© Copyright 2017 Michelle Moreira, Ryerson University
The several decades of comic book readership mostly comprising of males from ages twelve to thirty-five, has led to a monopolization over the type of content created, along with the reinforcement of misogynistic ideals made through this said content (Lavin 93). As the created content continued to prioritize the interests of young men over that of females within the same age range, “the comparatively low numbers of… female readers reflect the scarcity of products designed specifically for them” (Lavin 93). With no female voice or influence on the ways in which women are depicted, the male perception in which artwork and illustrations are created from, reflect on the broader social values of an early twentieth century Canadian society. As a result, inaccurate and objectifying depictions of women are created through the use of patronizing dialogue, and visuals relating to sexuality and domestication. In looking to the entire issue of Triumph Comics No. 20 as the primary source of study, issues pertaining to the portrayal of women are exemplified through the lack of titles given to female characters, and displays of female domestication. Using these examples, the following essay will argue that the way in which women are depicted through comics, serves to further perpetuate the idea that the former—as codependent beings on the male sex— merely exist as an object to benefit or serve the male sex.
Titles and Identity
Upon comic books’ first introduction to the public, the role of the female character has continuously shown to be something of ambiguity (Lavin 94). One of the examples discussed by Michael R. Lavin is that of Louis Lane; a tough and intelligent woman who is in constant need of Superman’s rescue (94). Despite women taking on various roles such as; the superhero, the superhero’s love interest, a self-sufficient career woman, the maid, or the damsel in distress, a common theme of codependence can be seen in all. The one dimensional standard in which these characters are set, begs the question of what exactly are women’s purpose in text. Their association with various archetypes becomes ineffective and ultimately misleading, forcing them into an uncategorized in-between place. As a result, the meaning of a true female role is nonexistent. In the same manner, the lack of titles or names given to these characters reflect on their lack of significant influence. In the story of “Nelvana of the Northern Lights and the Ice-beam”, though the protagonist introduces herself as Nelvana she is never addressed by this name. Instead, she is referred to as “lass”, “poor dear child”, “dear”, “young lady” “lidy” and so on (Dingle 2-4). The issue of generalized titles also applies to other types of characters, such as the maid in “Nelvana” whom is referred to as “bessie” and “the good natured woman” (3-4). Other similar examples found in Goofy Tales and Snaps are the titles of “his wife”, “te[a]cher”, and “mighty good brides” when referring to female characters (27-39). Using words such as “his wife” and “mighty good brides” both hint towards a male ownership over the former, and women’s inability to exist without the inclusion of the latter. A similar comparison would be that of Mary Marvel who was introduced as Captain Marvel’s sister and Supergirl introduced as Superman’s cousin (Lavin 94). The article of Women in Comics outlines that even amongst super-powered females, they are still defined through their relationships with men and still seen to need rescuing or protection (94). “Te[a]cher” as opposed to “Mrs” refers to a title that is impersonal to the subject, and can be used interchangeably with the male sex. By having an unassigned title, the position associated with women is of ambiguous nature once again, and shows to be one that is easily replaced and re-assigned.
An important aspect to take note of, are the characteristics often associated with the subject whilst being introduced. For example, while the maid in “Nelvana” is given the formal title of “Mrs. Gooch”, she is also identified as being “none too brilliant” (Dingle 2). Though she is properly established to the reader, the state of her intelligence is inappropriately mentioned and insulted. This specific tactic seems to demonstrate that when women are appropriately recognized in a text, there are other factors that add to the unreliability or insignificance of their character. If the comic does not insult the integrity of the character, women are subject to other identifiers that are irrelevant to the comic’s plot. A scene from Charge of the Cossacks exemplifies this when a woman is being grabbed by a male officer, to which he says “come old woman, you’ll do” (Lazare 30). The mere comment on the woman’s age acts as an invitation for judgement on the basis of viewing them as an object rather than a person. Kathleen Woodward in Figuring Age comments on this type of physical evaluation by stating, “I’m often stuck when people say, ‘you’re so youthful!’—as if they saw me as an image, not a human being” (6). Just like the previous titles of “te[a]cher”, “brides”, and “his wife”, identifying female characters in this way aims to reduce them to that of an object and implies the lack of need for a female influence. Through the previous examples and analysis, the ambiguous role of female characters can also be viewed as one that has been redefined by the male perspective, further perpetuating the prioritization of the male audience and desire.
