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It is the one year anniversary of Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed), a column I initially wrote for an audience of one. I was so fucking furious about the state of women in comics that I had to get it on record before the festering bile made me ill.
I didn’t really expect anyone would read it, much less find anything in it useful or worthy of discussion.
I was going to spend this anniversary post talking about what an awesome experience it’s been learning I was wrong. And, you know, let’s give that its due, because it has been awesome, and so, dear readers, are you. Thank you so very much. Don’t let anyone tell you that rage doesn’t get you anywhere rage, yours and mine, got this column everywhere, and I wanted to acknowledge and celebrate that.
But over the last few weeks, post-WisCon 31, post-blog-trawling, post-the most recent guest column, something’s been brewing in the underbrain.
It all boiled over into my conscious mind while I was reading Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward this being the Other than yourself, particularly if you largely occupy the unmarked state of privilege known as ‘normal’. If you are straight, white, able-bodied, mid-twenties to mid-forties, college-educated, male, cisgendered and middle to upper class, you are as ‘normal’ as all get out. In reality, there are very few people like you, and yet characters like you overwhelmingly occupy the main spaces of Western cultural artefacts. Writing the Other addresses this discrepancy and encourages change through practical advice and exercises for those who want to write the Other right.
I, not incidentally, fit into all of those unmarked categories except ‘male’. It struck me that while in my creative writing I consciously try to write the Other, in my critical writing, I wasn’t doing much writing about the Other. I went through the GRC archives, and discovered not active discrimination, but inactive inattention.
Here is some stuff I didn’t write about these past twelve months:
- The absolute idiocy of promoting Kathy Kane in national media beautiful, rich Batlesbian, shining example of DC’s commitment to diversity! then stabbing her (non-fatally) in the heart and shuffling her out of the limelight.
- The post-Infinite Crisis disappearance of Onyx, possibly the only African American woman in Gotham who was a hero not a victim, prostitute, gang moll or selfish hiphop superstar.
- The near-universal convention that women who (even given that comics time is awesomely weird) should be in their mid thirties to early forties being represented instead as mid to late twenties, with nary a wrinkle or sagging breast to be seen.
- The extraordinary and unrealistic lack of older women who aren’t motherly or grandmotherly there-there-son matron-figures and the even more remarkable lack of older woman who aren’t white and/or straight. I can name one older woman who is both non-motherly and non-white one, in two companies worth of superhero comics.
- The odd case of Maya Lopez/Echo/Ronin, a deaf, Latina woman whose New Avengers story arc focused not on her devastation of The Hand, but her status as distressed damsel to be rescued by able-bodied (mostly) men.
The facile promotion and then disappearance of queer women; the poor representation specifically of women of colour; the invisibility of age; the mono-characterisation of older women; the peculiar treatment of women with disabilities these are feminist issues. And I, happily writing a column purportedly about feminism and comics, had missed them.
SHAZAM! Thunderclaps went off in my head.
‘Holy crap,’ I realised. ‘Apparently, I’m totally keen on the empowerment of straight, white, mid-twenties-appearing, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class women, and have all but totally ignored discrimination against women not like me.’
So, first I got guilty (which is not terribly helpful) and then I got drunk (which is even less helpful, but much nicer) and then, finally, productively, I got angry, at myself and at the culture that let me be so oblivious.
I don’t want to disassociate from the work I’ve previously done because it was good work, and it’s sparked discussion and debate. It’s illuminated discrimination within a field of vision narrowed by blinkers, but it has helped. So what I’m trying to say is ‘Yes, I’ve written some stuff that I and other people found useful, and I’m proud of that. But also, I have fucked up tremendously by ignoring all this other stuff outside what I saw in the mirror.’
I don’t want forgiveness for how offensive that was, (or for the offences I’m going to inevitably commit in the future). I’m apologising not requesting pardon for what I’ve done and haven’t done, and promising that I’m going to try to get better.
Henceforth, this column is dedicated to a wider range of feminist issues in comics. This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on the poor treatment of straight, white etcetera women just like me in comics, because god knows there’s still plenty to write about there. But I’m going to try to look past my own reflection.
I am cringingly aware that as a straight, white, etcetera woman, my speaking about the poor treatment of women in comics who are not like me runs the risk of being horrendously inappropriate and offensive. I’m in that stage analogous to the one new male feminists go through when they start recognising gender discrimination. ‘But… that’s WRONG!’ they exclaim, while everyone who already gets it either nods patiently or rolls their eyes. I know I’m going to make mistakes. But that doesn’t let me off the hook. I want to speak but I can only do so as a privileged observer, not with the authority of experience.
What does it mean to speak as a privileged observer?
It means that I don’t see a lot of stuff because I never experienced it or had to see it. Related, but not exactly the same: it means that my feminist education overwhelmingly concentrated on white feminist liberal theory, and didn’t pick up on much of anything else. I need to listen, and research, and do my own damn homework.
I don’t want this column to be read as breast-beating or a plea to console me and tell me I didn’t do that badly or a request for congratulations on finally realising my mistake. Screw that; it was a huge mistake! Recognising that isn’t grounds for applause.
I’m going to do my level best to do this better, while realizing that my best intentions are still privileged, and thus still open to totally justified criticism. It’s not anyone’s job to educate me but if anyone is so inclined, when I misstep I’d really appreciate hearing about it.
I’m privileged. I can’t avoid being part of the problem. But I want to be some of the solution, too.
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