[Guest Column] Myth Is A Metaphor

The third GRC Guest Columnist is Willow E of Seeking Avalon , who while not related to Shelia E, does share some characteristics of a mixed heritage. She’s been reading comics since she was three, along with almost anything else she could get her hands on that was SF fiction or Mythology.

Myth is a metaphor for the experience of life.
Myth is the song of the imagination, infinite and endless.
- Joseph Campbell.

I started the People of Color in SF Blog Carnival because comics blogging helped me find my voice. And in listening to myself I heard a strong, black woman with something to say. It was as if I didn’t know how much I had to say, how much I’d noticed, how much I was pissed off, frustrated and yearning for more, until I started talking. I’ve sweat a little over this Carnival. I think I actually thought I wouldn’t find enough links, enough essays, enough anything. But the ball’s been rolling ever since I started looking for more thoughts/talk/discussions and it’s kept rolling. And as I look back to where it’s rolled from I find more and more people talking about the same thing.

By the way, if you’ve heard and read all you want to ever hear or read about Heroes for Hire #13, then I suggest you skip right past this post, because it will come up.

I’m tired of being invisible. I’m tired of being seen, but not seen. I’m tired of not being acknowledged in the mainstream, and in fiction and most specifically in comic books. I’m tired of wondering if comic book writers are following the saying “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

- Being Black is about more than being darker than white people or having hair that kinks to the extreme and puffs out. It’s about more than rap music and braids and saying “holla at me”.

- Being Latina, of Mexican or South American descent is about more than spanish language music videos, or being an illegal immigrant or cars that bounce. It’s about more than chola and big hoop earrings and saying “Pappy”.

- Being Asian in America, especially at this time, post Virginia Tech, is about far more than having slanted eyes and very straight black hair. It’s about more than Mulan or being Buddhist, knowing anime and being exotic.

- Being Native American is about more than buckskin and feathers and names that seemingly translate like “Red Willow At Sunset”. It’s about more than tipees and cliff dwellings, taxes and casinos.

- Being of Middle Eastern descent; Persian, Lybian, Syrian, Egyptian (and a host of other countries and cultures) is about more than being Muslim or Coptic and having some religious ties, however thin, to people who drove planes into the Two Towers. It’s also about more than sand and brown skin and dreams of sheiks with gauze covered harems.

- Being Polynesian is about more than bare breasts and grass skirts and volcanoes.

- Being a Jew is about more than Channukah vs Christmas.

There’s been a flutter online concerning the female dominated media fandom and a little (somewhat clueless and very patronizing) company called FanLib. Prior to that, there was a very interesting article on livejournal by user cupidsbow about “How Fanfiction Makes Us Poor”. In it she discusses a book by Johanna Russ; How To Suppress Women’s Writing. I plan to hunt down the book and read it. I suggest if you’re interested you do the same. However, based on the summary and cupidsbow‘s thoughts, I found myself meshing thoughts and doing a lot of thinking about invisibility for creators of color and characters of color; specifically female characters of color who end up victims of the particular trick of being unseen while in seeming plain sight.

Have you ever heard how Perrault twisted the tale of Little Red Riding Cap? Check here or here or just Google Red Riding Hood/Cap, wolf, rope. See what you can find. I think you’re likely to hear about the original folk tradition where LRRH ends up resourcefully outwitting the wolf and saving herself. And then you’ll read how Perrault twisted the tale into something for the aristocracy and in it, LRRH became a pampered child instead of a blossoming young (wise) woman. Among the aristocracy a child could remain a child for far longer than mere peasant stock, who needed every hand, and every fertile year from its girls and women to produce those hands. In Perrault’s version, LRRH comes to a bad end. In the Brother’s Grimm version, taken up after Perrault, after being lectured to mind her manners and follow all the rules by her mother, LRRH gets eaten by the wolf, but is saved despite her wrong doing by the dashing woodsman. The old wives tale (folklore of women) gets turned from ‘See the cunning girl escape the trap’ to ‘See how women who don’t follow the rules must be saved’.

But I don’t want to get into how the Brothers Grimm changed and twisted the old European folk-tales to fit their view of the times, and tried to promote how they thought women and men ought to be by influencing gender roles in their take on the folklore and by instilling Christian values into the tales. What I do want to try and discuss, is how male, mostly white, interpretation made the heroines of these tales invisible as heroes in their own right and subsequently turned them into damsels in distress / damsels in need of rescuing. And specifically, how, the heroines of color get faded away into almost nothing.

Why am I concerned about this if I’m not a folklorist? Well, I’m black. I see comics as modern myth and modern folklore. And I read comics. Fanfiction aside, these characters are re-interpreted with every new writer, new artist, new executive editor, new head honcho at the head of The Big Two (or even independent hero comics). And black characters are exceedingly rare in this new American mythology, that is when they haven’t been turned invisible.

