In an unprecedented event on this column, I’m going to dial down the anger. Don’t worry, it’s just a brief fit and sure to pass soon.
Your not particularly humble columnist was recently exceedingly gratified to receive the following email from someone who wishes to be identified as an “independent comics publisher”. He had for me a request:
“After reading your column of Joss Whedon, I was curious if you could be of some help to me by providing me with a list of cliches surrounding super-heroines in mainstream comics. I’m not looking for a critique of artistic styles, etc, because I feel that stuff is fairly obvious. What I’m looking for are the sort of things that you and your colleagues have noticed regarding flaws in characters like (1) Buffy, (2) Wonder Woman, (3) Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, etc. I’m in the midst of writing the female lead for my OGN and I’d like to only commit full-conscious acts of deliberate misogyny (joking), if any at all, so any observations, thoughts, or what have you on the above heroines or others like Supergirl and Ms. Marvel that come to mind would be greatly appreciated.”
“Well, shucks,” I thought. “How awesome is that? Who says that no one listens to angry girls?” And after confirming it was okay to use his request for this column, I made a list.
How To Write An Original Female Lead Character In A Fashion That Doesn’t Drive Karen Crazy:
Bechdel’s Law: Important, Damnit:
1) Is she the only female character in your magnum opus?
Is her position within an ensemble cast “the girl”? As in, you have “geeky guy”, “strong guy”, “goofy guy” and “the girl”? WARNING WARNING WARNING.
If you have only one female character, then it had better be airtight justified by the setting/plot, and she should be scrupulously backgrounded and fleshed out. And seriously, best not to do this at all. Throw some more female characters in there, preferably of different ethnicities, body shapes and ages, as appropriate. Don’t fall into the “default gender = man” trap.
2) Does she talk to other women?
3) … about something other than a man?
Random selections from my personal experience over the last 24 hours shows women talking to each other about: comics; booze; the Israel/Lebanon crisis; travel plans; their neighbours’ kids; novel editing; RPGs; Ani DiFranco’s new album; anal sex; the vast number of people who write for public consumption who really can’t write; internet trolls; work; the weather; and Disneyland.
Basically, is she a real person? Real people talk about all sort of crap and a little off-hand dialogue goes a long way. Check out Birds of Prey, Alias and Ex Machina, where women talk to each other about men, but also, among other things, about food, their costumes, their jobs, art and politics.
4) What is she wearing?
Is it appropriate to the climate/society/personality/powers/financial circumstances/occupation of the wearer, or at least as appropriate as what the men around her are wearing? Is she wearing it for herself, or for her readers?
Supergirl wearing a frilly almost-skirt which magically never shows her underwear sewn for her by Ma Kent is character-assassinating fanservice. Power Girl’s famous boob window can be either “strong woman proud of her body” or “LOOK BOYS BOOBIES”, depending on the artist, the writer, and the reader.
If you find yourself saying things like “But she just won’t be as sexy in cargo pants,” stop and ask yourself a) why you think your female lead character must be sexy and b) whether this is a character design imperative for your male characters (and why not?).
5) Was she/is she going to be raped?
Many, many female characters in comics have been raped or sexually assaulted, often to provide motivation for male characters or to prove that her rapist is really, really evil, really! Because her rape is, oddly, all about him.
Rape is a tricky topic, since studies show something like one in four of women in the First World can describe being sexually assaulted, often by people they know. In developing nations, stats are harder to acquire (especially since in many cultures being raped outside marriage is proof of non-chastity and rape within marriage is perfectly legal) but it’s generally shown to be higher still. So a lot of women in the world have been raped, and it’s numerically realistic for at least one of your many female characters to be one of them.
But does the reader really need to know she’s been raped? Is it vital to the story? Not all of the character-building process needs to be explicit on the page.
If you must write about rape, and think you can handle this topic with sensitivity and a lack of sensationalism, proceed with extreme caution. Particularly avoid “this is the only reason she’s fighting/causing crime” or “it’s not actually her reaction to the rape we’re concerned with, but that of her male romantic interest/colleagues/friends.”
Feminism In Comics:
6) If she objects to sexism, make sure it’s actually sexist.
I adore Carol Danvers from the tips of her blonde hair to the soles of her kicky black boots, but when Ms. Marvel was descending into an alcoholic mess, she dismissed objections to her increasing recklessness as “It’s just because I’m a girl!” when actually it was because she was flying into battle drunk off her ass.
The fact that real sexism exists and might be an issue for female superheroes was neatly glossed over. Instead “Sexism!” is clearly presented as Carol’s pitiful excuse for the negative response to her self-destructive behavior. This wonderfully diminished the impact of misogyny – personal and institutional – as a real, often insidious force that really impacts women.
7) “I hit boys!” is not a strong feminist statement.
Buffy Summers – how I loathe what was done to this character – ended up forcing oral sex on a male character over his repeated verbal objections. To a musical sting. The writers, I am fairly certain, did not actually realise they had written a rape, particularly as this same character later attempted to rape Buffy, which was not treated as at all amusing.
See also: Men forcing demonic power into the First Slayer = metaphysical rape and utterly despicable. Buffy using Willow to force demonic power into possibly thousands of young women = empowering!
Women are entirely capable of stupid or evil decisions. But those decisions should be treated as such by the text, not lauded as a turning of the sexism tables.
8) Are misogynistic situations presented uncritically?
Does your creation perpetuate stereotypes and misogynistic tropes without thinking about them at all, or does it problematise them? Misogyny, like racism and homophobia, exists. There’s no reason it can’t make an appearance in your work, but it shouldn’t be endorsed by it.
In the Birds of Prey story “One Day; Well-Chosen”, Oracle and Black Canary engage in some slut-shaming of Huntress. Misogyny! Then they realise they screwed up and make amends. Misogyny criticised within the text!
9) If you’re a man, consider getting a female feminist pre-reader.
If you’re a guy, you have male privilege. This is not your fault. However, even if you’re a feminist, your privilege may well be blinding you to parts of your work that might be offensive or dumb. Why not ask a female feminist to read over your script? She isn’t every woman, or every feminist, but she might be able to spot something you missed.
If this sounds like a lot of effort to go to just to keep the feminists happy, remember it’s not about that. Presumably, you want to write the best damn comic you can. Realistic female characters = good characterisation. Good characterisation = good writing.
Finally: I am neither every woman nor every feminist. What do you think, dear readers? What character stereotypes piss you off? What have I missed? What have I got, in your opinion, plain wrong?
Or, fuck it all, you’re still angry! Vote for the first Frank Miller Memorial Case Losers here!