ELAYNE RIGGS: The wounded animal
In the past week or so we’ve seen Toon-a-MILFs. We’ve observed Frank Miller seemingly becoming Dave Sim before our eyes (Val D’Orazio has a good play-by-play on that). We’ve had previews of covers for all-ages comics featuring tentacle porn. And of course we’ve been subjected to the infamous "comiquette" of MJ Watson looking as though she’s just waiting to be, um, MILFed by lonely fanboys, copious discussion of which has made it as far as the NY Post and Toronto Star, and which is still going strong in the cultural and feminist blogosphere (more about that later). Is it any wonder that this spring a young (and not-so-young) woman’s fancy turns to enraged frustration?
Sure, on the face of it, the subject matter of these fascinating and insightful discussions isn’t as life-and-death urgent as any number of real life atrocities happening to women around the world. (No culture warriors actually make that claim, by the way, contrary to implications by "concern trolls" that their priorities are skewed, as if one cannot simultaneously fight against sexism in both geopolitical and cultural venues.) But it’s reflective of an attitude by half the population towards the other half that may finally, bit by bit, be going the way of the dinosaur, and it’s worth examining.
It’s been my empirical experience that cultural leaps forward often come from a situation where it’s "darkest before the dawn." Sometimes the most egregious and outlandish examples of pop culture sexism occur at the point at which women are making significant strides in convincing the media corporations (now, with actual women employees!) to move beyond the boys’ club mentality. But this same point harbors much danger, like a wounded animal, as many men act from a misplaced sense of pride or fear and dig in their heels more stubbornly than before.
Many of the usual disarming tactics are losing their power of late, particularly with the advent of internet solidarity. Did you ever notice that whenever the question "what do women want?" comes up, it’s invariably asked by men? That’s not only because adages like "sex sells" were created with the male default in mind so nobody has to ask "what do men want?", but because women know — and can express clearly and plainly — that we’re actors in our own right, not a monolithic mass for whom one simple formula will solve everything. There’s no magic marketing strategy that will suddenly attract everyone with a double-x chromosome to superhero comics. There’s just common sense.
Readers want characters that reflect their ideals, not someone else’s. They want to see these characters be, just as they are, actors in their own stories, not acted-upon adjuncts or window dressing. They want parity, particularly in art. They want artists to put a little more thought into their work instead of falling back on cliches. Simply put, as Cheryl Lynn does, "No reader wants to be made to feel that he or she inherently less than a member of another group when he or she picks up a book to enjoy."
Some hints to artists on how to think outside of the box and better their own crafting in achieving the aforementioned parity: Don’t depict women going into battle without appropriate costumes when men are armored up. As mammaries are mostly fat, don’t draw disproportionate breasts on otherwise-thin women. For that matter, don’t always draw one body type for women. Stop "posing" female characters like they’re blow-up dolls and thinking that constitutes an "action shot" rather than a "money shot." Action shots have people doing things, not having things done to them or catering to the hetero male reader’s fantasy of things he’d like to do to the character. And "action" doesn’t always have to mean fighting.
Being a superhero ought to be about more than beating up on others (i.e., being a bully). It should include using amazing powers to aid those in need. Find dynamic ways of showing the best in superheroics, rather than the worst. Stuff like saving folks from fires or floods is plenty dramatic — but hey, it’s harder to draw than Muscleman A punching out Muscleman B. It requires thought, research, crafting. Some of us know the best artists around are more than up to the job, and we all benefit when their editors demand and reward such diligence.
Another favorite disarming tactic is "divide and conquer," and this is still pretty successful. Sometimes the frustration over the continuing negative depictions of fictional women does boil over into internicine disagreements even among feminists, and that’s certainly to be expected when debating the root causes of and possible solutions to fictional females getting dumped on and drooled over. Fans of superhero comics, no matter their gender, are no more a one-size-fits-all group than anyone else. Lots of personal factors and baggage go into how one consumes entertainment.
Still, common threads weave throughout and strengthen our tapestry. For all our comparatively minor debates, most of us are not falling into the "catfight" trap. The way we counter discussion is with more discussion. And boy howdy, there’s been plenty. For every guy who doesn’t quite get it, there’s a group of women willing to patiently explain things one more time.
This doesn’t just happen in the comics blogosphere, by the way; there’s a running gag among women in the liberal political blogosphere that, until very recently, just about every 90 days a different male blogger would come along along and ask, "Where are all the women bloggers?" without even bothering to look for any; the modern version is "Why aren’t there any A-list female bloggers?" which is kind of the equivalent of "Why aren’t there any female superstars in comics?"
Then of course the minute one points out how much money Rumiko Takahashi makes, or how well-known award winners like Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel are, the goalposts are moved and narrowed to "Oh, I meant in modern American superhero comics" as if comic shop sales somehow automatically eclipse New York Times bestseller lists. It’s a rigged game, and more and more women are opting simply not to play it — or to play on our terms and with a sense of humor:
Left, original playful Adam Hughes sketch; right, a real redhead does her laundry
I’m not going to reach any conclusions about women and the world of superhero comics that haven’t already been stated better elsewhere, so instead, here’s just a sampling of some of the amazing and intense and very worthwhile talk going on out there (you can find all of these and more linked to at When Fangirls Attack!). Be sure to read the entire posts (as well as the ones to which they link, if you have the time), not just the parts I’ve excerpted.
