What Women Want From Comics

January 2nd, 2011

You may have noticed that Marvel, DC and their various imprints have been expressing confusion for some years as to “what women want” from comics. Call it ingenuous or clueless, I know I am not alone in being confused as to why it is just so freaking *hard* for the men in charge of these companies to figure out what women want. So, I thought I would help them.

I set up a (completely non-scientific) poll and asked woman who read comics to answer the questions. I had no particular agenda, but there will be inevitable bias, as I am human, with thoughts and experiences of my own. I received 424 completed responses.

Here are the questions I asked and the responses I received:

1. When you were young, did you read comic books you bought for yourself? (As opposed to reading your brothers’ comics or getting them from a parent or relative.)


1. Yes 286 67.77%

2. No 136 32.23%

2. What kind of comic books did you buy most (Choose One)?

1. Superhero 249  59.86%

2. Romance 7  1.68%

3. Horror 9  2.16%

4. War 0  0.00%

5. Manga 94  22.60%

6. Other 57  13.70%

3. Thinking about your favorite character from the comic books you read (or *a* favorite character) were they:

1. Female 242  57.89%

2. Male 176  42.11%

4. Still thinking about your favorite character, were they special because of:

1. Something they had (a magical object or talisman) 12 2.86%

2. Something they were (A Princess, a God, an Alien, etc.) 55  13.10%

3. Something they did (fought bad guys, solved mysteries) 147  35.00%

4. Some innate quality (a beloved icon, a charismatic leader, a furious fighter, a persistent snoop, etc.) 206  49.05%

5. Thinking about that favorite character, or any characters you liked the most what description below would best describe them? (Choose all that apply) 

1. Voluptuous 51  1.79%

2. Hard-bodied 97  3.40%

3. Outgoing/Friendly 189  6.63%

4. Tactiturn 72  2.53%

5. Idealized 91  3.19%

6. Realistic 154  5.41%

7. Popular 76  2.67%

8. Loner 161  5.65%

9. Ambitious 162  5.69%

10. Laid-back 83  2.91%

11. Princely 14  0.49%

12. Princessly 35  1.23%

13. Heroic 267  9.37%

14. Damsel in Distress 16  0.56%

15. Chaste 24  0.84%

16. Sensual 98  3.44%

17. Weak 16  0.56%

18. Strong 320 11.23%

19. Driven by Emotion 208  7.30%

20. Driven by Reason 162  5.69%

21. Fighting for Justice 295  10.35%

22. Fighting for Revenge 86  3.02%

23. Fighting to Save Humanity 172  6.04%

6. Thinking about comics you read now, are you likely to seek out the same kinds of characters as you described above? 

1. Very likely 200 47.51%

2. Somewhat Likely 137  32.54%

3. Neither Here nor There 55  13.06%

4. Somewhat Unlikely 21  4.99%

5. Very Unlikely 8  1.90%

I also asked two text questions:

Please describe the ideal character you would have liked to have seen in a comic as a child (to the best of your ability to do so.)

and

Please describe the ideal character that you would like to see in a comic now. 

For the all responses to the text questions – including the excitingly predictably attempts at trolling (you can tell because they contain synonyms for “penis”) – please visit this link. For the full results of the questions above, go here.

I will take the liberty of summarizing the results of this poll, as *I* interpret them.

Dear Marvel and DC – 

Women read comics. Women who read comics have been reading comics since they were children, just like men who read comics.

Women who already read your comics like superheros – male or female – who are strong, independent and who fight for justice.

Women who already read your comics would like to see female superheros with a dark side, and who don’t need to be rescued, but can find their way out of danger *on their own.* 

Women who already read your comics, would like to see more diversity, including more superheros of color, more LGBT characters and more body-type diversity. 

Above all, women who already read your comics, would like to see you figure out that what women want isn’t that complicated.

Sincerely,

Women Who Read And Buy Comics 

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29 Responses

  1. socchan says:

    Love the letter. Thanks for putting this together! Now, here’s hoping the big comic companies will pay attention.

  2. George says:

    It’s funny. My first reaction was “Huh. These results aren’t very surprising”. Then I realised that was the whole point. The fact that comic publishers need to be told what seems obvious to the rest of us reflects very badly on the industry. We are now seeing strong, well-written female characters in various other media, while American comics seem to be, by and large, relying on the same archetypes they’ve been using for the past thirty years.

