You have been linked to the Anti-Comics-Feminist Bingo Card. Possibly, you made some arguments against feminist fans in your own blog or on a message board and got “BINGO!” as a response. Possibly, you responded to a feminist critic speaking in her own blog or on a message board and got “BINGO!” as a response. Or possibly that link wasn’t directed at you, but you followed it all the same.
Now you are confused. You made some arguments that seemed perfectly reasonable to you, but the critic or bingo player didn’t bother to engage with them. And now it turns out there’s a bingo card listing them. Why is that? Why won’t he or she discuss your points of disagreement?
Because your critic or bingo player has seen those arguments before. They are, in fact, clichés, and most of them are easily rebutted. Many of them are the province of trolls. Your feminist critic is likely heartily sick of saying the same things over and over and has given up on explaining the very basics to people in the interests of forging ahead into new territory. This is his/her prerogative, as it is not his/her role to educate you.
The bingo card was originally created for the audience of those critics, as a point of black humour – look, we’ve heard these arguments so many times you can play bingo with them! – not as an educational tool. That’s why, though some of the arguments are instantly recognisable as idiotic by every person with intelligence and integrity, some of the squares cause confusion. They’re shorthand for situations the original audience is familiar with, but can be baffling for someone who genuinely wants to know why “But men are drawn unrealistically too!” is not a relevant rebuttal.
Fear not! Barring a few exceptions, it is entirely possible you are neither malicious or an idiot, but merely clueless. These explanations will serve to enclue you.
A few things:
1) This blog is, in general, not for amateurs. Some familiarity with the principles and theories of feminism will assist you. I’ve tried to make the explanations less shorthand than the usual contents of the column, but if you are seriously deficient in this regard, or find yourself confused by terms like “objectification”, then I recommend stopping in at Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog.
2) This blog is predicated on the belief that sexism is wrong. If you disagree with this, you are wasting your time. And also oxygen.
And now… bingo!
Oh, deary me. First, you decide that manga, which is much more a style derived from a specific culture than a genre, is universally appealing to all women. Then, you decide that, this being so, women should stop complaining about sexism in superhero comics, because they have manga! Where things aren’t sexist… well, not all the time!
You are wrong on all points. Manga is not universally appealing to all women, many women love superhero comics and are tired of the big NO GURLZ sign on the treehouse, and anyone has the right to complain about sexism in anything whenever they see it. Superhero comics shouldn’t stop with the blatant sexism because manga offers some alternatives, but because – crazy thought! – sexism is wrong.
1: How the fuck would you know? You’re on the internets.
2: The appearance of the critic makes no actual impact on the appearance of whatever they are critiquing. If the complaint is valid, it’s valid, whether the commenter looks like Vampirella or the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
3: Insulting the (imagined) appearance of someone who disagrees with you instead of their actual argument is so low and moronic a tactic that it is generally abandoned by ten-year-olds when they hit puberty. Yes – sad but true – you are that boy on the playground responding to “It’s my turn on the swing” with “YOU’RE UGLY AND YOU SMELL!” This is called an “ad hominem” argument. Ad hominem is Latin for “you don’t actually have an argument, do you?”
No. Most likely, your critic want comics full of women treated as realistically as men are, in the same manner, with as much variety in face and body type. Apparently, you find that threatening and have jumped to an exaggeration of their argument that also demonises fat and those who don’t fit the cultural beauty standards. This says nothing flattering about you.
This is one of those arguments that reasonable people often make, unable to see why feminist comics fans spend time and energy discussing and deploring sexism in superhero comics when there’s just so darn much of it. Why not, the argument goes, simply stop reading? Give up comics altogether, or find alternatives to the superhero books that infuriate you so.
But that’s not good enough. Most feminist fans hate sexism, but love superheroes. I know that there’s something about costumed people beating the crap out of bad guys, invading alien armies and each other that makes my heart happy. If there are explosions, so much the better! And the fair number of books that get it right is evidence that it can be done.
But most importantly, your critic has every right to complain about sexism in comics because – crazy thought! – sexism is wrong, whether you think it’s a waste of energy or not.
No, censorship would be if the critic was heading a government body and inspecting each title before it came out, with the ability to prevent the publication of anything that violated the guidelines of that body.
Unless that is what the critic is doing, or proposing others do, what they are engaging in is critique, not censorship.
