On the gendering of Giant Robots

SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for the following shows are discussed: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam
Sometimes you step through some sort of dimensional rift. People on the other side don’t have goatees and evil grins, but rather friendly faces in the future. Then you get up, dust yourself off, and wonder where in blazes the last two weeks have gone. Assuming there isn’t an evil editor rewriting my backstory as we speak, let’s just say I ought to shape up, and move swiftly on.
So, about a year and a half ago, I was talking about Beast Wars: Transformers with a work mate of mine. This colleague did not enjoy Beast Wars but was a fan of the original Transformers series. I mentioned that one of my favourite Transformers was Blackarachnia (despite certain problematics I’ll go into later).
‘Ah, no,’ he said, ‘that whole deal is stupid.’
‘What do you mean,’ I asked.
‘Her, you know! A female Transformer! Robots don’t have genders!’
‘Oh yeah? Then why are all the other robots, both in the old show and Beast Wars, voiced by male actors, treated as males and referred to as hes?’
The truth is, giant robots tend to have genders. And this is an issue that began to fascinate me as I explored it more and more, being as I am a giant robot nut. Today I’ll share a few patterns I’ve observed in anime and manga. Generally speaking, western realisations of giant robots are less human, and rely more on the idea of actual machinery (see Mechwarrior for example). Most Japanese productions, on the other hand, present the robot in more humanoid terms.
Frenchy Lunning’s essay in Mechademia volume 2, entitled ‘Between the Child and the Mecha’, illustrates the reasoning, conscious or no, for the prevalence of giant humanoid robots in japanese animation. (And I feel like I’m about to take a wrong step here, since Lunning is a Ph.D who has done a great amount of anime-related scholarship. Let’s just say I’m prepared to get whipped into oblivion in the comments for misrepresenting her ideas.)
She presents that the mecha is the external expression of the inner desire of the pilot, and how the mecha basically becomes the pilot, representing and iconising him or her. So, let’s go back to the very first piloted mecha, Mazinger Z (known in the United States as Tranzor).
Mazinger is a powerful robot, piloted by brash youth Koji Kabuto. Among Koji’s allies is Sayaka, who pilots Aphrodite-A. Aphrodite is a female mecha in a completely stereotyped way: it’s designed for peace rather than the war-like Mazinger, and despite being made of the same material as Mazinger, it suffers damage much more easily. I suppose I don’t need to add the word ‘essentialism’ here, but I’ll just toss it out there anyway.
After the Super Robot era that Mazinger heralded, giant robot anime evolved into the Real Robot era with Mobile Suit Gundam. The robots in Gundam were still predominantly piloted by men, and followed the same design cues of previous eras, but adding a touch of realism. The Gundam series, by now, has evolved so much that summarizing the gendering of its mecha (and its human cast) would require a whole separate article. However, let’s take a look at the ‘golden age’ of Gundam, during the first few shows of the Universal Century. In Mobile Suit Gundam, there are only two female pilots: Sayla Mass and Lalah Sune. Neither of them pilot humanoid machines, but rather a fighter plane and a ‘monster of the week’ Mobile Armor. Lalah sees herself involved in a star-crossed affair, which would become a series staple. In Lalah, the creators also started another tradition: the mystified female enemy pilot. By mystified, I mean that said pilot is either mystical, bordering on the supernatural (thus ‘othered’) or, in many cases, mentally unstable (thus victimised and ‘othered’).
A perfect example of this is one of the antagonists of the first sequel series, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (who becomes the main antagonist of its sequel, Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ). I’m talking about Haman Khan, leader of the Axis Zeon. To provide some background, Khan is a charismatic leader, who finds herself and her faction being pivotal to deciding a civil war. After the civil war ends, Haman’s forces are in prime position to take over the Earth and its Colonies. Khan is a dictator, a powerful, cunning leader, a beautiful woman and an incredibly strong, superhuman pilot. Yet she is female, something that is remarked as ‘strange’ more often than not, as it contradicts the happy essentialism we’ve come to know and love in comics and animation. In any case, Khan pilots the sleek newtype-use Mobile Suit, the Qubeley. Qubeley is unique in its design for many reasons. It is not boxy, and it’s not quite humanoid, for one, contradicting Gundam design principles. In fact, while most robots in Gundam are designed with practicality in mind, Qubeley’s look seems more aesthetic than anything else. Instead of straight lines, we have curves. Instead of primary colour schemes (or military ones), it’s mostly pink, white and purple. Oh yes, and it doesn’t even use conventional weapons. When Qubeley shows up, it is certainly an ‘other’ among mobile suits, and it manifests the ’strange female evil’ idea quite well. The follow-up would see a legion of Qubeleys, piloted by a legion of clones of… a young girl. I don’t think any man has ever piloted a Qubeley in any Gundam story.
(As a side note, while the human mecha in 1982 production Macross are quite realistic and thus relatively neutral, the mecha of the alien Zentradi race is not. The female Zentradi pilots utilise vastly different machines, which are more humanoid but also more stylised and curvy in their design. This is the first instance, in the Real Robot era, of machines being assigned genders on purpose, as it predates Zeta Gundam by three years.)
This segues well into my look at the next bit of mecha history, which is the body of work of Mamoru Nagano. Nagano designed the Qubeley and a few other mecha for Zeta Gundam, with his own unique style. He then went on to create the epic manga The Five Star Stories, which featured more of his sleek, unique designs, many of which are intentionally female-looking. In FSS, the robots tend to have a very close, personal link with their pilots, and can be seen as their will manifest. However, I will leave this for another article, since untangling the complex interactions of gender in FSS is, once more, a story unto itself.
Readers may be surprised to know that giant mecha anime went into decline by the early ’90s. By that point, with the exception of successful series like Macross, Gundam, and Patlabor, the genre was not fertile ground for too many productions, mainly due to its budgetary requirements. As such, innovation in mecha starts to slow down, with the most notable ’90s landmark being Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Evangelion’s mecha are unique, not just because of their design but by the fact that they are not actual mechs. They are basically gigantic cyborgs, mostly organic, the armor there to control the living being that is the Eva unit. I will go on a limb and say that the EVA mechs never felt male to me. There always seemed to be a sort of androgynous quality to them. It is ironic, then, that being Evangelions basically large-scale human clones, they are in fact the least gendered in their design. The film ‘The End of Evangelion’, however, throws a spanner in the works by clearly defining the EVA-01 as a clone of Lilith, thus female, and the rest of the EVAs as clones of Adam, thus male. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time when a mecha’s sex itself is discussed, albeit indirectly, in an animated series (I believe Mamoru Nagano’s Mortar Headd’s do, in fact, have separate sexes).
This brings us mostly up to date. I admit to not having seen a recent, quite relevant show called Rahxephon. With that exception, however, many mecha anime have not innovated so much in the presentation of the mecha, as they have in writing and story style. Thus, I have not myself witnessed any radical evolution since Evangelion’s take on the subject.
To wrap this up, I’ll just pose a question to you, dear reader. Why this gendering of giant robots? My take on it follows Lunning’s thesis that the mecha are an expression of desire, of the inner will of the pilot. Moreover, the pilot is often an iconised character designed for the audience to relate. Hence why many mecha anime have teenage boys as the pilots: they are, or at least have historically been, the main audience. Which, in turn, gives us a good inkling as to why robots must be gendered: the robot itself is not gendered, but rather its pilot is, and this gendering transfers to the robot in question. Zeta Gundam’s relevant female characters all pilot ’special’ mecha with important symbolism, though not necessarily ones I would gender as ‘female’. In Macross, the Zentradi culture is divided strictly along gender lines, which explains why Zentradi women have differently designed vehicles: they are an expression of their own view of themselves.
The Evangelions, thus, work well with this theory. Their nature is mysterious and ambiguous. Troubled, if I were moved to use that term in all of my posts which I assure you, I am not. The pilots of Evangelion are also deeply troubled, their personalities and desires unresolved and often dubious.
But I’ll tell you what I’m not dubious about. Optimus Prime is a dude. And he leads a race of dudes. Why is that? Because the audience for Transformers was little boys, and we all know that girls are i-ckay!
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Troubled Rant #14: The Fruit/Veg Binary

