It’s common knowledge that female representation in comic books is for being one-dimensional, sexist, or just downright ridiculous. Given the propensity of scantily-clad, overdrawn women gracing the pages of comics over the past seventy-five years, it’s no surprise that many women feel ostracized and underrepresented within the field. There have been movements lately to create more realistic female characters, and while we’re certainly moving in the right direction, there’s still a huge gap to overcome to make the bulk of comics more appealing to women fans. I read plenty of comics, and I can safely say that I sometimes grow tired of seeing Powergirl’s ridiculously oversized chest bursting out of the strategic cutout of her costume, or Wonder Woman sporting a thong as she rushes into battle (seriously, why?) What’s a reader to do though, when she wants her comic book femme fatales to focus more on substance and less on being eye candy? Luckily, there are still plenty of great options out there for those of us who want to read about strong, kick-ass women without necessarily seeing them running around practically naked. Strong, tough, funny, independent: these 5 women encapsulate everything I want to read about in a female hero: strong in her own right, confident in who she is, and able to get the job done, without ever devolving into a man-hating cliche.
1. Marvel’s Squirrel Girl
Squirrel Girl was originally created for Marvel by Steve Ditko and Will Murray in the early 90s, but for a while she drifted off into comic obscurity, never really gaining much traction. New life was breathed into her with the 2015 release of “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl”, written by Ryan North and drawn by Erica Henderson. With the powers of both squirrel and girl, Squirrel Girl quickly became a fan favorite, and easily tops my list of all-time great comic book superheroes. Squirrel Girl, alias Doreen Green, is a college student who splits her time between taking what seem like impossibly difficult computer science classes, and kicking some major bad guy butt. What’s great about Doreen is that she’s confident, smart, and knows exactly who she is. She cracks truly funny jokes while managing to bring down some of the biggest baddies Marvel has. Most impressively, she almost always tries to reason with the bad guy first, and actually manages to convince them to stop (or at least divert) their evil deeds, proving that you don’t always need your fists to prevent a disaster. She uses her wit inaddition to her awesome squirrel powers to get the job done. She’s the complete package.
In case her street-smart, kid-friendly schtick isn’t enough to convince you though, she also happens to be a great representation of a more realistically drawn superhero. More normal girl than porn star, Doreen comes complete with buck teeth and an ample posterior, which she remarks upon as being a positive attribute. This panel, appearing in the first “Squirrel Girl” comic I ever read, instantly endeared the character to me, not only because it’s a great body-positive image for readers of all ages, but because it’s not the focus of the entire comic. Doreen comments on being happy with her “conspicuously large and conspicuously awesome butt”, yet that’s where the commentary ends. The story doesn’t spend its time waxing philosophically, preaching to the reader about body image and exactly why Doreen ought to feel confident. She simply is. “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” is an awesome, all-ages friendly comic that proves mainstream superhero comics are capable of churning out more than male fantasies, and Doreen Green easily tops my list of “People I Want To Be When I Grow Up”.
2. DC’s Mary Marvel
Mary Marvel, a.k.a. Mary Batson, is the sister of Captain Marvel, and one of my favorite women in DC Comics. Blessed with the same powers as her brother by the wizard Shazam, Mary has been a part of the comics world longer than most female heroes (even predating the more popular Supergirl by seventeen years). One distinguishing characteristic of Mary Marvel is that her speech is perpetually stuck in the fifties, with phrases like “golly” and “gee whiz” peppering her everyday conversations. This, coupled with her truly modest uniform, may rub some the wrong way as being antiquated or out of touch with modern readers, but I find it endearing. She reflects the positive memories many people have of these earlier decades (without the harsh realism of sexist behavior and ideals dampening her image). Given that Mary is a young girl who transforms into a superhero, it’s to be expected that she would dress more conservatively (and quite frankly, those rare images that depict her with more revealing clothing are extremely unsettling and can’t help but imply a perversion on the part of those who enjoy them). While her more conservative appearance and speech could have relegated her to the vaults of comic lore, Mary Marvel manages to hold on by being a truly powerful force.
With strength rivaling that of Superman, Mary Marvel is one of the strongest heroes DC has in its arsenal. She’s allowed to be a nearly unstoppable force while still maintaining her modesty and childhood innocence, making her a more relatable hero for a younger audience (not to mention a less revealing, and undoubtedly more comfy, cosplay costume option). Mary Marvel represents the hero we all would have been as children, when we still believed gaining superpowers was possible: she’s a bit childish because she’s a child, yet she’s also incredibly brave and selfless. She’s a true hero, if ever there was one.
