Sunday, May 21, 2006

Anti-Women Bias in Comics?

I tried to comment to this post on Written Word, but after 3 tries, the &%^=*! comment box wouldn't come up, so I'm commenting here. In a discussion about a former Wonder Woman artist's comments on a BDSM-type website, Ragnell (commenting on yet another blog post about this issue) said:
"You see, the quote had got me thinking back to this writer's tenure on the series. And it got me thinking about all of the various problems I'd had with his run, problems I mentally pushed aside because, on the surface, he'd seemed like one of the better writers she had. I still disliked what he did, but I hadn't considered any sinister personal motives behind it. I'd attributed it to standard societal problems with portraying female characters. Problems even female writers tend to have."

Now, first my disclaimer. I didn't read WW during his tenure on the book, so I can't comment on it. I have read his comments on other characters in books of his I did read and my problem with some of those comments is that I didn't agree on some of the decisions that were made re: story. Take for ex, the time he spent on Teen Titans/Titans (whatever it was called then). He wasn't exactly enthused about Speedy who was deliberately kept out of the book til the drug stories. I had a real problem with that, but then, I had a problem with Mike Grell keeping Roy out of Green Arrow until as it turned out, issue 75, but I'd given up on the book at issue 40 or so. Excluding characters that are clearly part of the title character's life bugs me.

I also have to say that I've met the artist/writer in question, a number of times. Once, when I visited his home with a friend who was in the Titans APA (she was drawn into the Donna Troy/Terry Long wedding, along with others of the APA, as a guest), and twice when he gave programs at libraries where I was working. All three times, he was friendly, gracious, and amazingly willing to help out teens looking to join his profession. So yeah, I'm a bit biased here, because back then, in the '80s, he was a comics god.

I'm one of those feminists who came of age in the '60s. I was born in 53, making this the year I turn 53. I am glad there is still a feminist mindset out there, but as in the '60s, it has many voices. I grew up not knowing what I wanted to do. My role models were as often male as female. I went through and rejected careers in law enforcement (my love for the police came from cop shows of the time), teacher and librarian (the only non-housewife careers I saw women really in), and some that were so fleeting that they've gotten lost in the deep recesses of my brain. I ended up being influenced by my college advisor/psych professor to decide to be "just like her" -- a college professor of psych! That I realized, before I got too locked in that it wasn't the life I wanted, is now something that no longer carries regret and disappointment, nor do I still feel I settled by going back to one of my early goals: librarian. Yes, the profession where straight men who go into it are looked at skeptically (perhaps not so much anymore) because "everyone" knows it's a job for women (het and lesbian) and gay men.

And I would prefer more attention be paid to the weakening of Roe vs. Wade and other issues that affect the lives of women than their depiction in comics. And yes, while you can argue that comics can foster attitudes that lead to those real world issues, the same was said about violence and TV and I don't really see that, either, not if kids are given a well-rounded environment and if not, well, TV or comics won't be the real problem, neglect and other issues will be.

Women have been sexualized for, well, forever, it seems. Good girl and bad girl art goes way back. The cartoonists of the first half of the last century excelled at the artform of calling attention to a woman's uh, curves. Where the line between sexualized and objectified comes along, I don't know. I think it's one of those concepts with nebulous boundaries around a core idea in a Wittgenstein kind of way. My definition and yours might be different, same as murder for some folks includes abortion and euthenasia and for others, don't, and varieties within.

I remember when Ed Benes was drawing Supergirl and got flak for showing the panties on teenage girls in a high school locker room scene. It was a bit much for that book, but the editor allowed it or didn't care. To me, having seen his work in Codename: Knockout, his Supergirl was tame in comparison. When he was drawing Birds of Prey and there were comments about his depiction of the birds, Gail Simone explained that in his country, there was a different attitude about sex and sexuality and she'd explained to him and asked he tone things down a bit for the US market. I read this on the DC BoP message board which Gail visited and commented on quite often. Was he fantasizing as he drew those women? Who knows and I sure don't care.

BoP had its share of bondage, when Dinah was held by Savant. Dinah triumphs, and more recently, Savant got his chained-in-a-dungeon-and-tortured scene. Fair is fair after all. Even way back when when Dinah was captured and tortured, Ollie was a bit later, too. I like fairness in my reading material. Were the writers and artists fantasizing at all in creating those scenes? I would've. I did as a reader.

Yes, some poses are gratuitous and yes, I'd like to see some/more ordinary looking women in comics, women more like, uh, me. But I also enjoy seeing beautiful women. And I want to see more sexualized men. There's a reason I like looking at Hawkman and it's not because of that hawkhead thingie.

Ragnell also said:
"It made me tempted to pick up his old stories, go back and reread them, and then pinpoint where his professed fantasies had affected his work. And that, I think, is where the comments may have crossed the professional line. The earlier writer who had expressed support for WFA? Her comments could not be twisted beyond comparison to support someone's accusations that her run had an anti-man agenda. But this other guy? This is going to come back to bite him in the butt. Because now that that opinion is out there -- that everyone knows that not only did he fantasize, he fantasized while writing the book -- there's nothing to stop a fan from linking to his comments to support the idea his run may have misogynistic undertones."

