The role of women in the Superhero universe sounds like a fairly unlikely subject for a treatise. Yet the way female superheroes have been depicted and their behavior in DC and Marvel have undoubtedly changed with the times. Today, both are competing to create the sort of superheroes that will gain more female readers and moviegoers in the US and beyond.
It’s a far cry from the “plucky side kick” of years gone by. We will look at some of the latest female superheroes in a moment or two, but first, let’s very quickly recap the last 90 years or so.
From damsels in distress to female equivalents of male heroes
Marvel and DC both launched in the 1930s, and the comic book adventures of the time were aimed at an entirely male audience. The heroes were strong and manly, and any female characters were thinly drawn and were required only to gaze on in wonder or to get themselves imprisoned and wait around, wearing as little as possible, hoping to be rescued.
All that started to change quite rapidly in the postwar years. Attitudes had changed in the wake of women showing they could be just as heroic as men during the war years and were not just going to retreat back to the kitchen.
DC and Marvel were keen to celebrate this shift, but human beings can be strange creatures when it comes to change. There were those who were eager to restore patriarchal dominance and the natural order of things, as they saw it. Comic books began to face criticism for spreading unnatural ideas and in 1954, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was launched to keep order and regulate the content of comic books.
Its attitude towards women seems bewildering today, and is a perfect illustration of just how much has changed since the 1950s. To meet CCA guidelines, DC had a policy in place that “specifically discouraged” the inclusion of female characters in storylines. It stated that any women used in plot structures must be “secondary in importance.” DC was setting itself up to walk a tightrope with these self-imposed rules, and it shows the thinking behind the creation of heroes like Batwoman and Supergirl. They were basically watered-down female versions of male heroes.
Millennial girl power – from gaming to gambling at the casino
In the latter decades of the 20th century, characters like Wonder Woman began to take center stage, developing back stories of their own that were not derived from male counterparts. This drove more interest in superheroes from girls and women, but they were still in a minority until the new millennium.
When DC and Marvel suddenly became cool again in the early 2000s, there were shifts and indications of wider changes afoot in other areas of leisure and pop culture. Gaming, the perceived domain of spotty male youths, was suddenly attracting both sexes and all ages. Even the casino niche, the ultimate male bastion of the post war years, started to actively target female players in the US. Today’s real money online casinos tend to focus on casino games like keno, Cleopatra, Girls with Guns and Rainbow Riches as the male / female split of players is around 50/50.
It has taken a little longer for the comic book superhero world to get wise to the value of its female watchers. In part, this is due to conservatism, not so much in terms of attitude but in taking a risk-averse approach to change. The comic book multiverse became cool again in the wake of the Batman movies of the 90s, plus Spiderman, and it gathered pace with the X-men franchise, which kicked off in 2000. Here’s the thing, however. Marvel and DC were taking off again in big style, but it was predominantly on the big screen. For every new production, a multi million dollar production budget was on the line, and put simply, producers did not want to take risks.
It was not so much a reluctance to focus on female superheroes as a reluctance to focus on anything at all different that proved the stumbling block. Batman, Superman, X-men, Spiderman – all these were familiar territory and represented guaranteed success in the box office. This is why sequels are seen as such a cash cow across the movie industry. Sometimes, it is not so much that people know what they like as they like what they know.
Female superheroes gaining momentum in the 2020s
So it is that female superheroes have faced a harder and more prolonged fight for equality than we might initially have expected. The truth is, they are still far from there. Almost three quarters of super heroes in the Marvel and DC world are still male, and many of those who are female are over-sexualized. But the scales are tipping in the right direction.
When Captain Marvel opened in March 2019, it was the first movie in the Marvel franchise to focus principally on a woman. Box office fears were unfounded, and it generated more than $1 billion worldwide. Also, Brie Larson was elevated to legendary status in superhero terms alongside the likes of Michael Keaton, Henry Cavil and Hugh Jackman.
The following year, The New Mutants attempted to leverage the existing popularity of the X-men franchise with some new Gen-Z characters covering a more diverse range. A disappointing box office return means planned sequels have been shelved. It lacked continuity and sufficient connection with the X-man, which is a shame, as there were some great characters there, of both sexes.
2021 saw the release of Black Widow, focusing on one of Marvel’s original characters. The difficult timing lead to disappointing numbers when first released, but with half the world’s cinema still closed, that was inevitable. Two years on, it has steadily maintained profitability thanks to ongoing streaming opportunities. Analysts have now changed their minds and describable it as a box office success. That should encourage the developers that we want more, more, more.