Saturday, July 15, 2006

Women and Writers and Women Writers

First in a maybe series of rambling posts, streams of consciousness, whatever. And this one is long.

Here's a Gail Simone interview that is worth reading. And almost anything by Ragnell at the Written World.

I blogged a bit about feminism and comics before, but since the topic is important and is at the fore right now, I figured it was time to discuss it again. I don't do the carnival thing. There's something about blogging on a schedule that I mentally rebel against. Even memes are passive. I either do one or not; I haven't made a commitment to do any, except the one I started over on Shelly's Book Shelf. So my lack of participation in the Feminism in Comics carnival, or whatever it's called, is not from lack of interest.

I agree there's sexism in comics and yes, it's ingrained, to the point that the majority of the people in the comics industry, especially on the creative side, don't see it. They do see what sells and of course, the more females are exploited, the more the core audience will buy the books. Seeing an audience that isn't there yet is a tough concept for the bottom-liners. They don't necessarily get "make them and they will come," meaning, make more comics female readers can enjoy (and I don't mean a return of romance comics and that ilk, necessarily, or the comic equivalent of "Sex in the City") and girls and women will buy more comics, improving the bottom line. And women like me who have long bought male dominated comics or female comics with a male sensibility are under the radar in that we're lumped in with the general readership that supports the concept that what's selling is what will keep selling.

A number of years ago, I managed a neighborhood library with almost no science fiction but a lot of fantasy books. I was told there were no science fiction readers in the neighborhood. Being a devotee of SF who doesn't read much fantasy, I continued to buy fantasy at the then current levels, but upped the SF titles. They slowly found an audience and the 6-7 regular SF readers who started coming in via word of mouth (Hey, they got SF there now!) borrowed those books heavily.

I was also told there was no need for home and furniture repair books. We were, after all, in Manhattan, land of apartments. But I bought some general repair books because I know men have a tendency to not ask for something if they don't see it. Those became very popular and a few men took the time to tell me how much they appreciated the collection changes. The additions I made to the sports section was equally appreciated by our male readers, and even some of the women. See, any group can be marginalized. In some areas, it's the men. Same as it's people of color regardless of sex.

From Merriam-Webster's online dictionary.
Exploit: "1 : to make productive use of : UTILIZE (exploiting your talents) (exploit your opponent's weakness)
"2 : to make use of meanly or unjustly for one's own advantage (exploiting migrant farm workers)"

Exploitive: "function: adjective
: exploiting or tending to exploit; especially : unfairly or cynically using another person or group for profit or advantage (exploitative terms of employment( (an exploitative film)
- ex·ploit·ative·ly adverb"

Exploiting someone or something isn't necessarily good or bad. It is often a good idea to exploit something to one's advantage. But exploitve has become a negative. The problem is getting a consensus on what's exploitive.

I've encountered a lot of disagreement over the years as to what is exploitive or what is stereotypical or what is a negative image. When is something sexual and when it is sexualized. And there is no easy answer because we each have our own definitions of a concept (as per Wittgenstein).

Is a woman who takes advantage of her sexuality, her beauty, her femininity to further her goals an anti-feminist? Or is she simpy a realist, using what's available to her? Is she setting back the cause of feminism or is she clever? Is a woman who is agressive, acting in a manner people have described as masculine simply a feminist not wanting to be pigeonholed as a weak, or is she trying to be more like a man, denying her true nature?

The truth is all that in-between ground. There are men and women at both ends of the spectrum and a fair amount of overlap. True equality is when people can be who they are and folks don't criticize them for it. It's when a woman can be feminine or masculine without it being an issue for anyone. It's when a man can show feminine or masculine aspects of his personality without being criticized, either. Someone (I can't recall who, but he was in education) once said that equality isn't about the best and brightest having equal opportunities to succeed, but when people with mediocre skills get the same chances as other people with similiar skills.

