Holy hotpants: Superhero sexism is alive and kicking
New releases 'Suicide Squad' and 'The Killing Joke' are a return to the bad old days of comic book misogyny
Published 04/08/2016 | 02:30
Holy internet controversy! It's been ages since we've had a properly contentious superhero movie. Now, like a number 16 bus on a rainy morning, two have arrived at once, trailered by a faintly noxious odour (the movies, not the buses).
The higher profile of the pair is obviously the Jared Leto, Will Smith-starring 'Suicide Squad'. In cinemas this weekend, it puts a heroic, postmodern slant on villains such as The Joker and Killer Croc. Yet the film has also provoked criticism over the perceived sexualisation of the Harley Quinn character, portrayed by Margot Robbie as a skimpily dressed waif.
Meanwhile, comic fans are already wrestling with an animated adaptation of 'Batman: The Killing Joke', Alan Moore's seminal 'Batman' graphic novel from 1988. The original has become somewhat notorious over the decades largely because of a scene in which the Batgirl / Barbara Gordon character suffers horrific and gratuitous sexual humiliation.
When it was announced Warner Brothers was to turn 'The Killing Joke' into a film, there were hopes the new telling would better reflect modern sensibilities, with Batgirl presented as something other than a hapless and helpless victim.
But the movie has, in fact, doubled down on the mistreatment of Gordon, who in the graphic novel is crippled then photographed naked by the Joker simply to psychologically torture her father, Commissioner Gordon.
Now, in addition to suffering the Joker's depredations, she is shown having an affair with the (far older) Batman and thus reduced twice over to glorified plot device rather than independent protagonist with her own motivations and story arc.
These days were supposed to be behind us. In the past decade, the superhero genre is perceived as having worked hard at casting off its image as a refuge for pasty faced young men who can't get a girlfriend.
Strong female characters have become de rigueur, more or less, in comic book movies - and if usually expected to display more flesh than their male counterparts, they are at least given interesting storylines of their own (in 'Suicide Squad', for instance, Harley Quinn is motivated by a sincere romantic attachment to the Joker).
So though Scarlett Johansson is of course obligated to pour herself into a leather jumpsuit two sizes too small when playing Black Widow in the 'Avengers' films, she is nonetheless given more to do than pout and toss her hair.
Indeed, she is arguably the moral centre of the most recent entry in the series, 'Captain America: Civil War' - perhaps the only hero mature enough to see both sides of the argument as Captain America and Iron Man have a violent falling out.
"It is definitely changing for the better from the earlier than it was originally," says graphic novel artist Triona Farrell. "Right now there is a huge push for more female representation in the comics community as a whole, such as comics like the new '52 Batgirl' [the "new 52" is a 2011 revamp of DC Comics' entire line of heroes] or the new 'Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan', which are pushing for a wider demographic, especially with the young women."
Perhaps that is why 'Suicide Squad' has generated so much comment, with Robbie required to publicly defend the re-imagining of Harley Quinn as bubblegum-chewing sexpot in short-shorts (very much at variance with the historical depiction of the character as a sociopathic, fully clothed, court jester).
There was, the actress allowed, a degree of discomfort in squeezing into the skin-tight outfit. "As Margot, no, I don't like wearing that. I'm eating burgers at lunchtime, and then you go do a scene where you're hosed down and soaking wet in a white T-shirt, it's so clingy and you're self-conscious about it."
Nonetheless Robbie defended the new look. Harley Quinn was "wearing hot pants because they're sparkly and fun," she said, not because "she wanted guys to look at her ass."
"Harley Quinn started out as a beloved character on a cartoon, so the recent changes to her costume in the comic and now on screen have been controversial," says one comic industry insider, who asked to not to be named because of the divisiveness of the subject.
"Part of the problem is that there just aren't enough prominent female characters, especially on-screen. It's often argued that female comic characters in skimpy outfits are justified as it suits their personalities and it's what they would wear.
"However, when there is a dearth of female characters, especially on-screen, all we see are scantily clad women. It becomes accepted as the norm."
Yet among comic fans, any discomfort about Harley Quinn has been obscured by outrage over 'Batman: The Killing Joke', currently on limited release (you can catch it at Dublin's Light House).
By general consensus the new adaptation exacerbates the tawdriness of the original. Brian Azzarello, the movie's writer, didn't do the project any favours when, at the recent Comic Con convention, he called a fan a "pussy" after they pointed out that Batgirl's only agency in the film comes via her sexuality.
"When women are targeted for violence, that violence is overwhelmingly sexual," wrote Noah Berlatsky, author of 'Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism', in the 'Guardian'. "The Joker doesn't just shoot Barbara; he strips her and takes nude, voyeuristic photos, transforming the violence into a symbolic rape."
"The depiction of women is improving," says artist and writer Leonie O'Moore. "More women are entering the comics industry, more women are being vocal about how stories effect them and more men are becoming aware of these issues.
"Some of the larger publishers are beginning to realise that there is a much broader market for comics than they'd previously assumed and that women are an important part of that. As a result we're slowly starting to see more diversity, in the industry and on the page.
"However, there's still a long way to go and we're still seeing the same tired old tropes being dragged out. In 1999, Gail Simone famously coined the term 'Women in Refrigerators' which highlighted the recurring theme in comics of using the death or suffering of female characters as a plot device. This device is still commonly used in stories."
"I've read mainstream American comics since I was a young kid but have pretty much given up on them in recent years as they frankly don't seem to want my money," adds animator and illustrator Cliodhna Lyons.
"They continue to focus their business model towards a shrinking market of middle aged white males. Do I think comics have an issue with the depiction of women? Comics don't, but certain publishers and creatives certainly do."
Still, perhaps what we are experiencing presently is a darkness before the dawn. One of the big superhero properties touted at Comic Con was 2017's 'Wonder Woman' - starring Gal Gadot and, unusually for a genre film, directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins.
"I can't let you do this," blusters love interest Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) as Gadot's character prepares for a dangerous mission. Wonder Woman doesn't miss a beat: "What I do," she says, "is not up to you."