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How (Not) To Fight Sexism In Comics

Those of you that don't follow the comics scene or the comics blogosphere may or may not find this interesting, so I'm cutting this for your convenience.

A quick recap: Last week's "New Avengers" #35 featured a particularly brutal sequence in which the Hood, a minor supervillain looking to organize the local supercriminals under his leadership, sought to prove his street cred by ambushing and humiiliating a superhero. He successfully surprised Tigra (a long-established Avenger that turns into a catlike form) and pistol-whipped her while his compatriot caught the beatdown on video. You can read more about the scene and what the author, Brian Bendis, thought as he was creating it here.

Now, I'm a huge Bendis fan. I love his dialogue and willingness to take chances and go places other writers won't. I defended much of Bendis' point on the Newsarama blog. But even I concede that Bendis' writing of the scene was sloppy and painted Tigra, an especially capable and confident heroine, as a totally helpless victim, which is just weak sauce designed for shock value.

Female comics fan kali921 was also in that thread, and she had a few things to say about it herself. Now, we might agree on how bad this scene was, and how Bendis is a sloppy writer who ignores continuity and character history to make things fit as he wants, but I do not agree with statements like these:

For those that might be tempted to exclaim about Brian being a nice guy or a fundamentally good human being, I'll state emphatically as a precedent to this discusion that I don't give a damn. I'm not calling him a bad husband or poor father or a societal malcontent. I'm outright castigating his artistic output, because it has direct implications for the way he views female characters, and if the totality of the way an artist writes women can shed light on how they holistically view women, whether as a product of acculteration, socialization, or other means? Brian, I don't want to know you.

For those of you that have commented on your own journals and elsewhere that you "don't see" the sexism inherent in that issue? You're part of the problem. (As of right now, most of the dismissive reactions to the anger over what happened to Greer is from men, but that may not be truly statistically meaningful, since obviously I haven't seen every single fan reaction to the events linked to below.) You're not getting that for a lot of women, reading that issue was in incredibly uncomfortable experience, because we could so easily identify with being right where she was.

Anyone remotely paying attention in comics fandom knows that there is a vocal contingent of mostly very articulate and informed people that can't stand Bendis' writing. In fact, I've noticed a rough correlation over the past three years: the more intelligent I find someone to be, the greater the likelihood that she or he or hir really dislikes Bendis, with his repetitive use of language, his way of making people that I normally love utterly uninteresting and just somehow off, and with his nauseating reductionism of characterization, reducing some characters to mere ciphers containing a set of mannerisms, devoid of depth or emotional resonance. (What are we at now? Seventeen instances of "uh" per Bendis-scribed issue of anything he touches?)

More simply, it doesn't matter how nice a guy Brian may actually be, because his work obviously paints him as a Neanderthal sexist creep, and anyone who disagrees is a sexist creep. In fact, if you even read Bendis' work, you're a sexist creep, and obviously not intelligent enough to meet Kali's clearly impressive standards for social acceptability.

This is not the way to prove a valid point. In fact, what IS a valid point--that Bendis' work displays a disturbing trend towards portrayals of women as victims, whores, and connivers--gets buried in a broad-stroke slam on any male fan that doesn't immediately cast themselves in sackcloth and ashes for not agreeing with her belief system.

Another example is the death of New God Big Barda over at DC. Now (I haven't read the book, so I could be wrong), as I understand it, Barda gets murdered off-panel and is left for her husband, Mister Miracle, to find dead on the floor of their kitchen. That's terrible and sad, given that Barda is an immensely powerful and confident superheroine who used to be in the JLA. I think killing characters for shock value is wasteful and silly, no matter what gender (or species) they are. But I don't think you're going to win any converts to your cause when you say stuff like this:

And its Starlin. He's tricky. A tricky bastard of a writer who probably enjoys watching women yell at him. I wouldn't put this past him. Not for a moment. Fuck you even if it is a trick Starlin. Because that means you knew. You did it on purpose to piss us off so you could laugh at us. Fuck you, and the editor who signed off on this. And no, I'm not buying the fucking series just to see if you resurrect her or if you leave the job to someone else. So stuff it old man!

Yes, because people like Starlin and Bendis lie awake at night plotting how to make the comics blogosphere hate them with their work. Didn't you know?

