These days, we’re starting to see more and more girls and young women playing powerful roles in comics. This is a much needed and very welcome development. BOOM! Studios has the Lumberjanes demonstrating the capacity we have as humans for personal growth and discovery, as well as the importance of genuinely accepting ourselves. Lunella Lafayette is now the most intelligent character in the Marvel Universe, where Riri Williams will soon become Ironheart, and Kamala Khan is helping to spearhead the Champions.
One empowering comic book series about young women that stands out is Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang's "Paper Girls," published by Image Comics. It follows the story of four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls in Ohio – Erin, Mac, KJ and Tiffany – as they travel through time from the 1980s to the present day in order to stop some intense sci-fi stuff from messing up their world. What’s great about this series is that the protagonists are complex and nuanced. They’re not just stereotypical “strong female characters-- they're written to be real, multi-layered human beings.
All too often in the media, women are portrayed as being in constant competition with one another. Female characters are prone to starting “cat fights,” and they’re shown as being gossips who pull one another into unnecessary drama. Think of "Desperate Housewives," "Real Housewives," or basically any reality show. This, of course, is not representative of the ways in which women actually relate to one another in the real world. It is a disempowering stereotype that serves to portray women as trivial people not to be taken seriously. But "Paper Girls" does something very different. In it, Vaughan and Chiang make the friendship between these four girls one of the centerpieces of the story.
The girls constantly go out of their way to protect and support one another. Indeed, the story begins with Mac, KJ and Tiffany inviting Erin to ride her bike around town with them as they all deliver their papers, so that Erin won’t have to ride alone in the dark, unsafe hours before dawn. Later, they pool their resources to fight against the events that swirl out of control around them. It’s very unlikely that any of the girls could have the same kind of impact alone – it’s their cooperation and teamwork that allow them to have real efficacy. They develop plans in which they split up to accomplish different tasks, and this allows them to do much more than they could singlehandedly. Their friendship, therefore, is shown to be positive and constructive – and integral to the story.
This is something we’ve seen in Vaughan's work before. In "Runaways," for example, the success of the team – which is made up of mostly young women – is due largely to the fact that they care about one another and work together.
Defying gender roles
The vast majority of the time, women – and especially young girls – are shown in entertainment media as conforming rigidly to cultural conceptions of femininity. The way they dress, speak and interact with other characters, both female and male, is often circumscribed and limited by the supposed “norms” of female expression. But in "Paper Girls," the four young protagonists are not pigeonholed by gender stereotypes. This would be noteworthy for any comic, movie or television show starring female characters – but it is especially striking given that Mac, Erin, KJ and Tiffany are 12 years old. Young girls are especially vulnerable to being defined by the trappings of gender. More often than not, they’re shown sporting pigtails and wearing pink.
But the “sugar and spice and everything nice” version of girlhood isn’t going to fly with Vaughan and Chiang's young heroes. This is particularly true for Mac, who has a fantastic, funky short haircut, curses like a sailor, and smokes cigarettes (not that we’re promoting smoking!). None of the girls conform to the overly saccharine, meek archetype we’re so used to seeing. They stand up to boys who are older than they are, as well as adults, and they’re not afraid to say what they think.
Again, this is a theme we see throughout Vaughan’s work. In "Y the Last Man," there are literally only a couple of men left on Earth. The women are shown as being just as strong and cunning as any male character. And, Agent 355, the woman who takes it upon herself to look after Yorick Brown, supposedly the last male on the planet, is a trained spy and fighter, whereas Yorick is an amateur magician whose life has been pretty aimless. Finally, in "Saga," Alana and Marko’s story begins with Alana as the fighter, and Marko as a pacifist.
A fully female cast
The comic is also notable for the fact that almost the entire cast – and certainly all of the main characters – is female. We all know women and girls are commonly written as nothing more than supporting characters and, frustratingly, romantic interests for male leads. Traditionally, when a comic, movie or show does feature a female lead, she’s mostly surrounded by men.
Not so with "Paper Girls". Mac, Erin, KJ and Tiffany drive the action of the story. The one adult who features prominently in the comic is a grown-up version of Erin. Male characters appear either in supporting roles, or as minor cameos.
In an interview with the "L.A. Times," Vaughan said, “I like writing female characters. I remember when I was doing 'Runaways' at Marvel, that was a teen book that had more females than males in it. At the time, it was the subject of great controversy as we were doing it…Usually, there's a token female or two, but to have a team be predominantly of women, the fact that it was a bit of a conversation to have even that. Now [with 'Paper Girls']… here's a great opportunity to do what I always wanted to do, just a group of females and not have to defend it or explain it, and just get to write them.”
Indeed, "Runaways" is also laudable for the fact that it has a mostly female cast, and one of the young men, Chase, is charmingly written as the attractive, loveable ditz, a role that unfortunately tends to fall on women (and when it is a woman in this role, it’s typically not so charming).
It seems like the tides are beginning to turn when it comes to this aspect of fandom. Last year, we saw the same phenomenon with Netflix’s "Jessica Jones," an adaptation of the Marvel series whose cast is mostly composed of women. And Netflix recently released "Luke Cage," where the main characters are nearly all black. The days of shows, comics, and movies focusing solely or overwhelmingly on the stories of white men might finally be coming to an end.
The characters are unapologetically themselves
What makes the archetype of the “strong female character” so frustrating is that she is essentially perfect. She is a fighter – whether physically or otherwise – who is never weak, never brought down by fear or insecurity. And while it is, on one level, excellent to see women portrayed as bold and formidable in this way, it is not realistic. And when we, as female readers and audience members, compare ourselves to this unattainable ideal, we inevitably fall short and feel inadequate – which is precisely the opposite effect we hope to see as the result of increased female representation in popular culture.
Moreover, when female characters are actually given flaws, they’re often punished somehow for them over the course of the story. It’s as if they’re not allowed to be fully human.
What is infinitely more compelling is to see women who have weaknesses, but who strive to work through them. Characters who remain courageous in the face of their challenges. Characters whose shortcomings serve to help them grow. This we can relate to. This is what will inspire us. And this is what Vaughan and Chiang do in "Paper Girls."
For example, the adult Erin doesn’t have her life completely together. She’s still living in her hometown – to the surprise of her younger self – and her career hasn’t really panned out as she hoped it would. Nevertheless, she joins the girls in their quest and forges ahead, reconnecting with herself through the process of talking with the younger Erin.
And Mac might be seen as the most “flawed” of the girls. She has a hardened exterior and is not what you’d call particularly well mannered (which is, of course, what we love about her). After finding out that, in the future, she dies of leukemia, Mac’s first move is to light up a cigarette. Tiffany asks her if it’s a good idea for her to be smoking, given what they’ve just learned. And Mac’s response is, “He said I die of leukemia, not lung cancer.” So Mac has addictions and other imperfections, but they actually serve to make her a more interesting character. If she suddenly gave up smoking and decided to walk the straight and narrow, we wouldn’t enjoy her as much, because she’d be boring.
The way to create female characters who are truly compelling is to write them as if they are real, multidimensional humans. To give them depth and complexity, and to treat them with respect when it comes to plot. And Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang certainly do this in "Paper Girls".