3 hilariously sexist moments in superhero history

As far as feminism goes, superhero fiction remains a contentious issue. On one hand, originating as essentially power fantasies for Depression-era ten-year-old boys, the comics of the time didn’t exactly make a priority of allowing the female characters to look like equals (though they still fared slightly better than racial minorities, who were drawn as if the Grand Wizard of the KKK was the editor of Quality Comics).

Just reading this makes you an accessory to hate crimes.

That said, female characters were at least treated with some dignity, considering that even in those early days, there were superheroines with their own titles, right? Well, you’d think so, but even being the main character didn’t always save these women from being treated like a closing-shift Hooters waitress (AKA the grabbiest time of day).

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1. Batgirl gets sexist against herself

Batgirl is by far one of DC Comics’ most popular female heroes, rivaled only by Wonder Woman, even if she had to spend a few decades in her Oracle identity because the Joker shot her in the spine and Gotham’s rooftops aren’t exactly wheelchair accessible. But before that, Batgirl had an illustrious career as a vigilante, debuting in 1967, though this turned out to be a bit of a rough start. Why? Because Batgirl spent most of her early days doing the sexists’ job for them.

“Sorry, Batman, but some of us actually wear pants, unlike your creepily underdressed teenage boy sidekick.”

This is from “Batgirl’s Costume Cut-Ups,” a 1968 story that’s so clownishly sexist that it borders on unintentional satire (and not the kind where the creator just claims the work is a satire because everyone hates it). Batgirl tries to assist Batman in dealing with the Sports Spoilers (which might sound like the villains from one of those Twinkies ads, but no, they’re actually supposed to be a legitimate threat), but finds herself constantly dealing with her “feminine weakness”, meaning whenever she suffers from some minor cosmetic damage to her costume, she has to stop and fix it. Worse, she’s literally the only person in the story who notices or cares, Batman being a little more focused on not getting his skull caved in by a small army of violent robbers. Even when she’s alone, she beats herself up about being such a girl.

“I sure wish I could be as emotionally stable as the two vigilantes who deal with personal loss through physically assaulting criminals.”

Now, if this were a movie or something, Batgirl would overcome her personal problems and come out of this a stronger and more confident person, preferably in an easily digestable feel-good three-act style the studio can lie about being based on a true story. However, this is a comic book, so instead of improving in any way, Batgirl just resorts to flashing the bad guys some leg to distract them. WOO, PROGRESS!

Sure is great she gets to put those self-defense classes to work.

Oh, and the real kicker? Batgirl didn’t tear her costume by accident; she did it on purpose specifically to expose herself to distract the criminals because, in her own words, she wanted to show that her “female weakness” had advantages too (though it really says more about the criminals’ weaknesses than hers). I guess the writers might have intended this to be some sort of moral about using what you have to your advantage, but it really comes across more like “Use sex as a weapon, ladies!”, which is probably not going to be a very effective strategy against the sideshow of serial killer circus freaks that plague Gotham like a Juggalo gathering.

“I sure am glad that I’ll never have to deal with anyone worse than a group of sweater-wearing football hooligans.”

2. Lois Lane deals with workplace bullying

Lois Lane has made a name for herself as pretty much the poster child for the Damsel In Distress, mainly because pop culture refuses to acknowledge anything published after 1970 (the same reason Aquaman is treated like a loser despite literally being king of 71% of the planet). The blame for this can be placed mostly on the Silver Age Superman stories, which had surprisingly little to do with crimefighting and seemed to revolve mostly around Lois Lane trying to trick Superman into marrying her and Superman sadistically enjoying screwing with her. Sometimes it seems like Jor-El sent his son to Earth because he foresaw what a rancid sack of dicks he was going to turn into.

“I’ll just offload my sociopath of a son there. Better keep him from getting bored or he’ll start emotionally abusing you and claiming it’s some sort of deranged morality lesson.”

That said, before she turned her attention entirely on trying to entrap an alien into boning her, Lois Lane’s main characteristic was her dedication to journalism, an impressive career in a time when women were either secretaries or working in munitions factories because all the men were busy getting shot at by Germans. Starting out as an ace reporter for the Daily Star (later renamed the Daily Planet), no one really seemed to question her position… that is, until after WW2, when the Superman comic started running the backup feature “Lois Lane, Girl Reporter,” and suddenly, every character in the series seemed baffled as to how a woman, who is clearly too emotional and high strung to stray more than a few feet away from a stove or a vacuum cleaner, could possibly be a reporter.

