15
AEJMC Conference Presentation Entertainment Studies Interest Group Superheroes and Gender Roles, 1961-2004 By Erik Palmer University of Oregon Introduction Although many observers might categorize superhero comic books as a marginalized medium, the recent success of such big-budget cinematic productions as The Hulk, Spider-Man, The Daredevil and The X-Men signals a renewed interest in superheroic topics. These films have given new life to characters that have evolved, reflected societal changes and influenced the broader culture for decades. Superhero comic books are nearly unique among pop culture genres for their endurance across generations of readers and their ability to adapt fluidly to changing social, cultural and ideological norms. The comic book market has traditionally been dominated by male readership and masculine concerns, but female super characters such as Wonder Woman, Phoenix, and Elektra have been relied on as sites of feminist inspiration and interrogation (witness Simone, 1999 and the dialog on her critical project by Watson, Wheeler and Johnston, 2002, along with Robinson’s 2004 take on feminism and superheroism). In a feminist context, some analyses have praised super heroic women for the emancipatory power of their representation (Vowell, 2000), while others have decried the presumed sexual objectification and victimization of über-women in skin-tight clothing. And, like male superheroes, female superheroes have set standards for the mediation of heroic characters in other contexts, particularly encompassing mainstream entertainment icons such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, secret agent Sidney Bristow (of the television program Alias) and the recently updated Charlie’s Angels. This study examines the portrayal of women on the covers of mainstream comic books. Relying on a method of content analysis, it quantitatively analyzes variables in the representation of women relative to men on comic book covers over a span of more than four decades.

Super Heroes and Gender Roles, 1961-2004

  • Upload
    sou

  • View
    196

  • Download
    0

Embed Size (px)

Citation preview

AEJMC Conference Presentation

Entertainment Studies Interest Group

Superheroes and Gender Roles, 1961-2004

By Erik Palmer

University of Oregon

Introduction Although many observers might categorize superhero comic books as a marginalized medium,

the recent success of such big-budget cinematic productions as The Hulk, Spider-Man, The

Daredevil and The X-Men signals a renewed interest in superheroic topics. These films have

given new life to characters that have evolved, reflected societal changes and influenced the

broader culture for decades. Superhero comic books are nearly unique among pop culture

genres for their endurance across generations of readers and their ability to adapt fluidly to

changing social, cultural and ideological norms.

The comic book market has traditionally been dominated by male readership and masculine

concerns, but female super characters such as Wonder Woman, Phoenix, and Elektra have

been relied on as sites of feminist inspiration and interrogation (witness Simone, 1999 and the

dialog on her critical project by Watson, Wheeler and Johnston, 2002, along with Robinson’s

2004 take on feminism and superheroism). In a feminist context, some analyses have praised

super heroic women for the emancipatory power of their representation (Vowell, 2000), while

others have decried the presumed sexual objectification and victimization of über-women in

skin-tight clothing.

And, like male superheroes, female superheroes have set standards for the mediation of heroic

characters in other contexts, particularly encompassing mainstream entertainment icons such

as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, secret agent Sidney Bristow (of the television program Alias) and

the recently updated Charlie’s Angels.

This study examines the portrayal of women on the covers of mainstream comic books. Relying

on a method of content analysis, it quantitatively analyzes variables in the representation of

women relative to men on comic book covers over a span of more than four decades.

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 2 of 15

Literature Review Reflecting intuitively on the cultural role of comic books, one can observe that past scholarly

research on comic book superheroes has focused most frequently on approaches rooted in

cultural or literary studies (including Reynolds, 1992; Klock, 2003; Moore, 2003; Mondello, 1976;

and Brown, 1999). Although there have been a limited number of tangential attempts to content

analyze comic books (such as Palmer, 1979 and Young, 1991), relatively few studies have

attempted to empirically measure cultural artifacts associated with superhero comic books, nor

have many scholars attempted to rigorously quantify and correlate the relationship between

cultural concepts and the narrative or representational norms of superheroes.

