[Guest Column] ‘You’ll Accept Us’: The Younger, Other Avengers.

Notice: Due to life and a bad case of RSI, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide y’all with a column this week, but I am extremely fortunate in my friends, and Todd bravely stepped into the breach with this guest column.
Todd Harper is a PhD student in Telecommunications at Ohio University. He once described his research interests thusly: ‘Look at my papers this year… comic books, video games, He-Man and She-Ra, and gay porn. Who has more fun than us?’ His primary area is game studies, with some representation and queer theory on the side to keep from going insane.
A naturally self-effacing individual (read: a roiling vortex of poor self-esteem), he is not exactly well-published yet. However, you can read infrequent commentary on life, the universe, and everything in his blog.
I had high hopes about opening this column by talking about how superpowers are a metaphor for the Other, especially the sexual Other, in modern comic books. Then I realized this would be a lot like speaking to an ice floe full of penguins and calmly informing them that 1.) water is wet and 2.) my, it certainly is a little nippy here inside the Antarctic Circle. Never mind the fact that Bryan Singer wielded this concept like a sledgehammer and beat us over the head with it two films in a row. He even cast Ian McKellan, for god’s sake.
We get it. So let’s just start with the assumption that the link between having superpowers and being Othered is just sort of a given.
As long as we’re laying this sort of thing out, I should also admit that I am shameless when it comes to being convinced to consume media because they have gay characters. Many of the other LGBT people I know are the same way, and I am going to hazard that we do it because we are deathly curious. Seriously. Writers and creators have been getting it wrong for such a long time that there is a sort of grim fascination in finding out what the hell they’ve done wrong this time.
Oh sure, there’s always a honeymoon period where you go ‘Hurray! Gay visibility!’ and then THE CLICHE drops out of the rafters and crushes you like a meteorite strike. You love Will and Grace until you realize that Will and Jack represent 0.0005% of all the gay men you’ve ever met. You think Queer As Folk is awesome until you realize the characters are annoying caricatures. That sort of thing. I am sure anybody reading this would be happy to supply examples of the Cliche Anvil that they have had to claw their way out from under. I have heard that girls read comics, for example, and are pissed about representations. Shocking, I know.
The point here is that when I first picked up Young Avengers you know it was because of Billy and Teddy and I was on the prowl for the gay. I am honest about this. So that’s the other given.
What I believe we need to look at is how particular comics use this Othered metaphor of the superpowered individual to make a point. People have claimed the X-Men as a metaphor for racism and for homophobia. This very blog is replete with examples of how different comics represent women and gender symbolically and literally through their portrayals. We’re past the point of only saying ‘ZOMG! (x) is totally a metaphor for (y)!’ and nothing else. No duh, ref first paragraph.
A cursory look at Young Avengers reveals that it’s already rife with metaphor. It’s a story about young people with powers that are tied, in some way, to the recently disbanded Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Even if the link is as strong as bonds of genetics, or as simple as the adoption of a codename, the Young Avengers are a mirror for the old ones. The entire thing is a metaphor for adolescence, inheritance, and family.
More importantly, though, the book’s many metaphors were nuanced and multi-dimensional. They crossed over issues of gender and sexuality, age and parenthood, race and class, and brought multiple Others together into a cogent message about the way we think about Otherness socially, especially in regards to teenagers and the whole identity feeling-out process. And that’s really what YA is about: the journey of these teenagers coming to grips with their Otherness, and a world hostile to both that Otherness and to them for being Othered.
Really, that nuance is what I had found missing from other treatments of homosexuality in comics, particularly Marvel comics (I admit to being a little clueless on the DC side; feel free to regale me with your own horror stories from that universe in comments). Northstar, for example, is an awesome character who I love, but I only love him for how terrible he is, if that makes sense. A bitchy high-class queen who is vaguely ethnic (there’s a Quebecois joke here somewhere, I can sense it)… oh my god, it’s too perfect to be true. And yet there he is. You do not even want to ask me about the remake of Rawhide Kid. I mean, I loved that book — the various jokes about how damned nelly the Kid was caused me to crack up regardless of how over the top said jokes typically were — but let’s face it, that portrayal was so two-dimensional it’s invisible if you turn it sideways. Like Singer and the X-Men films, the writers at Marvel tended to use a chainsaw when a scalpel was required.
This idea of nuance is really quite important. While I was working on my master’s degree I did some research on ideal portrayals of gay men on TV by interviewing gay men and asking what they thought such a portrayal would be. Almost to an individual, what they expressed was a desire for sexuality to not be the character’s defining characteristic; it should be part of a three- dimensional person, not the whole point of the character.
How does Young Avengers do that? Glad you asked.
Power Underwhelming: Let’s take stock for a second. There’s eight core Young Avengers over two books: Iron Lad, Billy, Teddy, Eli, Kate, Cassie, Tommy, and the Vision. Well, alright, seven and a half if you slam Iron Lad and the Vision together. But it’s interesting to note that three of these people have no inherent superpowers. Oh, sure, Iron Lad has nifty future tech courtesy of his future self (don’t think about it too hard, Kang gives me headaches too) and Eli takes MGH, but they’re not REALLY superheroes. Even Cassie was ‘born’ normal except for that minor detail of stealing Pym Particles from her dad. In fact, only Billy, Teddy, and Tommy have natural, inherent powers.
Think about that for a sec. We’ve already accepted that superpower = Othered logic earlier on, right? Yet in this book, half the Othered characters don’t have powers. Cassie got her powers trying to get closer to her estranged dad (a reformed criminal and superhero; you bet your boots he’s Othered). Eli started taking MGH because he was ashamed of letting down his grandfather Isaiah, the ‘Black Captain America’ (ZOMG OTHERED OTHERED OTHERED, right?). Iron Lad returns from the future with his nifty technosuit because in the future he’s a royal dork nobody likes and ends up becoming an evil time-spanning conqueror as a result (sort of). And while Kate has no real superpowers, she taught herself puissant fencing and archery skill because she was assaulted and likely raped (a psychosexual and social Othering for sure). In all of these cases Otherness came into these characters’ lives and they embraced it or were deeply changed by it, rather than having it forced on them at birth.
On the other side of the coin there’s Billy, and Teddy, and Tommy. They did have their Otherness sort of thrust upon them, from the get go (in multiple ways for Billy and Teddy). Teddy is a Skrull and a Kree (a Skree?) and has all sorts of nifty powers as a result. Billy has natural magical ability. Tommy is a mutant (the only real mutant in the group, in fact) with all that implies. They didn’t seek out power, they were just given power and forced to deal with the consequences. Billy and Teddy are also gay, which isn’t typically considered a superpower but probably should be.
In discussing his own heroic origins with Jessica Jones, Teddy makes the observation that people can be typical or average, but never normal, because everyone is unique, thus rendering ‘normal’ a useless term. But that characterizes the movement of the naturally powered characters compared to their non-powered peers. Billy, Teddy, and Tommy are constantly moving toward a perceived norm from their starting position of disadvantage, and there’s always something to trip them up: a selfish and exploitative friend, a proto-hominid bully, the fact that you accidentally blew up a schoolbuilding (I mean, look what that did for the New Warriors)… something ready to boomerang them back into Otherness.
The genius of Young Avengers is that those two movements — of the inherently ‘normal’ toward Otherness, and of the Othered toward ‘normality’ — meet in the middle in the form of, well… the Young Avengers. It’s one of the book’s strong points that it has both of these points of view about the nature of power, when you consider that power = Otherness. If they were all mutants they’d just be the X-Men, victims of birth and circumstance. If they were all ‘artificial’ heroes who gain power in some way, the full range of being a victim of your Otherness wouldn’t be conveyed quite as well. And then there’s the margin of the margins, Kate’s case not having powers at all but being Othered anyway by her assault. The various forms of Otherness play off each other. Kate, for example, resists gender roles, sexual norms, and is an enthusiastic class traitor, all in the process of becoming Hawkeye. Eli’s race, social class, and family all come together to make him Patriot. Teddy is the real poster child for this: he’s a gay Kree/Skrull teenage superhero orphan in a single parent home and the Super Skrull kinda sets his mom on fire. But somehow, throw them all together, and it works.
Consider this: when I was doing the textual analysis of YA that many of these points are drawn from, I was focusing mostly on sexuality. There were so many models of dealing with teenage sexuality in the book, and I was dead impressed with the diversity of them. The best part is that even the non-gay characters were working in a metaphoric way to talk about sexuality and the experiences of young gay people. For example:

