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Evolving Sub-Texts in the Visual Exploitation of the Female Form: Good Girl and Bad Girl Comic Art Pre- and Post-Second Wave Feminism

By Christopher J. Hayton


By the 1940s, comic books were attracting concern from various quarters due to the impact they were purported to have on the minds of their youthful readers. Whether this influence was harmful was debated at length, but there was a growing awareness of the power of media to condition the consumer. Propaganda had the power to mobilize the populace to wage war; psychologically astute advertising could persuade the public to buy, not just products, but whole lifestyles; and campaigns could manipulate the masses to vote this way or that. Alongside such grand stakeholders in the communal mind, comic books might seem rather insignificant. But were they? In the mid-1940s, Sidonie Matzner Gruenberg (1881-1974), director of the Child Study Association of America from 1923-1950 (Wollons), and generally an advocate for the positive potential of comic books, noted that “every medium, perhaps even when it is used ‘only for entertainment,’ is likely to carry doctrinal or sectarian implications” (209). After observing that comics were a “potent … social force” (208), she adds that they “share with all the other media of communication a ready adaptability to all kinds of purposes, including that of expressing views and attitudes, preferences and prejudices” (209-10). Nowadays such concepts are no longer conjecture. For example, in their 2006 meta-analytic study, Bushman and Huesmann reported measurable changes in the aggressive behavior of children and adults following exposure to media violence. In the more intense media world of video games, Fox and Bailenson (147) found “that gender-stereotypical virtual females enhance negative attitudes toward women” and both male and female participants “demonstrated more sexism and greater rape myth acceptance” when exposed to such characters in the game. Tiggemann and McGill even argued that “the mass media, due to their pervasiveness and reach, are probably the single most powerful transmitters of sociocultural ideals” (24).

Despite writers such as Gruenberg, who were able to see the cultural value of comic books in the 1940s, the predominant establishment mood in America was significantly anti-comic, with crusades spearheaded by such prominent individuals as Dr. Fredric Wertham. Wertham (“The Curse of Comic Books” 394) was convinced that reading comic books, particularly those of the crime genre, led to juvenile delinquency, a primary concern of Americans going into the 1950s. Wertham (“The Curse of Comic Books” 399-400) was also scathing in his appraisal of the influence of what he referred to as a perversion of normal sexuality in comic books. In this instance Wertham was referring to the kind of image that constitutes what comic book aficionados and scholars came to call “Good Girl Art.” The use of sexuality in selling products is now not only commonplace but universally recognized. Those comic books that incorporated GGA used stereotypical objectification of females for visual enjoyment of the reader, with cognitive consequences.

Was Frederic Wertham simply a right-wing reactionary, or was there substance to his fears? Media objectification of women is now known to lead to two basic outcomes. The first is the maintenance of sexist attitudes that normalize objectification of women principally by heterosexual males. Thus viewed, a person is “treated as if lacking a unique subjectivity and exists in a single dimension for the pleasure of others. … Compared to men, women are perceived as being more similar to objects and less fully human when their appearance is emphasized” (Calogero, Pina, and Sutton 2). Taken to its extreme, this encourages sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, and rape culture (Calogero, Pina, and Sutton; Fox and Bailenson), with, for example, “general television consumption … related significantly to first- and second order rape myth beliefs among men and women” (Kahlor and Eastin 215). The second outcome is self-objectification, which is known to be connected to, among other things, eating disorders (Carper, Negy, and Tantleff-Dunn), unnecessary plastic surgery (Calogero, Pina, and Sutton), reduced self-esteem and negative self-image (Ahern, Bennett, Kelly, and Hetherington; Tiggemann and McGill), reduction in “autonomy and agency” (Cikara, Eberhardt, and Fiske 540), and specifically in the case of straight women, subservience to heterosexual male sexual desires and the male gaze (Krassas, Blauwkamp, and Wesselink). More broadly, these effects are encompassed by Fredrickson and Roberts’s Objectification Theory (Moradi 173). Since the introduction of this theory in 1997, it has been developed and applied by numerous workers in a variety of contexts. Of special relevance to Good Girl Art is sexual objectification, in which women’s bodies are “reduced to their sexual body parts in perceivers’ minds,” with negative consequences for both perceiver and the perceived (Gervais, Vescio, Förster, Maass, and Suitner 743). Sexual objectification “equates a woman’s worth with her body’s appearance and sexual functions” (Szymanski, Moffitt, and Carr 6), and in the context of her male partner’s pornography use has been shown to precipitate some of the negative outcomes discussed above (Tylka and Kroon Van Diest 1).

