The Mamafesto: Popular comic books send dangerous messages for our kids

Sep 21, 2015 at 3:30 p.m. ET

My almost-9-year-old has fallen in love with comic books, and I really want to support him in it. But can I get over my own distaste for the inherent sexism found in most comics to do so?

It took my son a little while to become a reader. He struggled a bit at the beginning, and because it didn't come easily for him, he didn't find joy in sitting down with a book for a while. Then he discovered the Captain Underpants series, which led him into the world of graphic novels and comics, where he has happily found his genre that allows him to spend countless hours sprawled out, reading to his heart's content.

And I want to support this, I so do. Anything that gets kids interested in reading has to be good, right? But then my son comes to me one night and asks, "Why is Harley Quinn drawn with such big boobs?" Because he's a kid, and they're observant, he notices that one of the Batman villains is drawn in such a way that you can't escape the fact that she has a large chest that is only amplified by her low-cut and tight tops.

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A million answers ran through my mind. Because sex sells. Because for a long time only men drew these comic books and catered to other men. Because many people think a woman's role is to look good and that's about it.

Instead, I tossed the question back at him. He was stumped. He also wondered if her large chest and the clothes she wears prevents her from doing all the same awesome kicks and fighting the other guys get to do.

But it's just a comic book, you say — what's the harm? Sure, it's just a comic book. But really, it's more than that. It's a piece of a larger issue when it comes to the media our children consume. It's one more piece of the puzzle that builds up expectations of who men and women supposedly should be (that is, women have a lot of emphasis placed on their bodies and looks, while with men, it's all about skills and creativity). These messages sink in. Slowly, subtly at first, but they eventually permeate the surface, and if children aren't given space or the opportunity to process and pick these things apart (along with some media literacy), then they will just accept it as reality.

So what can we do? Some folks, like The Hawkeye Initiative, have even gone as far as to show how ridiculous sexism can be in comic books by showing what superheroes would look like if they were portrayed the way women are. But that's not enough. Fortunately my son opened the door to having discussions about this with his question, and we'll continue to have them as his intake of comics continues.

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Parents can also supplement favorites from the Marvel Universe with other comics and graphic novels that are less sexist and able to portray women in a better light. I reached out to some friends who either have a deep love for or work on comic books (the two groups are pretty much the same) for some suggestions:

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