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Research Methodology: Female Superheroes

Funny-art-marvel-comics-vs-dc-comics-8126359-1000-773Ok. I’m working on something and I could use some feedback from the interwebs. This probably seems like a comic question, and it sort of is, but not really. So I’d like feedback from everyone.

Say you were working on a paper and you needed to assess the relative popularity of female comic book characters. So you decided to track monthly book sales in titles where the lead character was female. Here is something you might do:

• Look at all sales figures for books in the top 150 (or maybe 200 —100 seemed like not enough datapoints since female led books are frequently not in the top 100) books sold for every given month.
• Track a book if it is a solo title featuring a female in the lead role (Ms. Marvel)
• Track a book if it is a duo title featuring two females (Harley Quinn and Power Girl)
• Track a book if it is a duo title where one of two main characters is female (Superman and Wonder Woman)
• Track a book if it is a ensemble title where ALL the lead characters are female (DC Bombshells)
• Ignore a book if it is an ensemble title where the gender makeup of the team might vary from book to book even if sometimes they are predominantly female (Avengers)

Here are the problems I’m encountering:

Should I count ensemble books that are predominantly female, that might feature a male (Runaways)? Part of me wants to just ignore team books altogether since they are problematic, especially when there are rotating casts and any issue might have more women or men and then the opposite is true of the next issue (this is frequently the case with X-men for instance). BUT, it seems wrong to ignore a book like Birds of Prey, where the entire point of the book was that it was a female team.

Should I count mixed gender duo books? It seems clear that I should count Harley Quinn and Power Girl but it seems less clear to me that Superman and Wonder Woman fits. I *think* it does because part of the point is the interplay between the two characters where gender is a big part of it. Similarly, I’m inclined to count Hawkeye, specifically because the point of the book is that it isn’t clear which of the two Hawkeyes (Clint or Kate) is truly the lead character. I think people *assume* it’s Clint just because they default to the male, but I don’t think that’s really the case.

How should I count reprint issues, special editions, and annuals and such? I hadn’t really considered this until I started tabulating. Right now I’m just making a spreadsheet of sales by month. But in the month of November, for instance, the 25th most popular comic was Spider-Gwen #2 with 62,209 copies. But the 91st most popular comic was Spider-Gwen #0 with 30,062 copies. So do I count Spider-Gwen sales as 92K for that month? Do I just have two data points for that month? It seems odd somehow to do that since it’s technically the same title, but on the other hand it doesn’t seem odd to me to count Harley Quinn as a separate series from Harley Quinn and Power Girl, so I don’t really know.

Anyway, I’m interested in thoughts from comic readers, statisticians or anyone else? Opinions?


14 comments for “Research Methodology: Female Superheroes

  1. avatar
    January 5, 2016 at 7:49 pm

    I’d say if the book ever focuses specifically on the female character or gives them equal page time as the male character throughout the series it should count (Hawkeye for example, then again you have issues entirely dedicated to Clint’s brother and Clint’s dog so it muddies the water a little.)

    As for team books, I’d say if the “team leader” is a woman it should count. X-Men Legacy for example was very much a “Rogue” book the entire time Mike Carey was writing it. Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men however was very much a “Cyclops” book despite having characters like White Queen and the Cuckoos and such in it.

    That’s just my take though.

    1. avatar
      January 5, 2016 at 8:54 pm

      yeah… that’s what made me start questioning the team books in the first place. I’m trying to be objective. I don’t want the data to be determined by “Mav thinks this is a comic about girls.” To take Bendis’s Uncanny X-men as an example, I agree, the book is MOSTLY about Cyclops, who is male, but there are entire issues that don’t feature him at all… key in point is #15, “Girls Night Out” which specifically has nothing but female characters in it even though he focuses heavily both the issue before and the issue after.

      I want to avoid dealing with that, because I’d rather track at least 10 years of books that regularly feature female characters, so dealing with ones that float back and forth seems like it would be both a pain and not really relevant.

    2. avatar
      January 5, 2016 at 8:57 pm

      That makes sense to me. Luckily Marvel (DC not so much) has a habit of constantly revoluming their books any time there’s any sort of focal shift, so it may be easy to take that All-Female X-Men title that came out a few years ago and keep it separate from any other adjectiveless X-Men book.

  2. avatar
    January 5, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    Define a criteria by which you categorize an ensemble book, and track each category as a separate group. Run analysis on each group independently, and on the aggregated whole, and see what difference things make.

    For example, maybe your categories are “entirely female core group”, “predominantly female core group”, and “male/female pairing”, and you decide to ignore X-Men and Avengers for the reasons you stated. Or whatever categories make the most sense for what you’re trying to do.

    1. avatar
      January 5, 2016 at 8:02 pm

      This. You can always combine data later. Splitting it back out is a major pain in the arse.

