© Lea Sansom 2017, Ryerson University
The role of women was changing drastically during and after World War II. As with any major cultural shift, this change in role was met with varied reactions from society at the time. There was major cultural anxiety surrounding the role of women as they went from homemakers and mothers, to working in factories and more. This cultural anxiety is evident in texts from the time, including in Triumph Comics no. 21. In this comic, there is no unifying message around the role of women. The female characters present in the various stories are represented as strong and capable heroes, or as weak damsels in distress. This is evident in the way they are drawn, as well as their actual role and importance in the narrative of the various stories. Taking these examples and the historical context into account, it is possible to see how the cultural anxiety surrounding the role of women at the time was present within this comic. Looking at the comics individually, it might seem that certain ideals were being promoted. When they are all taken into account together, given that they were published in the same issue, it presents a fairly conflicted idea of women and their role. This is similar to the cultural conflict taking place at the time surrounding the need for capable women and the desire to maintain traditional roles.
The Changing Role of Women in WWII
It is possible to see the changing role of women through primary sources of the time. The film Women are Warriors from 1942 outlines the many different ways in which women were involved in the war effort. This film places considerable focus on the domestic tasks of women during this time, such as caring for children and sewing clothing (1:30-2:00). However, it also shows shots of women training and marching like soldiers, and discusses the manual labour such as farming and even manning anti-aircraft guns (3:25). An article by Elinore Herrick from The New Leader discusses a newly implemented program of women working in shipyards. The author praises the success of the program, and the women participating. Of particular note is that the women are not allowed to wear makeup or jewellery for safety reasons, and must also wear fairly masculine safety gear. However, the author emphasizes that the women are experimenting with creams to protect their skin, and that they have a comfortable restroom with nice furniture. This attempt to emphasize the remaining femininity in a typically masculine job contributes to the idea of anxiety surrounding women’s roles.
World War II afforded women a larger role outside of the typical household management expected of them at the time. However, the expectation was that after the war, women would return to the role of housekeeper and restore the status quo (Smith and Wakewich, 58-59). According to Smith and Wakewich, the necessity of drawing women into the workforce had to be balanced with “concerns about women’s capacity for industrial labour and the general public’s anxiety about women’s expanded public role both as breadwinners and consumers” (60). The reliance on women both as a practical source of labour, and also as symbols of social stability created cultural anxiety (Hegarty, 113) and further necessitated a drawing of cultural boundaries between the proper woman who did her duty, and the woman who overturned societal norms. This defining of roles often intertwined with control of sexuality and created a divide of patriotic women and promiscuous women. The difference between them being their apparent acceptance or rejection of cultural norms and thereby the risk they posed to traditional ideals after the war was over (Hegarty, 115). Control and use of women’s bodies and sexuality during the war is a common theme that Smith and Wakewich, and Hegarty touch on. There was increasing pressure on women to occupy a more traditionally masculine position in order to aid the war effort and be seen as patriotic, but only so long as they did not disrupt cultural norms more than was necessary. This balancing act was adopted by the government in order to get the labour that they needed while alleviating cultural anxiety around morality (Smith and Wakewich, 61). It also had to be adopted by women, who could suffer the personal repercussions of being deemed immoral, as “‘promiscuous’ female sexuality became a prime target during wartime” (Hegarty, 115).
There are two notably powerful female characters in Triumph Comics no. 21. These are Nelvana of the Northern Lights, the titular character of her comic, and Sally Dunlop who is the protagonist of “Air Woman”. Both characters are shown in their comics to be smart and physically capable, and they come to the rescue of the male characters in their respective comics.
Nelvana is significant in that her comic is the first to appear in this issue, and she is featured on the cover. Her comic was serialized as well, indicating that she was perhaps a popular character used to draw readers to buy the comic. This issue contains Chapter Three “The Lair of the Devil Fish” of the larger story “Nelvana of the Northern Lights and the Ice Beam”. From the beginning of this chapter, Nelvana is placed as the hero, with the recap of the previous chapter stating that Nelvana has just rescued one of the male characters, Silas, from a monster (Dingle, 1). From that point, Nelvana leads the police sergeant and Silas in investigating. In the image above (fig. 1), Nelvana’s physical strength is highlighted. She is shown in a powerful pose, even breaking out of the panel frame. She has dynamic lines around her, and faces front while the male characters have far less focus on them. Nelvana’s quick thinking also allows them to track the monster to the villains lair (Dingle, 3). Nelvana does present as typically feminine, she has long hair and wears a skirt, however her body is never seen as weak, and her physical appearance is not mentioned except in relation to her super powers. Based on Nelvana’s importance within the issue, she was clearly a successful character. With that in mind, the assumption can be made that readers at the time were receptive to such a powerful female character.
Sally Dunlop, of “Air Woman” is presented similarly to Nelvana. One important difference is that while Nelvana is very obviously a fictional character, “Air Woman” begins by situating the comic in its WWII context “The first Canadian Women’s Service, formed on July 2, 1940 was organized to release manpower for aircrew duties” (Lazare, 38). This adds weight to what takes place in this comic, as Sally Dunlop and the events of the comic are positioned as a more real-world situation. She is clearly meant to present an inspiring figure through her actions. Sally Dunlop represents an example of Hegarty’s “patriotic woman”. Like Nelvana, Sally Dunlop presents as typically feminine. In fact, she and Nelvana look quite similar. Again, like Nelvana, her body is never objectified. She is shown in action, running to save soldiers from a crashed plane, and then physically moving rubble in order to lift the soldiers to safety (Lazare, 40-41). She is even presented with a medal of honour “Distinguished Service in the Face of Danger” (Lazare, 41). Given the real-world context of this comic, Sally Dunlop being shown as smart and capable in the face of danger is very impactful.
