In an episode of Green Lantern Vol. 3 #54, released in 1994, a photographer for a newspaper in Los Angeles, Alex DeWitt, famously known as Green Lantern’s girlfriend, was murdered by Major Force, the comic’s villain, and hidden inside her boyfriend’s refrigerator. The incident drove the titular character to almost beat up the villain to death.
Taking inference from DeWitt’s manner of death, in March 1999, writer Gail Simone coined the term ‘Women in the Refrigerator’ after an online discussion on the treatment of female characters in comic books after it occurred to her that “it was not healthy to be a female character in comics”.
The list, which was originally compiled by Gail but has had subsequent additions in the next 19 years, includes female comic characters who have been killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a deathly disease or have had tragedies befalling them.
What the list never covered, however, was the list of ‘sensational’ and ‘amazing’ female comic characters who flaunted their ‘sexy bodies’ in G-strings and superhero outfits -- crouching or bending to highlight their perfectly round-shaped derrières.
But for 21-year-old Shreya Arora it was high time to stop looking at women as collateral damage and their life as the sum of the associated honour of their husband/ boyfriend/ brother/ father.
While on an exchange semester in France, Shreya created a series of six posters where she placed posters of the male superheroes in a juxtaposition of the original posters which featured the ‘sensational’ female superheroes.
But only this time it was the 'amazing' Spider Man standing naked with a strategically-placed beach ball covering his groin, the Hulk covering his modesty with a newspaper, while Batman, Iron Man, and Superman bending and/or crouching in sexually suggestive positions which highlighted their 'bubble butts'.
For Shreya, creating protest art wasn’t the ‘end-goal’, however, upon joining a ‘formal’ course in graphic designing at the National Institute of Design in 2015, she was once told by a professor that the best way to pick her specialisation would be to put her finger on what she wanted her work to accomplish. “The choice became clear when I realised I wanted to do work that could make people think, and start important conversations,” she said.
Shreya feels that as a society we are trained to seeing women being depicted either as a damsel in distress, or an eye candy. “When I started the project, I wanted to do the opposite -- take covers with powerful depictions of superheroes, and recreate those using superheroines.” However, Shreya quickly reached a conclusion that “while it may make for good art, it might not be the most effective way to question the status quo”.
It’s safe to draw a self-admitted conclusion that female comic characters are trivialized, often limited to being a fleeting love interest or simply a sub-plot in the greater scheme of things who are ‘sacrificed’ to develop the mighty male superheroes. But just in case there’s a problem and the said-female character does not tick the above options, she is put into an underwear and then on the comic’s cover. Problem solved.
There have been reports where comic-book makers have defended their stand by calling it a ‘business decision’, and saying that ‘the readers don’t care about them’. 'Them' are the female characters.
Shreya disagrees with their rash justification. “The fact that it's a business decision doesn't make it any less wrong. Comic books are absolutely created keeping a section of audience in mind, which leads to a vicious cycle. Companies create problematic content for a specific demographic, and then use that demographic as an excuse to keep creating problematic content,” she said.
For Shreya, comics follow a precedent that is unfortunately set by a world that is testosterone-driven and more partial to men.
While comics are limited to being fictional representations, Shreya says that comic book makers also need to acknowledge that female characters are limited to being mere accessories to the male superhero’s story. She says that media, which includes comics too, plays a pivotal role in shaping the 'regressive society' that the comic books so gleefully take inspiration from.
“Would the Joker ever rape Robin to anger Batman, close as Batman and Robin may be? All these ideas being propagated once again contribute to the objectification of women, and reduce them to nothing beyond a vagina.”
Shreya, who created a part of the superhero series in collaboration with BuzzFeed India, received heavy criticism from Facebook users who categorically asked her to ‘leave comic books alone’, perhaps an eerie signal to how sexism has been ingrained and normalized by the society. But Shreya isn’t discouraged. “Appreciating an art form doesn't mean giving it a free pass to be as problematic as it'd like. As fans, it's up to us to call the industry out on these practices,” she said.
But these are changing times-- with movies like Disney’s Frozen being acknowledged for its powerful women empowerment message, Shreya is hopeful. But she always wishes that “it doesn't stop there”.
Talking about Gail Simone’s project, Shreya calls it ‘wonderful’ but says, “There are several initiatives like it (The Women in the Refrigerator), that try to call out this disparity in comic books. If there were no market for ethical, empowering art in comic books, who is beginning these initiatives? The truth is that there is more than enough of a market for empowering content, but sadly, feminism is just another marketing tactic for most major corporations, which is why their gender equality is skin deep.”
Coming to a more Indian setting, Shreya says that she has been revisiting comic books like Tinkle and Chacha Chaudhary, and while they aren't guilty of hyper-sexualisation, “sexism permeates our cultures in many ways”.
In these comics, the identity of women is more strongly tied to the men they are related to in Indian comics than in western ones -- whether they are rebellious daughters, or nagging wives, or possessive girlfriends, it rarely moves beyond the stereotypes. Shreya feels that while recreating it would not be “visually obvious” as it was with the current series, she is working towards finding an equally effective, if more subtle, solution.
While on the exchange program in France, Shreya dismissed several western stereotypes about India, until she realized “how a lot of it was true” -- not just in the number of sexual assault cases, but in how they are reported by the media.
“I realised how much victim blaming affects our narratives, and how our standards for 'good' women are incredibly high, while we rarely ever bother to hold the perpetrators to the same high standards. The series is a satire on this fact, and shows you that no matter how good, conservative, or perfect a victim is, society will find a way to blame her for the assault.”
Although Shreya’s recent works have received much media attention and started conversations, she cautions that “these conversations have a privilege bar” -- it’s accessible to those with a smartphone, fluent in English, with a certain level of visual literacy. “With so many young, passionate artists who are working on social issues, there is no lack of good intent. However, we may not always be equipped to bring about a change at a grassroot level.”
For her future projects, Shreya would love to work with “issues that emanate from privilege”.
“What I've learnt from this project, though, is that there will always be a bigger problem to solve, but that shouldn't stop you from working on the smaller ones you are more equipped to face. I absolutely understand that sexism in comic books is a much smaller problem (one that affects the relatively privileged) for the field of women empowerment than, say, female illiteracy, but I've learnt that tomorrow if I work on female illiteracy, there'll always be someone who'll say that the war in Syria is a bigger problem.”