Saturday, 4 August 2012

Digital Canvas - Rise Of The Strong Female Character

The mediums of webcomics and print comics share some common ground, but obviously have many differences. One of the main differences is motives; they do both share a motive to tell great stories to their respective audiences, but it can be said that the main motive behind print comics is lucrative - they’re in it for the money. Whereas for the most part, the majority of webcomics are started for fun or a part-time hobby. Of course, this may lead to money over time if the fan-base is there, and there are always greed-driven exceptions to the rule, but the main reason for a webcomic to exist is because the artist has a burning desire to tell a story.

This basic fact can (and often does) affect how a story is told, for example webcomics don’t have the monetary drive to keep going and so tend to suffer from delays or even abandonment midway through a chapter. But the lucrative motive is especially felt in the world of the print comic. Certain ideas or narrative elements are known to sell well, so they often get repeated (it’s no accident that Marvel skips from Big Crossover Event to Big Crossover Event). Certain characters are just too popular to ever have a permanent death scene.

And so we come to the topic of this particular article: female portrayal. Everyone knows that Sex Sells, and with comic writing (and reading) being a male-dominated industry, “sexy” female character portrayal is the unsurprising norm. So super heroines all have close-fitting costumes with holes cut out in just the right places, and an alarming majority of female supporting characters can be easily categorised as either a “Damsel In Distress” or a “Love Interest” simply there for window dressing. Or both!

Recently however, audiences have demanded more from print comics than just shallow stereotypes, a rallying call for more “Strong Female Characters”. A certain amount of backlash has been directed towards DC’s recent portrayals of Catwoman and Starfire during their relaunches in the New 52 as nothing other than sex objects with nothing better to do than to trivialise casual sex and look ravishingly good in every scene.

Of course, blanket statements should be avoided, as there are some superb comics on the stands that have some great examples of Strong Female Characters; Batgirl is a great example written by Gail Simone, and Red 5 Comic’s Atomic Robo series has a recently started arc that says it all with the title “Atomic Robo and the Flying She-Devils of the Pacific” and the fact that the lady pilots all wear suitably rugged overalls and flight jackets.

But if you really want to escape the world of casual sexism, the best refuge is arguably within the world of webcomics. Internet patrons are fairly savvy about things like plot tropes and clichés what with having access to websites such as TV Tropes and the like, so webcomic authors need to be equally savvy when writing their story. In next week's article I plan to test my theory on webcomics being better at female portrayal by laying out some rules for what I think makes a Strong Female Character, and checking if some of my favourite webcomics would pass.

So, for the rules:

  1. Strong Female Characters should be able to pass the Bechdel Test (have two female characters shared a conversation that isn’t about men in some way?). A simple test you think? The recent Avengers film sadly failed this one miserably.
  2. A Strong Female Character shouldn’t exist just to somehow support or orbit a man. No sidekicks or love interests that just borrow their motivation from the person they’re sidekicking to, basically.
  3. A Strong Female Character shouldn’t be overly sexy in their dress sense or body language for no good reason or if it goes against common sense. Sometimes sexy poses aren’t the best option to carry out everyday activities (c.f. Megan Fox the “mechanic“ in the Transformers films).

Disclaimer: Please note that these are my own views after a few days mulling it over. I’m sure there are many other interpretations of what makes up a well-rounded female character, and I certainly don’t wish to cause any accidental offence via this article, but I am truly sorry if I do.

Todd Marsh is genuinely interested to test out his favourite webcomics and see which would pass or fail this simple test.


  1. As I understand it the Bechdel Test isn't really a /test/ to pass or fail but a rhetorical question "how many good lady characters does Hollywood really make?"

    But 2 and 3 are good criteria (lady chars should have their own goals and motivations + shouldn't be sexualized by the Male Gaze)

    Off the top of my head, webcomics with good lady characters
    Homestuck, Bad Machinery, Gunnerkrigg, Cuke Quest, Hark a Vagrant, Vattu, Monster Pulse, Witch and Knight

    Not coincidentally, most of these have their cast made of female characters

  2. Oops, typo. Most of those have their cast evenly split between male and female characters.