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By Jen Thorpe

I recently had a dinnertime argument with a friend – the topic: Wonder Woman’s Nipples. I kid you not.

Arguments are not unusual between myself and said friend, and the evening normally ends shortly afterwards with all our other friends feeling quite awkward.  Neither of us admits to being wrong very easily, and often we both assume we are experts on a topic, which alienates everyone else from the discussion almost immediately.  Why we continue to subject ourselves and our friends to this I’m not sure.

This time however, we were pretty well matched experts – the topic: women’s representation is cartoons and comics.  He is a cartoonist, and I am a women’s rights researcher.  It was set to be a battle of epic proportions.  The conversation started innocently enough on my part – I assumed it would be of interest to said friend that according to Natasha Walters in Living Dolls

“In 101 top-grossing family films from 1990-2004, of the over 4,000 characters in these films, 75% were male, 83% of narrators were male, and 72% of speaking characters were male”. (69)

His response was not the shock and despair that I felt with the knowledge that our young girls are being forced to identify with desperate princesses or not at all, but rather ‘that you can put it that way if you like’. I didn’t have much to say to that, because, well, what was there to say? The gender and action of the characters that children watch influences the way that they interact with the world. We learn our behaviour from society, media and entertainment, particularly when we are young. His argument was that women are still able to act and have a variety of roles and I should consider the powerful women in comics.

My argument was that they might be theoretically powerful (i.e. have  a superpower), but they rarely were central protagonists, and more than that they were reduced by their clothing to sex objects. As Geena Davis says, tongue in cheek, in the film MissRepresentation - “why is she wearing that when she’s trying to rescue someone?” Catwoman, Wonderwoman, the X-women (note, they’re there but it’s still called X-men), worst of all Tomb Raider. Clothes are skin-tight, breasts are bulging, and the common belief around the table with the exception of said cartoonist friend, was that nipples were showing (though for the record, Wonder Woman’s nipples are not commonly showing).  Even if you have a look at the clothing that female Disney characters are wearing (watch the necklines – Snow White (no breasts) Beauty (one hell of a cleavage)) and the fact that their beauty is pivotal to the story, all we hear is that your power resides in your looks and you should be waiting to be rescued. This is a narrative which continues into romcoms.

Rachel Eddin doesn’t disagree with this analysis of women in cartoons. She argues that we have got there over a long history of systematically excluding strong (not muscley – strong as in empowered) women characters and female cartoonists because of the decision to publish cartoons in only a narrow genre. Even our own South African cartoon strips and comics exclude women, particularly the ones that are most highly distributed in our local papers and magazines.

So all we get are stories about men rescuing women, or women as sidekick. When, rarely, women are the central characters they occupy two roles – weak and in need of protection, or evil and the cause of the problem (evil stepmothers, witches etc).

We have long known that the media gives us two options – masculine (read bitch, intelligent, powerful) or feminine (read weak, unintelligent and subservient). Remember that these roles also limit men – they limit men to the role of unemotional rescuer or violent vanquisher.  These roles deny our boy children a range of emotions, and make their feelings of weakness or fear, or their desire to be rescued un-masculine. This shapes gender relations (as do gendered toys) and gender norms in powerful ways that literally change our children’s lives and decisions.

I’m so glad that I had that particular argument, because it has really got me wondering about what we are going to do about this. So if any women are interested in drawing some cartoons, I think I’m interested in writing some.

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