Chris Peruzzi is a comic book superhero historian who is passionate about how today's comic book heroes are the new mythology for America.
Comics for Girls
The Times Have Changed
One of the terrible and sobering aspects about getting older is seeing things that were quite acceptable revealed to be as horrible as they really are. Among the multitude of DC characters that have appeared over the decades, some were just incredibly wrong.
Case in point, Fawcett Comics, once upon a time had a character like Steamboat. Steamboat was probably one of the most politically incorrect and insulting caricatures of African Americans to exist within any superhero comic book. I won’t go into specific details but I can’t overstate enough how much of a racist ethnic slur he was to African Americans in both appearance and dialect. The same can be said about the Metal Man’s antagonist Egg Fu, who was equally abhorrent and can be found in my article Five (Seven Actually) Really Lame DC Villains.
Why was this?
Comic book characters have been around since the mid-thirties. Attitudes and social norms have changed dramatically through the decades and things that were once acceptable back then are not anymore. In truth, the off-color characters were not even funny. People generally laughed at the ridiculousness of an overly exaggerated stereotype as they would at a clown.
Are there still people who think circus clowns are funny and not incredibly terrifying?
It’s the base humor that only very low brow humorists shoot for. It’s right there with people who think whoopee cushions, joy buzzers, and flower boutonnieres that squirt water as funny.
When we think about the roles of women in the modern age, they are much different than those written in the silver age of comics. We have to remember that these were the characters that came from the writers of that period. Those writers were interested in one thing – selling comics. So the archetypes the comic book writers made for women were not made from personal experience. They were made with the misconception of what they thought women were with the desires they mistakenly thought were priorities for women.
Those writers were interested in one thing – selling comics. So the archetypes the comic book writers made for women were not made from personal experience. They were made with the misconception of what they thought women were with the desires they mistakenly thought were priorities for women.
So the archetypes they made for women were not made from the writer's personal experience - which was wrong. It would be like a plant describing what it's like to be an animal. They were made with the misconception of their impression of women. These characters were made with the goals and desires men mistakenly thought were women's.
That being the case, they were wrong – and they certainly weren’t anywhere close to the women role models of today. Examples of this were in most of the plots of the silver age Lois Lane comic. Lois Lane’s raison d’être was 1) to be Mrs. Superman, 2) to have little super-babies and 3) to beat out Lana Lang for Superman’s affections. Oh, and 4) she also wanted to know Superman’s secret identity so she could be the ultimate working woman.
Unlike women of today, she had conflicting interests and lacked focused. In fact, none of her goals had to do with self-actualization; they had to do with getting a man – a Superman.
Most modern women aren’t like that. They know what they want. They want to be recognized for who they are and what they have to contribute. Most women want to live a life free of male domination and have a voice of their own.
These are qualities that were never imagined by silver age comic writers.
My pledge to you, after I publish this is that I will give six examples of strong female characters in a future article. However, for right now, here are six negative examples of female role models in DC’s comic universe.
Back in the silver age of comics, things were silly. They were dopey with a side order of wackiness. DC comics had many Earths that were far from the reality of serious superhero stories. Not that those silver age comic book stories were ever really that good but these other stories were just silly.
Few concepts were as dopey as the ones in The Inferior Five.
The Inferior Five was the brainchild of E. Nelson Bridwell (former Mad Magazine writer) and artists, Joe Orlando and Mike Esposito. This team of misfits was made of Merry Man, Awkward Man, White Feather, The Blimp, and Dumb Bunny. Their story was that they were the offsprings of champion superheroes. The five were the super-awkward children. For example, Merry Man, their leader, was the son of characters Uncle Sam and Miss Liberty. He’s very smart but is a weakling. Awkward Man is the spawn of an Aquaman female character and a Superman male character. He’s graceful in water but clumsy on land. The Blimp is the son of a flying Flash character, who can fly but has no speed - so he floats. White Feather is the son of an archer hero but gets too nervous to make a target shot in front of people.
Then we have Dumb Bunny. Her real name is Athena Tremor. She is the product of a Wonder Woman character and her Steve Trevor counterpart. She’s really strong with goddess looks, and really stupid. Bridwell thought that a woman who’s strong and attractive but not intelligent should be a model.