  • The straight student struggling to understand a friend or family member who is gay (Cassie)
  • The gay teen who changes him/herself to be like the straight majority (Teddy)
  • The gay outcast who flees from or is shunned by society (Billy, Tommy)
  • The gay teen who is willing to give up anything to become normal (Iron Lad)
  • The victim of sexual assault who is suddenly faced with a world s/he never wanted to be part of and is changed forever (Kate)
  • The gay kid who turns to self-abuse and drugs in order to drown out the anger, shame, and sorrow (Eli)
    They’re all rich portraits orbiting this concept of being Othered by power. And while I was focusing on sexuality, you can certainly map this to other sources of difference too.
    Of course, the book’s supporting characters have a role to play here too. Particularly, Captain America and Jessica Jones are the most important: they represent two competing ideologies of gender and parenthood. If the book is a metaphor about being an Other from a teenager’s point of view, Cap and Jess are the Mom and Dad, the patriarchal and the matriarchal, the suppressive protector and the enabling supporter.
    Wait Til Your Father Gets Home: Not to speak ill of the dead, but Captain America spends most of the book as 1.) the patriarchal father figure and 2.) dead wrong. For serious. Oh, his intentions are good, this much is clear. He’s worried about the kids’ well-being, after all. He doesn’t want them to get hurt or inadvertently hurt others, and he’s driven somewhat by his guilt about Bucky. But the key issue in YA is that in his desire to protect these kids, Cap is totally missing the point. He sees their Otherness and he accepts it, truly; but his reaction to it is to shut them away from a world where that Otherness is public and open. For their own good.
    It’s Hawkeye-nee-Kate Bishop who sums the entire thing up fairly well, near the end of the second book. Patriot — ‘Lieutenant America’ in Kat Farrell’s words — is in the hospital recovering from a hit he took to protect Cap from a Kree laser blast. Cap asks the YA if they understand now why he wanted them not to be heroes, and Kate quite rightly replies:
    ‘Sir, with all due respect… the minute Eli is back on his feet, he’ll be chasing down bad guys, powers or no powers. That’s just who he is. It’s who we all are. The same as you. I know you and Iron Man don’t approve of us, but I can’t help thinking… if you guys had supported us — if you had taken the time to train us — maybe Eli wouldn’t be in surgery right now. Maybe Billy’s parents would still have a place to live, and Teddy’s mother would still be alive. That’s how it feels, anyway. So, if you really want to protect us… you’ll accept us.’
    He does, too. That’s the best part. In the end of the book Cap recognizes Kate as the ‘new’ Hawkeye (poor Clint, when he comes back from the dead, but that’s another story entirely). In the Civil War event Cap sees the YA as valuable allies and makes the effort to rescue them, incorporating them into the Secret Avengers as partners in his resistance effort.
    Importantly, though, the ‘opposition’ to the Otherness isn’t some sort of scary social monolith like anti-mutant sentiment. We are invited, through our general approval of Captain America (who’s pretty damn likeable even if he is the standard bearer of American patriarchal capitalist society), to identify with the point of view, and then gently told why it shouldn’t be by our identification with the Young Avengers themselves. It avoids a damaging us-vs.- them mentality and adds an extra dimension to the argument. And the truth of the matter is, Cap is a symbol that not all people of privilege are oppressing the Other out of malice. That sword can cut both ways, of course — Heinberg usefully gives us famously anti-superhero J. Jonah Jameson in the comic’s second panel as a foil — but it’s important, especially given the role of sexuality in the story. Captain America honestly means well and is trying to do what’s right, even if he’s going about it all wrong.
    Mommy Dearest: If you have a father figure, you also have a mother figure, and Heinberg picks the absolute best person possible for the job: Jessica Jones. Your normal host has already discussed Jess at length so I will save myself some embarrassment and not try to top her. Taking everything into account, though, there are few other characters in the Marvel universe who could have as successfully filled the role Jessica plays in Young Avengers as she does.
    And what role is that? Mother figure is sort of the obvious one; the special issue focusing on the origin stories of the Young Avengers features Jess at her most motherly, trying to find out why the kids are the way they are, how they got here, what they want to do. She listens, she offers advice, she shares her own experiences, and most importantly she takes them all seriously. One of the last panels of the issue is Jessica standing with her boyfriend (and the father of her at the time unborn child) Luke Cage. He says that it seemed like Jess wasn’t able to talk them out of being superheroes like Cap wanted her to, and asks what she’ll say when their superpowered daughter wants to be a Young Avenger. Jess simply replies, ‘At this point, I want to be a Young Avenger.’ She makes a particularly strong connection with Kate Bishop in that issue thanks to their shared history of sexual assault.
    In the opening of the book, J. Jonah suggests the assignment of finding and talking to the YA will help Jess develop her mothering skills. Jess replies, sarcastically, ‘What mothering skills?’, to which JJ simply says: ‘Exactly.’ In fact, Jessica is quite concerned about her fitness to be a real mother and expresses that doubt to the various YA members a number of times. Eli gets her back, however; when she claims that she’s not very good at this parenting thing, he responds, ‘Could have fooled me.’
    However, what Jess really does throughout the book is question patriarchy privilege symbol Captain America. When he suggests the patriarchal response to the situation she is always there with the rejoinder, ‘Is that really the right thing to do?’ Of course, this is also one of the more problematic things about Jess in the books; she rarely, if ever, contradicts Cap or Iron Man (the patriarchy sidekick… okay, imagining Tony dressed as Robin now, I need to go lie down), letting them take the lead and contenting herself with working on a more ‘grassroots’ level, as it were. A more assertive Jessica Jones would certainly be more positive, though I’m not convinced it works with the narrative as well. Part of Jess’ ability to connect with the YA is that she is unsure about the right answers. She doesn’t know if it’s right that they’re superheroes or not; as previously said, she doesn’t even know if she’s done anything right herself or not. She only knows that it’s wrong to keep them from exploring their Otherness through heroism and that they need a chance to find themselves.
    The comic also uses Jess as a way to cement its ideological standpoint. We know when Jess appears alone, her ideology has won out. She’s the one who delivers Hawkeye’s bow and Cap’s message to Kate, for example; she is the one who watched over Eli in the hospital, she’s the one who gets the kids’ life stories. The last panel of the comic is interesting in that regard. It’s an action shot, the various YA members heading off into the fray. They are starbursting away, however, from the center point: a statue of the founding Avengers, at the foot of which stands an approving Jessica Jones, holding a hand to her pregnant belly.
    What better way to end the comic? Jessica-as-mother is the perfect symbol for this family that the YA have become in such a short time. A white, middle class woman, a victim of rape, a superpowered individual, one half of an interracial couple. Yet she has not only survived, but flourished, as an Other. The Young Avengers as a group are much the same. They are, as the characters themselves are careful to reiterate over the course of the book, a family. Their disparate backgrounds and their ability to connect give us hope and remind us that there is solidarity in difference.
    I think her words to Luke on the subject are pretty apt:
    At this point, even I want to be a Young Avenger.