Misty Knight is supposed to be a hero, a title carrying character, a strong woman and a warrior. She’s the type of woman who defeats the wolf. Moreover, she’s a strong black woman, who’s proud of herself and knows what she can handle. Black people know strong black women. Most of us have only to look to our mothers, aunts, great aunts, grandmothers, the church ladies looking out, the auntie who ran the street or the block or who just plain caught you being a fool and dragged you home by your ear. It’s a bit of a generalization, but I honestly believe that most black people know a strong black woman in a personal way. I can believe they looked at Misty and smiled at the thought of some relative with a gun and a bionic arm.

There’s no strong black woman on the cover of HFH #13.

There are no strong women there, period. And if you don’t believe me, I invite you to look at the original cover pictureand then look at this initial tweak by Lea Hernandez aka LJ’s Divlea and this even better refocusing of the women’s awareness and kickassness.

Personally, I like the last version, because it looks as if Colleen can’t wait to reveal she’s was only pretending to be held at bay and cut that tentacle in two; Misty looks like she’s about to laugh in the face of whomever thought they were really captured and Felicia looks icked at having to let the tentacle near her while pretending to be weak.

Maybe it’s all my personal interpretation, but that last tweak by Hernandez shows me a strong black woman. She’s about to put a foot up someone’s ass. She’s plotting and thinking and has a plan. She’s amused that some fool thought that her keeping her mouth shut wasn’t a warning sign. She’s entertained at being thought weak.

She’s a hero caught in media res.

She’s plainly not invisible.

This is her Fairy Tale.

In most comic works if a black protagonist is mentioned at all, the text might say she’s a strong black woman but the artist often doesn’t take the time to make the character look like a strong black woman; no broad noses, no distinctive hair, no full lips, no dark skin, no determination in her eyes or the quirk of her lips. I have a whole other rant about non-graphic novel books where the authors try to describe a black person as being ‘deeply tanned’ as if being black had nothing to do with a history of oppression, struggle and slow progress, economic and educational complications and the lost culture of a multitude of tribes and instead has more to do with being an avid sunbather. Right now, however, I’m trying to focus on how someone not me, not black, perhaps, can point to HFH #13 and go “There’s the strong black woman”, and not get that I don’t see her. They won’t get that there’s nothing and no one there.

Misty isn’t the only character who somehow lost her ethnic background. All through 2006 and into 2007, I kept having to be reminded that Marvel’s Ultimate Wasp is Asian. You could have knocked me over with a spoon each time. All I saw was black hair, pale skin. Where was the Asian identity? Were there cultural references in the text? Was I supposed to notice her eyes? Though how do you tell if a female character is Asian, when they’re all drawn with ‘cat-like’ slanted eyes and dark shadows of eyelashes? How do you tell if a female character is Asian when just by being female a character is meant to be somehow “exotic”; when certain ethnic traits are reduced to a sexy factor and spread around to all the women, how do you tell if a character isn’t “exotic white”? How do you tell Storm is black, if you don’t know her, when she doesn’t always look it?

I love the character of Storm in Marvel’s X-Men. But there were instances growing up where, depending on colourist, Storm with her white hair and blue eyes came across to me as more Afrikaner than African. And I began to assume they wanted to deal with the jungles and wide open plains of Africa for the exotic factor and they wanted a native character, so there was Storm. I couldn’t have explained my thoughts like that at the time, I was fairly young. But I wasn’t too young for my mind to somehow know that something was off. I wasn’t too young for it to be held in the back of my thoughts that Storm was African because Africa was exotic. And with each new interpretation of Storm, aside from the cartoon version in Evolutions Storm was not African, to me, because she was meant to be a strong, regal black woman. Her blackness seemed an incidental plot point, used for “a very special issue of” or in relation to a “a very special crossover with” and it almost always had to do with her being a living goddess to certain tribes; the untouchable and awe inspiring exotic.

I think the writers and creators to this day don’t realize that by excluding that part of her character, they’re the ones who make bringing it up a “big deal” and “issue related”. There have been rounds on livejournal between the majority white fandom and the fans of color, over how Black characters are treated as alien and other. Except in comic book fandom, it’s the creators who seem to think they can’t just treat a character as a character with their history and what’s generalized about their personality. If a character is black/asian/non-white ethnic, they have to be vibrantly stereotypically black/asian/non-white ethnic, or else exotic and mysterious and not easily understood. And in between those two portrayals, the only other option chosen is to treat them as if they aren’t ethnic at all, and forget the color of their skin, or the shape of their eyes or their possible life experiences and treat them as white. And thus the huge scope of their lives (themselves) as non-white (females) is ignored or forgotten and thus made invisible.