    Trying and failing to achieve ‘realism’ seems to be a consistent issue with comics these days. In the Silver Age, when comics were knockabout fun involving people in bright spandex foiling the plans of ridiculous villains, it was easy to excuse the odd characterisation and body shapes as just being part of that same silly universe. But nowadays, plots are dark and apparently meaningful, and we’re supposed to believe in these characters… who still have the same barrel-chested, iron-boobed physiques as before.

    I’m a guy, and I can only speak for myself, but it seems to me that what women want from comics is probably very similar to what men want from comics. We want to see interesting characters doing cool things, and we’d appreciate not being patronised along the way. There seems to be a perception in the industry that men will only be interested in female characters with supermodel proportions and not much else, and that women will only respond to female characters who are focus-grouped and marketed directly at them. The latter is demonstrably untrue, and I would like to believe that the former is as well.

    Marvel does at least have the wonderful Squirrel Girl going for it. Hmm. Haven’t seen much of her recently, now that I think of it.

  3. @George – Hole in one for you. It isn’t surprising, no, or event anything less than obvious. But the Paul Levitzs who run major comics companies just *can not* figure it out to save their soul.

    I don’t really think about the body types much anymore, as I noticed that the male shapes are pretty much identically homoerotic hyper-masculine and, frankly insulting to real men, just as the female body types are a joke. I’ll give those all a handwave. But I thought it might be helpful to say it in plain English, what is obvious to all of us to help the comics companies.

  4. Calley says:

    I’m so glad you did this. I’ve been trying to break down what it is that makes a good comic book for women but I’ve been overanalyzing (as usual) and it helps to see it simplified like this. I’m writing my first book and it really helps just to see this. Thanks!!

  5. Shoujofan says:

    Thanks for this post, Erika. It’s really useful and I think the results would be similar here in Brazil, maybe with more manga female readers than superheroes… But Brazil is not a productor of comics/manga/whatever but most a consumer. But the prejudice against women is the same.

  6. michiru42 says:

    I think what men and women consider “strong” and “attractive” can be very different. Over in the X-Men, they’ve got the White Queen, a former stripper dressed in thongs, stilettos, and corsets who’s very fond of sex and very capable of leading a team and winning a fight. Men love her and since she’s very powerful and strong, and in charge of her sexuality, saying “you need to write strong women” doesn’t explain why she makes me roll my eyes.

    There’s an element of point of view in the characterization as well, and how the strength/sexuality is portrayed.

  7. Man, is she still around? I remember her from, like, the 70s?

    I guess what I’d like to see is less character recycling….

  8. michiru42 says:

    The white Queen is currently leading the X-Men beside Cyclops, where each issue highlights the amazing sex life they have, as she gets into different bondage outfits, sometimes on missions, and the artist shows different shots of her boobs in amazing detail. -_-

    I really don’t think it’s a strength issue. More of a portrayal one.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I am put off that on your survey results you call women ‘girls’. When I signed up, you didn’t, and I wish you’d not converted the results to be ‘girls’, as here: http://www.questionpro.com/akira/ShowResults?id=1964094&mode=text (what girls want).

  10. @Anonymous – The name on the poll was the original working name when I was thinking the questions out, and I guess I never changed it from that. The original idea was a poll about what girls want from comics. It evolved as the questions were written to being about women.

    I totally understand your point on the one hand. On the other… you diminish the point of the poll because you don’t like the name, which is a really annoying position to take.

  11. @Anonymous – Because I do, really understand your point, I’ve changed the name of the poll.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Want the same thing? I am a european male and I don’t like superheroes and I never read comics from the USA because of that. I look through top 10 of manga aimed at japanese girls/women to find interesting manga. This poll looks like it was answered by women from the USA. I think the results would be very different in european countries.

  13. Rinu says:

    @Anonymous: I think superheroes have such a high position because the question was:
    What kind of comic books did you buy most (Choose One)?
    not
    What kind of comic books would you buy most (Choose One)?
    A huge number of comics available worldwide is about superheroes, so results aren’t so surprising, no matter of region.

    Erica: Thanks for an interesting article.

  14. Thank you for putting this together. Some of the very questions you ask are the exact reasons I kissed DC Comics goodbye after they spun off the Catwoman comic book for the second time.

    I love comic books, but I finally gave up when the characters all started to look like reruns from really bad eps of Real Housewives.

    Hopefully, they will listen and finally give us characters we can live with.

  15. AS says:

    Do you have some idea about the median age of the people answering the survey?
    For romance and war comics were not so easy to come across if one was not young in 50s or early 60s (horror has enjoyed ups and downs in popularity).

