The Dancing Bear Expose, by Elayne Riggs
Have you heard of the proverbial dancing bear? It’s apparently a Russian expression, which has its origin in some folk tale or other, and holds that the amazing thing about the performing animal isn’t how well it dances, but that it dances at all. This metaphor (sometimes substituting "dog" for "bear" after the Samuel Johnson quote comparing a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs) became very popular in the heyday of "second-wave" feminism, whenever some consciousness-raising battle appeared won and another hurdle reared up in its place, when the very act of being female and expecting to be treated as human beings at the same time felt Sisyphusean in its difficulties. Sadly, the bear is still rearing its head, howling, dancing backwards and in high heels.
It doesn’t matter what the endeavor, career or hobby. Whether Presidential candidate or comic book writer or movie subject matter or just-plain blogger, a spate of "dancing bear" articles that appears like clockwork in the mainstream news, every few months or years, mining the same territory that comes down to "Look, women are doing things!" As if we need to be reminded we exist. It’s not how well the bear is dancing, it’s that it’s doing it at all! A fellow blogger once remarked that she could practically tell the changing of the seasons by how often she came across male bloggers wanting to know where all the female bloggers were, as a different male blogger posted this in almost exact 90-day increments.
Likewise, now that Gail Simone is writing Wonder Woman, DC’s longest-running, highest- profile book featuring a female character, we’re starting to see features pop up in all sorts of magazines pointing to the dancing bears again. "Pow! Zap! Women can write and draw!" And imagine, we can breathe and think as well!
This is what’s known as "one step forward, two steps back." On the surface one supposes it’s a fine thing for the corporate male-centric media (given that most corporations are run by men) to raise periodic discussion about the institutionalized roadblocks preventing women from achieving parity and equality with men. But of course that’s not what they do. They reinforce the idea of women as objects whilst pretending (to both their readers and themselves) that those same women are subjects. The vast majority of these items are written in a "You’ve come a long way, baby!" style of celebrating these women’s achievements by patting them on the heads with congratulatory paragraphs, the literary equivalent of putting them on pedestals so the men can look up their dresses. A few features, mostly those written by women, have delved into why it is that women are still considered the adjuncts, the auxiliaries, the afterthoughts. But there never seems to be any follow-up wondering what the next steps are after these supposedly insurmountable hurdles have been jumped. And sure enough another spate of articles with the exact same theme appears after a sufficient period of time so that readers have forgotten the last slew, trumpeting, "Look what women are doing! Things they’ve never done before! Except the last time they did them!" And it’s all "Look at them," implying the male gaze acting upon the female object. Women don’t even count as owning our own gaze; we’re there for men to look at, even when we’re achieving the heights that simply count as men’s everyday due.
The reasons these questions crop up over and over, reinventing the wheel, go beyond readers’ short attention spans and papers’ desire to make money from implied sensationalism. (A dancing bear is nothing if not sensational!) One of them is to subtly create the depressing impression that, no matter how close we may seem to parity with our male colleagues, women will never fully be depicted as equal, so perhaps it’s hardly worth trying. Another is that, in even the most amateur of debates about the role of women in a male-dominated world, the goalposts keep moving. Take the oft-heard question "Where are all the women in comics?" I got so tired of hearing this that, when I was on the Friends of Lulu national board, I co-created and maintained a list of Women Doing Comics which anyone who asked that question could easily access, in the vain hope that the question itself would then disappear. Because, lo and behold, once we tell the men where we are, the question morphs. Witness how Tom Spurgeon phrases it in his interview with Val D’Orazio: "why hasn’t there been a major-major female comic book creator in North American comics?"
Look at those qualifiers. How the heck do you define "major-major"? Why does it need to be "North American comics"? (Because that immediately eliminates actually famous female comic book creators like Rumiko Takahashi and Marjane Satrapi, whose names may be better known by many around the world than even folks like Stan Lee?) To Val’s credit, she disagrees with Spurgeon’s premise right off the bat, which is exactly how we need to respond to this game — by not playing it. Not only is the playing field not level, the rulebooks and referees are all stacked against us to begin with. It’s Calvinball, and we’re supporting character Susie Derkins. The adjunct. The afterthought. But hey, every bit as important as the protagonist for whom the strip is named, wink wink!