Now, allow me to break blog etiquette (blogiquette?) by talking about an unrelated subject.
My readers may not know this, but I am a committed fruit and vegetable activist. It has come to my attention that in my selfish blogging on gender issues, I have been casting a blind eye towards the plight of fruits and vegetables and their representation in the media. Before I can get into any actual analysis though, I feel it is proper for me to put some definitions on the table. I understand that many people may be unaware of these issues, and I acknowledge that. What you must know, however, is that much of the terminology used in this regard is actually very fluid. Bryce Noah’s seminal work ‘Not You Nor Anybody Else’s Side Salad’(1), for example, has revolutionised the usage of the word ‘legume’. On the other hand, the earlier compilation of Alice Buckman’s works, ‘Tomatos and Peppers United and Other Writings’ (2), provides many terms that are now considered offensive in the Fruit/Veg* community.
The main term that needs discussing is the so-called Fruit/Veg binary, and how it relates to the more well-known idea of a Plantiarchal system. You see, it is in the interest of those in power that Fruits and Vegetables remain as separate categories, in other words, a binary opposition. The definition of one, thus, is meant to completely exclude the other. This benefits a number of powerful agents, and on the day-to-day level, it grants those in the upper echelons of the Plantiarchy power over, and often well above, the common plant. It is, in essence, a hierarchical system of oppression.
What we must come to accept as a society, is that the Fruit and Vegetable binary is a lie, simple as that. There are numerous individuals and institutions which are dedicated to ensure the rigidity of this binary. Moreover, a great deal of hateful and bigoted intellectuals, such as Richard Hunter, whose despicable ‘No Apples in my Salad’ pretty much set back the Fruit/Veg movement 10 years. It is retrograde attitudes like these which must be vehemently opposed.
Hunter’s title speaks volumes about a kind of ignorance that has been allowed to run rampant even in the 21st Century. Someone needs to tell the man about the goddamn Waldorf Salad, for crying out loud.
Binary apologists often refer to the fact that ‘fruit’ is a scientific term, while ‘vegetable’ is a culinary one. As such, the argument goes, they have no place being in the same sentence, let alone the same discussion. However, we can see how this is simply oppressive discourse, aimed at keeping the thinking of alternatives to the binary as impossible to conceive in vocabulary. In common usage, the word ‘plant’ covers both vegetables and fruits, for example. Yet this word is too all-encompassing, and includes many beings that are not edible. The binary is so intrinsic in our understanding of fruits and vegetables that it is almost impossible for us to think in different terms. Luckily, that is beginning to slowly change.
There is only one radical answer activists can give to such a reactionary, binarist view of fruit/veg politics. Shut up.
And there is only one icon we can adopt. One whose plight represents our plight. One which defies the binary conventions as defined by elitist cooks and scientists, lording their privilege over fruits and vegetables, and defining them instead of letting them define themselves.
This icon is the Tomato.
Never has the binary’s oppressive nature been displayed in a more direct way than in society’s dealing with the Tomato plant. Many have attempted to suppress the Tomato’s identity as a fruit, by defining it a vegetable. Maybe some people sleep better at night, knowing their salads have only vegetables, and their fruit salads only fruits. But this is a falsehood, perpetrated by the plantiarchy, which coerces all fruit/veg, not just tomatoes, into buying into a plant identity they may not hold for themselves. Not to mention the 1887 dispute in the United States, regarding the taxation of fruits and vegetables. Leaving aside the horrifying fact of a tax on fruits and vegetables, it was only six years later when the greatest judiciary of that nation, the Supreme Court, reached a verdict. The Tomato was a vegetable based on its use, and that was that.
As an activist and concerned blogger, I cannot sit on the sidelines anymore. From now on, it will be my duty to work to dismantle this oppressive system in my own small way: by analysing the enforcement of the fruit/veg binary in comics, particularly manga, anime and european comics.
Let our Tomato brethren be at the forefront of our fight for fruit/veg justice. Let us not fall into the old pitfalls and stereotypes. Join me for a whole new era for Prepare for Trouble!
*I realise that many members of the community have found Veg used as an offensive term. However, I firmly believe there is a process to reclaim this short form of vegetable, and that we shall wear our Veg credentials proudly. We’re Veg, we’ve got the edge, and we want rights, now!

