The representation of the female body in comics, movies and video games

Bachelor Thesis, 2020

40 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents


Theoretical Framework

1. Feminism
1.1 First wave
1.2 Second wave
1.3 Third wave

Analysis of Women in different Media Types

2. The Representation of the Female Body in Popular Culture
2.1 Movies
2.1.1 Wonder Woman Solo movie Wonder Woman in Justice League (2017)
2.1.2 Captain Marvel Solo movie Captain Marvel in Avengers: Endgame (2019)
2.2 Digital Games
2.2.1 Lara Croft in Tomb Raider
2.2.2 Kasumi in Dead or Alive

Comparison and Development

3. How did Feminism affect Popular Culture?

4. Reactions and Comments about feministic changes


Conclusion and Outlook



“You're a girl [...] we're just vessels.” ( The Witcher, Ep 4).

The fictional woman stating this quote to a dead baby girl, is a powerful and strong witch, who has yet to be seen as such by men; they rather belittle her and reduce her to her outer appearance. This quote might appear to be a drastic and dramatic approach toward the topic of representation of women in this research paper. Nevertheless, it is not entirely inaccurate. Throughout centuries, the position of a woman in society was that of a bystander, a passive human being, who was neither able nor allowed to decide for herself. Women were essentially an accessory for men to look pretty, be quiet and take care of the household. Slowly over time this changed, and women began to stand up for themselves and raise their voices - they wanted to be respected and equal to men. Therefore, feminism was a label many associated with this way of thinking and particular movement.

Even though this movement should be celebrated and praised - for many women had to fight for it, nowadays being called a feminist has become an insult among many. Whenever a woman tries to explain her insecurity about being reduced to her body or wanting to stand up for herself, she is blamed to be a feminist, who does not understand humour and cannot take a joke. Considering that outside of Europe and America, many women are still living under the leadership and oppression of men, whether at home or within society in general, belittling feminism is a sign that this movement is still needed around the world, as many problems within society are still ignored and avoided. Popular culture plays a decisive role in conveying certain values and ethics and thus can steer society's opinions quite strongly. It is of importance whether women are portrayed as stereotypical beautiful but passive bystanders or actively fight among men on equal terms - be it within movies, series or other media types.

This research paper originated because I myself enjoy videogames, comics and similar things that have always been considered more appealing to boys than girls. Therefore it is impossible to ignore the fact as to how the female body is often depicted in these genres. Even while researching one of the women this paper will discuss later on, the first thing that “popped up” was an overly sexualized drawing, which was perhaps intended to be used for more things than simply to look at it. This research paper does not intend to criticise depicting women in a “sexy” way or overanalyse every little thing that might be interpreted as sexist. Moreover, it simply wants to clarify that over sexualizing women in popular culture more often than not, can lead to misperceptions of the female body for women and men alike. While women feel the need to present their bodies in a sexualized way all the time, men may accept this depiction as a norm and personal entertainment, leading to deviations from these norms to be met with hate and confusion. Additionally, it would manifest old beliefs of women only playing a passive accessory. Thus, this topic is still very important these days, as a large portion of women in the world are still prohibited to have power over their own bodies and rights or are still represented as overly sexualized or “not good enough” within popular culture.

In order to gather research and information, this paper will look at three different popular media types - comics, movies and videogames, and analyse how two women in each category are depicted and represented. Furthermore, Sabine Hahn's Gender and Gaming. Frauen im Fokus der Games-Industrie from 2017, is an important source for this work, because it discusses the representation of women in the videogame industry, albeit as a workplace or within games as such. In addition, Anneke Smelik's And the Mirror cracked. Feminist Cinema and Theory, published in 1998, is of significance, as it centres the topic of women in movies and how they are looked at but also how women as an audience feel when watching these portrayals. Supporting these investigations, Dawn Heinecken's The Warrior Women of Television from 2003, will be used as another important source because its theoretical background can also be applied to aforementioned different media types like comics and games. This research field emerged not too long ago, which is why there are not many sources that put their focus on female representation in popular culture. However, using these chosen sources and explanations, this research project will try to answer the question of how women are represented in popular culture combined with the connection to the history of feminism.