That’s the message. If you’re a good looking, strong, athletic woman, with a low IQ, you should be a model.
This is because the world will love you only if you stand there and be pretty instead of showing your true self to the world. How many parents just shuddered at that? An attractive looking woman without an education should just have her picture taken in new clothes because if she can’t be a model, she has nothing to offer the world.
How many parents just shuddered at that? An attractive looking woman without an education should just have her picture taken in new clothes because if she can’t be a model, she has nothing to offer the world.
Bridwell defines success for an attractive stupid woman finding work as a fashion model. While that’s good work if you can get it, it certainly isn’t all she could be. I would hope that any daughter of an amazon would encourage her child to be free from the reign of men and find her own warrior spirit. That being said, the real message might be that when humans mate with demi-goddesses, it results in stupid semi-mortals.
Women are more than their looks. They are greater than the sum of their parts. If they aren’t rocket scientists there are other careers for them to follow their bliss.
I want to continue with Bridwell because children of that era were directly affected by his nonsense.
In 1968, he created a title called Angel and the Ape. It’s the story of a female PI who’s partnered with a talking gorilla.
I know; it's ridiculous.
That’s the general overview. It’s a cartoonish story but it's more that Angel’s backstory is degrading.
Angel Beatrix O’Day is the daughter of Theo O’Day and a mortal woman. Shortly after Angel’s mother passed away, her father marries a retired superheroine, Princess Power – who is the mother of Dumb Bunny. Growing up as the only non-powered child in a superfamily gave Angel an inferiority complex. However, she studied hard in school to compensate. She became an expert at martial arts, fencing, sharp shooting, and Jarate. On top of that, she can speak multiple languages.
I think we can agree that Angel worked hard to become exceptional. She’s a self-made woman. So, what does she do with her life? She opens a PI office with a talking gorilla. Call me silly, but if you dedicate yourself to mental and physical perfection, why aren’t you working for the CIA? Or go into the military? Or be a cop?
No, that's not in the card according to Bridwell.
Instead she bumped into an equally ethically offensive mentor named Charlie Chum - a friend of her father’s.
Thank God for the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot. Vertigo did a reboot in 2001 that was far away from the zany silly roots that Bridwell started. It offered real mysteries and an edginess with a little bit of tongue and cheek. The even got Art Adams to do the pencils.
However, I want you to know the damage one writer can do. Bridwell made a woman who had the potential to be smart and self-made feel inferior to siblings born without intelligence because she wasn’t born with superpowers. Plus, he rewarded success to a character who had the IQ of a doorknob with a modeling career.
This is why Lex Luthor hates Superman.
I want people to remember who the scariest hero is in the DCU. It’s Batman – A self-made hero with a goal and a mission who has no superpowers and made himself the best detective in the world. Being a hero didn’t come easy.
It was the fight and struggle that makes a hero.
The genes you get from your parents are a crap shoot.
Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, archenemy to Fawcett Comic’s Captain Marvel, had four children. His first two children were the children of his first wife, the Empress of Venus. They were Beautia and Magnificus. Beautia is good, beautiful, and charming. Magnificus is handsome and super strong. The other two children Sivana Jr. and Georgia Sivana got their looks from their father.
What Georgia Sivana lacks in beauty she makes up in evil science-y intelligence.
Georgia Sivana was the evil answer to Mary Marvel. She is featured as a female teenaged scientific genius antagonist who constantly battles Mary Marvel. The tragic thing about her is that she is obsessed with being beautiful. That yearning became a reality during the Multiversity storyline where she was granted Shazam-fueled powers to make her mighty and beautiful enough to seduce anyone she wanted.
This made her happy.
Once she got her beauty, she used it to try to seduce Captain Marvel Jr. and any other man who came in her direction.
Ordinarily, I would write this off to silver age crappy writing plots – however, this new wrinkle came with Grant Morrison - who I think was imitating silver age crappy writing plots.
The message here is that it is much better to be pretty, cruel, and strong than it is to be good natured at intelligent. The lesson is learned by the misery Georgia gets when she loses her powers and beauty after she’s tricked into saying the magic word a second time.
The only saving grace with this entire thing is that Georgia Sivana is a villain and that makes her someone children shouldn't emulate anyway.