Methodologically, more fruitful content-based studies of gender roles have proliferated in other

media contexts, including work on television advertising by Zebrovitz-McArthur and Resko

(1975); on children’s picture books by McDonald (1989); on sports photography by Duncan

(1990); on Music Television by Sommers-Flanagan (1993); on digital clipart by Milburn, Carney

and Ramirez (2001); and on Olympic advertising by Goodman, Duke and Sutherland (2002).

Content studies of gender roles in comic-based media other than superhero comic books have

included examinations of televised cartoons by Levinson (1975), by Chu and McIntyre (1995)

and by Thompson and Zerbinos (1995); and of newspaper comic strips by Spiegelman,

Terwilliger and Fearing (1953) and Brabant (1976).

In particular, the question of the representation of evolution in gender roles in superhero comic

books has proven problematic. On one hand, comic books have demonstrated great capacity to

reflect and interrelate with larger social and ideological questions over their entire history,

starting with their role as patriotic propaganda instruments in World War II, evolving through the

atmosphere of moralistic repression as expressed by public outcry and Senate inquiries in the

1950s, and emerging with depictions of self actualization and individualism during the sweeping

social changes of the 1960s and beyond (Berger, 1971).

Yet female superheroes have relatively rarely assumed a central role in comic book publishing,

despite the emergence and evolution of feminism and a continued societal emphasis on the

quest for gender equality. Among mainstream female comic book superheroes, only Wonder

Women has sustained frequent publication reasonably continuously over the last 40+ years. But

in the last few years, the market for super heroic women in comic books appears to be moving

more strongly towards primary female characters than ever before, as women take the spotlight

in such diverse titles as Birds of Prey, The X-Men, Kabuki, Powers and Alias (not related to the

television series).

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 3 of 15

Hypotheses This study intends to set the stage for further analysis of heroic female figures by proposing a

methodology for measuring gender-based distinctions in cultural content. The study focuses on

a purposive sample of superhero comic books, one in which women are disproportionately

represented compared to the larger population of superhero comic books. However, this sample

also offers the benefit of providing an uninterrupted picture of how heroic women have been

represented in a coherent body of popular culture over a lifetime.

Regarding the evolution of design strategies for comic book covers, the study also strives to

measure the effect on gender representation motivated by portrait-driven narrative approaches

in common use today, compared to the story-driven approaches of the past. An informal

examination of recent covers suggests that the figurative representation of women in comic

books has evolved since the 1960s, and this study attempts to establish elements of that

evolution quantitatively. See Appendix A for several examples that illustrate the change in

narrative strategies on comic book covers over the years.

The study will test four hypotheses:

H1 Over time, women are pictured on comic book covers with increasing frequency relative to

other characters.

H2 Over time, women are depicted as passive (unconscious, as prisoners, or in the grasp of

other characters) with declining frequency relative to other characters.

H3 Over time, women are depicted on comic book covers with increasing prominence relative

to other characters.

H4 Women are pictured more prominently in portrait-style covers (informally called “pin-ups”

by many readers) compared to other characters.

Method Because nearly all superhero comic books that have been published for as long as 40 years

emphasize a single male protagonist, this research relies on a sample of comic book titles that

depict super groups, or organizations of superheroes. These groups nearly always include at

least one woman. For this study, these include The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, and The

Avengers, each of which is published by Marvel Comics and each of which has been in

continuous publication since the early 1960s:

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 4 of 15

Title First Issue Most Recent Total

Avengers, Volume 1 September, 1963 September, 1996 402

Avengers, Volume 2 November, 1996 November, 1997 13

Avengers, Volume 3 February, 1998 August, 2004 84

New Avengers (v4) September, 2004 Present 3

Fantastic Four November, 1961 Present 525

X-Men September, 1963 Present 457

Total Population 1484

Numerous other titles were considered for this research, including The Justice League of

America, the Legion of Superheroes, the Justice Society of America and the Teen Titans (all

published by DC Comics), but none of the other potential candidates have been published

continuously since the 1960s. This study relied on the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide for

publishing information; the Price Guide strives to catalog all comic books ever published and

serves as a standard reference for comic book collectors.

