Skip

Emma Frost can be a problem
October 13, 2011 11:20 AM   Subscribe


 
how can comics do better at female characters?

by writing and drawing them as people, first and foremost, not breasts attached to legs.

seriously - I love comics. But there was a reason that when I was a curious teenager (and rabid SF-Fantasy fan) I avoided superhero comics like the plague. I saw no women I could relate to, because I didn't have balloons attached to my chest, and my waist was wider than my thigh. You can go on and on about how they had interesting characters, but it's clear that the artists didn't think those characters - and their internal stories - were interesting enough or maybe they would have focussed on that rather than their bodies.

But for some really kick-ass and profound writing about women - one of the best is a comic written by a man (though notably drawn by a woman): Y: the Last Man.
posted by jb at 12:03 PM on October 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


How many male comic fans look like the men in comics?
posted by Etrigan at 12:31 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nobody bemoans the fact that the average male comic book reader lacks the abs of male superheroes. ..
posted by Renoroc at 12:33 PM on October 13, 2011


How many male comic fans look like the men in comics?

If you're talking about superheroes, not many. If you're talking about every other male character in comic books -- a lot. Secondary and background male characters in comic books tend to look a lot like regular people, or, at least, sometimes like Mark Trail versions of real men.

In the meanwhile, unless they are elderly, every single women in many comics looks like they have been traced from porn.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:34 PM on October 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


How many male comic fans look like the men in comics?
Nobody bemoans the fact that the average male comic book reader lacks the abs of male superheroes. ..


First, men are not marginalized the way women are, especially in comic books. It's not just about the way women are drawn, it's about how they are depicted as characters, the way they are underrepresented in the industry, the way they are treated in comic book stores and at conventions, the whole nine yards.

Second, women are drawn in a way that makes them sexualized and (all too often) weak. Men are drawn in a way that makes them physically powerful. The men with six pack abs are not sexualized from the standpoint of most comic book readers (heterosexual males). This distinction is amplified by the way the characters are depicted: women are often secondary to or dependent upon men, whereas men are independent.

Third, this difference in depiction reinforces sexist ideas that women are submissive sex objects whereas men are strong and independent. The depictions are harmful to women in a way that they are not harmful to men.

Fourth, even if that weren't a false equivalence, this is about how women are depicted. Making the discussion about men marginalizes women in much the same way that sexist comic books do.

These rebuttals (and more) are raised almost as often as the predictable "but what about the mens?!" comments are made. We need to move past it.
posted by jedicus at 12:44 PM on October 13, 2011 [31 favorites]


Nobody bemoans the fact that the average male comic book reader lacks the abs of male superheroes

Annnnnd that's where I like to this.
posted by joyceanmachine at 12:53 PM on October 13, 2011 [10 favorites]


jedicus: Those are all good reasons, but none of them is "Comic book women don't look like female comic book fans," which was the objection jb raised.
posted by Etrigan at 12:54 PM on October 13, 2011


from the second link: Erica Moen (of the wonderful DAR) mentioned Men Up. Draw your female characters as men for just a moment. If something looks really out of place, you're doing it wrong.

(Exception: you write a porn comic, and not always then even)
posted by Hactar at 12:55 PM on October 13, 2011


Annnnnd that's where I like to this.

oh, burn.
posted by Zed at 12:55 PM on October 13, 2011


MY KINGDOM FOR AN EDIT PONY.
posted by joyceanmachine at 12:56 PM on October 13, 2011


by writing and drawing them as people, first and foremost, not breasts attached to legs who talk and behave just like the men.
posted by phearlez at 12:57 PM on October 13, 2011


How to do better at female characters?

Give them body shapes and clothes appropriate for their role. Plunging necklines or backlines, bodysuits so tight the ass rides up, high heels, etc., are not generally comfortable to fight in.

Let them use their brains. Logic is not the sole domain of the male - girls can be scientists, geeks and detectives too. It shouldn't be a mark against a female character that her defining characteristics are not her T&A.

Let them learn and grow in the field. Let them make mistakes, and then show them learning from them. So often, a mistake made in the field is a cause for weeping and gnashing of teeth, and much anxiety and self-esteem issues. We need to see more women pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep going.

