Women have never had it easy in superhero comic books. While everybody tries to pretend otherwise the reality is that superhero books are generally aimed at white males, aged 15-35. That's the bread and butter crowd; the idea of bringing women in to the fold is interesting from a marketing perspective, but it's like the inclusion of black characters - none of the overwhelmingly white males writing comics seem to know how to make it happen in any real way.
As a result female characters in superhero comics have rarely been particularly well written. Often they exist only to be pin-up objects, beautiful side characters in the margins of the lives of the more important male characters. There were a few strong, well-written female characters, but they were rarities - and usually sprung from the pens of a very limited number of writers (whatever issues one has with the long-winded writing style of Chris Claremont, he created more strong, well-crafted women characters than any other writer in the medium).
Even worse, women in comics often exist only to be put in peril. This is a trend as old as fiction, but the latter years of superhero comics have seen the trend getting dark. Barbara Gordon was crippled and raped by the Joker, Elongated Man's wife was raped and murdered, Green Lantern's girlfriend was murdered and shoved into a refrigerator. These stories were never about the impact on the female character but rather how this gave our hero a new, powerful reason to fight evil or get vengeance.
This is, generally, how it's always been. But in the year 2011 DC Comics made an editorial decision to restart their entire line of comics with new #1 issues, tweaking continuity and characters to make them more modern and fresher. There was a chance, it seemed, to break out of decades' worth of misogynistic storytelling and do something new with female characters. In fact the new 52 relaunch had a large number of books starring females - Batgirl, Batwoman, Voodoo, Supergirl, Birds of Prey, Catwoman, Wonder Woman - which seemed like an exciting sign that maybe the New 52 was going to try and tell some stories that could include women as something more than sex objects or danger magnets.
And then the books came out and half of the titles listed above were simply excuses to draw scantily clad women in provocative poses. And those are just the titles that are solo female books; the worst offender of the New 52 is the team book Red Hood and the Outlaws, which has turned an older character into a mindless, sex-crazed bimbo who spends the majority of her time on page modeling a bikini. In fact Birds of Prey, which introduces one of its female characters as someone whose superhero costume is a fucking corset, comes across as one of the more balanced female titles in the launch.
We'll build up to what has happened to Starfire, one-time member of the Teen Titans and now sex object of Red Hood and the Outlaws. We'll start with Batwoman. This title made waves when it was first announced a year or two ago because Kathy Kane, the new Batwoman, is a lesbian. Progressive! Exciting! And then you read Batwoman #1 and realize the comic devotes two double page spreads to Kathy Kane and her sidekick changing in and out of their superhero costumes - pointless cheesecake art. At first reading this struck me as weird, but not utterly offensive. But then I read more of the New 52 and saw the trend.
Every female character in Catwoman is a sex worker. Even Catwoman's fence is a former 'showgirl.' There's probably an argument to be made that the point of this comic is having Catwoman - a former abused streetwalker (a relatively new spin on the character, mind you) - fight against men who sexually victimize women. That's not a bad idea. It's harder to accept when the first two pages of the comic do not feature Selina Kyle's face at all, just her tits in a bra and her ass in a tight leather outfit. She spends most of the rest of the issue doing sex poses, the sort of poses that put a human body into unnatural positions.
Voodoo #1 ups the ante on this. Our main character is introduced stripping on stage. Her code name comes from the fact that the most popular stripper at this club gets to be called Voodoo. And almost every single page has barely clothed strippers demurely hiding their nipples and pubes just enough. Just enough.
The rest of the female-oriented comics are business as usual; Supergirl's outfit includes a pair of panties so brief we no longer need argue about her personal grooming, and Wonder Woman is introduced laying naked in bed. Like the corseted Starling in Birds of Prey these two things actually feel demure by comparison - why isn't Wonder Woman introduced in a Bang Bros video? Surely Scott Lobdell, the guy who turned Starfire into an interstellar sex beast, pitched that concept. And then there's Batgirl - she sleeps in pajamas and a t-shirt. That's actually RADICAL in the New 52.
By the way, Batgirl is the only one of these female-centric comics written by a woman. Food for thought, huh?
All of this leads us to Red Hood and the Outlaws, a comic book that compounds its badness - and it's just basically a bad, stupid comic book - by being written from the point of view of a sexual predator. The fact that this comic was written, edited and published points to a massive breakdown in DC Comics' basic standards.
Starting from the beginning: Starfire is an alien warrior who also happens to be a very busty, golden skinned hottie. She's always been such (like I said, comics have always sexualized women first, unless they were Sue Storm, and then she got turned right into a mom). She's also always been a sexually aggressive character, a woman who engages in passionate relationships with superhero men, such as Dick Grayson, aka Nightwing. That aspect of her personality was actually fairly progressive once upon a time, back when comic books were hugely chaste.
The new Starfire is still busty. This is probably her preeminent trait; her costume has even been further reduced to glorified pasties in order to emphasize her knockers. She's still an alien. She's still golden-skinned. And she still is sexual. Very, very sexual.
But what Scott Lobdell has done is to turn her from a character into a jerk-off object. See, Starfire has no long term memory. While she used to be with Dick Grayson in this New 52 universe she can't remember him. Or any of her past lovers. And what's more, she has a hard time telling humans apart. Since she can't tell humans apart, she's happy to have sex with whatever human is closest to her at the moment.
She's not all sex, though! She's also a powerful destructive force... who takes explicit orders from the man she's fucking.
Let's put it this way: Starfire is a woman who is memory impaired, who doesn't know the person she's sleeping with and is fully open to suggestion from men. She's the first Rohypnol superheroine. Scott Lobdell has turned Starfire into a metaphor for date rape. Not just that a CELEBRATION of date rape. See, she's so willing to fuck that she just goes from Red Hood to his good buddy Arsenal. Everybody gets a shot at that Tamaranean pussy. Hell, even a little kid in the comic gets his rocks off by filming Starfire as she endlessly poses in a teeny bikini on the beach.
This iteration of Starfire is only acceptable if the end of the story sees her waking from her fog and killing Red Hood and Arsenal for raping her. Somehow I don't think that's what will happen. Somehow I think Scott Lobdell honestly believes that he's created a woman who is living a life of sexual freedom. Instead he's created a character who is perpetually too impaired to make reasonable choices. We might as well rename her Ten Long Island Iced Teas Woman.
DC's New 52 has failed in a lot of ways (creatively. As a marketing stunt it's been a huge success), but to me this is the most troubling aspect. As DC tries to make its universe more modern and appealing to new readers it has doubled down on regressive sexual images of women, it has turned previously strong female characters into space bimbos, and it has decided that it's the sort of comic book line where suggestive nudity is simply par for the course.
The irony here is that I'm not against sleaze. I love sleaze movies. I think that weird sexuality is totally on the table. But what I'm seeing in The New 52 isn't sleaze in any interesting way, it's sleaze for hard-up white male comic readers. It's sleaze as a marketing device. It's juvenile and stupid, and worst of all it's boring. It's cheap and it reinforces the painfully true image of comic book readers as onanistic losers.
I'm just talking about trash like Catwoman and Voodoo there. Red Hood and The Outlaws is another matter; where the other titles are pathetic returns to Image Comics-era misogyny, Red Hood is an outright affront. What makes that feel especially viscous in its misogyny is the fact that Lobdell took a strong, well-defined character and tore her to pieces, reducing her to something he can use to denigrate all women. Red Hood and the Outlaws should never have been published. DC used to be the universe known for its iconic, mythologically huge characters - now it's positioning itself as the home of date rape.