Well, d'uh. All he did was admit to something few people have or will admit to: that they have fantasies and it can affect their work. Pretty much most of fiction can be viewed that way. I remember reading some science fiction novels in the '70s and '80s by women that had a clear anti-male bias. If the author intended that or not didn't matter. I saw it. They could admit it or not; an admission would just lead me to a "oh, so it was intended." My feeling is if you see it or can read something like that into it, that's your experience. As a writer I've learned that writer's intentions and readers' experiences of that writing are usually far apart.

I wrote fanfic. For comic book characters, they were just short pieces trying to straighten out Roy and Ollie's relationship way back when, but I had trouble "hearing" comic book characters, a necessity for me to write fanfic. TV, with live actors playing the parts and "talking" to me, was much easier. And in my fanfic and now in my original fiction, I fantasize all the time about my male characters, doing my share of male rape and torture scenes. Because, well, turnabout is fairplay and I'd much prefer fantasizing about men helpless and hurting who need comfort than about women. That the women in comics these days don't usually need rescuing after being tortured is progress. Because, well, it does have a sexual undercurrent for most of us. I've had this discussion with other fan writers. When I was 11-14, watching Man from UNCLE, and Illya, my then-current lust object, got hurt, I felt it in the core of my being. I got, well, hot. I learned from talking to friends that my reaction was not unique. Given that this was the mid-'60s and I was undergoing puberty where the most I knew about sex was the talk my mother gave me when I was 9 and what I read in James Bond books, I can't say this reaction came from anywhere but me. I don't think sex can really be separated from all of fiction, nor would I want it to be. And much of it is what the reader/viewer brings to the table.

What does bug me is when different writers take over a book and change the character. Devin Grayson got a lot of flak for her version of Nightwing. Devin's a fangirl writing out her fantasies about her fav characters. In essence, as with many writers, she's doing pro "fanfic" work. I got what she was doing with Dick and enjoyed much of it. I thought the mob storyline crossed a line because it didn't seem to follow from the rest and I thought the previous arc lost its direction. But I still believed that was Dick Grayson as Nightwing, even when the new Tarantula had her way with him. But now, Nightwing is awful, because I can't believe that boytoy is Dick Grayson. He's been completely emasculated, and a man is writing him!

It is unfortunate that Wonder Woman is a character that never had a clear direction that followed from writer to writer, editor to editor. Batman had his incarnations, from camp in the '60s to intense in the '70s, detective one minute, nighttime vigilante the next, but at his core, he was always Batman, the Caped Crusader. Superman, from Earth's protector to everyday guy and even the angstful times, has always been noble (okay, maybe with a few bumps on the road). I've never felt an identity to Wonder Woman, the 3rd of the big 3, that is anywhere close to that strong. Everyone tries to remake her because they know best. Very few makeovers like that work. The only one IMO that really took was Green Arrow's transformation by Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams. Probably because Ollie needed it so much so he could come out of Batman's shadow (Don't get me started on the whole arrowcar vs batmobile thing). Wonder Woman's had so many of them, I don't really know who she is. That's more of a concern to me than whether or not an artist fantasized and drew her according to his fantasies.

In a way, the whole medium, and probably every other artistic endeavor, is a fantasy of someone. Comics is a collaborative fantasy, if you will. Freud would have a field day with this.

Which doesn't mean I'm not aware that there are inequities. A case might be made that Spoiler's death was more sensationized than Robin II's. Yes, the guys still die more heroically than the women, but change won't happen quickly there until more women are on the creative and editorial end. The better chance to effect change is usually from within. It's getting women into the profession that's tough when they don't see it as viable because the books don't speak to them. But there seem to be many more female fans now than when I was ostracized by my friends for reading superhero books. Back then, I hardly ever saw women in comic shops here in NYC (in the '70s and '80s) and now I see them all the time, at least a third of the staff and public in my main shop. I consider that progress.

And I'm aware of the argument that role models are needed, along with providing examples of healthy interactions. I agree. But as with TV, I enjoy what I enjoy and I don't want things changed because someone else says they need to be changed. What sells will always control the product. Sex sells. TV has had its backlash, so now we have cable. It's one thing when something comes to you vs you going out to get it. I just don't like censorship, though I'll go along with parental controls and oversight. Yes, we need more comics for kids, but Wonder Woman and the rest of the superhero books aren't really them anymore and haven't been for decades, not for the little kids. I want more variety, but I also have no problem with sexual fantasies, including BDSM, being played out in comics. I just want my chance to lust after the guys in the same predicaments as the women. To me, it's the context, the quality of the writing, the skill of the artist. I don't want a steady diet of any one thing, but I'm an adult and can decide what I enjoy reading. Or writing, for that matter.