Akito’s Girl Trouble

[PLEASE NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Fruits Basket, Volume 16 (Chapter 97) and onward. If you want to avoid MAJOR spoilers, do NOT read. This warning will not be repeated.]
One of the few mangas I follow on an on-going basis is Fruits Basket. Part of it is tradition: I watched the anime 6 years ago and loved it, getting into the manga as soon as it started publication. Part of it is its popularity, which renders it relevant due to its huge circulation numbers all over the world. But mostly, it is because I love it to bits, warts and all. It’s an amazing comic despite its (at times numerous) flaws. When the final volume is out in English, I’ll do one or two columns talking about the story as a whole. But not today.
No, today I want to talk about a big curveball thrown at the reader by author Natsuki Takaya. This is something I wanted to talk about because it was published only recently in English (last year) and I find it to be greatly relevant to this blog. Avid Fruits Basket followers know that this big revelation was originally published in 2004. I feel quite out of the loop, as I only found out upon recently picked up the English volume that contained the now-famous Chapter 97.
The audience which has only seen the anime may ignore that the anime was produced in 2002 and covered less than a third of the manga’s completed storyline. As such, large alterations were required to make the animated story cohesive. One of the biggest alterations was done to Akito Sohma, head of the Sohma clan. Akito is a big mystery in the storyline, and as such many details about him were withheld for a long time in the comic. Since the Fruits Basket anime was to be one short season, it was necessary to give the viewer information about Akito based on his characterization in the manga up to that point. An example of this is the revelation in the anime that Akito’s sickliness is due to the Zodiac Curse, and that he will die young because of it. In the manga, on the other hand, this is not the case, and it is heavily implied that Akito’s illness and delicate state are psychological, more than anything.
Then, in volume 16 of the manga, Takaya provides us with more background regarding Akito’s psychological make-up. It is revealed by Kureno Sohma that Akito is, in fact, biologically female. He has been raised as a male, and is male-identified, however.
Oh goodie, thought I, late to the party as usual. However, as of this writing, I have yet to find any thought or analysis of this big revelation, at least from a feminist/gender-aware perspective. I am still in the process of locating friendly feminist anime/manga blogs, I must admit (please leave any handy links in the comments, maybe I didn’t look hard enough). But aside from the academic essays printed in Mechademia, so far I feel like an unconnected island.
Back to the topic, while I have not read past volume 18, so far the plot purpose of this revelation is to highlight Akito’s delicate emotional state, in opposition to his violent outbursts. In fact, when Kureno reveals this secret to Tohru, he emphasizes Akito’s emotional fragility and weakness. Identifying as male allows Akito to present a facade that does not have this ‘female weakness. This is the explicit message.
Akito’s male identity is not voluntary. It has been imposed from above by her mother, who believed ahead of the Sohma clan should not be female, because females are weak (again!). However, her misogyny is not exactly advocated by the text, since she is portrayed as an aggressive, violent, selfish character.
No, my bone is that this is not the first time I have seen gender identity used as a narrative tool to highlight a character’s oppression. Here I recall one of my favorite manga, The Rose of Versailles, which features a similar situation: the main character, Oscar, is raised as a male to satisfy the wishes of her father. While this only comes into play near the end, it is used as a plot device to highlight oppressive forces bearing down on the character. And this is exactly what Akito’s case is: Akito is not only constrained by the curse and his own psychological problems, but he is also constrained by a gender identity that is presented as ‘unnatural’.
Now, I will say here that I believe the aggressive imposition of gender identity on someone is wrong. This is very broad, however, and it includes the way in which many people, dare I say most, are bullied into gender conformity. However, what I see in Fruits Basket is the opposite: someone who is crossing gender barriers is seen as unnatural, with the implication that biological sex is what really matters. Further, any deviation from that is an artificial imposition.
This isn’t the first time Fruits Basket has dealt with the gender binary in such a way, the other case being Ritsu Sohma. Ritsu is male-identified yet dresses as a woman. To recap, Ritsu dresses as a female because he feels inadequate. He feels he is too weak and pathetic to be a man so he… dresses as a woman. Once more, the ‘female=weak’ motif emerges, to my chagrin.
What both of these cases have in common is that they are not representative of the real issues faced by people who do not conform to the gender binary. I admit ignorance on the situation of trans people in Japan. Yet in my experience as a Westerner, these two characters are not representative of trans issues. Rather, transgenderism is being utilized as a blunt tool for characterization, with a number of rather worrying assumptions.