The final sample for this study was chosen by building a indexed sequence that included every

issue in the population; randomly choosing a number between one and six to generate a

starting index; and sampling every fifth issue in the population. This method provides a

randomly selected sample that is also guaranteed to be evenly distributed over the time span of

the study. The five-issue interval was used to maximize the likelihood that at least one issue of

each title would be chosen from each calendar year, and to ensure that the sample would be

randomly distributed across all 12 months of the year, based on conventional publishing

schedules of either six issues or 12 issues annually.

For longitudinal analysis, the sample is also stratified into five time-based categories of

approximately eight years each. Because the publication frequencies of comic books can vary

from title to title and from year to year, the sample is stratified based on the number of issues in

the population, rather than the actual publication dates of the issues. This stratification strategy

results in the following groups within the population:

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 5 of 15

Years Titles Total

1961-1969 Avengers v1, 1-101 Fantastic Four, 1-105 X-Men, 1-91

297

1970-1978 Avengers v1, 102-202 Fantastic Four, 106-210 X-Men, 92-182

297

1979-1987 Avengers v1, 203-303 Fantastic Four, 211-315 X-Men, 183-273

297

1988-1996 Avengers v1, 304-402 Avengers v2, 1-2 Fantastic Four, 316-420 X-Men, 274-364

297

1997-2004 Avengers v2, 3-13 Avengers v3, 1-84 New Avengers, 1-3 Fantastic Four, 421-525 X-Men, 365-457

293

Although it might appear to make more sense to use a calendar-based stratification, the only

reliable way to positively confirm the publication date of each issue would be to examine the

actual comic book itself. Many of the issues in this sample are rare collectibles, and it would

likely prove difficult to gain access to every required issue. For coding purposes, the primary

source of covers is an online database that enables convenient access to scanned versions of

older covers (www.comics.org).

With the final sample in hand, each cover was coded according to these variables: Narrative

Strategy, Number of Women, Number of Men, Number of Ambiguous Figures, Number of

Restrained Women, Number of Restrained Men, Number of Restrained Ambiguous

Figures, Gender Priority and Comics Code Seal. Definitions and coding guidelines for each

of these variables follow.

Narrative Strategy

Some covers depict a scene from the story of the comic book, and could be conceived of as

documentary records of action. Others depict characters in the comic book in environmental or

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 6 of 15

abstract settings, and could be conceived of as portraits. Coders therefore categorized each

cover into one of the following:

Category Description

Portrait The character or characters on the cover are depicted with a

blank or abstract background. Typically, such portraits are posed

as though in a studio, and a photographic equivalent of the

illustration could only be recorded with the knowing cooperation of

the subjects.

Environmental The character or characters are depicted with a background that

includes a setting or other details from which the observer can

discern the environment. These portraits typically would also

require posing or the collaboration of the subjects to create a

photographic record. When distinguishing Portrait from

Environmental, a background depiction of the sky counts as an

environment.

Action The character or characters depict a scene from the story. These

are nearly always action scenes. These covers could be

conceived of as photojournalistic in their approach. Although

some action-based covers have an abstract background, and

might be considered environmental, combat between characters

and covers that include dialog are always coded as Action.

Multi-Panel A design that is created from a composite of two or more separate

images in comic book-style panels. This is an older style of cover

design that appears infrequently in this population.

Other Any covers that do not fit the prior four categories should be

coded with this category.

Number of Women, Men & Ambiguous Figures

Coders counted the number of gendered figures on the cover, ignoring the following:

q Tight shots of body parts.

q Other figurative elements that have ambiguous gender.

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 7 of 15

q Logos, brand marks or advertising that include images of characters, but are not part of

the narrative content of the cover.

Coders also counted multiple representations of a single character on one cover as a single

instance.