Theoretical Framework

1. Feminism

The term “feminism” involves “[t]he belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state.” (Cambridge Dictionary). Therefore, the main idea behind feminism is the end of oppression, exploitation and sexism albeit executed by men or women alike (Hooks 1). As mentioned before, many people seem to not understand what feminism or even sexism is about, leading to several problems within society and miscommunications between the different sexes (1). Besides thinking that sexism is no longer a societal problem, a majority of people think it is a movement solely against men (1). This way of thinking might explain as to why being a feminist nowadays is used as an insult or it is ridiculed on the internet, as it is considered to be anti-male instead of fighting for equality. The misinterpretation of this movement arose as people assumed that all female space would be free of patriarchy and sexism (2). According to Evans however, there are three main ideas concerning feminism that have transformed within the last few decades (7). Firstly, differences between women, as there are many different identities of women that cannot be summed up with the simple term ‘feminism' (Evans 7). Secondly, the relationship of those differences and the societal world combined with how much needs to be changed for women and men to be equal (7). Thirdly, the debates about the term feminism since the amount of different meanings have rapidly increased these last few years. Regarding these different associations and interpretations of feminism, it appears that this movement has lost clear definitions over the years. The real definition of fighting against sexist oppression was lost and talking about a single feminist politic is no longer possible (Hooks 6). However, in order to investigate how these different misunderstandings arose, this research paper will trace back the ways in which feminism originated, evolved and developed in the following chapters.

1.1 First wave

Since this research paper focuses on popular culture that has mostly originated from America, it will put emphasis on the American feminism history in the next chapters. Even before putting a label on it, women generally have shown small signs of raising their voices and demanding equality so the idea of feminism existed before the first wave of feminism (Kinser 127). Nonetheless, the first wave of the feministic movement is oftentimes associated with the participation of women in the anti-colonial nationalist movement between the late 19th century and early 20th century (Caughie 5). Primarily the women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York 1848, organized by famous reformers Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady, has set the first step to manifesting feminism as many women gathered together in order to discuss their rights and wants (Organization of American Historians1 53). Agreeing on being unhappy with their lives during a tea party, a small circle of women organised this particular convention for women's rights and published an announcement in the papers (Harris 9). Using the Declaration of Independence as a model and evolving it into “Declaration of Sentiments”, it consisted of twelve resolutions and proposals (OAH 53). During this time, the agenda of this movement has been to establish “[...] electoral, educational and employment rights adapted to an indigenous programme of social reform in the public sphere [...]” but also aiming for a reformation of equal rights since women wanted to be treated in the same way as men (Caughie 5). Curiously, every single proposal has been accepted and adopted except for number nine, which demanded “[...] women's ‘sacred right to the elective franchise' [...]”. The aspect of women being allowed to vote was apparently a sore topic at that time and required discussions. Even though only one-third of the female attendances signed the Declaration of Sentiments itstill made way for women to have the right to vote (OAH 53).

According to The rounding of Modern Feminism by Nancy Cott, published in 1987, the term “feminism” , first occurred around the first two decades of the 20th century and rather represented a “binding ideology” (Caughie 6). During this period, feminism stood for a “broader rebellious spirit”, including for instance, the birth control movement or internationalism (6). Women strived for being economically independent and having equal rights to men, ending the double standards of sexual morality used on women and allowing them to have sexual desires and freedom (6). Even though feminism was thus fighting for equality and being involved in politics, the first wave had yet to be more inclusive in terms of their own sex as it rather highlighted white women's movement without including women of colour (Kinser 128). Feminists and women as a whole struggled with acknowledging their unity and “'women do not say ‘we' as workers or blacks do'” (Cott 5). Thus, the first wave consisted of strong willed women, who had yet to see themselves as a group that worked together to achieve their ideas. How these difficulties and struggles developed and evolved during the second wave of feminism will be further explained in the following chapter.

