Monday, April 29, 2013

A Plague of Harleys

...and I don't mean the motorcycle.

Last week I was at AwesomeCon DC and there were a lot of costumes.

The most popular costume: A Dalek. (Including some adorable princess Daleks. I don't know how else to describe them).

The second most popular: Harley Quinn.

I did ask Batman to do something about the plague of Harleys and his response, "But they're all cute."

That got me thinking. Why were a dozen women dressed up as a relatively obscure Gotham villain who's best known as the Joker's love interest?

Then I started thinking about comic book villainesses in general. If you ask a non-comics reader for a female villain, they're likely to respond "Catwoman."

Gotta love the kitty cat. So, what do we know about Catwoman? She's a thief and she's in love with Batman.


So, the most recognizable female villain in comics is best known for a romantic relationship with the hero. Oh, but that's just Catwoman, right? And she's really in a grey area - she's a gentlewoman thief, not the crazed killers seen so often in comic books. Hrm. How about some more comic book villainesses.

Star Sapphire - Hal Jordan's possessed ex-girlfriend.
Poison Ivy - best known for trying to seduce Batman...and anyone else who gets in her way.
Black Cat - basically a Catwoman rip-off who's often found in Spider-Man's bed when he's not married to Mary Jane.
Talia al Ghul - in love with Batman.
Elektra - a fierce mercenary and assassin, oh, and in love with Daredevil.
Maxima - who will do anything to get in Superman's pants - in fact it's her entire motivation for being a villain.
Bliss - a Wildstorm villainess who uses her empathic abilities to seduce and destroy.
Rose Tattoo - I'm not even going where they went with her.
Typhoid Mary - ex hooker, romantically linked to Daredevil.
Moonstone - dated Hawkeye for a while.
Madame Hydra - briefly married to Wolverine.
Emma Frost - another one who uses her sexuality as a weapon.

Oops. It seems our villainesses have a habit of falling in love with our heroes. Except for a couple who  are trying to seduce everyone. Heck, in the X-Men movie we stop the action so Mystique can disguise herself as Jean Grey and try to get into Wolverine's sleeping bag. And even those who don't have a sexual dimension to them. There have to be exceptions, right?

Well, there's Cheetah - Wonder Woman's nemesis. And there's Titania, a She-Hulk villain, although their relationship more closely resembles a pro wrestling feud. Lady Deathstrike just kills people, pretty much. Amanda Waller was fat and ugly until they rebooted the universe. And Granny Goodness is a creepy old lady.

So, yeah. But what is with the hero and villainess falling in love? (You don't see the reverse).

Truth. Most comics are written by men for men. Most women in comic books fall into two categories - mother figures and lovers. Evil women still tend to fall into those two categories (Granny Goodness and Amanda Waller can both be seen as twisted mother figures). The villainess is not there just to be evil - she's also there to be sexual. Sensual. Her sexuality is either directed towards the hero (Catwoman, Elektra) or the audience (Poison Ivy, Emma Frost). She's meant to be desirable and unattainable (as are many superheroines).

Here's the thing. Women who go to cons and dress up take a risk. They take the risk of being seen as desirable by men who go to cons - some of whom don't have much self restraint, I'm afraid to say. A woman who dresses as Catwoman or Poison Ivy is saying that she's got sexuality and isn't afraid to use it...on you. I'm not saying male comic book fans are slathering beasts for the most part. But sexual harassment at cons is a real problem.

Harley Quinn? She's only got eyes for Mistah J. All of her sexuality is directed to another villain. (In fact, two of the Harleys were with Jokers - and one of the Jokers may not even have been a man. Not sure...) Harley is "sexually bound" in the same way as Sue Richards (unimaginable without Reed) is. Do women feel safer dressing up as a character who is so thoroughly taken that she almost has no identity without the love interest? If so, that's rather sad, because I'd rather see women feel safest dressing up as a character who is safe because she is empowered and in control, and has a strong identity that doesn't rely on her cup size or the scantiness of her outfit.

I don't know, but there were a dozen Harleys, three Cheetahs...and only the one Catwoman. It might say something.

I also do know that here's a challenge for people writing in traditional supers - let's see more villainesses who don't turn into weak women when faced by their nemesis *and* who don't use sexuality as a weapon. Let's see more who know they are women, sure, and aren't afraid to be women, but who have their own agenda and their own empowerment. Where are the female counterparts to Magneto, to Lex Luthor, to Doctor Doom?

Let's see them.