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Page last updated at 12:58 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

The sexual revolution... in cartoon form

From left: Lara Croft, Wonder Woman, Betty Boop and Tank Girl

Seventy-five years before the Spice Girls coined the term girl power, Betty Boop struck a blow for just such a cause. Ever since, cartoons and animations have challenged our traditional perceptions of femininity, says Stephen Garner.

From Betty Boop to Lara Croft - every generation alive today has grown up with subversive animated female characters and comic book heroines.

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Many of these creations, often idealised and oversexed, have challenged stereotypes of how "good girls" should look and behave and have proved an important and useful catalyst effecting change in women's battle for equal rights.

Over the years artists have created strong assertive women that have appealed to both sexes.

Jessica Rabbit
With a figure that stopped traffic, Rabbit won a legion of male fans (PIC: DISNEY)

Frequently topping the polls as the greatest female cartoon character and celebrating her 20th anniversary this year is Jessica Rabbit, the animated femme fatale of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, who risks all to help her man. Rabbit was about as sexy as a cartoon character could be, but a look at some of her predecessors and their trademark devices shows that every creation had their own unique appeal.


Betty Boop was the first character in animation history to fully represent a sexual woman. She regularly wore short dresses, high heels and a garter belt and was an object of affection for many men.

Betty Boop
Betty Boop had censors scratching their heads in frustration

Created by Grim Natwick for the Fleischer Studios, Betty Boop's effortless style, wide-eyed innocence and charm took the world by storm.

But her cartoons were often considered to be risqué and very heavy on sexual innuendo and towards the end of 1933, animators had to tone down the appearance.

She was reinvented as a husbandless housewife wearing a full dress. Much to the public's disapproval the famous Betty Boop garter had disappeared, although it has since become a very popular fashion accessory.


No girl was loved more fanatically or unrequitedly by the British troops during World War II than Jane, of the Daily Mirror.

Her unexpurgated adventures saw her accidentally lose most of her clothes much of the time, and when she wasn't on a mission she would often strip off for a swim or a bath.

She earned the title of the first British pin-up and by raising troops' morale she was "worth two armoured divisions to us. Three if she lost her bra and pants". The frequency with which she lost either or both must have troubled the enemy.


In the late 1930s, the dominant genre in American comic superheroes was male. That all changed in 1941 when a character reversed the trend in amazing fashion. Armed with a costume resembling the United States flag and wielding a magical lasso, Wonder Woman was born.

Wonder Woman
Critics said a bondage subtext made the character unsuitable for children

This female riposte to the triumph of Superman was designed purposely with girls in mind and embodied feminist politics in a way that was unprecedented.

Created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman's storylines included scenes of bondage involving the lasso, whips, chains and manacles.

In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, Marston wrote that this was "a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman".

Wonder Woman's "lasso of truth" is usually referred to as the magic lasso or golden lasso and forces anyone it captures to obey and tell the truth. Its sometimes been interpreted as a symbol of bondage and discipline.


Minnie the Minx is a rough, tough, cartoon character in the long-running Beano comic who is always carrying out pranks, particularly with her catapult.

At the outset her creator Leo Baxendale characterised Minnie not so much as a female Dennis the Menace but as "an Amazonian warrior" who specialised in beating up boys - often dozens at a time! Mischievous and impudent, she is not - as her nickname implies - flirtatious.

Paul Gravett, author of Great British Comics, acknowledges her influence on women in the 1950s and 60s.

"As a figure of anarchy and individualism Minnie did inspire many women. Feminists were given a lot of encouragement to be free of male subordination and of course Beryl the Peril is another example of that."


Modesty Blaise was an extraordinary young woman with many skills and a criminal past. Her adventures, appearing in the London Evening Standard courtesy of Peter O'Donnell, are regarded as being among the classics of comic book fiction.

"The Nailer" involved her stripping to the waist and entering a room full of bad guys so the sight would paralyse them for a few seconds, long enough for her crime-fighting partner Willie Garvin to come in through the back door and take some of them out with his knives.


"Do you fancy some more chips before the bus comes …I'm starvin'."

Created by Graham Dury, the Fat Slags were featured in alternative British comic Viz.

The eponymous and enormous "slags" San and Tray's dual purpose in life was to eat as much as possible (mostly chips) while also having vast amounts of casual sex.

When Viz became more popular, the Fat Slags became the subject of Guardian letters and discussions about sexual politics.

"Tracey and Sandra are a product of the neglected issues in Britain today, and so far from having a rude immature sense of humour, the cartoonist is perhaps being observational," wrote A Level student Rachel Spence in a media studies paper.


Accompanied by her faithful kangaroo Booga and her various cohorts, Tank Girl partied, plundered, rioted, and stuck two fingers up at the establishment.

