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Guest Post by Robin Brenner… This Summer’s Female Heroes: Fighting More Than One Battle (2)

[In Monday’s initial part of this post, The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers were applauded for their representation of female characters…]

All of these characters are examples of progress. Does this mean we’re entering into an age when women can, finally, be accepted as superheroes right alongside the men?

Not quite. Part of the problem stems not just from the media producers but also from how critics and fans value women’s roles. This shows especially in how The Avengers was reviewed. Over at Indiewire’s Press Play, columnist Ian Grey points out how male critics and female critics seem to have seen entirely different films when it comes to Black Widow. Male critics ignored or dismissed her, some not even bothering to cite the character’s name, while female critics saw her active role and celebrated it.

As this telling graphic and accompanying article from Racebending shows, the Marvel movie universe is hardly groundbreaking outside of Black Widow in terms of gender representation and in ethnic diversity. The article notes that all of the main characters are men and only 22% of the significant, named characters are female. All of the women are either love interests or secondary characters. Black Widow, along with Hawkeye, is one of the only members of The Avengers not to have a solo film introducing the character—she was a supporting character in Iron Man 2, while Hawkeye was briefly introduced in Thor.

All of the upcoming films announced as rolling into production by Marvel Studios feature male leads, and there was zero mention about any potential for a Black Widow film except in fans’ wishes (quite a few would be keen to see the backstory of Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Agent Coulson in Budapest). Marvel has a plentiful backlist of female characters they could choose to introduce in film, while DC has even more who are currently ranking bestselling comics, most notably Kate Kane aka Batwoman or the iconic Wonder Woman. The Batman film franchise may well continue into more stories, now that Warner is so keen to continue with the success started by Nolan’s trilogy. Is it so hard to imagine a woman could fill the narrative gap instead of a man? Anne Hathaway is singled out by critics as having stolen the show in The Dark Knight Rises, so why not bring her back for a Catwoman solo film?

The mainstream comics industry has been roundly (and justifiably) criticized for its problematic representation of women as well as its reluctance to acknowledge women as a fanbase with valid opinions. Canny media consumers know that the same gender representation problems plague film and television. But, while the film and television industries are slowly (very slowly) making headway, the comics industry seems determined to willfully ignore criticism, and deny any need for change. That attitude has been so consistent that one longtime industry-watcher, Heidi McDonald over at The Beat, warns comics fans that change might be too much to hope for in the superhero universes.

Not all hope is lost. Rest assured, fans can find strong women in their media who are gaining popularity and attention with zero fuss about their gender.The Hunger Games film proved once again that an action story with a female lead can and will succeed if it hits its target fan audience, which includes folks of all genders. Princess Adrienne of the outstanding comic for younger readers Princeless is sidestepping story tropes and teaming up with a rogue dragon and her brother to save herself without any royal suitors. Korra of Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra is kicking butt and taking names in a rich and epic hero’s journey that is only just beginning. Kate Kane, as Batwoman in her own continuing series, continues to draw in fans of all kinds and periodically tops the New York Times Graphic Books Best Seller lists.

For fans who are looking for more superheroines that fit this summer’s films models, I suggest older teens can seek out the New 52 Wonder Woman series by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, the new Batgirl series penned by Gail Simone, the Astonishing X-Men series by Joss Whedon, and the afore-mentioned Batwoman series. If they’re willing to dig back a bit, older stand-alone volumes like Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia by Greg Rucka, Brubaker and Cooke’s Catwoman series, Batgirl: Year One by Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon, the Cassndra Cain Batgirl years, and the early runs of Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan are all well worth the effort to check out.

Outside of superhero comics, the publishing world is more friendly to women as fans and creators, and Raina Telgemeier’s New York Times number one best-seller Smile and her upcoming title Drama, Faith Erin Hick’s Friends with Boys, and Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? are eagerly anticipated and beloved. That there are plenty of excellent comics outside of superhero comics for girls and women to celebrate is all good and true, but what about fans who want superheroines? Must we give up? I say no. We just need to keep pointing out the discrepancies and supporting the series and creators who are heading toward the superhero future we want to read and see.


Robin Brenner is a Reference/Teen Librarian at the Brookline (MA) Public Library. She is the creator and editor in chief of the graphic novel review website, No Flying No Tights ( She published Understanding Manga and Anime, a comprehensive guide to the Japanese art forms, for Libraries Unlimited in June 2007, and was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2008. She contributes reviews and features to publications including Library Journal, School Library Journal (Good Comics for Kids group blog contributor), VOYA, and EarlyWord. She has also been lucky enough to serve on a variety of committees for YALSA, including Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, Great Graphic Novels for Teens, and as Chair of the Margaret A. Edwards Award Committee. She was a judge for the 2007 Will Eisner awards. Robin gives lectures and workshops on graphic novels, manga, and anime all across the country.

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