Be Vewwy, Vewwy QuietWe’re Hunting Wimmins!

I didn’t go to New York Comicon, so I didn’t get to see the panel on ‘Capturing the Female Reader.’ It’s probably just as well that I wasn’t there: it would have been awfully hard to resist making a loud, snarky comment about bear traps (I mean, seriouslycould they have given it a sillier title if they’d tried?).
But I did read the synopsis on Newsarama, and I have to admit that it leaves me a little cold.
According to the Comicon panel, what women want are comics with pretty pictures and sympathetic characters. Stories should focus on character interaction and relationships. We’re more interested in story than in action, and we like stories with male casts because it eliminates the competition (other girls) and allows us to focus on the details of friendships. Wendy Pini observed that ‘Girls don’t just like cotton candy or foo-foo or fluff.’ How insightful.
Yes, it’s nice to see the industry acknowledge female readers. And I agree with many of the points the panelists made. But with all their generalizations about what women and girls read and why, I have to wonder how many of them have bothered to listen to what actual female readers are saying.
Of the panelists, I think that Karen Berger came closest to the point when she noted that most teenage girls ‘read up’that is, they seek out fiction that’s written for older readers. It’s true, and there’s a reason: the stuff written for teen girls is often the worst sort of contentless tripe focused on shopping or fashion, with characters who are scarcely shy of stereotypes.
And that’s where I see one of the biggest holes in the net these companies are casting. They’re relying on the same set of stereotypes that prevented them from focusing on women before.
Here’s my advice on Capturing Female Readers:

  1. We’re not a hive mind. Your best bet isn’t going to be chasing an ethereal Platonic Ideal of the Female Reader; it’s going to be publishing a range of material that we can choose from. Sort of like you do now, only with higher BMIs and a little less rape.
  2. Avoid the trap of making comics specifically for women. This further stigmatizes and separates them from male readers, and it reinforces the message that mainstream comics aren’t for girls. Instead, try making comics universally good: hold them to the same standards as literary fiction and art. An awful lot of women read Richard Russo, not because he writes ‘for women,’ but because he’s really damn good. Take a cue from successful independent publishers like Dark Horse, Image, and Top Shelf, and shift away from tired clichés; don’t be afraid of change and evolution.
  3. Instead of marginalizing women further by creating a comics-line ghetto of ‘girls’ books,’ try making mainstream comics more female-friendly. Maybe if rape wasn’t a universal part of superheroines’ backstories, or if you treated female characters as more than a superficially scripted set of tits, women would be more interested in your books.
  4. Same goes for comics shops. Yeah, a lot of women avoid comics shops because a lot of comics shops are really damn creepy, and owners and patrons can be really, really misogynistic. But wait! I’ve seen some comics shops* with great selections and staffs that weren’t creepy and misogynistic, and guess what? They had a lot of female customers!
  5. LISTEN. For fuck’s sake, people, there are a lot of female comics fans who are GIVING you their ideas, requests, and preferences. You don’t even have to organize a focus group: you can just do a few Google searches! These are intelligent women and girls who are already comics fans; they can give you a really damn clear overview of what they feel does and doesn’t work for women in mainstream comics and what they’d like to see publishers do to address female readers. You may be surprised.
  6. Find existing comics with large female readerships and figure out what they’re doing right. Let’s try a case study:
    I don’t know about the actual stats, but based on both the letters we get and the discussion at the official message board, Hellboy and B.P.R.D. have a whole lot of female fans. Why? Well, they have really, really good stories, with a good balance of action, exposition, and character development. The art style is interesting and fits the story well, and the characters are well-realized. In general, it’s a really damn good book.
    The protagonist of Hellboy isn’t female (thus, y’know, Hellboy), and while B.P.R.D. is a team book, the majority of the main characters are male. But it’s not a big deal, because gender isn’t a defining characteristic of any of those characters: they’re people first, and men and women second. The female characters are strong, smart and well-realized; they’re neither tokens nor cheesecake. And while neither Mike Mignola or Guy Davis is notorious for his sexxxy babes or pinup art, both are great at drawing women who look like people: Liz and Kate are hot because they’re competent and interesting (I couldand probably willwrite a whole column about how much I adore Mike and Guy, and how they make awesome, feminist books, but that’s not really the topic at hand).
    There are other, similar books out there: Vertigo books get a lot of female readers because they’re good comics. Transmetropolitan, which has a male protagonist, is outrageously and quite graphically violent and obscene. It also has a huge female fanbase, because it’s a fucking brilliant comic.
  7. Bear traps.
    *I want to take this opportunity to send a shout-out to the awesome folks at The Sword and the Grail, my now-and-forever favorite comics shopI miss you guys like crazy. Check ‘em out if you’re ever in the Asheville area, and be sure to give Alex a hug for me.
    Capture some discussion!
    February 25th, 2007
    Categories: Uncategorized . Author: Rachel Edidin