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Mom & Pop Culture: Comics & Superheroes: Who Will Save Us?

Every few months my son has a new favorite. When he was three, anything having to do with trains or dinosaurs (books, stickers, toys, TV shows) were all the rage. At four he split his time between Legos, cars, pirates and princesses. Now that he's almost five, we've entered the Superhero zone.

Unlike previous loves, his newest fascination did not originate from home. Neither my husband nor I have ever gotten into comic books or superheros beyond a passing interest in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Instead, one day he came home with tales of Batman, Spiderman, and Superman—all planted in his head by a neighborhood friend.

At first I hardly gave this interest a passing thought, but the more my son started to talk about superheros, the more I really started to pay attention. Soon "kid-friendly" comic books exchanged hands and made their way into our home. I'd flip through them, fighting the urge not to roll my eyes at the awful (yet colorful!) patriarchal stereotypes that jumped off the page.

Lois Lane seemed to be in constant distress, always needing to be rescued. While the depiction of women was sexist enough, the men weren't treated any better. Hyper-masculinity was celebrated and treated as the ultimate in achievement/success. The amount of violence that was portrayed was a bit over the line, in my opinion.

Keep in mind, this was all in a "My First Reader" type book. While this is a watered down version of what's found in mainstream comics, it still promotes the same tropes found in real ones: the helpless, weak female; the overly-sexualized heroine in a skimpy outfit; and the villianess who used her feminine "wiles" to trap the good guy. I cringe in fear as to what will happen when my son decides to flip through some actual comic books. What images will he come across and how will he process them?

Now, maybe there's a bigger subtext that I'm missing. I'm coming at this as a mom and a feminist, not necessarily as a comic book reader, so perhaps I don't understand all the nuances of this world—I'll own up to that. But when my son is starting to find himself interested in all things "Super," then I feel my opinion counts for something. We're barely scratching the surface of superheroes—there is a whole lot more out there that is even more sexist, and racist—but just what we've seen so far has left this feminist mom clutching at her non-existent pearls.

And it's not just me. A few weeks ago, Ms. Magazine posted a blog co-written by Michelle Lee and her seven-year-old daughter. Her daughter is a huge comic book fan, and had some interesting insight into the new version of one of her favorite characters, Starfire. Lee recalls how uncomfortable her daughter gets when asked to describe the hyper-sexualized new version of Starfire. Her little girl laments that the new Starfire, "Well, she's not fighting anyone. And not talking to anyone really. She's just almost naked and posing." In her opinion, that doesn't make a good superhero.

So...if a seven-year-old understands this, how come comic book creators don't?

It's not that they don't—it's more that they don't care. Like most things, this again comes down to the bottom line. These companies are making a ton of profit, not actually off of the comic books themselves, but with the mass amounts of marketing tie-ins. And this is where I have the biggest problem.

A few comments on the Ms. article seemed annoyed with Lee's post. They said that seven-year-olds are not the intended audience for these comic books. And that may be the case...only you'd never know it. Walk into any big box store and head to the toy/kid's section. Not only will you see mainstream comic books for sale, but you will also see the toys, costumes, clothes, plates, cups, towels, bedsheets, etc... that come along with it. Comic books are no longer just graphic novels; they are now brands.

These companies aren't staffed by idiots. They know that if they hook readers in at a young age with mild, childlike versions of their mainstream comic book heroes, they will have a permanent audience for the character and universe relaunches as they get older. They may temper the sexist and unrealistic depictions of both women and men in their children-friendly versions, but once those kids grow up, then the maturity, excessive violence and, in this case, the blatant eroticism of the revamped Starfire, will be an auto-purchase rather than something they may think twice about reading.

Thankfully, not all creators of comic books go this route. There are other, more progressive comics that exist, and in fact there are groups whose sole focus is to create and market more positive comics. They take the less stereotypical route and leave the sexist, patriarchal tropes by the wayside. While these may not have the same reach as mainstream comics, they are steadily gaining in popularity.

Jill from The Nerdy Bird—a website talking comics from a female fan's perspective—pointed me in the direction a few helpful sites that I'm passing on to you all:

Kids Love Comics is a great resource for kid-friendly comics. They have a host of age-appropriate choices, and even though it hasn't been updated in a while, what they do have archived is excellent.

Kids Read Comics is a site devoted to promoting literacy in kids and teens via comics. They host a conference that brings together kids, parents, teachers, librarians and others to find appropriate comics for all ages.

