Man, imagine if this happened nowadays. Contemplate the outrage roaring across the internet!
Of course, things have changed substantially since the 1970s, and neither Red Sonja nor her mail byrnie were nearly as long-lived or established as Starfire and her character, but I wonder if there are some who saw Barry Smith's Sonja, thought "Wow, a female warrior that wears armour and is treated as Conan's equal, I can't wait to see more of her!" only to be treated to "Day of the Sword," where it's revealed that Sonja only got her powers through divine pity after she was raped by bandits, and she traded in her byrnie for a metal bikini. Maroto's bikini was considered one of the elements which kick-started Sonja's rise to stardom, with a lot of enthusiasm from the young males crowd, but I can't help but wonder how different history would've been if Thomas decided to just stick to the byrnie. Would Sonja have become as obscure as other Marvel Conan creations, or would her unique personality and status as a female comics character who wears upper body armour be enough? Does it really matter what she wears if she still has the same origin story? Who knows.
Anyway, the furore has resulted in many comics writers commentating on the whole "sex and women in comics" situation...
As you'll no doubt be aware from posts here and at the Conan forums, I have issues with Busiek's take on Conan, and I've been critical of his original creations on many an occassions - Janissa in particular being a character that bothers the hell out of me. But his take on the issue of female characters and sexuality is so similar to mine, and written in exactly the way I probably would've written it, it's frankly a bit scary:
My argument, over and over, is that "sexy" isn't the problem. Sameness is the problem. Don't make all women look the same. Don't make them act the same. Give us a range of portrayals, like the men. I think Power Girl's a terrific character -- she's brash, she's loud, she's aggressive, she flaunts her sexuality and she doesn't take any shit about it. As a result, she's visually distinctive, she's got a strong personality that goes with the visuals -- she stands out. She's a vivid and memorable character, which is pretty good for someone who's core concept is that she's a variant version of a derivative character.
Get outta my head, Kurt, get outta my head!
Speaking of Power Girl and Red Sonja, I came across this fantastic article by Laura Sneddon which discusses the history of women in comics, giving particular praise to those two as feminist icons from the highly sexualised '70s comics aesthetic. She gives an awesome appraisal of Red Sonja's beginnings and recognizes Howard's proto-feminism, and discusses how Red Sonja could still be considered a hope for good female :
The 70s saw mainstream comics sexing up more and more female characters. Red Sonja first appeared in the Conan the Barbarian comics in '73, and by popular demand soon received her own title. While Conan was based on the original Robert E Howard stories, Red Sonja was an original comics creation, only loosely based on a Howard character. His Red Sonya had not been part of the Cimmerian tales, but a Polish-Ukranian mercenary of the 16th century. She was in fact one of several warrior women from the proto-feminist's pen. "From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather came to her mid-thighs which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches."
Red Sonja, as she first appeared in comics, was strikingly similar to this description, albeit without the breeches. She wore a chainmail shirt, exposing less skin than Conan himself. Sonja is first introduced as leader of an army, and saves Conan twice in her first comic outing. She rebuffs the admiring Barbarian's advances, conspires with him in pilfering some riches, and ultimately betrays him and rides off into the sunset laughing her head off.
After these two initial stories though, where Red Sonja had been portrayed as a mysterious warrior woman and an equal to the ultimate man's man Conan, her costume and lack of origins were to change. For her own title, out went the practical long sleeved chainmail shirt, and in came the infamous chainmail bikini which greatly helped with the tits and ass focused covers. And as if that wasn't enough, she got slapped with the classic "rape as a backstory" trope. Sonja, it transpired, had seen her family slaughtered by mercenaries that also brutally raped the young girl. A goddess granted Sonja great warrior skills, asking that in return Sonja must not lie with a man unless he defeats her in fair combat.
One interpretation of this has been that Sonja can only engage in sex with a man who first dominates her with violence, thus reliving her rape. However, in the original comic, the goddess also adds "Something that no man is like to do after this day". This suggests that the oath is less about only having sex with men who defeat her, and more about the fact that men aren't going to be able to defeat her anyway.
Another accusation levelled at Sonja is that her attire is a provocation for her primarily male attackers, that she is, in many ways, "asking for it". Putting aside the fact that a comics character is hardly responsible for clothing herself, Sonja has stated throughout the comics that her costume is very handy in battle – it distracts the enemy! It's unfortunate that this oath has put the focus firmly on fighting off men who would otherwise try to bed her, the bikini ensuring that our eyes never stray for long from her desirable body.