  • Commenting on GRC Guest Columns: A Guide.
    1) Please assume good faith on the part of the guest. I invited these writers because I am familiar with their work and I think it’s good. I don’t edit their columns, and I may not agree with them 100% on every subject, but I think they say smart and thoughtful things. You are free to disagree with them, but please consider them my honoured guests in this space that I host, and be polite in your disagreement, as per general forum rules. The columnist, if they respond, is naturally bound by those same rules.
    2) If you have questions for the columnist, address them to the columnist (who may or may not respond). If you have ideas related to the topic, discuss them the same way you would discuss them had I written the column.
    3) Guest columnists may write in styles and discuss topics I don’t or haven’t. That difference is almost certainly one of the reasons I invited them here. If you have objections to the guest’s style or choice of topic, you may voice them politely but you may like to consider whether you are actually adding anything to the discussion, or performing the equivalent of saying ‘Karen, your column would be great if it wasn’t written from the point of view of a girl reading comics and getting pissed.’
    With all that in mind, you may well like to comment on this column here!

Changes: Not Just For The Hulk.

Welcome to WordPress! New year, new look!
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.
    Welcome to WordPress! New year, new look!
    New direction.

Science Heroism

The second GRC Guest Columnist is Terry D. Johnson, a lecturer of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. During his graduate work at MIT, he was almost bitten by a radioactive spider.
He is essentially a machine that takes in caffeine and alcohol and outputs hair, paralyzing self-reproach, posts about science at his
blog and the occasional PowerPoint slide.
It ain’t easy being a comic book scientist. You’re either a convenient deus ex machina, or you’re cleaning up after your own spectacular lack of common sense. Despite being undeniably brilliant, you will find yourself carrying the idiot ball more often than any of your teammates. It takes a mind like Reed Richard’s to invent a rocket capable of carrying The Hulk and a giant bomb to another star, and an entirely different kind of mind (looking at you, authors and editors) to think that someone as smart as Reed would consider that a fine idea.
That said, there are some advantages.
There is a fine tradition of science heroism, dating back to the early 1900s with Tom Swift (after whom the modern taser is named). Danny Dunn continued the juvenile tradition well into the 1950s while Doc Savage and his entourage brought two-fisted science into the pulps. These fellows, others like them, and their scientifically-inclined arch-nemeses have been around long enough to merit homages in Planetary, Buckaroo Banzai, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
What makes a science hero? Set aside mentalists like The Shadow or Professor Charles Xavier. A science hero acts with the assistance of technology, not through sheer application of will. I’m also not including anyone using gear they weren’t essential in the construction of. Stargirl smashes evil with a cosmic rod, but so did Ted Knight, and he built it.
Iron Man and Steel are successful industrialists and inventors by day; exoskeletal fashion accidents by night. Dr. Ray Palmer and his protege Dr. Ryan Choi fight tiny crime by manipulating white dwarf matter to their advantage. Forge invents things by instinct, Mr. Terrific by design, and Brainiac 5 by sheer, unadulterated arrogance. Hank McCoy cures plagues between flea baths. Batman’s utility belt is more complicated than my HMO. Blue Beetle (the dead one) built a flying bug and a strobe gun.
When I was a kid, I really wanted a strobe gun.
(I still do.)
There’s also Dr. Henry Pym, who discovered the Pym article along with an entire menagerie of mental disorders. (I have it on authority that there is a Pym Appendix to the DSM IV). Spider-man has the proportional speed and strength of a spider, but he also had spider-tracers and web-shooters of his own design.
I haven’t even started on the villains yet! Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor, Doctor Sivana, The Green Goblin, T.O. Morrow, Wizard, The Scarecrow, The Lizard, Mr. Freeze…
…not exactly ladies’ night, is it?
Oracle is a peerless programmer, though I see her as more of a mastermind than a science hero. The Authority’s Engineer is also a possibility, but she was technically given her trademark technology by the previous (male) Engineer. Top Ten’s Toybox uses her father’s inventions I don’t know about Irma Geddon, and frankly, I’m afraid to ask. Agatha Heterodyne…and already I’ve drifted far from the mainstream. There are few women in the science hero biz, and even fewer who would have their name on the patents for their gear.
Why the disparity?
I would suggest several reasons. Sexism is the easiest to identify. Gender stereotypes adversely affect real female scientists during their
schooling and well into their careers; it is reasonable to assume that those stereotypes act similarly to reduce the role of fictional females in science heroism.
I also suspect that we’re living in the “age of female badasses”, a consequence of an industry-wide correction of the weak female stereotype. Even insensitive
creators are now aware that they will come under attack for overtly sexist portrayals of female characters. An aggressive, martial heroine counters the fading (yet particularly galling) stereotype of the meek, submissive female, and a lazy writer can easily fall back upon this as a defense of other failures by
saying, “How can my writing for this character be sexist? She’s strong!” It’s a mistake to think you can earn credit to exploit certain stereotypes by contravening others.
I’m a nerd that went pro. I own a lab coat, am currently surrounded by white boards filled with equations, and occasionally engage in recreational math. My adolescence was as awkward as those facts would suggest, and having heroes who shared my interests and put them to glorious use meant a lot. Later, when I was inaugurated into the complexities and difficulties faced by a working scientist, I had the optimism the can-do spirit of those gentleman bricoleur I had
spired to become to carry me through the rough patches.
I think it would be cool if women had that, too.

For Those Playing Along At Home

EDIT: Hello! Have you been linked to this card and are now confused/angry? Explanations of why these bingo points are considered ridiculous or insulting can be now be found here!
Following Lauredhel at Hoyden About Town, Betty and I felt it necessary to create Anti-Comics-Feminist Bingo.
Clearly, some things are just Meant To Be.

Just read manga like the rest of the girls.
You’re only jealous because you don’t look like that.
So you want comics full of ugly fat chicks?
If you don’t like them, don’t read them.
That’s censorship!
But doing 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 personality!
No one wants realism in comics!
But rape happens in real life too!
But men are drawn unrealistically too!
Men can’t help themselves! Why are you punishing us for our biology?
Women just don’t get comics.
If you don’t like it, shut up and write your own.
Why are you complaining about comics when women in Muslim countries are oppressed?
This is just fanboy entitlement… from women!
There aren’t many women working in mainstream comics because they’re just not good enough.
…I mean, because they’re just not interested.
Sexism is a convention of the genre!
Are you calling me a misogynist!?
My girlfriend never complains about this stuff.
But male characters die too!
Comics are never going to change. You’re wasting your time.