Related philosophically to Objectification Theory is Ambivalent Sexism Theory (Glick and Fiske), which is particularly relevant to the comparison of GGA and comic book Bad Girls. Glick and Fiske identified two forms of sexism, which are described by Ciakara, Eberhardt, and Fiske (541) as follows:

Benevolent sexism (BS) is a subjectively positive, paternalistic ideology that views women as subordinate; they need to be protected, cherished, and revered for their virtue. In contrast, hostile sexism (HS) is a combative ideology maintaining that women seek to control men and use sexuality or feminist ideology as a means to achieving status.

The current study suggests a correspondence between GGA and benevolent sexism, and Bad Girls and hostile sexism, with the difference between the two congruent with generational changes in societal attitudes towards women between the 1940s and 1990s. This study also argues that similar effects on consumer gender attitudes found for other forms of media are likely to occur in response to comic book content. This article examines and compares GGA and comic book Bad Girls in terms of the potential messages they might communicate to their respective readers about human sexuality, male-female interactions, and the status of women in society.

Good Girl Art

The term “Good Girl Art” (GGA) has for a long time suffered from a lack of formal definition, yet has been widely used for decades in comic book discourse. GGA is related to pin-up art, entered comics around the beginning of the 1940s, and depicts, with a mildly erotic flavor, beautiful females scantily-clad or attired in shape-revealing clothes, while the suggestion exists that the character is innocently unaware of the sexuality that is apparent to the reader. Bill Ward’s Torchy and Matt Baker’s Phantom Lady demonstrate the naiveté with which the characters’ idealized form is exposed, apparently as ‘eye candy’ for the reader’s enjoyment, and as a potential subject for fantasy. Underpinning this image can be recognized the patriarchal notion of feminine vulnerability and ultimate inferiority and subservience with respect to the male that is at the core of benevolent sexism.

The introduction of the Comics Code at the end of 1954 profoundly influenced the content of comic books for the following several decades. By the 1990s, however, its control was waning, especially because newer, independent publishers ignored it. “Bad Girl” comics were a feature of this period. In contrast to females depicted in GGA, the “Bad Girl” of 1990s comics, exemplified by Lady Death, while maintaining ample opportunity for the reader to engage in subtle enjoyment of the female form, implied that the character facilitated visual access to her body by her ‘choice’ of attire and deliberate use of her sexuality. Her power and aggression classify her as ‘bad’ in the sense that she is competent and capable of significant aggression against her usually male antagonists. These attributes classify the Bad Girl image within the parameters of hostile sexism. The female body is still an exploitable commodity, but there is the implication that women now have greater discretionary power to grant access. This seems to reflect a wider trend in the patriarchy, an adjustment to the gains of Second Wave Feminism by re-formulation of the presentation of female bodies, changing the rules of engagement in subtle ways that maintain the gendered hierarchy.

Characteristics of GGA

The term “Good Girl Art” (GGA) is used to categorize a broad range of depictions of women in, originally, the Golden Age of comics (1938 – 1955), which Wertham was highly instrumental in bringing to a close. Deciding whether or not a particular image qualifies as GGA can, however, become complicated, not least because of the desirability attached to the GGA label in the comic book market and hence enhanced monetary value or salability. A formal definition is required in order to fully maintain both the usefulness of the term and clarity of communication among both comic book scholars and enthusiasts. Before comparing in detail the subtexts of GGA and its 1990s Bad Girl counterpart, it is necessary to delineate the parameters of both.

One of the most thorough scholarly treatments to date on the subject of GGA is the 1991 Masters Thesis of Kevin Michael Scott, then of Iowa University. Scott examined the comic book publications of Fiction House from 1941 – 1952, looking specifically at the images of women contained therein. Scott, in describing GGA, states:

Good girls are always beautiful; their clothing, if it has not been stripped off to reveal lacy lingerie, is either meager by choice or has been torn to reveal cleavage and thigh. They are usually bound, often with their elbows tied behind their backs in order to emphasize their improbably large breasts (well-detailed), which are accompanied by equally unlikely narrow waists and long legs. … The good girl during the war is a powerless creature, needing to be saved by a powerful male, and she is always saved. This highlighted to the serviceman the necessity of his saving the day for America and things American, in this case, beautiful women (Scott, 23).

Scott’s description here certainly pertains to the omnipresent GGA characters in Fiction House publications from World War II (WWII), but does not fully encompass the characteristics of all of the types of comic books expertly considered to belong to the GGA category, to which elsewhere Scott does give acknowledgment. A major player in this regard was Timely/Marvel Comics of the same period, with their numerous career girl humor titles, most notably Millie the Model and Nellie the Nurse. Career girls displayed greater self-efficacy, and like their later Fiction House female counterparts, were capable of resolving their own problems rather than always needing to be rescued by a man. While physical bondage was certainly a common theme in Fiction House GGA, this was not usually present in the Marvel GGA humor books, and it therefore has to be considered an optional component of the image.