Before writing this, I came across Keith Vincent’s article on Yaoi, entitled ‘A Japanese Electra and her Queer Progeny’ (published in Mechademia vol.2). Vincent cites debates rising from the queer community regarding the portrayal of homosexuality in the manga. An ongoing debate involves Gay activists arguing against yaoi. They feel it does not represent real gay men, but rather a fantastic, idealized notion of them created for women.
Transgenderism in manga seems to be suffering from the same problem, a lack of connection to the reality of these situations. Gender-bending has been used as entertainment for a very, very long time, mostly as comedy. And Fruits Basket has done this, but I am not entirely sure that is necessarily damaging.
However, when it comes to dealing with these issues seriously, Fruits Basket fails due to its lack of realism. This is worrying in a series typically held up for its realistic, complex characters in spite of the slightly fantastic setting. In Fruits Basket, transgender is simply a dramatic plot device and an oppressive, ‘unnatural one’ at that. The ‘female=weak’ motif doesn’t help either. In Fruits Basket’s defense, however, a motif of the story seems to be that everyone is weak. Regardless, time and again the ideas that ‘men are weak despite being men’ and ‘women are strong despite being women’ are driven home.
Finally, the last thing I wanted to point out is the fandom reaction to this, which has been divided. This was to be expected due to wide ignorance regarding trans issues, including the ignorance of the author. While I am sure discerning queer fans read Fruits Basket, the reactions I have seen more often fall into two camps. Camp one regards the plot device as incredibly contrived and unnecessary, and claim that it has ‘ruined’ Akito. I suppose they have never met a female-to-male transgender person if it seems so unrealistic that someone biologically female could be male-identified.
Camp two is equally problematic. In opposition to camp one, they accept the revelation and continue to appreciate Akito as an interesting, complex character. An inclination in this camp has been to refer to Akito as female. ‘After all,’ the reasoning goes, ‘that is her real sex, right?’
Admittedly, talking about the wishes of fictional characters is dodgy at best, tedious at worst. But as far as I have read in the story, despite his troubles, I have not seen Akito wanting to be a woman. This is an issue that most people have problems with when first learning about transgender issues. Something one quickly learns is that what matters is the way an individual identifies themselves. Akito identifies as a male. This is why I still refer to him in such a fashion.
In conclusion, Akito’s reveal highlights the problematic situation of queer representation in Japanese media. The largely male-dominated world of Western comics often chooses to simply pretend transgender, bisexual or homosexual people do not exist. In the Japanese Shoujo tradition, queerness has been co-opted for a number of reasons, sometimes with less-than-optimal results.
I do understand that different people interpret things differently. I spoke before of how queer anime fans in Argentina saw Sailor Moon as very positive. This is despite being as problematic as Yaoi often is, upon deeper analysis. However, I cannot see how a transgender teen reading of Akito’s story can derive a positive message about their own gender identity. And this bothers me to no end.
Identifying these issues made me wince a bit when re-reading some old Furuba books. It happened because I love this comic, dammit. I think Fruits Basket does a lot of things extremely well as a comic and a piece of human drama. Sadly, dealing with queer issues seriously seems to be marked ‘pending’ in the mainstream manga.

Show Respect.

Ideas.doc is getting unwieldy again, so it’s time for another round of shortish, quickfire posts before I take off to attend my best friend’s wedding.
I blew my reading budget this week on the latest Terry Pratchett novel, Making Money, so my comics acquisitions were necessarily somewhat curtailed. In fact, I was planning to pick up only Blue Beetle*, but New X-Men #42 caught my eye. I’ve been meaning to try New X-Men again for a while, because what I’ve seen of Skottie Young’s art made me go ooooh in high-pitched tones, but this was the one that broke me.
First, it had this cover, which is not only kitchsy, beautifully composed and full of personality, but also refers to not one, but two events taking place within the actual comic. I didn’t know that was allowed! Moreover! It also portrays the series’ underlying themes the focus is on mutant kids frequently in physical peril, whether from outside forces or their classmates; the adults are ineffectual after-the-fact caregivers.
Secondly, those of you who have followed the column for a while might recall that I took issue with Sooraya Qadir’s presentation in a butt-hugging so-called ‘burqa’.
Now the butt-hugging is gone! And for superplusgood metacommentary, there was this:
Show respect for your Muslim Afghani girl character by researching and accurately portraying her culturally-charged choice of garments? Why, yes!
Well played, Christopher Yost. I’ll be back for this title next month.