1.2 Second wave

It is of importance to imagine the development and evolution of feminism as waves, since they describe perfectly its history's ebbs and flows to signify certain differences between each era (Henry 58). Women living during the late 1960s and early 1970s started to differentiate their era and designated the time between 1848 and 1920 as “the first wave” of feminism (58). In 1968, Marsha Weinman Lear was the first to introduce the term of “second wave” in a New York Times Magazine in order to reignite the movement (58). After sort of moving into the background of people's mind after accomplishing the right to vote, the notion of calling it the “second” wave of feminism was meant to differentiate their ideas and present something new while simultaneously embracing the history and victories of women in the past (58). Thus, using the metaphor of waves was significant in order to manifest feminism as a serious and ongoing political struggle and yet being able to prove ideas and wants anew (58). “While the public/private dichotomy was significant to the political analysis of earlier second-wave feminists, these feminists, with the exception of radical feminists, most often developed their explanations from well-established Western political theories such as liberalism, Marxism, socialism, and psychoanalytical theory” (Mack-Canty 157). Therefore, similar to the first wave, women used already established historical systems and utilized those for their own agenda by adapting them to their needs and wants. Nevertheless, the second wave can be interpreted and split into three phases as women indeed insisted on celebrating their differences from men but also celebrated differences between women (Caughie 6). During the late 1960s and mid-1980s, the first phase focused on “gender difference”, oftentimes debating aspects like equality feminism and difference feminism - finding similarities but also differences within all genders (6). The second wave put emphasis on the differences among “women” and lasted until the early 1990s. The last phase put “multiple intersecting differences” (e.g. historical, social backgrounds or unique experiences) on their main agenda and lasted through that decade (6).

In the early stages of the second wave feminism during the 1960s and 70s, the differences between men and women were either seen as valuable or deconstructive (6). Depending on whether they have been established by “male dominance” - hence “equality feminism”, or whether they were a unique trait of women's history and cultural identity (6). In the following decade however, women debated the effect of privileging these differences and thereby somewhat ignoring others like race, sexuality, ethnicity or class (6). Acknowledging these differences, and being aware of the overall constructions of identity, the following reorientation gave rise to a fluent transition into the third wave of feminism (7).

1.3 Third wave

The third wave of feminism emerged during the intersections of feminism and racism in the mid-1980s, including raised voices of women, who were already of importance in the second wave (Kinser 130). Despite already being involved in the background within the first two waves of feminism, women of colour and ethnicity were now the main activists in the third wave, as they were the first to actually critique the earlier waves (Mann & Huffman 59). Famous women of colour like Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde or Gloria Anzaldua - who actively participated in the earlier waves of feminism, demanded a “new subjectivity” to be considered in this movement, which thus gained influence on the following feminists in the late 1980s and early 90s (Kinser 130). They demanded awareness of feminism among non-Western women and cultures (130). It was meant to celebrate differences; individuality, different ethnicities and personal diversity among women (130). However, similar to these days, the main problem within the third wave was that it lacked a clear definition (Renegar & Sowards 6). Though this ambiguity offers liberty for interpretations, new meanings and supports multiple identities, it also can be considered problematic due to being too loosely defined (6). Additionally, the third wave was faced with including women and men alike, raising their awareness for feminism in order to share these ideas and goals (6). But many people felt like they did not meet the recommendations to be called a feminist - due to the lack of a clear definition, or thought of it to be too radical and extreme (6). Thus, along with the ambiguity of the term feminism emerged the term “feminazis” - a term made up by talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, where feminists were declared as left-winged radicals (6). Feminism was no longer associated with celebrating differences or different identities but rather with conforming to a single identity and one way of living, excluding individuality, complexity or other ways of living (6). It was a challenge to fight stereotypes and misinterpretations (6).

This is also how and why the term “post-feminism” emerged (Butler 42). There is no clear definition what this term entails. However, two aspects are oftentimes associated with it (42). For one, it can represent the clear distinction between second-wave feminism and third wave-feminism as the latter now includes different identities and ethnicities - having lost the focus on “white women” (42). Yet, it can also imply the clear end of feminism altogether (42). Post-feminism seems to emphasise past victories of feminism, declaring this movement as successful and therefore no longer needed (43). Feminism appears to be a movement of the past and deemed as irrelevant for contemporary culture as girls can do anything boys can do - “[...] on the playground, in the classroom, at work, and in the bedroom” (43).

Regarding this development of feminism and its loss of clear definition throughout the last few years, it has become understandable that today's society is using this term incorrectly or even as an insult. Depending on people's surroundings and circumstances, they either grow up to see feminism as a positive movement - namely, wanting equality and freedom of choice - or they learn to see the misinterpreted aspects like radicalism and “femnazis”. Some even think of it as unnecessary. These different interpretations can also be seen within Popular Culture. Throughout the last few years the position and appearance of women in movies, comics and games, as well as other media types, has changed radically due to changes within society or its demand for changes in popular culture. In what ways the development of feminism has changed popular culture and the view on women's appearances will be further explained in the following chapters. Additionally, reactions of consumers - albeit female or male, will be analysed and discussed.

