Warning: This article contains images depicting violent acts against women.
It’s incredibly common that once a female comic book character gains popularity, she is drawn to be more sexually appealing. This is done by dressing her in more revealing clothing, making her thinner and/or bustier, and, if she’s not white, lightening her skin tone—often a combination of some (or all) of these things are implemented. Generally, this is done with the assumption that these images are meant to be attractive to younger male readers, frequently cited as being the target audience. This has been seen before in DC comics with individuals like Amanda Waller, Selina Kyle and Harley Quinn, but Marvel is by no means a safe haven for female characters, no matter their age.
Megan Gwynn, codename Pixie, debuted in comics twelve years ago. She first appeared in New X-Men: Academy X, which focused on the teenagers attending Xavier Institute as they learned to master their mutations. Pixie was placed in the Paragon team, which looked to be for the younger students.
Pixie has always been a pint-sized ball of light that is able to see the good in everything, and her appearance reflects that attitude (quite literally, at times). Her initial design was simple, with rainbow-butterfly wings and rosy cheeks, and she was normally seen wearing a helmet in case of crashes during flight, all of which definitely added to her youthful appearance. Later in the New X-Men series, post M-Day, many of the students tried to guess who was the youngest one there. Some, such as Wolf Cub and Loa, assumed it was Megan due to these traits—so it’s safe to assume that, around her creation, Pixie was fourteen years old, max.
As New X-Men progressed and different artists came and went, Pixie’s look changed: she no longer wore the helmet or had rosy cheeks, and her wings changed from rainbow-butterfly to a more fairy-like design. She was still a minor/background cast member for most of the series until the Quest of Magik arc when the school was transported into Limbo. While there, she came across Illyanna Rasputin/Darkchilde, who tore a part of Megan’s soul to make a Bloodstone. This affected Pixie’s appearance, giving her mood-dependent dark hair and wings (see, literal embodiment of attitude change). But other than these changes, she was still drawn like the adolescent she was (and still is).
After that book ended, Pixie was one of the few New X-Men to gain wider popularity and be featured in multiple titles afterwards as a main character. But her physical appearance changed, both in figure and attire, in X-Men titles centered around the primary team of adult mutants, like Uncanny X-Men. Megan acted as the shiny-new recruit being mentored by the likes of Storm and Wolverine; however, she was often drawn looking much older than her presumed actual age. Her (sometimes childlike) naiveté and innocence were always contending with her newly exaggerated, emphasized physique, and it felt gross reading it.
An artist should be able to respect when an individual character is underage, and they should not sexualize them. In a perfect world, no female superhero should have to contort into sexually suggestive, sorta-fight poses, but with industry standards as they are it will take some time to even get close to that landmark. However, it shouldn’t have to be said that underage characters definitely shouldn’t be drawn to provoke. That’s a very low standard to meet. How is it that editors have allowed this for so long—allowed for young women to be portrayed in such a deliberate manner?
I started puberty at a much younger ages than all of my female friends; so I understand that, even as an adolescent, no one is going to have the same body type. People develop at their own rates. I also understand the pressure a young girl can feel, not only from media, but also their peers—who mimic and reflect societal views—and the effect it can have on them as they are growing up. I remember so specifically one of my best friends shaming me for not wearing a bra in grade six! And another telling me all my shirts had to be low-cut because “that’s just how it is” for adult women.
This cyclical treatment that every woman at a young age has dealt with—in one form or another—is repeated in comics. Pixie isn’t sexualized because of her change in bust or scoop-neck tops, but because she’s made to meet the same standard that all female comic book characters have to meet; which—for decades—has been to titillate. There’s so much diversity in how male characters are portrayed, but their female counterparts look identical (excluding clothing choice and hair colour, of course). But I digress…
And look, drawing for comic books is by no means an easy job—it’s an incredibly taxing career, to say the least. The controversy lies in the fact that this routine of female portrayal is so ingrained that it is expected even from underage characters. When paired with adult female team members, Pixie has to apparently vie for the same attention they must receive from readers—which is of a sexual nature. Megan has gone through some real shit, and these expectations only add insult to injury. In the Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker run of Uncanny X-Men, Pixie is brutally attacked, and artist Greg Land turned this already violent, five page scene into sanctioned torture porn. Even when beaten up, Pixie still has to look attractive to the male gaze.
Mutants being violently attacked is not new, but that does not excuse Land for his blatant fetishization of a young woman being beaten to a bloody mess. After Megan was attacked, the issue became about Wolverine and purpose for fighting. Pixie later got her revenge, but at what cost? Was this the only way for her to mature as both a person and a fighter? Is she a “badass” now, or have all these images done is turn her into a stock female comic book character who has been assaulted for no other reason, but to add torture to their lives?
During her run in Uncanny X-Men, Megan also appeared in both the comic Generation Hope and the limited series X-Men: Pixie Strikes Back, which rooted and secured her place in the X-Men and the greater Marvel universe. The teen-heavy focus of these comics—drawn by Ibraim Roberson and Takeshi Miyazawa in Generation Hope and Sara Pichelli in Pixie Strikes Back—were similar to New X-Men and had a comparable feel, character and design wise. These were a much needed fresh breath from the overt sexual design of her person. Pichelli is a master at characterization and using subtle expressions to direct the scene to where the story is going. It’s in this limited series that readers can see a more of Megan looking more mature than her original appearance, while still looking like the same teen (although with Marvel’s sliding timeline, it’s hard to guess the individual ages of characters). In these smaller titles, Megan does not conform to titillation as she does in Uncanny X-Men.
By this point, Megan might be around sixteen years old—still in school but also an X-Man—and most of what is shown of her in bigger titles is pointless sex appeal. The argument isn’t that because of her personality and original design, Pixie should stay young to maintain that role of bright-eyed new recruit. She deserves to grow up into the adult X-Man she can become—maybe even keep that positive outlook that so many of her teammates have lost.
Megan has since become a minor character again, showing up with other young mutants/fellow students in X-Men: Legacy Vol. 2 and X-Men Vol. 4. Although it may seem like a downgrade, Pixie never really developed much as an individual in Uncanny X-Men; most of her growth happens in her smaller appearances, ironically. When a teenage character like Pixie is added to the main roster of X-Men, it should be this awesome ascension where she is able be a part of the team, but also progress as a hero. Look at Kitty Pryde, who started much like Megan, and became a major force within the X-Men team and the Headmistress of Jean Grey Academy. That sort of progress has sadly not been the case for Megan. Pixie has since graduated from the Jean Grey Academy, and hopefully will continue to advance into the hero she’s meant to be, but not so quickly as to exploit her again.
Western comic books are incredibly guilty of presenting women as just pretty dolls; they all have the same pouty face and a killer bod in spandex. And after decades of this treatment, everyone has appeared to agree that, yes, it’s okay for younger women to be drawn the same way. Part of me wants to argue more that it’s only certain artists who do this, but editors at Marvel and DC don’t seem to be stopping it, and readers have become used to it. This is the West’s version of loli-con, and it’s not talked about enough.