"As I’ve been hinting for a long time, the integration of women into the comics world (again) is easily the biggest sociological aspect of comics current rise to respectability. It may actually be the CAUSE of it. Comics regaining a bilateral appeal is a huge story, and any demographic shift in any sphere brings discomfort and border skirmishes… Before moving on, I need to point out that one of the reasons Johanna, Valerie and I are all so snarky and/or jaded is because we’ve been to the mountain. We’ve worked in the comics industry… the messages I received engendered in me a powerful need to help others by showing these message up for the ignorant, insecure messages they are." — Heidi MacDonald
"Despite the desperate pleas for a cease fire, the uproar over the Mary Jane statue really had nothing to do with the statue, per se, but rather is the end result of comics readers sense of unease over the mixed messages being sent by the comics industry, i.e. Marvel and DC over their continuing efforts to broaden their audience." — Heidi again
"…this was the point in the lifecycle of an outrage where the seed of disgust grows to bear the fruit of the intellect, and the sheer size of this outrage gave way to harvest of beautiful and thoughtful fan analysis that was sadly ignored by critics too willing to write the entire issue off as a woman thing, the fangirls flocking and frenzying around another cause, the Bacchanites losing their patience with Orpheus and tearing him to pieces over a refusal to cater to their fannish whims, ingrates who ignored all the beauty he was capable of in their insatiable bloodlust." — Lisa Fortuner
"You have been linked to the Anti-Comics-Feminist Bingo Card… Now you are confused. You made some arguments that seemed perfectly reasonable to you, but the critic or bingo player didn’t bother to engage with them. And now it turns out there’s a bingo card listing them. Why is that? Why won’t he or she discuss your points of disagreement? Because your critic or bingo player has seen those arguments before. They are, in fact, clichés, and most of them are easily rebutted.
Many of them are the province of trolls. Your feminist critic is likely heartily sick of saying the same things over and over and has given up on explaining the very basics to people in the interests of forging ahead into new territory. This is his/her prerogative, as it is not his/her role to educate you. The bingo card was originally created for the audience of those critics, as a point of black humour – look, we’ve heard these arguments so many times you can play bingo with them! – not as an educational tool. That’s why, though some of the arguments are instantly recognisable as idiotic by every person with intelligence and integrity, some of the squares cause confusion. They’re shorthand for situations the original audience is familiar with, but can be baffling for someone who genuinely wants to know why "But men are drawn unrealistically too!" is not a relevant rebuttal." — Karen Healey
"There is one reaction that will never stop making me laugh in genuine full-throated amusement. This reaction can be summed up as (paraphrased of course): ‘You’re damaging your cause! You all look like insane militant freaks! No one will ever take you seriously!’ I’m sure you’ve seen it. Do you know why this is so funny to me? Because I am a feminist. Come on, guys, do you seriously think the image of feminists as militant, psychotic man-haters is NEW? That caricature dates back at least to the seventies, with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Roe v. Wade. Hell, go back further and see the kind of shit they used to say about Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the suffragettes. It’s the same old story. Men and women who don’t understand what feminists are fighting for embracing a terrified mental picture of ogreish man-women praying to the bible of Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto every night while plotting the mass-castration of all of the men on the planet." — Melissa Krause
"What you’re seeing isn’t negativity, it’s disgust and frustration. Allow people to own that without whining because it makes you defensive… It’s not just about women wanting to read superheroes and having superheroes they can relate to.. it’s about not seeing one’s gender devalued over and over and… over again in a medium and genre they enjoy. NOW do you get it, people? Devalued. Reduced. Like how you feel when someone sneers at your maquettes or says, ‘That all looks like porn," or "Aren’t comics for kids?’ or ‘All comics store owners are like the comic shop guy on the Simpsons.’" — Lea Hernandez
"I do not think that having a daughter automatically makes a man a supporter of women, or even sympathetic to women’s issues. In fact, I have to watch myself, to keep myself from suspecting that having a daughter does not make a father into one more oppressor, particularly when he does not make an extra effort to present female-positive artists and writers in his magazines, and female-positive characters in those same magazines. When he continually oversees the same-old-same-old cheesecake images, the same-old depowering abuse/rape/torture scenarios for female ‘heroes’ and characters, and continues to concentrate on hiring and showcasing male talent, it makes me doubt his words about his daughter having a fair shot at any career. It makes me wonder just which doors he wants to have open for his daughter, for any man to have open for his girl children. Luckily I know plenty of men out there who find out what their girls are up against and have their consciousnesses abruptly raised. Nothing is too good for their little girls, and that includes opportunities and salaries." — Tamora Pierce
"It’s safe to say that I’ve snapped. That something broke, like one of those robots you can conquer with a logical conundrum. All my life I’ve looked at this faulty equation, trying to understand, and I’ve shorted out. I don’t pretend to be a great guy; I know really really well about objectification, trust me. And I’m not for a second going down the ‘women are saints’ route — that just leads to more stone-throwing (and occasional Joan-burning). I just think there is the staggering imbalance in the world that we all just take for granted. If we were all told the sky was evil, or at best a little embarrassing, and we ought not look at it, wouldn’t that tradition eventually fall apart?" — Joss Whedon
Like I said, all that’s just from the past week, and it’s a miniscule panorama at best. It’s positively energizing to see this much constructive discussion and debate (and yes, disagreement) amongst comics fandom, and I have a feeling it’s only just begun. So just a bit of advice to those who really don’t need it — beware that wounded animal, its tail can have quite the backlash.
Elayne Riggs, ComicMix‘s news editor, wonders if anyone noticed that every story she wrote here on Monday had to do with women. Speaking of which, it’s 23 May, the goddess Eris’ most holy day, so All Hail Discordia! As Kerry Thornley so wisely observed, Elayne "was just some broad with a funny bone until she read the Principia and asked the question that led to my great definition of theology. ‘Why,’ she wanted to know, ‘is the Discordian Society, which worships a female divinity, so male dominated?’ Recalling that more women than men are devout about Christianity with its male God and His male Son, I decided that people like religions that blame reality on the opposite sex. So let that be a lesson to us males. Behind every great idea there is a broad with a funny bone."