Here Comes The Bride; There Goes The Reader

Pop Quiz!
1) In the middle of a pre-wedding quarrel, my lover implies both that I have been sexually promiscuous and that this is bad. I:
a) Say ‘That was unacceptable. I’m leaving. When I come back we’re going to talk about your issues with my sex life.’
b) Tell them that they’re an asshole and retaliate with a list of their own previous lovers.
c) Say ‘Oh, fuck YOU, the wedding’s off!’
d) Hit them in the face.
2) When my spouse-to-be, who is a trained martial artist, hits me in the face during an argument, I:
a) Stare at them in the shock of betrayed trust.
b) Hit back.
c) Walk out and call the cops.
d) Kiss them passionately and start tearing off my clothes.
3) An appropriate pet name for my bride-to-be is:
a) ‘Darling.’
b) ‘Sweetheart.’
c) ‘Cutie-Tootie-Honey-Bear.’
d) ‘Bridezilla.’
4) If my lover is raped, this means they:
a) Have been raped.
b) Have been raped.
c) Have been raped.
d) Betrayed me!
If you answered D to all four questions, congratulations! You too are ready to join Oliver Queen and Dinah Lance in the wedding of the century!
I have no idea where to start with the multiple sexist horrors of the Green Arrow/Black Canary Wedding Special, so I’ll start with something good.
In the big fight scene Lois Lane attacks Black Spider with knuckledusters and mace, and it is awesome.
Also, the art of Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts is fantastic. Why, even the panel where Lady Shado is raping Ollie is beautiful! Ollie’s confused delirium is wonderfully rendered through his pained and sweaty face!
Of course, the panel is captioned ‘[Days filled] with betrayal.’
It is vaguely possibly that writer Judd Winick is here referring to Shado betraying Ollie, not Ollie betraying Dinah. If so, it’s an extremely opaque description of a moment that shouldn’t be opaque at all. And I feel that I’ve said enough about why Shado (now canonically!) raping Ollie being characterized as a betrayal on his part is massively misandrist and misogynistic, so I’ll leave that there.
Violence within a relationship! It’s so hot! As long as you’re a woman doing it to a man, or possibly another woman, of course.
You see, everything women do has to be sexy, or what’s the point? That’s why ‘You’re so cute when you’re mad,’ is a compliment to a woman, not an attempt to dismiss her rage. What’s really important isn’t what she’s furious about, but how attractive she looks while she’s angry!
Thus, a woman striking her fiancé is foreplay, and not, say, an act of abuse compounded by the fact that she has been trained to kill people with her bare hands.
Thirdly, while I shan’t spoil the ending, I will say that having a martial artist who has avoided killing people she hates under very trying circumstances suddenly become incompetent at the speed of plot is incredibly feeble writing.
Honestly, the pragmatic counter-argument has never held much weight with me. If someone tells me that something sexist sells, my response isn’t ‘Oh, that’s okay then!’ but ‘So what?’ DC’s job is to make money from their product mine is to criticize that product when it’s blatantly offensive.
But since that is their job, I cannot, for the life of me, work out their reasoning here.
If the idea is that canceling Green Arrow and making it Green Arrow/ Black Canary will bring Canary-fans to prop up Green Arrow‘s failing fanbase, then surely the Canary that shows up should be familiar to those fans? It’s not pandering to keep the strong, decent woman of Dinah’s showcase title, Birds of Prey. It’s good business sense.
I don’t know about anyone else, but this abusive, incompetent impostor has actually driven me away from a title I liked a lot. Sorry, Canary. Sorry, Arrow-clan. I’m done.