Okay, I wandered on and off topic. And this got way longer than I'd planned, but I'm going on vacation, so this might be it here for about 10 days.


  1. Anonymous6:01 PM EDT

    Funny you should mention Devin Grayson, she's also who I was thinking of when I wrote the post.

    She gave an interview where she let us in on her fangirl fantasies a bit, and in the ensuing weeks I saw it constantly linked in message boards across comic-land. She was regularly, utterly trashed as a writer. Which is a shame, because her Catwoman was top-notch, but I think for some fans knowledge of her internal fantasies made it hard to swallow Nightwing.

    I figure now, the exact same thing will happened to Perez, and I just think that if you say something that invites that sort of criticism to your work, you're being unprofessional.

    It wasn't really a feminist post, it came about because I have the same preferences as you (male characters as opposed to females) and because I'm a huge Wonder Woman fan and I disliked the images described on the site, but it was more a musing on the behavior of writers. Hell, now that I have this idea in my head I can't really even trust myself to critique anything the man wrote anymore, which is a shame because I thought his Wonder Woman run was weak and wanted to get into the whys.

    I think if they were held to a higher standard of professionalism, fans would have a lot less to complain about. Half of this stuff would be unseen and the criticisms of their work would be based solely on skill.

    So I titled it "The Gift of Ammunition" as opposed to the "The Evils of a Writer's Sex-life" or something like that.

  2. I think the issue is reall how we define professionalism when it comes to writers. I don't think a writer discussing his or her process or fantasies or whatever is "unprofessional." Maybe because I hang out online with pro SF novelists on various writers boards, where folks are pretty open about their processes, I don't get "images" or whatevers in my head when I read things like that, ie George Perez having BDSM-type fantasies while writing or drawing female characters. I'm either going to like what he or any other writer or artist does, or not, but the why of it is of no more interest to me than satisfying some curiosity.

    I thought Devin really "got" Arsenal and in most of her stories, Nightwing. She got a bit too self-indulgent, not in the content of her stories, or characterization, but in not knowing when to temper it for the good of the story. All I care about is whether or not the results work for me or not. Some of Devin's stories worked better for me than others.

    I don't even know what people mean about professionalism in writers or artists, beyond they shouldn't insult their readers or get drunk at cons and act lewd or whatever. Talking about their methods and such is to me being accessible.

  3. Anonymous6:31 PM EDT

    Fair enough, I'm willing to concede I'm over sensitive here. I work in a very strictly professional environment -- despite it being full of wrench-monkeys and lewd jokes and such, we're actually very careful about what we say and imply in public.

    And Frank Miller's script months ago has set me off on writer professionalism. At least, with the corporate characters.

  4. I think there's a big difference between harrassment at work and people talking about how they do things. The harrassment of women working in the comics industry is appalling.

    However, we've become so politically correct and careful in our major urban library system that what once would have been simple teasing or kidding around with people whose company you enjoy is now likely to get you slapped with a grievance. It's hard to know in the workplace, what's acceptable and what's not sometimes.

    But I'll talk about how I do my work and what I think about some members of the public outside of the workplace. The only thing I won't do is name names. That's the distinction I make re: professionalism.

    If George had said So-and-so had sexual fantasies drawing Ms. Whoever, that's unprofessional. But when he talks about himself? It's up to him how open he wants to be. I appreciate the honesty, even if I also would wonder if he's being honest or having a bit of fun. ;)

  5. Anonymous8:21 PM EDT

    Wher I'm a bit more strict. I'll talk about what I think of who I work with, but I'm not about to condemn the upper management or their decisions in public no matter what I think. And I don't let people know much detail what was going on when I was working (aside from vague comments and jokes). It's more of a security thing since I work in aviation. So I guess I'm more lax and more strict in this area.

    I'm also reluctant to endorse anything using my profession, which is what got me with this. It looks like he's using his position as a writer/artist to endorse the website. That's another place where it strikes me as unprofessional.

  6. Oh, I don't talk about anyone by name in the library, but I will talk about the overall bureaucracy. I won't do anything to break the ethics code of the library. But that doesn't mean I don't get to talk about my experiences and my feelings about the library. I just try to keep things to general terms. I won't bitch in public, only with fellow staffers, usually at my level of middle management.

    An artist or writer under contract with a company like DC is a bit different than an outright employee and what his or her contract might or might not allow could be an issue, but we're not privy to it. And if he's promoting a website, and if it's not against a contract he has with anyone, then professionalism isn't an issue. IMO, of course. Should I ever get published, I'll use that to promote my website and anything else I consider worthwhile.

  7. Anonymous9:05 PM EDT

    Well, I think we've reached a stalemate then.

    Maybe we'll have another topic when you get back from your vacation. Have fun! :)

  8. heh, yeah. But it has been interesting. :)

    And thanks. I'm going to have a big pile of comics to read when I get back.