One of the most important characteristics of GGA identified by Scott is discussed in the following passage, again referring to the Fiction House ladies in need of rescue:

… the woman herself is normally given no sexual identity, either artistically or through the plot. She is clearly sexual, but only in appearance. She does not act upon any of her own desires. She is sexually passive. All sexual overtones are created around her. Sexuality does imply power and it was necessary to make her powerless, more in need of salvation. Empowering sexuality was reserved for the savior (Scott, 25).

This speaks to the fundamental core of the GGA image. Innocent or unintended sexuality displayed by and on the part of the female character is the intentional creation of the artist, who seeks to appeal to the presumed heterosexual young adult male readership. It is this that sets GGA apart, in terms of classification, from other depictions of females during the Golden Age of comics, and from the Bad Girl image of the 1990s, and points to the subtle messages that could be conveyed to readers, regardless of sex or orientation.

As Scott observes, the Good Girl image in comics was part of a media-wide presentation of women intended as motivation for the fighting American man serving his country in WWII, and could be found in various forms as pin-up art or photographs, recruitment posters or illustrations, and in the movies. The complications that can, however, present themselves in reference to GGA in comics are illustrated by the following description of William Marston’s Wonder Woman:

She was well known for her whips and chains, helping her be the leading character for the comic sub-genre of “Good Girl” art. “Good Girl” art depicts superheroines as scantily clad and in provocative and alluring poses (Baker K. 12).

Lavin (95) also reported that some critics view Wonder Woman comics as having sexual undertones, particularly because of her use of a lasso in binding men, and the many situations in the stories in which Wonder Woman herself, and numerous female support characters, find themselves in bondage. Lavin writes (95-96):

The theme was so prevalent that DC editor Sheldon Mayer became extremely uncomfortable with it and unsuccessfully strove to tone things down. Marston’s peculiar fascination is evidenced in one 1948 Wonder Woman story which contained no fewer than seventy-five panels depicting women or men tied with ropes.

While 1940s Wonder Woman comics do present the heroine as scantily clad, and it is true that she and other female characters in the stories frequently find themselves bound by ropes or chains, Wonder Woman lacks that essential sexual nature that GGA requires. In Wonder Woman of the 1940s, bondage is used deliberately as a feminist analogy, referring to the lot of women in the prevailing patriarchal society. Wonder Woman is a champion of the feminist cause, spectacularly illustrated by the cover of Sensation Comics 11. Here Wonder Woman is seen freeing caged women from a male oppressor, whom she is simultaneously defeating in hand to hand combat (Figure 1; Peter).

Figure 1: Feminist cover of Sensation Comics 11 by Harry G. Peter. Wonder Woman frees women who have been chained up and incarcerated by the warlike male. She suggests how, free from bondage, women can topple their male oppressors. Copyright DC Comics.

Wonder Woman repeatedly makes the point that women are capable of casting off the shackles of male domination, as most amply demonstrated by the story The Tigeapes of Neptunia in Wonder Woman 15. In this story Wonder Woman (as usual) finds herself bound, but breaks free, stating, “A girl who knows her own power can break any man-made bonds” (Murchison and Peter 6B). Wonder Woman is also better known for the use of her magic lasso, which forces a person bound with it to speak the truth, rather than the dominatrix-style use of whips implied in Baker’s analysis, the latter being something one would expect in a later, Bad Girl comic. This alternate interpretation to Baker’s is that held by comic book historian Les Daniels, who wrote:

Some commentators believed the Wonder Woman comics contained certain sexual undertones, but the artwork was a mitigating circumstance. Harry Peter’s bold brush strokes turned every drawing into a cartoon, and his characters were more like abstract concepts than sensual simulations, but some of his poses would have looked suggestive if drawn by different hands. Other comic book artists delineated their beautiful women in a way that made even innocent situations seem sexy, and modern collectors refer to this phenomenon as “good girl art.” The adjective described the style rather than its subjects, who were not required to exhibit exceptional virtue (Daniels 50).

The use of the word style here by Daniels requires expansion in the context of GGA. In GGA, the female form has to be rendered with a sufficient level of realism to convey the innocent sexuality allegedly possessed by the character, although photo-realism is not required. Indeed, the funny books illustrate the extent to which departure from photo-realism can still accommodate the GGA style. When there is intent on the part of the artist to communicate some level of eroticism or titillation, as can be evidenced by the components of the drawing (e.g. skirt raised by the wind, prominent breasts or ‘headlights’ (see below), glimpses of lingerie, long, shapely legs, etc.) and the quality of the art is such that the reader can potentially experience a mild cognitive or even physiological response to the sexuality of the image, then this is GGA. It is important to remember that GGA functioned within the moral climate of 1940s American society, in which male visual access to the naked female form was far more restricted than it is today, in much the same way that access to alcohol and tobacco consumption, driving, or sexual intercourse, were more stringently attached to a generally respected “coming of age.”