While it is impossible to say what the intentions of the authors of these comics were, it is safe to assume they wanted their comics to sell. Therefore, the representation of both Nelvana and Sally Dunlop certainly indicates that strong and capable female characters were at least somewhat accepted and encouraged. Both comics do however maintain the physical appearance of femininity for the characters, similarly to Herrick’s article on female shipyard workers emphasizing the use of creams and typically feminine comforts. This indicates that while these comics do not balk at representing powerful women, there were still certain cultural expectations in place that they had to conform to.
Damsels in Distress
There are multiple examples of the damsel in distress within this comic. Gloria Gates from “Captain Wonder” and an unnamed character from “Tang” who is referred to mostly as “the girl” are two examples of this type of character. These two characters are shown being rescued by men, and never take much action of their own within the narrative. They are also both often depicted being held or restrained in some way.
The image to the left (fig 2) depicts Gloria Gates being kidnapped in “Captain Wonder”. She is being physically held by the male villain, and she makes no attempt to fight back, only being able to call for help. Her body is objectified here, with her skirt being pulled up slightly to reveal the top of her stocking, and her body positioned in a way to display her curves, even though she is being violently kidnapped. The male villain is what the eye is first drawn to in this frame, making Gloria even less important. Later in the comic, Gloria is shown tied up and with her shirt pulled down to expose her shoulder and the top of her breast. She remains tied up until Captain Wonder saves her, and even then her shirt remains pulled down in the last frame she is present in (Saakel, 24). The main purpose she serves in the narrative is to give Captain Wonder a reason to go and fight the villains. She is never shown in action, except for fleeing from the villains after being rescued, and her body is objectified throughout.
The unnamed “girl” from “Tang” serves much the same purpose as Gloria Gates. She is first shown tied up and gagged by the villains which the main characters are investigating, and she provides justification for the protagonists to fight the villains. After being rescued, the girl is shown being carried on horseback by the protagonists and providing them with one clue to find the rest of the villains (Kalbach, 14-15). In fact, this clue is only one of two sentences the girl speaks. It is also not a complete sentence, only a fragment description of one of the villains. The other sentence is simply confirming that the protagonists had reason to fight the villains. Like Gloria Gates, the girl serves mainly as a justification for the violence that the male protagonists commit.
Narratively, neither of these female characters are unique or vital. They could both be swapped with any number of reasons for the protagonists to leap into action and the narrative could be essentially the same. These characters both represent women who are entirely reliant on men. In the context of the time, this could be a statement on the role of women. It certainly indicates that as a society this view of women was not entirely unacceptable.
This comic offers insight into the effect that the changing role of women had on culture at the time. There is no unified stance on the role of women within this comic, just as the role of women was a tension point within the culture at the time. The characters presented have very different roles within their respective narratives, with varying importance. Similar techniques are used to show power or weakness in the female characters. In comparing these characters, it is possible to see how the patriotic woman was represented, as well as how women were represented as weaker and needing the support of men. Neither type of woman is represented as inherently bad, and so it is safe to assume that both were culturally present at the time. Overall, the varied representation of female characters within this comic is an interesting view into cultural ideals of the time.
- Dingle, Adrian. “Nelvana of the Northern Lights and the Ice Beam. Chapter Three: Lair of the Devil Fish.” Triumph Comics, no 21, Aug/Sept 1944, pp. 1-7. Bell Features, Library and Archives Canada, http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166652.pdf.
- Hegarty, Marilyn E. “Patriot Or Prostitute?: Sexual Discourses, Print Media, and American Women during World War II.” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 10, no. 2, 1998, pp. 112-136
- Herrick, Elinore M. The Myth of the American Glamour Girl: A Real Story of Women in War Industry: Millions in Factories Solving Manpower Crisis, Mrs. Herrick Says. vol. 26, New Leader Publishing Association, New York, N.Y, 1943.
- Kelbach, René L. “Tang.” Triumph Comics, no 21, Aug/Sept 1944, pp. 10-16. Bell Features, Library and Archives Canada, http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166652.pdf.
- Lazare, Jerry. “Air Woman.” Triumph Comics, no 21, Aug/Sept 1944, pp. 38-41. Bell Features, Library and Archives Canada, http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166652.pdf.
- Saakel, Ross. “Captain Wonder.” Triumph Comics, no 21, Aug/Sept 1944, pp. 19-25. Bell Features, Library and Archives Canada, http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166652.pdf.
- Smith, Helen E., and Pamela Wakewich. “Regulating Body Boundaries and Health during the Second World War: Nationalist Discourse, Media Representations and the Experiences of Canadian Women War Workers.” Gender & History, vol. 24, no. 1, 2012, pp. 56-73.
- Women Are Warriors. Directed by Jane Marsh. National Film Board, 1942.
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