    2. avatar
      January 5, 2016 at 8:58 pm

      Yeah, I’m considering that as a possibility. Part of the problem is time (I’m looking at over 100 books over a period of 10-15 years, and I’m doing it by myself) and the fact that I haven’t necessarily read EVERY comic ever, so it’s hard to make those distinctions sometimes. It’s fair to say that Wonder Woman always features Wonder Woman… and even if for some reason there’s an issue where she’s not in it because of a storyline reason, it’s still a book ABOUT her. This becomes way more complicated if I have to decide “is random issue of Justice League from 2007 about Wonder Woman just because she’s in it?” or i I have to count Justice League from March of that year had 4 out of 7 featured characters that were female, but April only had 3 out of 7.

    3. avatar
      January 5, 2016 at 9:03 pm

      I would consider lumping the not always predominantly female teams together… X-Men, Avengers, Justice League, etc. Once you’ve done your analysis of the other, obviously predominantly / exclusively female, titles, you can compare for trends if time permits.

  3. avatar
    January 5, 2016 at 7:51 pm

    A lot of books are coming out more than once a month right now, so I think separate data points make sense. The bigger number achieved by combining the two misrepresents the actual number of readers per month because it is essentially doubling sales. I agree that team books are problematic for the reasons you state. That said, teams whose entire premise is that it is a team of female characters should probably be looked at. Birds of Prey. The recent eponymous X-Men that featured an all female team. The upcoming A-Force. Are you specifically looking at superheroes?If not I would look at numbers for things like Lumberjanes, Giant Days, and Low. Even i not you might want to take a look at them or comparison sake.

    1. avatar
      January 5, 2016 at 9:01 pm

      I’m not limiting myself to superhero books as a matter of principle or anything like that. No. But I need to make the cutoff somewhere. So right now I’m only looking at books in the top 150. That means I do end up taking Leia over the past couple months and Paper Girls, but Betty and Veronica and Witchblade both miss the cut.

  4. avatar
    January 6, 2016 at 6:52 am

    I may muddy the waters; have you considered setting a target percentage of main female characters? A comic book sort of Bechdel test? As a woman, it resonates with me that the new Ghostbusters is considered Ghostbusters w ladies but movies featuring all male teams don’t get labeled guy capers or whatever.
    Just having a main character who is female matters less to me than good representation of women as relevant people.

    1. avatar
      January 6, 2016 at 8:04 am

      (this may get a little technical, but you seem interested, so I’m going to expound a bit and hope it doesn’t get too odd)

      That’s actually a bit part of the paper overall… This is just some background research. As is, the Bechdel test is kind of stupid. Even Allison Bechdel admits the she totally meant it as a joke. It completely doesn’t work. Gravity, a movie with an extremely well developed strong female character fails the test because there’s really only two characters in the whole thing (actually there are three, but one dies really fast). The vast majority of feature length pornos pass it. So in reality, it doesn’t actually work for any real analysis. It’s a good starting point to think about, but it’s not actually useful once you are actually trying to think it through.

      What I’m more dealing with is the portrayal of female characters over time in comics and a relationship to popularity. NOT popularity with females, because there’s no way for me to really measure that, since as far as I know there’s no database of who is buying any given title. I can just tell overall sales. I can make estimates by talking to comic shop employees or just trolling the internet and looking, but they’re necessarily selection biased. Any woman taking the time to post about how she loves the new Captain Marvel book because it is an empowering look at women is automatically establishing herself as someone who cares about the feminist outlook of her reading material. There is no equivalent of Nielsen ratings for comics, at least not of which I am aware. So, I don’t TECHNICALLY know if there are 100 female Captain Marvel fans for every fan of say Witchblade or the other way around. For all I know most of Witchblade’s fans are female. I assume they aren’t, but I don’t actually KNOW.

      But I don’t really NEED to. What I can do is analyze sales in general in relation to it’s attempts to play towards or away from the male gaze and measure that against the relative growth or shrinkage of the industry in general. One of my favorite essays ever is called “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey which explains why sexualization of female bodies in media works. Not just why it works on men but why it works on women. And it does… If it didn’t no one would do it. Companies are obviously profit oriented, so they’re trying to maximize profit by appealing to the largest demographic they can. Current attempts have been to diversify the lines by desexualizing the female characters.

      But, at least by what I can tell anecdotally without actually looking at the numbers, this isn’t really working. What one would hope would be that diversifying the line would see an increase in sales, but it *looks* like desexualization at best leads to zero sum game and maybe even a loss of readership. If this is true then either desexualization loses readers regardless of gender or it loses more horny teenaged boys than it picks up chaste teenaged girls. Either of these things is kinda bad.

