Usually, I use this blog for humor and try to shy away from the serious issues. I read comics because I love comics. Period. And while I may discuss all of the political ins and outs behind them on my own time, I don’t usually like to state my thoughts publicly, beyond a quick little blip on twitter. There’s way too much negativity on the Internet for me to usually want to expose myself to any of it.
However, there’s been a debate that’s recently come to the forefront of the Internet comics discussion, and it’s one that’s very near and dear to my heart: The portrayal of women in comics. Comics Alliance editor Laura Hudson recently posted a heartfelt and genuine post about how a couple of the comics in the DC “New 52” re-launch made her feel as a person who both reads comics and has two X chromosomes. It touched a lot of nerves on both sides of the issue, and stirred up a lot of debate online. A lot of the response has been positive and supportive, from both women who understand exactly where she’s coming from and men who can sympathize with her point. But since this is, in fact, the Internet, there’s been a lot of boneheaded things said in response to it as well. Some of which, as someone who also has two X chromosomes, make me less than happy.
I think some of those responses have genuinely meant well, but they’ve missed the mark. And as someone who has to deal with this issue every day, I’d like to take a moment to stop keeping my mouth shut and instead respond to some of the things I’ve read over the past couple of days that have given me pause.
Before I get into that, however, I’d like to give a brief history of my life as a comic book fangirl, so you’ll know exactly where I’m coming from when I say all this. I’d like to just be able to say “fan,” but I really can’t here, because the fact that I’m a girl has in many ways shaped the sort of fan I am – for better or for worse. In my experience, it’s been impossible to simply be a fan without my gender somehow coming to play. (I want to note here that this is my experience. I’m not trying to speak for all women, though I’m sure there’s some women out there who can relate.) I started out at a very young age as a cartoon fan. I loved anything animated, and probably would’ve watched cartoons all day, every day if my mother had let me. And when I say a “very young age,” I mean just that. Two, three years old, and cartoons were my life. I was also, very much a girl. I knew I was a girl, and I liked being a girl. So when I watched cartoons, I looked for other girls in them I could relate to. As a tiny future-comics fan growing up in the 80’s, Rainbow Brite and She-Ra were my idols. I dressed up like them, I played with their toys, I pouted when my mother told me I had to turn off the TV and go to bed. I didn’t go looking for fandom, and I didn’t wake up one day and decide to be a part of it. And I certainly didn’t do it because I wanted more boys to find me sexy. I have always, always been a girl who loves cartoons.
But do you know what else I loved? He-Man and Transformers. Man, did I love me some Transformers. I didn’t matter that the main characters weren’t pretty blonde girls on Transformers. They were simply awesome, and I could get just as into them as anything else. Giant robots that turn into cars! What could be better than that? I didn’t even realize they were supposed to be “for boys” until one day I went to McDonald’s because they had some snazzy new Transformers Happy Meal toys. However, when I got the Happy Meal I’d anxiously waited for, there was no Transformer toy. There was a Barbie. A plastic hunk of immobile Barbie to be precise. And while I liked Barbie just fine, it wasn’t what I wanted. I had gotten it because the woman behind the counter had seen a little girl and had automatically given me the toy “for girls.” Not even five years old, and I was already being told what group I was supposed to be with. It was the first time I was told, “Okay, well, you may like this thing, but it isn’t really for you.”
From that point on, my mother always had to tell the cashier the Happy Meal was “for a boy.” But I wasn’t a boy. And I didn’t want to be a boy. I didn’t understand why what was between my legs had any bearing on whether I wanted Transformers and Hot Wheels or if I wanted Barbie and Strawberry Shortcake. I still don’t. I liked the things I liked just as earnestly and just as much as all the boys I knew. Why was it theirs and not mine, too?
It wasn’t until elementary school, when I was around eight years old, that I discovered comics. It was, in fact, through my love of cartoons. It was the early 90’s, and X-Men: The Animated Series ran on FOX. And I loved it.Loved it. It was quite easily the highlight of my week. And as I had with the cartoons I liked in the past, I gravitated to and related to the female characters. Now instead of She-Ra, it was Rogue. Not only was she a strong, competent woman, but she was from the South – just like me! I wore a little brown jacket because it looked like hers and was furious my mother wouldn’t let me bleach the front of my hair white. And when I went to the grocery store and saw that there were stories about Rogue and all the other X-Men I could buy and read at home, my first comics were purchased.