Number of Passive Women, Men & Ambiguous Figures

Superhero covers frequently feature characters that have been rendered unconscious,

imprisoned, held hostage, or otherwise restrained by super villains. Coders counted the number

and gender of male restrainees, female restrainees and ambiguous restrainees.

Gender Priority

To operationalize gender priority, coders determined the most dominant male and female

characters on the cover and evaluated their visual prominence relative to each other. The most

prominent characters are most commonly those rendered largest. In cases where multiple male

or female characters appear to have comparable prominence, coders could choose which

character to use for this comparison.

After determining the most prominent man and woman, coders evaluated gender priority using

one of the following categories:

Category Description

1 = none No females on cover.

2 = secondary Characters of more than one gender are present, and the most

prominent female has secondary emphasis to most prominent

male.

3 = equal Most prominent female and most prominent male have equal

emphasis. Coders were instructed to use this category for any

cases in which the gender priority is ambiguous.

4 = only One or more females are the only figures present.

5 = dominant More than one character is present, and the most prominent

female has dominant emphasis compared to the most prominent

male. This code should also be selected in any cases where no

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 8 of 15

Category Description

male character is present, and one female is dominant over one

or more other females.

Locate Comics Code Authority Seal

Most titles in this sample have been reviewed by the Comics Code

Authority, and they display the appropriate seal of approval on their

cover.

Results The sampling method yielded 297 covers, which were reviewed by two independent coders.

Single factor ANOVA tests where used to determine the significance of findings. The data

gathered for this study showed mixed support for H1 and H2, conclusive support for H3 and no

support for H4.

H1 Over time, women are pictured on comic book covers with increasing relative frequency.

H1 is tentatively supported. The percentage of women on covers was less than 15 percent in

the 1960s and early 1970s, but it had risen to more than 24 percent by the late 1970s. However,

progress appears to have stalled there, dipping slightly, then rising only very gradually since

then. The ANOVA analysis yielded a P-value of .0025 establishing significance for the change

over the course of the entire sample, but stepwise analysis of each panel demonstrated that the

only significant change between panels occurred in the transition from Panel 2 to Panel 3 (mid-

1970s).

Panel Men Women Ambig Average Percentage of Women

Panel 1 389 68 3 .1478

Panel 2 291 62 6 .1727

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 9 of 15

Panel Men Women Ambig Average Percentage of Women

Panel 3 247 84 14 .2434

Panel 4 225 72 3 .2400

Panel 5 170 61 2 .2618

Total 1322 347 28 .2044

H2 Over time, women are depicted as passive with declining relative frequency.

H2 is tentatively supported, but with weak significance. In the course of the first four panels,

feminine passivity actually appeared to increase slightly, but not with significant variation. Only

in the fifth panel did feminine passivity show a sharp (and statistically significant) decline. The

significance of the overall sample was p=.08.

Panel Total Figures Passive

Women

Average Percentage of Passive Women

Panel 1 460 14 .0304

Panel 2 359 14 .0389

Panel 3 345 14 .0405

Panel 4 300 14 .0466

Panel 5 233 4 .0171

Total 1697 60 .0353

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 10 of 15

H3 Over time, women are depicted on comic book covers with increasing prominence relative to men.

The data on the relative prominence of women followed a pattern similar to the findings of H1.

Female prominence increased gradually during the first two panels, climbed sharply during the

third panel, and then leveled off. However, the fifth panel showed a sharp (and surprising)

decline in female prominence. The p-Value for the entire sample was .0025, and stepwise

analysis of the panels revealed significant variation in the transition from Panel 2 to Panel 3, and

from Panel 4 to Panel 5.

Decade Average Gender Priority

Panel 1 2.05

Panel 2 2.14

Panel 3 2.47

Panel 4 2.34

Panel 5 1.84

Gender Priority is evaluated on a 1-5 scale, with 5 representing the most prominent

representation of women.

H4 Women are pictured more prominently in portrait-style covers compared to men.