As I said in the Newsarama thread, I'm fascinated by how fandom arbitrarily decides that some creators are deities who can do no wrong, and others are irredeemably sexist pigs whose entire literary output can be discounted because of their perceived sexism. Why does Ed Brubaker, for instance, not get called out for turning Sharon Carter (former SHIELD director) into a spineless, mind-controlled slave who killed Steve Rogers? Or the fact that Bru wrote her getting preggers by Steve? Isn't THAT sexist? Or how about Dwayne McDuffie's recent "Justice League" that featured a two-page spread of Wonder Woman, Black Canary, and Vixen in some pretty gratuitous bondage? Does all of that rest on Ed Benes' head, and do we give McDuffie a pass?

For the record, I don't think either Bru or McDuffie are sexist or that those incidents were sexist, but they could easily be interpreted as such. Yet comics creators that are beloved by fandom get a pass, while others who are not--Bendis, Johns (on occasion), Meltzer, Winick, etc.--are lambasted constantly and ceaselessly for being sexist. And the end result, as my boy Big Mike so eloquently puts it, is that real instances of sexism in the comics industry--where women writers and editors are still far too few--get lumped in with every hysterical crusade that results any time a female character is treated badly or written poorly. If you cry wolf every single time, people will stop listening.

And the worst part is that a lot of these criticisms are legitimate. I thought the whole "wedding night" fiasco with Green Arrow and Black Canary (written by Winick) was awful, so I didn't buy it. I thought Meltzer's "Identity Crisis" was creepy and unpleasant, and his succeeding JLA work equally so, so I didn't buy it. See a pattern here?

If you want to win converts to your cause, pick your battles smartly. That means not automatically assuming your opponent has the worst possible motives and blanket-slamming everyone who might disagree with you. If you don't, you may end up driving away people who DO agree with you, and then where will you be?

Since I clipped a lot of Kali's work in my response to her and addressed her personally, I offered her the chance to respond to and address my points. Here's what she said:

Since you've shown little or no interest in actually really listening or hearing what female fans are saying, and are clearly resorting to namecalling and personal attacks, your comment here is getting the attention that it deserves: none, as soon as I click the "post comment" button.

Wow. Nice. I feel like the liberal character in "This Modern World" who tries to talk to the conservative and gets repeatedly slammed and insulted, and when they leave, the conservative goes, "Wait! I'm just trying to start a conversation!"

Big Mike reminded me of something I said to him in our chat this morning, that I oddly forgot to add in this initial post:
"These fan boys and girls get all worked up about their characters like they were real people, and think nothing of saying the cruelest, most derogatory comments about the writers, who ARE real people."

Indeed. It's fascinating that comics fans can be apoplectic about the mistreatment of a character (justifiably or not), yet think nothing of calling creators douchebags, wankers, jerks, sexist pigs, and God knows what else. Talk about misplaced priorities.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:03 pm (UTC)
this has been a lot of what's bugging me. And believe me, Duffie didn't get a pass in scans_daily, neither does Bru. Winick is getting bashed so hard that I'm about two posts away from asking if they hate him because he's a New York Jew. It seems that unless it's their own fanfic/lj rp or original characters by the creators it's wrong, and then they just crucify everyone because it's not the way they want it.

Also, histrionics and a lack of patience seems to have taken over. Delayed gratification and the knowledge that the stories are told sequentially with cliff hanger ending seems to have been lost, and unless it's a blowjob to a character that can't carry it's own book, it's the end of the world and all things.
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:12 pm (UTC)
I don't even read SD anymore, because the atmosphere is so toxic. It's really turning into a circle jerk for unaccomplished, overentitled fanpeople who castigate anyone who actually gets out and creates.

This isn't to say that bad stuff from Winick, Meltzer, etc. shouldn't be mocked and criticized, but after a while, the question needs to be asked, "Okay, what have you published lately?"

People are desperate to be famous without actually putting in any effort, and scanning in pages of another person's work and then slagging them may get them Internet fame, but what does it do for the world as a whole?
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Exactly
yeah, I kind of wish there was a community that just posted cool stuff and killed any overly editorial fanwank commenting.

And they don't scan, they torrent them and post the jpgs that others have scanned.
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)
Perhaps we should start one?
That's even funnier that they don't do their own scans. :)
Oct. 23rd, 2007 06:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Perhaps we should start one?
Eh, seems like a lot of work, if I'm going to post online, it's what DCP torrents are for.

oh, unrelated but to blow your mind

that's a campaign poster from the Swiss elections for the party that won.
Oct. 23rd, 2007 07:41 pm (UTC)
I saw that
That is some seriously messed-up sloganeering. Reminds me of the cosmetics ad with the Teutonic white woman manhandling the obviously African black woman.

Something to keep in mind when people say the West is hopelessly bass-ackwards racist. ;)
Oct. 23rd, 2007 08:00 pm (UTC)
Oh my god, Marv Wolfman killed Supergirl! He's sexist!

