DC have come in for a complete slating over the past few months, daring to mix their ‘chaste’ female solo titles with ‘sexy’ female solo titles, so Supergirl and Wonder Woman sit right next to Catwoman and Red Hood on the shelves. Comics Alliance were the heart of the complaints, which were levelled in particular at four different titles: Red Hood & The Outlaws, Catwoman, Suicide Squad and Voodoo. The accusation was that DC used their female characters as eye-candy for their predominantly male audience, which in turn meant the characters turned off the female demographic and leaves young girls with no role-models to read about and enjoy. If a child wants to read about strong female characters, they’re going to find it difficult to find them anywhere at DC.
Well, three months later, let’s take a quick look at how three of these four titles (nothing will compel us to willingly read about Jason Todd – NO.THING. – are handling themselves now, two months on. Remember that, because of the time it takes to write and draw a comic, most of these issues were likely already set-in-stone by the time the complaints came in about their first issues. So we have yet to reach the point where the comics can comment and react against any criticism that they may have received. This is always how the stories were meant to go on.
The most complaints were made about Catwoman #1, which focused extensively on showcasing Selina Kyle’s breasts, and ended with a panel of Batman and Catwoman having sex. Comics Alliance said that this was an example of the unfair difference between how comics portray men and women: Catwoman is not a strong female character, but an example of male fantasy acted out on the page.
Catwoman #3 still features bits of Batman, but for the most part now seems to be moving away from him, in order to establish why there’s a place for Catwoman in Gotham City. While not an origin story, this initial arc does seem to be about setting the character up, giving her motivation, and putting her alongside the rest of Gotham’s A-List characters. We’re essentially getting a rebooted purpose for the character. And what’s interesting here is how Catwoman effectively undermines the entire Batman sequence from issue #1. Here we have Catwoman out for revenge on the criminals who killed her friend, only for Batman to step in and stop her from going too far. This is when she then distracts him with a kiss so she can kick the villain off a roof, and make her escape. Batman, being Batman, jumps off the roof to save the man from certain death.
That’s an interesting sequence because it showcases the point of the Batman/Catwoman sequences from previous issues. There they were shown as being ultimately very similar – same modus operandi, same interest in black animal costumes, same antihero vibe to them. But here we see writer Judd Winick splitting them apart on idealogical grounds: Selina was going to kill this villain before Batman stepped in. Before we had a character who was a female reflection of Batman – which is why it seemed so unfair that she was characterised as a woman who uses her sexuality to get by. When you’re comparing Batman and Catwoman, Catwoman comes off worse because she uses her body against men. But now we see the two characters separated and defined independently, it becomes clear that Catwoman’s sexuality is meant to be out in the open. She is willing to put herself in morally ambiguous positions in order to get justice done. Batman is not. Catwoman #3, therefore, breaks the comparison between the depiction of male and female characters, and in doing so defines Selina Kyle as her own woman.
Voodoo was also mentioned in the article on Comics Alliance, and treated with disdain. This continued when the first issue actually came out, with most members of the site awarding it very low scores indeed. The premise, that the title character was a stripper, was so off-putting for the writers that they couldn’t allow the title any praise whatsoever.
Cut to issue #3, which sees her fight Kyle Rayner for the typical comic-book reasons: it looks good on the cover. Now, we never saw any validity in the complaints made about Voodoo #1 – the stripping scenes were designed to TRICK the readers, and not to sell out the female lead. She performs a strip over the course of that issue before suddenly revealing her true motives and killing the recipient of the dance. Issue #3 continues to show Voodoo doing whatever she wants, defining the world on her own terms. And, it continues to be a good, solid title. It may not be amongst DC’s best titles, but it’s certainly not the mess that some people have made it out to be. And it certainly isn’t a sexist comic.
And that leads us to Suicide Squad #3. There were complaints that the series was offering a completely unnatural, oversexualised, bland version of Harley Quinn. And they’re more or less right. Her sexual interest in Deadshot only seems to exist because she’s the single female character in the title, and thus needs to be attached to one of the male leads. We awkwardly see her in provocative poses over the course of this issue, and it’s decidedly unattractive. As created by Paul Dini, this woman is meant to be insane, and obsessive. Well here she appears to be insanely horny and obsessive about sex. I suppose it remains vaguely in-character for her, but it doesn’t make for an interesting read whatsoever. And it’s also interesting to see the trend where morally-ambiguous female characters are all sexualised. Catwoman, Starfire, Harley – there’s a disconnect between sex and morality, which showcases the conservative ideals of comics right now.
Would you ever see Wonder Woman have a one-night-stand? No, because apparently that would devalue her character. And therein lies one of the real cases of sexism within the DC reboot – sex is still treated as dirty, and suspicious, and vain. While female characters at DC continue to be defined as “good” or “evil” depending on whether they like sex or not and what they wear, comics will always struggle to appeal to a female audience.
…At any rate, the moral to all this is: buy Birds of Prey. It’s one of DC’s best books, and it isn’t afraid to depict actual women instead of porcelain goddesses or sexed-up criminals.