      On the other hand — again, anecdotally since I don’t have real numbers yet — it looks like it’s possible to gain readers by depicting engaging female characters regardless of eroticization level. he most popular regular published series featuring female characters right now appear to Harley Quinn (by far the most popular and highly eroticized), Ms. Marvel (second most popular and explicitly un-eroticized, it was even a plot point in the first couple issues) and Spider-Gwen (third most popular and right in the middle and pretty standard as far as superhero design goes). No one else seems to even comes close to their numbers, I don’t think. If I can show that hyper sexualization is irrelevant to those titles as a baseline, then he effect of hypersexualizaton or desexualization on other titles can be compared to it and conclusions can be drawn.

      My assumption is really that “women are people” (novel, I know) and therefore enticement by sexualization varies between individuals just like it does with men. Some will gravitate towards the sexual and some the non-sexual. This would imply that, like men, the key factor would personal relation to the character and wish fulfillment fantasy. Yes, heteronormative men/boys gravitate towards eroticized female characters, but there’s totally variation in the male characters that they identify with who attract the female attention. Spiderman, Superman, Batman and Ironman are very different characters both visually and personality wise, but they all have a sexiness about them in their own way and have the ability to attract beautiful female counterparts. By comparison, most of the “girl-oriented” contemporary comics have attempted to do so by removing the element of sexuality from them. The current Batgirl costume is far more conservative than Batman’s. Carol Danvers switch from Ms. Marvel to Captain Marvel not only removed the eroticized leotard but also made her explicitly a cosmic adventurer and her personal sexuality is now more or less irrelevant. Compare this to Harley Quinn who wears eroticized, but believable uniforms and is preoccupied with progressing past her abusive relationship with her ex, the Joker or the new Ms. Marvel who while dressed conservatively does frequently fret about her relationships with boys (and platonic relationships with girls for that matter). In other words, the new Ms. Marvel works because she is a realistic representation of a teenaged girl who happens to have superpowers. She basically IS a female Peter Parker. Harley Quinn is a female Nightwing.

      To go back to the Bechdel test and simplify things, essentially what I think is happening is that in order to pass the “two females have a conversation about something other than a man” the solution is often “make them not care about men at all.” And that’s not realistic. Spider-man is constantly obsessed over his relationships with MaryJane (Or Gwen Stacy, etc.) Fully realized humans have some sexuality of note. They just have other interests too. Removing sexuality entirely ends up being just as problematic as defining purely by it.

      At least that’s the working theory. See… I said it would get complex. I hope it wasn’t too boring.

    2. avatar
      January 6, 2016 at 5:43 pm

      Still processing the bulk of your response but off the cuff … that’s why I began with a proposed percentage of main characters.
      I agree the Bechdel scale simplifies the topic significantly. However, the Gravity example would still be at 50% female leads if you look at percentages while the Avengers (depending on storyline) would be significantly different.
      It’s certainly a complex and subjective study that will be tricky to wrangle into an objective scale.

  5. avatar
    January 6, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    Mark Seeley commented on ChrisMaverick dotcom:

    I think a separate datapoint for reprints makes sense. And if there’s more than 1 reprint, I would consider them cumulative. So if, say Buffy #’z’ comes out in June and it so happens reprints of Buffy #s ‘a’ & ‘b’ both crack the top 150, then ‘z’ gets a value as a “current” and ‘a’ + ‘b’ combine under “reprint.”

    I would catagorize mixed gender ensembles in their own grouping. And I would let the title be the main criteria, honestly.

    Female solo (in the title – “Princess Leia”)
    Female duo ( “Harley Quinn & Ivy”)
    Female/Male duo (“Angel & Faith”)
    Female Only Ensemble (“Birds of Prey” – I think)
    Mixed ensemble (“Avengers”)

    I would also find it interesting to see mention of select female solo books below the top 150 to gaige their relative ranks. In this way, we see who came close to the cut. Not necessarily ALL of them. Maybe just some that only cracked the barrier once. (“Tarot,” “Red Sonja,” “X-23,” etc)

    With those, I’d allow a bias with the qualifier that, “these are just titles I was interested in tracking regardless but not factoring into the numbers when not in the selection ranks.”

  6. avatar
    January 7, 2016 at 6:16 am

    Reprints aren’t really the issue (a little bit) so much as annuals and special editions. Right now I’m tracking them all, but I think I amy ultimately end up ignoring them. For what I’m doing they don’t really matter all that much. They’re more noise in the system.

    The categories might not matter that much either. Again, right now I’m tracking them (all except mixed ensemble because that’s too much work and would give biased results, given things that I’ve already said above) but I might end up eliminating them as well. It probably won’t matter to my overall point, but for now it makes more sense to track them just to be sure.


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