The Body Beneath: In Which the Author Ponders the Reality of Our Fictional Heroes

The first of the GRC Mystery Guest Bloggers is Amy Reads, a feminist academic with a penchant for popular culture. This includes books, television, movies, and, of course, comic books. You can read more of her thoughts thereon at her exceptional blog, Arrogant Self-Reliance.
Are you familiar, Gentle Reader, with the Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer, Connie Willis? She is, without question, one of This Humble Author’s Favorite Writers, sharing a list with such heavy hitters as Elizabeth Bishop, Charlotte Bronte, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Gaskell, and William Thackeray. In an authorial preface to her short story ‘Even the Queen,’ Ms. Willis responds to criticism that claims her stories do not focus enough on feminist issues by presenting said story, which she claims deals with The Women’s Issue. No, Friends, not the right to choose, but rather, Ms. Willis’s story details a futuristic society in which women worldwide are united by one common goal: the right Not To Cycle.
The Woman’s Issue, Ms. Willis says. An essentialist issue, one that manages, in the pages of Ms. Willis’s text, to unite almost all women, worldwide. Ultimate control over one’s body. Because the truth of the matter is, Friends, that bodies are intrinsically messy, by their very nature. Because bodies function without any real help from Us. Because bodies function, every day, ad nauseam, and when they stop, we do, as well.
I begin not with a comic book example but a science fiction one because when Ms. Healey asked me to Guest on This Delightful Blog, Ms. Willis’s quote was the first that came to mind. Because despite the fact that I speak, Long and Hard, about Women in Comics, sometimes—just sometimes, Gentle Reader!—I forget that there are real bodies on these fictional pages.
That is to say, I understand, perfectly, that the characters I adore are not real. Dinah Lance, Diana of Themyscira, Kitty Pryde, even Selina Kyle are not My Friends, and we do not, I’m sorry to say, call each other up on the Telephone and chat about, well, our BFFness and Other Such Oddities. But I know these women, because I have read them, for years. I know these women, because Great Writers and Artists have breathed life into them, given them wonderful stories and histories. I know these women, because I have laughed and cried with them. I have been outraged on their behalf. I have commiserated in their moments of misery.
I know these women, because I am A Reader Of Comic Books.
And because I Read Comics, I also know that with Super Heroes come Super Bodies, and to be honest, Gentle Reader, we don’t often see the messy sloppiness on our brightly colored pages.
By recognizing the Body Within, that Very Real Body that is ruled by messiness, by sloppiness, by fragility and strength and everyday-ness, by understanding that if struck, they will bleed, we begin to understand that Saving the Day is somewhat different for Our Super Heroes of the Double-X Chromosome Persuasion. By seeing Selina Kyle struggle back into her catsuit postpartum, we remember that a woman’s body changes, forever, after childbirth. We remember, Gentle Reader, a woman’s capacity for pregnancy. With that remembrance, we begin to understand The Body Beneath.
The Body Beneath fascinates me, but not in A Naughty Way, and not for the reasons You Might Think. Rather, the idea that a Super Hero must save the day, and save it while experiencing acid indigestion, or a headache, or a pulled muscle, or, yes, other aches and pains unique to men or to women, is to understand what it means, truly, to Be A Hero. Because being a hero is understanding fear, and facing it head on, anyways. Being a hero, Gentle Reader, means sometimes forgetting The Body Beneath and focusing solely on The Body In Peril. That Body is rarely the hero’s, and if by some chance it is? The Hero will ignore her pain in favor of someone else’s safety, always.
The Body Beneath is fragile, even when it isn’t. Even when it’s Kryptonian, or Made of Clay, or Fueled by Suns or Gods or Stars in the Sky. There is always a weakness, is there not? There is always a trick to be shared, a role to be played, a chance for defeat. And most fragile yet, the Human Body, to which Barbara Gordon can attest. Broken, beaten, most assuredly hurt in the most obscene manner by the Joker and his men.
But, and there is a but, Gentle Reader, Barbara Gordon came back as Oracle. She came back even more powerful than before. She didn’t move beyond body but rather moved beyond the dependency society swears for The Body Beneath. Because the Brain is still housed in The Body, yes? As are the Hands part of Said Body. As are The Eyes, the Mouth, the Heart. Rather than discount our belief in the Super Hero’s need for The Body Beneath—for who needs Body more than the Super Hero?—Barbara Gordon as Oracle redefined it.
This seems, to This Humble Author, at least, an interesting statement on society’s constant association of women with their bodies.
Have you noticed, Gentle Reader, the amount of Feminist Issues concerned with Women’s Bodies? That is to say, many of the more political, heated, and/or controversial issues in Feminist Debates Today are concerned with The Body Beneath. The right to Choose, the right To Choose Not To (a la Ms. Willis), the right for Freedom of Expression and Freedom from Fear. The right to work for livable wages, equal wages for equal work. The right to Maternity Leave and the freedom from Heterosexual Imperative.
