The Female Thor and the Female Comic-Book Reader

The stereotype that only men want to read superhero stories is wrong—but just how wrong?
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New York Comic-con attendee Stephanie Turner, dressed as Justice League's Hawk Girl (Reuters)

"Girls don't read comics, there's something in how their brains are wired that just doesn't respond to the way comics work.”

Dirk Deppey of The Comics Journal reportedly heard that quote from a comics retailer at Comic-Con in 2006. As a description of the current state of brain science, it's obviously flawed. But it works well as a shorthand for some peoples’ view of comics. Comics, conventional wisdom often suggests, are for boys. This is especially the case because superhero comics are for boys, and the superhero genre is so overwhelmingly associated with the comics medium that the two are often treated as one and the same. From this perspective, recent efforts by Marvel to reach out to women readers—through titles like the new Ms. Marvel or the recent announcement that Thor will be a woman—are doomed. Superhero comics are for guys; girl brains reject them.

Of course, that’s wrong. Lots of women do read comics in general, and superhero comics in particular.  That fact should be self evident enough by now, given the way the Internet has given voice to many female fans of the genre. And yet sexism in the comics world persists. The effort to firmly debunk gendered stereotypes about who enjoys comics and who doesn’t would seem to benefit from hard statistics about just how many women are reading. Those statistics are surprisingly difficult to come by—but the ones that are available suggest that comics, and superhero comics, historically did appeal to both genders and very well could again.

Because of low critical standing or low readership or some combination of both, good data about comics readership over the years is rare. We do know that comics were much, much more popular during the 1940s, when superheroes first burst on the scene, than they are today. Comics then were more like film or television—a mass entertainment option, rather than a niche one. A Market Research Company of America report from 1944 found that 95 percent of all boys and 91 percent of all girls between six and 11 read comics; 87 percent of boys and 81 percent of girls between 12 and 17, and 41 percent of men and 28 percent of women between 18 and 30. Comics scholar Trina Robbins told me that The Newsdealer, a magazine for newsstand owners, actually published figures suggesting that girls at the time read more comics than boys.

Comics in the 1940s included not just superhero stories, but romance, horror, crime, humor, and other genres, so it's difficult to know if women were reading superhero stories in particular in any great numbers. Gerard Jones in his book Men of Tomorrow mentioned a survey that showed that 90 percent of the readers of Wonder Woman were men—and if women weren't reading Wonder Woman, you'd think they wouldn't be reading many superhero titles. However, when I asked Jones for details about the survey, he said he had only heard about it second-hand, and expressed some doubt about the accuracy of the figures. Trina Robbins was even more skeptical, declaring that the survey results were "absolute bullshit!" She herself had read Wonder Woman, Gloria Steinem had read Wonder Woman, and both of them remembered other girls reading the series as well. Comics scholar Jeet Heer pointed out to me that there were substantial numbers of female superheroes in the 1940s, which suggests that publishers believed that there was a female audience out there.

Large numbers of women, then, may well have read superhero comics in the past. More recently, though, the gender of readers seems to have skewed very much male. Neil Shyminsky, an instructor at the University of Toronto, moderated the X-Universe Message Board at comicboards.com in 2004 and 2005, when it was the most heavily trafficked X-Men message board on the Internet. When he posted a voluntary survey to find demographic data, and the response was 95 percent male.

Obviously, Shyminsky's results might not be representative of the superhero comics readership as a whole—but other surveys tend to confirm his figures. In 2008, Heidi MacDonald at the comics news site The Beat pointed to a demographic survey suggesting that superhero comics readers were 90 to 95 percent male. She added, "every comics reader demographic survey we've EVER seen has 5-10% female readership." Similarly, Matthew Klokel, a retailer in Washington, D.C. at Fantom Comics Shop, estimated his store’s superhero comic readership at about the same percentage circa 2008: 90 to 95 percent male.

Again, it's important to emphasize that all comics aren't superhero comics. Matthew Klokel said that readers of manga (Japanese comics) at his store were 60 percent women. Comics editor and writer Janelle Asselin conducted a survey through social media in 2011; of the 1763 comics readers who responded, 38 percent were women, 59 percent were men, and two percent were non-binary. Asselin's survey does not break down readership by gender and genre, but she did find that 86 percent of her respondents read superhero comics.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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