Updated: Jun 17, 2019
A restless world of comic books gave birth to Heroines. A book about women hardened by the heat of battles. Why? Because we haven’t been damsels in distress for a long time. An impressive testimony of gender inequality in comic books is meant for anyone who was at least once struck by the presence of a singular woman in a Smurf village. And for those who wish to broaden their horizons and have some fun while doing it.
The origin of everything is the statement of the French screenwriter JC Deveney and the comics organization in Lyon that female heroines are rarely represented in comic books. When they appear on the scene, they are often portrayed in a stereotypical way in a society that does not appreciate their intellectual and individual qualities. The women are typically voluptuous and passive standing by the side of successful men. What can we do about it? How to make people think critically about the prejudices that often hide behind comic book pages? The answer was obvious: a gender swap. An original platform based on the swap of roles and partly on spoofing the original in which the male hero played the former part.
Avengerettes, Asterixa, Obelixa, Tintina and many more
JC Devey, together with the Lyon comic book festival organizers, asked both male and female artists to contribute with their art, choose any comics they like and redraw it so that the female heroine has the prominent role. And so an entire gallery was born. Asterixa and Obelixa are basking together under the Egyptian sun, Tintina in shorts flees from her enemies through the jungle, and the female barbarian and bodybuilder Conanka has just saved two delicate and weak men from their doom. The illustrators were given space to justify their choice of comics and describe in a short interview what’s the situation now with female authors, characters and readers. This has created a remarkable set of paintings, interviews, ideas, opinions and also articles regarding the subject.
"What's cuter - a little rascal (note Petit Spirou) who wants to cut the swimsuit string of a girl who is just taking a bath, or - a little girl who is approaching a swimming man with scissors in her hand? To find out, I swapped the roles,” says the artist Yan Le Pon in one of the chapters. The sophisticated abdominal muscles of men and the sexuality of girls are a little over-exaggerated, and many readers will probably raise their eyebrows when they see it. What is normal representation for one sex is rather a strange phenomenon for the other? After all, have a look at the original and compare it with the gender-swapped drawing.
It is a generally rooted fact to see female characters as potential victims worthy of special protection rather than as sexual predators. The moment a man becomes portrayed as a woman and vice versa, we have the opportunity to reveal the cliché. On the other hand, other characters, for example, are clearly not limited to belonging to a certain gender and everyone can identify with them.
Reading Heroines does not mean delving into despair, sadness, and inequality. The book goes beyond feminist literature, does not moralize and accurately depicts the atmosphere of contemporary comics. There it is said the number of female authors and readers is growing and it is backed by the testimonies of many respondents. According to illustrator Cécile Morvan, the character of Wonder Woman, a demigod and a warrior from the land of the Amazons, takes credit for that. Morvan herself chose Avengerettes for her drawing. Impressive heroines in contrast with only one man - the Black Widower.
It is no coincidence that the book was followed by an eponymous exhibition of over two dozen works of art. The exhibition crossed French borders and last year (in 2018 - note by the author) it was visited by both students of the British University Cumbria and also by comic book enthusiasts at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal. One of the exhibitors, Steven Appleby, adds: “I’m a trans-person and grew up wanting to turn into a girl. Much later in life, when I first went out dressed as a woman, it was like stepping through a door into another world. I was struck by how differently people responded to me. Particularly men. I think we should all try to imagine ourselves in another person’s place, all the time, and see things from their point of view.
Genderswap is popular with comic book fans. An interesting phenomenon is a situation when a comic book with a male hero sells so well that his female variant is created, such as in the case of Batgirl, Superwoman, Spidergirl or She-Hulk. New heroines were often less clad and weaker than their male colleagues, but there they were. They weren’t original, but they had style. After all, isn’t it true that woman was made out of Adam's rib?
Do women have to be sexy in comic books?
Women in comic books are mostly sexy. It is wrong? As a blond female Smurf with short dress and heels, Smurfette arouses the affection of perhaps all the Smurfs. Originally, when she was malevolent, ugly, and dark-haired, she had been sent by Gargamel to disrupt and smurf up the good relationships of the Smurfs. Then a little magic of Papa Smurf was enough to turn her into a beauty constantly breaking other Smurfs’ hearts. But what about Smurfette’s feelings when dozens of half-naked “men” walk around the village?! This will stay a mystery forever.
When Florence Dupré Latour draws the female depiction of Tintin, she imagines her in a tank top and shorts. It raises a question. Must all heroines be sexy? The author says no. She herself sees nothing sexual even in nudity. In the case of Tintina, she certainly did not think how to dress the heroine less, but she remembered what she was wearing in the Antilles when she grew up. After all, the storyline took place in the jungle. According to her, both men and women perceive sex very differently. And this is also reflected on the pages of the comic books.
With ease, JC Devey connects the different levels of confrontation with the same visual and narrative stereotypes of portraying women in comics. The images often lead us to take samples of prejudices for reality and forget that they are purely subjective, ideologically-oriented and have undergone certain development. The book brilliantly fulfills its goal set at the beginning. It starts a debate and spreads the message about women’s equality. It forces us to reflect on the perception of the ideal comic hero and heroine. Do not miss!
Author: Lenka Davidová
Prague contributor to Laydeez do comics. She writes, takes photos, travels, is interested in the world and, among other things, its reflection in comics. She currently works as a freelancer. Formerly she was employed as the manager in CzechTourism (destination marketing agency of the Czech Republic) and as a foreign radio editor. In her diploma paper, she wrote about comic book journalism and the depiction of war conflicts in the 2nd half of the 20th century in the so-called ninth art. Last but not least, she is a fan of everything French.