Feminism lost in comic books

Jenn Hopkins, local Tucson artist, smiles in from of her booth at the 8th Annual Tucson Comic Con on November 7, 2015.
Jenn Hopkins, local Tucson artist, smiles in from of her booth at the 8th Annual Tucson Comic Con on November 7, 2015. (Photo by: Morrena Villanueva / Arizona Sonora News)

For Jenn Hopkins, 27-year-old Tucson artist, her love for comic books started at the age of 7 and only grew as the years went by, as did her awareness to the male-dominated content inside the pages of her favorite books.

Similar to real life, women in comic books continue to be seen as both supporting characters and as potential leaders with little success to being accepted as equals. A point of study has been the depiction of women in comics, in which body types are unrealistically portrayed.

And perhaps unsurprisingly given that comic books have been a male-dominated industry since its conception, female comic book characters are often featured wearing hyper-sexualized costumes, with emphasis on large busts, tiny waists, round butts and long legs.

Hopkins is considered a leader in Tucson’s comic book community. She empowers women not only through her science fiction driven artwork but also by advocating for gender equality within the comic book industry.

“Women are constantly drawn in objectifying and highly obscene poses,” said Hopkins. “For a long time women were seen just as the damsels in distress and nothing more, but now there are some badass superheroes and villains that don’t need the help of man to get things done.”

With the rise of the modern day feminist movement, more and more attention is being drawn to the lack of equality between how women are portrayed within comic books. One of the largest issues being addressed today surrounds the high level of sexual harassment women, and at times men, often receive at Comic Cons.

Jane Asselin, a writer for the website Bitchmedia, conducted a survey on sexual harassment in comics. Asselin received approximately 3,600 responses from fans and industry professionals. The survey data revealed that 59 percent of comic book fans and professionals agreed that sexual harassment is a problem in the industry, 25 percent said they personally had been sexually harassed, 13 percent say they have received unwanted sexual comments at conventions and 8 percent have been groped, assaulted or raped at a comic convention.

Tucson Comic Con is one of the smaller comic conventions in the United States with approximately 10,000 attendees in 2014. To put the statistics in perspective, if 25 percent of Tucson Comic Con attendees were personally sexually harassed that would be approximately 2,500 people. San Diego Comic Con, one of the largest comic conventions, sees an average of 130,000 attendees. If 8 percent of SDCC attendees were groped or sexually assaulted that would be approximately 10,400 people, more than the entire number of TCC attendees. 

A young woman in cosplay theatrically poses on November 7, 2015 at the 8th Annual Tucson Comic Con.
A young woman in cosplay theatrically poses on Nov. 7, 2015 at the 8th Annual Tucson Comic Con.

Cosplay, literally meaning “costume play,” dressing up and pretending to be a fictional character, is incredibly popular at Comic Con conventions. Men and women often dress up as their favorite sci-fi, comic book or anime character. For women they are often imitating costumes of their favorite characters, which often are drawn wearing minimal form-fitting clothing. What should be just a fun form of expression has a history of women facing a multitude of sexual harassment, with people saying, touching and grabbing women in highly inappropriate manners.

“People are often intimidated by me so I can’t really speak from personal experience, but I know there is a history of women and men as well having unwanted pictures taken or being touched inappropriately,” said Hopkins, “It is completely unacceptable. Just because someone is dressed revealingly does not mean it is okay, welcomed, or asked for.”

Hopkins recalls a year she dressed up as Wonder Woman for the Phoenix Comic Con. Her outfit was as authentic as Wonder Woman’s in the comic book, with tall red boots, strapless leotard, lasso, cuffs and tiara, caused men to shout catcalls in her direction. One man even approached Hopkins and began to quiz her on her knowledge of comic books, a common exchange that men initiate at Comic Cons.

“A lot of men think women don’t know anything. They will start quizzing you with insane questions,” said Hopkins, “Men just don’t get it. Just because I have a vagina doesn’t mean I don’t have a brain.”

The highlight of this same event was when a young girl, also dressed as Wonder Woman, asked to take her picture with Hopkins. It is moments like these that continue to inspire Hopkins to paint powerful women so she can encourage the next generation of female comic book fans.

Within the past two years there has been a huge movement with the comic book community advocating against sexual harassment at Comic Cons. The 8th Annual Tucson Comic Con in November featured multiple signs with the movement’s slogan, “Cosplay is Not Consent.” A movement Hopkins proudly advocates for.

“Jenn is a strong female role model in the comic book community,” said Michael Olivares, friend of Hopkins and founder of Tucson Comic Con, “She empowers women not only through her art but through all the work she does in the community.”

The portrayal of strong women in media is important to Hopkins, especially women in comic book culture. Once a week Hopkins and a friend air a podcast aimed toward comic book fanatics. As a part of their show they were able to screen the first episode of the new CBS show, “Supergirl,” before it aired. After viewing the episode Hopkins was left feeling disappointed in the poor representation of a strong woman.

“This was a platform that had so much potential and for me it really fell short,” said Hopkins, “There is one moment where one of the male characters assumes she is gay because she isn’t interested in him and they play ‘She’s a Bad Mama Jama’ during a fight scene. They just should have gone about it in a different way.”

Market research conducted by Comics Beat revealed that 46.7 percent of comic book fans are female, yet women in comic book culture continue to be considered inferior. This is a problem that is being addressed more and more as active feminists advocate for change.

“Young girls need strong role models and what better than a female superhero,” said Yolanda Chavez, 35, with her two young girls at the 8th Annual Tucson Comic Con.

Morrena Villanueva is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at morrenav@email.arizona.edu. 

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 


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