We all know the common problem with female bodies in comics: oversexualized, unrealistic, packed in tight suits, bent at unnatural angles and looking seductive even in the midst of a battle.
The supporters of such representation of women—those who insist that an armored tankini is a smart distraction technique—are willing to explain to you the reasons for female superheroes to look like this. Yes, they are fit because they work out and kick asses. Yes, they can freeze in a position that gives you a simultaneous view on the chest and butt because they do stretching and probably have a nice yoga instructor. Yes, big boobs and dramatic cleavage are necessary for saving the world because…uh, because why not, okay?
But one thing about superladies’ appearance you can’t explain with regular cardio and superpowers is that their faces that look disturbingly alike.
These are Wonder Woman, Hera, and a young Amazon drawn by David Finch. Have you ever seen three females with such similar facial features at the same place, besides a Victoria’s Secret show or Hugh Hefner’s mansion?
Silk and Spider Woman are depicted in a way that makes me think that a particular BMI, lips’ size, and hairstyle are the necessary conditions for gaining spider abilities.
The distinction is so subtle! Wait, what is Spider Girl doing in here? We do not welcome ponytails!
New Thor is written with great respect to women and understanding of gender issues (“That’s for saying ‘feminist’ like it’s a four-letter word, creep!”), and the art is spectacular thanks to Russel Daughterman. Still, Scandinavian Freyja, Romanian-born Scarlett Witch, and Thor Girl would look the same if you’d imagine them with helmets off.
A great artist as he is, Russel Daughterman is prone to give his female characters heart-shaped faces regardless their age or origins. Compare Jen, an average American kid, and Sonia Zucco, a daughter of a mobster with Italian heritage, in Nightwing.
Everywhere in comics, Caucasian women are allowed to have only one head shape, nose, lips and eyes. This is how youth, maturity, and old age look in the world of Ant-Man: Scott’s daughter, her mother, Dr. Erica Sondheim, and the bank lady are basically the same woman caught in different ages.
Pay attention to the fact that Ant-Man has a cute “indie” art style: normal men instead of walking, talking piles of muscles, and seemingly normal women, who don’t dress like they forgot to change after taking the first prize at a bikini body competition. This type of comics is supposed to show superheroes like ordinary people in an ordinary world; still, it doesn’t grant the women a right to be normally diverse.
Why is it so?
It’s not just the artists who are to blame. Intentionally or not, they follow the direction that western culture provides. “A woman should be pleasant to look at,” the society says, handing a detailed manual: high cheeks, full lips, dramatic eyes, long thick hair. And don’t you dare to step away from these rules if you want to portray a really conventionally attractive girl!
While a creator might wholeheartedly believe that these specifications describe the only way to draw a beautiful woman and that all the women in a book should be hot, the fault still lies with the entertainment industry and our society in general, rather than on particular creatives. There are so many people around trying to fit women in generally accepted, stereotypical standards of beauty—including the women themselves!
Comics reflect this sad reality. As the result, we’re attacked by clones—dozens of female characters that appear all the same, both protagonists and supporting cast.
There are not a lot of female characters in Red Sonja besides the “she-devil with a sword” herself, but if the script introduces a girl, you can be sure she’ll look like Sonja with a different hair color.
In Black Widow, drawn by Phil Noto, ladies have slightly different face shapes and noses. Their eyes and lips are similar, though.
Would you be able to tell the All-New X-Men girls one from another, if not for their apparel and hair?
And, of course, Zenescope’s books, which showcase the extreme of objectification in comics. Inspired by the Grimm brothers and Lewis Carroll, these comics don’t contain a single unique woman’s face and resemble a catalogue of sexy role-play costumes with only one model, who just changes makeup and wigs.
These are Arwyn from Sojourn, Osmium from 1001 Arabian Nights, Emma Frost, Wonder Girl from Teen Titans, Black Canary, Invisible Woman, and Captain Carol Danvers all drawn by various artists. Oops, I messed up the pictures’ order! Could you tell who is who?
Don’t you get the feeling that these artists, with their differences in artistic styles, are drawing the same lady? She’s a glamorized blonde with nicely-carved cheeks, pointy chin, cherry lips, and a ninety-dollar blowout; a highly sexualized and unrealistic girl that lives only on ‘90s Playboy covers.
Speaking of which, I feel obligated to mention Greg Land, the artist of aforementioned Spider Woman, Sojourn, and X-Men (his Arwyn and Emma are second and third blondes in the collection above), who was more than once caught on tracing his women characters from porn, which therefore gave birth to the term “pornface.” I have no idea what kind of people would mistake a false orgasm on girl’s face for battle rage, but porn could probably be helpful if you want to reproduce a seductive look. And, as we know, women make these faces twenty-four hours a day, especially when they casually slice some space monsters with a sword.
Greg Land is one of those creators who I feel deserves blame for this epidemic. It speaks for itself that a penciler who uses references from an industry that treats women like disposable generic things, both on screen and through employment contracts, would not be invested in creating unique looking heroines (not to mention that it’s just unprofessional to straight up trace photographs). There are male pornfaces as well, but girls fall victims of this mockery more often than lads.
I can hear people from an “it’s a distraction technique” crowd yelling: “Hey, what do you want, a darn La Gioconda in every issue? It’s a stylized representation that could omit details. You can’t expect an artist to make things realistic, we’re not in the Smithsonian!”
Why, then, are the male characters from the very same titles not missing details that make them diverse?
These are lads from Spider-Women, all drawn by Greg Land.