“It’s not like I’ve known you for almost 10 years and watched you tackle countless near-death situations or anything.”

What made this series especially weird is that Lois was constantly showing that no, having lady parts most certainly didn’t stop her from being competent, but the other characters simply didn’t care. Every story started the same way, with both Clark and Perry White making fun of her for her girliness, and when she inevitably showed them up, they just muttered a surly half-apology and forgot all about it. It’s like the ’40s version of Reddit; the only thing missing is Superman accusing her of misandry for calling him on his bullshit.

On the other hand, “girl reporter” wasn’t the worst job title she ever had.

3. Invisible Girl vs. the world

Sue Storm has made a few poor choices in life. She chose to accompany her boyfriend on his cartoonishly badly planned (not to mention unsanctioned and crazy illegal) trip into space, she chose to make herself and her entire family a target of the mass-murdering space lunatics who use Earth as a goddamn rest stop, and she chose to spend most of her life wearing a blue unitard. But her worst choice was probably marrying Reed Richards, the man who views women as literally only good for reproduction.

“Do your part for history and give birth to great men, then go back to the kitchen and shut the hell up.”

This is just one of many early moments in the career of the Fantastic Four when the world seemed to just go out of its way to try and reduce that to the Fantastic Three, because everyone and their sexist grandpa went out of their way to make Sue feel like crap for not having a dick. It probably didn’t help that the men she was romantically interested in fought over her like a bunch of hobos fighting over a half-eaten pizza. And it wasn’t limited to family and friends; random government employees also commented on how she should just stand there and look pretty.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to make sure all the black soldiers are issued faulty rifles.”

Really, it’s a small wonder that Sue didn’t quit the superhero business after a week, because everyone around her seemed intent to either force her into a domestic role or just drive her off. The really funny part is that, for the most part, Marvel was known for producing more progressive comics than DC at the time, but the Fantastic Four in the ’60s was about as progressive as a Louisiana Sunday church service. My guess would be that Stan Lee used up all his progressiveness writing Spider-Man and the Hulk, and had to vent all his angry old man opinions in the Fantastic Four’s stories. Okay, so technically he was like 40 when these came out, but it’s hard to imagine him as anything other than that mildly senile old man making cameos in the Marvel movies.

Also, this is not a young man’s view on domestic life, unless you ask on a video game forum.

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  • Greenhornet

    Sexist (Picture) number six:
    “So you see, Jor-El, sometime in the 21st century, Mexico, Canada and the United States will join forces to take over the world! They will even create a super continent they will name ‘AMERICA! F**k Yeah!’.”

  • Greenhornet

    You’re spot on about Sue Storm. In a “What If?” story, Spiderman became a member of the FF early on and Sue was steadily pushed into the background. Finally tiring of the blatant sexism, she runs off with Namor.

  • mamba

    Catch is Lois Lane actually was written as a competent person (let alone woman) so the sexist attitudes being thrown at her looks silly in themselves as she was proving them wrong constantly.

    Sue Storm on the other hand was written (early on anyway) as the kind of person who would make you agree with the FF’s opinion of “sit down and shut up before you hurt yourself”. She’d turn invisible in the street and forget that other cars can’t see her as they almost hit her. She’d completely forget that her clothing is not invisible half the time. She really WAS an airhead with no science background, and was CONSTANTLY reminding the team how doomed they were all, usually while sobbing. She’d run and scream before the bad guys even landed their attacks, and was basically a nagging idiot in their ranks.

    They fixed her character greatly as things went on, but early on? She was like the anti-feminist!

    • Kradeiz

      And the first Sue Storm panel here is from one of the most infamous FF stories, where Stan Lee responded to criticism towards Sue by having her read fan mail and cry. Which prompted Reed’s whole “Lincoln’s mother” speech, as well as Ben Grimm yelling, “If you readers wanna see women fightin’ all the time, then go see lady wrestlers!”

      It’s hard to tell whether that was the actual attitude Stan Lee and Marvel had, or if they were hoping that saying, “Shame on you, you made Sue Storm cry!” would guilt critics into shutting up. Either way, it’s a major cop-out that ignored the whole problem with how Sue was written in the early days.

  • Deneb T. Hall

    Technically, only one of these is a ‘moment’. I will agree that all three of them are at very least questionable, but an ongoing character treatment isn’t a moment, it’s a very long series of moments – I mean, your Lois example stretches over twenty-odd years.