Roxane Gay’s new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is a knock-out of a book. It kept me glued to my couch for a long weekend. I finished reading it about ten days ago, and I cannot stop thinking about it.
Does it have anything to do with comics? Well, Gay wrote a mini-series for Marvel. Beyond that, if you want to know more, you’ll have to keep reading.
In addition to being an accomplished author and journalist, Roxane Gay is, in her own words, a morbidly obese woman of color. Hunger is about what happened to her, how she got this way, and what it’s like to live the way she lives. It’s incredibly honest, so much so that I couldn’t look away, even as I squirmed in recognition.
I am not morbidly obese. Sure, I could drop twenty or thirty pounds to look more like the mannequins in the department stores, but I can pass. I am not a woman of color. As a Jew, my people have a history of persecution, but I can pass. Unlike Gay, I was not gang-raped when I was twelve years old. Because I have these privileges, I could sneer at her with my societally-approved advantages, but I can’t. I feel my own version of what she feels, and I went through my own version of what she went through.
Gay started to overeat because she wanted to make herself unattractive to men so she wouldn’t get attacked again. She knew that a woman who is overweight is considered to be ugly – and an ugly woman is invisible. By building a wall around herself, she would be safe.
Her descriptions of her experiences are harrowing. Strangers in the supermarket take away food from her shopping cart. People complain to airlines about having to sit next to her, even if she pays for two seats. Instead of taking her ideas seriously, critics comment on her looks. Everything about her life, good or bad, is dismissed by those who only see her size.
And then there are the people who think they are helping her. The people who tell her that maybe she doesn’t really want dessert. The people who suggest exercise. I can assure you that every woman in Western society who is larger than a Size 0 knows about diet and exercise.
Still, reading about her pain, the Jewish mother in me did want to lean in and offer Gay some advice. She talks about regularly starting (and giving up on) a diet-and-exercise plan, and my first suggestion is to uncouple those two things. Various eating systems have made me feel variously better and worse, but if I didn’t exercise, I would go mad. I don’t do work because I expect it to make me a fashion model or an Olympic athlete but because it keeps me sane. Working up a sweat on a regular basis burns up a lot of my hostility. My resting pulse is 48. I can’t claim I’m never angry or never hating, but it doesn’t burn me up inside.
Except I know that she is a different person than I am, and what works for me as a coping system might not work for her. I’ll try to shut up about that now.
Women obsess about our appearances because society consistently tells us that it is our most important duty. My mother used to beg me to lose weight, starting when I was twelve (5’ 3” and 113 pounds), telling me that “boys don’t like fat girls.” Even now, at 64 years of age, when I know that my life is about more than boys liking me, those thoughts won’t go away.
My mom (and Roxane’s) were only trying to teach their daughters how to get ahead. To succeed, we were told, a woman must be thin and fit and beautiful. That was difficult enough. Today, when society pays at least lip service to the idea of diversity, we are supposed to be not only thin and fit and beautiful but also, if we are not, to pretend that it doesn’t matter (even though it does).
It gets even more difficult at menopause. Not only can we no longer bear children, the only true purpose for the female life, and the reason we must be attractive to men, but biology conspires to make us more fat.
We can’t win.
I would like to be like Faith, the Valiant superhero who is large. She wears a skin-tight white costume that does nothing to conceal her size. She is strong and she can fly and she has an interesting life and, in her current incarnation, spends no time at all thinking about her looks or what she eats or how many calories she burns off.
Sure, she also catches bad guys and saves the world, but that’s not why she’s my hero.
We talk about diversity a lot here at ComicMix, partly because it is often in the news, but mostly because it’s an interesting topic. Comics, like most popular entertainment, have generally been most lucrative for straight cis white men, but changes in demographics and delivery have made that less true in recent years. There are now visibly queer, non-binary people of different colors who are also expressing themselves in our medium, sometimes in ways that earn them money.
So I’d like to talk about diversity this week, but not in terms of the politics or the morality. I’m in favor of discussing politics and morality, but that’s not what’s interesting to me right this second. At the moment, I’d like to talk about diversity in terms of capitalism.
In other words, when we acknowledge that our society has many different facets and sub-cultures, we can fine-tune our marketing strategies to make even more money. In the process, we get more different choices in our entertainment. This “marketplace of ideas” is supposed to be the justification not only for capitalism but the First Amendment as well.
It’s not a perfect system. Hollywood, like so many others (myself included), will often find itself in such a rut of conventional thinking that they miss opportunities that would have enriched our imaginations and their bottom line. Still, the major studios move more quickly than their comic-book counterparts.
For example, in most cases, when an entertainment conglomerate was about to launch a superhero movie franchise in which they had invested hundreds of millions of dollars, they would do everything they could to arouse curiosity about the project. However, even though Marvel’s Black Panther film is coming out next February (Black History Month) and the trailer for it has been seen almost 100 million times online, the interest in the character has not been sufficient for the publishing side of the business. The World of Wakanda, written by the best-selling author Roxane Gay, was recently canceled, and it is not certain that a trade collection will be published.
