Monday, November 07, 2011

Analysing the role of women in the new DC Universe - part 1

All the furore about the treatment of Starfire and Catwoman in the  DC relaunch got me to thinking about about how female characters were presented in the new DC Universe.  If you only read the reviews of Red Hood and Catwoman you’d think that the DC books were a hotbed of misogyny.  I started pondering if this really was the case – certainly the books I read seemed to treat their female characters fine. 
Then the thoughts expanded and expanded and lo and behold, I came up with an idea of doing a bit of research onto how women were introduced in the new DC 52.

NB: I couldn’t have put this together without the help of Eyz, theyallfalldown and JimmyMcG.  Major major thanks to these guys who re-read a lot of comics for me and answered my questions about the women in the books.
So, onto the work.  I summarised the research project thus:
“Basically, what I am interested in finding is how the major female characters are portrayed in their first pages of the new comics (the number 1s), mostly centring around whether they are presented sexually or not”
I asked my co researchers to report on the following:
A description of how the major female characters are introduced in every new DC book.
I am looking for things like -
State of dress
Style of art (tits and ass aka Starfire vs normal proportions aka Power Girl or Wonder Woman)
How they are described by other characters (If applicable)
How they describe themselves (if applicable)
If they are introduced as being in relationship, flirting or something else romantic/sexual.
I wanted to know if the characters were drawn overtly sexual as I feel that could indicate a sexist treatment.  I also wanted to know if they were introduced with a reference to their physical looks, or as the partner of another character, because if they all were introduced like this, it would indicate that women in the new DCU exist to be primarily sexual beings and linked romantically with men (or women, I’d be interested in seeing if any women were introduced as lesbians too).  I term this phenomenon, the 'love interest'.
I requested that the reporters look at only how the character is presented on the first page they appear, not in the rest of the book – I believe this is important because the first impression we get of them generates an image of the character that is difficult to shake off in later times.  Considering that this takes place in a relaunch, it is entirely reasonable to suspect that DC wanted the readers’ first view of a character to be the thing that hooks you in, that scene that tells you all about them and who they are.  I think the way the character is represented in their first scene is indicative of how DC views them and their role in the new status quo.
I specified major characters and I explained that major should be taken to mean:
Female superheroes and supervillains
The women who have historically been partners of a hero/villain (e.g. Iris West)
Any notable female sidekicks (whether new characters or old)
Plus those women we know from the old DC who may only have cameo (like Power Girl in Mr T).  Basically this equates to every female character excluding those existing in the background with a non speaking role, such as being a face in the crowd.

I gave examples of the following:
Selina Kyle was introduced by her breasts on the first page of her comic (very sexual)
In Teen Titans, Cassandra Sandsmark was introduced by Tim describing her as gorgeous (not sexual, but definitely introduced with an emphasis on her looks).
In Mr Terrific, Power Girl was drawn normally, but wearing just a t-shirt in Mr Terrific's apartment, implying she's been intimate with him (i.e. introduced as being in relationship/fling)
In Wonder Woman, we first saw Diana in bed, naked (but I don't think this was done in a sexually ogle-y manner).

After some queries I sent all reporters the following:
As a reminder about what I want - I am not so much interested in the value judgement we put on the images, e.g. whether or not they are sexist, more about what they show, as I mentioned below.
Your reports don't have to be really long - a  few lines will do, but if you want to explain your reasoning that's also fine.  Basically I am looking to discover what the DCU says about women, not assume I know what it says and then try to prove my hypothesis.  So, we need to look at the books with an open mind.
What I want to do is look at how the women are presented and then extrapolate about what this means for representations of women in the new DCU.   i.e. are they introduced as sexual/romantic beings, is the emphasis on their looks and/or their sexual relationship to them men around them. I intend to make generalised commentary and possibly do some statistical work too. 

I realise that the methodology isn’t completely robust, there’s a lot of human bias coming into play in everyone's reports.  This skews the results so without a really strict marking scheme and formal framework in which to work in, the reports from each person aren’t completely comparable.  However, if someone would like to take the findings and build on them to do a better study, please do!  Just let me know what you find OK?
The reason for asking other people to help was because I a) couldn’t afford each new DC title and b) didn’t have the time to report on all of them.
The type of reports submitted varied in style, some reports gave me a bullet point list, others gave me prose talking specifically about how the women were presented, others gave me mini reviews of each comic.  I tried to extract the relevant information from each report and put it all into an excel table where I then did some nifty sorting according to group of titles and the results of each question. 
N.B: Stating that the introduction of women has a sexual or romantic overtone, does not mean they are misogynistic or sexist.  It is perfectly possible to portray a female character in a relationship with someone else and not have it be sexist, and it is perfectly possible to portray a woman in sexual manner without it being misogynistic.  Determining whether or not the introduction of women was sexist or not wasn’t the point of this study.  What I wanted to discover was if there was an overarching similarity in the way the women were introduced in order to find out what the cultural discourse surrounding women new DCU is (and see if there is a set discourse).

So, onto the findings!  Or, see next post. Conclusions coming up in a third post. :)

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