Although often criticized for depicting the female body in an idealized way, comic books have provided a variety of positive role models for young girls over the course of their history. In this article, I will list some of the best examples of comic characters that have served as positive influences on several generations of young women and provide a brief description of each character’s qualifications in this regard.
Betty Cooper is the good-natured, down-to-earth counterpart to the spoiled snob Veronica Lodge. Their rivalry over red-headed teenager Archie Andrews dates back to the early 1940’s. Betty is athletic and enjoys sports. She is the stereotypical “girl next door,” but her talents in music, academics, and sports make her a strong role model. She also has tomboy skills, such as her prowess as an auto mechanic.
Storm (Ororo Munroe) was worshiped as a goddess in her native Africa. She is the most prominent African-American female comics character. As the sometimes leader of the X-Men, she exemplifies the virtues of tolerance, determination, patience, and wisdom. Like other great role models, she has overcome many adversities, including her claustrophobia and the prejudice of a society that hates and fears mutants. This unfounded fear is an obvious metaphor for the distrust that still exists in our own world concerning those who are different from ourselves. She is married to T’Challa, the superhero known as the Black Panther and is familiar to non-comics readers from the various X-Men movies, in which she is played by actress Halle Berry.
Wonder Woman was created by psychiatrist William Moulton Marston in 1942 and made her debut in All Star Comics #8. Marston wanted to create a strong female counterpart to the successful Golden Age mystery men such as Superman and Batman. His interest in classical Greece and Rome gave Wonder Woman a unique slant, featuring Amazons and a variety of gods and goddesses from popular mythology. In addition to being a physical powerhouse, Princess Diana also has an interesting array of weapons and gadgets, including a magical lasso which forces people to obey her and tell the truth when questioned, a robot plane that operates by telepathy, and special bracelets which can deflect bullets. Wonder Woman is such a well-known symbol of female empowerment that she was featured on the first issue of Ms. magazine. She is also well known from the campy TV show starring Lynda Carter.
Saturn Girl was not only one of the three original members of the Legion of Superheroes, but a frequently elected leader of the group. She debuted in 1958 at a time when superheroes in general were scarce, much less strong female characters. Imra Ardeen is an extremely powerful and sensitive telepath who hails from one of the moons of Saturn. Her leadership skills and willingness to physically take one much stronger opponents make her a character who sets a good example for both younger and older readers.
Kitty Pryde first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #129 and was the youngest member of the group as of that time. Her power, the ability to pass through solid objects, which she calls “phasing,” is not very powerful in offensive situations and primarily serves as a defensive tactic. This is the exact same power as an earlier female character, Phantom Girl, of the Legion of Superheroes, who, while an interesting character, rarely battled powerful opponents and was mainly used in situations calling for stealth. But Kitty, who used various names including Ariel and Sprite, often found herself in situations where the entire team, or even the fate of the world depended on her. Her resourcefulness and bravery have made her a valuable addition to the team, although she is one of the least powerful members of the team. Kitty shows that size and power are not as important as character, integrity, and intelligence.
Batgirl is unusual among comic book superheroes in that she doesn’t have any extraordinary powers, but she makes up for it in skill, smarts, resilience, and determination. There have been several incarnations of this character from the 1950’s to the present day, but the one that is most familiar to most people is Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, whose first appearance was in Detective Comics #359, in a story entitled “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl.” She replace a previous version, Betty Kane, who debuted in 1961 as a response to the popular Supergirl character, but was phased out when Julius Schwartz took over as editor of the Batman titles. He felt that the feature had too many silly characters, and got rid of Batwoman, the original Batgirl, Ace the Bathound, and Bat-Mite. When the popular Batman TV show debuted in 1966, the Barbara Gordon character was created in the comics to give the TV show access to a strong sexy, female character, since the only female lead was the ditzy Aunt Harriet. Barbara Gordon was crippled in the graphic novel, The Killing Joke, and was made a member of the Birds of Prey, in which she assists other female crime fighters as a computer expert, though confined to a wheelchair.
Josie McCoy is not only a rock star with her band, Josie and the Pussycats, but has also been a world-traveling international crime stopper. She was a serious musician at a time when young women lacked many examples of female rock stars and most female singers were not only outsold by their male counterparts, but didn’t play lead guitar in a band named after them, either! The crime-solving, supervillian battling aspects of her character make her a more wholesome female James Bond and her relationship with boyfriend Alan M. is an example of a career girl whose significant other is willing to take a back seat to his more famous and successful girlfriend. Josie was created by Dan DeCarlo, who based the character on his wife, Josie Dumont.
Little Lulu was created by Marjorie Henderson Buell in 1935. Buell thought that a girl who got into trouble would be more interesting than a boy, since at the time, girls were believed to be naturally well behaved. Lulu Moppet appeared in The Saturday Evening Post as well as comics published by Dell/Gold Key and a daily newspaper strip. Over the years, Lulu appeared in television and movies and inspired the Friends of Lulu, a non-profit organization which promotes the participation of women in the comics industry and increased use of women in positive and non-sexist roles in comics.
Marston, William Moulton and Peters, H.G., Wonder Woman Archives, Vols. 1-3, 1998, 2000, 2002 DC Comics
Morrison, Bill and DeCarlo, Dan Innocence and Seduction: The Art of Dan DeCarlo, 2006, Fantagraphics