I've said before that I don't want to eliminate cheesecake shots (though appropriateness for the situation should be considered). What I want is my equal opportunity to see beefcake shots. I don't think having a sexualized media, in comics or otherwise, is bad. I do think we need to have alternatives to it. If all comics were oversexed, then yes, it's a bad thing because there is no choice.

Artists seem to like drawing the female body and showing off a characters physical attributes. I don't begrudge them a little fantasizing when they do that. Same as when they show off the muscles of the male characters, perhaps a bit of wish fulfillment on their parts. Who knows. As a writer (alas, still amateur in status), I can certainly relate to fantasizing and going for the angst. I just give it more to male characters than females. I actually expect that sort of thing to go on.

I've been reading about the backgrounds and experiences given to female characters vs males in comics, mainly the rape scenario. It's hard to come up with something for females to overcome. Sure, death of parents is available, if a bit overdone (ie, Batman et al), or last survivor of a planet (Superman, but then they diluted that with Supergirl, Krypto, Argo City, etc). But rape is easy because it's more likely statistically to happen to females than males. It's a theme used often in novels, and that includes by women writers. Yes, I'd like to see some more imagination here, but I also don't want to eliminate the desire to give characters built-in angst. Perhaps more male characters who were abused as boys, perhaps by their uncles, priests, etc, right out of the headlines.

The issue here for me isn't what is being done to females, but the uneven distribution of angst between males and females. When are we going to get the boyfriend's body in the refrigerator, or when are we going to get enough of them to help even the odds.

Yet I don't want the male supporting characters to be wusses to help balance out the weak female supporting characters. Both can be strong, really. Or maybe just individual characters instead of types.

Actually, I want to skip right to equality. In books and movies, I've seen the backlash, the strong female character, the repressed males (I'm reading a science fiction novel like that now). I've even read science fiction which exagerated the issue with female slaves and male overlords to show how harmful such attitudes are. It's all so been there, done that to me. I want strong characters and weak ones, regardless of sex. I want interesting characters with interesting backgrounds and adventures. I want characters who react as individuals and not as stereotypes to what their fictional lives throw at them. I want writers and artists to be able to express themselves without being second guessed re: motives. I want art and stories to not reek of cliche and sensationalism, where the creators seem to be thumbing their nose at the sensibilities of the audience, rather than expressing themselves. I want to get to the good stuff and I want it to all be good, with the understanding that I won't like all of it and that's okay.

Because right now, every word, every angle of a woman's body, every millimeter of exposed comic art skin is being scrutinized way too much for my taste. I get why it's being done and I get why it needs to be done. But I just want to get back to enjoying comics and for creators to be able to create. And if someone doesn't like something, they can speak with their wallets. Which, when you think about it, is what's going on now. Only the people who like that exploitive stuff get to speak louder because the other stuff isn't out there yet in sufficient quantities. We need to fix that by creating it, not change what's already here.


  1. Anonymous12:11 AM EDT

    Awesome post. :)

  2. Thanks. Coming from you, that truly means a lot to me. :)

  3. Anonymous5:39 PM EDT

    HI, got any suggestions for a new female writer trying to get started. I am also trying to organize some female writers for a poetry/short story readings night at this great little place in my neighborhood. let me know Thanks

  4. Hi, Carolina,

    As someone who has yet to be published, outside of an article about Green Arrow in a semi-pro mag about 20 years ago, I don't have the experience to know how someone gets started, especially since I'm not sure what media/format of writing you mean.

    My only suggestions are to write what you care about and persevere.

  5. Anonymous12:50 AM EDT

    I tip my hat to you, Shelly. :) It's good to hear someone speaking up about actually CREATING works to "fill in the gaps" so many are talking about, rather then simply changing what exists to fit the bill. Rock on, girl! :)

  6. Thanks, James. I truly believe that until the work is out there and proves itself viable, it won't win anyone over. If the PTB don't give the work or the creators a chance, that's discrimination. And today, with so many more options available to make a rep for oneself and one's comics and get mainstream attention, it's a lot easier to become your own PTB or find willing ones. Or so I hope. ;)