Tank Girl
Tank Girl, as featured in The Cream of Tank Girl, by Titan Books

The tank she drives is also her home. When first introduced she undertook missions for a nebulous organisation, but after a series of mistakes was declared an outlaw.

Tank Girl is not your average heroine. She is a tough, no-nonsense, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, shaven-headed feisty character. However her attitude is all part of her appeal and charm and today she is recognised as a lesbian icon.

The strip was initially set in a stylised post-apocalyptic Australia and her creators Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin described her as "Mad Max designed by Vivienne Westwood". The comic's style was heavily influenced by punk visual art.


Lara Croft is the protagonist of Eidos Interactive's Tomb Raider video game series. Designed by Toby Gard she was awarded a Guinness World Record in recognition of being the "most successful human video game heroine".

Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft
Angelina Jolie heightened Croft's appeal

Lara is a gorgeous, clever, athletic, and somewhat irresponsible Englishwoman of noble birth who travels the world in pursuit of priceless artefacts.

Similar in style to Indiana Jones, Lara Croft frequently ventures into ancient, and often very dangerous, tombs and ruins. In addition to traps and puzzles, Lara encounters a variety of enemies including gangsters, legendary creatures and supernatural beings.

Lara's matching handguns are used, much like Indiana Jones and his whip, as both a means of defence and as a tool of tomb raiding. In every computer game, her handguns have unlimited ammunition.


In the computer-generated film movie Shrek, Princess Fiona turns the conventional princess character on its head.

And although she belches, is a bit bolshie, and can handle herself in a fight, she exerts a certain sex appeal which continues even after she changes into an ogre - perfectly underlining how attitudes have changed towards women in the 21st Century.

Below is a selection of your comments.

So, what this indicates is that our perception of women is not based on reality, but on drawings that portray women as something they are not. No doubt we have made some great decisions on that basis. The good news is that, despite the daft pictures, real women are still real women.
Rachel, Nottingham, UK

Of course these are all great examples, but the rock magazine Kerrang! has also had a female cartoon icon for about 22 years. Pandora has been kicking it with the stars of the rock world since the mid to late 1980s first in the guise of Pandora and then in the guise of her niece who goes by the same name. She is cool, hangs out with bands and generally holds her own in a male-dominated industry.
Sarah, Winchester, England

I'm finding it hard to see how something can be both oversexed and subversive. So female characters were drawn to have large breasts and their crime fighting tools are actually about bondage... No, not really subversive at all. Only Minnie the Minx and possibly Tank Girl deserves that title. The rest is just male fantasy.
Ishfet, London, UK

Women are still sexualised and eroticised in the media, and claims that attitudes have changed with the example of an ogre character is missing the point. Princess Fiona may be tough but she is an ogre and this represents a fear of strong women. Additionally, I do not believe there is a cult following at all which suggests she has sex appeal. In the media, particularly films and advertising, placing the female as an object to look at is still a powerful selling point. Video game females have maintained their sexy appearance, as have many films. The beauty of the female body is by no means something that should be shamed, but I believe it is incorrect to say there has been a change in how female sexuality is perceived. It is still about desire and fear, passivity and control.
Lu, Taunton

There is a glaring omission here - Joss Wheedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A young and petite teenage girl with the power to fight demons and vampires and guard a Hellmouth, a sole duty given by gods on a long line of slayers of which all are young girls. Joss Wheedon's brilliant imagination and ability to wind the stories into real history made it even more compelling.
Emma, Talke, Staffs

There have always been strong women from Boudecia to Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I and Florence Nightingale who have challenged the establishment and been real life legends in their lifetime as well as in ours. The change is not so much in having iconic female characters, as in having more women in more mundane roles, coping with the daily hard graft of life outside the home (oh, and for most of them steal dealing with it inside the home in their spare time).
Simon Martin, London

I quite like almost all the characters mentioned here but, come on! Excluding perhaps Minnie the Minx and Tank Girl, all the others were pretty much created for men, by men, and do nothing to help the long-established cliche that if you're not a "good girl" then you're either a foxy, over-sexualised vixen, or a slag. "Challenged stereotypes"? I don't think so.
Brrrr Power, London

This article is brilliant. I'm female and very independent, strong minded, focused, opinionated at that. These characters are a credit to our gender.
Annie-Louise Town, Bordon

When I was a small child - all round-faced with dark curly hair - many people said that I looked like Betty Boop. This became my nickname which my parents have continued to call me to this day. It is a moniker of which I have always been immensely (and I think justifiably) proud.
Lucia, Horsham

Harley Quinn, the Jokers girlfriend from Batman is definitely my favourite female villain. She was quirky and loved causing trouble.
Kristy Edwards, Cardiff

"And although she belches, is a bit bolshie, and can handle herself in a fight" - that's not the 21st Century, that's the Wife Of Bath!
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade, UK

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