Holy T&A, Batman!: Sexism in DC New Universe

by Andrea Shea / Pop Columnist • December 8, 2011

Sex sells, even in comic books. So when DC Comics announced a reboot — that is, a tabula rasa of sorts for all its main titles — many fans were less than enthused about what is less-than-affectionately referred to as the DC New Universe (or DCnU, for short). The chances of our favorite female characters, heroes, and villains alike, escaping the restructuring unbludgeoned by the brutal bat of misogyny were slim. And now, three months into reboot territory, it seems we were right to worry.

On DC’s 2011 summer road show, Editor-in-Chief Dan Didio said of his new comic universe, “This is a refocusing of ... the company into a way that really pushes the medium toward the widest ... audience possible.” And that all sounds fabulous right up until he cites “the widest audience possible” as males ages 18 to 34. Sound familiar? 

It should, because that’s been comics’ target demographic for decades. DC is not looking for a wider audience, just a greater volume of what they already have, and it seems a tour de force of rampant sexism is their marketing tool of choice. Congratulations, Didio, your business model is about as progressive as my racist grandmother.

So how’s the reboot been going? Well, reactions have included outrage, cries for bloodshed, and some gnashing of teeth, and that was just in my apartment living room. Many other comic readers, both female and male, expressed equal vitriol for changes made to specific characters in costume, physique, and personality.

Starfire — an alien princess once of Teen Titans, now one third a team called Red Hood and the Outlaws — has become the donkey upon which hoards of angry fans are pinning their tails of displeasure. 

Since her introduction in the 80s, Starfire’s been an intensely sexual character contextualized in her deep compassion for humanity. Compare the free spirit we once knew and loved to DCnU Starfire who, within five pages of Outlaws #1, manages to bed both her teammates. She then goes on to confess her inability to remember the men she sleeps with and explain that her sexual encounters are essentially emotionless meetings of genitalia.

Oh, she also says, “Untongue me, creature!” mid-fight, just before being ingested by an enemy. She later escapes the belly of the beast; I know, I was disappointed too.

In a matter of a few lines of dialogue and some anatomically questionable poses, Outlaws writer Scott Lobdell contorted a strong, sexually empowered female character into a bipedal pair of breasts with the memory of a goldfish. If this is the modern male fantasy, then get me to a nunnery. I want no part of this travesty.

Other female characters have been equally manhandled, for lack of a better term. Catwoman, another sexy-not-sexualized leading woman, endures two full pages of T&A shots before she’s allowed to show her face. Amanda Waller, who made a name for herself in comics as a plus-size tough-as-nails prison warden, has been redesigned as a busty waif with none of her familiar gruffness. And, of course, there’s the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn who, once rocking a body suit befitting of her name, now boasts a mostly-undone corset and Victoria’s Secret cheeky underwear. 

What was once sexy, empowered, and fun has been reduced to basement-dweller masturbation material.

Of course, scores of the basement-dweller contingent have risen up against the numerous online articles and blog posts decrying DC’s blatant disregard for their now-unrecognizable female characters. Comics hypersexualize men too, they’ll say. Male superheroes are equally objectified. Sure, each of the Flash’s twelve abs is visible beneath scarlet spandex, and sometimes Superman appears to smuggle watermelons in his biceps and thighs. 

But what fanboys fail to realize is that bulging muscles and physical dominance in combat is a male power fantasy, not female fan service.

There are, unquestionably, a handful of DCnU titles doing right by their equality-minded fans. I’m positively hooked on the rebooted Birds of Prey; Batwoman never fails me, and Nightwing is tons of fun. 

But it’s hard to focus on the good when there’s still so much harm being done to characters I hold dear over years of loyal readership. And sure, I could do what the naysayers suggest and ignore the titles that don’t suit my delicate feminine sensibilities. But when DC’s fanbase inevitably degrades into the slobbering, under-sexed, unbathed fanboy stereotype that these kinds of chauvinistic shenanigans attract, you can bet I’ll be around to say, “I told you so.”