A Recent History Of Women In Comics


When the trailer first landed for the Summer 2016 film (and unsuspecting Oscar winner) Suicide Squad, starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Jared Leto, people had two very different opinions:

One was that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, psychiatrist turned Joker-loving psychopath, was a feminist and a feminist hero.

The other was that Harley was a practical curse to the progression and positive portrayal of women.

Her appearance came under scrutiny from both sides. Even Margot Robbie told The New York Times, the costume made her feel self-conscious but she:

…Could justify the wardrobe: Her character is “wearing hot pants because they’re sparkly and fun,” she said, not because “she wanted guys to look at her ass.”

This is the Harley Quinn we’re talking about, below. Note the hot pants and the reverse “tramp stamp”. It might surprise you but her look wasn’t inspired by the comic book but by one of the coolest chicks around, Debbie Harry, lead singer of the band Blondie (as photographed by Chris Stein in 1976.)

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in 2016’s Suicide Squad
© Warner Bros. Entertainment  
Debbie Harry photographed by Chris Stein – 1976
© Chris Stein, 1976 
The debate with this version of Harley Quinn wasn’t born with the Suicide Squad film. It wasn’t an issue born with Debbie Harry either.

This is all about how women are portrayed, not just in films, but in comics.

Let’s look back to see where the imbalanced portrayal of Harley Quinn began.

Below is Harley, circa 1992, in Batman: The Animated Series. Ah, the Harley Quinn we knew and loved in a jester costume.
Harley Quinn in Batman: The Animated Series
© Warner Bros. Entertainment  
Harleen Quinzel, psychiatrist who went mad and devoted herself to the Joker after falling in love with him while working at Arkham Asylum. 👈 It’s not the best origin story. However, Harley’s appearance didn’t mirror the Stockholm syndrome-esque nature of the story, like it did after the Batman: Arkham City video game in 2011 and DC Comics’ New 52 series shortly after. (If you’re wondering what The New 52 are, I’m going to get into that. Don’t worry.)
Harley in DC Comics’ New 52s series – 2012
© DC Comics  
Harley in Batman: Arkham City video game – 2011
© Warner Bros. Entertainment  
The conversations that these new versions of Harley started was the problem.

The comment section for an article titled “The Visual History of Harley Quinn” on ING.com was filled with:

“I love the new Whorely Quinn.”

“Didn’t even notice Harley until Arkham City.”

“Before that, she was just the Joker’s annoying groupie.”

Even the counterpoints to the previous comments were focused on her displaying her sexual availability to the Joker as a reasoning for her appearance.

I want to make the point: Sex is NOT bad. Skin isn’t bad. It’s not the problem. It’s the MESSAGE surrounding it by focusing on it in an unproductive and sexist way. This is a major part of how women are being represented, and the crux of it is the lack of equality.

Let’s peel back the curtain even more…

Looking at Batman: The Animated Series, and taking a departure from Harley Quinn (gotta give the girl a break!), here’s Batman and Poison Ivy.

Here’s Ivy and Batman in The Animated Series vs The New 52 in 2013… Where Ivy got her first starring comic.

Ivy in 2016 and Batman in 2016.

Above images: © DC Comics and Warner Bros. Entertainment

To really show you the difference…

Here’s a side-by-side from The Animated Series to The New 52:

Poison Ivy. 

Harley Quinn. 


The Riddler. 

Above images on left: © DC Comics and Warner Bros. Entertainment  |  On right: © DC Comics

** You don’t see Batman getting Magic Mike-ified:

(Yes, I Photoshopped Channing Tatum’s body on Batman.) Original Batman cover: © DC Comics.
The argument that comics are a “male-dominated industry”, “driven by male consumers”, and, therefore, it’s okay to sexualize women because it’s “appealing” to them, that’s a defense that doesn’t work anymore.

Even in the event of statistics like the following, it’s not an excuse…

In 2011, DC Comics readers were surveyed by the Nielsen company which showed 93% of the DC’s New 52 readers were male.