Some 1940s comic book heroines and superheroines genuinely fit the GGA descriptor, most notably Fox Syndicate’s Phantom Lady, especially when drawn by the celebrated Matt Baker. Baker’s cover for Phantom Lady 17 is often touted as the archetype and pinnacle of Golden Age GGA. The heroines of Fiction House’s “Big Six” also fit the GGA bill. Phantom Lady, and the Fiction House girls such as Señorita Rio, Tiger Girl, Sheena, Futura, and Mysta of the Moon, all display the paradoxically seething yet naturally innocent sexuality and provocative poses that Wonder Woman of the 1940s deliberately lacks.

Evolution of GGA in Comics

In comics, GGA can be seen as a product derived from the combination of several pre-existing popular cultural phenomena. Comic books themselves originate from the comic strip of the newspaper, with the earliest examples literally being a compilation of such strips in book form. In terms of content, comic strips featuring working girls might be argued to be precursory to GGA by virtue of the fact that they depict females located in a traditionally male environment, with sexual attraction being a plot device (see Figure 2; Griffin).

Figure 2: In this early 20th Century newspaper strip, the “pretty typewriter” is the object of the attention of the male workers, including the main protagonist. Source: Allan Holtz Stripper’s Guide blog

In the pinup we see the manifestation of innocent sexuality that is characteristic of GGA. 1940s pinups frequently depict the attractive woman accidentally displaying a little more of her body than would typically be visible to an onlooker. There is usually some situational device that to the consumer appears to have been the cause of the slight disrobing (Figure 3: Buell).

Figure 3: A Tight Drawer (c. 1945) by prominent pinup artist Alfred Buell.

Pulp magazines also constitute a comic book precursor. A prime illustration of this relationship is that “Fiction House adapted three of its pulp titles, Planet StoriesWings, and Fight Stories, into comic books in 1940: Planet ComicsWings, and Fight Comics” (Scott 69). Pulp covers often used a pinup style GGA image, as illustrated by Figure 4 (Saunders).

Figure 4: Cover of the March 1936 issue of Saucy Stories by Norman B. Saunders.

Combined into a comic book, these various elements appear in this mild GGA example, the splash page from the Señorita Rio story from Fiction House’s Fight Comics #37 (Figure 5). Here, Señorita Rio is seen in a somewhat traditional male environment (international espionage) with the hem of her dress slightly raised as a result of having to run from a male aggressor, revealing a little more of her legs than would otherwise be seen. She also demonstrates a version of ‘the pose’ (one knee positioned slightly above and in front of the other), and displays the hourglass figure typical of GGA.

Figure 5: Splash page from a Señorita Rio story by Morgan Hawkins and Lily Renée, in Fiction House’s Fight Comics 37, April 1945.

Bondage, Headlights, and Lingerie

As discussed above, comic book GGA does often depict women bound by ropes, chains, or some other means. Amongst comic book archivists, such a comic cover illustrating a female so bound is known as a bondage cover, and tends to elevate the book in terms of monetary value and interest. However, while bondage is fairly frequent in GGA, it is not a requirement. Being optional, actual bondage situations are simply one way in which GGA can be presented, although they do speak directly to the underlying patriarchal script, and deliver messages that potentially condition the reader in terms of a societal view of women. Figure 6 depicts a well-known, classic example of a Fiction House bondage cover from Fight Comics #28 (Moreira).

Figure 6: Classic GGA bondage cover by Rueben Moreira. Fight Comics 28 (Fiction House), Oct. 1943.

Famously identified by Frederic Wertham in his near-legendary treatise Seduction of the Innocent (SOTI), so-called ‘headlights’ covers on comic books again increase the desirability of the book they adorn, from the collector’s standpoint. The ‘headlights’ term refers to ample, protruding breasts with which a prominent female character on the comic book cover is endowed. This may be a damsel in distress, or a heroine such as one of the Fiction House female protagonists, or a combination of both, but the important thing is that the breasts are a significant presence in the image. As an example, the already referred-to cover of Phantom Lady 17 by Matt Baker was condemned by Wertham for inducing “sexual stimulation by combining “headlights” with the sadist’s dream of tying up a woman” (Wertham 207). Phantom Lady 17 consequently is valued much higher than the first issue of the series, even though both are drawn by Baker (Overstreet 618; Scott 33; Baker M.; see Figure 7).

Figure 7: Matt Baker’s archetypal GGA comic book cover. Phantom Lady 17 (Fox Features Syndicate, April 1948).