    And if the participants are all people who are reading comics now, chances are that they are reading superheroes or manga due to the genres’ dominance of the market, and the people who enjoyed the (American) romance comics have gone and found other artforms for their kicks.
    Yeah, yeah, you are not getting paid, but I just thought the likely bias worth pointing out.

    The issue about White Queen of X-Men is worth discussing for she is an interesting and powerful character (at least has been, when written by right people), but she is morally very ambivalent and definitely not a good pick for a reader who is looking for positive identification.
    She might be on the side of protagonists but she is not suited to be one herself (as for art, Quitely drew her best, as oversexualized but creepy because that was what she was).

  16. AS – No, age wasn’t one of the questions. But I can say that when I was a kid in the 70s war comics were still available and horror comics were everywhere.

  17. Nicholas says:

    This was a very interesting read, albeit not *too* surprising. The poll in and of itself was quite ingenious, and the results blatantly contradict what the industry seems to think of it’s non-male readers. It’s time the big two give their collective heads a shake (although now that marvel is owned by Disney, I guess we are in for more of the same…)

    There are so many challenges faced by the medium of comics today,and this most recent effort of “women in comics” (the marvel initiative) to appease (more like offend) women who may or may not already read comics seems like, at best, an attempt to explore new markets, viewing women as a potential market to be exploited rather than a semi-built in, yet unrecognized, cog of the industry. This mere assertion generally illustrates the lack of consideration women have in the industry. We need more sources like this to illustrate these points, mainly so that people who dismiss the great points of “Women in Refrigerators” are confronted with reality and get outta the stone age (and golden age, silver age, etc)

    I am also glad that the pole seems to really illustrate an interest in super-hero comics. I was surprised with how poorly the “romance” genre was received, as when I hear about women reading comics, it usually has something to do with the human aspects of great creators like Terry Moore or Adrian Tomine, and not about the classic capes comics and what not.

    More generally, the need of positive portrayals of women in the pages of our beloved medium shouldn’t be done as any sort of appeasement or reactionary front by the Big Two, but a reaffirmation of the industries historical efficacy for social change.

    Anyways, love your work,
    One hopeful fan

  18. Nicholas says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Matthew Lane says:

    I thought i’d give an answer to you “What women want” survey. Now i will say that i am neither a woman, nor a woman of colour…

    However to say that there are few women of colour, women without model proportions, or strong capable of women in super hero comics is blatantly wrong.

    My suggestion would be this: Pull your noses out of the a-list comics and start reading my beloved D-list character comics:
    Young Allies (which was criminally misused by a stupid writer & worse editor), Runaways (every volume but the 3rd, which was 12 issues on nothing happening), New Warriors (any volume), Guardians of the Galaxy (just because more people should be reading it), Batgirl (as far as i’m concerned the most interesting of the batfamily line closely followed by), Red Robin (has a potential love interest who is both smart & of colour), Doom Patrol v5, Powers v3 (if you are willing to admit people are all scum), & the newest itteration of Gen 13.

  20. @Matthew Lane – To interpret the results of this poll as women saying that there are “none” of the things you mentioned is incorrect. Wanting more is not the same thing as saying there is none. One or a few is not the same thing as a lot, either.

  21. matthew-lane says:

    Sorry Erica, i should have been clearer, those comments were directed more at the commentary after the survey (especially George).

    However the survey its self is fundementally flawed. I know you said you weren’t being scientific with it, but it goes further then that.

    Most of those questions are at cross purposes. For example, whenever you get a group of people together and ask them what they want, they will always give you a shinny hypotethical utopian answer, which rarely gels with the actual reality of what they subconsiously want (its kind of a ra-ra sisterhood kind of thing, if you’ll excuse my slightly sexist description).

    For instance question 4 thru 6 would have been significantly more accurate if you had first taken a list of all the comics that had come out in say two months from the Big Two producers & asked out of these comics which ones did you purchase & which ones are on your “pull list” & then have question 4 thru 6 relate back to only those comics.

    That would have given a real base line of interest. See when people are ask purely hypothetical questions about preference, most people give the stock answer they think the survey wants (& whats worse its purely sub-consious. Most people aren’t even aware they do it).

  22. @Matthew Lane = By all means run a poll yourself. Please feel to use the lines “ra-ra sisterhood” and “pull your nose out of,” because those aren’t dismissive in any way at all.

    You know, human nature is funny – whenever women say, “hey, all we’d really like is if you could ratchet back the condescension a notch or two” somehow that just really doesn’t get heard by men, does it?

  23. matthew-lane says:

    “Pull your noses out of the a-list comics and start reading my beloved D-list character comics,” wasn’t at all dismissive (lets not misquote someone, thats poor form & lazy journalism).