Owly is a graphic novel about a little owl who knows what it means to be human.

I can't change the way comics are marketed overnight, and I can't tell my son not to like these characters, but what I can do is add in my own commentary here and there, offering alternatives as he continues with his love of comic book superheros. A great one that we've enjoyed as a family is Michael Chabon's The Astonishing Secret of Awesome ManI realize that alternatives won't always solve the problem, so I'll keep providing contrasts to what he finds in comic books, talking about why certain tropes are overly exaggerated and ill-conceived, and hopefully he'll get the message that not everything is always super in the land of comic books.

If you've come across awesome comics that would be considered "kid-friendly" (and have that superhero appeal) please leave a comment and let me know!

Related: "Young Justice" Offers Little Justice For Female Characters (Achilles Effect)

Previously: Mom & Pop Culture: Once Upon A Remake

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Comments

23 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Tiny Titans IMO is a fun

Tiny Titans IMO is a fun comic thats for kids, I havent read every issue but its focus is fairly fluffy silly jokes. the only criticism of it I can really see is reinforcing some stereotypes about some of the female characters being overly girly. s/n Starfire is def NOT sexed up in it at all

Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade

I read Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade with/to my 5 and 7 year girl housemates, and they really loved it. It's out of print, but used copies are cheap.

Batgirl.

Your son's not old enough for this one yet, but for older kids looking for a kid-friendly mainstream superhero comic that's light on the usual misogynistic baggage: Bryan Q. Miller's "Batgirl". An amazing series, that was (of course) just canceled. But it's still available in trades!

Sigh.

Why do all things progressive (and not adhering to mainstream tropes) end up getting canceled? But hopefully I can find some copies around when he's old enough. Thanks for the suggestion!

I second that

Bryan Q. Miller's Batgirl run was extremely well-done: lighthearted but never silly, showing a complex characterization of a young woman growing into the established mantle of a hero under the careful watch of the original woman to hold that name.

DC Comics recently relaunched

DC Comics recently relaunched their entire line of comics. So, for example, Miller's Batgirl was replaced with Gail Simone's. Gail Simone, however, isn't that bad -- she's known for criticizing the sexism in comics. Haven't read Batgirl, but the new Batwoman is pretty good (though not for young kids).

Gail IS rad, but my trouble

Gail IS rad, but my trouble with the new Batgirl is that we replaced Oracle, a strong, clever, character (voted most badass of all the DC universe by readers in a fan tournament) who couldn't walk but still managed to kick a lot of ass from her wheelchair... with post-Killing Joke Batgirl, who is a neurotic terrified wreck, but at least she can walk again, right?

Because the industry sucks

Because the industry sucks and wants to keep catering to white cis heterosexual 18-to-34-year-old men, and when they hear that there are PoC, gays, transpeople, or women reading, the Powers That Be just plug their ears and go "ARGH COOTIES. WE NEED MORE MACHO MANLY DARK AND EDGY STUFF."

It makes me really miss Dwayne McDuffie. D:<

I cannot recommend Avatar:

I cannot recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender highly enough. It's a tv show on Nickolodeon, but they do have some comic books. They aren't nearly as interesting if you haven't seen the show, though. Our family adores the show and we also love comics. However, my husband and I tend toward the dark side of things (Hellboy, The Goon, etc - not kid friendly at all!) so our son asked for some 'comics for little boys.' We searched and found the Avatar collection. Fit the bill perfectly.

In case you're not familiar with ATLA, it's got great female characters, whose strength is not at the expense of the males. It even has a couple of episodes addressing sexism, though without using the word. It involves fighting, but using the elements of nature based on existing martial arts forms. There is lots of fighting, but I think it is handled very well. The arc of the entire series about the complexity of good and evil and the journeys that hero/ines take to succeed. Lots of stuff feminists can get behind!

Superhero squad on the

Superhero squad on the cartoon network is a very good and very funny depiction of his favorite mainstream marvel characters such as iron man, thor, and wolverine the female characters are evenly portrayed and one of the main characters is latino.

The 99

This is from memory, watched while on painkillers, so there may be some errors: There was a documentary on the making of The 99, a comic book about the 99 aspects of Allah. I have not yet seen the print version, but it seems to be a balanced approach to not only introducing other religions, but also a balanced cast of characters. Being that is was created to not offend the more orthodox, the characters weren't put in skimpy clothing or cussing. The upcoming movie should be similarly unoffensive.