Personally, I’m not interested in censoring things. I want people to stop depicting women so poorly in comic books, but I want them to stop because they realise it’s fucking dumb, not because there’s someone with a rubber stamp hovering suspiciously above each page. If criticism contributes to people realising that depicting women so poorly is fucking dumb – and I have an inbox says it does – then that is awesome.
People making this argument fall into two camps.
The first believe this is genuinely true, in which case I urge them to submit video footage at once, and salute their courage.
The second believe that superheroes being unrealistic creations in the first place, it isn’t much more unrealistic to stick four inch spikes on female characters. But why is it always the female characters? Because high heels are gendered. Women in comics aren’t wearing heels because they’re super-agile; they’re wearing heels because the artist believes that’s what attractive women should do.
Moreover, many feminist readers have worn heels, and know first hand how painful they can be and how much they restrict movement. Seeing stilettoes on Black Canary draws not admiration of her dainty classiness, but a mental *CRASH* following the failing suspension of disbelief.
It is true that Power Girl is not likely to suffer the backaches that her similarly-endowed real world sisters must endure or have painful surgery to correct, but once again there are two issues here.
The first is the suspension of disbelief thing – if you have large breasts, or even medium-sized breasts, you’re aware that they flop around and upset your balance and feel vulnerable when not constrained. For the male equivalent, please imagine a hero charging into battle in a kilt and a condom, with no other restriction on his own floppy bits. Now imagine that the things flopping around are about half as sensitive, but roughly ten times bigger.
The second is more an art/cultural thing, wherein the secondary sexual characteristics of women are held to be so hugely important that they must be emphasised. Bonus for obvious nipple action! If I have to point out why automatically reducing female characters to body parts is a bad idea, you are reading the wrong blog.
And the first time she appeared, that excuse was just barely enough to hoist one’s disbelief. After all, fashion is a pretty strange cultural artefact, and clothing only necessary in terms of if you’ll freeze without it.
But when she keeps appearing, with different names, still resembling a buxom earth lass who just likes to walk around naked – just because! – it gets icky.
She’s not real. She was created. Her no-nudity-taboo-alien-culture was created. And they were created so that there was an excuse, however flimsy, to objectify yet another female character.
Girls do wear skirts! Not, usually, when they are being soldiers or fire fighters or police officers or martial artists or athletes, which are our real world equivalents to superheroes. I’ll grant you tennis and netball players, if you grant me that most tennis and netball players are wearing shorts or spanky pants under those skirts, and probably wouldn’t be wearing them at all if there wasn’t such a huge cultural pressure on women to be ladylike.
Which, again, is the problem. Superheroic women must be female first, heroes after. Women wear skirts. Therefore, superheroic women wear skirts!
Moreover, like heeled shoes, skirts restrict movement. Excess material gets in the way. And while the excess material that forms Superman’s cape is there to make him look awesome as it billows in the wind, the excess material that forms Supergirl’s skirt is there because she’s SuperGIRL, damnit!
Some superheroes might believably wear skirts. But it’s an odd choice that requires in-text explanation to suspend disbelief.
Again, reasonable persons often employ this argument. Your critic is probably fully in favour of costumes suiting personalities. That’s why she’s irritated that, for example, Huntress’ personality apparently switched from full-cover spandex to an exposed midriff that somehow magically failed to reveal her bullet scars.
Or, she could be wearily sick of the parade of comic book women who, like the attractive aliens with no nudity taboo, just happen to have personalities that require costumes emphasising their primary sexual traits.
This one really is a judgement call. The critic may think that Power Girl’s costume suits her personality, but balks at Emma Frost’s all-white fetish wear. You might think Emma’s clothes admirably suited to her elitist contempt, but be baffled by the infamous boob window.
If this is the only spot the bingo player has scored off you, fear not! You are probably not a moron. This argument, like all the costume related points, is really only offensive in combination with others. That’s why we’re playing bingo, not handing out a misogyny raffle.
This is often used to assume a fantasy-get-out-of-misogyny-free card, so if you have employed it as “but comics are about men’s fantasies so it doesn’t matter if they’re sexist and demeaning so STFU” I am afraid that this blog probably can’t help you. Possibly, nothing can.
However, if you are arguing that superhero comics employ unrealistic situations like people being able to fly and punch through solidified walls of time, and thus a lack of realism in the depiction of women is only to be expected, then your bingo player was right to send you here.