I read comics on and off from that point on until now, twenty years later. For twenty years – roughly two thirds of my life – I have been a loyal fan of comics. But time and time again, I have been told that these comics, these things that I love, have spent more money on that I even want to think about, and devote part of my week to each and every week, are not really for me. Not completely anyway. Anytime I go into a new local comic book shop, I enter with trepidation, wondering how I’ll be received. Will someone ask me if I’m buying something for my boyfriend/brother/husband/son? Will someone look at me with disdain and then use his body to block me from the comic I want to read because hey, girls don’t belong in here? Will someone ask me if I’m only in there because I think an actor in a comic book movie is hot? Will someone turn to me and tell me with a snide look that they don’t sell “any girly manga” in there, so I should just leave? It could happen. All of these things have happened. To me.
I could be wrong, but I doubt there’s a lot of male fans who get asked if they’re buying X-Men solely because of Anna Paquin’s butt. Or if they’re in there because their girlfriend asked them to pick up the new issue ofPunisher. They’re in the realm of the Transformers Happy Meals, and I’m supposed to stay outside and be happy with my hunk of pink Barbie plastic. All because one part of who I am that makes me different from them.
So when I look at an issue of Catwoman (who, by the way, I also loved as a child, to the point that it was the only DC comic I ever bought for years and it was my Halloween costume for two years in a row) where Catwoman doesn’t have even have a face for several panels, I feel like I’m being told I shouldn’t be having the Happy Meal I want all over again. Sure, I can read the comic if I really want to, but it’s not really for me. It’s for a single-gender audience. It doesn’t matter how much I love comics, how much I’m willing to spend to keep them in business, or what they mean to me as a fan for the last twenty years. Because I was born a girl and not a boy, I will never be part of the real, intended audience. And that sucks.
I’ve never wanted comics to be re-written so they’re all about tampons and kittens in people clothes, or whatever a certain sector of the male audience thinks female readers want in comics. I love superhero comics. I love them for what they are and what they can be. I can guarantee you I get just as excited when Captain America throws his shield or Thor yells “I say thee nay” as any man ever has. I don’t even want women in comics to suddenly all have tiny breasts and wear baggy costumes. Because hey, the men have crazy muscles and tight costumes, too. Cheesecake and beefcake are both part of the aesthetic. I just don’t want to be actively offended by what I’m reading. I don’t want to be told while I’m trying to read and enjoy something I spent my money on that it isn’t really for me. I don’t have to be courted; I’m already buying comics. I would, however, like not to be driven away.
As for the Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws comics, I’m upset for very specific reasons, not just because I didn’t get my feminist ranting quota in this week. I’m not upset just because Starfire is in a bikini or because Catwoman and Batman had on-panel sex. I’m upset because those comics were not about women being sexually empowered or liberated in any way. They were about the male readers getting a chance to ogle each one of Catwoman’s body parts and getting to fantasize about having no-strings-attached sex with Starfire. And in the meantime, all the women who love and read comic books are slapped in the face. And just like being told a Transformers Happy Meal isn’t for me or that I shouldn’t be in a comic book store if it doesn’t sell “girly manga,” I’m told that in order to be a comics reader, I have to be complicit in my objectification. And you know what? I’m not okay with that. And as a person who likes to be treated like one, I have the right to be upset about that.
However, a lot of people don’t seem to think I do have that right. I’ve read several comments over the last couple of days that I can mostly lump into a few basic questions, which I’d like to take the chance here on my own blog to respond to:
- Shut up, you stupid feminazis! I like sexy comics. And boobs!
These people don’t really even warrant a response, other than seriously, grow up or fuck off.
- If you don’t like what’s happening in comics, you don’t have to read them.
No, I don’t have to read them. And I’m not going to read Catwoman or Red Hood and the Outlaws past that first issue. But is this really the ideal solution? Nope.
I’m exactly the sort of reader DC should’ve been courting with their re-launch. I love comics, primarily superhero comics, but aside from a few here and there, I’ve never read DC. I do, however, spend money on comics every week – at times more than I spend on food, if I’m being completely honest. Ideally, I’m a good prospective source of future revenue for DC. They wouldn’t have had to sell me on the idea of buying comics, just on the idea of buying their comics. Had the re-launch been compelling and something I felt I could jump into and become a reader of even though I didn’t know the ins and outs of DC history the way I do Marvel, then maybe, my weekly comics dollar wouldn’t have been going all to Marvel. However, since DC seems to have instead gone out of their way to actively offend female readers and send me the message that they’re totally okay with alienating me if it means they can sell their sexy new books, then they’ve lost me. It doesn’t matter at that point if there’s other books in the New 52 that wouldn’t offend me. I’m not going to spend my money to find out. Companies have one real shot to sell their products to the consumer, and with things like this, they’ve blown that.
