She Has No Head! - Defining Female Friendly

So, on last week’s piece about comics to buy on a $50/month budget, I put one of my base requirements that the books be “female friendly” since that is sorta what I do here, in this column about “women in comics.”

I had a couple people in the comments claim to not know what “female friendly” meant. I don’t know if they were trolls or if the confusion was genuine but I’ve decided to the err on the side of their confusion being genuine and talk about it a little bit this week.

Before we start, let’s be clear, my definition is surely not everyone’s, but this is where I come from when I look at comics (and other media but I’ll try to stick to comics). At the same time, I make no argument that ALL material SHOULD/HAS TO BE female friendly. The world is vast and there’s room for all kinds, including stuff that isn’t female friendly (True Detective would be a great example of something I love that I wouldn't necessarily call female friendly). And there’s ALSO room for stuff that I hate and find offensive. Censoring creators doesn’t really get us anywhere, it’s not a good way forward to say what can and cannot or should or should not be done when it comes to art. But I can still advocate for, promote, and recommend the stuff that I feel is worthy, and especially given the comics climate we live in now -- one in which there is a lot of great female friendly stuff to promote and one in which we still need much much more female friendly stuff to promote -- this is a big and maybe even important job, one we can all help to get done right.

So, in a nutshell, female friendly means to me:

A book in which a female reader can feel welcome in that book. It doesn’t have to be created by women or star women, or put women on a pedestal, it just has to not treat them as an enemy.

Someone last week in the comments brought up Batman as an example of a title that they did not understand as being "female friendly." My answer was that there is nothing in Batman (as written and illustrated now) that tells women they are unwelcome in its pages. Sure, it doesn't generally feature women because it's Batman's book and so he's naturally the lead and his supporting cast tends to be populated with other male characters historically and currently. But when female characters do feature in the book (notably of late - Julia, Alfred's daughter and Harper Row, the new Bluebird) they are well-written and integral, just like the men around them. They are not window dressing. They are not cliched "whining girlfriends" or "damsels in distress." They have their own skills and personalities, they are as well considered as any other character on the page - in their writing and their visual execution - and a reader can feel that. It's the way in which a work that is not necessarily "about women" still treats its female characters and readers with respect.

But in case you’re still confused and unsure what kind of things would make a woman potentially feel like they’re unwelcome in a book, and especially if you’re a creator interested in these issues, below are five examples of things that can be signs your book is unwelcoming to women.

And I’m sorry I have to say this, but unfortunately, given how my comment section trends, I’ll take this quick moment to let everyone know that all women are NOT a hive mind, some love things that others hate, a minority hates things that majorities love and vice versa - I hear Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose is popular among some women and I think it’s offensive dreck – so, yeah, variety is the spice of life, we’re all unique little snowflakes, blah blah blah.

Also, remember that a book that has these things or some of these things does not necessarily make it a bad book, it just might make it less friendly toward women.

1. Excessive T&A/Art With A Heavy Male Gaze.

Art is obviously integral to comics, and though we like to think it’s only half the picture, the truth is, the phrase a picture is worth a thousand words has been around a loooong time for good reason. The power of pictures has always been important, and it’s the keystone of what makes comics such a unique print medium. It’s also more important than ever in an image-based internet world, and one with a really short attention span. Again, this doesn't mean all T&A is always bad, or that you can't use it to make a point, it just means be aware of what you're doing. Does you detective look like a woman that's a detective or does she look like a stripper in a cop costume? If the latter, then you might be doing it wrong.

A cover like this immediately tells a large percentage of women that what’s inside a book may not be for them, even though a woman is prominently featured:

Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose is an extreme example, to be sure, but I thought it might be important to put it up front and remind us all that it's an actual thing that's out there. Again, nothing wrong with it, but I'd personally never pick this book up...even if it had the greatest story of all time inside. Tarot has long been doubling down on what it "does best" and that's fine for Tarot, it's aware of the message its sending, it has an audience that loves it, and "hey, good for them!" but if YOU are not doing Tarot, maybe reconsider if your book looks even remotely like this.

And it's important to keep in mind that this:

And this:

Are not the same thing. Both utilize some of the same characters and some of the same or similar costumes for the same book (though years apart). Both are "sexy" and "fun" but one seems consumed with women as objects and views them from a decidedly male perspective, oversexualizing them in very traditionally male ways, contorting their bodies (and anatomy) into impossible or at least unlikely positions, while the other presents them more as real characters.As human women who also happen to be superheroes and sexy/gorgeous women. For most women (not all) the second cover is far more welcoming and relatable.