‘The personal is political,’ Second-Wave Feminists said, demonstrating that women’s concerns are so often personal concerns. Women’s Rights so often discuss Women’s Control over Their Own Bodies.
‘The personal is political,’ my Big-Sister Feminists said. To which we Third-Wavers responded, ‘So, too, is the Political Personal.’
That is, we draw our Movement inward as well as continue to push outward. We see the Pain and Despair of Our Sisters on the faces of those sitting Right Next To Us. We see the struggle of Choice, say, on our television screens, in our theaters, on the pages of our comic books. The Body Beneath reminds us, again and again, that despite our fragile flesh, we continue onwards, striving to be the Heroes We Know We Can Be.
Or, perhaps, because of that assumed fragile flesh. The Body Beneath, then, becomes a reminder of the Very Real Struggle for Equality Across The Board: in real life, in popular culture, and yes, even in Comic Books. Our Great Writers remind us, again and again, that even the strongest of Super Heroes suffer from the Difficulties of Super Bodies. Superman consistently holds himself back, because he knows what his strength can do to fragile flesh, but so, too, does Wonder Woman, does Big Barda.
And further, we are reminded, Again and Again, that some wish Never To Divorce Women From The Processes Of Their Bodies. That is to say, there are some people in the world—just some, Gentle Reader!—who believe because a woman has Certain Anatomy that she is Certainly Weaker, or More Coy, or, the most blasphemous and outrageous of sentiments, Deserving Of What She Has Gotten, Whether Good Or Bad (but mostly Bad). With the recognition of the messy sloppiness of the Super Hero Body comes the recognition of the constant association of Women With Their Bodies.
But over the past few years, three characters have come into play who truly redefine the gendered boundaries placed upon Super Bodies. From the Marvel Universe, the new Hawkeye, and from the DC Universe, the new Manhunter and the new Question.
Kate Bishop, Kate Spencer, and Renee Montoya all take mantles previously held by male characters, but rather than experience a Batgirl to a Batman—a precocious youthful protégé who cannot exist without the moniker the elder man made so famous, so feared—these women truly own their mantles. They do not struggle to fit in as girls or women usurping a traditionally male role, but instead become the role, and Damn The Gender.
Perhaps that is not fair, Friends, because these three women in fact revel in Their Gender, and don’t ever make allowances for their womanhood. Rather, what these three characters demonstrate is that Super Heroes need not be divided by gender. Super Heroes need not be divided into Boy and Girl Camps. Renee Montoya’s recent transformation into The Question is a transformation into an identity that is, by its Very Nature, Absent of Identity. It is a mantle that depends solely on the mantle, solely on the heroism, solely on the worth of the person, male or female, beneath. It is a mantle that, Truly, Friends, depends on a complete redefinition of The Body Beneath.
What Renee Montoya’s The Question ultimately demonstrates, to This Humble Author, at least, is that if a redefinition and a reclamation of The Body Beneath can occur successfully in our Literature, in our Popular Culture, then it can in our ‘Real Life’ as well. Renee is a strong woman and a strong hero, and neither identity is dependent on the other.
With the reminder that even Catwoman’s Catsuit is a Tad Too Tight Postpartum, we are reminded that these Super Heroes, despite their fictional status, are painted from real life. That despite what happens on the pages of our fictional texts, or in the episodes of our fictional television series, or in our movies, our music, our toys, that Impact Does Happen. That Recognition Does Take Place.
Ms. Marianne Moore, one of This Humble Author’s Favorite Poets, begins her text entitled ‘Poetry’ (1921): ‘I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle’ (line 1), which is rather a Contentious Thing To Say About Poetry when one is both a poet and beginning a poem about poetry, no?
With these lines, Ms. Moore acknowledges that there are more important things in the world than poetry. Certainly, there are. Every moment on this Earth someone needs help, whether Emotional, Mental, or Physical. Why, then, her poem asks, do we concern ourselves with trivial things such as poetry? But the next two lines insist that once you understand this uselessness of poetry in the face of More Important Things, once you understand it with ‘perfect contempt’ (line 2), you can find in it, after all, ‘a place for the genuine’ (line 3). This place for the genuine, the poem ultimately argues, is in the presentation of ‘‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’’ (line 24).
‘Imaginary gardens,’ Gentle Reader. The face of Fiction. ‘Imaginary gardens with real toads in them’ is the face of Real Life as presented in Fiction. It is the moment we connect with literature, with popular culture, with each other.
It is the moment we see The Body Beneath, or the Cause Within, or the Expectation of Change and Triumph in Reality.
It is the moment Our Entertainment Reflects Us.
And in that moment, we are challenged to Reflect Back. What we say to those ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them,’ then, is ultimately Up To Us.