Invisible Women

Hello dear readers! How are you? I am grand!
I am also busy, because, for those of you who didn’t know, my current livelihood is writing a dissertation about superhero comics and fandom. It is super-fun, and also providing plenty of fodder for this column.
Like, for example, why, even in academia, is the superhero comic ‘fan’ nearly always assumed to be male? Female fans (like female creators and scholars) are treated as special outliers, and are usually described parenthetically or in a way that marks them as a special interest group. That is, when they’re acknowledged as existing at all.
There are, of course, presently far fewer female fans than male of the superhero books, although precise numbers are hard to come by. There used to be many more. But, like female creators and scholars, they do still exist, and in not insignificant numbers, as hitting any message board, comics blogroll or most comics shops will clearly indicate. And yet, we get situations like the following e-mail from a colleague of mine:
So I’m doing this Batman essay for a book, right? My editor just sent me the proofer’s comments, and he refers to the author (me) as ‘he’ throughout it. Despite my name being RIGHT THERE.
Of course, it’s difficult to assign a gender to some names, but ‘Mary’ is not generally considered to be one of them. Had the proofer been genuinely confused about the writer’s gender, he could have used gender-neutral language. Instead, I suspect that, despite the evidence to the contrary, he assumed the writer of a Batman essay was, naturally, male.
Or, how about this: in a recent collection of essays and interviews, Inside The World of Comic Books, edited by Jeffery Klaehn, there is an interview with artist and industry legend Bob Layton.
JK: The American superhero has endured for almost a century, sustaining both commercial and cultural relevance. Why do you feel this has been the case?
BL: … The struggle of ‘gods and mortals’ in comics is a theme as old as storytelling itself. Comics are the modern mythology that we, as a society, template our fears and dreams onto. It’s the universal power fantasy we all dream of to have the ability to soar above our problems or pummel them into dust.
Wonderful stuff! That’s certainly one of the reasons I love the superhero genre. But later:
JK:Why don’t more women read comic books in North America, in your view?
BL: Because they’re not written for women. Why don’t you read Harlequin romance novels*? I would speculate that they simply don’t appeal to you.
So superhero stories are modern mythology, the template for society’s fears and dreams and a universal power fantasy and not for women. If women don’t read comics, as Layton believes, yet society’s fears and dreams template onto the superhero comic, as Layton also believes, then there is implicitly no place for women in society. Women are simply excluded from the universal ‘we’ Layton envisages.
He could have, perhaps, made a case for superheroism as an exclusively male fantasy an argument that I deride as bull, but would at least have been logically consistent with his other claim but he doesn’t define the universal dream that narrowly. Instead, women are outside, Other, invisible to the ‘we’ that all dream of soaring over ‘our’ problems.
Incidentally, though Inside The World of Comic Books does a fair job of raising the question of women in comics during interviews, and the cover features a small boy and small girl both reading superhero comics, there is not a single contribution by a female author, nor a single interview with a female creator.
This follows a general trend. Books and exhibits that focus exclusively on female creators are called things like A Century of Women Cartoonists or She Draws Comics: 100 Years of America’s Women Cartoonists. Books and exhibits that focus exclusively on male creators are given titles like Artists On Comic Art or Inside the World of Comic Books, or the unintentionally honest Masters of American Comics. Like every other goddamn thing in the world, exclusively male productions in comics are assumed to be universal.
A universe that excludes you is not a welcoming place. There are comparatively fewer female superhero fans, but they are there, and they are increasing. Perhaps they would increase a lot faster if the industry and the academy could stop treating us as invisible women.
Leslie Caribou, on the history of female fans.
Comment on this column here.

  • By the way, I am so sick of this comparison. There are, in fact, plenty of romance novels written for and enjoyed by men. They’re called ‘novels’. If we’re insisting on ‘romance’ as ‘stories written to formula with a focus on erotic or romantic encounters’, my father’s Westerns were just as formulaic and included as many erotic situations and resolutions as the Harlequins I’ve read, with the caveat that they were somewhat more limited in period and setting. Romance widely appeals to men if it’s not described as such and thus stigmatised as unmasculine.

Misfit Reads Your Mail Forever.


Karen was sitting in the corner reading through stacks of thick books with weird titles and when I asked if I could help she looked at me blankly and said ‘Can you translate Michel Foucault into comprehensible English?’
So I said ‘Um, okay, ‘Michael Phooko’?’ and she walked straight into the kitchen and pulled down the top-shelf whiskey. I guess she won’t be writing a column tonight. That! means! MAILBAG!
Dear GRC,
I understand what it’s like to have evil in one’s family, since my own brother-in-law killed my husband and my two beautiful children. Thus, I feel it appropriate not to berate my occasional teammate Captain Boomerang on his own unsavory family connection.
However, I also understand national pride and identity. While I have also taken the name of a weapon as my own, mine is the traditional weapon of my people. When my nationality was revoked, I discarded the costume that was based on its flag, but my name is derived from my cultural heritage, and remains. Captain Boomerang II is a white American appropriating the traditional weapons of a culture his white half-Australian father regarded with racist hatred and contempt.
How should I bring this matter to his attention?
Dear Katana,
First, I am super sorry about your kids and husband. Losing your family sucks majorly and I’m glad you have a team to be your family because that is helping me a lot even if Oracle makes me babysit and I am way too old for little kid games and it’s totally not because I’m ‘too dense to comprehend the laws of battle’ so there Barda!
Re: Boomer, um, tricky, but you’re right, that is totally not cool. I think a wicked awesome way to tell someone something they don’t want to hear is after you give them lots of snacks. If someone’s all sugared up and saltified then they’re way more likely to be in a good mood. I’m always in a good mood when I write these letter columns!
So stuff him full of ice-cream and give him the bad news. Also, is he going out with Supergirl? ‘Cos I heard a rumour that he might be and if she’s embarrassed about older guys maybe that’s why she hasn’t called me yet.
Let me know!
Dear GRC,
A fictionalised account of the life of an acquaintance of mine is to appear on film, directed by one Mr. F. Miller. I understand that in such circumstances one cannot expect the strictest adherence to the facts, but you can imagine my shock and outrage when I discovered that the part bearing my own name is that of a ‘sexy and intelligent secretary with a vindictive instinct.’
I am both a surgeon and a nuclear physicist, and I worked exceptionally hard to gain both those qualifications in a time when women were firmly discouraged from pursuing either. Is my disappointment justified?
Dr S. Floss.
Dear Dr Silken Floss, Ph.D., M.D.
It totally is! There’s nothing bad about being a secretary, but casting a doctor (times two!) as a secretary, especially to make her the secretary to some guy, is way skeezy. It’d be kinda like if someone made a movie that had Ms. Vicki Vale in it, but said she was a gossip columnist gadfly. Or one about me that said I was a klutzy ditz instead of a super awesome crimefighting machine!
I hope this Miller guy comes to his senses and gives you the credit you deserve!
I mean, surely, right?
Dear GRC,
Recently, I formally adopted a girl I met overseas while I was training to be the world’s greatest martial artist. She’s a really great kid, but she had a violent upbringing, so finding her a school was pretty hard. She was finally settled in when she was kidnapped by assassins, who I naturally kicked the holy hell out of.
The point is that my boyfriend faked her death and sent her out of the country without telling me about it until after the fact. I hadn’t slept, eaten, or changed my clothes for three days, which was when he finally let me know she was safe in another country. By then I was hallucinating all kinds of crap, and apparently said I’d marry him.
The picture enclosed portrays my reaction when I worked this out:
Obviously, I can’t get married to someone who would make a secret plan for my daughter without telling me about it, kidnap that daughter, and let me believe she was dead for three days! How should I break off the engagement?
One Angry Bird.
Dear Canary,
He says he hearts you but he acts like he anti-hearts you? That is the wrongest thing ever! E-VA!
Put the ring in pig food and feed it to some pigs and when he says ‘Hey, pretty bird, where’s my ring?’ tell him, ‘I gave it back to a pig, PIG.’ Then kick him in the head. Nothing says ‘The wedding’s off!’ like concussion.
But first maybe you’d better make sure he wasn’t mind-controlled by a vengeful sorceress or being impersonated by conniving New God or actually a Skrull. There’s been a lot of that going around and it would explain a lot. Or maybe you were a Skrull! Are you feeling Skrully?
Love (but not the kind that lies to you),
Well, you guys, Karen has faceplanted in the middle of her desk and is snoring like you wouldn’t believe, so I’m gone! Like all the nacho chips. Catch you next mailbag, same Misfit time, same Misfit channel!
Misfit out!