“I make people sick,” says Drura Sehpt from the planet Somahtur to Ambush Bug in a pre-crisis story.
Drura Sehpt, aka Infectious Lass, is a standing member of the 31st Century Legion of Substitute Heroes. Her power is exactly what she says it is. She makes people sick. This poor teenaged girl has to power to give other people infectious diseases.
Her control over this power was, at first, unreliable. This makes sense when you look at her body as a carrier transport for microorganisms. For lack of a better term, think of her as a spaceship for disease. She is unaffected by any of the diseases she carries, but nonetheless, other people really need to watch out and get their vitamin C.
Being her teammate is like having that one moron in your office who insists on coming to work sick because he feels well enough to travel to work and he doesn't want to use his sick days. Meanwhile, he'll give others whatever horrible malady he’s suffering from because he’s a stupid little germ factory.
While Infectious Lass has always had control over which disease gives someone, she originally didn't have the control she needed to keep specific people from getting sick.
Oh and by the way, her costume is partially made of phlegm – if that wasn’t sick enough.
Also, she was rejected by the much cooler Legion of Superheroes because her audition made Star Boy sick. Once again, she had no control over her powers and made him really, REALLY sick. She also accidentally infected her fellow Substitute Legionnaire, Color Kid, with a gender switching virus that turned him temporarily female.
In creating Infectious Lass, DC created a woman who was repulsive to be around and therefore a pariah. The message being that regardless of what you do and who you are, you’ll always be feared and disliked.
Plus, if the reader didn't get the message immediately, her costume is made of snot.
It wasn’t until years later Drura mastered control over her powers. She married Jacques Foccart, the second Invisible Kid, and later became his First Lady when he assumed the title of President of the United Planets.
I really don’t know what the writers were thinking when they made this character female. When one thinks of contagion, one thinks of lepers on an island or something terrible that’s incurable. Is this something to aspire to? Or is it a question of overcoming something so hideously terrible that it would take extraordinary strength of character to conquer?
If it’s the former, then why would you create someone like that? If it’s the latter, then why hasn’t any story been published showing Drura conquering this problem?
Emily Briggs was an introverted mousy bank teller/housewife who had no idea her family’s hidden superpowered genes could be activated by Haley’s Comet.
After she's kidnapped by a group named the Abyssia (an underground group of terrorist vampires), her powers activated and transformed her into a buxom flirtatious extrovert with psychic powers (telekinesis, telepathy, and psychometry). Renaming herself “Lia”, she joined Batman’s Outsiders vigilante group and quickly had an extramarital affair with Geoforce.
Looker, now a woman obsessed with her looks, lost her powers and her beauty with a second encounter with the Abyssia. She returned to her old life and to her husband. Sometime after that, her powers and beauty returned and she went to Markovia to battle a band of vampires. While battling their leader, she gets bitten by a vampire and turns into one.
The irony is that she can no longer be photographed or look into a mirror.
It is within her vampiric nature to give into her bloodlust and feed on human blood. She, like all vampires, can transform into mist and other beasts. Still, she’s not a woman you’d want to get close to.
This character is a true product of seventies thinking.
While this character is on the side of angels, she is truly one of the most reprehensible heroes within the DCU. Starting off as a shy introvert, she becomes a beauty with powers which in her mind gives her a license to become a flirtatious self-centered extroverted cheat (incidentally, I chose my words carefully and did not use the "w" word).
The message to young women is: forget the supportive men who love you for who you are. Should you ever transform yourself through self-improvement into a more robust person, abandon your commitments and double down and get nasty with the first aristocrat you can find.
This is scummy in either sex.
Apparently, according to Looker's writers, it’s a virtue to be incredibly shallow and self-centered.
I’ve saved the best for last because Harley Quinn is a really popular character among Batman fans. Hell, Kevin Smith named his daughter after her.
Her initial appearance on Batman: The Animated Series was so successful that her character was introduced later into the main DC Continuity and is now part of the upcoming Suicide Squad movie.
For those of you who don’t know, Harley Quinn – aka Doctor Harleen Frances Quinzel, M.D., she was a psychiatrist who worked at Arkham Asylum. As an intern fascinated with the Joker’s psychosis, she became his therapist, often hearing only the Joker’s side of the story. She eventually fell head over heels in love with the clown prince of crime, became his new head lackey and helped him escape Arkham.
