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Three women in a comic stare at the viewer in front of big statues

The stars of Grace Randolph’s superhero comic Supurbia, on its first issue cover. 

Originally posted at BitchMedia.

I came to Comic-Con International this weekend with an eye on gender—how would female fans and comics creators be represented in the convention that draws 150,000 proud nerds to San Diego?

Day one alone of the epic convention included three gender-specific panels: The Witty Women of SteampunkGender in Comics, and The Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con: Dual Identities, which all included a mix of academics, comics creators, and fan community organizers.

My takeaway from three panels was big and simple: the female experience is the human experience, people just aren’t trained to think that way. Jeanine Schaefer, editor of the new all-female X-Men series, said on the Gender in Comics panel that when the idea first came up to do an all-female X-Men series, “There was a lot of, ‘What if they all get their periods at the same time? I wouldn’t want to be a dude when that happens!'” Marvel went forward with the comic, but, “Online, people kept asking, ‘Why can’t you just identify with dudes?’ And I just wanted to be like, ‘Guys! I’ve been doing that my whole life because there is no one else to identify with!'”

Dire predictions aside, X-Men #1 sold more than any other comic in the month in which it was released.

Despite the overall optimism that readers can connect with female characters, queer characters, and characters of color, panel moderator Christina Blanch noted that in the popular imagination, comics is still a man’s world. A Ball State University professor who also teaches a popular online gender-through-comics class, Blanch related the results of a class experiment in which she had students read comics in public and gauge the reaction. Every single one of the women was questioned by passersby about why she was reading a comic. On the other hand, only one male student was questioned, and he was reading Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The panelists agreed that the development that has most changed the landscape for women in comics is the ability to buy them online—without going to the kinds of stores that Blanch referred to as “rapey.” At the same time, creators urged the audience to pre-order comics they like from their neighborhood stores because that’s the only way the stores will ever carry them. Comics writer Grace Randolph says she often hears from fans that Supurbia, her multi-racial comic populated with both male and female heroes, is not available in stores. Dafna Pleban, an editor at Boom!, which publishes Supurbia, bemoaned the effect that a lack of diversity has had on her favorite genre:

“Women love superheroes. We love characters who are empowered both physically and as people who make decisions in their lives. This perception that women read different genres is why the superhero genre is where it is now—because it has limited voices. In the end, being inclusive and being seen by other people as human, that’s just good writing. If you want to tell the story you have to do it.”

Though the Witty Women of Steampunk panel contained very few actual references to the gender of the panelists or of their characters, Anina Bennett, author of Boilerplate, summed up why steampunk—a subgenre of speculative fiction set in a psuedo-historical, steam-powered era—provides such fertile ground for female artists who want to reclaim an historical image of womanhood:

People make a categorical distinction in their minds between fiction and history, and they think that history is pure fact, utterly objective, no information left out. But history is written by winners, we all know that. So part of what we’re trying to do is tweak those lines a little bit and get them to think about when they’re reading other things that are supposedly non-fiction, there’s always a point of view.

I tracked down panelist Kaja Foglio, author of steampunk comic Girl Genius, on the convention floor to find out what it is about steampunk that makes it a good fit for women writers and female characters.

“I think we see the age of steam as this time of adventure and travel and that’s something that people enjoy. I mean everybody does. And there really were women doing exciting things back then. They just didn’t get as much press,” said Foglio. “So now you have female creators saying, ‘Cool, we can tell her story.’ But it’s not just because I’m a woman—I think it’s more of human thing really, to like exotic locations and interesting machines.”

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She Hulk comic cover

Originally posted at Bitch

This is a dark summer for geek girls. Though superhero and comic book-based films are all the rage these days, it’s male crime-fighters who get all the attention: there are no films starring female superheroes on the horizon.

Take the whip-smart spy Black Widow, for example. The Avengers member will co-star in Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014, but the buzz around a film in which she is the titular character all but died out in 2012. Likewise, every attempt to make a movie focused on Wonder Woman has failed to overcome the Hollywood “prevailing wisdom” that women action heroes don’t sell.

Frankly, that argument is hollow.The Hunger Games, starring deadly archer Katniss Everdeen, took in $687 million at the box office. In comic book world, the women in the X-Men have become so popular that they now have their own comic. Joss Whedon, outspoken critic of the lack of women heroes in film, is adding a woman to Avengers 2 with the Scarlet Witch. Yet the total number of women on screen is shrinking.

So why are there so few female superhero films? Hollywood’s extreme beauty standards mean that studios only want to make films starring a particular kind of beautiful woman, super heroines included.

For example: Would a She-Hulk movie ever get off the ground? This isn’t a wild idea—She-Hulk has been a part of the Avengers (she’s Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk’s cousin) and the Fantastic Four, and both franchises have new movies coming out in 2015. She has been a member of S.H.E.I.L.D—about which Whedon is currently making a TV show. She even once had an affair with an X-Man called the Juggernaut. She-Hulk is very much a part of the mythological universe that makes up these currently popular stories.

But would major studios ever make a She-Hulk film? She’s green. She’s angry. And she’s big. Having only been exposed to the Hulk’s blood and not to actual gamma radiation, she is less monstrous than he and has more control over her powers, but she is arguably the most muscular woman in comics at 6’7″ and 600 pounds. Shapely, flexible Black Widow is clearly an easier sales pitch.

An old issue of wonder woman with the titular lady riding a horseA She-Hulk movie may never be more than a pipe dream, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that some of the women in genre films weigh in at something more than 120 pounds. Instead we appear to be moving backwards. Despite the popularity among both men and women of tough-girl Katie Sackoff in Battlestar Galactica, NBC’s The Bionic Woman, in which she co-starred, was quickly canceled. Smallville, which was on for ten years, gave us a Lois Lane with a third-degree black belt, and that character lives on in the Smallville comic. And yet, producer Deborah Snyder has said that Amy Adams’ petite Lois Lane in Man of Steel, though “a really strong female character, and very proactive” functions primarily to save Clark “emotionally.”

Justice League movie is in the works for 2015, and as of now, Wonder Woman is slated to be a part of it. But it’s going to take more than vocal comic book fans to get DC Entertainment to cast a woman who could believably be an Amazon. According to the 2004 DC Comics Reference Guide, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman was 6′ tall and weighed 165 pounds. However, according to the current DC Database, she’s 6′ and 130 pounds. At this rate, in a few years she won’t be able to stand up. But she will be more likely to get her own movie.

Man of Steel does feature a female supervillian: Faora of Krypton, a version of whom appeared in Superman and Superman II. Being Kryptonian, the earth’s sun gives her the same powers it gives Superman. Given that and the casting of Antje Traue, who ably defeated aliens and humans alike in Pandorum, I’m guessing Faora will be capable of wreaking quite a bit of havoc. But it’s not her movie, and it’s a little hard to really celebrate a character whose primary motivation is a hatred of men. Nor is it a coincidence that the most badass woman on screen this summer is also a bad guy.

It speaks volumes that Hollywood is willing to bank on superheroes who still fit into very, very narrow and petite beauty norms. Watching a grown woman fight requires us to confront our underlying suspicion that some women will never conform.

The stunning and talented women in this summer’s blockbusters are not the problem. The problem is a culture that can only stand to see women heroes who weigh no more than the average 16-year-old girl. The truth is that women of all sizes can be heroes. They already exist as such in comic books for now. Let’s get some up on the silver screen.