Even if the single issues weren’t profitable, one would think the loss they caused would be just a small fraction of the total marketing budget for the character. And, in the meantime, people who were intrigued about the writer because she had just appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah would be able to find something that might turn them into comic book readers.
Comics don’t market like that. Marvel and DC own characters, not writers. In general, they see no incentive to promote a writer, especially one who hasn’t been brought to the public’s attention by comic book publishers. There are exceptions (Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example), but they are few and far between.
Comic book marketing needs to change, along with comic book publishing and comic book retailing. I don’t know what it’s going to take for that to happen, but we must adapt or die. All retail businesses must do this.
If you read a link above, it’s about how Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods might change the retail experience beyond simply Amazon and Whole Foods. The kinds of trips to stores we make might change, and our experiences within those stores might change. In some cases, we might interact with humans and in some cases, we might not. Our interactions with other humans might be more personal than simply handing a cashier items to be scanned, and might require conversations about our mutual wants and needs. In the process, the kinds of goods and services offered in stores might change as well.
My pal, Mike Gold, frequently jokes about the impending demise of the bookstore at the hands of Amazon and other online retailers. I appreciate Amazon (no pants required), but I love bookstores of all kinds, and I hope he’s wrong. I like grocery stores, too, although I use them less and less for produce, preferring to shop at my local Green Market. If I’m going to go shopping in a store, I like to make my own choices based on what is in front of me and ask advice from someone whose expertise I believe. This is true whether I’m looking for sugar snap peas or something to read.
In my experience, which I sincerely hope is outdated, comic book publishers tend to think of their market as almost exclusively the direct market. When I worked at DC, if I would suggest a particular idea that would appeal to bookstores, for example, I was told that comic book stores would object to such an action. I understand that comic book stores are the largest customers for the product, but they are not the only customers. In fact, I thought that if I were part of the creative team who hoped to earn royalties, and I found out that a big chunk of potential customers for my work was being dismissed, I would be pretty angry.
Bookstores are bigger customers for comics than they used to be, but the business is still, for the most part, not designed for them. Too many publishers decide what to print solely based on single-issue sales, even though the way to grow the market is to provide products for readers in every format that might be appealing. If this means formats that are more appealing to new readers (like graphic novels instead of serialized fiction), give those a try. Certainly, DC, with its Earth-1 series, seems to be willing to take that tiny little chance.
For the most part, however, corporate entertainment companies, at least those that include comic book publishers, seem determined to not only focus on superhero comics … but only certain kinds of superhero comics. They still target that straight, cis white guy, and in a way that seems, to me, to be guaranteed to turn off anyone else. My FaceBook friend, writer and editor Mariah McCourt, recently posted this (I have edited her post for brevity):
The alt-right sees diversity at Marvel Comics as a betrayal by Jews of the “white race.”
“Possibly the most perennial… “debate” in comics is about the sexualized imagery of female characters. For many decades now the depiction of female comic book characters has relied on sexualized exaggeration through a (mostly) straight male creator lens.
“What I have just said is a fact. It’s not an interpretation or an opinion, it’s a fact. … It’s not just true of comics, although it’s definitely one of the more obvious examples. Fine art also has a history of this, which is why there is the entire method & school of art critique that revolves around the concept of the ‘male gaze.’…
“For years now my issue is not that sexualized art exists, or whether that’s inherently offensive or even sexist. It can be and often is, but art having a sexual nature doesn’t bother me.
“What bothers me is when that is the default state of female characters and people try to deny it, excuse it, or otherwise wriggle around that reality. When they argue that all comic characters are exaggerated, as if there isn’t a significant difference in how and why and by whom and for which audience.
“Comics are a medium, not a genre. You can have sexy sex comics, in which case sexualized characters and art make a lot of sense. That would be a pretty understandable context for them to exist in.
“It makes way less sense, when you think about it objectively, to constantly walk a very fine line between softcore art in what are supposedly “mainstream” comics that do not exist to depict sex. They may contain sex, but they aren’t sex comics. So it’s pretty weird for them to constantly default female characters, and almost exclusively female characters, to exaggerated depictions that are clearly sexualized.
“It is also intellectually dishonest and not even borderline insulting to suggest that comics art cannot be critiqued because it is “not supposed to be realistic”. That is not a valid argument. That is a crappy deflection.
“Plenty of non-comics art is not realistic or exaggerated and it is subject to criticism. Van Gogh, Munch, Picasso. No art is above that. … It exists within the framework of its time, its creator, its intention, its execution, and more. Art does not get a pass. Art is not neutral or stagnant or banal. Or it’s not really art.
“This is all maybe even more true of commercial art, of art that is part of a collective zeitgeist or cultural movements, times, places, and creations.”
Yes, let’s have sexy sex comics. Let’s have comics with stories about adorable puppies and kittens. Let’s have historical comics and science fiction comics and fantasy comics and non-fiction comics. Let’s have graphic memoirs and space operas and unicorns and fighting squadrons. Let’s have biblical comics, Hindu comics, Sharia comics and pagan comics. Let’s have military history and genderqueer confessions.