Overall, women have shown small signs of feminism and the wish for equality early on. Yet, it took until the late 19th century for changes to become apparent. Additionally, the first stages of feminism only focused on “white” women and somewhat avoided other identities. The third wave finally acknowledged all these multiple identifications, which also led to misinterpretations of this movement due to the lack of a clear definition. Nowadays, feminism is no longer associated solely with a positive reputation but rather multiple opinions and views.

Analysis of Women in different Media Types

2. The Representation of the Female Body in Popular Culture

2.1 Movies

Every visit to the cinema, every screening of a movie, is linked to the fundamental drive and pleasure of “looking” (scopophilia) (Mulvey 46). According to Freud, people enjoy looking at themselves and their reflection - “auto-eroticism”, and this pleasure of the look is transferred onto others while watching a movie for instance (46). Especially the atmosphere within cinemas increases this phenomenon (6). Being cast into the darkness and thereby separating the audience from each other but also from the bright movie screen, creates the illusion of looking in on a private world. The audience represses their exhibitionism while simultaneously projecting the repressed desire on people on screen (46). However, this pleasure can be exploited by mainstream movies by focusing on the presentation of the human form entirely (46).

This particular focus has shifted and changed, leading to women being the image - passive, and men as bearer of the look - active (47). “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (57). Women are essentially put on display with filmmakers emphasising their visuals and erotic impact (46). Representing women as sexual objects shall appeal to the male desire (46), functioning as erotic objects within the screen story but also for the spectator within the audience (48). Cinema is no longer seen as reflecting meanings but rather producing them itself, thus actively producing meanings about women and femininity - “[...] (re)present[ing] the constructed images of woman as natural, realistic and attractive” (Smelik 9). The visuals of women within a movie outweigh the importance of a narrative and actions of a female hero (Heinecken 9). Oftentimes, the entrance of a woman slows down the pace of a story or calls for the need of romance and love scenes, which are actually not needed for the plot (9). Even when a female hero breaks out of society norms and symbolises progress and equality, according to post-feminists, feminists' critics still argue that they “acted like men, they talked like men, they were like men. But physically they were portrayed like centrefolds, with two watermelons stuck to their chests, in harem girl costumes” (Schubart 7).

As briefly mentioned before, women are depicted as passive beings and the way they are filmed encourages the audience to focus on their bodies (9). Additionally, the audience sees through the eyes of the male hero as he looks at the woman but rarely does the audience see the female perspective in order to look at the man (9). This highlights power imbalance and thus his “[...] powerful position of the Peeping Tom2, a voyeur” (9). This phenomenon reinforces the passivity of women and how they have to watch themselves being looked at. Additionally, the theory of the “male gaze” has become a dominant paradigm within cinema and feminist film theory (9). The audience is assumed to be male and therefore the imaginary is made as appealing as possible for the man's entertainment (10). This fact of visual pleasure can be divided into two aspects, which emerged through sexual difference (11). Psychoanalytically, the position of a woman is seen as a threat and ambiguous to men, as she is a combination of attraction and seduction but also an imagery of the male castration (11). In order to eliminate this threat within cinema, women have to be found guilty, which is either solved by punishment or salvation - in other terms, either death or marriage can release the male spectator of a woman's threat (11). Fetishism is another aspect of this release (11). “Fetishizing the woman deflects attention from the female ‘lack' and changes her from a dangerous figure into a reassuring object of flawless beauty”, so the overall depiction of a woman has to change in order to “hide” the fact that she is actually no man (11).

Whereas these theories are focussing on the male spectator, the female spectator should not be forgotten. Earlier research suggested that women either accepted their represented passivity within cinema or started to identify themselves with the male hero of the story - putting on “[...] transvestite clothes” (12). Mary Ann Doane however, examines female spectatorship as a masquerade (12).



2 “[A] man who tries to secretly watch women when they are wearing no clothes.” (Cambridge Dictionary).

Excerpt out of 40 pages


The representation of the female body in comics, movies and video games
University of Paderborn
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
Feminismus, feminism, popular culture, female representation, sexism, women, videogames, movies, wonder woman, captain marvel, tomb raider, dead or alive, kasumi, sexismus, inequality
Quote paper
Leonie Quicker (Author), 2020, The representation of the female body in comics, movies and video games, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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