Sex positivity isn’t always an easy thing to find in media. From the femme fatales of old to the seductive-yet-evil of vampires of literature to the victims of the final girl trope and beyond, our art has sent a pretty consistent message over centuries: Sexiness can sure be hazardous. This isn’t exactly terrible advice to keep in mind, but it takes things to a bit of an extreme that our society has had a pretty difficult time finding its way back from.
This is certainly true in the realm of comics. Plenty of “dangerously sexy” femme fatales exist in graphic novels, like Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and Amora the Enchantress. While thankfully these characters have been more fleshed out as time went on, that doesn’t change that there’s a certain level of villainization for sexy women in media that extends to the real world. This is nowhere more glaringly obvious than when a “good girl goes bad” in the funny books, and characters like Jean Grey and Sue Storm find themselves suddenly sexier… and eviler.
Sue Storm & Malice
Commentary around the sexist portrayals of Sue Storm has existed almost since she very first appeared on the page. Stan Lee’s dialogue in early Fantastic Four comics didn’t do her any favors. Though he did defend her presence on the team right in the letters column of the book when many several readers wrote in complaining about her “uselessness,” that didn’t change the fact that she was often written more as an accessory to Reed than a teammate in her own right. There have been countless attempts, almost exclusively by male writers, to modernize Sue, but more often than not, her stories today aren’t so different than they were in the mid-’60s.
Sue herself rarely has expressed anger over this, which is why her merge with the disembodied spirit of malice known as… well, Malice, remains one of her more bizarre subplots. The villain Hate-Monger infiltrated New York City, causing an inordinate amount of aggression on the streets. Fights broke out left and right, and the Fantastic Four struggled to understand the cause. Meanwhile, Sue Storm essentially faded into the background only to reappear as the leather-clad, spike-wearing Malice, apparently the embodiment of her dark side.
The fact that Sue’s dark side is basically just a leather dominatrix is a wild thing to consider, but that’s not even the end of the story. She calls Reed out for treating her like she’s useless, and his response is to yell insults at her and slap her in the face until she collapses from emotional stress and goes “back to normal.” This is where you start to get the feeling that Malice pretty much exists because of Reed.
Later, Malice returns, and she and Sue fight it out on the psychic plane. Sue believes that she’s beaten Malice by absorbing her back into herself, but it is later discovered that Malice is not made of Sue’s bad thoughts but rather a separate entity entirely, and by merging with her Sue has only given Malice what she wanted to begin with. Sue begins acting more aggressively, taking control in stressful situations, taking a pair of scissors to her Fantastic Four costume, knocking Hulk across the room when he condescends to her, and telling Reed off for being a jerk. This is all awesome, so it’s pretty obnoxious that it all gets explained away as being “not Sue.” The story kind of flies off the rails and she ends up battling her son from the future in her mind and things like that, but truth be told, Malice-possessed Sue was pretty rad.
Jean Grey & Madelyne Pryor
Jean Grey’s transition into the Dark Phoenix had a lot of evil/sexy overtones on its own. She was compelled to the dark side by a handsome man who promised to fulfill her every desire after spending most of her life to that point with her high school sweetheart, Scott Summers. Sexual repression in the Grey/Summers relationship would gain more traction as a plot device years later as they both found themselves with sexier, more dangerous partners, but even in the early days, it was present in their dynamic. The tactics Jason Wyngarde used on Jean that helped create the Dark Phoenix certainly lacked any trace of true consent on Jean’s part, but the story as it stands showed us that it opened a hunger in her that could not be denied.
Years later, when Jean returned to life after being hidden in a cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay for years (long story), Cyclops was married to a Jean look-alike named Madelyne Pryor. Madelyne was a pilot, but overall simply wanted a quiet life with Scott and their son, Nate. When Scott heard that Jean was alive, he coldly walked right out on Madelyne and their child and proceeded to have a complete nervous breakdown over the first 20 or so issues of X-Factor.
Meanwhile, Madelyne was left alone, and when Mister Sinister’s Marauders came for her, she barely survived. Reuniting with the other X-Men, Madelyne rapidly descended into anger and grief over her failed marriage and profound jealousy over Jean Grey, who she soon realized she had been cloned from. Madelyne made a pact with demons, starting sporting a sexy outfit much like Sue Storm had done, and began a whole affair with her husband’s brother. This didn’t go great, but honestly, good for her.
These are far from the only “good-girl-gone-bad” tropes in comics, but there is still something to be said for the fact that, for these two characters, “going bad” generally meant following their own desires and standing up for themselves for the first time in their lives. Both are women whose partners took them for granted, and both were left with no outlet to express themselves through. Besides that, their sudden embrace of sexuality could have really worked for them under different circumstances.
Sometimes, it would be nice to see female characters in comics who endure bad relationships for years ultimately retaliate and change their lifestyles without flying over the edge into depravity and murder. With Madelyne Pryor’s recent return to the comics, Jean Grey’s relationship with Wolverine, and Sue Storm taking a more prominent role in Fantastic Four, maybe we’re not as far away from that reality as we think.