Though there are several well-rounded, kick-butt female characters in comics, we still have a long way to go. Women need more representation across the spectrum; Women come in every shape, size, build, and color, and those differences should be reflected in comics. At WonderCon, creators talked about the progress we’ve made and what still needs to be done in regards to putting more ladies in comics. James Robinson (Fantastic Four) moderated a panel that included Gail Simone (Batgirl), Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel), Rick Burchett (Lady Sabre), Cliff Chiang (Wonder Woman), and Georges Jeanty (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
The panelists began the discussion by stating how they define a strong female character. Right off the bat, Burchett addressed the fact that strength is not only about physical characteristics. “Part of showing strength is showing a wide range of emotion.” It can be about martial arts skills, and that’s definitely the case with Buffy. Jeanty said at first it was challenging for him to see her get beat up, but once he realized she is more than capable of handling it and taking blows, he dove into that aspect of the story.
DeConnick then brought up the importance of giving women agency. Characters need to be in control of their fate, and as she mentioned, women usually get shafted in that regard. So, when she’s writing, she’s looking for agency. She wants her characters to come across as a human being. She went on to describe her sexy lamp test: “If you can take a female character out and replace her with a sexy lamp, and your plot still functions, then f**k you.”
Robinson stated that as more female characters come into the picture, there seems to be an obligation to depict them in a stronger and better light than in the past. He asked the creators if they’ve ever had to fight to give their characters what they deserve. Chiang said with Wonder Woman, DC may not intend it this way, but they end up pitching things that feel like damsel-in-distress covers where the tension comes from Wonder Woman needing to be rescued. Chiang said he pushes back against that. “She can be in trouble, but she doesn’t need to be completely out of control,” he continues, “I try to make sure agency isn’t taken away from her… I want her to be powerful on these covers.”
He continued discussing the responsibility of the artist in response to an audience question. “It’s not like when I’m drawing [that] my hand slips and suddenly it’s sexy.” He continued, “These are conscious decisions someone is making, and there are many of them. It doesn’t accidentally happen. As creators, it’s important for us to reign that in.”
One of the struggles in comics is that regardless of how you write a female character, she will often be portrayed in an idealized package. And though as Burchett pointed out, it’s true that both men and women are idealized in comics. However, DeConnick countered with the bigger problem: men are idealized for strength and women are idealized for sexual availability. As she eloquently put it, “The women costumes are cut in such a way I could give a cervical exam to 90% of heroines, and I don’t have a degree.” The approach assumes a heterosexual male reader.
Each of the creators on the panel has written or drawn a memorable female character, and they reviewed their proudest moment of their work in depicting women. Simone said when she was given the opportunity to write Birds of Prey, she set out to prove that three female characters could work together in a book and be entertaining and successful without having fights over boys or talking about shopping and dating all the time. She told Dan DiDio, “I am going to prove to you that these female characters have value outside of being a male plot point.” Simone has gone on to write more single led female books to show that different types of women like Red Sonja and Lara Croft can carry stories and sell comics.
And on writing great female characters, DeConnick has wonderful advice. “Just pretend they’re people.” Keep in mind that whatever woman you can imagine, there is a woman like that and more of them need to be seen in comics. There are more than archetypes. Simone said not to worry about stereotypes and just to do the work in creating the character. “If you build a character properly, you’re not going to have that.”