And then… let’s make those comics available where readers can find them.
Once again, we seem to be having the problem of defining what we mean when we use the terms “free speech,” “censorship” and “political correctness.” The problem is embodied by alt-right critic, Milo Yiannopoulos. My pal, Mindy Newell, alluded to it here. Since she wrote that, there have been some new wrinkles to the story.
Mr. Yiannopoulos is the latest in a long line of bitchy queens. This homophobic stereotype is one of my favorites, and has been since before I knew what homosexuality was. Paul Lynde was my first exposure. Later, I would enjoy the (now terribly dated) film The Boys in the Band, feeling really daring and bold to attend such a movie in 1970 Youngstown Ohio. By the time I actually met out-of-the-closet queer people, I was predisposed to think them all brilliant… which, I think, is a form of homophobia, but more well-intentioned than most.
Milo takes the bitchy queen stereotype to its logical, self-loathing conclusion. He makes incredibly gross racist and misogynistic statements, and then, like Ann Coulter before him, insists he is only kidding. His attacks on Leslie Jones incited his fans to barrage her with racist insults and even death threats on Twitter, and he insisted he couldn’t be racist because he has a black boyfriend.
At least since Howard Stern (and certainly well before him), straight white men have insulted people who are not straight white men and then screamed about censorship when some of us didn’t like it. They claim to be the inheritors of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, although unlike those heroes, they tend to make fun of the powerless and not the powerful. If you find Stern and his ilk funny, I’m happy for you. We need more laughter. I just don’t think it takes courage to piss on poor people.
Yiannopoulos is the queer variation of this type. With Breitbart News, he found a home that indulged him in his bigotry. He used his platform to build a fan-base. And he used his fan-base to build an outrage machine.
This reached its peak when a group of college students rioted outside a hall where Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak. For public safety reasons, the college canceled the event. A martyr was born.
There are very few people in this world as insufferable as a newly radicalized college student. I know — I’ve been one. I set an impossibly high standard for political purity, and angrily castigated anything that didn’t measure up. I would not compromise with anyone no matter what the reason, because any compromise would be a betrayal of my pristine ideals. And if you didn’t share my ideals in exactly the same level of intensity and with the same priorities, you were part of the problem.
I don’t think I’m such a purist anymore, although some might still find me to be insufferable. I don’t regret it. Being passionate about my issues not only gave me a sense of purpose, but also a way to understand, in time, people who felt strongly about different things. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had not been that person in college.
If the 1975 version of Milo had been invited to speak on my campus, I would have demonstrated against him.
However, I wouldn’t have rioted. I’m non-violent. In general, I’m against the destruction of property. There are times when I think it can be worth it — pouring blood on draft files, for example. However, in this case, and so many others, rioting only succeeded in making Milo a martyr. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi nailed it here when he said “A favored tactic is to direct his audiences toward some overemotional sap who has made the mistake of calling for him to be banned, at which point he triumphantly declares himself a champion of liberty, and his enemies censors and authoritarians.”
Our Tweeter-in-Chief backed up Milo, threatening to cut off federal funds to the university. Milo got a book deal from Simon & Schuster. Milo was everywhere on television. He was scheduled to speak the keynote address at CPAC, the conservative political action committee.
This didn’t happen in a vacuum. Roxane Gay pulled her book from S&S in protest. People debated about whether it was effective to boycott the publisher or if this might end up hurting authors more than a corporation.
Friday, as Mindy noted, Milo was on Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. To his credit, Maher includes a lot of conservatives on his talk show. Unfortunately, when he does, he often lets them run the conversation, perhaps because he doesn’t want to seem to be rude to them. In the Overtime segment (presented online), Milo again took over, this time insisting that Leslie Jones is illiterate, that people who disagree with him are stupid, yada yada yada.
Luckily, comedian/writer/producer Larry Wilmore was there to show him how a real adult argues. Watch the clip. It’s brilliant.
I miss seeing Larry Wilmore on my television every day. Please, someone, bring him back.
Over the weekend, a conservative group found videotape of Milo talking about how great it was to have sex with 13-year old boys, especially for the boys. He stated “…there are certainly people who are capable of giving consent at a younger age. I certainly consider myself to be one of them… Pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old, who is sexually mature. Pedophilia is attraction to children who have not reached puberty. Pedophilia is attraction to people who don’t have functioning sex organs yet who have not gone through puberty.”
This was the last straw, or the smoking gun, for some of those who hired him. Simon & Schuster cancelled his book contract. CPAC cancelled his speaking gig.
Milo says his words were taken out of context. Milo says that he was making a joke. Milo says that he is being censored. But here’s the thing: No one is entitled to book contracts. No one is entitled to speaking gigs. If you write a book and it gets published, you are not entitled to talk-show appearances.
As Roxane Gay said, “This is yet another example of how we are afforded the freedom of speech but there is no freedom from the consequences of what we say.”