In 1999 comics writer Gail Simone posted a list called “Women in Refrigerators,” in which she numbered female lead and supporting characters who had suffered doomed fates in the mainstream superhero comics. She wanted to start a conversation about the trends surrounding the treatment of female characters in mainstream superhero comics, a medium strongly dominated by male characters and theoretically a medium only aiming to appeal a male audience.
She called her list “Women in Refrigerators” because of Green Lantern #54 (1994), an issue where the Green Lantern discovers his girlfriend, cut in small pieces, murdered inside his refrigerator. A tactic used by the villain, Major Force, which aims to force him into battle. Gail Simone was so shocked by this that she decided to investigate what happened with other strong women in mainstream superhero comics. Making her list, she discovered that most of them ended up dead, tortured, crippled or depowered. ( See Duncan & J.Smith, 255-258)
Her list became a reference in gender issues in comics. The dominant ideology in society is the one that colors everything we do. It is the dominant ideology that will dictate the “good stereotypes.” Thus, media will promote the dominant ideology, willingly or unwillingly, just because it feels natural. Traditional representations of women have always portrayed them using certain stereotypes: as victims, in supporting roles in need, and if strong, with male attitudes… Those who had the lead were biased by the dominant ideology in society, while those who represented needy characters used stereotypes which clearly portrayed the ideals of the dominant ideology towards women.
Images of male and female characters are abstracted depictions from reality in comics. Authors choose the traits that deem important and create their characters according to their world views. Stereotypes are widely used in comics to quickly convey information to the reader. However, there is a risk to trap characters within obsolete stereotypes which portray the ideals of the dominant ideology, or the most powerful one, that might not match all classes in society. Authors do not choose stereotypes on a random basis: they choose those existing in their culture, and they do so colored by their education, they social status, their gender, their world views, etc.
Since 1999, date in which Women in Refrigerators was first published, more and more women have joined the comics industry: as creators, managers, readers, etc. We could argue that the changes occurring within mainstream comics are due to a greater presence of women within the industry, but this would be erroneous since it is not a real indicator for real change: we cannot assume that the dominant ideology has relinquished just because of more women in the medium. What we can argue are socio-economical changes that are forcing the medium to change.
Marvel has announced that the new THOR, from October, is going to be a female. According to Marvel THOR would be its 8th title to star a female character. But this is not an ordinary female character. Marvel says that she is not a “she-Thor” (unlike the she-Hulk), she is not a “Thorita”: she is THOR, plain and simple. With this move, Marvel is wading in: they transform one of their strongest male characters into what seems the strongest female characters. Stating that she is just THOR also implies that the differences stated till now between male and female fade too. They also make an inner revolution changing THOR’s hammer description, from a male one, to a generic one. No longer the one who is worthy of possessing Mjölnir will be a man, but also a woman. The hammer also changes its name, though.
What does this mean? That there are more female creators? That the dominant ideology has faded out? Or that there are socio-economical changes on the table that are forcing the media to change? There is no doubt that women have been largely ignored in comics as potential buyers, specially in mainstream superhero comics. When comics first appeared, they were mainly focussed in attracting the attention of young male readers. As time elapsed, the comic industry also created comics for female audiences (romance comics) which failed to thrill the audience due to lack of continuity of the characters, due to lack of understanding of female needs by male creators (colored by the dominant ideology of the time and the existing stereotypes towards women), and due to technological achievements (TV bought soap operas that brought romance with characters who had longer lives on the screen). The failure with romance comics and with mainstream superhero comics among female readers made it difficult for women to get thrilled with comics. (It does not mean that women did not read the comics, some did, but they were not a main audience, and definitely not a main targeted audience at all.)
Times have changed, and so has the american family: the traditional structure remains for the upper class of the country, while the middle and lower classes see deep changes in the family structure. More and more women are becoming the head of the family. Women have more and more economic power, thus, more money to spend. This means that women are an audience which has not yet been completely welcomed into the comics arena and has great potential for becoming long-term customers. And this means that, if changes are made in the correct way, the earnings for the media might be enormous. Which means that women are a targeted audience, an audience that cannot be ignored anymore. Economical changes in family structure are forcing changes in what new potential consumers want to consume as entertainment. As women get more economical power, they also demand entertainment which accommodates their views. Women with responsibility no longer want to see themselves as victims, as supporter characters or as women in need of help who need a strong male figure beside them. They demand to be the hero in the story. They are the head of the family, they are earning money, they want a myth that accommodates them: a new stereotype, a new way to be perceived.
Not always changes come from the hand of the dominant ideology itself. Some times, changes in the socio-economical structure of society make necessary changes into the dominant ideology. If society structures change, ideologies must change too. As women are holding more responsibility within the family, and are being able to control their economy because they are an active economical force in society, undoubtably social change appears. Sooner or later, women, as an active force in society will demand appropriate entertainment for themselves with specific characteristics that, as we know, do not match the dominant ideology. Now we are experiencing how the comic industry is trying to match those changes, and how to attract a sector of society who has more and more money to spend. If they are able to portray women as they perceive themselves, the mainstream comic industry might profit from a new growing audience who is eager to get entertainment suited for themselves.
Marvel is wading in strongly with THOR. Thor is no ordinary character as stayed above: he is a strong male God, worthy of his powers. A character that comes from Norse Mythology and adapted to the American society in order to create a new american myth. Now, Marvel states that THOR is not a she-THOR. She is just THOR. There are no gender attachments to her name. They are trying to persuade more women to read comics while transforming a male mythological character into a gender-free one, in a female body. This is a very strong statement, move and strategy. How will they finally portray this woman will be decisive to see if THOR, the God of Thunder wins the hearts of new female readers, and keeps those who already has won, while providing a suitable female superhero that accommodates the new image of women within society. Will they get it right?
- Randy Ducan & Matthew J.Smith, “The power of comics. History, form & Culture.” Pages 203-206, 255-258.
- Gail Simone, “Women in Refrigerators.”
- NYTimes, “The changing american family.“
- Comic book resources, “Breaking: Marvel debuts female Thor on ‘the View’.”
- Time, “Thor will now officially be a woman in Marvel Comics.”
- The Verge, “Marvel’s new Thor will be a woman.”