For an online Comics and Graphic novel course (LIS 518). I read a blog post by Laura Hudson called “The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and their ‘Liberated Sexuality,” which described Catwoman being objectified and reduced to her cleavage in the first few pages of issue #1 of the New 52 Catwoman; her responses, though totally understandable and justified, were quite different from my own. I had subscribed to four titles in DC’s New 52 – Green Lantern, Batwoman, Wonder Woman and Catwoman; I had been enjoying them all for 14 months when I read Hudson’s post.
The vehemence of the post made me go back and re-read Catwoman #1. It also had me wondering why I enjoy Catwoman, and if my comic subscriptions could pass the Bechdel test – which measures female representation in movies with 3 simple criteria. Those criteria are: there must be more than two female characters, they must talk to each other, and their conversation must be about something other than a man. Hudson’s blog post states that female super heroes, specifically Catwoman and Starfire, are not heroes at all; so I set out to define concrete criteria for heroism that could be easily quantified to find out if Catwoman was the hero of her own story or not. I counted frames in the first 6 issues of the New 52 series for each title, 24 comics that were each counted 19 times. I am not familiar with Starfire so I cannot comment on that series.
Besides the Bechdel test I came up with 17 criteria split into three broad categories: presence, action and relationships. Presence included how often the title character was featured in full or dual page spreads and close-ups, what percentage of the total frames they appear in, and how often they speak or are spoken about by other characters. Action was the traditional heroic behaviour: fighting, protecting, and moving the plot forward. Relationships covered how many types of relationships they had. Do they have a best friend or a lover? Do they spend time with siblings, parents, or other relatives, or are their lives dominated by their enemies?
Based on these criteria, I discovered that of these four title characters Catwoman was actually the most heroic! I had assumed Batwoman would come out on top. Batwoman did score highest in terms of number and diversity of relationships, a category I had guessed Wonder Woman would easily win with her huge extended family of gods and demigods. Green Lantern failed in every category, which encouraged me to expand my research. I am repeating this experiment with one more female led title and four more male led titles.
What is clear to me as a reader is that a character’s appearance or sex life is not the only measure of their identity or their worth. The criteria I created to measure “heroism” reflects my belief that being a hero requires more than a costume, an arch-enemy and a score to settle.
Heroes, in my opinion, whether male or female, should be present in their own stories, speak for themselves and have meaningful relationships with people who aren’t bent on destroying them. In her blog, Laura Hudson claims that the female super heroes she admired when she was 12 felt “like people instead of window dressing.” For me, Catwoman, Batwoman and Wonder Woman certainly feel like people; dynamic, active and heroic people. Hal Jordan and Sinestro do not. Unlike Hudson, I have not “lived in” the superhero neighbourhood for 20 years; at best I am a tourist. Perhaps that is why I expect all of the title characters to have some emotional depth to go along with their bulging biceps, superpowers and mysterious demeanor.