2. Lack of female characters with agency, or lacking in definition compared to male characters.

This obviously includes women used solely as plot devices, especially as motivation for male characters (see the most classic example: women in refrigerators). The presence of female characters in your book is certainly a step in the right direction. But women that serve as window dressing to male characters, cliches who are not fleshed out, who are used primarily as window dressing, and/or are killed to motivate other characters means they might as well not be there if you’re interested in female friendliness. If you’re having trouble writing female characters I urge you take a page from Greg Rucka:

3. Sexist or Misogynistic Behavior/Characters that don’t further the plot/serve a purpose.

This is probably the trickiest one on the list. I tend to think of it as being writing that furthers sexist and misogynistic ideals in a casual/institutionalized way without any real purpose. The things you create should always have deliberate intent. If you’re throwing in sexism or misogyny make sure you know why. If it’s not well considered and purposeful your readers will feel it. It will make them uncomfortable. If it’s not DESIGNED to make people feel uncomfortable, or to be satire or humor, or to help show that a character is a terrible person, or one with a lot of work to do on themselves, etc., then you may be going in the wrong direction. Always ask yourself why, as both a creator and a reader, WHY is this here?

4. General Inequality, especially as relates to visuals like costumes and posing.

This seems like a minor one, but since superheroes dominate the comics landscape, it’s surprising how big a deal costumes are. There’s been a real surge in awesome superhero re-design and an especially high number female characters have benefited from that surge – possibly because there’s been a nice surge of interest in female superheroes period, or perhaps because women seem to need the redesign more than men.

Regardless, we still have quite a bit of inequality when it comes to they way men and women are portrayed in costume. The Justice League (above) – all men save Wonder Woman – are fully covered neck to toe. Wonder Woman wears a strapless swimsuit, knee high boots, and a “sexy” choker necklace. HMMMM. This X-Men cover example (above), happily, is quite dated as Storm, Emma, and Rogue do not appear like this these days (though Emma still has a revealing costume, which I’d argue is not wholly unreasonable given her character traits and history), but it’s another good example of getting it wrong if you’re looking for some equality – all the men, fully covered with the exception of some bare arms, the women all extremely exposed - even when the actual costume would otherwise fully cover the character as in Rogue's case.

As always with these things, context matters. If it makes no sense for male superheroes to wear swimsuit costumes (and they rarely do unless their name is Namor) then it probably doesn’t make sense for female superheroes to do it either. If you haven’t been to the Hawkeye initiative, you should definitely head over there. While it’s more about the posing inequalities between male and female characters, it frequently addresses costume inequalities as well. It’s also a hell of a good time. I also wrote a popular and surprisingly divisive piece about this a few years ago called No, It's Not Equal that delves more deeply into the visual inequalities in superhero comics.

5. Always Failing The Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test is a very fun but admittedly flawed way to look at the role women play in media. For the uninitiated, The Bechdel Test, kind of wonderfully, since we’re comics people, debuted as a concept in Alison Bechdel’s brilliant comic Dykes To Watch Out For. The idea comes from her comic titled The Rule (see above) and laid out some simple rules for evaluating women in media.

The Bechdel Test requires that “One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.”

An awful work can pass The Bechdel Test and a great work can fail it, so you can’t use it as a be-all measure but it is a wonderful way educate and draw attention to how rampant the problem is – how underrepresented women are in media overall – rather than to trying to take down individual works for being “bad.” It’s something worthwhile to consider when you’re creating (or reading) and if you’re a creator and all of your works always fail The Bechdel Test, it might be wise to think about why. Work that just naturally passes The Bechdel Test is probably less likely to make women feel excluded or othered.

As I’ve said before, not all work CAN or SHOULD be about women. There’s plenty of room in the world for work that has absolutely nothing to do with women, but as women struggle to be represented well in media and as they continue to not really get a fair share of the pie (we do make up 51% of the population) it’s worth considering when, why, and how we make these choices both as readers and creators.

Kelly Thompson is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. She is the author of the superhero novel THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING recently optioned to become a film, and her new novel STORYKILLER is out now. You can find Kelly all over the place, but twitter may be the easiest: @79semifinalist


Blade Runner 2019 #3

More in Comics