Aug 17, 2021
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).
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.