3. Snow White from “Fables”
Most of us are familiar with the Walt Disney version of Snow White, but writer Bill Willingham turned that version on its head when he began “Fables” for Vertigo in 2002. With Snow White as one of its flagship characters, it quickly became clear that this version of Snow was a far cry from the innocent, trusting individual Walt Disney made famous in his 1939 movie. Snow is fiercely protective of her family, and always has a plan in place to protect those she loves from being hurt. In a world where fairytale characters have been transported to our world by a nefarious, unknown individual, these threats are all too frequent. She handles it all deftly, while still showing a wide span of emotions during the lengthy run of the comic. With Snow’s braver, more confrontational personality transending the comics and even partially , it’s easy to see that this is a Snow White for the 21st century, and not the passive princess who lays in wait until her prince comes to rescue her. She’s not as pure or childlike in this incarnation, making her a great character for older readers who may be less than impressed with the original versions of the character. This comic ended last year, but with 150 issues (as well as a handful of spinoffs and tie-in comics), there’s plenty of fodder here for readers to sink their teeth into.
Added bonus: virtually all of the women in “Fables” follow this trope of being strong and independent, helping to completely redefine the princesses we’ve come to know. Cinderella’s a kick-butt spy, Frau Totenkinder is the truly terrifying witch from any number of children’s tales, and Goldilocks in an equal rights advocate willing to employ murderous means to ensure her message is heard. These women are tough, terrifying, and truly incredible. If you’ve ever thought these fairytale women were boring or passive, give “Fables” a try and see how far they’ve really come.
4. Virtually Every Character in “Bitch Planet”
“Bitch Planet” is easily the most subversive and controversial comic referenced on this list. Imagine a world in which feminine ideals are held to such a high standard that any woman deemed physically unappealing, argumentative, or in any way free-thinking, is imprisoned on Bitch Planet, an off-world penitentiary for women seen as a threat to society. Living conditions on Bitch Planet are harsh, and most of the women there haven’t committed any real crimes: one is imprisoned for “driving” her husband to adultery, while another is there for being overweight and unconcerned with her appearance. It’s a sharp, biting commentary on the roles society forces upon women, and will no doubt get your blood boiling. More than anything, it’s a comic that features a variety of women, encompassing various races, sexual orientations, and body images, that provides a realistic (albeit exaggerated) look at how we view women who dare to think for themselves and challenge the established norm. Each woman in this comic is smart, resourceful, and understandably angry at how she’s being treated. “Bitch Planet” is a picture of a world gone wrong, and will undoubtedly make you want to call for change in our own world. With the women of this comic facing imprisonment and sometimes even death for daring to be themselves, readers will undoubtedly want to go out and demand change within our own world, where the price of individuality isn’t nearly as steep.
A word of caution: as the image above suggests, this comic is extremely graphic, both in terms of language and nudity. While I wouldn’t recommend it for young children, it’s an invaluable resource if you’re looking to remind yourself (or really anyone mature enough to recognize the disparity between the sexes) just how far we have to go before gender representation is truly equal.
5. Valiant’s Faith
Faith is a newer hero to the scene. First appearing in Valiant’s “Harbinger” series, fans quickly demanded a spin-off series focusing on the psiot superhero, a cry the . Introduced as a miniseries, Faith was quickly granted a full-fledged title of her own. What makes “Faith” such a wonderful, original comic, and its title character so endearing, is that she is completely real, inside an out. Faith represents everything so many readers are and strive to be: a die-hard fan of geek culture who just happens to be a superhero. What’s even better about “Faith” is that, like Squirrel Girl, the character is allowed to be unique and different without that being the main focus of the comic. As anyone can tell from looking at the cover of the comic, Faith is hardly your typical superhero. A plus-sized woman who wears a full-coverage uniform, Faith defies all stereotypes of female superheroes. What’s truly impressive though is that none of this is ever the focus of the comic. Faith’s body type is never mentioned in the story; she has a swoon-worthy ex-boyfriend that she broke up with, and yet the story never comments that she was lucky to have been with him or makes readers think she was crazy for having let him go. Too many stories would fall into this trope of pushing the “Oh my god he was way too good for her why would she break up with him??” mentality, but not “Faith”. Instead, Faith is completely confident in who she is. Here is a perfect example of a comic which women of all ages can get behind: it’s not preachy, it never devolves into a PSA about accepting your body when others are mean to you; instead, it crafts a better world in which women don’t need to worry about those criticisms, because they’re too busy kicking butt and saving the world to even hear such comments. It’s a brilliant new series to keep an eye on, and hopefully one that has a good, long run.
It’s unfortunate that a much longer list could be crafted about women in comics who directly play into the male fantasy, or who are such stereotypical concoctions that they are often unreadable by anyone with half a brain. These 5 comics break that mold, some more subversively than others. Each comic allows its female characters to be awesome and badass without having to be naked on the page. Sure, there’s power in embracing your sexuality, but do readers really need to be overdosed with page after page of a nearly-naked Starfire or a midriff-baring Wonder Girl? It’s nice to have options in the comics world, especially for women readers. Too many comics are geared towards the male fanbase, but these stories specifically target the female audience. They’re tough, they’re unique, and they’re completely awe-inspiring. If you’re looking for some truly kick-ass women to brighten up your comics life, dive into the stories of these strong, uncompromising characters, and prepare to be amazed.
Who’s your favorite stereotype-breaking superhero?
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