Just as bondage and headlights covers are sought after by some comic book collectors, so too are those comic books that contain a so-called “lingerie panel.” Bill Ward’s Torchy is often referenced in regard to the exhibition of lingerie panels, but lingerie panels are by no means restricted to this feature or title. Lingerie panels take two general forms. The first would be those instances in which a female character is, usually accidentally or circumstantially, divested of part or all her outer clothing to reveal her underwear (Figure 8: Fox); the second would be scenes in which the female character is, in the context of the story, alone or only with female company, often in a relaxed setting, where she is standing, sitting, or lying around in her underwear. In these latter situations, the reader’s position becomes almost voyeuristic, because in the fantasy world of the comic book there are no male witnesses to this intimate display (Figure 9: Ward). GGA stories were often plotted in such a way as to provide reasons for female characters to partially disrobe, as Figure 9 demonstrates. As Lavin observed (3), “Torchy and her girlfriends typically found themselves involved inadvertently in one improbable situation after another, but the real point of the stories was to find an excuse to portray Torchy in her underwear or negligee.” Hooks Devlin stories in Fight Comics also seemed particularly prone to such literary devices (Figure 10: Campbell and Webb).

Figure 8: Torchy’s daily trials continue when her clothes are unexpectedly ripped from her frame by an irate actress. Page 7 of “Whoever said the play’s the thing?” by Gill Fox, Torchy 4 (May 1950, Quality Comics).
Figure 9: Bill Ward’s Torchy. While developments take place elsewhere, Torchy might as well take a shower. Page 3 of “Gee, I hope the pictures…” Torchy 4 (May 1950, Quality Comics).
Figure 10: Hooks Devlin gets rescued by his lovely assistant, Peaches, who has to partially disrobe for efficient swimming. From Fight Comics 28 (Fiction House, Oct. 1943).

Fredric Wertham personally had a hand in the downfall of Bill Ward’s Torchy. As Ward himself recalled:

The demise of Torchy? I shall never forget it. There was a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Wertham who milked publicity from criticizing comic books and the negative effect they were supposedly having on kids. I used to deliver my finished jobs to Quality’s office in Manhattan. One day I was walking along Madison Avenue when I spotted Dick Arnold … an editor now, ambling along the other side of the street. “There goes our worst offender!” he screeched to a friend, pointing at me. I ran across the street to find out what the hell he meant and he threw a bombshell. “Dr. Wertham has come out with an ‘unfit’ list, and Torchy is on the list.” I couldn’t believe it. Torchy, that innocent little blonde, the stories equally innocent. Can you imagine that happening today? (A51-52).

GGA and Changing Sex Roles in the 1940s

Scott observed in his study of Fiction House comics that the portrayal of women was not static in terms of the image promoted. With regard to GGA he wrote:

This image of women was pervasive, accepted in dozens of mediums. The good girl image, voluptuous, in need of saving, and used as a patriotic catalyst, lasted until a year or so after the war, until the comic book publishers’ backlog of prepared stories ran out. Just as comics changed in the late ‘forties, the good girl image changed and expanded (Scott 32-33).

Scott’s analysis of female images in Fiction House led him to conclude that there were a number of distinct phases (see Table 1).

Table 1: Scott’s Four Phases in the Presentation of Women in Rangers Comics

Phase Image of Women Message Communicated
(#s 1 – 4) to
  • Women as decoration or plot devices
  • Female physique functioning as motivation for the Rangers of Freedom
  • Women as prizes to their American male saviors
  • Weak woman unable to protect herself
  • Women are “trouble” i.e. a nuisance
  • Women serve to create situations that highlight the worth of the male
  • Women as sex objects
  • “If you are American, willing to fight and sacrifice yourself, this is what you will receive”.
  • Flattery of the male encourages acceptance of this image of women.
  • “American men are strong” (Scott 81)
#s 5 – 14
to 1944
  • Strong female characters participating in much of the action
  • Become captured or imperiled and in need of rescue
  • Acknowledgement of the power of women undermined by narrative and visuals (e.g. high heels; requiring male savior)
  • Women can be powerful but are always inferior to the men
#s 15 – 66
1944 to late
  • Physically powerful female heroes thrive (e.g. Firehair)
  • Beautiful leaders maintaining independent sexuality
  • Capable of finding solutions to problems herself
  • Covers initially still depicted imperiled females but eventually matched story contents (issue #41 onwards)
  • Females rescuing males and taking on other male roles
  • Classic GGA
  • Women are capable of “saving” men
  • Some feminist messages
  • Anomalous, incongruent with popular culture as a whole
#66 – 69
late 1952 on
  • Firehair absent
  • Strong female characters replaced by Korean War features
  • Macho story titles; attractive women as vain; diminutive references to females
  • Women can be competent but are still subordinate in relation to males
  • Reaffirmation of traditional sex role combined with acceptance of subordinate status & willingness to maintain it

Scott’s phases do not just document the altered images of women depicted by Fiction House during the 1940s and early 50s, but also infer the changing needs of the Patriarchy with respect to the roles required of women both during and after World War II. One is inevitably led to ask just to what extent the Government and other parties (e.g. arms manufacturers) encouraged the dissemination, by comic book companies and other publishers, of evolving sets of societal norms that facilitated the promotion of the interests of these controlling entities.