Still, Red Sonja was a strong, independent, intelligent woman who fought her way through a man's world and did a pretty kickass job. Costume and all too predictable back story aside, there is a lot of fun to be had with a sword and sorcery title starring a woman, and indeed Red Sonja has a large feminist following.
I still have my problems with Red Sonja, but it's easy to forget that she actually isn't as horrible as I tend to remember her. She also reminds me just why I loved Power Girl, back when the emphasis was on Power as much as on Girl:
Unlike the demure Supergirl of the 50s, Power Girl refused to be spoken down to by the men, and demanded that she be treated as an equal. She was angry, but rightly so: Kara could not understand why her being a woman had any bearing on how she should be treated. Her build was slightly stocky, her hair a short cute cut, and her costume stylish. She let no sexist remarks slide (don't call her a girlie!), angrily calling out the men for their ignorance while slamming doors or breaking the furniture. Power Girl was angry as hell, but why shouldn't she be? Determined to step out from her cousin's shadow and be taken seriously, Power Woman was one of the first outspoken feminist characters in comics.
A lot of the above isn't so well known. One aspect of Power Girl tends to overshadow everything else, and even leads people to make judgements on the character without actually reading any of her stories. Y'see, Kara has a really famous set of assets – large breasts that her costume certainly makes the most of. Her outfit has a circular peephole that shows off her cleavage, and certainly distracts the eye. And it would appear that when confronted with breasts, many people suffer from what I can only describe as melting brain. She has large boobs and shows them off so she must be... slutty? Dumb? Attention seeking? Really?
Power Girl is a highly sexualised hero, of that there is no doubt. But her costume, and her breast size, do not determine whether or not her words and actions had a feminist message. Kara demanded respect from her male peers, forced them to take her seriously, and never apologised for being female.
Kara's costume changed often, the peephole came and went. The story that Wally Wood increased her breast size in every comic is a common myth, it was far later on that her boobs started to expand at an alarming rate. The popularity of this myth is perhaps testament to how unsurprised readers would be at creators having so little respect for their female characters.
Reminds me of the Lara Croft fiasco, which I flagrantly over-generalize as "girls with big boobs are dumb insecure sleazemiddens for dumb sexist boys, girls with little boobs are intelligent independent women for intelligent egalitarian men" garbage.
I'd been thinking about how women in comics often have very similar body types, to the point where it becomes somewhat distracting (for entirely different reasons than presumably intended). I'm not just talking about superheroines, but even non-supers like the mighty Amanda Waller:
DC should know better than to mess with the Wall...
Anyway, I just wonder why so many heroines have the same body shape. Can't some be a bit more heavyset, or muscular, or skinny, than others? Can't some be taller, longer-torsoed, shorter-legged, different BWH measurements? Bigger noses, stronger jawlines, thinner lips, thicker brows? The fact that, say, Wonder Woman has 35-25-35 measurements and stands 5'10" with full lips, high cheekbones, heavy eyes, a button nose and muscular/voluptuous build is fine... but not every single superheroine should have the exact same measurements. Good comics have variety in their heroines: Wonder Woman may be taller and more rangy, Power Girl more stockily built, Supergirl more petite, and so forth. But too few comics are unwilling to buck the three body types trend (roughly the Total Recall Slim-Athletic-Voluptuous tryptich), so it seems like heroines are all clones of each other.
Do they all have to look like Victoria's Secret models, who are so generic and alike in shape and height it looks like they stepped off a factory line save for different haircuts and skin tones? Is this preparation for the Stepford Revolution, attuning our menfolk to not act surprise when suddenly all women on earth are replaced with stick-legged automatons, with terrors of the obesity epidemic resulting in healthy weight-loss measures being co-opted to produce a race of clone-women?
That's not sexy, that's terrifying.
Of course, this isn't restricted to women. Why do Batman, Superman and Captain Marvel all look so similar to each other out of distinguishing costume in so many works? But then, there are more body types generally available to males than to females. Look at all the body types available to male superheroes in, say, the DC Animated Universe, then compare it to females.
Ah well. You just know that this DC relaunch is going to be like New Coke, and everything will be restored somewhere down the line. At least one can hope so.