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Feminism and Gender Theory

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 This entry describes Feminism and Gender Theory as a critical approach to comics. Since feminist literary theory and gender theory are general terms that encompass multiple critical approaches, it is necessary to limit the main features of these theories to the approaches that are shared by the majority of critics. First and foremost, feminist theory deals with representations of women in literary works and examines the socio-political ramifications of these representations. Dr. Sarah Gilbert and  Dr. Susan Gubar are representative scholars of feminist theory. Gender theory, which is a separate theory that in some ways dependents on feminist theory, focuses on the issue of gender identity and how it is represented in issues of sexuality, power relationships and the marginalization of characters within literature. Dr. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Susan Bordo are representative gender theory scholars.  Applying feminist theory and gender theory to comic books is fairly new, since formal gender theory is mostly a product of the second wave of feminism that occurred in the 1960's and 1970's. Gender literary theory is an even newer approach that examines works through the idea that gender is a performance of identity based on social conditioning. 




Although feminist literary theory is relatively new to comic analysis, the theory developed over time and has roots in the first, second and third waves of feminism.  Using feminist theory,it is possible to argue that Mary Wolstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is the first feminist text (Donovan 24). Feminist theory as a critical approach became more defined during the second wave of feminism during the mid-twentieth century. Feminist theory has several approaches, including Marxist, Psycho-analytical, Radical Feminism, and Cultural Feminism, but all of the approaches share a focus on the ways women are oppressed within patriarchal society (Stuller 239).  Gender theory adds a focus on how characters embody and enact masculine and feminine roles as dictated by the society (Brown 21).


Underlying Assumptions


Feminist theory and gender theory share several underlying assumptions:

  • Western society is patriarchal.
  • Women are oppressed economically, politically and psychologically in a patriarchal society. ( Gender theory includes any person identified as "Other' within the society).
  • Women are represented in terms of how they differ from men and as a result, become marginalized within the patriarchal power structure. ( Gender theory expands this to all marginalized people).
  • Gender identity, unlike sex, is a cultural construct and not determined by biology. 

Operating with these assumptions as a guideline, feminist theorists and gender theorists seek to expose the ways in which literature reinforces and reflects patriarchal attitudes toward women and other marginalized groups within the society (Duncan 257).


Types of Questions


Feminist and gender theories ask the following questions when analyzing a text:

  • How are men and women represented in the work?
  • Are masculinity and femininity a strict binary, or can characters portray both masculine and feminine traits?
  • What are the power relationships in the text? Are those power relationships based on gender characteristics?
  • What does the text reveal about the economic, political, social, or psychological relationships between male and female characters? 
  • Are any characters created that represent a group that could be considered as marginalized within a patriarchal society? How are those characters portrayed?

By asking these questions about a text, critics can look at how both conscious and unconscious mysogyny exists within a work and what part gender issues play within the text. For example, when analyzing the comic She Hulk, a spin-off of The Incredible Hulk, the way the character, Jennifer Walters, is represented and the way her alter-ego, She-Hulk is represented in both the dialog and how the character is drawn shows that She-Hulk's body is hyper-sexualized. in a way that male superheroes' bodies are not.


Objects of Study

Because feminist and gender theory assumes that all literature is a product of a patriarchal structure and therefore demonstrates some type of gender bias, all types of literature, including comic books, are objects of study. Comic books that are about marginalize people like Fun Home or Ghost World can be analyzed using feminist and gender theory, but  the superhero genre and its focus on masculine characters is most often the subject of analysis. Superman comics are a paradigmatic example of a type of comic book  that would be an object of study for feminist and gender theorists.




Methods of Analysis


Some key methods of gender and feminist theory for analyzing comics could include looking at how women are drawn in the work. Are men and women drawn accurately or are women's bodies sexualized by emphasizing their breast and buttocks? What types of costumes do male character wear? What types of costumes do female characters wear? The wriiten text analysis can include examining how characters speak to each other. Do male characters make most of the decisions? Do men and women act in gendered ways? In her feminist analysis of Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane, Jennifer Stuller applies the Bechdel Test for gender bias which requires that a story meets the following criteria to be considered non-biased: two are more women charcters are presented, these women talk to each other, and the women talk to each other about something other than men ( Smith and Duncan 238).  



  • William, J.P. "All's Fair in Love and Journalism: Female Rivalry in Superman," Journal of Popular Culture. 24. 2 (1990):103. 
  • Simone, Gail.  "Women in Refrigerators". Unheardtaunts.com. Gail Simone, 1999. Web. 12 April 2012. www.unheardtaunts.com/wir
  • Fingeroth, Danny.  Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society. New York: Continuum, 2004. 
  • Zeisler, Andi. Feminism and Pop Culture. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008. 
  • Robinson, Lillian S. Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes. New York: Routledge, 2004.  
  • Stuller, Jennifer K. Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010. 



  1. Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body.
  2. Brown, Jeffrey A. Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishim and Popular Culture. Jackson MS: Up Mississippi, 2011.  
  3.  Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions.New York: Continuum, 2008.
  4. Duncan, Randy and Matthew J. Smith. The Power of Comics, History, Form & Culture.New York: Continuum, 2009. 
  5. Robinson, Lillian S. Wonder Women : Feminisms and Superheroes. New York: Routledge, 2004. 
  6. Stuller, Jennifer K. " Second-wave Feminism in the Pages of Lois Lane"Critical Approaches to Comics Theories and Methods. ed. Smith, Matthew J.

          and Randy Duncan. New York: Routledge, 2012. 



Further Reading



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