The Message Promoted by GGA

When GGA is seen as one component in a society-wide package of conditioning relating to sex roles, its potential to influence attitudes and behaviors begins to become more apparent. Scott observed that the Fiction House GGA featuring imperiled American females mirrored wartime propaganda that cast women as the fighting man’s raison d’être. The woman bound by the enemies of the nation, particularly the Nazis and Japanese in WWII, had to be rescued by the American soldier in order for his masculinity to be preserved, violation by the enemy being the ultimate in emasculation. If she was a “good girl,” then the overall impression given to the military male reader was that the women he was fighting to protect and who were in need of rescuing, ultimately were unable to take care of themselves, and that they would dress and behave in ways that were naturally alluring to the male onlooker. This potentially provided fodder for fantasy and expectation that the exiled reader might later attempt to experience when he returned from the front and resumed contact with females in civilian society. Overall, this was the message society was feeding soldiers as part of the war effort through certain types of wartime propaganda. The so-called male gaze had been conditioned to expect women to conform to certain looks and behaviors, and the man himself conditioned to behave in certain ways towards the woman, sexual objectification being part of this “training.”

Importantly, women also perceive themselves as the object of this male gaze. Evidence is conclusive regarding the negative effects this self-perception has on various aspects of a woman’s self-efficacy and self-esteem. Calogero (19) found that anticipation of being subjected to the male gaze on the part of a woman who has succumbed to self-objectification is enough to instill body shame and social physique anxiety. In this respect Wertham was way ahead of his time in his critique of ads in comic books targeting mostly women but also men, in his chapter Bumps and Bulges. He argued that exposure to material negatively assessing normal body shape, bust size, skin condition, etc. would have detrimental outcomes in girls and women being thus convinced that they were lacking in some way, so that they might be tempted to buy the product advertised (Wertham, “Seduction” 199). Wertham also recognized the potential ill effects on young male readers from exposure to women depicted as sex objects, seeing that this essentially would lead to a distorted view of womanhood. Despite Wertham generally being despised by comic book enthusiasts, his concern was valid. While comic book reading may not have been the precursor to juvenile delinquency in the way Wertham painted it (Wertham, “Seduction” 149-156), nevertheless the power of media to condition the young consumer is no longer contested. In terms of the conditioning comic book images were providing for young American readers both male and female, Wertham was possibly more chillingly on target than he realized. Sex role scripts surrounding the GGA image translate into oppressive attitudes towards women, and by instilling self-objectification in females, increase the latter’s vulnerability to this oppression. Comic books constitute just one part of a very broad array of fashion and body image-related media entities that influence how males and females view each other and themselves (Patterson and Elliot 234), assigning the feminine to a subordinate position in the patriarchy while dictating the norms that establish male superiority (Pritchard and Morgan, 2000).

Bad Girls

The “school of ‘Bad Girl Art'” is “a modern movement whose name derives from the “Good Girl Art” of the 1940s. The “Good” refers to the drawing style, while the “Bad” often refers to the personalities of the subjects (mercenary, murderous, or even demonic)…” (Daniels 186). According to Brown (61), “the label of Bad Girls primarily refers to the highly sexualized nature of these female characters who dominated the struggling comics industry in the mid-nineties.” Features of GGA retained by Bad Girl Art include objectification, satisfaction of the male gaze (both of the reader and of story characters), and posing, although this was more seductive than just “alluring.”

Under the control of the Comics Code Authority, Bad Girls could not have evolved. In the late 1960s and going into the 1970s, comics in black and white magazine format were developed as a means of circumventing the Code and targeting an older audience (Lavin). Warren Publishing was the chief purveyor of such material, although Marvel and Skywald for a while captured a significant portion of this market. Warren’s Vampirella, which began publication in 1969, can, in fact, be argued to have been the original Bad Girl. In describing the character Vampirella, Lavin states that she “looks like a super-voluptuous parody of the 1950s pinup model, Bettie Page. Vampirella’s costume consists of black, high-heel boots and an outrageous red thong bathing suit which does little to hide her ample charms” (97).

