Copyright © 2018 Anjali Jaikarran, Ryerson University
Women are multi-faceted individuals who play many roles and undergo an abundance of experiences, however, society, on many occasions tends to delegate them to roles and experiences far beneath them. In the ninth issue of The Active Comics (1943), two particular comics portray women being subjected to violence at the hands of another. In ‘The Brain: The Scarlet Zombie’, the villain threatens to strangle a female character if she does not relinquish information the villain believes she has. He follows through with his threat, wrapping his hands around her throat as the woman is paralyzed with fear (Bachle 24). Earlier, within the same comic, the villain’s monstrous creation, the Scarlet Zombie is seen
roughly grabbing the woman and tossing her across the room (22). In ‘Thunderfist’, another superhero comic, the hero’s love interest is taken captive by a Japanese spy when she attempts to follow up on a lead for a story she is pursuing. The villain binds her to a chair with rope to keep her from escaping so that he may use her as leverage (Harn 58). Examples from the reality surrounding women’s contributions and tribulations during WWII will be drawn on to shed light on the discrepancy between reality and the portrayals of women in the comics as a reflection of the value of women in Canadian society during the 1940s.
Women’s Contributions During the War
The Second World War focuses on fearless soldiers laying down their lives on European soil for their country. Men are immortalized in history for their contributions, while the women are overshadowed by their counterparts. On the homefront, women inhabited every occupation possible to provide aid during the war. Stanley Hawes’ film, Homefront (1944), a propaganda film intended to boost morale and incite patriotism, depicts women taking part in hospitality endeavours: anywhere from running canteens for weary soldiers to forefronting blood transfusions in the medical field as nurses. These women are said to be ‘the living link between home and the inferno’ (Hawes, Stanley). In this propaganda film, women were seen as important and crucial to the war effort; without the aid of these formidable women, soldiers would not have been able to fulfill their duties to their nation. In the story, ‘Thunderfist’, the captured woman is a reporter who is following a lead on a possible story related to the war (Harn 58). Although her contribution is of a different sort than those aiding in domestic or medical affairs, her job lands her in a dangerous position as the captive of a Japanese spy. If the creators and illustrators of the comics had wanted to draw parallels alongside what was occurring within the real world, they would have created strong female heroines instead of male ones. They could have also created ones that worked alongside the male heroes as their equals. This is not the case with the female heroine in ‘Thunderfist’ as the woman is forced to wait for the male hero to come to her rescue, insinuating that she is incapable of saving herself, delegating her to a role without allowing her the chance to prove herself.
On the front lines, women in WWII made an equally significant impact: “About 350, 000 women served in the [American] military… 14 000 were WACs, 100, 000 were WAVEs, 23, 000 were marines, 13, 000 were SPARs, 60, 000 were Army nurses, and 14, 000 were Navy nurses” (Campbell 251-253). While these numbers are not as staggering as those of men that enlisted during the war, however, it proves that women were not insignificant on the warfront. The most noteworthy reason for women choosing to enlist were “patriotic and emotional reasons” (Campbell 254). They risked their lives, left their family and friends behind to serve their country and help end a war that tore them from safety and normalcy. Propaganda was also essential in their involvement, there are many posters and films geared towards enlisting these brave and fearless women to the war front. One example is a propaganda film titled, ‘I’m the Proudest Girl in the World,’ which is a Hollywood-esque musicale that gives further insight into the duties of women during the war (Roffman, Julian). This musicale number can be seen as glamorous and whimsical, in which in the women are presented as driven, eager, and pragmatic. The discrepancy lies within the comics, where women are depicted as weak and subservient, waiting to be saved from one man (the villain) by another (the hero). In reality, women went towards the danger alongside the men as real life heroines. Another propaganda piece is a poster titled, ‘The Spirit of Canada’s Women’, this poster depicts fierce women in uniforms whom are flagging a woman on a horse (Odell, Gordon K.). The woman on the horse is assumedly Joan of Arc. This furthers the idea that the women portrayed alongside her are equally as strong and brave. However, in the comics, when they try to portray strength or bravery, the villains easily force them to back down, either through physical or verbal abuse; enforcing the ideal that men are the dominants while women are the submissives as a reflection of the societal views of the era. The Canadian government would have been desperate and in need of additional support if they were advertising for the enlistment of women in the war, thus, the portrayals within the propaganda film and poster are purely circumstantial as it benefited what was necessary at the time. The contributions made by women both on the home front and the front lines were influential to the war effort, the stereotypical portrayals of them in the comics do them a great disservice. Furthermore, the sexual violence they were subjected to is not only a slight against their contributions but their humanity as well.