You’re Fucking Hilarious.

Occasional Superheroine lists the reasons she thinks Dan DiDio is on his way out.
Dirk Deppey of Journalista responds:
Valerie Dorazio counts down the many mistakes of Dan DiDio and DC Comics:
[quotes from Occasional Superheroine omitted*]
Now, if she could just get over her fear of ck. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Classy. But hey, he’s just kidding! Folks, there’s nothing to liven up a link like a witty joke about women criticising the status quo because of their fear of the almighty peen! Especially when you’re talking about a woman who was hospitalised when she suffered a torn cervix during penile intercourse! That’s almost like a double entendre or something! Dirk follows this example of what passes for wit with: Seriously, while I might quibble with a statement here or there — Time/Warner taking an article in Mother Jones seriously? In what universe is this supposed to be plausible, I wonder? — the piece is still interesting enough to make it today’s must-read article. Oh, but seriously, folks, good stuff from the little woman. Whose position he has already invalidated as cock-fearing. While joking about her penis-related injuries. Jeez, girls! It was only a deeply traumatic experience! Don’t you HAVE a sense of humour? *Edit: To clarify Occasional Superheroine refers to ‘ck-ups’[sic], and Deppey says that ‘the joke had nothing to do with anything outside of typography’. I have no trouble believing that was his intent. However, in so saying, he 1) ignores that the joke has no meaning without an appeal to misogynistic stereotypes about frigidity and 2) appears to believe that ‘I had no intention of saying a shitty thing’ absolves you of having actually said it.

Let’s Play Spot The Editor

Birds of Prey #109 spoilers, so skim down if you don’t want to know.
Tony Bedard’s filling in for a couple of issues, and good for him. There are several things I love about this issue Barda and Sin playing Pokemon, for example, which made my morning. Then there’s something I hate the murder of Knockout which is editorial mandate, not Bedard’s fault. GOD and/or DIDIO, could we keep both members of a non-same-sex couple alive? Just ONCE?
And then there’s this, which combines so much wrong and so much right in one panel:

Okay, let’s just count to ten while we reflect on the gorgeousness of Nicola Scott’s pencils.
Now, all together: What the FUCK? Shado is not Connor’s mother. Connor’s mother is a Korean-African-American woman named Moonday who has appeared in the comics many a time before. Oh dear God, please say this is a terrible writing error combined with a sleepy and overworked editor, not a post-Infinite-Crisis retcon? Because, while Connor kissing Daddy’s rapist is exceptionally gross, Connor kissing Daddy’s rapist (his mom) would break my fragile, girlish spirit.
But on the side of awesome, a DCU character, and Dinah, no less, acknowledges that Ollie was raped by Shado. And she used the specific word ‘rape’ not ‘forced him’ or ‘didn’t ask him’ he was raped. Oh, Tony Bedard, I forgive you your glaring continuity error! You’ve fixed a persistent little misandrist/misogynist thorn in my side that went so long unacknowledged I thought no one would ever pull it out.
My fragile, girlish spirit is in transports of delight.
Also! If you are into ‘Karen writes about things’, I’ve recently written a couple of things in other places.
In the August edition of Cerise, the online gaming magazine for women, I write about becoming a gamer.
And at Blog@Newsarama, I contribute to the I Heart Comics series with I Heart Teenagers.