I Don’t Know You, Little Doll

What’s going on in this page of She-Hulk #15?
That’s not a trick question.
It’s pretty obviously a scantily dressed female cyborg specifically designed and to seduce and destroy getting on with the seduction and destruction. But in the context of a genre where all too often the unconscious presentation of female characters is that their attractiveness is far more important than their effectiveness, is this conscious wink at the revolting phenomenon good or bad?
Clearly, she’s Sexy, Sexy Danger. She exists to be Sexy, Sexy Danger, a character trope that panders to the dumbest patriarchal fantasies of female rage and violence and discriminates against both women (must be sexy! Even when evil!) and men (so dumb they can be distracted by sexy! Even when attached to evil!).
And at first glance Agent Cheesecake hits every one of those buttons. She’s scantily clad, in an abbreviated version of the otherwise fully-covering S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform; she’s wearing balance-upsetting stiletto heels; her male opponents are completely undone by her bodacious bod; and she manages to display booty while kicking ass.
But. But. BUT. It’s so deliberately over the top. She was, within the text, built to sex you dangerously. She is programmed for seduction. Her name is Agent Cheesecake. And she’s striding around a comic that is renowned for mixing pin-up poses and occasionally egregious cheesecake with sex-positive feminism.
So is the existence of Agent I-Seriously-Can’t-Type-That-Name-Again a great excuse to stick a half-clad fembot in there and pass it off as a joke by naming her something totally hilarious haw haw? Or is it a sly comment on the patriarchal worldview in which a sexy cyborg in half a uniform and high heels seems like a really good idea?
Is it saying ‘I’m so brash about giving you the Sexy, Sexy Danger that I can come right out and say it!’? Or is it saying ‘Look how dumb these guys are, to underestimate and downplay the effectiveness of a woman because of her attractiveness. Hey, comics creators! Sound familiar?’
Does this page perpetuate cheesecake, comment upon it, or condemn it?
That’s not a trick question either. I just can’t answer it yet.