The possibilities afforded by freedom from the Code certainly led to foreshadowing of the Bad Girls who would appear in the comic books of the nineties and provide a counter-current to the dwindling sales resulting from the bursting of the ‘comic glut’ era bubble of the early 90’s (Deppey 71; Shutt 14-15). In 1971, Skywald’s short-lived but revolutionary magazine, Hell-Rider, included the first female Afro-American superhero, Butterfly. Additionally, the title character was conceptually, if not actually, the direct, but to this day unacknowledged precursor of Marvel’s Ghost Rider. In Hell-Rider #1, the hero, in his alter ego of Brick Reese, meets rock star Julie Storm, who initially presents in the manner of the later bad girls, with assertive sexuality (Figure 11; Friedrich, Andru, and Esposito). This example illustrates the way comics unfettered by Code control were able to resume the pre-Code blatant objectification and exploitation of the female form previously exemplified by GGA, but now in a manner that countered developments resulting from Second Wave Feminism.

Figure 11: A very assertive Julie Storm checks out Brick Reese, alias Hell-Rider, in panels 5 and 6 on page 20 of the first issue (copyright Skywald Publications, July/Aug. 1971).

In American comics of the 1990s, independent of Comics Code Authority control, Bad Girl Art featured characters imbued with conscious sexuality. Indeed, Lavin, writing in 1998, argued that, “If anything, the comics of today are more blatantly sexist and provocative than ever” (97). Visually, Bad Girls were usually endowed with ‘sexy hair’, exaggerated coiffure suggestive of abandon, this in addition to “huge, gravity-defying breasts, mile-long legs, (and) perpetually pouty lips” (Brown 63). Their trappings and behaviors had a sexual fetishist appeal, and the Bad Girls would frequently take on the role and form of a dominatrix, combining ultra-feminine seductiveness with masculine toughness. Lady Rawhide, with her rawhide-thonged bustier, thigh length boots, and long whip, fully exemplifies these characteristics (Figure 12; Mayhew and Palmiotti).

Figure 12: Lady Rawhide has all the attributes of a Bad Girl. Cover of Lady Rawhide 1 by Mike Mayhew and Jimmy Palmiotti (copyright Topps Comics, July 1995).

Interpretation of Bad Girl comics is difficult, however, because, on the one hand, they feature powerful, assertive females. Then again, Bad Girl comics tend to undermine any progress towards sexual equality by maintaining, and indeed intensifying the use of female bodies as sexual objects, despite the sexual power attributed to them. That this was the conscious intent of the creators is illustrated by the following comment made by Lady Death artist Steven Hughes in 1994: “We wanted her to be as voluptuous as every guy’s dream” (Shutt 15).

By acknowledging her power, a male character may still be able to exploit the Bad Girl by using his submission as means of access. Alternatively, he can himself be so endowed with hyper-masculine attributes as to satisfy the lofty standards of the object of his desire. From the reader’s perspective, the Bad Girl, and any male companion she might have, represents the fantasy of the unattainable but highly desirable woman choosing an otherwise ordinary male and allowing him to enjoy her.

This stance echoes a trend identified in other components of mainstream media, seemingly in response to Second Wave Feminism, that effectively neutralizes some of the gains made by the latter and reestablishes a patriarchal order. In their detailed 2001 study of the image of women promoted by both Cosmopolitan and Playboy magazines, Krassas, Blauwkamp, and Wesselink conclude that “the visual rhetorics of both magazines reflect the male gaze and promote the idea that women should primarily concern themselves with attracting and sexually satisfying men” (751). In their review of previous studies of sexual scripts in women’s fashion magazines, Krassas et al. identified multiple instances of the same phenomenon, including many advertising strategies that would have been familiar to Wertham back in the early 1950s, with each example illustrating pandering or subservience to the male gaze. Bad Girls in comics generally reinstate the heteronormative script that says women exist ultimately for the pleasure of the male. Women may become powerful, but in the final analysis they are there for men to enjoy, at the very least as eye candy (Figure 13: Linsner).

Figure 13: Having watched Darrien Ashoka cut his way through swathes of opponents in Times Square, Dawn is pleased. Page 7 of Dawn: Lucifer’s Halo, Part One: Ascension (copyright Sirius Entertainment, 1995).

Bad Girl characters were not only conscious of their own sexuality, they deliberately used it as a weapon. In Lady Rawhide #1 (1-7), the protagonist is first seen contemplating her choice of outfit, and the necessity of being able to distract her male antagonists (Figure 14; McGregor, Mayhew, and Palmiotti)

Figure 14: Lady Rawhide mulls over her choice of attire and its potential impact. Panels 2 and 3 on page 3 of Lady Rawhide 1 (copyright Topps Comics, July 1995).

Lady Rawhide’s opponents marvel at the impossible way her breasts somehow remain within the confines of her meager uniform. These characters may be plotted to realize that they are being bewildered by her attributes, yet they often are depicted as quite content with this state of affairs. Lady Rawhide’s own recognition of this power she wields follows one such incident where, although considerably outnumbered, her appearance has so befuddled the opposition that she has been able to cut through their ranks with ease (see Figure 15; McGregor and Maroto).

