I'm about to be long-winded. Deal with it, read it, comment, or just move along. ;)
While I was away, a lot of the comics blog posts I read had to do with a certain cover to a certain comic I don't read. Coming right after the MJ statue controversy, it's been a busy time for feminist bloggers, fanboys, and everyone else who enjoys an online ruckus. I would have more to say on the topic if I was more familiar with both Spider-Man comics and Heroes for Hire. But as I have just general knowledge of the former (never read the comics, did sometimes read the newspaper dailies, did see the first movie) and no knowledge of the latter (beyond seeing listings for it in CSN), I'll just post some general observations and opinions.
First, Kalinara linked to a nice defense/explanation of the H4H cover. Well worth reading for how to react to a controversy. The official and unofficial defenses that I read over the last week didn't cut it.
If someone is offended, then a thing is offensive on some level, as Kalinara explained previously. Saying it can't be offensive because no intent to offend existed is to avoid the issue.
Not everyone will be offended by the same things. Same as not everyone will like the same things. If I think Hemingway is a boring, annoying writer (which I do), does that mean he's a boring, annoying writer? Depends on who you ask. Artforms are like that. Sometimes, it's helpful to turn the argument around to something opposite to see how ridiculous some defenses can get.
I think better than saying the work is offensive can be "the work offended." Or that some people found the work offensive. The work exists on its own merits, but because it's an artform, its qualities are subjective. Offense is subjective. The more people who find something offensive, the more offensive it is. The audience ends up defining the work.
Bigotry works like that. Biases are everywhere. Stop a black man on a street for a random check without cause, but not the white men, that's bigotry. Stop the black man because you're looking for a mugger described as a black man wearing similar clothes, there likely isn't bigotry, unless you unnecessarily rough him up. Stop all men, regardless of ethnicity or race, and you probably aren't displaying bigotry, either. Context is usually everything. And no, I tend to not deal in absolutes, because I've learned in my 54 years (and counting), that exceptions can be found for just about everything.
My brand of feminism, as I believe I've stated here before, is about self-determination. It's about equality. Equal rights. Equal opportunities. Equal chances to fail as well as to succeed. Many years ago, I read a wonderful quote (I forget from who, but he was an education official, I think) that had to do with the concept that equality won't be achieved when the top people all have equal opportunities, but when the mediocre ones and those below that do. I agree with him. Equality will be achieved when ethnicity, religion, race, and sex will cease to be factors determining opportunities. Only abilities will.
Exploitation is something else. Is it exploitation when someone willingly allows it? When they control it by going into what's been labeled exploitive situations/jobs? Is someone above the age of consent being exploited or exploitive when they choose to sell their bodies? Is it demeaning if you don't feel demeaned? I would certainly not make the choices others do. Sure, prostitution is an extreme example, but how about something less obvious? Librarianship. The traditional domain of women (straight and gay) and gay men. Where, when I was in library school anyway, straight men were looked at funny when they wanted to be a librarian. Like male nurses. Did I settle for something I was programmed to be or did I become something I truly enjoy being? We all make choices based on upbringing, cultural influences, and our own minds.
What does this have to do with comics? Why am I posting it here instead of on my more political blog? Because the issue is pervasive in comics. And it is that way because comics have long been in the control of men, some of whom get women and some of whom don't. Which isn't to say women creators are all made of the same cloth, either. But in large part, men make the decisions, even if a woman ran DC Comics for a long time prior to Paul Levitz succeeding her. It affects how females are portrayed and how they are viewed.
One more thing before I get to the specifics here. I'm also a believer in Wittgenstein's concept of... well, concepts. That there are core concepts just about everyone will agree to and then nebulous, movable borders to those concepts that are placed differently for each person. So, we all might agree that shooting someone in cold blood is murder, but we might disagree that euthanasia is murder.