On The Other Hand

This week, let’s have a look at some misandry!
Courtesy my favourite helper-monkey, I got hold of Connor Hawke: Dragon’s Blood #1. (In case you didn’t get the memo, Chuck Dixon’s secret subtitle is Connor Hawke: Not Gay.)
The first issue is mostly set-up and introduction archery contest! Ancient Chinese tale of dragon killed by an archer! Gee, wonder if it could be true! but it’s competent stuff. I enjoyed it very much until my stomach moved uneasily at the last pages, which featured Lady Shado.
Lady Shado is a skilled archer/mercenary/occasional assasin who embodies the Japanese spirit of the bow. In other words, she is exactly the sort of character for whom I fall head over heels, forever won over by her effortless kickassery.
So why do I hate Lady Shado?
Because she’s a GODDAMN RAPIST. We discovered this during a very special issue of Green Arrow where she talks about the paternity of her child to Black Canary (who apparently sleeps in a teddy. Uh-huh.)
Click here for the disturbing revelation!
That’s right. When Oliver Queen was wounded, sick with fever, and so delirious he thought he was making love to another woman, Lady Shado had sex with him (and conceived). Was he capable of consent? Did he consent? Clearly not to sex with her, the GODDAMN RAPIST.
The weirdest thing is that no one pays this much attention. Dinah, instead of beating the crap out of Shado, reluctantly accepts her help in rescuing Ollie from his then dire straits. Later, in Quiver, she includes this incident in a flashback collage as one of Ollie’s long list of infidelities. Ollie is indeed the least faithful man in the DCU but including his rape is repulsive. Jesus, Dinah. Victim-blaming much?
Even self-acknowledged expert Doctor Light, who now prefers to be called Doctor Rapist McRapity Rape, fails to pick it. Proof:

Shows what you know, Doctor Asshole!
So the rape of Sue Dibny warrants a mass mindwipe. The rape of Ollie Queen warrants… not a lot, really.
This ties in, of course, to horrifying misconceptions about sexual relationships between men and women. One of the nastiest misandrist tropes is that men exist in a state of perpetual horniness. They just can’t help it!
That’s why it’s up to women to say no and indicate they really mean no. That’s why men stare at breasts instead of faces and wolf-whistle. They are totally overcome by their surging masculine mojo. God, those poor guys.
And that’s why they cannot be raped by women, especially women they would otherwise find attractive. It doesn’t matter if they’re delirious with fever and unable to give consent, they still want sex with hot Asian bad girls.
Whether Ollie would have consented if he’d been in his right mind is another issue entirely. The fact is that he didn’t, and because of the cock-eyed DCU approach to men raping women (harrowing!) vs women raping men (never happens!), no one in that world seems to notice.
And that’s how we get to this, the world’s most disturbing cover:

Connor Hawke: Kissing Daddy’s Rapist.

In Fiction, No One Will Have You Fired.

I’m reading CardCaptor Sakura, or, as I like to call it, Magical Card Adventure Girl (With Creepy). Sakura remains a loveable and determined hero, persevering against all comers with grit and charm. However, I just don’t know how she’s getting anything done with all the love pollen in the air.
As of volume three, there are no less than nine romantic relationships or love interests. I was advised that I would likely find some of these entanglements disturbing, and so it has proven:
Not Creepy:

  • Sakura crushes on her brother’s best friend, Yukito.
  • Sakura’s rival Li crushes on Yukito.
  • Sakura’s brother crushes on Yukito.
  • Sakura’s best friend, Tomoyo, crushes on Sakura.
  • Sakura’s brother crushes on Sakura’s math teacher.
  • Tomoyo’s mother Sonomi crushed on her cousin, Nadeshiko (Sakura’s mother).
  • Sonomi crushes on Sakura (this appears to be more because Sakura is Nadeshiko’s daughter and brings that nostalgic love to mind, rather than any romantic interest in Sakura herself).
    Incredibly Fucking Creepy, Oh My God:
  • Nadeshiko, aged sixteen, marries Sakura’s father, who is Nadeshiko’s high school teacher.
  • Sakura’s ten-year-old friend Rika is described as having ‘an older boyfriend’. This is revealed to be their homeroom teacher.
    I realise that this is all a little tricky to keep in your mind at one time, so I have helpfully prepared a diagram.

I’m not at all appalled by kids crushing on their friends, older kids or adults. I’m only a little freaked out by the incestuous quality of Sonomi crushing on her cousin (and, as proxy, her cousin’s daughter) it wasn’t requited and there’s sufficient ambiguity as to its extent.
But those two red lines up there are really, really scary.
The marriage between Sakura’s parents is desperately icky on paper, but the creepiness is somewhat ameliorated by its presentation as a not unqualified success. Nadeshiko’s parents were horrified, and Sonomi still doesn’t approve, and not only because she feels her love was stolen, but because the age and power imbalance is squicky: ‘I still remember how you lived together in that tiny apartment! How you would walk to school together! The student and the teacher, holding hands!’
So, though the relationship isn’t textually condemned, and was a successful and loving marriage, it isn’t presented as entirely unproblematic. Still, I raise an sceptical eyebrow at it as a totally unnecessary plot point, and as an inappropriate topic for a book aimed at children.
And then I raise both eyebrows in stark horror and shriek at the unmitigated awfulness of the other reciprocated romance thus far, which is between a ten-year-old girl and her homeroom teacher.
Rika, who is described as ‘nice’, ‘pretty’ and ‘really mature’, has told her friends that she has an older boyfriend. After exchanging significant glances and blushes with Rika, the teacher gives her a ring, ‘as promised’, declaring, ‘I told the clerk that this is an engagement ring. Take care of it until it becomes a wedding ring.’
Perhaps I am especially disgusted because I teach at elementary schools, and a lot of my students have crushes on me they give me flowers and love notes and cling to available limbs, to the point where I have ascertained my maximum bearing weight is three first-graders, or two second-graders.
I naturally don’t return that affection in kind, and I would under no circumstances give any one of them a ring that would later become a wedding ring, because that would be incredibly fucking creepy, oh my god.
Unlike the relationship between Sakura’s parents, there is no intratextual condemnation whatsoever of this irredeemably fucked-up agreement, which is presented as a charming tale of romance, instead of latent pedophilia at work. It’s a sweet tale of wish-fulfilment that says ‘Hey, kids! If you fall in love with your teacher he just might marry you, and there’s nothing wrong with that!’
Shame on you, CLAMP! This is not a message for children (or for anyone)! It is downright irresponsible to suggest that a romantic relationship between an adult and a child is acceptable at all, much less a cute sub-plot. Shame, shame, shame on you.