The thing is that we all want a certain amount of realism in comics. We want, for example, characters to be speaking something recognisable as language, preferably a language we understand. Unless you’re a huge Dali fan, I doubt you want Superman to suddenly become utterly surreal. (And if you are a huge Dali fan, hi! Me too!)
While superhero stories often feature wildly improbable physical storylines, powers and character origins, the characters themselves usually maintain some grip on emotional reality. They have to, or we wouldn’t want to read about them. Even the aliens are usually understandably human.
That’s why things like there being only one woman in a team, to fulfil the role of “the girl”, or lots of superheroines thinking skirts are a good idea, or the constant focus on sexy!!! gets to feminist readers. It has no emotional reality. It doesn’t ring true. And it’s skeezy and demeaning to argue that because it’s fantasy, it must be fantasy that objectifies women.
If you used this in conjunction with the point above, you automatically fail everything.
In short: many feminist fans object to the rape of a female character as an origin story for her or as motivation for the actions of male heroes. It’s an horrifically overused trope that often goes for sensationalism rather than sensitivity. It also tends to underline that women need woman!reasons to become heroes or villains, instead of the multitudinous reasons that motivate the male powered types.
In long: Rachel Edidin’s Inside Out discusses this in a fabulous series of articles I highly recommend to all humans.
This is probably the bingo point that causes the most fuss. When otherwise enlightened persons use the argument and are consequently informed of their gaffe, they tend to respond, baffled, “But I’m RIGHT! They ARE!”
Yes! You are right! Nowhere but in comics or other carefully controlled media does one find such stunning physical specimens of manhood. Comic book guys often have symmetrical features, are well- (often over-) muscled and are generally good looking.
However, you don’t find many of them striding along in bathing suits and high-heeled boots, wrenching their backs out as they hurl their hips around and thrust their tumescent, massive penises and firmly rounded butts at the reader.
Why? Because that would look ridiculous. So why isn’t it ridiculous when it’s done to female characters?
No one would deny that the average superhero team contains more attractive men than you would find walking down the street anywhere but Hollywood. But there is a substantial difference between the unrealistic portrayal of men and women that relies heavily on gendered stereotyping of what is attractive. Men must be strong! Women must be sexy!
So when you say “But men are drawn unrealistically too!”, the bingo player reads “Men are drawn to look strong and handsome, and that’s why you shouldn’t complain about Frank Miller objectifying Vicki Vale’s talking butt.”
Wow, and people say feminists hate men. If you genuinely believe men just have to objectify women, because it’s hardwired into them to regard those possessing vaginas as occasionally entertaining fuckdolls rather than people, and that objectification just has to ooze all over the pages of stories about good costumes vs evil costumes (plus explosions!) then you have a really, really low opinion of men.
I assume that since you have an internet connection, you’re not sitting in a tree eating a raw rat and grunting suspiciously at interlopers. I mean, I could be wrong. These are big internets, and there’s probably at least one person into that. But if you aren’t that person, and you make this argument, I feel bound to remind you that fully functional humans are totally capable of overcoming biological imperatives in favour of ethical standards and social justice and have been for hundreds of years. If you can’t be bothered to make the effort, then I’m not convinced I should consider you a modern human being at all.
Yes. Our feeble pink lady!brains are incapable of mastering the subtle complexities of the sequential arts. Female fans and creators have been faking it all this time, with their in-depth discussions and dissertations and fan writing and comics making and industry experience! Oh woe, whatever shall we do? Sigh, gasp, swoon, etc.
Oh, please. One, sexism is wrong and deserving of anyone’s disdain. Two, many feminist fans are also creators. Three, criticism is valid or not regardless of the creative skills or otherwise of the critic. No one dismisses Roger Ebert’s criticism on the grounds that he’s never made a movie. Criticism and creation are interlinked, but not interchangeable. Four, if “shut up” is any part of your discourse, you fail cogent rebuttal.
The More Important Things Fallacy! I love this one, because it combines an utter cluelessness of the impact of cultural artefacts on our, y’know, culture, with the arrogant assumption that complaining about comics is as far as your critic goes when it comes to women’s rights.