The data shows no significant support for H4 (p-Value=.17). The choice of narrative strategy

used by comic book artists appears to have very weak statistical influence on the prominence of

women on covers.

Narrative Style Average Gender Priority

Portrait 2.23

Environmental 2.15

Action 2.16

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 11 of 15

Narrative Style Average Gender Priority

Multi-Panel 2.13

Other 1.00

Gender Priority is evaluated on a 1-5 scale, with 5 representing the most prominent

representation of women.

Intercoder Reliability A preliminary test of intercoder reliability using Scott’s pi analysis resulted in high percentages

of matches between coders for most variables, but lower values for variables in which coders

were called to distinguish masculine and ambiguous figures. Additional coaching served to

reduce the number of ambiguous selections and achieve better intercoder reliability.

Variable/Category Scott’s pi

Narrative .6167

Men .5303

Women .8764

Ambiguous .3130

Men Passive .3272

Women Passive .8429

Ambiguous Passive .3074

Female Prominence .6771

Comics Code .8484

The biggest limitation on intercoder reliability was probably not the coding methodology itself,

but the availability of covers. As described before, most covers in the study were evaluated

using relatively low resolution scans downloaded from the Internet. In most cases, these scans

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 12 of 15

are adequate for coding, but in some cases coders encountered difficulty distinguishing finer

details on the covers, and that ambiguity probably diminished intercoder reliability. The content

of the comic books themselves probably also contributed to low scores in ways that might be

difficult to mitigate. Many of these covers depict figures of alien beings, so coders are called not

just to deal with the ambiguities of the visual display of gender, but also to extrapolate those

markers of gender across fictional species.

Conclusions In some ways, the findings of this study support an optimistic outlook for advocates of greater

equality of gender representation in culture. Although the data does not show a clean and

continuous advance to parity, a growing number of women appear on the covers of many comic

books than in the past, and passive depictions of women have declined sharply in recent years.

However, despite improving findings in support of a feminists, this study also leaves open the

question of whether increasingly prominent portrayals of women necessarily equal better

portrayals of women. For example, this study tentatively demonstrates that female super

characters are portrayed more prominently and actively in comic book narratives. However, the

coding methodology in this study currently sidesteps the issue of sexualized portrayals of

female super characters relative to men.

In its consideration of cover styles, this study does set the stage for future examination of

sexualized representations in comic books. Can the prominence of women on comic book

covers be attributed to greater acceptance of powerful representations of femininity? Or is this

prominence driven by a sexualized objectification of female characters? The interesting

temporal variations revealed by this analysis establish key moments that might support a

qualitative content analysis and a set of conclusions about factors shaping the culture of comic

books and gender.

The newer styles of covers categorized in this study appear to represent a reaction to cultural

changes external to the specific narrative requirements of comic books themselves. The

readership demographic of comic books is aging, for example, and portrait-style covers of

women could be interpreted as an attempt to hold the attention of an older, more sexually

motivated male audience. Many of these newer covers also appear to exhibit a graphic and

conceptual similarity to photographic representations of women in pornography, in fashion

magazines, and in the emerging category of male-targeted hybrid publications such as Maxim

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 13 of 15

and Blender. In that context, a formal examination of the interrelationship between the graphic

representation of women in comic books and other media forms might prove fruitful.

In her Women in Refrigerators project, Gail Simone paints an oppressive picture of the negative

portrayals and violent outcomes suffered by female characters in superhero comic books. Her

catalog of murder and mayhem against women in comic books is almost certainly accurate, but

does it adequately validate gender oppression in comics? Female characters are certainly not

alone in having suffered during the 65-year history of superhero comic books. A strong

quantitative analysis in the style of this study that covers a greater variety of titles over a longer

period of time could provide valuable support or opposition for Simone’s position.

Bibliography Baron, Lawrence (2003). X-men as j-men: The Jewish subtext of a comic book movie. SHOFAR, v22, n1, p44-52.

