Wow, everything I've been doing is wrong.
When I started reading comics and writing comic fanfics as a kid, I guess I just didn't know that I was in over my head. Wandering through comic shops has always been one of my favorite pasttimes, but I suppose I owe the owners of those shops an apology for trespassing. What was I thinking?
I mean, it's comic creators Todd McFarlane (Spawn), Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) and Gerry Conway (The Punisher), right? If they say comics aren't for women, as they recently did, who am I to argue?
Oh, yeah. I'm a human being AND a lifelong comic fan with a brain AS WELL AS a vagina, and I call bullshit.
Pure, unadulterated, lazy thinking, the-status-quo-suits-us-just-fine-and-why-are-you-trying-to-make-us-think? bullshit.
The New Republic ran an article on Mark Millar ('You're Done Banging Superheroes, Baby': How The Sickest Mind in Comic Books Became Their Biggest Star) in which Millar is simultaneously praised for his innovation and contribution to the world of comics (quite rightly), and criticized for his blatant hypocrisy (also rightly). The next day, we saw McFarlane, Len Wein and Conway on the panel promoting PBS' documentary "Superheroes: The Never Ending Battle," in which McFarlane and Conway enjoyed stroking each others' egos by arguing that creators don't really have control over how comics portray women, because, history.
Since all of this debate is understandably pressing on my ladybrain, I find it easier to bullet point this pile of self-indulgence. So let's take a look at why, exactly, comics just aren't for women, and their portrayal in comics just doesn't matter.
1. Comics don't aim for diversity because it would weaken the storytelling.
Using flawless logic, Conway argues that "readers are not interested in those characters," and that anyway "comics reflect society."
Why this is bullshit: Readers ARE interested in these characters. This is a basic pillar of fiction. Create interesting, multi-faceted characters, and people will enjoy them. It's a circular argument to say that you're not going to create interesting female characters, and then whine that you don't do it because no one is interested in them. If you haven't been creating many of them, and the ones you have been creating are flat, or women in refrigerators, or narrative devices to further male characters' plotlines, then no, I imagine most people don't find them that interesting. That, however, is a reflection on your lazy writing.
Also, anecdata is not data, and that one girl you are using in your example to prove your point is not reflective of every woman. McFarlane argued, “I’ve got two daughters, and if I wanted to do something that I thought was emboldened to a female, I probably wouldn’t choose superhero comic books to get that message across," mainly because it's too "testosterone driven." Conway piled on: his daughter is "not interested in the guy stories." She is interested in writer Faith Erin Hicks, who is female and wrote "The Adventures of Superhero Girl," but that doesn't count somehow, because it's about a girl, not a boy, and comics are for boys. Even though "The Adventures of Superhero Girl" is a comic.
Sorry, guys: your daughters are not the only girls in the entire world. I'm sure they're lovely, but they are not the sole representations of females and their responses to comics.
2. We don't write diverse comics, because that's how it's always been, and it's reflective of history, so it's right.
As for the "history" argument, Conway says, “I think it’s a mistake to sort of, like, pigeonhole superheroes, or to add so much to superheroes that you’re missing the fact it’s a genre within itself. It’s like saying, ‘Why are there no medieval stories about female knights?’ Because there was only one, you know, Joan of Arc. … It’s an inherent limitation of that particular genre, superheroes.”
Very true, Mr. Conway, there aren't medieval stories about female knights, but there have certainly been many, many stories written about female knights since then. That's how literary tradition works. If you're going to define a genre that spans over 8 decades now by a narrow window — "That's how the original comics were written in the 30s, so THAT'S HOW WE DO IT NOW," good for you, but I doubt your career is going to last very long. But modern stories about female knights have never been popular, right? So it's totally the same thing.
But even further? Medieval knights are a literary tradition/genre based on actual historical events. Knights existed. Superheroes DON'T. They are entirely fantasy, which means that the writers control the rules, and are not constrained by "how it used to be." To quote ThinkPress writer Alyssa Rosenberg: "The decision to stay within the narrow lanes of your own fantasies is a choice, not biological determinism.”
So now that we've learned that women and comics don't work, it logically follows that it doesn't matter how women in comics are portrayed. Take it away, Mark Millar!
3. As a plot device, rape is exactly the same as decapitation and has no greater implications. Which is why it's totes okay to use CONSTANTLY as the only narrative importance many female characters get — women in refrigerators further the male hero's narrative arc.