"Kids" comics, almost worse than adult, imo

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and one that has caused me more than a little consternation.

My husband and I are both big comic fans, have been for years. And so when our twin boys were born, we were really excited about being able to share our love of superhero comics with our children. And when DC comics started putting out their kid-oriented line of books and such, we were stoked.

Until I started to look through them, and realized that in the "Justice League" books? There are no female Justice League members. Not even Wonder Woman. And whenever we find a Justice League T-shirt? There are no female heroes pictured, only male heroes.

Apparently, based on how the merchandise and other stuff for kids is marketed, girls can wear shirts featuring a glittery Superman or Batman symbol, but putting Wonder Woman or any other female hero on a boy's shirt, even as part of a group of superheroes, is not okay.

There are many items I've straight-up refused to buy, because of this weird disappearing of the women and girls in merchandising to boys. Though I will say, it's not limited just to comic book stuff.

For example, despite the kids' movie Monsters vs Aliens having a woman as the lead character? Most of the movie T-shirts I found mysteriously featured all of the monsters EXCEPT Ginormica. Or Despicable Me, which was as much about Edith, Margo and Agnes as about the villain Gru. Finding T-shirts that even include the girls? Forget it. I can find T-shirts featuring Gru and the Minions without a hitch, but apparently the girls can only appear on shirts FOR girls.

Gnnnggg. Okay, sorry to just vent and not really contribute to the conversation, but I am glad at least to see other parents noticing the same things I am noticing.

Frustration Over Superheroes

Although I was never a comics reader, I am a big fan of superhero stories i.e. TV and film. But I find myself continually frustrated by today's offerings. Another commenter mentioned Superhero Squad and I have to say I found that show incredibly awful. Granted, I watched only the first 7 episodes of the first season while researching my book. (It was still a new show then.) But I was put off by the sexism levelled at Ms. Marvel and the sexualized appearance of many of the females. Sexist portrayals, excessive violence, and the sensory overload of loud music and rapid-fire imagery makes it really difficult to recommend any of the recent crop of superhero shows. There is so much potential though--both DC and Marvel have some excellent female heroes, but they are often relegated to the sidelines. I've almost given up on the entire genre.

My son has found something of the same themes in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which is also violent but has real, complex roles for women who, sadly, are sexualized. He also quite enjoyed the Amulet series of graphic novels, also violent and a little dark, but with a decent female lead. Rapunzel's Revenge is another graphic novel that puts a superhero-esque spin on an old fairy tale.

super heroes for kids

I can completely appreciate your commentary here. I believe that the current state of comics and super heroes leaves a lot to be desired and is out of control when it comes to gender stereotypes. (Thanks for posting some good options.) I'm sorry to say, there isn't much for young children--god forbid they get into some of the more sophisticated books in which women are completely hyper-sexualized. I have written a book for children (for ages from around five to eight) about a young girl named Lula who is a super hero who fights bullies when she becomes Super Tool Lula. You can check it out on my website: http://www.princessfreezone.com/the-book/. While it is not in comic book format (Who knows? I may get her there one day.), she still offers a different kind of super hero for kids. I think she would appeal to both girls and boys. I actually created her because my daughter loved super heroes like Spiderman and Batman and I was upset that she didn't have a female character to want to be for Halloween. :-)

In spite of the fact that

In spite of the fact that this is intended as a counterpoint to the article, I also hope my comments help.

I grew up reading comics and loving stories about superheroes just like the author's child. I also have a lifelong feminist for a mom. Unlike the author, however, she never really tried to impose her views on my reading choices or provide alternatives. Mind you, I'm a child of the 80's, when comics were still considered innocent kid's stuff even as the subject matter was becoming more gritty and dark. She thought nothing of me reading stories written by Alan Moore even though rape and violence against women were prominent in his 80's storylines. Despite that however, I grew up to be pro-feminist. In the end I was more influenced by my mom (who imparted her moral and ethical beliefs on me in other ways) than by Batman. Why? Well, it's easy: One is a real person, the other a fictional character. One is an integral part of my life whereas the other is escapist entertainment. Ultimately, what most had an influence on me was my mom being open to talking to me about gender relations in an honest, thoughtful way; they were likely the most adult conversations I had as a kid, looking back on it.

