I’m not in the habit of writing ranty op-ed rebuttals. But in answer to this piece in The New Yorker, I have a few opinions I need to get out onto the page. I don’t know what upset me more – referring to superheroes as ‘porn stars’, the author’s obvious lack of research or inclination to offer a balanced article. Maybe it was the superficial snark with no attempt to understand the comic in her hand, the work gone into getting a cover with that many female superheroes in one place, or the hungry and ever growing reader base that isn’t a) pre-pubescent or b) male.
The article Jill Lepore wrote flagged up a few concerns that I want to unpack with you. You may disagree with me, there may be some key points I’ve missed. This is a personal response from someone who reads and studies comics and will obviously be subjective. Please consider my frustrations as addressed to these hackneyed old sentiments that keep getting trotted out in comics criticism and not as any kind of personal attack – G Willow Wilson has already done a much better job of tearing apart the negativity towards her comic than I ever could.
Worrying sentiment no1 – comics are meant for the consumption of boys and men
Not only is this damaging, it’s easily proven wrong. Historically, they may have been marketed to boys for a certain portion of their existence, but that certainly does not remain the case. How about reading up on the demographic stats for female comic readers, or how quickly those statistics are climbing? And before you start in on this being a new phenomenon, ask yourself if the spike in sales is due to a culture shift towards inclusion and acceptance, a change in levels of access and openness – or even both.
When I stepped foot in a comics store 10 years ago, I got laughed out of there simply for being a girl. I borrowed my brother’s comics, got them from libraries instead and carried on reading.
I go into a comics store now, and the manager knows me by name. I can find other fans online instantly. I can find recommendations for new titles to read without having to pass a test of my existing comics knowledge or battling any self-appointed gatekeepers.
Female comics readers have been around for a very long time, but we’ve only really become visible in the last few years or so. We’ve put up with a lot for that visibility. We’re still putting up with a lot – but we are very definitely here, with our wallets out ready. Don’t dismiss us.
Worrying sentiment no2 – pornography and superhero comics are inextricably intertwined
B movies, science fiction and comics have had to be awkward bedfellows with titillation and smut throughout their history. Because comics are still struggling to be taken wholly seriously by certain pockets of our culture, this portion of their past gets hailed back to. They’re still a relatively new medium, if you compare them to literature, photography, cinema, etc. Now pick any medium over 100 years old and try to tell me that there has never been a deviation of that medium towards pornographic content. Nope. Can’t do it.
Humanity is filled with sexual impulses. We like expressing those. That’s why as soon as we invented the printing press, the first thing we did as a culture was start printing smut with it. With the invention of the photograph came the invention of the pornographic photograph. Using a new medium to satiate primal impulses is a natural stage in our mastery of that medium. Harking back to it in superhero comics ignores the progress made and is a slap in the face to every writer and artist that has helped the medium to evolve into what it is today.
Yes, there are problems in the portrayal of women in superhero comics. Yes, they’re systemic and cultural. No, they’re not set in stone, and no, you’re not helping any. Being able to look past the broken spines and balloon chests of our favourite superheroes is just something that comics fans have had to attune to. The same as being able to relate to a seemingly endless conveyer belt of 30-something straight white everyman protagonists onscreen. But if you can’t see the difference between porn and comics, I’m a little worried for the quality of porn you’re viewing.
Worrying sentiment no3 – turning Thor into a woman or Captain America into a black man is something to be sniffed at.
These characters are cyphers. They are mythological in nature. Their function is to entertain and relate to the world around them. If we can have a male Captain Marvel and a female one, or a male Thor and a female one, then go for it. If it can be that a black man is able to inherit the same powers as Captain America or Spiderman or Green Lantern, then welcome – it’s about time.This is not a new thing – it’s just new that it’s getting any real mainstream coverage. When comics started out, they were predominantly produced by straight white men for straight white men, and so of course they predominantly contained straight white male heroes. That isn’t the case anymore, so why should these stories and characters not change to better reflect their creators and audience as well?
Embedding diverse representation into comics canon is important, delicate work and you do not get to sniff at it because the backstory doesn’t make sense to you after a light skim. Hell, you don’t get to write off any fictional character if their backstory isn’t easily turned into a soundbyte – why
would that be ok to do here?
Pick any high profile superhero character, male or female and they will have at least 10 years of convoluted, frequently daft backstory. That’s part of the fun, being able to keep track. Knowing who trained with who before handing over the mantle to who is a big part of being a comics fan. We rail against poor retconning and we anticipate reincarnations. We help the uninitiated through heaving complex narratives that take in multiple universes and dimensions and we argue over canon versus standalone arcs. We LIKE THAT. If it’s not for you, that’s totally fine. That doesn’t mean it’s stupid, it means it’s not for you.
Oh, and Thor was a frog that one time. Because comics. Not hearing any outcry about that particular story arc though, are we?
Worrying sentiment no4 – the opinions and predilections of a character’s creator directly inform the validity of the character.
Reporting that W M Marston had a fondness for BDSM is as old hat as reporting that Batman and Robin’s relationship in Silver Age comics had romantic overtones. Or that the people of Metropolis really shouldn’t have been dazzled by one pair of glasses and a kiss curl for all those years.
It’s lazy and it’s tired. You’re going to be telling us about the paper Fredric Wertham wrote next. We’ve come a hell of a long way since Seduction of the Innocent was published, but you’re trotting out the same arguments like it’s news.
Wonder Woman has been shaped by more than one pair of hands over the years, as has every single superhero going, before we even get to the tired old argument of authorial intention. Do the Barthes thing. Then find a new line of enquiry.
Worrying sentiment no5 – it’s ok to criticize a medium or text you know very little about without doing any research
I see this so often and it angers me every time. Imagine any journalist or academic doing this with any other subject. And getting away with it. How is this ok? That comic you’re dismissing after a light skim and a quick flit around a wikipage is the sum of a group effort taking months to produce. Before we even factor in the fanbase, culture, industry… Have some respect and do some research. Would The New Yorker have accepted a similarly written piece on an exhibition opening? On a new film release?
Worrying sentiment no6 – the way a character is drawn informs her value
I wonder, did you actually READ any of the comics involving the admittedly scanty costumes you’re turning your nose up at? Or did you skim over dialogue and form your judgement based on the images alone.
Do I really need to draw the parallel between doing this to fictional characters and doing this with real women?
Yes, the costumes can be problematic. And the physiology. And the poses. We know. We’re trying to be vocal as consumers as to how we feel about that and positive changes are being made all the time. Bone up on the Hawkeye Initiative and join in the argument, or get the hell out of the way.
Riven is a dancer but not, unfortunately, in possession of magical properties. Usually up to coffee-fuelled mischiefs, you can follow her on the Geeked tumblr or check out her custom painted Nerf guns over at Buckley’s Boomsticks