And here are guys from the single issue of Red Sonja.
In Ant-Man, even some boring bank clerk deserved unique brows and a prominent fringe!
Stylization doesn’t stop Babs Tarr, the artist on Batgirl, from making all the girls different. Though cartoon-like illustration simplifies things as much as possible, Tarr managed to find a solution, such as an emphasis on a girl’s complexion or bold hairstyles. It turns out there are so many things an artist could play with, from facial expression and nose shape to lip(stick) color!
In Spider-Gwen, female characters are easy to distinguish thanks to individual details such as plump lips or a long face. Gwen stands out from the page with her mop of blonde, almost whitish hair, and she’s the only one with such a style. Doesn’t it feel good to give characters a chance to be unique?
Jem and the Holograms do just fine! And it’s not only about hair color and accessories—Sophie Campbell makes sure they really have different chins, cheeks, and noses.
Even in comics that gravitate toward the realistic style, it’s possible to make a female lead that stands out. Here’s Velvet Templeton from Velvet, drawn by Steve Epting. Her sharp features reflect her harsh, purposeful personality, though beauty editors of fashion magazines barely would call her an appropriate model. With or without these white strands, you’d recognize her!
The story of Angela, Asgard’s Assassin, teaches us that women who are not meant to please an eye (like Freyja) or represent a role model (like brunette Sera), could have an authentic appearance. But those who are supposed to draw attention of readers of both sexes (Angela and the Queen of Heaven) are damned to wear cliched revealing armor and look ridiculously alike.
Characters of Fade Out look and behave exactly like you would expect from Hollywood elite of the ‘40s, including lighting up a cigarette in every other panel. Though ladies don’t appear identical (you can easily tell one blonde starlet from another), they are drawn in different manner than men. Their skin is unblemished, as if shadow doesn’t dare to touch it, not to mention wrinkles. Here are Charlie and Maya in the same scene, under the same light.
All along in the comic women are depicted as if the artist didn’t put shadows on their faces, concerned that they might lose attractiveness and Hollywood gloss. Guys are very diverse and unique here, I must admit—folds and wrinkles give them drama and personality.
My favorite example of dissimilar characters is Rat Queens. Their lips, eyes, ears are different. And still they all are handsome!
Also, the Rat Queens are designed in a way that allows us to tell one from another just by a quick look at their hair, complexion, and clothing. And it’s a great trick, considering that, indeed, sometimes illustrators don’t have enough time to draw all the characters in detail and need to figure out a quick and smart way to make women diverse.
For example, you’d never mistake one Carlyle sister for another in Lazarus. The scientist, the warrior, and the trickster—their personality shows at their faces (oh, that sweet and cunning Johanna’s expression!), clothes, stature. Half-naked Forever with damp hair never looks like Johanna getting out of a swimming pool.
The Wicked + The Divine must be a cosplayer’s dream, because the comic does not have dull or plain characters. These weird hairstyles, outfits, and jewelry not only refer to origins of new gods, but also tell us about their personalities. Bright colors for soft-hearted Amaterasu, a black stripe over Morrigan’s eyes to emphasize the dark things this Celtic goddess stands for. Lucifer’s fair complexion and white suit reflect her cunning nature, as she pretends to be the one in a white hat till the end.
Their on-page appearance is who they are, not just makeup they can remove.
One more awesome example of character design that helps the character to stand out in any crowd is Harley Quinn. You’d always recognize her, despite significant changes of her outfit.
Storm is perfectly recognizable too, with the suit or without.
When it’s not always in artist’s power to change the initial character’s design, it’s possible to use a simple trick, such as hair color. Thus, in Ms. Marvel Kamala is the only one with thick dark hair, which turns golden as she transforms into Ms. Marvel.
This also works in Batgirl and Spider-Gwen.
So why does this happen with some female characters and not with others? I might say that that some characters are meant to be average outside their hero identities—it’s basically the idea behind any superhero. An average college student becomes Spider-Man. An average millionaire becomes Batman or Iron Man. An average woman gains superpower and saves the planet; a few panels later we see her living her ordinary life, looking like any other average women in the story.
But it’s just a part of the truth, because average women don’t look like models, and, what’s more important, average women differ. For centuries, women in fiction were no more than protagonists’ romantic interests at best and beautiful furniture at worst. Most modern movies still can’t pass the Bechdel test, and considering the very idea of the test first appeared in a comic, I dare to say that comics do much better than the big screen.
With the cultural background we have there’s no surprise creators find it so hard to represent a woman as a strong personality in the first place. Just imagine this: every creator wants the character to be loved, and when beauty is the main thing our society appreciates in women, it’s easy to see why they choose this way.
I think it’s important to become aware of these things and search for ways to make characters diverse. That could be their face anatomy or habitual expressions. That could be wild makeup, jewelry, or body modifications. That could be some special art technique or smart character design or silhouette. But please, don’t make all the women look like they compete for Playmate of the Year in their spare time.
And finally, I can’t stay silent about male characters who have this issue too, albeit not that in the same scale as woman. Superheroes are “supposed” to look masculine, so they have wide faces, massive jaws, large brows. There’s not a lot of variations of a face you can draw like this, though beards and mustaches could add some traits to a portrait. Still, all the guys from Bruce Wayne’s family look like Bruce’s clones of different ages.
It’s a better fate than the one female characters have (being “heroic and beautiful” instead of just “beautiful”). However, it needs to be changed too.
We are different. And beauty is different. Go make sure, take a subway ride.