Your critic is probably more than mindful of the fact that women are oppressed, abused, raped, murdered and viciously slandered worldwide. Don’t you dare assume he or she is not doing something about it! And don’t you dare assume that just because they’re funny books, the portrayal of women in comics doesn’t feed from and into deeply disgusting misogynistic tropes. Sexism is everywhere. Your critic is choosing to fight it in at least one place they see it. That’s admirable, not risible.
What are you doing to help?
And hence, presumably, even less attractive! Your critic may well have fan entitlement issues. They may also have feminist critique. Trolls often like to pretend one is the other, or else can’t tell the difference between “DC owes me a Blue Beetle/Catman mini-series!” and “Holy crap, if I see another Frank Cho cover where a woman is presenting at the reader, I’m going to scream.”
Honestly? Judgement call. But be aware that just because you don’t think something is offensive doesn’t mean the critic has no valid argument to make, and if you’re combining this point with others on the card, you should probably sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.
Wrong! There are hundreds of exceptionally talented female creators and administrators. I would hazard the following guesses substantiated only by observation and anecdotal evidence as to why the employment figures skew heavily towards male:
1) Significantly more men read superhero comics than women and thus more of them enter that fans-to-creators evolution stage.
2) Institutional sexism, alive and well in the superhero industry, privileges male creators as the default, and female creators as special interest weirdo outliers.
There is no special button in a boy’s head for “Good at making stuff with explosions” that girls don’t have – it’s social and cultural conditioning that will take a long time to come right, and shouldn’t be retarded by arguments claiming that women just don’t have the right stuff.
BZZZT. Wrong again! If they weren’t interested, no one would be bothering to score bingo off you.
Well, yes and no. Yes in that it’s certainly conventional, by which I mean, everywhere. No in that it isn’t quintessential to superhero stories. Costumes are a convention of the genre. Explosions are a convention of the genre. Origin stories explaining superpowers or the development of special skills are a convention of the genre.
Sexism is not necessary. It’s just habit.
No, but now that you mention it….
If your reaction to a feminist criticism of comics is “But I like comics, and I’m not sexist!”, good for you. I’m glad you’re not sexist. But since you’re not sexist, why would the criticism bother you? You don’t need to identify with it. It’s not about you.
If your reaction is “But I like it and therefore it cannot possibly be sexist!” then you need to check out the concepts of “male privilege” and “patriarchy”. In your own time, please, but some good places to start are listed at the end of this column.
Your girlfriend (or you) does not speak for all womankind. No one does.
It is perfectly appropriate to point out that women do not share a hivemind in the presentation of a dissenting opinion. It is never appropriate to use your sample of female friends, or yourself, as a trump card that triumphantly deflects all feminist criticism with which they/you disagree.
They do! Your critic is probably not calling for a moratorium on the deaths of all female characters ever, but a closer consideration of the circumstances of female character deaths, the manner in which they are depicted, and the relatively lower odds of their resurrection compared to their male counterparts.
Women die more often, die more often to further someone else’s story than as a solid ending (or continuation, this being comics) of their own, and come back less often.
And, most disturbingly, they often look really hot in the process. Seeing a brutalised female body laid out like a sexy sexy centerfold can be very discomfiting for some reason! Visual association between the female body and sexualised violence just tends to push those buttons labelled “grotesque” and “the worst kind of objectification.”
Goodness, how pessimistic! Your critic probably takes a more optimistic view – that things are bad, but can be changed; that social justice is possible and worth fighting for; that poor depictions and objectification of women can and should be combated, no matter the odds.
And hey, if she’s wrong, is that any of your business? It’s her time to waste.
Unless you mean that comics are never going to change, and you don’t want them to, because you like the status quo right where it is. In that case, I cordially invite you to bite me.
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So there you have it! Many stupid and some not-entirely-stupid arguments that come up over and over again and add nothing new to the discourse. Try not to make any of them unthinkingly, and you may discover new realms of awesome opening in your discussions of gender and comics. Refraining from their use also wards off scurvy*!
More on the basics of feminism in general can be found at Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog. More feminist pop culture criticism can be found at The Hathor Legacy, the Shrub.com blog, Cerise, and many, many other places.
Other useful sources are linked from this post. See also How To Write An Original Female Lead Character In A Fashion That Doesn’t Drive Karen Crazy and the complete Counterpunch archives for more on character creation and design.
* Does not actually ward off scurvy.
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