Female Characters in DC Comics

By Saoirse Adams-Kushin

Female characters in the DC Comics universe are valued less than their male counterparts- by the writers, the fans, and even other characters. As such, female superheroes are usually ridiculously oversexed, have very weak characterization, and are more likely to be killed off than the men they work with.

The first thing you notice when looking at female superheroes, villains, and love interests over the years is that they are all traditionally beautiful. There are no overweight heroines, no evil women with strange mutations that are not aesthetically pleasing. Physically, none of them are less than “perfect,” with the exception of Barbara Gordon, the wheelchair-bound former Batgirl[1]. No female superheroes so much as wear glasses, once again discounting Miss Gordon. Even she only wears them now that she’s no longer Batgirl, but is instead Oracle, running communication for Batman and various associates.

Batgirl is also notable for not wearing a brightly coloured metal bathing suit like many of her colleagues. (Wonder Woman and Starfire of the Teen Titans being notable examples of this) Instead, she wears black leather, (or spandex, depending on whether the girl in question is Barbara or her protégé, Cassandra Cain) previously reserved for evil or morally ambiguous characters such as Catwoman, the terrorist Cheshire, Talia al Ghul, and the assassin Lady Shiva.

For those who choose not to wear bright colours or black leather, the only other choice seems to be a black leotard and fishnet stockings, as sported by Zatanna and, until recently, Black Canary[2]. Never mind the impracticalities of fighting crime in fishnets, these characters are clearly only there to please the readers, who like to watch women dressed like hookers beat up criminals.

Equally impractical is the fact that nearly all female superheroes fight crime in heels, because the writers and artists believe that that is what most women wear. Of course, they have presumably never worn heels and do not realize how much they hinder movement. Once again, you need look no further than classic Wonder Woman and Batgirl for examples of this.

The only two mainstream DC heroines who wear anything resembling sensible clothes to save the world in are Grace Choi of the Outsiders and Cassie Sandsmark, the second Wonder Girl. Even they are drawn with breasts that are ridiculously out of proportion. Often, women’s’ breasts in comics seem to ignore the law of gravity.[3] This, more than anything, leads to my belief that many comics artists have in fact not seen breasts since they were infants, and have in fact not talked to a woman in years.

One of the comics industry’s most celebrated creators is a man named Frank Miller. His book “The Dark Knight Returns” is credited with re-inventing Batman, turning him into the dark, tortured soul we see today. He also created the series “Sin City”, recently immortalized on the big screen. Miller is well known amongst comic fans for killing off the few female characters in his books that are not sex-trade workers.

His current endeavour is to re-write Batman again, from the beginning this time, in a series called “All-Star Batman and Robin”, which is consistently a top seller, although nobody in comics-fan circles seems to actually like it. The book is infamous for a scene in which Vicki Vale, the Token Love Interest, walks around her apartment in heels and lingerie, making sexy poses.[4]

The book was bad enough for the image of women in comics on its own. However, shortly after, a “Special Edition” was released, with some of Miller’s original script for the scene, containing such gems as “BODY SHOT- THIGH UP- give us an even better angle on the babe. Front on. Walking right at us. She knows what she’s got. Make them drool.” and “OK, Jim[5], I’m shameless. Let’s go with an ASS SHOT. Panties detailed. Balloons from above. She’s walking, restless as always. We can’t take our eyes off her. Especially since she’s got one fine ass.” Miller makes it quite obvious that Miss Vale is in this story not as a character, but as a sex object. He clearly would rather she have a well-developed bosom than a well-developed personality.

There is a long history of personality-less characters in comic books, going back to Golden Age Wonder Woman. While her stories often portrayed early feminist attitudes, they at least as often involved Diana getting cuffed and chained or tied up with her own lasso[6]. In every instance, her body language in these scenes was very suggestive.

With the exception of Wonder Woman, every major female superhero has been essentially a beautiful female clone of an established male hero. Superman has his blonde cousin Supergirl; Batman has had two Batgirls and now a Batwoman. They often serve a similar role to that of the Teen Sidekick, doomed to never be as powerful as their mentors. Rather than being strong in their own right, these characters are always in the shadow of the men they take their names from.