Figure 15: Lady Rawhide reflects on her ability to use her female attributes to bewilder male opponents. Panel 1 from page 5 of “The Night They Killed Lady Rawhide” (Lady Rawhide Mini Comic 1, McGregor and Maroto, 1995) Copyright Topps Comics.

As Brown (63) notes, the masculinity of the Bad Girl appears to simultaneously blur and mock sex role boundaries. At the same time the highly sexualized appearance provides fodder for the heterosexual male reader’s gaze. Sexual objectification and opportunity for fantasy are intensified, yet Bad Girl scripts still tend to present mixed messages that include feminist stances. Lady Death, for instance, seems not to yield to any male character, yet she is depicted in extreme ways that are clearly intended for consumption by the male gaze. Barrett in 2008 (4) noted the increase in dominatrix imagery in various genres of media and performance, and observed that it can deliver “both the sexual objectification of the woman for the pleasure of the viewer and the exposure of a patriarchal stereotype.”

GGA vs. Bad Girls

A summary comparison of the two traditions of depictions of women in comics discussed in this article suggests the following similarities and distinctions:

  • Both use posing and exposure of the female body to present sexual objects for the heterosexual male gaze
  • The primary difference is in the nature of the sexuality inferred by the writer/artist
  • In GGA sexuality appears “innocent” and “unintentional” on the part of the character (Figure 16: Zolnerowich)
Figure 16: This helpless American damsel needs to be rescued, and she will be. Another GGA bondage cover, by Dan Zolnerowich. Fight Comics 24 (Fiction House), Feb. 1943.
  • In Bad Girl comics the characters have strong sexuality, of which they are conscious, and which they wield as a form of power (Figure 17: Reis and Young)
Figure 17: Archetypal Bad Girl, Lady Death, on the cover of Lady Death: The Rapture, Part 1 (copyright Chaos! Comics, June 1999). Pencil art and inks by Ivan Reis.
  • Both present women in ways that undermine gender equality and at the same time represent masquerades generated by the prevailing Patriarchy (femininity and the dominatrix, approximately encompassed by the viewpoints of benevolent and hostile sexism) (Barrett 4; Cikara, Eberhardt, and Fiske 541)
  • Both maintain an image that promotes an unrealistic expectation of female behavior, while potentially conditioning the mind of the reader in ways that tend to maintain an idea of heterosexist male patriarchal hegemony


From this brief review of the characteristics of Good Girl Art and Bad Girls in comics, it is apparent that both are part of the same artistic tradition, but each can be considered a distinct genre in its own right, rather than just a style. It can be inferred from the gap in time, between the mid-1950s demise of GGA and the appearance of the Bad Girls in the 1990s, that the development from one to the other was interrupted by the imposition of the Comics Code Authority. It can also be hypothesized that this evolution eventually proceeded naturally within the changes that took place in the culture of comic book production and consumption, and that perhaps the fact that it was held in check for two decades, while the Feminist Movement reached its Second Wave zenith, contributed to the specific nature of the Bad Girl phenomenon. The similarities and differences between the two comic book genres do seem to coincide with societal changes in attitudes towards women noted by Twenge (195), who writes, “Feminist theory has historically criticized the shallow emphasis on bodies, physical appearance, and image … our narcissistic culture does the opposite.” Vampirella (Figure 18: Englehart and Gonzalez), which began publication in 1969, free from the constraints of the Comics Code Authority, can be considered to represent the transition from GGA to Bad Girls.

Figure 18: Original Bad Girl? Page 2 of “Hell From On High.” drawn by José Gonzalez, from Vampirella 22 (copyright Warren Publishing, March 1973).

So what do Bad Girl comics actually communicate to their readers? Bad Girl art and stories appear to maintain the same notions of gender roles as GGA, despite the sexual and other forms of power attributed to the Bad Girl character. The difference lies in the changed pattern of male-female interactions brought about by those masculine attributes given to the Bad Girl character. Heterosexual male hegemony is reinstated in Bad Girl stories by incorporating elements of a sado-masochistic nature that present to the male reader the trade of willingness to adopt a submissive position in exchange for the ability to exploit the female. This message is the yin to the yang of identified contemporary trends in fashion magazines that, while suggesting they encourage independence and empower young women, nevertheless promote scripts that teach the reader that her purpose in life is to attract and satisfy a man (Krassas et al.). While GGA was part of a media-wide propaganda strategy used to encourage the young fighting man in World War II, Bad Girls were developed in response to a comic book industry slump, and appear to have been designed to appeal especially to the dominant comic book readership group in the 1990s—late adolescent and young adult heterosexual males.

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