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Reproducing Inequality and Representing Diversity: The Politics of Gender in Superhero Comics

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Abstract

Superheroes have delighted and inspired decades of comics readers, but they have also embodied inequalities of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and ability. As with positions of power across various political, economic, and social institutions, certain demographic groups have been overrepresented while those from more marginalized groups have been underrepresented and stereotyped. Female superheroes exemplify this underrepresentation and stereotyping, but also have the potential to destabilize norms and binaries to serve as empowering figures. This essay explores representations of female superheroes, and the multiple reasons as to how and why they have changed—and not changed that much—over time. It underscores the importance of diverse representations that are both numerous and authentic, and also suggests directions for future interdisciplinary and intersectional research about such representations in the field of comics studies.

Keywords

  • Superhero
  • Representation
  • Women
  • Power
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Disability
  • Sexuality
  • Stereotype
  • Diversity

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Fig. 1.1

Image credits Mike Sekowsky, Cover of Wonder Woman #180, 1968. DC Comics

Fig. 1.2

Image credits Jo Duffy (W), Kerry Gammill (P), Ricardo Villamonte (I), Glynis Wein (C). Power Man and Iron Fist #66. 1980. Marvel Comics

Fig. 1.3

Image credits Brandon Choi and Jim Lee (W), Jim Lee (P), Scott Williams (I). Fantastic Four Vol. 2 #1. 1996. Marvel Comics

Fig. 1.4

Image credits Marguerite Bennett (W), Mirka Andolfo (A), J. Nanjan (C). DC Bombshells, Chap. 42. 2016. DC Comics

Notes

  1. 1.

    The Code was adopted by the comics industry in response to public criticism from multiple groups about comics’ potential negative effects on children, particularly in the horror and crime genres, but also in the superhero genre. Most relevant to this essay’s discussion of gender in superhero comics is that the Code prohibited representations of “illicit sex relations” or “sex perversion” (i.e., any non-marital sex but especially that between same-sex couples), and mandated that “live-romance stories emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage” as well as “respect for parents [and] the moral code” (Comics Magazine Association of America 1954).

  2. 2.

    On how reception can vary, see, e.g., Duggan (2000); Brooker (2000); Brown (2000); Hall (2003); Kellner and Durham (2012).

  3. 3.

    Statistics in this as well as the next two paragraphs compiled by the author for all months of 2000, 2010 and 2018 plus January and February 2019 from various sources, for a total of 35 television shows, 53 movies and roughly 150 comics per month.

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Acknowledgements

This essay draws from my Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation (2016) and my keynote presentation at ComFor 2018, “Spaces Between—Gender, Diversity, and Identity in Comics.” It updates and extends that work.

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Correspondence to Carolyn Cocca .

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Cocca, C. (2020). Reproducing Inequality and Representing Diversity: The Politics of Gender in Superhero Comics. In: Eckhoff-Heindl, N., Sina, V. (eds) Spaces Between. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-30116-3_1

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