Sexual Violence During the War
Sexual violence against women is known to be a consequence of war. ‘A Dictionary of Gender’ defines violence against women as:
“‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’. Such violence is widespread in both the public and private sphere, and may take the form of domestic violence or rape in war’” (Griffin, Gabrielle).
Throughout the course of the war, women were subjected to sexual violence by American, Canadian, British, French, and Soviet soldiers alike. The exact amount of rapes is unknown but they could range from tens of thousands to millions, which were incited in no small part by a desire for revenge against the Germans for their assault of ‘non-Aryan’ women in the East (Matthews, Heidi). The idea itself of revenge by means of committing the same heinous acts perpetrated by the Germans gives strong insight into the value of women by men. Women, both in the comics and in the real world were merely token pieces used by men for their own convenience. In both ‘The Brain: the Scarlet Zombie’ and ‘Thunderfist’, the female characters are used by the villain for their own means. In ‘The Brain’, the woman is a source of information for the villain, when he does not get what he
desires, he throttles her in retaliation (Bachle 24). While in ‘Thunderfist’, the woman is used to both lure the superhero into the villain’s clutches but also to stop her from foiling his plans to blow up a ship harbour (Harn 58). In a way, the women pose a threat to the villains as they need the women to commit their evildoing, but without their cooperation, the villains resort to physically assaulting the women to elevate their role as the antagonist.
This does not justify the sexual violence experienced by women in reality, but only serves to make the depictions in the comics more problematic. In her dissertation, ‘Silenced Voices: Sexual Violence During and After World War II’, Cassidy Chiasson states: “…sexual violence should not be brushed off as a consequence of this type of war since it is a problem with long-lasting negative effects on its victims. Sexual violence appeared in many forms during World War II, not just as rape. Mass rape was a major problem, but women also fell victim to sexual violence because of complicated situations and circumstances they were placed in.” (Chiasson 1) This conclusion makes the violence illustrated in the comics insensitive, it trivializes their suffering for the sake of creating an entertaining storyline. Statistically, psychological symptoms are more severe and frequent in victims of sexually related violence in war in comparison to non-sexual violence in war: “Results of the current study revealed that rape survivors reported greater severity of avoidance and hyperarousal symptoms compared to survivors of other war-related traumas; these symptoms are between 0.29 – 0.41 higher for victims of sexually related assaults in comparison to other war related traumas.” (Kuwert et al., 1062) These statistics suggest that the comic creators are only mocking and devaluing the women who had become victims of sexual violence during the war. If they had any concern for women, they would have excluded it or allowed the women to save herself and exact revenge on the villain, but she remains in the clutches of the villain and her trauma until the hero rescues her.
The article, ‘A Content-Analysis of Race, Gender, and Class in American Comics’ discusses the concept of benevolent sexism and its relation to submissive women and violence in comics: Benevolent sexism refers to delegating women to roles that are stereotypical and confining. These roles insist that the women have the protection of men. Furthermore, portrayals of violence against women has declined in comics but the ideas of benevolent sexism and the ‘damsel in distress’ still remain ( ‘A Content-Analysis of Race, Gender, and Class in American Comics’). However, this is only done in an effort to evoke a reaction from the male hero as they hold a significant relationship with him as a love interest or a friend. In reality, circumstances forced women to learn agency and the find means to survive: untold numbers of women in the “German-occupied territories found themselves forced into survival prostitution. Due to the atrocious living conditions and strict legal regime, women and girls of all ethnicities resorted to this… They bartered sex for food, shelter, documents, and jobs,” (Jolluck 523). Thus, being in said state (at the ‘mercy’ of the villain) leaves the the female character no choice but to wait for the hero to come to save her as society typically has women in roles that do not allow them the agency to fend for themselves.