If they just had her consistently darker than ‘tanned’; if they just dropped a few lines of Storm dealing with being Black in America; if they just showed The Wasp talking to her parents, perhaps, or fitting in in plain clothes among other Asian Americans; then there wouldn’t need to be ‘very special issues’ and if a plot point came up about their characters, it’d be more about them and less about Storm’s sometimes brown skin with blue blue eyes or Janet’s strangely submissive behavior.

I’ve heard about how characters who are gay simply don’t get used in group team-ups when they’re obviously part of the team. And yes, that’s a form of invisibility. However, I don’t know if that version of invisibility is quite as kick-to-the-stomach as being told the person with a one percent darker pigmentation than everyone else, with caucasian features; blue eyes, long flowing hair etc, is meant to be you as the super heroine (the young Black girl reading). Or that the intelligent girl who doesn’t even look Asian, but is somehow playing the submissive Asian wife is suppose to be you (the young Asian girl reading).

You can always imagine gays in the background, or seek subtext among the characters in the foreground. If you don’t draw, I’m not sure how you’re meant to re-style for blackness, the character that’s set up as “your” hero. So at least in terms of self-identification, it’s more painful for me, to not see black characters fighting and winning and dynamic in comic books and I’m more likely to talk about that, than I am to talk about how unoriginal Katherine Kane is as a lesbian super hero. Because it’s not just that ethnic women are made more in tune with the dominant (white) culture’s concepts of attractiveness. It’s that everything that makes them not-white gets rubbed out, erased, re-drawn, ignored, There’s nothing there for young girls of color or grown women to see as themselves in a Fairy Tale or Power Fantasy. But then we’re told “But she’s right there, up in front! We’re telling her story!’”

They erase her, put up a shell, fetishize it and then expect accolades.

That hurts me more than the forgotten by the wayside Kate Kane (though I do have some serious ranty thoughts about lesbian invisibility and Renee Montoya walking around now without a face)

In HFH, if you don’t know Colleen is Asian, how would you guess? If you didn’t know Misty is Black, how would you know? They lightened her skin, they messed with her hair, they ripped open her top to make her more of a sex object that a person, they thinned her lips and they took away the appearance of inner strength. If I didn’t already know who they were, I wouldn’t pick up the book. And in truth at first on seeing the cover I didn’t recognize them. Looking at that cover, I didn’t feel as if I belonged. I felt as if the power fantasies I want to see are nothing but the fetish fantasies of the creators. I couldn’t see the story of the cunning girl who’d trick and win over the wolf.

I’m not invisible. I do exist as a fan of color. I am a comics and SF fan. I want to be seen. I want characters like me. I want them to be seen. There are black female soldiers in Iraq. There are Asian police women. There are daredevils of East Indian and Native American heritage. There is inspiration all around in everyday living, in most cities in America for powerful female characters of color. And if the bulk of the writers are in LA, Calif, or NYC, NY, then they really should know from a simple BART or Metro train ride that Latinas can speak perfectly good english and black hair isn’t straight in the front, puffy in the back, and sometimes the feistiest looking teenage female in the car looks to be from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong or China.

Others can speak more eloquently than I about “whitewashing”. But I wanted my chance. Especially since I’m not too tired (yet?) to scream loud and long to make myself heard and seen.

I want to see myself reflected in our modern myths, in these powerful tales of courage and wit, bravery, sacrifice and determination. I want my own heroes (those just like me through appearances, background or ethnicity) to be weaved into the general tapestry. I want the lessons learned and encouragements given to apply to me (and other women like me). I want to see aspects of my dreamings.

After all, I am here, I am present and active and loving and strong and interacting with different human beings all the time. My life experience counts.

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Interact here.

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If you’d like to support creators and fans of color, here are a few links to follow:
The Carl Brandon Society, if you want to get involved in increasing awareness and representing fans of colour.
EAR: Entertainment Arts Research is a black owned gaming company, that participates in the The Urban Video Game Academy.
The Urban Voice of Comics, a magazine stressing that they serve the forgotten multicultural market for comics and all things related.
NewWave Comics, a division of NeWave Enterprises, which devotes itself to multicultural and ethnic entertainment comic books and related products.
Gettosake A popculture production studio featuring people of color in short films, comics and cartoons – mostly for commercial products and branding.

2 Responses to “[Guest Column] Myth Is A Metaphor”

  1. [...] me (and other women like me). I want to see aspects of my dreamings. – Willow E of Seeking Avalon guest blogging on GRC [...]

  2. [...] martial arts in high heels is perfectly reasonable!But super-strong women don’t need bras!But she’s from an alien culture with no nudity taboo!But girls often wear skirts. Why wouldn’t they go flying in them? But that costume suits her [...]

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