narrative.
Male characters are allowed to have these kind of arcs all the time, but female characters aren’t always allowed to get too dirty. I want to emphasize that stories where women go through the fire and emerge stronger and better are important and wonderful, but not all of us do that. Sometimes what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker, and we have to live with that and go through the complicated process of building ourselves back up again, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be heroic or that our struggles aren’t worth being told.
I want more of these stories, of course, but there are already some great examples of ladypain in comics. For this article, I’ve tried to stay away from classic anti-heroines like Catwoman or Elektra, because while there is a lot to say about their arcs, I want to talk about ladies who are always narratively framed as heroic.
Put on your party hats and pull out your hankies as we celebrate ladypain!
Jessica Jones – Alias, by Brian Michael Bendis
The irony is not lost on me that Brian Michael Bendis, who wrote one of the most egregious recent examples of how not to do ladypain with his treatment of Wanda Maximoff, is on this list, but it just goes to show how a small shift changes the portrayal. Things happened to Scarlet Witch, and it informed the plot. Things happened to Jessica Jones and it informed her characterization. Jessica Jones, former D-List super heroine Jewel, shows up in Alias as a private detective. After years of being mind-controlled by the abusive, evil Purple Man, Jessica is still denying processing everything that happened to her. Alias is a Marvel Max label comic, so Bendis revels in showing her cynical, self-destructive side with swearing and bad sexual decisions, but her struggle manifests in more subtle ways too. Jessica manipulates good people around her without even realizing it, she dismisses affirmations and advice, and she often displays an ingrained misogyny that is both off-putting and completely authentic to her situation. Adrift in confusion, she starts to find clarity through her work, female friendships, and her family. Many of the heroes around her, while well meaning, want to empower her to be her former self, but Jessica knows that she can’t return to that. She forges her own path, and interestingly enough, it’s not always in her control—one of the most stabilizing elements in Jessica’s life is a surprise pregnancy. It’s not that she makes the world easier by sheer force of will, it’s that she learns to adapt and own the agency she has. Most importantly for Jessica, I think, is that it’s a rape narrative that is both non-traditional (Jessica was never sexually assaulted herself, but certainly suffers sexual abuse) and in the end, the rape story is all about her as a survivor, not how it affects Luke Cage or the Avengers or anyone else. Her. A decent female rape narrative by a male writer? Sure happened, there you go dudes, Bendis fulfilled that quota. No more. You’re done, find some other way to motivate your female characters.
Renee Montoya – Gotham Central/52, by Greg Rucka
Rucka’s pretty well known for writing complex, troubled women, and Renee is my favorite of his. Renee Montoya was a relatively normal Gotham City police officer until her life was hit with a series of very bad events: she was kidnapped and later outed as a lesbian by Two-Face, which led to her family disowning her. In the wake of that, Montoya leaned heavily on the support of her fellow police officers. Then her partner Crispin Allen was murdered by another cop and the department covered it up. Disillusioned and deeply depressed, Renee quits the force, spirals into alcoholism, and loses the last few pillars of support she has. While at rock bottom, Renee meets Vic Sage aka The Question. Vic, unbeknownst to Montoya, is dying. He sees some of himself in her, and decides to mentor her to take his mantle. Renee kicks and screams the whole way, doubting herself and him, but after Sage’s death, she forces herself to finally confront all her grief and becomes the Question, an invaluable asset in the fight against crime in Gotham. What makes Renee’s arc so exciting to me is that this story took a long time unfolding. Renee’s fall and then slow rise played out over the forty issues of Gotham Central and the entirety of her arc in the fifty-two issues of 52. During it, she is often cowardly, bratty, and self-punishing, but the narrative is never judgmental. It allows her to experience her grief without explaining or rushing it.
X-23 – X-23 v3 by Marjorie Liu
Laura Kinney, aka X-23, is a female clone of Wolverine that was raised to be an assassin. She possessed so much innate empathy that she was programmed to go into a bloodlust when exposed to a trigger scent, ensuring that she would finish her targets. X-23 spent most of her formative years forced to kill people, including her own mother. After freed of her original handlers, X-23 still found herself a tool of other men as she became a prostitute and then later, killer for the X-Men. Marjorie Liu’s brilliant one-shot & solo series sets Laura free to explore her own complex psychology: her guilt, her coldness, her self-harming, her ability to kill without hesitation, and the empathy and goodness she has always had, but rarely been allowed to express. Laura’s social skills are very low and while she bears people’s reactions stoically in their presence, she often later uses self-harm as an outlet for her confusion and rage. X-23 is not always sure of the right move or of her own identity, but she clings to the notion that she can finally choose who she wants to be, and she chooses to help people. Liu compounds this point by surrounding Laura with characters who have similar backgrounds and sympathy for her, so that, even when Laura makes a hard decision we may feel conflicted on, Gambit, Wolverine, Storm, and Jubilee are there giving the readers context.
Sharon Carter – Captain America v2 & 3 Mark Waid
The best way to write a ladypain arc is to place the lady at the center of the story, so there’s no question about the narrative’s sympathy for her, but a good writer who takes their supporting cast seriously is capable of pulling it off. Sharon Carter, aka Agent 13, was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and sometimes love of Captain America. Growing up hearing the stories of female heroes in her family, she was a committed idealist who put her work first. In Captain America #235, she was brainwashed and killed, which sure gave Steve some manpain, but was not a great end for her. Decades later, Mark Waid brought Carter back in Captain America #445. She’d never died, but had been on an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. mission gone wrong that left her abandoned, vulnerable, and forced to turn to darker allies. The Sharon that returns is a changed woman: bitter, stripped of idealism, and less enchanted by Steve Rogers. Instead of turning her into a villain, or having Steve “soften” her like some kind of project, Sharon’s anger is expressed and allowed. She’s not treated like a moral lesson, but a full human being who lives a life that complicates and challenges Steve’s own ideas. Her attitude is justified, and her struggle to find new meaning in her life is framed as legitimate and is not inherently linked to her relationship with Steve. After separating from him, Sharon’s story continues as her search for answers leads her towards making an uneasy peace with S.H.I.E.L.D. and working for the agency again on her own terms.
These are just a few examples, but there are countless others. From Nico Minoru’s teenage angst to Barbara Gordon’s reclamation of her life after the violence that threatened to end her superhero career, to Kate Kane’s complicated relationship with her sister/nemesis to Jessica Drew’s struggle over a heroic identity, there is some darn good ladypain out there.
But there’s a point when every party starts to die down, and someone says something that’s kind of a bummer, and today that’s gonna be me. We need more of them. The arcs that I’ve talked about today are over, and with them, these exciting storylines. Sharon Carter is dead (again!) and Renee Montoya has all but been erased from the New 52. X-23 and Jessica Jones are still around, but mostly as side parts in other narratives.
We need them back, we need new ones, we need more ladypain arcs, because women like me get tired of finding the most to relate to in stories about Bruce Wayne. Why doesn’t Scarlet Witch get an arc where her complicated emotional life is explored, instead of being constantly punished and then killed in the one title she appears in? Why does Madame Xanadu spend most of her time in Justice League Dark playing second fiddle to John Constantine, not just on a power level but on an emotional level, when she has an even longer tragic past? Why is it so rare to see well written depictions of heroines struggling with things that cannot be overcome in 22 pages? We need more stories about all the different types of heroes women can be, because an important part of female representation is allowing for a wider variety of roles they can inhabit. There is nothing inherently less compelling about this kind of narrative revolving around a female character. If anything, it’s more interesting simply because it has not been done as much.