Wonder Woman Tied Up: How Women in Comics are Hypersexualized
By Syd Nalamliang
It is not uncommon to see women sexualized in media—from real women in magazines to fictional women in books and movies, no matter what generation you grew up in, we all have seen women made into sexual objects since childhood. You may think “that can’t be right, I only ever watched cartoons when I was a child,” but even in cartoons and media targeted towards children, girls start being sexualized from a young age and often don’t even realize it.
To sexualize someone means to take a person that is in no way on their own presenting themself to be sexual, and objectifying them by making them into a sexual idol. This could mean looking at what someone is wearing and deciding they are inherently a sexual object because of their clothes. It could also be, in the media, creators intentionally putting female characters in poses that make their bodies the main focus of the scene, in spite of whatever serious situation may be going on. To hypersexualize a character means to sexualize characters to an excessive extent. In comic books, a form of media that involves artwork to accompany its dialogue, hypersexualization of female characters is a common occurrence by writers, artists, and fans alike.
Hypersexalization in comics specifically has been a major issue since the 1930s, when superhero comics became a big hit with heroes like the Human Torch and Superman. When Wonder Woman was first published in her own solo comic in 1941, she instantly became popular amongst male comic fans and appealed to a female comic audience. Wonder Woman was a subversive character because she was often depicted as a barrier-breaker who didn’t let her sex hold her back in a patriarchal world.
Spider-Woman (2014) #1, variant cover by Milo Manara
Wonder Woman becoming a household name unfortunately went hand-in-hand with decades of comics that devalued her character. Her prominence led to comics that began painting her as a sexual object. This is not to say Wonder Woman appears as a sexual object in every depiction of her. For a character that is well-known by comic fans and non-comic fans alike to be sexualized is harmful, and especially so to young girls. Oftentimes, when children see characters in media that they feel represent them, they idolize and look up to these characters. So when people see women sexualized in media growing up, they go into adulthood thinking this behavior is okay and don’t understand how it reduces women.
Devaluation of women in comics starts with their involvement in the plot, and continues all the way down to their basic visual design. The harm comes from the continual presentation of women in media as sexual objects, which maintains the notion that they are less than human and don’t deserve to be treated with dignity.
Power Girl (2009) #27, art by Henry Prasetya
Above are two examples from Marvel Comic’s Spider-Woman and DC Comic’s Power Girl. From first glance, it’s clear that the Spider-Woman cover is anatomically incorrect and this calls into question why this panel got past the editing process. What kind of message does it convey to young comic fans when art that is being passed through multiple levels of editors shows unrealistically idealized versions of bodies? As of late, the goal of comic art has been to make it more and more realistic, with more details in the lines and shading, and yet there still seems to be a lack of realism in how women are portrayed. In the panel from Power Girl we see her chest pushed out and her leg bent up in an unnatural position. It seems that for a character who is simultaneously using heat vision and punching the lights out of an enemy, this pose would only take more unnecessary effort. In a situation where you’re outnumbered one to who knows how many, it doesn’t make sense for a seasoned hero like Power Girl to put energy into that, so it’s reasonable to conclude that it was the artist’s conscious intention to draw her in a position that only accentuated her body to draw attention to it, rather than to reflect a realistic situation.
Starfire (also known as Koriand’r) is one of the most sexualized women in comics. From her first appearance in DC Comics Presents (1978) issue #26 in 1980, to her more recent appearances, Starfire has been turned into a sexual object time and time again purely for the sake of doing so.
The New Teen Titans (1984) #45, penciling by Eduardo Barreto
Her first costume design (shown above, from The New Teen Titans, volume 2), which was kept for several years, consisted of not much more than strips of fabric. The explanation given for her costume design (or lack thereof) is that she draws her powers from solar radiation so she needs to get as much exposure to the sun as possible. But by this reasoning, Superman, another alien who also draws his powers from solar radiation, should also be wearing clothing that is just as revealing as Starfire’s. His skin is indestructable to everything other than Kryptonite when he’s had his fill of yellow sun radiation, so by this logic it would make sense for his hero outfit to maximize the amount of exposure he gets to the sun. When put into perspective, the in-universe reasoning for making the main focus of Starfire her sexualized artistic design doesn’t seem very plausible. Starfire is a character with a well-developed, interesting backstory, and yet every time when she’s turned over to new writers and artists she goes back to being degraded to a background character used as a sexual tool whenever is convenient in the story.
This is an issue that needs to be addressed because of the inherent sexualization of women’s bodies by society. No one should be reduced down to how their body looks, and yet that is what happens to women in comics all the time. Rarely in team comics are the women heroes treated as more than side characters used to create romantic conflicts or to appease an audience that buys into women being reduced to sexual objects.
It is necessary to question the practicality of why women in comics have been consistently drawn in ways that unnecessarily highlight their bodies only and take away from the importance of their presence. Comics specifically contribute to this by “sexing up” women and reducing them to background characters whose presence is only to be a sexual idol does irreparable harm how people view women in real life.
Effects of Hypersexualization. (2022, February 11). Gouvernement du Québec. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://www.quebec.ca/en/family-and-support-for-individuals/childhood/child-development/effects-stereotypes-personal-development/effects-hypersexualization