“Reduce Your Appearance Instantly!” Representations of the Female Body in the Comic Books for Women and Girls

Katharina Vester (American University)

Abstract

When comic books for girls and women entered the US market in the 1940s they offered a space for an alternative representation of female bodies to the sexually explicit presentations of women in superhero comics that dominated the medium. Comics for girls and women, however, had their own agendas and limitations. With their focus on romance, fashion, and beauty they presented a narrow set of body shapes and types as beautiful and desirable. In presenting ideal female bodies as a woman’s path to success and happiness, comic books, such as Miss America Comics, educated their readers on how to subject their bodies to hegemonic beauty ideals. Comic storylines, advice columns, and advertisements went hand-in-hand presenting the female body as currency that, when properly managed, allowed girls and women to elevate their social status, and provided a path to marital bliss and motherhood, or, in some cases, as their only possibility to escape from both. Thus, beyond arguing that comic books were a purveyor of gendernormative messages for girls and presented normative images of the female body, this article also argues that mainstream comics presented their readers occasionally with contradictions, thus negotiating women’s roles in society. By discussing feminist underground comics in the 1970s and 80s, it also shows how feminist activists used comics to make feminist thought accessible to a broader readership and used the medium to educate girls and women about their rights, possibilities, and desires. Using the example of the representation of female bodies in comic books, “Reduce Your Appearance Instantly” contributes to the discussion of popular culture as a distributer of ideology as well as a space to undermine hegemonic power relations.

Download a .pdf of the complete introduction here.

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