To be sure, there is indeed much sexism both in the comics industry and among the comics fanbase (though it's also not all bad and the best writers/artists do some truly rewarding work). But it's like anything else in the big, bad, scary adult world: If you impart the right lessons to your kids they'll handle these issues like anything else. My mom didn't have to explain to me how the gender roles in Superman were flawed, because she already explained to me how they were flawed in real life. It's basically the baby in the bathwater: Comics as a medium are useful for teaching kids literacy and art appreciation, even if there are bad, stereotypical ideas in them. The trick, at least based on my childhood, is to teach them how to distinguish good ideas from bad ones.

 

fight fun with fun

I don't know how old you are, but I'm just 27 and shocked how childhood has become completely saturated in marketing that's full of these gender stereotypes. I just don't think it's fair to compare parenting "then" with parenting and pop culture "now." Kids drown in this stuff, at an especially early age. Asking them to navigate it themselves today boils down to leaving them with one option: buy what Disney (or Marvel, or whoever) is selling.

In my experience, kids really like to be included in conversations about the world around them, and they can sense when we don't like something. I'd had a great talk with the child I babysit (who is the same age as the author's son) about why I made a face when I saw the Monster High page in the toy catalog he was showing me. I mostly asked him questions. You don't have to lecture kids to get this point across, and that doesn't work.

As Peggy Orenstein says, you have to fight fun with fun (in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter). Being part of a conversation you hear your parents having, or your friends' parents, is kind of fun when you're little. And offering alternative comics? Tons of fun!

Can't Go Wrong With X-Men

There's a bounty of strong, awesome female superheroes, as well as male superheroes, too. Definitely direct your son in that direction; maybe you'll find that you love it!

Obviously someone never read

Obviously someone never read Ultimate...

Graphic novels

A graphic novel and sequel that I really enjoy are Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack by Shanon & Dean Hale. The books are re-imaginings of Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk in a kind of alternate/steampunk American West. Rapunzel's hair becomes her lassos after she cuts them off, and she saves Jack probably just as much, if not more, than he saves her. The novels are probably middle grade or early young adult.

My partner has been an avid

My partner has been an avid comic book reader since he was a child and still follows his favorite series: Fantastic Four (It's now named something else but I couldn't tell you). He seems to be under the impression that this series is completely empowering for women and shows women under a very positive light. Does anyone else read this series and have any input? it also seems to be true that marvel series are much more inclusive than the DC variety.

PS...
For the adults; The Walking Dead is awesome and has some amazing female characters.

I recommend the Marvel

I recommend the Marvel Adventures series. They're cute, fun, friendly, and feature cool female superheroes. Storm is the leader of the MA Avengers, Giant Girl is fun and confident, Tigra shows up to be awesome a lot, and the adventures use far less violence than the mainstream Marvel universe. Sometimes it's figured out by some fun lateral-thinking solution. (Like Spiderman tricking someone into thinking he can summon spiders.) But it never talks down to its audience, which is good.

Comics!

All these comics and no one has mentioned Bone? Jeff Smith's series is an awesome adventure about three cousins who get lost fleeing their own village and stumble into a mystical centuries-old battle for good and evil. The characters are complex, the story is well paced, and the art is beautiful classic cartoon style with makes is very appealing to kids without sacrificing detail or elegance. I wish there were more diversity, but the women are powerful politically, socially, and physically (the lost princess is active in saving her people) and the men exist to flaunt the hyper-masculine standard; the only one who remotely fits it is Louis, the former captain of the guard, who despite still being very strong and formidable is well into his senior years.

I might also recommend Larry Marder's Beanworld. I can't really explain it like I can other things because it goes past simplicity well into the realm of the meta; Wikipedia doesn't even offer a summery. That being said, I think this is an amazing book because Mardar basically just gave life to his doodles and built stories around them. The result is a strange world that emphasizes teamwork, discovery, and fair play.

Lastly I do want to put out a bit of an it's gets better message. Mainstream comics shape up when trying to reach out to modern teens (part of what makes the Teen Titan's reboot so arrrg!) If your son retains his love of sequential story telling, pick up Runaways, Young Avengers, and the older Titans or Young Justice books. They're much better about diversity and non-sucky female characterization.

Yes, Bone is a good rec!

It's been years since I read the books, but every time I see the word "bone," my first thought is still "STUPID, STUPID RAT CREATURES!"

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