Put them in positions of authentic authority, then let them exercise that authority. Anytime I've seen a female character put in a leadership role, her authority is questioned, or suddenly everyone in the comic loses interest and wanders away from the team. How about a female leader who's earned her battle scars, and who people look up to, who people want to work with??

Show them being strategic. What, a woman can't think five steps ahead? I don't buy it.

In other words, make them more like real women.
posted by LN at 12:59 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


How many male comic fans look like the men in comics?

This point gets made every time someone brings the issue up. It seems like a fair point, on its face. How come men don't complain about unrealistic representation?

But does this mean that if women have a problem with the way their gender is represented in comic art, and men aren't, it's the women's fault for getting pissed and not the artists' or the industry's? Are we too sensitive? Too uptight? Too fat and ugly? Seriously?

And if men raised as much of a fuss over their gender's representation in comics as the women are doing now, do you think it would go in angry circles like this debate keeps doing? Or would the artists change their style to satisfy demand?

In the comics industry, the unrealistic female body is more important than the very real female audience. That seems like a pretty good reason to be pissed.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:00 PM on October 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


"How many male comic fans look like the men in comics?"
That's a chestnut that has been dealt with MANY times before, including previous posts on mefi. Regardless of the men's physiques, they are not drawn like PG is here on the left. There are no male superhero costumes with little windows so you can see their cum gutters. You don't get x-ray shots of their underwear. There are no male superhero costumes cut specifically such that you can admire their shoulders.

Male superheroes are always objects of admiration and emulation, never desire. Which is, I think, what jb is getting at when she says "they don't look like me". There are very few female characters in superhero comics that are to be admired and emulated, almost all of them are there to be desired.

Stated differently: none of the female characters look like a woman's idealized version of herself. They look like a particular kind of man's (or boy's) idealized version of Woman.

Seriously. Check out the "comics" tag and you'll find a relatively recent post that went into this in detail, with illustrations.
posted by kavasa at 1:01 PM on October 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


Those are all good reasons, but none of them is "Comic book women don't look like female comic book fans," which was the objection jb raised.

The disparity between male comic fans/characters and female comic fans/characters is not equivalent. Women look at comics and see "the ideal woman is a weak, dependent, or secondary sex object." (Heterosexual) men look at comics and see "the ideal man is strong and independent." They emphatically do not see "the ideal man is a sex object" because heterosexual men are not sexually attracted to other men, no matter how great their abs are drawn to be.

Thus, the fact that "comic book women don't look like female comic book fans" is not countered by the fact that "comic book men don't look like male comic book fans." Though they may both be problems, they are absolutely not the same in kind or degree.
posted by jedicus at 1:01 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


That second link has a panel by Frank Miller and Jim Lee that pretty much sums up the mainstream superhero comics scene at present.
posted by panboi at 1:03 PM on October 13, 2011


How many male comic fans look like the men in comics?

Not to get too sidetracked but... I think the problem with statements like this is that it fails to recognize that the men in mainstream comics are aspirational figures for the male comic book fans (i.e. what they want to be), and the women in comics are fantasy fulfillment figures for male comic book fans (i.e. what they want to see).

There are very few aspirational figures for women readers, and there are very few fantasy fulfillment figures for women readers. The same issue rears its head with male/female figures in video games. Women aren't drooling over the manliness of Marcus Fenix or Kratos the way men are drooling over Bayonetta.

("aspirational" is apparently not a word, so I'm making it one)
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 1:07 PM on October 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


How many male comic fans look like the men in comics?

Asked and answered in the friendly article, counselor, by Jamie McKelvie:

There is an argument that it's OK to draw women in this hyper-idealized and sexualized way, because male characters are idealized too. The difference is, more often than not, women are idealized primarily in a sexual manner, and men are idealised in a way that emphasizes power and strength. These are not the same thing, and send a distinct message to the reader whether you realize it or not.
posted by phearlez at 1:09 PM on October 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


Oh hey, so I read somewhere there was some sort of survey about women working in comics? Where could I find people discussing that?

I suspect it's very self-selected, because are there really 10 times more women creating comics than working in comic shops? Also for questions like, "is your job in comics your only current job?" would have been nice to have a male response for comparison. They speculate it's the same for "most men as well" but something solid would be better.
posted by RobotHero at 1:18 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Where animated TV versions of the characters exist, shamelessly copy them.

