The representation of women in comics, as in all media, is a controversial subject. The mainstream view of comics is still struggling to accept that women are a large part of the fanbase. Leaving women out of the demographic naturally means the writing of many comics has only men in mind. It begs the question, when is the sensuality and femininity of female characters empowerment, and when is it fanservice?

The representation of female superheroes is one thing to consider, but the representation of villainesses is another thing altogether. Villainesses have been defined by their perceived deviance from proper femininity since the era of Hollywood censorship. Femme Fatales are oversexed and empty of conscience. Some of that stigma still bleeds over into representations of today.

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Yet, DC comics have some of the most compelling villainesses I’ve ever encountered. Most notably, many of them have a dichotomy of morality. The characters make choices that align them both with good and evil. So, how does that character depth effect the depiction of their proportions and sexual behaviors? Let’s take a look.

THE CHEETAH

Wonder Woman is a complicated example of female representation — one that has changed many times over the years. Her villains are even more of a mixed bag. There are some villainesses, like the Cheetah, that are hard to find any sort of empowerment in. Multiple characters have taken on the mantle of the Cheetah, some of which are regular women in a themed costume. Barbara Minerva, however, transforms physically into a cheetah hybrid through a ritual.

It’s hard to find much depth to Minerva. On one hand, it’s interesting to see a female villain driven only by a vicious greed for power. Many times female villains are a product of abuse; sexual, physical, or otherwise, at the hands of men. On the other hand, her characterization falls a little flat.

With a one-dimensional characterization, it’s easy to see the Cheetah as a product of fetishization. Though she’s imbued with the strength and instincts of a cheetah, Minerva keeps all the human attributes which would keep her sexually desirable. She has claws, a tail, and the coloring of the animal. However, she’s still made of the soft and ample lines of a woman. She’s more fantasy than threat.

WONDER WOMAN (1987) #9
Image from WONDER WOMAN (1987) #9, courtesy of DC.

The degree of animalistic facial features does vary between artists, but her origins are still damnable as far as empowerment goes. Her original transformation went awry, leaving her frail and disabled in her human form because the ritual required a virgin, which she wasn’t. A character punished for partaking in their sexuality needs very little explanation.

KILLER FROST

Killer Frost is another name which has been passed on from villainess to villainess. The original, Crystal Frost, is a far cry from the most recent, Caitlin Snow. Crystal has a classic femininity. Really, she looks more like a princess than a villain. As a scientist, she’s obviously an intelligent woman. One might think this is a pretty decent representation. The catch comes, once again, in her origins. Crystal is depicted as emotionless and man-hating after a romantic rejection from Martin Stein. It’s like a feminist nightmare.

FIRESTORM (1978) #3
Image from FIRESTORM (1978) #3, courtesy of DC.

Caitlin Snow, however, is a little more interesting. Snow’s depiction relies on more masculine traits. She has an edgy haircut, more muscles, and, you know, pants. This illustrates the truth that there’s more than one way of womanhood. She’s also another brilliant woman — a promising S.T.A.R. Labs scientist. Her mistake is continuing the experiments of Crystal Frost and Louise Lincoln (the second Killer Frost). Still, while Crystal’s rage seemed to carry over from her human bitterness, Snow’s murderous tendencies appear to result mainly from a vampiric need for heat to survive.

READ: Want more Caitlin Snow? Here’s our character spotlight on Killer Frost in THE FLASH!

In JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA: KILLER FROST REBIRTH #1, we see Caitlin Snow up for parole from Amanda Waller of the Suicide Squad. Snow battles her hunger and weakness because she wants to be a better person. She wants to be a hero. Her story is compelling and dynamic, and everything I’ve ever wanted from a (reformed) villainess. She has strengths and weaknesses, and real, human needs. She feels real on the page.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA: KILLER FROST REBIRTH #1
Image from JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA: KILLER FROST REBIRTH #1, courtesy of DC.

CATWOMAN

Though Selina Kyle’s origins change between timelines and Earths, she’s usually a child of foster homes or orphanages. For a short time, Kyle was said to have been involved in prostitution, but that was later removed from her history. Still, while normally I take issue with sex work as a backstory, I mind it less in this instance. It’s no secret that children in the foster system are more at risk for sex work. It’s a tragedy that is earned from the circumstance, rather than thrown in because that’s the only hardship women are allowed in media.

Kyle is one of the most notable morally gray villainesses. Several times she’s found helping Batman. More times than that, she’s found loving him. Still, despite his many requests that she give up her life of crime, Selina remains steadfast in her ways. It makes for an incredibly enthralling romance that two people are so fundamentally different, yet so the same. It also makes her a stronger character.

CATWOMAN (2011) #6
Image from CATWOMAN (2011) #6, courtesy of DC.

