As a teenage girl and comic book geek, I was so excited when I heard that Marvel’s new Iron Man character would be a 15-year-old African American girl.
Then I saw the first cover.
The new Iron Man, Riri Adams, is a 15-year-old, African American, math and science prodigy attending MIT while building some pretty sick robot suits. Everything in that description breaks long-held cultural stereotypes and should provide young women of all races with an aspirational role model.
The character is also very personal to me. While I am not African American, and I don’t consider myself a prodigy, I do have a lot in common with Riri. I am a 15-year-old girl about to attend my first year of college studying computer technology.
In addition to building robots for national competitions, I also work part-time writing and testing code for a robotics start-up. However, despite the image you probably have in your head right now, I’m not a nerdy-looking, awkward kid who drinks Doritos through a straw (although there’s nothing wrong with that!). But I also don’t look like Riri. In fact, very few 15-year-old girls look like Riri and that gets to my problems with the new Iron Man cover.
Instead of focusing on Riri’s genius and strength, Marvel put the focus on her body. At 15 she is still a child, and a sexy image like this is potentially harmful to millions of young teen girls already dealing with body issues.
I understand realism is not the point of a comic book, but if their goal was to create a character who girls can relate to and one day aspire to become, they dangerously missed the mark.
Teenagers have always played an important role in superhero comics. However, they are usually boys that no artist would dare sexualize. Just take a look at one of the most beloved teenage superheroes of all time: Spider-Man.
Comparing covers featuring Peter Parker and Riri Adams, we see drastically different images.
Bear in mind, these two characters are supposed to be the same age. But while Peter is immediately seen as joyful, goofy and freewheeling, Riri’s cover simply reflects that she is hot. The message is clear: despite her genius, she will be known for her body.
Yes, there are some 15-year-olds who dress in crop tops and, yes, there are some 15-year-old girls who develop faster or wear lots of makeup. That’s every girl’s choice, and every woman should be free to dress and act however she wants. However, the comic book medium has a notoriously terrible history of objectifying women with revealing costumes and sexual poses. So when Riri is drawn (by men, it should be noted) in this exact same manner, it doesn’t come across as a powerful statement about body positivity or female empowerment. It’s just one more example of a man drawing a hyper-sexualized female character for men to enjoy.
I truly believed Marvel was leaving the old chauvinistic attitude of comics and entering into an age of female empowerment, and I want to believe that they truly do want to reach fans like me. But with this depiction of Riri, they are objectifying not only a woman but also a child. They are setting the very same standards for young girls’ appearance that society has unfairly placed on women for centuries.
Much of the beauty in comic books is the way they allow us to take someone ordinary and make them extraordinary. Our neighbor could be the one who saved the planet from a huge comet. The lady running the cash register could have saved our city from aliens. The guy who cut us off this morning could have been in a rush to get to the Hydra base in time to stop their new “world cleansing” machine. A nerdy boy who loves science can become Spider-Man. Who are we to limit who gets to be part of that fantasy?
There is still time for Marvel to fix this. The stories told through Riri and her future covers could serve her well by focusing on the qualities that matter. My hope for Marvel’s future is for them to open that same opportunity to everyone, not just hot, skinny women and white men. Everyone should have the opportunity to see a better world, especially in such times of chaos.