Mark Millar is pushing boundaries, see, and so “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don't really think it matters. It's the same as, like, a decapitation. It's just a horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy.”
I suppose that's true, Mr. Millar — if a character commits rape, they are a bad guy. So I guess there are a lot of male characters who have been raped as well, right? (Actually, there have been quite a few, including Batman, Green Arrow and Nightwing. Out of curiosity, how many of you knew that off the top of your head? Off the top of my head, I knew Sue Dibny, Silk Spectre, Starfire and Artemis, and of course Mina Harker is threatened with rape by Hyde in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And of course Hyde turns around and rapes Hawley Griffen. I digress. But in general, when it comes to the things that threaten comic book characters, men are threatened with murder or violence, and women are threatened with murder, violence and rape.)
The issue of rape in comics has created plenty of debates. You're reading my article, so here's my take: rape is not taboo. It is not something we shouldn't talk about or write about, because it happens so very often in real life.
Rape is not the exact equivalent of decapitation, and it is certainly not something that should just be a plot point to create a sad backstory for a female character who can begin to overcome her trauma and find love with our hero, only to be tragically murdered (or some variation on that story).
And it strains credulity to argue that the half of the population that typically does not have to worry about being raped on any given day of their lives, the half that write the majority of comic books, fully explore the consequences and implications of rape in said comic books.
So let's talk about Mark Millar. This comes directly from the New Republic article:
Millar has spoken out against the underrepresentation of female characters in comics, but his depictions of rape have alienated some readers. In Wanted, the sadistic protagonist gleefully commits rape over and over again, at one time bragging that he “raped an A-list celebrity and it didn’t even make the news.” In The Authority, a Captain America analog rapes two unconscious women. In issue four of Kick-Ass 2, a group of bad guys finds the young hero’s love interest, a teenaged girl named Katie, and brutally gang-rapes her. “You’re done banging superheroes, baby,” the ringleader says, punching her and unzipping his fly, “it’s time to see what evil dick tastes like.”
Laura Hudson, the former editor-in-chief of the popular blog Comics Alliance and a senior editor at Wired, thought that scene was deplorable, but typical of Millar. “There's one and only one reason that happens, and it's to piss off the male character,” she said. “It's using a trauma you don't understand in a way whose implications you can't understand, and then talking about it as though you're doing the same thing as having someone's head explode. You're not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don't understand, you shouldn't be writing rape scenes.”
Interestingly, in 1999 Millar admitted that “Granted, the female stuff has more of a sexual violence theme and this is something people should probably watch out for, but rape is a rare thing in comics and is seldom done in an exploitative way."
The Millar disconnect has left some — well, I was going to say speechless, but Joseph Hughes of Comics Alliance uses some great words to say exactly what he thinks of this: “In a culture in which rape is undeniably endemic, Millar’s steadfast refusal to consider the potential ramifications of his work remains astounding, infuriating, irresponsible, and sad. To pretend depictions of rape and sexual assault in popular fiction play absolutely no role in further informing a culture that seems largely hellbent on not dealing with these statistics is, at best, willfully ignorant, a position adopted by a writer more concerned about the money he’s making than actually improving as a creator.”
So, let's review.
Comics aren't for women. And if women do like comics, they shouldn't, because testosterone, and that's not the right platform for them.
But for those women who do read comics, it doesn't matter how they're portrayed. Because women don't read them, you see, so it's not necessary to write characters that will appeal to them. So if you're a woman, and you're reading comics, first of all, why are you reading them? Second of all, don't expect anything that appeals to you.
Because comics can't change. It's history. They reflect history and how things are, have been and always will be. Comics are entirely subject to the strictures of the genre as set down in the Comics Code of the Brethren Siegel and Shuster, and the code is the law. (Ha, Comics Code, my phrasing is ironic. Sorry, moving on.) Verily, as men have always leapt buildings with a single bound, so shall they continue, and yea, they shall save the hot girl, as is their function and as is her function.
You know, I've heard this same crap over and over from bigotry-entrenched trolls on the Internet, but I've also heard this same crap denounced roundly by over half of the guys I know who read comics.
I didn't expect to hear it from these guys.
But hey, gentlemen, keep telling us that comics aren't for us. We'll keep calling you on your bullshit.