It’s bad enough when one comes across this pattern over and over again in culture. When it infects politics, it theatens to impact our lives much more deeply. While many other countries have had female leaders for decades, , US newspapers still breathlessly ask, "Are we ready for a female president?" To paraphrase Peter Stone’s 1776, "Hell, we’re practically rotting for want of one!" But what we get instead is a cable news network seemingly dedicated to disparaging Hillary Clinton at every opportunity. The latest flap at this network involved a regular correspondent opining that Clinton is "pimping out" daughter Chelsea to make campaign calls. As Amanda Marcotte notes, it’s not the word "pimp" that makes this attitude so reprehensible. After all, as any Grammy winners will tell you, it’s hard out there for a pimp. No, as Amanda explains, "the pimping comment is also part of a larger Village narrative about how the Clintons and only the Clintons are treated as sleazy for standard issue politician behavior. There’s a double standard on women, but also on the Clintons, who are treated as interlopers. For lack of a better term, the Clintons have been bombarded from day one with the nouveau riche slam, the deeply held belief in The Village that certain behaviors (including all standard campaign behaviors) are only permissible to those deemed insiders, which the Clintons still aren’t in the eyes of the mainstream media. In other words, what I got from the pimping comment was 50% ‘how dare a mother?’ and 50% ‘how dare the Clintons act like they’re one of us?’" In this case, "the Village" is liberal blogger shorthand for the Beltway (Washington DC area) political pundit class, of which cable news network personalities play an increasingly larger part.
There are more overt signs of anti-woman hatred showing itself against Clinton’s campaign, from the nutcracker "gag gift" to the moronic acronym behind "Citizens United Not Timid". (It’s revolting what Googling "Hillary" and the "c" word will get you.) Those are almost easier to fight, they’re so obviously the work of very scared and crude little boys (and their girl enablers) afraid of losing even a teensy ounce of the vast societal power they now wield. It’s the stuff that seems passable on the outside, but actually pushes the message of perpetual inequality, that’s harder to pin down.
Adalisa Zarate gives a great example of this in discussing the differences of opinion about Stephanie Brown, how dismissive some male comic book pundits were over Girl Wonder’s efforts to recognize the "fourth Robin," and the general derision directed against GW when a crumb was thrown to them, in the form of a Grant Morrison-written dream sequence in which her costume was shown in a Batcave memorial. Just as deeper analysis of "what they really mean by that" is sometimes needed with the dancing bear news items, Zarate patiently explains that the Girl Wonder campaign was about more than Brown: "I realize that the problem is quite similar to the other problem we usually argue with the good old boy’s club. All women look the same. All comic book women must be a certain shape, and dressed in a certain way. All feminists must be of one mind, and look roughly the same, despite evidence to the contrary. Which is one of the reasons why we keep arguing about that. Maybe if they realize that not all 2d women are exactly the same, they’ll realize that not all 3d women are the same either."
Is a deep-seated self-loathing behind the impetus to "Yes, but" women onto hamster wheels where we must run to stay in place (i.e., in the media’s sights) no matter how much success we’ve achieved? Where we must endure with a tense smile those "lie back and enjoy it" jokes designed to assert the superior sense of humor possessed by those cracking wise at our expense? If so, it’s likely unconscious; some of my best friends leer at calendar girls, and I don’t necessarily consider them emotionally stunted for doing so. Some reactions are hard-wired.
On the other hand, if they’re only hard-wired into half the population, shouldn’t the more enlightened course of action be not to display such impulses so enthusiastically with the half of the population against whom they’re designed? Well, only if one considers that other half to be full persons deserving of the same respect one allots for oneself. (Personhood is still pretty narrowly defined in other venues, as evinced by the "’Everybody’ meaning you?" punchline in the Cartoonists of Color comic strip demonstration last Sunday.) And as long as one half keeps looking at the other as, well, The Other, that doesn’t seem likely to happen. A resolution is even further away when one considers the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario of the Reaction to the Reaction. If we don’t speak up when the dancing bear makes its next appearance, it’ll keep happening. If we do, the story immediately becomes about our (over)reaction rather than what prompted it.
So, how to combat the dancing bear mentality? Well, I like to fight pithy line with pithy line. My antidote for this one comes from Paul Simon, and it goes, "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all." The more successful we are at suggesting that boys (and some girls) can throw off the high school mentality and still lead fun and interesting lives, the sooner we’ll all be better able to think. And maybe then the news features will be about the kinds of things we all think up, rather than that we can think at all.
Elayne Riggs can be found blogging about politics, comics and whatever else strikes her fancy at Pen-Elayne on the Web. She misses Steve Gerber exceedingly.