    That quote was me giving perfectly good advice, in an extremely tactless way: Because as a friend once said to me “The truth doesn’t give a frack about your feelings princess.” Which i hold to be be great advice.

    When you say that all female readers want is “hey, all we’d really like is if you could ratchet back the condescension a notch or two,” are you refering to me personally or the people who put out comics?

    Because if your talking about the people who put out comics then i’m wondering where your seeing this condescension?

    Women have been treated pretty darn respectfully for most of the last 15-20 years in comics. Costumes have almost completely moved away from the string bikini costumes (which used to annoy me to no end back in the day, i prefered costumes like those of metorite in the origianl thunderbolts) & women are shown much more realistically shaped.

    If however you mean me spcifically, i would say that i am also quite respectful, I just happen to also be incredible analytical & refuse to sugar coat my analytical observations & the false equivications made by people in general when they try to discuss percieved gender inequalities.

  24. @matthew-lane It was dismissive. If you paid the least attention at all to this blog, you’d notice that there’s nothing mainstream about it. You presumed to 1) know what we are reading and 2) what we *should be* reading. Most of my readers (and in fact, all the women I know) read widely in comics, manga and indie works.

    Feel free to continue to comment here, but you’ll rapidly find that you’re speaking to yourself.

    That having been said, I want to take a moment to thank all the guys who wrote in with comments. Once again, I believe my regular readers are truly a cut above the average fans out there.

  25. matthew-lane says:

    @Erica So you’re not going to answer the question of where you think this condescension is coming from?

    You’ll have to forgive me my bluntness, but that was a real question. You’ve made a claim that women are unhappy with the level of condescension aimed at female comic book readers. To what condescension do you specifically refer to?

    -M

  26. @matthew-lane I love that tactic. “Which word, which line, which panel *exactly* shows we condescend?”

    I know it’s a genuine question, but your lack of clue is not especially urgent to me. This post is already in my past and I’m quite done with it. If you truly are interested, as opposed to merely showing me the error of my ways, please read http://dcwomenkickingass.tumblr.com/post/2716532132/worstof2010, GirlWonder.org, and any blog or tumblr that tracks pretty much exactly that kind of thing.

    Here on Okazu, we talk about Yuri, primarily and I have returned to that topic. Convincing you that the position many women take is a valid one – not really high priority for me. And that, Matthew is all the answer you’re going to get from me. Feel free to choose the next typical fanboy tactic for yourself:

    1) Continue to rant here in my comments

    2) Take your complaints about my lack of logical argument and/or objectivity to a different forum or set of comments (look for “Erica Friedman sucks” or something to help you find a community that already hates me, so you can feel extra justified)

    or

    3) Write an opinion piece on your or another person’s blog that will not maybe name me specifically but will attack this particular post, the poll and in a sideways way, me personally, but couch it in “objectivity” and “rational” concepts.

    And please, be aware that nothing you can think of to attack me, or women in comics, women readers of comics, women creators of comics and women in general hasn’t already been done by smarter, more talented and more powerful men than you.

    I await the results of your efforts.

  27. matthew-lane says:

    @Erica Wow, that was masterful misdirection, but the question still stands: Show me even 1 instance in a contemporary comic where women in comics were condescended to.

    You’ve made a pretty expansive statement, but so far you’ve yet to demonstrate it to be anything more then your personal feeling that women are condescended to in contemporary comics.

  28. matthew-lane says:

    @Erica I’m sorry if i seemed condescending, it wasn’t my intention. I love the intent of your survey, if not its methodology (or the not so impartial conclusions drawn from it).

    My apologies if that didn’t come through as strongly as it should have. I personally love the amount of diversity i see in comic book.

    When i see comics i see a medium that is open to all sorts of people & all sort of sorts of characters.

    But I also know that the D-list titles are significantly more open when it comes to diversity (the DC is doing a pretty good job with a lot of its A-list titles at the moment, especially JLA & JSA).

    I’d be interested in possibly discussing the topic with you at a later date.

    -M

  29. Anonymous says:

    i want characters, both male and female, that are not over sexualized, and are 3 dimensional, i.e. they are not just angry, or complacent all of the time. they grow, and evolve, and have a wide range of emotions. It’s ok for a woman to be submission in one instance, but take charge in another, heroic, but sometimes lacking in confidence, aggressive, then laid-back, just like in real life. You behave differently in different situations. You learn, you grow, you change, and you don’t wear clothes that barely hold in your breasts while you fight bad guys.

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