So, specifics. The MJ statue. Who hasn't seen a pic of it by now? Is it offensive? I dunno. I wasn't offended by it. I thought it was ridiculous looking and a poor reproduction of the sexy illo it was based on. It looked painful for MJ to be bent over that way. But I also thought it was a poorly executed attempt at a playful poke at a traditional and outmoded image of women, whether or not that was the intent. I don't deny that people were offended and anyone who mocked them for it missed the point.
The Heroes for Hire cover. Again, I didn't see it as offensive. I do agree the expressions made them look fearful, not a positive image, to be sure. I had no problem with the placement of the tentacles. More on that in a bit. Lea Hernandez reworked the cover on her LJ. She also posted this interesting letter from a retailer.
Re: the reworked cover. First, I don't think the middle woman looked all that frightened. More calculated, like she was biding her time before she could act. Anyway, in the reworked version, they look eager. I commented that they looked eager for the tentacles to attack them. Now, I'm a literal-minded person. I take what I'm given. If I infer something, it's got to be really clear. I didn't infer that they were eager to kill the tentacle creature, because that really isn't in the picture. What interested me was the comment my comment that they looked like they were enjoying it got: better to enjoy than to cower in fear... Yeah, right. That's so much better. Gonna rape me? Bring it on! I love being raped! Yeah, that works. NOT.
I don't get the whole tentacle porn/rape imagery in that. I'm a literal-minded person, mostly. I didn't see it, but that doesn't mean others didn't. They did, so on some level, it's there, intended or not. Lea changed hair and such, because it wasn't realistic. Heck, these are comic characters who, I presume have superpowers? Why would they be realistic? But I digress. I would never blame the artist, who worked freelance, I believe, according to specs she was given and her own cultural mores. Marvel bought it. Marvel didn't return it to be reworked. If that's the image Marvel liked, that's where the complaint should lie. And it wasn't nearly as suggestive or exploitive as many other covers on mainstream or non-porn books in comics shops.
Covers (see, I am getting to that) generally fall, as I see it, into one of two major categories: Heroic and Jeopardy. The more dangerous the situation, the more dire, the more eager we readers should be to see how the heroes get out of trouble. And for women (though it would work for men, too), rape is viewed as very dire, indeed. It's sure not on my list of things to experience (<-- Note of sarcasm here.) So, while the expressions could've been improved, I'd have made them look angry.
From another cover in recent months: Star Sapphire ready to stomp Hal/Green Lantern = Hero in jeopardy! Star Sapphire wearing the skimpiest costume in history for her negates the image somewhat because it detracts from her ability to pose a legit threat and therefore is viewed by many to be exploitive. The story rose above it.
Unfortunately, I don't know H4H, so I can't know if my "improvement" for it would make sense. But I would swap out one of the females for a male. Make things more equal.
Where do I sit in this controversy? Probably somewhere in the middle. I'm not all hot and bothered by the art in both the cover issue or the MJ statue. I don't think they're evil or misogynistic, nor do I think they're all that exploitive, though they do cater to a certain audience. But that's how marketing works. Doesn't make it right, not when companies claim they want to expand their audience and definitely not when they want to appeal to more females. Sad, but they don't seem to grasp how to do that, though I'm hoping DC's Minx line helps. But getting females reading superhero comics should be a goal, too, because right now, comics are losing out to other media and bringing in female readers can improve the bottom line.
The dialogue these controversies have generated can be good if the creators and the publishers pay attention. The goal is to keep print comics viable (at least through my lifetime because I hate reading comics online because my eyes don't like it) because it is a wonderful media. I want to see it healthy and thriving. I want to see it appeal to everyone, young and old, boys and girls, men and women. I want people to think of comics and smile fondly. I don't want them to think of comics and frown or turn their nose down or make derogatory comments. Comics shouldn't be just for kids. The sooner the publishers realize they need to make some adjustments to bring this dream to reality, the better.
Okay, I rambled on long enough. This post. Maybe some other time, I'll post something about role models. But one thing I won't do here is claim any issue is simple or that it has one perfect solution, though in this case, more women editors and writers and more women who get to make the decisions couldn't hurt.