The Reprehensible Resurrection of Gor.

‘… of Gor’, like ‘in my pants’, is one of those delightful suffixes you can add to any phrase for giggles and fun. ‘Cyclops can never take off his visor… of Gor!’ ‘Superboy Prime broke the continuity… of Gor!’ ‘I’m the goddamn Batman… of Gor!’
‘… of Gor.’ As a pastime, it provides minutes of wholesome delight!
As a puerile fantasy novel series that promotes rigid gender roles, idealises the emotional and sexual slavery of women, and demonises women who assert control over their own sexuality, it’s much less entertaining.
The Gor series, by John Norman, dropped off the reprint lists some years back. Being anti-censorship, I was much enheartened by the natural demise of this despicable work.
Now comics publisher Dark Horse is reprinting them in omnibus form, possibly because they have seen the pot of gold at the foot of the misogyny rainbow, or possibly because our culture just isn’t replete enough with fictional examples of women who really honestly! want to be raped.
Fantasy and comics writer Tamora Pierce ably summarises the series’s repugnant ideology on her journal:
Briefly, [hero] Tarl Cabot travels from our world to its opposite, circling the Sun just across from us, so we never know it’s there! Gor is a fantasy world, where men wear leather harnesses and carry swords, and women wear flimsy outfits. Most women also wear steel collars and steel bracelets, because they are slaves.
You heard me.
Every bed has a slave ring attached to it. If a woman misbehaves, she gets locked to it and spends the night sleeping on the hard stone floor to teach her manners. (Gorean nights are cold, too.) Not all women are slavesthere are Free Companions, free in that they don’t have to wear collars. That status is flexible:
’ … when she has been irritable or otherwise troublesome, even a Free Companion may find herself looking forward to a pleasant night on the stones, stripped, with neither a mat nor a blanket, chained to a slave ring precisely as though she were a lowly slave girl. … A taste of the slave ring is thought to be occasionally beneficial to all women.’ Why do the men do this? ‘It is the Gorean way of reminding her … that she, too, is a woman, and thus to be dominated, to be subject to men.’
(For the curious and strong of stomach, Bellatrys has a plentiful selection of extracts with commentary collected here.)
Some people adore these Gorean ideals of female bondage and male supremacy so much that they try to live them. Oddly, the Gorean community has been plagued with a reputation as cult-like and abusive! Who’da fucking thunk.
However, the allegations of book-inspired abuses, distressing as they are, aren’t so much my concern. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if all Goreans were totally innocent of these accusations, making the adult, fully informed decision to live out repulsive misogyny by choice. Mildly surprised, yes. But I’d still object to the books.
The books are vile. (Also, poorly written and didactic. But mostly, just plain sick-making.) Our hero is meant to be a gentler being than the native Goreans, with a truly touching concern for the rights of women. He thinks they should be better treated! And maybe not branded and enslaved if they really don’t want to be, although sometimes they do secretly want to be enslaved, or they don’t but they’d like it if they just tried, so how can you tell*?
Bitches, man.
An extract from Outlaw of Gor (the second Gor novel, and thus the middle chunk of the forthcoming omnibus) provides the musings of this noble-minded saviour on Tharna, a city where women (atypically) rule:
[I]n Tharna both the men and the women came eventually to believe the myths or the distortions advantageous to female dominance. …
Yet this situation, socially viable though it might be for generations, is not one truly productive of human happiness. … In a city such as Tharna the men, taught to regard themselves as beasts, as inferior beings, seldom develop the full respect for themselves essential to true manhood. But even more strangely the women of Tharna do not seem content under the gynocracy. Although they despise men and congratulate themselves on their more lofty status it seems to me that they, too, fail to respect themselves. Hating their men they hate themselves.
I have wondered sometimes if a man to be a man must not master a woman and if a woman to be a woman must not know herself mastered. I have wondered how long nature’s laws, if laws they are, can be subverted in Tharna. I have sensed how a man in Tharna longs to take the mask from a woman, and I have suspected how much a woman longs for her mask to be taken.
Indeed, the female ruler of the city secretly dreams of a strong virile man just like our protagonist raping her into happiness.
And how is Dark Horse promoting this anti-feminist claptrap?
Part science fiction, part adventure novel, the stories in the world of Gor would unfold to show Tarl Cabot’s growth from a novice to a man whose fate might determine the course of every man, woman, and child on Gor.

John Norman’s Gor Omnibus 1 collects the first three novels in the series. Prepare to take a journey to a land of passion and sorcery.

Hear that, kids? Passion and sorcery! Not slavery, rape and abuse at all! These are perfectly lovely sci-fi adventure novels with swords and stuff.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain… of Gor.

  • In case you thought I was joking about the branding from Tarnsman of Gor, the first in the series:
    I have known of several cases in which a proud, insolent woman, even one of great intelligence, who resisted a master to the very touch of the iron, once branded became instantly a passionate and obedient Pleasure Slave.
    Even mouthy smart bitches really honestly! want to be raped.