The Knight’s Tale, the first of many told by Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, depicts two imprisoned former members of nobility who, when smitten, make it their primary goal to win over the lady instead of becoming free or regaining their status.
While the two men may have believed it to be much more significant, a common ruse of the system that is courtly love, Chaucer demonstrates in his subsequent tales that such visions of grandeur are misplaced and true affairs of romance only get as beautiful as The Miller’s Tale. Yet, an entire encyclopedia’s worth of authors created careers out of promoting such subjugation to creatures that are less human and more embodiments of ideals. Consider Araby in Joyce’s Dubliners or generations of writers inspired by Petrarch and you will see a desire to have the lady rule over her suitor, as if she is some kind of perfect creature and he is simply undeserving of her affections.
Certainly, there are frank rejections of this system, such as Shakespeare’s Mercutio mocking Romeo for reading too much of the aforementioned poet or Melville’s Moby-Dick, a tale that serves as an allegory for society but is so exclusive of females as to suggest that the author wants to disintegrate the role of women. However, while writers have fought this tradition of submission to the ideal, the one type of art that still seems insistent on keeping the subjugation alive is the comic book. While often criticized for their insulting portrayals of women, comic books actually depict the female in a manner that is nothing short of reverent. And, in that regard, comic books demonstrate not a misogynistic or sexist tradition but, rather, an equally unfair expectancy to embody ideals beyond the physical.
The first criticism made against comic books, possibly because it is the most blatant, is the portrayal of women. It is commonly believed that females in comic books are all depicted as incredibly attractive, with clothing and form that only men dream up, and demonstrate a fixation on physical attractiveness. Even if we overlook the fact a woman should not be treated as a blemish on womankind simply because of how she dresses, there is generally at least one person in everyone’s social circle so materialistically obsessed with their looks that everything from their clothing to their makeup is absolutely on target.
A good example in comics is Emma Frost, best depicted in Astonishing X-Men. However, consider Frost’s tale and it becomes clear that the men are not chasing physical attractiveness but idealistic beauty. In the first issue, when both Wolverine and Cyclops fight over the deceased Jean Grey, Frost states, “superpowers, a scintillating wit and the best body money can buy…and I still rate below a corpse.” If we were to go the traditional anti-feminist route, the men would not respect a woman after death and would instead follow the most voluptuous. Yet, both men chase after the woman they fell in love with, who has an incredible hold on them, and ignore the physically attractive. The fact that both Jean Grey and Emma Frost are psychics with the ability to make others conform to their wishes, powers they more commonly use on men than women, further asserts that this is work in which men submit to women that stand for ideals beyond physical beauty, as Petrarch wrote about in his sonnets.
The second criticism is the characterization of female characters in comics. Critics love to argue that comics follow the traditional extremes of either portraying a damsel in distress or a femme fatale. However, if they were to actually study many of the prominent characters, they would see just how false this notion is. The best example to argue against such criticisms would be the role of Spider-Woman in Agent of S.W.O.R.D. In terms of portrayal, protagonist Jessica Drew neither dons the virtuous garb of the diminutive, shy lady in waiting nor the leather-clad battle armor of the fighting vixen. Instead, the protagonist spends much of the series in loose trench coats or wife beater shirts more suited to a cage fighter than an attractive woman. At numerous points, she is shown bloodied and beaten to an inch of her life. Certainly, the portrayal does not make her physically beautiful but there is an abstract allure. Also, in terms of characterization, she is neither entirely pure of heart nor is she the conniving type that so strangely fascinates men in power. Instead, she is a woman whose drive for revenge actually demonstrates deep-seated fears of loneliness and betrayal. Even the motion comic picks a voice actress whose take on the character is in no way sultry, yet it is strangely unique and filled with emotion. Therefore, it is safe to say that no traditional criticism of the unrealistic standards or insulting portrayal of women in comics applies to this character and she can therefore not be called a sexist caricature. Instead, she is an individual with so much depth beyond that material that she instead represents ideals. Plus, keep in mind that she also has the ability to control the men around her through pheromones she secretes from her body, once again demonstrating the Petrarchan desire for the female to rule the man who finds her beautiful.
And finally, we have the criticism of women not being allotted significance in comics. While it is true that, save for DC’s Wonder Woman, no other female in comics has the popularity to carry her own series for prolonged periods of time, understand that this is a plight for most characters in general. Marvel has a library of over 4000 characters and, of the top of their heads; most people can name maybe ten. There are certain heavyweights for both Marvel and DC, such as Batman, Superman, Wolverine and Spider-Man but most other characters are not as popular. If you know of Black Panther, Lobo and Daredevil, you realize the amazing depth to these characters. However, most people in the mainstream do not even know them and they therefore do not receive the same billing as the Avengers, the X-Men, the Justice League or anything even remotely as large. Simply put, that is a popularity issue. Yet, comics even manage to defeat that by disguising stories of female empowerment as stories of male bravado. Consider Wolverine and Jubilee and you will realize that, in a tale where Wolverine is mentioned before Jubilee, the reason is strictly cosmetic. More people will be interested in a story starring the one who is best at what he does but read on and you will see that this is far more Jubilee’s tale than Wolverine’s. The reader watches as the female, traditionally labeled Wolverine’s sidekick, overtakes him and becomes the central character, dealing with issues of guilt, insecurity and power. In short, while it may be a little deceptive to give Logan top billing and instead tell us a story about his former sidekick, it is nonetheless blatantly empowering women in comic books.
Let nothing mentioned so far imply that comic books are not betraying the goals of feminism. If writers continue to promote a standard where the most natural relationship between the genders is that of bowing knight and perfect lady, no relationship will ever survive in a state of equality. Even Wonder Woman is a story of females essentially rejecting male society and only allowing the highly successful to enter, such the Bruce Wayne or the universe’s most famous Kryptonian. This was something Chaucer warned us about but there are always writers who don’t realize that equality of the genders was and still is an issue. However, that having been said, comic books are not misogynistic; they promote standards of inequality more akin to Petrarch than Aristotle. Blame should always be placed where it is due and, while comic book mentality is dangerous in our society for intergender relationships, sexism is as large a problem as idealistic notions about women.