Similarly to reality of the war, the villains are violent towards the women in both comics in an effort to elicit feelings of degradation and submission from them. Chiasson illustrates again the widespread severity of the sexual violence in WWII, “One must understand that this type of sexual brutality and dominance over women occurred on almost every side, and was not limited to one or two militaries. For example, when the Germans entered the Soviet Union, they raped, pillaged, and acted with extreme brutality,” (Chiasson 1). By degrading and hurting the women that are valued by the male heroes, the villains are exacting revenge on the heroes. This is because during the era, a woman’s value was seen in relation to the value she had to a man, and this still occurs today. Based on the values of the era, in her helpless state, the woman is at her most useful state as she elevates the status of both men. She elevates the villain when he captures her because it serves to make him more dastardly. While, when she is saved by the hero, she glorifies his heroic stature. Sexual violence is not to be trivialized as the victims suffer from severe physical and psychological trauma. The violence within the comics display a lack of concern regarding how female readers would react to it while the violence during the war occurred simultaneously; women both fighting for their country and their lives.
The comics, ‘The Brain: The Scarlet Zombie’ and Thunderfist’ within the ninth issue of the Active Comics portray women being subjected to violence by the male villains. The female character in ‘The Brain: the Scarlet Zombie’ is physically assaulted by both the villain and his creation (Bachle 24). While, in ‘Thunderfist’, the woman is tied up to prevent her escape in the midst of doing her job as a reporter (Harn 58). These women are forced to become victims in these comics as the values of society in the era have bleed into these stories. Their contributions upheld the war yet they were undervalued and assaulted in both media depictions and real life as a result of normalization of said behaviour. In the 1940s, it is perpetuated, whether in reality or within a fictional story, a women’s value is tied to a man; based upon how she builds his masculinity. In truth, women are nothing less than the resilient, fierce, and exemplary individuals they strive to be in the face of adversity; whether it is it is in war or in everyday life.
Bachle, L. “The Brain: The Scarlet Zombie” Active Comics, no. 9, Bell Features, January, 1943, pp. 20-28. Canadian Whites Comic Collection, 19-41-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Bachle, L. Panel from “Thunderfist.” Active Comics, No. 9, January 1943, p. 58. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.
Campbell, D’Ann. “Servicewomen Of World War II” Armed Forces & Society, vol. 16, no. 2, Jan. 1990, pp. 251–70. Crossref, doi:10.1177/0095327X9001600205.
Chiasson, Cassidy L. Silenced Voices: Sexual Violence During and After World War II. University of Southern Mississippi, Aug. 2015.
Facciani, Matthew, et al. A Content-Analysis of Race, Gender, and Class in American Comic Books. Vol. 22, no. 3/4, 2015, pp. 216–26.
Griffin, Gabriele. “Violence against Women.” A Dictonary of Gender Studies, Oxford University Press, 2017, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780191834837.001.0001/acref-9780191834837-e-410.
Harn, M. “Thunderfist.” Active Comics, no. 9, Bell Features, January, 1943, pp. 54-63. Canadian Whites Comic Collection, 19-41-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Harn, M. Panel from “The Brain: The Scarlet Zombie.”Active Comics, No. 9, January 1943, p. 24. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.
Hawes, Stanley. Home Front. National Film Board of Canada, 1940. www.nfb.ca, https://www.nfb.ca/film/home_front/.
Jolluck, Katherine R. “Women in the Crosshairs: Violence Against Women during the Second World War.” Australian Journal of Politics & History, vol. 62, no. 4, Dec. 2016, pp. 514–28. onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca, doi:10.1111/ajph.12301.
Kuwert, Philipp, et al. “Long-Term Effects of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Compared with Non-Sexual War Trauma in Female World War II Survivors: A Matched Pairs Study.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 43, no. 6, Aug. 2014, pp. 1059–64. Link-springer- com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca, doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0272-8.
Matthews, Heidi. “Allied Soldiers — Including Canadians — Raped Thousands of German Women after Second World War: Research.” National Post, 8 May 2018, https://nationalpost.com/news/world/allied-soldiers-including-canadians-raped- thousands-of-german-women-after-second-world-war-research.
Odell, Gordon K. The Spirit of Canada’s Women. 1942, https://www.warmuseum.ca/collections/artifact/1027798/. Canadian War Museum Archives (online).
Roffman, Julian. ‘I’m the Proudest Girl in the World!’: A WWII Recruitment Film. 26 Feb. 1944, https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/im-the-proudest-girl-in-the-world.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.