Most of us grew up with fairy tales dominated by female protagonists. Characters like Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Belle and so on are starting to become hugely unpopular among feminists due to their status of victims and their lack of agency (Eugenia Hu, 2015). However, one should keep in mind that these well known heroines are a product of the time and society they were created in, a time where waiting to be saved by a handsome prince was the ultimate dream. Sooner or later, our beloved princesses and heroines will be replaced by more modern, independent and confident versions of themselves (see Elsa from Frozen for example). For the moment however, comics, as our modern fairy tales, seem to be dominated by male protagonists. Nevertheless, times are moving fast and, to the dissatisfaction of some male fans, female superheroes are starting to take over the industry.
In 2013, Marvel created Kamala Khan – a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl and Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own comic book. Ms Marvel is not the only female superhero in the comics world: She-Hulk, the new female Thor, Rat Queens, A-Force are only a few of the new generation of heroes.
The recent boost in women characters seems to have increased the pool of female readers. According to recent stats, women account today for 43.24% of the 37 million self-identified comics fans on Facebook. I found myself wondering if there is a clear correlation between the number of female characters in comics and and the size of the female fandom. The increase could just be a product of our evolutionist society and not necessary a product of constant efforts made to incorporate women in this fantasy universe. I started writing this article in hopes of testing the strength of this correlation. Below is a comparison of different comics fan bases by gender and ethnicity in the US:
|2014US Men fan base||2014US Women fan base||2015US Men fan base||2015US Women fan base||Male charac-ters||Female charac-ters||Total Facebook fan base 2015|
|DC Comics||68.18%||28.64%||73.33%||27.5%||71.86%||26.1%||Over 12,000,000|
|Indie & Small Press Comics||57.5%||40.63%||59.09%||40.91%||
The data (DC Comics ; Marvel ; Independent and Small(er) Press Comics) is mined by statistician Brett Schenker from Facebook’s demographic data using terms that correspond to likes, groups, etc. The number of characters is taken directly from Marvel’s and DC Comics’ website. The reason why the number of characters is not included for the independent and smaller comics companies is because Brett Schenker did not comprise a list of the companies included in his demographics data. He only mentioned that “49 terms were used to generate these stats”. By omitting to present this list, I was unable to check the percentage of male/female characters each one of these companies has and , at the same time, I was unable to verify the authenticity of the data presented. For the purpose of the current analysis, I will take him at his word but I am advising anyone who intends to use the data for commercial or academic purposes to proceed with caution or ask the author for clarification.
Looking at the table above, one can notice that despite the continuous efforts of the comic industry to incorporate women, both in their stories and in their readership database, sexism is still present in world of “The Big Two”, as Marvel and DC are often called. Sam LeBas and Will Brooker point out that superheroes are no longer for children (both girls and boys). The comics industry is now taken over by a massive fandom of mainly adult, white males who embrace juvenile attitudes and behavior. As a consequence, they created a sexist framework of the industry that is extremely exclusive by its very nature and it will now take a lot of time and effort to be dissolved. It is therefore not surprising that a handful of female superheroes will not create a huge shift in the readership demographics from one year to the next. Nevertheless, from 2014 till 2015, the female fan-base in the US alone has increased considerably but not as much and as fast as the male one. Consequently, the gender gap persists and widens.
Smaller companies, on the other hand, tend to have an evenly split readership in the United States year after year. This can be due to the diversity of materials presented in the Indies or maybe to the new attitude of these companies which did not start by advertising their products as a “boys only club”. At least for now, women find it easier to adapt in smaller comics communities where superheroes and comics are truly for everyone.
In 1999, Gail Simone created a list of female characters in comics that had a tragic destiny: either depowered, raped, or dead. The list became known as “The Women in Refrigerators Project”. It was clearly not a good decade for female characters in comic books. Fast forwarding to present days, the complexity of the characters has increased considerably. The industry has brought forwards more diverse superheroines who are not only able to survive “the refrigerator test”, but they also attracted an enormous global fan base and some even reached top positions on the New York Times Best Seller list of paperback graphic books.
Overall, I believe that an increase in the number of female characters can, in fact, increase the female fandom. However, this will depend on the consistency of efforts made by “The Big Two”. If the recent changes are only superficial, a politically correct move, then one can expect women’s historical place inside and around comics to continue being overlooked. However, if consistent efforts are made to eradicate the concept of women not being particularly welcomed in this fantasy world, then we can expect a significant increase in the female readership in the near future. After all, women do love their female heroines (Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger, and so on). Seeing the booming success of women in franchises, comics creators often feel the pressure of creating similarly strong female protagonists, but they sometimes do this the wrong way (or the lazy way… call it however you like). In order to maximise profits and avoid having to build a fan base from scratch, creators may chose to introduce new characters that already have a brand behind them – brand extensions (Spider-Woman, She-Hulk etc). The result? More under-developed characters that don’t get to reach their full potential due to the inevitable comparisons with the male characters or more pawns meant to strengthen the male characters. The reality is that women will build a loyal, strong and consistent fandom community, but only around strong female protagonists that inspire them.
Moving on to ethnic minorities, the gender divide seems to be similar across the three minorities selected for this study as it was for the entire fandom:
For Marvel, I counted 19 characters of African origins and 106 characters of Hispanic origins. For DC Comics, I found 16 main characters of African origins and 97 superheroes and supervillains with Hispanic origins. According to this blog, Marvel and DC have together around 50 main characters of Asian origins. There seems to be once again a correlation between the number of ethnic minorities superheroes and ethnic minorities characters in comics. Although I do not have any proof to back it up, I suspect that the two variables are interdependent. It looks like they influence one another; as the minorities readership increases, the comics writers create more ethnic superheroes and supervillains. Similarly, as the number of characters one can relate to increases so does the number of fans who find a role model in those characters.
Having all these in mind, what can one expect from the comics industry in the upcoming years? First of all, the number of women and people of color employed at major comics companies is extraordinarily low (as Spawn creator – Todd McFarlane said at the Television Critics Association press tour in 2013) and this has to change if the exclusivity stigma around comics is to be dispersed. Secondly, creating superficial characters just to decrease sexism and discrimination is not an option. When you create a female character, a black character, a Hispanic character, a gay character, a Muslim character just to fit certain criteria, not only does it not fool the readers, but it also minimises the character. Hence, the complexity and identity of the character should go hand in hand with a fantastic story line. The truth is that everyone reading comics wants to see their own story represented and once this is done tastefully and carefully, the readership will expand and change.
Anyone disappointed with the new feminist and minorities wave that hijacked the comics industry, I’m afraid will have to get used to the idea because the Big Two seem to be keen on accommodating broader demographics. Moreover, the famous characters (white, male) who people learned to love and grow up with are still there and will not disappear just because a vocal minority demands broader representation. So KEEP CALM AND READ COMICS!
Disclaimer: Please do keep in mind that I am completely new to the comics universe and therefore I could have omitted characters that did not come up in my research. I would highly appreciate if any errors and omissions are pointed out.