 Even in “Team” comics, where women are about equal to men, it is very rare that a female character is chosen to lead the team. In “Outsiders,” Jade (daughter of the original Green Lantern) took over the team briefly. She has since been killed. In the canceled “Young Justice,” Wonder Girl replaced Robin as leader towards the end of the series. But in the most well-known and one of the longest running Superhero teams, the (Teen) Titans, the only woman to lead the group, Donna Troy, was only in fact co-leader with Dick Grayson/Nightwing.

One reason why female superheroes have trouble getting people to take them seriously is a vast difference in characterization. Take the original Batwoman and Bat-Girl (Kathy and Betty Kane) from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Batman continuously expressed concern over Batwoman’s chosen career, fearing for her safety. This is odd, considering that at the time Batman was putting a child, Robin, in at least as much danger. In place of Batman’s utility belt, Batwoman carried a handbag.

The most striking difference between Bruce Wayne and Kathy Kane (and, indeed, their respective sidekicks) is in motivation- While Bruce and Dick fight crime to avenge the murders of their parents, Kathy and Betty take up the mantle of the Bat out of “love” for Batman and Robin, which seems more like a schoolgirl crush than true love most of the time. What this says, basically, is that while men only do ridiculous things like dress as bats to cope with serious trauma, women can be irrational all the time.

Another, more recent comparison regarding friends of the Batman is between the stories of two of his Robins, Jason Todd and Stephanie Brown. Both of them had troubled childhoods and fathers who operated on the wrong side of the law; Willis Todd was a henchman of Two-Face and Arthur Brown was known as the Cluemaster.  Both teens were chastised for treating life (and crime fighting) as a game. They both worked alongside Batman, Jason as the second Robin and Stephanie as both the Spoiler and, briefly, the fourth Robin. One gets the feeling reading her story that Steph would have been Robin longer than her two months comic-book time if Jason had not existed.

You see, Jason Todd died. He was one of the first major characters to be killed off in comics. His fate was determined, famously, by a phone poll- Call one number and Robin lives, call another and the Joker wins. His death left a huge scar on Batman’s already fragile psyche. He put Jason’s Robin costume in a glass case, where it remains to this day, almost like a religious object. His death has not been forgotten.

But Stephanie died, too. Her death was at least as bloody and terrible, at least as undeserved as Jason’s was. Even the scenes of Steph’s brutal torture at the hands of a madman with a power drill are sexualized compared to Jason’s brutal beating with a crowbar. The Case in the Batcave has a plaque under it, which reads “Jason Todd- A Good Soldier.” Stephanie was not any less of a good soldier than Jay. But her existence was all but forgotten after her death.

Between 1985 and 1995, four major male characters were killed off by DC- Barry Allen, (the Flash) Oliver Queen, (Green Arrow) Jason Todd, and Superman. All of them except Barry have been resurrected. Of all the myriad female characters to be offed, only Donna Troy has returned from the dead. Death does not stick in comics, unless you happen to be a woman.

Consider the number of women in comics who have been murdered, raped, depowered, maimed, tortured or crippled, have contracted a disease, or have gone insane or evil- The Women In Refrigerators List[7] numbered 111 at the last edit, although it has not been updated in several years and therefore is missing quite a few names.

Many people over the years have asked why more women don’t read comics. I think the answer is by now quite clear. Most women do not enjoy watching other women get treated as sex objects, murdered, and then forgotten about. There’s no question about it, being a woman in comics is a dangerous life.[8]


[1] Gordon was paralyzed in Alan Moore’s 1988 graphic novel “Batman- The Killing Joke

[2] Her costume was redesigned by Oracle in Chuck Dixon’s “Birds of Prey” in 1996

[3] See any appearance of Power Girl, from 1976 to the present

[4]All-Star Batman and Robin,” issue one, 2005

[5] Artist Jim Lee. The quality of his art is one of the few redeeming qualities of “All-Star

[6] The covers of “Wonder Woman” 205, 68, 189, 200, and 290 being prime examples

[7] Women in Refrigerators, or WiR, can be found at http://www.unheardtaunts.com/wir/. The list was compounded by comics creator Gail Simone