Women and Domestic Confinement
To further expand on issues of identity, the exposure given to women within comics is also very minimal and conditional. Adding to previous mentions of ownership over women and the overall restrictions of their identity, recurring images of domestication also become a defining influence on these ideas. Besides Nelvana in “Nelvana of the Northern Lights and the Ice-Beam”, the only two other female characters within the text are maids (Dingle 2-4). Considering maids or house-keepers only exist within the boundaries of the home and are generally occupied by women, such images act as a personification for the idea of domestication. Though not just limited to the comic of “Nelvana”, other images of women merely existing within the home are also seen in “Duds”, and “Goofy Tales”. The image from “Duds” below depicts a woman sitting around a dinner table while two men have their own conversation, leaving her without dialogue (Fig. 1).
The consistent images of women being confined to the home, motion to their lack of social presence and influence. In this case, the home acts as a gendered entrapment in limiting interaction with the outside world, and determining where they are allowed to exist and where they are not. Exposure to the social world become smaller as a result, and reinforce the idea of “a man’s world”.
In the article “Fangirls in Refrigerators: The Politics of (In)visibility in Comic Book Culture” by Suzanne Scott, the dialogue of comic books’ gendered domestication pays special attention to one specific use of refrigerators. The article speaks on the overall treatment of female characters in comics, referring to a particular scene in Green Lantern where he finds his girlfriend dismembered in the fridge. Ironically associated with a household item, the death of Green Lantern’s girlfriend is significant in displaying the uses of women’s role in the plot. As it was previously stated that women are commonly seen to live by agents of domestication, the example of Green Lantern also demonstrates them to die by it as well. The shift between a woman’s existence and nonexistence in a text does not occur at all. Once again, this begs the question of what exactly do women offer to a text. If there is no movement or difference in position, then it is safe to assume that from a comic book’s perspective, women do not provide any substantial voice to a story. However, what seems to be more effective is their death in creating movement within a plot which no longer involves them. For example, the villain Major Force killing Green Lantern’s girlfriend, simply to motivate him to take action (Scott 1).
Logically, a way to cause friction within the ideas of women’s domestication would be to simply remove them from the confinement of a the gendered confinement: the home. By changing the environment in which they are found expands these character’s mobility, allowing them to involve themselves in other aspects of the plot. However, as demonstrated in “Snaps” within Triumph Comics, altering the female role is not as easy as removing them from gendered environments. A panel taken from “Snaps” comic makes a mockery of this attempt by presenting women in an outside environment, while still completing household chores (Fig. 2).
The illustration also utilizes the idea of an altered education to add a satirical tone to the piece. Considering education is often used as an agent of empowerment through knowledge, the mere mockery of this portrays an image in which women lack these two characteristics, to which the right of formal education does not apply. If empowering agents do not apply to the former, their role in the text remains the same: to benefit the status and desires of their male counterpart. Just as the example in Green Lantern shows that the murder of his girlfriend was to merely motivate the male lead in taking action, the image above serves women’s existence to serve for the benefit of men—in this case to be “mighty good brides”
As a result, by portraying women through a way in which most of their exposure is in a household, their existence is seen as conditional and ultimately dependent on the male role. The home acts as a structure to contain and limit any potential of women creating their own unique impact in the world, and in turn lessens the threat of equally distributing power between the two sexes within the male’s world.
Using the 1940s Canadian Wartime comic Triumph Comics no. 20, the essay’s particular focus on titles and domestication, serve to highlight women’s overall invisibility and ambiguity as characters in the comic. The association of titles with women’s identity is significant in their attachment of gender roles and social expectations from a patriarchal Canadian society. The confining nature of titles as well as symbols of domestication play an equally important role in reducing the female voice and image. By providing analysis through the use of these two examples, the essay utilizes two different perspectives towards the overall argument. As titles aid in maintaining the ambiguity of women’s purpose in a text while creating an identity that is simultaneously nonexistent, readers can conclude that the interchangeability of their role results in a lack of significant importance. On the other hand, the images of domestication hint towards the attempt to restrict the overall appearance of women in comics, in turn eventually make them nonexistent in society. From the historical context of the piece, the use of these two tools can be seen as the patriarchal urge to control and dominate within the overall society. Though demonstrated through fictional roles and characters, the ways in which women are depicted in the comic suggests a societal attitude that has become vital in dictating the human rights, opportunities, and overall treatment of women.
- Lavin, Michael R. “Women in Comic Books.” Serials Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 1998, pp. 93–100.
- Scott, Suzanne. “Fangirls in Refrigerators: The Politics of (In)visibility in Comic Book Culture.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 13, 2013.
- Triumph Comics, No. 20, Bell Features Publishing, Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946, RULA Archives & Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.