Not Quite A Hero: Exploring Female Gender Roles In Early Comic Books

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Even as a young child, reading comic books helped me to escape into a new and creative world where anything was possible. Great heroes with unimaginable power and the possibilities of the adventures they partook in helped to shape my young mind. The heroes struggling with personal disasters and the ability to rise above it gave me the hope that anything was possible, even if life throws obstacles in your way. But even these comic books had their obstacles, mainly the fact being that much of the storylines had to do with a beautiful young woman.. crying for help... in some dark alley... that we all know is completely unrealistic. What kind of woman would willingly walk into an alley where certain danger is afoot? How is it possible that these young ladies never learned their lesson? (Tune in next week for Jane to walk down the alley.. Again. What will Tarzan do this time? ) Where was the responsible, quick-witted female influence that was supposed to teach young girls how to overcome obstacles? Why did the boys get male superheroes, while all we got were women in danger that couldn't do anything without the help of a man?

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Adventure Comics # 368 ( 1968) By Jim Shooter and Curt Swan

Inked by George Klein. Source: Superdames.org

While the main focus of comic books dealt with a male dominated rescue squad, at times there were strong-willed female characters. Wonder Woman is a prime example, running her own campaign of female empowerment in an age where men usually ran the show. The thing I most enjoyed about Wonder Woman was the fact that she never let her male counterparts tell her she couldn't do the things they could; most of the time she was better and faster than the men. Her strong will and determination outshined the men, and her sense of right and wrong helped young female viewers to see that anything was possible, even in a male dominated society.

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Batgirl, Secret Origins #20 ( 1987) 

Source: Pinterest

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Along with Wonder Woman, supporting characters were another way for female empowerment to shine through. “Villains” from far away lands were usual story arcs in early comics, with the woman character being the one trying to lead the male hero away from his commitments. But if we look closer at these characters, we can see that they were simply women that knew the men they were paired against were stuck in a fading society that simply did not work.

I’m not saying that every comic out there demotes women to simple storylines and the classic damsel in distress, but a vast majority of comics still focus on a male saving the female from unimaginable danger and the female falling in love with her savior. While the male superheroes are great in their own right, I feel the need to see more strong female leads kicking butt and asking questions later. I hope for the day where more female heroes are saving a scared man from a dark alley instead of the other way around.