Online communities are shit. Too many people think an internet connection means their opinions/feelings matter to the world. They go off on this sort of shit because it's just another form of masturbation. Just imagine if they put this sort of energy into actual human rights efforts, or did more to help their fellow man (or woman) in the streets, instead of fluffing their own egos on a comic book blog. That is not helping. That is talking for the sake of talking.

Female exploitation in comics is nothing new. Just look at some of the original Wonder Woman comics. Bondage was her only weakness. Or some of the Lios Lane comics.

If these people want to see some real sexism, they should read some Dave Sim. Or Frank Miller. Or... Hemmingway.

It crosses all media over all time. But come on, it works in reverse too. Gratuitous ass shots and crotch shots on male superheroes are just as common as with women. Probably moreso, since there are more male superhero characters than female.

Did anyone bitch about Jason Todd getting beaten to death with a crowbar? He was an underage boy. Shit like that happens to men in comics all the friggin' time these days. But the Trolls these days don't blame the author of a personal agenda or hate in real life until it's a woman.

It's fiction, after all. Writing a sexist or racist character does not mean the author is racist or sexist. Such accusations still happen, though... but then, many people think General Hospital is a reality show...

If they're going to bash Bendis, don't call him on sexism, call him on sloppy writing. We know he could have done better if he were putting real effort into it.
Oct. 23rd, 2007 08:37 pm (UTC)
Someone on kali921's LJ was actually talking about how Jason's death wasn't all that graphic. WTF? For 1989, that was HELLA brutal. Still is, actually.

You're right--Bendis' big sin as a writer is that he doesn't care enough about the world he's writing in. He pays no attention to continuity other than his own books and the Big Events he and the other writers create. Since all of his successful books ("Daredevil," "Alias," "Ultimate Spider-Man," "Powers,") were largely self-contained, I get the sense that he doesn't really know how to handle writing in such a deeply interconnected universe. I count "Daredevil" in that lot since Matt's largely been off doing his own angsty thing for years now.
Oct. 23rd, 2007 09:54 pm (UTC)
Wait a minute...
You're not getting that for a lot of women, reading that issue was in incredibly uncomfortable experience, because we could so easily identify with being right where she was.

But isn't that the point? We, the readers, are not superheroes. So, when one gets snuck up on and beat the crap out of, aka mugged, it's natural to be able to relate, because it could much more easily happen to us. The big diff is, with Tigra, she was suprised, and that's why they could beat her down. Fer cryin' out loud, no one says a thing when Batman bitch slaps a female villain.
So would it have been any different if it was a man? What about a woman dressed like a man? What if it were Jimmy Olsen in drag? Still not okay because it's the appearance of a woman under violence?
Fer cryin' out loud! It only woulda been sexist if the villain had let a male hero, say Green Arrow (no powers, "easier" target), walk right on by in favor of Tigra (POWERS!! +big claws) meekly shuffling forty paces behind.

Harrumph. It's more sexist to bitch over this than the actual incident was. Women, especially fictional supers choosing to put themselves in the crosshairs, shouldn't get preferentially less violence than men just because they're women.
Oct. 23rd, 2007 10:19 pm (UTC)
That's what I said
If the Hood had blindsided a male hero, pistol-whipped them and videotaped it for posterity, would anyone have blinked? No, of course not. In fact, they'd have done exactly what Bendis intended--respected the Hood as a villain.

But because Bendis chose a female hero, and a female hero who's extremely sexy and comfortable with it at that, and wrote her as a screaming victim, it totally muddies up his point.

With that said, I agree with you--equality means men and women alike should get the same treatment in the same circumstances. If that means getting an ass-kicking from an ambitious supervillain and being humiliated, that's how it's to be.
Oct. 24th, 2007 12:13 am (UTC)
Would anyone give a crap if the guy had pistol whipped a male character nobody cared about in years like....Beast or sticking with Avengers....Wonder Man? Maybe but not as much I imagine.

And Big Barda died? Well congrats to DC for killing off a MORE "Couldn't care less about" character than Tigra I guess.


Oct. 24th, 2007 01:45 am (UTC)
This argument is, unfortunately, not limited to comics. I watch feminists push people away from their points and agendas all the time by trying to push minor points as horrific discrimination.
Oct. 24th, 2007 10:57 pm (UTC)
I was just banned from kali921's journal because I dared to question whether or not BMB is more than a cog in the Marvel machine, and that I felt the scene was not actually misogynistic.

Knee-jerk reactionaries really don't like to be questioned.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


'Nuff said
The Master Cylinder

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