Female Counterparts

Hawkgirl, Supergirl, Batgirl, Spider-Girl, Ms. Marvel, Zatanna, Lady Blackhawk, Pat Savage, Mary Marvel, Jesse Quick, She-Hulk, Aquagirl, Wasp, Lightning Lass, She-Ra... What does it say about the comics industry and us as readers that so many of the high-profile superheroines are really derivative of male heroes, while the opposite gender never successfully happens? It seems perfectly natural when creating a "family" of characters that you'd play the gender card. If you have a male hero, there might be a female heroine in the same family, just as a kid version, a pet version and an evil version are likely. These are simple alchemical transformations, after all. But then why aren't there successful male versions of Wonder Woman, Black Canary or Storm? Is it thought that the target audience would not accept a male hero derived from a female one? Is there something intrinsic to a female design that cannot be translated to the male gender? Or would the male ego/personality automatically try to overwhelm the central female hero and rather her secondary to her own story?

Maybe we need to examine the role of the male hero in a "family" to understand a female hero's. The male hero is often a patriarch, either an older brother or cousin, a father, or a husband. Even a character without blood ties or marriage bands to the male hero will be a daughter (Batgirl is Commissioner Gordon's), though some have no real relationship except the name (Spider-Woman, Batwoman) just leaching a popular name to sell books. In any case, it makes them beholden to the male character. Now reverse it. A female hero at the center of a family would have to be a matriarch, surrounding herself with younger male heroes. Well, we already know our society (absurdly) looks down on this. They would have to be older sisters and mothers, though the gender politics gets fuzzy if we make them wives. I love strong women, which is why I love a lot of superheroines, but we seem well away from the husband who will take on his wife's mantle.

Maybe the superheroine is a victim of history. Though Pat Savage predates her by seven years, I think Hawkgirl (1941) is really the first female counterpart in superhero comic books, and I wish I could say it was a case of her and Hawkman premiering together as partners (as they did in their first Silver Age appearance). But no, Shiera is just a girlfriend for the Hawkman's first four appearances. Mary Marvel was in 1942. As more female derivations of established heroes appeared, mostly through the Silver Age, the era's innate sexism may have held back any chance of a potable Wonder Man, male Black Canary or Sir Phantom. Traditions are hard to break, and the industry's sexism didn't end with the 60s. It would take a while for a latter-day heroine to become prominent enough to support a "family" and a male counterpart, and most of the original heroines are part of teams (Storm, the Invisible Woman, etc.) and have their own families, constructed very differently.

Which doesn't prevent us from loving our superheroines, sometimes more than the male originals! But what do YOU think?


Craig Oxbrow said...

I remember a Marvel weekly reprint here in the UK when I was a kid included Spider-Woman and She-Hulk, and even then thinking Spider-Woman was okay, but surely a different name would have been better than "She-Hulk"? If they could carry their own stories, have their villains, surely they could have their own names? Spider-Woman didn't even have a connected origin IIRC. (And as a name, She-Hulk still makes me wince.)

Martin Gray said...

Some great observations and speculation. You may well be right as to why the spin-offs tend to be in one direction only (remember Power Boy? Blimey!). Even when DC claimed The Olympian was Wonder Woman's male counterpart, they didn't base his costume on hers.

And I'm with Craig, She-Hulk - used to it as I am - is an awful name. Who knew 'hulk' was a gender-specific word?

I suppose Zatanna is lucky, she never had to share the spotlight with her dad, being more of a legacy than a counterpart.

Wriphe said...

American superhero comics came of age nearly a century ago as disposable entertainment in a male-dominated society. Comic books are a for-profit enterprise made historically by men for men. The niche they fill has been to support the primitive male power fantasy. (Superman was powerful enough to force social justice on the corrupt, etc.)

When women were needed to support the adventures of established male heroes, the template was already in place, so it was used -- usually to create submissive or subordinate characters. The capitalist market never creates anything whole cloth when a similar product already exists!

Personally, I think that we don't get male versions of female superheroes, because by and large standalone female superheroes support a different fantasy (sex) than male heroes (power). Most men, I think, don't want to be put in mind of sex when reading the adventures of male superheroes. I'm not saying there's no market for it, I'm just saying that DC Comics isn't in that particular market. DC has no qualms marketing female sex object -- Starfire, Catwoman, Phantom Lady, etc. -- but not so much the opposite side of that coin. That tells you everything you need to know about their target market.

I don't know that this will always be the case, but I'm sure that so long as the mainstream industry is dominated by males (both in production and consumption), it is unlikely to change.

Siskoid said...

But then are you saying that derivative female heroes are about power like their male counterparts? Or is Supergirl, Mary Marvel, Hawkgirl and She-Hulk a "sex" version of a "power" character? And if they are, then why can't they take a "sex" character and make a "power" character out of her.

Anonymous said...

Hank Pym became the Wasp to homage his (presume) late wife, Jant van Dyne. Of course that deserved a lot of stupid jokes.

I wonder ifdoctor Mouton was thinking in balancing the femenine counterarts when he created Wonder Woman, wh was independente from any male.


Anonymous said...

The only male counterpart to a female hero that springs to mind is Power-Boy, who, yes, had a chest window.

You don't see many male characters derived from female characters because it threatens certain readers' sense of masculinity. Female counterparts are almost never the equal of the male original (e.g. She-Hulk is not as strong as the Hulk, Batgirl is not as skillful as Batman).

