Marvel Comics have during the recent years made updates to its top selling characters; an update concerning ethnic diversity and gender equal representation.
One has to think of the difficult situation of being a business reliant on customers that have grown up looking at predominantly whitewashed, heterosexual characters. This is not exclusive to comics, it is also seen in other popular media, and therefore increases a sort of subconscious expectancy of a whitewashed heterosexual view upon… well.. the world. To then break free from these old stereotypes and modernize to the realistic diversity that is our every day, is longed for by many and is kind of gutsy of Marvel. (Ok, the heterosexual part is still dominant, but at least there is change happening). Ethnic diverse characters have now spread out among the core titles and are seen as the lead in Spider Man (Miles Morales - African American/Puerto Rican), Captain America (Sam Wilson - African American), The Hulk (Amadeus Cho - Korean American) and Miss Marvel (Kamala Khan - Pakistani American) to name a few.
So what about the gender representation?
As the creator of the social norm awareness project Sustainable Personality, where one of the pillars of being a sustainable person is gender equality, I must say that these are interesting times at Marvel Comics right now.
In 2014 Marvel received bad press from the public for the objectified, over-sexualized poses of Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew). Marvel updated her suit and lessened the objectification. Not long ago, Spider-Woman was seen on a cover pregnant; completely opposite to the previous sexualisation.
In 2015 Marvel premiered a female Thor. The comic shot up in sales as fans were trying to figure out who this mysterious woman, worthy of picking up the Asgardian hammer Mjolnir, was.
Many are familiar with Wolverine, the classic X-Men character with adamantium claws. He too passed on his mantle - to a 23-year old woman named Laura Kinney.
Kinney is a daughter-clone of Wolverine and has the same powers and abilities.
And lastly I would like to mention the 15 year old African American tech wizkid Riri Williams who will take over the role of Iron Man. Well, they will start her off in the Iron Man comic book, but will call her Ironheart. I personally agree more with the name Ironheart than Iron Woman or Iron Lady; it is gender neutral.
Marvel didn't change the name for Thor when a woman took over the mantle. This is interesting as Thor is directly associated with the male god of thunder.
Captain is another male associated term (not exclusively but it does conjure a stereotypical image of a stern man shouting “drop and give me 20 you maggots!”) and was assigned to Carol Danvers, as well as two previous female characters, when they became Captain Marvel.
The issue about name got me thinking about gender fluidity; an open identification to any gender. If you look at the suit of Ironheart it resembles Iron Man’s, why then not have Williams continue with the name Iron Man and wear the original suit? All she needs to do is step into the suit and continue the adventures. With the advent of Riri Williams comes controversy. First it was her name. It so happens that there exists a Japanese pornographic parody of Iron Man called Ironheart. It sparked online complaints to say the least. Then there was the variant cover by J. Scott Campbell, that sexualized the 15 year old character. This goes to show how difficult it is to let go of the sexualized image of a woman. It's not just the comic book medium, you can comb through art history and see how the female form was synonymous with a sexual object or desired. If we are to discuss gender equality then let's not forget that men are portrayed in a very muscular way; a greek sculpted body with defined, heaving muscles. But we move in different times now, people are making themselves heard about wanting change, Marvel has delivered on many fronts, now let's see if we can change the portrayal of people in a more realistic way. It's important to know that the image we have upon ourselves is a socially constructed one and not set to our DNA, this way we can deconstruct and rebuild.
If we go back to the issue about names. Having female characters under male superhero names sends a signal that we indeed move in different times and it sends a signal to teens growing up with thoughts of identification, that anything goes; be whoever you feel like being. If you're a guy and want to cosplay as a female superhero, then do it and vice versa. Gender fluidity is most likely confusing for an individual when people try to fit that individual into a gender stereotyped role. Some might argue that gender fluidity might also run the risk of becoming a cool, but passing trend. It should of course also be taken seriously with respect and thought to people that go through gender identity issues. Another question is, could the trend create empathy? Empathy = Emotional Intelligence.
When it comes to the big screen there doesn't seem to be any Marvel movies with a female lead. Avengers is a team of heroes with several male characters that have gotten their solo movies. There are two female characters on the team, Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, and they have not been given any solo movies.
However, it is on the small screen where Marvel steps up the game with their Netflix series. The various shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage so far and soon The Defenders and Iron Fist) are centred around deeper character, acting and story development. Relevant to the gender equality discussion is Jessica Jones, the super strong, scrappy private investigator.
Jones leaves the sexually objectified female image behind. She is a strong, confident person who does not run to a man to solve her issues. She gives off the feeling of being equal in an effortless way. She might seek companionship yes, but from a human standpoint and not a gendered stereotyped one where she goes to a man to feel “feminine” and “taken care of”. She's a scruffy brawler, she drinks too much and makes mistakes. If ever there would be a traditional role to assign her, it would be the private investigator with a personal life completely in disarray.
(Oh yeah, I’ve heard rumours about She-Hulk getting her own show on Netflix. Perhaps the TV show will follow the upcoming comic book by dropping the ‘She’ before the ‘Hulk’ ?)
I don't think a woman should need to adopt a manly presence or persona a la Margaret Thatcher to be taken seriously (easier preached than done of course). We need to remind ourselves every day that we must accept and value a person, no matter what gender they are. If we don't, then our future generations will suffer the same fate of someone born, say 50 years ago. Not only do we need to teach gender equality in schools, but also in our homes from before the child is born in order for significant progression to made.
I am interested in what caused Marvel to make these updates? Is it the discovery that women today basically match male comic book readers/movie fans and therefore profit becomes the age old deciding factor? Or is it to realistically, ideally and fairly mirror the diverse multicultural reality of our world - the real human image? Maybe a bit of both? Marvel’s update makes sense since the comics and movies now have a more worldwide reach.
It makes me digress and reflect once again on a large scope; is my human worth measured in money? When will human life (human rights) really be our first priority and the primary deciding factor? I think a help would be to actively teach human values not only in school but, as to repeat, in homes as well. Talk to your children, an activate dialogue = reflection = possibility for future equality (keyword: revolution).
I’m sure there are a lot of creators at Marvel that have longed for this change and are not solely driven by money. No matter what, Marvel has made bold and brave and moves forward and all the more difficult - in a world of business. Now let's see if other popular medias will follow suit.