Furthermore, if I love superhero comics, but feel like I’m being alienated as a reader because of who I am, then why should I just shut up and not read them? If I’m not okay with the status quo, then I don’t get comics? Those are my choices? Yeah, no. I’m not going to shut up and turn my back on on something I want to enjoy just so someone else can look at cartoon boobs.
And really, let’s be completely honest here. Comics are not in the best shape financially they have ever been. “If you don’t like it, don’t read it” is not the attitude anyone needs to take, especially the companies themselves. All it does is alienate consumers and hurt the industry further. This is a time when comics need to be embracing everyone who wants to read them, and that means women, too.
- What are you so upset about? It’s just a sex scene! You must be a prude.
I’m not a prude. I don’t care if Catwoman wants to have sex with Batman. I don’t care if Catwoman wants to have a threesome with Batman and Alfred in the Batmobile while Nightwing watches. What I do care about is any female character becoming a sexual object instead of an actual character. The sex scene was really, only icing on the cake. We see every part of Catwoman’s body, dressed in tight leather and sexy underwear, before we ever see her face. That isn’t about showing consensual sex between two adults. It’s about titillating the audience (read: the male readers) at the expense of the female character’s humanity. It’s very hard to explain to someone who’s never been a woman and never gone through the experience of being sized up like a faceless piece of meat, but it’s a sickening feeling. It’s certainly not something I find sexy or entertaining.
But there is much more going on in that comic than just a sex scene. It’s about using sex to sell a comic because hey, why would the men who buy comics (because, after all, comics are for men) want to buy a title with a female lead if she isn’t “sexy.” My problem with that comic was not simply that there was a sex scene. I was bothered from the very beginning, when it was clear right off the bat (no pun intended…) that it was about Catwoman’s T&A, and not about a developed character. That comic existed to sell an image of sex to men, and the female readers who hey,might actually enjoy a story about Catwoman, were left completely in the cold.
Furthermore, If I had picked that comic up as a little girl (as I did do as a child with Catwoman comics) I wouldn’t have seen a female character I could find strength in. I would’ve been told that my worth was in my body parts, not in who I am. I can tell you from experience little girls get that message enough. The fewer places they have to hear it from, the better.
- You must have a problem with sexually liberated women.
Nope. I’m a grown woman. I have sex. I have no problem with sex. I have no time for “slut shaming,” and I certainly don’t care who other women sleep with. It’s my personal choice an adult woman who I sleep with, and it’s every other adult woman’s personal choice as well. Not my business, and not anyone else’s either.
But what a lot of the commenters on Red Hood and the Outlaws seem to be forgetting is that Starfire is not a real person who made the choice to have lots of anonymous sex on her own. She is not a “sexually liberated woman.” She’s a character, who was written by a person – specifically, a man. Starfire’s preening in a bikini and talking about how she wants to have sex with people whose names she won’t even remember is not about celebrating the sexually-liberated woman of the Twenty-First Century, throwing off the shackles of male oppression. It’s about giving men the chance to fantasize about having a hot chick with big boobs want to do them without any consequences. Don’t believe me? Look at the responses to Starfire’s “liberated sexuality” by the male characters in the comic. They ogle her and they discuss their own sexual conquests of her. It’s not about Starfire and her adult choices regarding sex. It’s about male fantasy.
So no, I don’t have any problem with sexually liberated women in real life. What I do have a problem with is wanting to read a comic book and being given softcore porn that objectifies the female body and twists actual sexual liberation into some sort of bizarre amnesiac nymphomania where women have sex with whatever men cross their paths and then literally forget all about them. That’s not liberation. That’s not even just a little cheesecake. That’s offensive. Period.
- It’s just a comic. Geez, why are you so upset over something that’s just entertainment?
This is a problem on two levels. For starters, why are we cheapening comics? If anyone says that comics aren’t art, or that they’re a throw-away medium, there’s a lot of ire on the Internet. Yet if someone then says that comics should be better than their most base form, we all need to shut up and accept it’s “just entertainment?” We can’t have it both ways. Either comics have the ability to be more than cheap thrills or they don’t. This is a turning point for comics, and they can either raise the bar and prove themselves worthy of surviving or they can sell out to the lowest common denominator and fade away into obscurity. Pandering to the lowest common denominator is not the right choice to make if comics want to survive as a medium.