The New 52 were DC Comics’ way of renumbering and essentially restarting all 52 of their titles from scratch to “modernize and clarify the long-running stories in the DC Universe.”

However, in 2015, MTV featured an article: “2016 Is The Year We Need To Stop Pretending That Women Aren’t Geeks: Women Don’t Like Superheroes Is A Totally Bogus Myth, And We’ve Got Numbers To Back It Up.”

In that article, it shared how the impact made by women is undeniable. Citing digital comic marketplace, ComiXology’s 2015 research showing that 30% of all new customers were young females, being their fastest growing demographic, growing 50% from their last survey stats in 2013.

The proof is there and it’s only getting better.

It was Gandhi who said:

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Not everyone in comics has ignored that idea.

Editors such as Sana Amanat, VP of content and character development at Marvel, are responsible for putting change into effect and championing diversity with titles such as Ms. Marvel, starring the Muslim-American super-heroine, Kamala Khan.

Ms. Marvel: © Marvel Comics
And giving readers other great female characters like Hawkeye (Kate Bishop), who had her own series run under Marvel’s own relaunch, Marvel Now.

To show you how they got it so right, this is Kate in the Young Avengers vs her own series:

Young Avengers and Hawkeye covers © Marvel Comics

Action shot

There are many more ways to support this change…


  • Creating female characters like Jessica Jones, who, despite their “super-ness”, feel normal and relatable because they are not only strong but vulnerable as well.
  • Women and minority writers being represented. When Marvel’s Invincible Iron Man was relaunched, featuring 15-year-old black character, Riri Williams, stepping into Tony Stark’s shoes, the series continued to be written by a white man. Which prompted many blogs to ask the important question: “Why not a black woman?”
  • Letting characters confirm their sexuality…like the long-speculated status of Wonder Woman’s bisexuality. Only recently confirmed by an interview with (now former) writer Greg Rucka when he took over the series. But instead of having the writers do it (let alone cisgender, straight male writers), just give characters the freedom to live their truth from the start. Speculation-free. Like the Marvel series, America, which was the first queer Latina super-heroine.
  • Beyond race, gender, and sexual orientation, body image diversity can also promote so much positive representation. The plus-sized heroine, Faith Herbert, is a great example.

As comic creators, we can keep making choices that move us forward.

Just like this quote so perfectly puts it*:

“To allow comics to be a continuous beacon for change, never to rest on its laurels.”

And, as customers, let’s vote with our dollars and support the comic titles that represent progress, equality, and change.

It’s not just for us, it’s bigger than that because young girls and boys are watching. The stories that we tell both shapes the world we all live in.

Society and media doesn’t always sell sex…it does something much sneakier. It does what Jimmy Buffett once said:

“I sell escapism.”

Escapism is the “tendency to seek distraction from unpleasant realities, especially seeking entertainment and engaging in unrealistic fantasies.” The fact that women are placed in unequal roles and objectified is not what’s real. It is a fantasy. It’s not taking us away from an unpleasant reality. It’s creating one.

The more all of us engage in it without calling it out or using our power to rewrite it, we are continuing to make the fantasy real. As long as we do that, it gets labeled as normal and becomes the status quo.

We need to question and take action because instead of pushing objectification and inequality, we can sell equal stories. To stop creating one-dimensional characters and start creating stories that portray men and women equally. In every way. To put character before fantasy and escapism.

Take the pledge with me to say:

“I will not participate in the fantasy. I will participate in real. I will be part of the change.”

Let’s do this!

The New 52 eventually fizzled out in May 2016 and were replaced with DC’s Rebirth, which, thank God, at least promised to deliver true character-centered stories and while not perfect, they’re making progress: cartoon-ifying Harley Quinn more (think: Batman: The Animated Series meets Suicide Squad) and making her less busting-out-of-her-bustier… Her old-school jester costume might just make a reappearance before we know it.

*Source unknown.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Enter your info below to reserve your spot on the list. You'll hear from me soon!

Check your email to confirm your subscription