Berger, A.A. (1971). Comics and culture. Journal of Popular Culture, v5, n1, p164-177.

Brabant, S. (1976). Sex role stereotyping in the Sunday comics. Sex Roles, v2, n4, p331-337.

Brown, Jeffrey A. (1999). Comic book masculinity and the new black superhero. African American Review, v33, n1, p25-43.

Chu, D. and McIntyre, M.B. (1995) Sex role stereotypes on children’s TV in Asia: A content analysis of gender role portrayals in children’s cartoons in Hong Kong. Communication Research Reports, v12, p206-219.

Duncan, M.C. (1990). Sport photographs and sexual difference: Images of women and men in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games. Sociology of Sport Journal, v7, p22-43.

Goodman, J. Robyn, Duke, Lisa L. and Sutherland, John. (2002). Olympic athletes and heroism in advertising: Gendered concepts of valor? Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, v79, n2, p374-391.

Hilliard, D.C. (1984). Media images of male and female professional athletes: An interpretive analysis of magazine articles. Sociology of Sport Journal, v1, p252-262.

Klock, Geoff (2002). How to read superhero comics and why. New York & London: Continuum.

Levinson, R.M. (1975). From Olive Oyl to Sweet Polly Purebread: sex role stereotypes and televised cartoons. Journal of Popular Culture, v9, p561-572.

McDonald, S.M. (1989). Sex bias in the representation of male and female characters in children’s picture books. Journal of Genetic Psychology, n150, p389-401.

Milburn, Sharon S., Carney, Dana R. and Ramirez, Aaron M. (2001). Even in modern media, the picture is still the same: A content analysis of clipart images. Sex Roles, v44, n5-6, p277-294.

Mondello, Salvatore (1976). Spider-Man: hero in the liberal tradition. Journal of Popular Culture, v10, p232-38.

Moore, Jesse T. (2003). The education of Green Lantern: culture and ideology. The Journal of American Culture, v26, n2, p263-278.

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 14 of 15

O’Brien, Paul. (2004). Embedded coverage: What does it take to make a comic book cover stand out on the shelves?. Ninth Art, February 16, 2004. Website: http://www.ninthart.com/display.php?article=781.

Palmer, C. Eddie (1979). Pornographic comics: a content analysis. The Journal of Sex Research. V15, n4, p285-298.

Reynolds, Richard (1992). Super heroes: A modern mythology. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Robinson, Lillian S. (2004). Wonder women: Feminisms & super heroes. New York & London: Routledge.

Simone, Gail (1999). Women in refrigerators. Website: http://www.the-pantheon.net/wir/.

Sommers-Flanagan, R., Sommers-Flanagan, J. and Davis, B. (1993). What’s happening on music television? A gender role content analysis. Sex Roles, v28, p745-753.

Spiegelman, M.C., Terwilliger, C. and Fearing, F. (1953). The content of comics: goals of comic strip characters. The Journal of Social Psychology, v37, p189-203.

Thompson, T.L. and Zerbinos, E. (1995) Gender roles in animated cartoons: Has the picture changed in 20 years? Sex Roles, v32, p651-673.

Vowell, Sarah (2000). Those liberated angels. Time, v156, n19.

Watson, Alasdair, Wheeler, Andrew and Johnston, Antony. (2002). Triple A. Ninth Art. Website: http://www.ninthart.com/display.php?article=226.

Young, Thomas. (1991). Are comic book super-heroes sexist? Sociology and Social Research, v75, n4.

Zebrowitz-McArthur, L. and Resko, B.G. (1975). The portrayal of men and women in American television commercials. Journal of Social Psychology, v97, p209-220.

Superheroes & Gender Roles, 1964-2004

Page 15 of 15

Appendix A Cover Samples Older Covers with Narrative Emphasis

This cover would be coded as Multi-Panel

This cover would be coded as Action. Also note the gender priority with four prominent males

and one imprisoned female

Recent Covers with Portrait Emphasis

This cover would be coded as Environmental

This cover would be coded as Portrait