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What is Marvel's Problem With Women?

A sexist 'Spider-Woman' cover is just the latest snafu

Spider Woman Manara - P 2014
Milo Manara/Marvel Entertainment

It was only last month that Marvel was being lauded by fans for its announcement that Thor would be replaced by a woman in November. This week, however, the House of Ideas has faced a significantly different response to a cover for its new Spider-Woman series — one that's been condemned as sexist and offensive to its intended female audience.

The variant cover to Spider-Woman No. 1 is by Milo Manara, an Italian artist perhaps best known for his pornographic comics Click, Butterscotch and Hidden Camera. Following its debut on Comic Book Resources on Monday, response was immediate and widespread, with comic book sites Bleeding Cool and The Mary Sue leading the charge before mainstream media — including Time, The Guardian and Slate — decried the unrealistic anatomy, sexualized pose and costume that more closely resembles body paint than any fabric known to man.

The furor is just the latest problem Marvel has had with its female audience. In the last month, Marvel's movie division has landed in hot water for its lack of gender diversity, with studio president Kevin Feige saying that he "hoped" the studio could make a movie with a solo woman lead on the same weekend that Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrated that it had no trouble convincing audiences to turn out for talking raccoons. (Guardians, meanwhile, has also come under criticism for misogyny in its treatment of female characters.)

At the same time, Marvel Studios has also been criticized for the seeming absence of Janet Van Dyne, better known as the superheroine The Wasp from its Ant-Man movie, which led to the creation of the #JanetVanCrime hashtag and further accusations of sexism aimed at the company.

Over the last few years, Marvel has attempted to improve its reputation in terms of gender equality from an arguable nadir in late 2011 when the publisher had no female-led titles in print. In addition to an ongoing Women in Marvel podcast series (and accompanying panels at conventions), the publishing side of the company will have nine ongoing female-led titles with the addition of the controversial Spider-Woman. By contrast, Marvel's largest competitor DC publishes eight ongoing female-led superhero titles, with an additional two female-led series under its non-superhero Vertigo imprint.

DC also employs significantly more women as writers and artists, with 13 women receiving regular, ongoing work as of November at DC compared to Marvel's surprisingly low four (Marvel does, however, have a high number of women in editorial positions). At San Diego Comic-Con last month, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso was asked about this discrepancy, reportedly responding that Marvel was "sort of the big leagues… We have financial imperatives that drive us. We run our business a certain way."

With recent market research suggesting that almost half of all comic-book readers are women in today's market — and likely growing, considering the ongoing boom in women attending comic conventions — it's becoming increasingly important for companies dealing in superheroic characters to appeal to women. Marvel had seemed to be succeeding in that goal before these recent missteps. The question is how will it manage to regain the trust of an audience that it seems to be pushing away more and more with each new story.