Imagine a male Black Canary: his power is to scream and his costume reflects or invokes one that included fishnet stockings. A male Starfire would wear purple and possibly have an exposed chest. A male Wonder Woman would use a lasso, used to subdue without too much damage, instead of a sword or gun.

I wouldn't have a problem with any of this personally, but (based on comic book store chatter and message board posts) I imagine plenty of readers would. I think it would be great for inspiration to work both ways. Having Hank Pym become the Wasp didn't work (partly due to the damage done to Pym's character in the '80s) but it might have worked to have an unrelated male character do so.

Original female characters like Storm and Black Canary tend to be better received than female counterparts. Generally, female counterparts work best when taken in a direction that doesn't mirror the male originals (e.g. infusing She-Hulk with comedy or work drama, making Batgirl a practically-mute daughter of an assassin).

- Mike Loughlin

LiamKav said...

I notice that 4 of those 6 superheroines have pretty much their entire thigh exposed. Super-Woman and Batgirl, however, are completely covered, and Batgirl is arguably one of those most sucessful female heroes (even if she is a female version of a male character). Maybe female superheroes don't HAVE to show lots of skin to be popular, DC and Marvel!

American superhero comics came of age nearly a century ago as disposable entertainment in a male-dominated society. Comic books are a for-profit enterprise made historically by men for men.

I can't check because the site is blocked at work, but I'm pretty sure there was a conversation on Tummblr recently that showed that to not be true. Lots of girls read comics in the 30s, 40s and 50s. It was only with the "Seduction of the innocent" crap that comics began to move towards a male-dominated area, and even then it's only in the past few decades have they begun to actively disgust women (as opposed to just ignoring them).

Anonymous said...

Boring answer ... ? Female counterparts are often created for trademark reasons. If there is a Spider-Man, then any old third-rate comic book company could create a Spider-Woman, unless Marvel does it first.

It's not always clear what should be the female equivalent of a genderless term like "Hulk" or "Captain Marvel" (himself created by Marvel Comics strictly for trademark reasons), but if they at least establish the existence of a female version of the original hero, it strongly undercuts another company creating a "Hulkina" or "Captain Marvelette".

Wriphe said...

Two more cents:

@Siskoid: "But then are you saying that derivative female heroes are about power like their male counterparts?" Generally, yes, I think so. Derivative female characters that are direct spin-offs are designed to support the power fantasy, not sex fantasies.

I'm sure that you could turn a sex fantasy character into a power fantasy character, but that isn't how the industry works. Once a powerful female is freed from her "family," she becomes a sex object. I don't know if that is a response to developing American sexual mores of the late 20th century, the relative immaturity of the type of people who buy/make comics, but I assume that is the way it is because solo female "sex object" characters sale better than solo female "power fantasy" characters. (I don't have the numbers to back that statement up, but I do know that Marvel and DC publicly justify their decisions as sales motivated. And clearly, they both prefer to market female sex objects over female power fantasies.)

@LiamKav: could you be talking about this (or something like it)?

Yes, girls have always read comics. I have no problem with the assertion that little girls are just as likely as little boys to read comics. My mother loved comics as a girl (her favorites have always been Sugar and Spice) and I would not still be reading comics if it hadn't been for her early encouragement in my hobby.

What girls do not read, and never have in any great numbers, is superhero comics, which is really what is being discussed here. Take a look at the titles those girls are reading in those old pics, and you won't see too many superhero comics at all. (Amusingly, one of the images at that link is of a little crippled girl reading a Superman comic. That's a still from the Adventures of Superman episode "The Birthday Letter." That's not evidence, that's advertising!)

In the Golden Age, there were far more than just superhero comics, unlike the massively superhero-dominated market of the Silver Age to now. It's no coincidence that as superheroes grew to dominate the market, the percentage of female readership declined and their influence on content waned.

@anonymous: I totally agree that a major reason for so many of the derivative female characters are created for purely marketing reasons. It is much easier to sell a familiar product than a brand new one. People will buy a female with Superman's "S" on her chest before they will buy a female with an unknown logo. Having an established successful brand to exploit is a big advantage.

Matthew Turnage said...

This phenomenon isn't limited to comics, either. Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck are female counterparts of their more well-known male leads, but Clarabelle Cow has no true male counterpart. The Bionic Woman followed the Six Million Dollar Man, as well. I think the patriarchal model of Western society is the reason why it tends to happen this way.

Martin Gray said...

@Matthew, sweet as she is, surely Clarabelle is too much of a bit player to be a useful cow-mparison?

And to go back to an earlier point, the current Supergirl - and the last one, if memory serves - have been said to be more powerful than Superman. Just not in his books.

Matthew Turnage said...

@Martin, historically you're probably right. Maybe my view of the character is a little skewed by watching the new Mickey Mouse Clubhouse episodes with my daughter, where I would liken Clarabelle's prominence as being comparable to what Power Girl and Huntress have enjoyed for most of their careers.

Wriphe said...

I woke up in the middle of the night just last night realizing that I had typed "Sugar and Spice" as my mother's favorite comic in an earlier comment. (Sorry. That's how my mind works. It can be a problem.) That's totally not what I meant to type. Please know that I meant SUGAR AND SPIKE! Sorry, Mom.

Siskoid said...

I just thought it was an autocorrect gaffe. I'm sure your mom is ok with it.


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