Folks, welcome to MISOGYNY MEGASLAM! BOY do we have a slobberknocker for you tonight!
Yes, folks, today it’s a battle of the TITANS. In one corner, the much-mocked ninny of the nineties, the enemy of anatomy and the legendary leader of lateness, ROB LIEFELD! In the other, the readily-ridiculed replicator, the lover of the light-box and the prince of pornface, GREG LAND!
One thing’s for certain: it’s clobberin’ time!
The Champion: Rob Liefeld
One could go on at great length on the topic of Rob Liefeld’s excruciatingly awful art, but I think I can best sum it up with three little words:


‘Unh’ is right, Cassie, when every vertebra has shattered. And while Sue Storm-Richards might have child-bearing hips, you can tell why Valeria’s was a troublesome birth, since there was nowhere for her to gestate:

Which brings me to the point.
My theory on Rob Liefeld is that he’s the last survivor of an alien race that was dedicated to radical body modification. Adopting the Earthling obsession with men = strong; women = sexy but possessed of surgical techniques beyond our imagination, they soon passed even the most ridiculous of Earth standards and into the realm of the grotesque.
They removed ribs and internal organs, enlarged their thighs, and lengthened their legs. Neck tendons were made permanently tense; all fatty tissue on the face was relocated to the pectorals; and every strand of hair was replaced with an artificial polymer so sharp it could cut molecules.
Sadly, in the craze to reach perfection, every viable uterus on the planet was removed and destroyed. Realising this ultimate folly too late, the survivors detonated megatonne warheads, rendering their world uninhabitable. Only Liefeld, who had hidden from the body-wracking insanity of the endtimes, escaped, in an insanely detailed and really cool-looking spaceship.
Liefeld’s entire body of work is a work of grief; an extended lament for his dead people, and a terrible warning to us all.
I couldn’t tell you where the pouches come from, though.
The Contender: Greg Land
Land’s women are usually anatomically correct, which one would expect when they are based on photographs of actual women.
Sadly, instead of being the kickass warriors they’re meant to be Land’s women are often depicted as thinking that a battle scene is absolutely the best time to get down with their bad selves.

Dance, Emma, dance!

Dance, Ultimate Sue, dance!

Dance, Crystal, da-
Wait, that picture of Sue in the background looks awfully familiar.

It appears that despite being from different companies, multiverses and completely different families, Ultimate Sue Storm and Dinah Lance are identical twins. Huh.
And then, of course, there is the directly dreadful, where, regardless of what they are actually saying or doing, women and girls are required to flash their panties, adopt pornface, or both:

If you thought this was going to be a tie, pointing out that they are both so amusingly terrible at depicting women (haha, hilarious misogyny!) that it’s impossible to choose which is worse, you are wrong. For all Liefeld’s lack of skill, I consider Greg Land’s work to be far more offensive, not because he traces, but because of what he traces.
Yes, tracing is a sign of creative bankruptcy and, when using uncredited copyrighted images for non-satirical purposes, is actually, y’know, illegal. You’d expect one of the most lauded artists in comics today to actually make his own work, and it’s troubling that he so clearly doesn’t.
But since he’s copying other people’s stuff anyway… why isn’t it any good? Why are all the women determined to flash their thongs? Why are they continually standing like strippers caught mid-move? And what the fuck is with the pornface?
That’s not sexism through incompetence. It’s sexism through carelessness, lack of imagination, or intent, and I really don’t care which. Greg Land could be tracing women with expressions appropriate to the dialogue, or composing action scenes where women are acting, not posing. Instead, he is choosing to inflict this misogynistic fuckdoll dreck upon the tender eyeballs of his readers.
Ladies and gentlemen, your winner: Greg Land.
Sadly, this ultimately means that we all lose.
To alleviate the pain, may I suggest The Greg Land Caption Contest?

Bingo: The Callers Enclue You.

Hello, there!
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!
Just read manga like the rest of the girls.
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.
(More here.)
You’re only jealous because you don’t look like that.
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?’
So you want comics full of ugly fat chicks?
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.
If you don’t like them, don’t read them!
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.
That’s censorship!
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.
(More here.)
But doing martial arts in high heels is perfectly reasonable.
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.
But super-strong women don’t need bras!
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.
(More here.)
But she’s from an alien culture with no nudity taboo!
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.
But girls often wear skirts! Why wouldn’t they go flying in them?
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.
(More here.)
But that costume suits her personality!
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.
No one wants realism in comics!
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.
But rape happens in real life too!
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.
But men are drawn unrealistically too!
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.’
(More here, here, here and pretty much the rest of the feminist comics’ fans’ internet. )
Men can’t help themselves! Why are you punishing us for our biology?
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.
Women just don’t get comics.
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.
If you don’t like it, shut up and write your own.
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.
Why are you complaining about comics when women in Muslim countries are oppressed?
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?
(More here.)
This is just fanboy entitlement… from women!
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.
There aren’t many women in mainstream comics because they’re just not good enough.
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.
…I mean, because they’re just not interested.
BZZZT. Wrong again! If they weren’t interested, no one would be bothering to score bingo off you.
Sexism is a convention of the genre!
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.
Are you calling me a misogynist??
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.
My girlfriend never complains about this stuff. Or: I’m a woman, and I’m not offended by this.
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.
But male characters die too!
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.’
(More here.)
Comics are never going to change. You’re wasting your time.
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.

  • – –
    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.