This was obviously problematic.
Having a relationship with the Joker is really hazardous to anyone’s health. Harley's friend and fellow Batman villain, Poison Ivy, gave her an antitoxin that gave her increased strength and agility – as well as immunity to toxins (like Joker’s smilex gas).
Harley’s personality is largely infused with the creative touches of her first voice actress, Arleen Sorkin. Often using a thick Bensonhurst-Brooklyn accent, Harley’s trademark is her jester/harlequin costume and white face makeup. Although she’s gone through many costume incarnations, she’s best known for the one she had for Batman: The Animated Series.
The problem with Harley Quinn as a girl’s role model is that she is the poster child for women in an abusive relationship. The Joker is rarely kind and tender with her and often shows her scorn when all she wants is his attention. This is psychologically destructive negative behavior. Sticking with a man who is himself a psychopath and craving that attention can only end badly.
The best thing she can do is walk away - which is unlikely because she loves her "puddin".
I have a wife. I have a mother. I grew up with three sisters. I have seen the positives and the negatives of women. In my time as husband, son, and brother, I’ve learned that women have strength and character and deserve our respect.
In prepping to write this article, I listened to almost the entire catalog of Helen Reddy’s songs. That’s right; there is nothing I won’t do for you readers. After listening to women roaring and the full women’s anthem of empowerment, I had an inkling of what women were fighting for in the seventies.
Okay, I’m joking. I didn’t listen to the entire catalog.
This is the 21st Century. A woman should be her own person. She should be empowered. She should have the strength and gumption to go out and get what she wants. Women have carved out leadership roles within the business world and it is highly likely in July we will have a woman running on the Democratic ticket. (Incidentally, Hillary Clinton's campaign is not a historical first. Victoria Woodhull ran in 1872.)
We have left the days where a woman’s empowerment comes only from her looks. It does not define a woman.
The role of a traditional housewife, while good to have, does not and should not rest solely on a woman’s shoulders. A modern marriage is made with two equal partners. This is not the subjective role of what our parents and grandparents had. Men do not have a final word in anything and can no longer claim the head of a household without his wife’s acquiescence.
Is humanity there yet? No. As sure as I’m writing this article, I know that conservative right will break out every horrible sexist bit of commentary and use it against Hillary Clinton during his campaign for the presidency. Should she be elected, it will last another four to eight years.
As sure as I’m writing this article, I know that the conservative right will break out every horrible sexist bit of commentary and use it against Hillary Clinton during her campaign for the presidency. Should she be elected, the slime of sexist antagonism will last another four to eight years.
Not that I’m a huge Hillary fan - I’m just saying that’s what’s going to happen. You can disagree with a female candidate and not be a sexist.
I wrote this hub thinking what a positive superhero role model should be for a woman and then I found the opposite with these women. Today’s woman should not be written as a pariah. She is more than her ability to attract men. The terms “dumb blonde” and “bimbo” are derogatory. If she is intelligent, she should be using that intelligence to make her mark in this world. If she is strong then she should use her strength. And women that are using their beauty as a weapon should realize that beauty eventually fades leaving them to find their own inner beauty to make their mark – which can’t readily be faked.
If she's intelligent, she should be using that intelligence to make her mark in this world. If she's strong, then she should use her strength. And women that are using their beauty as a weapon should realize that their beauty eventually fades leaving them to find their own inner beauty to make their mark – which can’t readily be faked.
I’m happy that there is an abundance of positive characters within the DCU. I wrote this article as more than a critique to past writers. I also wrote it to let readers know how far we have come and that forward should be the only way to go.
© 2016 Christopher Peruzzi
Isaac Cherry from New York on October 11, 2019:
Zaton-Taran from California on March 13, 2017:
Let's be honest - flying through the air saving people is just not really a "woman-thing" in general. women aren't disposable in the same way men are. That said, there's nothing wrong with female superheroes since it's an area of fiction. Heck - same goes for male superheroes, now that I think about it. Great hub.
Some Dude on December 04, 2016:
Early Georgia Sivana thought she was beautiful, I believe knowing she was ugly, and being half sisters of Beautia came later.