Catwoman is obviously a very sexualized character. I don’t believe that’s necessarily always a bad thing. As sexy as her costume is, it’s also practical for a cat burglar. Black, skintight, and flexible. Maybe it also occasionally sacrifices practicality for a plunging neckline, but so what? Sexual expression from characters with agency isn’t frustrating in the same way it is for characters like the Cheetah. When a dynamic female character employs sensuality, it makes a statement that the display of a woman’s body might be for that woman’s benefit. Just because men get their kicks out of something, that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t value in it for women.

POISON IVY

Poison Ivy is a character that, for me, is the very definition of sex as power. She’s the first character that I ever saw and had the thought, “I want to be her!” Still, she’s another morally ambiguous character at times, though she does lean more heavily on the villainess side. Though she has changing origins, Pamela Isley’s story begins with a manipulative seduction by a man who later causes her transformation into Poison Ivy. Ivy uses both old fashioned seduction and pheromones to manipulate people. Toxins and her connection to plants help her kill them once they’re in her grasp. In her defense, though, she usually thinks she’s doing the right thing to save the planet.

Poison Ivy is certainly lacking in the clothing department most of the time. Though, it’s another one of those instances where it sort of makes sense, isn’t it? She’s connected to nature — devoted to it — and nudity is a pretty natural thing. Sure, she has insanely gorgeous and perfect proportions, but every time I look at her I wonder why a woman’s body is so controversial. Of course people’s personal experiences with a character vary, but I’ve never been uncomfortable with the way Poison Ivy wields her body and sexuality. She makes me feel powerful and less ashamed of the way I present myself.

POISON IVY: CYCLE OF LIFE AND DEATH #2
Image from POISON IVY: CYCLE OF LIFE AND DEATH #2, courtesy of DC.

Is it strange to connect so fully with a villain? Maybe. Yet Poison Ivy has only ever done wonders for my self-esteem. She has her softer, maternal moments. Moments that prove that women are more than their sensuality, but can use it as they please.

HARLEY QUINN

Though she’s often thought of as merely the Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn has a lot of depth to her characterization. Often written off for her mental illness, Quinn has a fragile grasp on reality. Yet she happens to be a genius, one who suffered a great deal of abuse from the Joker. He makes her into more of a villain than she could’ve ever been on her own.

READ: Want more Harley Quinn? Here’s our exclusive preview of HARLEY QUINN #20!

Once again, there are always complications when a woman’s storyline centers so strongly around abuse. Yet, her story is honest and thoroughly explored. This gives her situation the authenticity and time that such a thing deserves. Harley and Joker’s relationship is cyclical, a constant stream of on and off. She gives herself over entirely to the Joker, letting him do whatever sick things he thinks up. Yet there are periods where she knows she deserves better, though it’s not always easy to stay in that mindset.

My favorite thing about Harley Quinn is the expression of her anger. Rage is hardly ever associated with femininity in any way. It’s always repressed and bottled up. Of course, she’s unstable and does a lot of horrifying things. However, that anger is one of the healthiest things about her. If I could have one wish, it would be that more women in fiction get to have this honest release of emotion.

HARLEY QUINN #25
Image from HARLEY QUINN #25, courtesy of DC

DC VILLAINESSES OVERALL

There are a lot of interesting villainesses in the DC Universe, and their depictions are continually getting more exciting. With on-going series like DC BOMBSHELLS or the enduring popularity of titles like GOTHAM CITY SIRENS, there’s a promise of more appreciation for female-led stories. More than that, their stories get to be about more than femininity. Characters like Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn are breaking more barriers with heavy subtextual evidence to suggest they’re part of a queer romantic relationship in the main DC timeline. They’re officially in a relationship in DC BOMBSHELLS.

Of course, there’s always room to slip up. Progress isn’t permanent, and creators should always be aware of what messages their characters send out. Additionally, there are still things that are ignored in the midst of all this progress. There’s a serious lack of women of color when it comes to both the villainesses and the heroines of the genre. Femininity expresses itself differently cross-culturally, too. What might be empowering for one group of women will be stereotypical for the next. Trans women and disabled women need stronger representation. There also needs to be an increase in the diversity of body types. Getting more muscular women is certainly an improvement. Yet, there needs to be an array of women of all shapes and sizes, as is true to life.

I’m hopeful, though. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and we’ve already come a long way. I find great strength in these badass villainesses. I hope some of you do, too.

One Comment

  1. Tim O'Reilly

    May 26, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Great article! I sometimes struggle with Poison Ivy being that she’s written as a sort of femme fatale character in iterations. I think what makes her so nuanced and redeeming, though, is that this is entirely performative by her. Ivy is definitely sexualized, and while the idea of women using sex for power I think can sometimes lead to troubling depictions, in this case, the sex is not what makes her villainous. I think that distinction is important. Where in other cases it seems like women using sex for power is their villainous act, with Ivy that’s most definitely not the case and her awareness of her own objectification becomes refreshing instead of troubling. It’s great to know that there’s more to her than being a villainous siren and that her motivations behind why she uses her sexual wares as she does are fleshed out. It really gives her some fantastic autonomy as a character.

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