Furthermore, offensive entertainment is a problem. I’m a woman. I don’t like feeling objectified. I don’t care if it’s “just entertainment.” Sexism is gross, demeaning, and upsetting. And no, I’m not going to shut my mouth and brush it off because hey, it’s just a comic book! Compliance is what allows things like this to continue. And if you really think telling a woman to just be quiet and get over it because she’s silly to get upset about something that makes her feel cheap is okay, then you’ve just proven my point.
- Well, Catwoman’s a villain, so really, what does it matter if she’s all sexed up? She has no morals.
Catwoman’s moral code is not the point. I certainly didn’t want to be a thief when I picked up Catwoman comics as a child. I did, however, want to be strong like Catwoman. And yes, I wanted to be pretty like Catwoman – the same way a lot of little boys wanted to be strong and handsome like Batman or Captain America. So does it really matter that Catwoman is technically the “bad guy” when she’s objectified body part by body part? No. She’s not being objectified because she’s the bad guy. No one’s putting the Joker’s leather-covered butt in our faces. She’s objectified because she’s a woman.
Also, it’s not like the problem is just with Catwoman, or the “New 52.” This isn’t the first time this has happened in a comic and sadly, I’m positive it won’t be the last. It doesn’t matter who’s being objectified this time. It only matters that once again, it’s happening, and once again, female comic book readers are just supposed to accept it as the status quo and part of their experience as fans. It’s beyond gotten old.
And as for the whole implication in that it’s fine to portray a “slut” as long as she’s a villain is so backwards and offensive I’m not even going to go there. I’ll just tell you flat out: it’s wrongheaded and gross. For so many reasons it could be its own epic blog post.
- I understand why women get upset, but this is always going to be in comics, and women have to understand that, too.
This is the one that quiet honestly, upsets me the most. It’s the response that seems supportive on the surface, but the underlying message is that all us hysterical women are just freaking out for no reason. What we just don’t understand is that men like what they like, and so we have to smile and put up with a little objectification now and then if we’re going to be comic book readers.
You know what? No. I am sick and tired of being told that what I want and need from my comics comes second to what men want to read. I have been a fan of comics for almost my entire life. I’ve paid my money for not only the books themselves, but the movies, the toys, the clothes. I’ve spent hours reading comics, discussing comics, loving comics. Why on Earth is my opinion and what I want to see in comics so much less valuable than someone else’s? Just because I was born with a different set of reproductive organs, I have to be passive in what I read, while a certain sector of men get to be catered to? That’s bullshit, plain and simple, and I am not okay with it. Yeah, this is the Twenty-First Century, and I am liberated with a mind and voice of my own, and I’m not just going to sit down, shut up, and be reduced to my parts because hey, comics are reallyfor boys.
I realize there are niche comics. But these comics are superhero comics from one of the “Big Two.” These are the flagships, the ones who should be welcoming to everyone. And when things like this are allowed to exist without comment, that isn’t the case. You can have cheesecake, and sex scenes, and women in tight costumes without being disgusting about it. You can have characters with breasts the size of Emma Frost’s without limiting your characters – and, by extension, your female audience – to just those breasts. Batman isn’t all about his biceps, so why is Catwoman all about her boobs?
There’s plenty of room in comics for them to be “sexy” and smart. There’s plenty of room for female characters to be good-looking and strong. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. We don’t have to tell the women who walk into a comic book shop and want to give the comics industry their hard-earned money that hey, this isn’t really for them. No medium grows by limiting it. When the industry is in a position where it needs all the new readers it can get, pushing anyone away, especially with something as pointless as a bunch of panels with boobs on them, is not a mistake they can afford to make. And really, if the only way you think you can get someone to read your comic is by selling them softcore porn, it is seriously time to rethink the quality of what you’re putting out and why people mightreally not be buying it.
So yeah, there’s women who read comics. Women who love comics. Women who want nothing more than to hand their money right over to the comics industry so they can keep reading what they enjoy. And a lot of us love, in particular, superhero comics. This isn’t a Boys’ Club anymore, no matter how much some people want it to be, and it’s time we all accept that and treat every comic book fan with an equal amount of respect.
Because in the end, we’re all fans. We’re not fanboys and fangirls. We’re not black fans, white fans, gay fans, or straight fans. We’re FANS. And the comics we love should be for each and every one of us.