Animated series creators generally operate under constraints from the network as to what they can air. Creators need to pitch shows and design characters to meet network expectations about what's age appropriate. Even once the show as a whole passes that test, the network may censor specific plot points that go beyond their definition of what's acceptable. Tyrannical as that may sound, it seems as though the final product benefits from being filtered through a corporate superego.

Example: TV Starfire, Teen Hero vs. Sexbot Comics Starfire
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:18 PM on October 13, 2011


Yeah, they picked some good people to go to for that article, who gave some smart answers. I'm rather fond of what Kieron Gillen says about writing Emma Frost:

Emma always risks being every bad cliché about women in comics, simply because half the time she's a tendency to look as if she's just wandered out of a retro-themed sex party. Which she probably has. I think Emma gets away with it for a few reasons, and they're reasons I keep in mind whenever writing pretty much anything.

First one, is something I think is as close to objective as anything craft-based gets. It's about storytelling. Not a character's actions, but how you choose to frame those actions for the reader. This includes the poses a character strikes. You could have a character reciting feminist theory, but if you've shot them so they're leaning over to give a cleavage shot and come-hither eyes up at the reader, it overrules anything else you could be trying to do.

In other words, her costume's actually a secondary concern compared to how you choose to frame the person wearing that costume. Take a look at Whedon/Cassady's Astonishing X-men for a masterclass in Emma. She's her usual semi-clothed self throughout, and Cassaday never does anything to draw attention to it above and beyond what the story demands.

If you treat your characters as objects instead of characters you are, by definition, objectifying them, and if you constantly objectify your female characters you come across as sexist. Male characters, despite the similar unlikely physique, are simply not objectified in the gaze of the reader in the same way as female characters often are, to the detriment to the drama. Because if the reader is thinking "Nice ass" or "Oh God, tacky!" on a panel that's meant to be about something emotional and true, your choices have betrayed the story.

Second reason why Emma gets away with it links to the line-up. This is a team which includes a number of other women. In terms of my team, two are in unisex jumpsuits (Magik, Hope) and one is in something a little more elegant (Storm). We can have a character like Emma simply because not all characters are like Emma. If you dress all your characters like Emma, it sends – no pun intended -- an explicit message.


Which I think is all sound stuff, and you’ll notice he’s not an advocate of writing her like a man or like a beige cube of no particular characteristics, which is a good thing because she’d be no fun at all if she wasn’t the superhero version of Samantha from Sex in the City.
posted by Artw at 1:18 PM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]



Oh hey, so I read somewhere there was some sort of survey about women working in comics? Where could I find people discussing that?


To be fair I suspect most folk haven't read the other link either.
posted by Artw at 1:19 PM on October 13, 2011


All the women on Sex and the City was sort of superheroes, except their skill was to experience, on a weekly basis, dramatic life experiences, glean some fundamental lesson about life, and yet not grow at all. They were like emotional Ant-Men.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:21 PM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]




Step one: Get more than 72 women in the industry.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:28 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


To be fair I suspect most folk haven't read the other link either.

I read it. The horror stories were horrible, but the quantified data was banal. Self-selecting respondents to a blog's survey on "working in comics" proved to be mostly young, self-publishing creators who needed to work day jobs. Who couldn't have told you that whether we were talking about men, women, or humans in general?
posted by Zed at 1:31 PM on October 13, 2011


I love comics, but hate superhero comics. The female characters are terrible! I blame everybody involved in the mainstream industry because there are a lot of great comics written and illustrated by men that have interesting women characters. I think comic artists and writers should take a page from David Lapham.

Uh...don't judge me by that panel. I just thought it illustrated What Should Be in terms of striking a balance between attractive and strong. Speaking of David Lapham: if anybody is looking for a classic amazing read and wants to get into alt comics, plz read Stray Bullets.
posted by 200burritos at 1:47 PM on October 13, 2011


Yeah, they picked some good people to go to for that article

You may want to read Kurt Busiek's commentary again.

I think Mr Busiek's comments sums up a lot about what's wrong about a lot of the contemporary scene in that they fail to recognise any issues, because here are people who are both growing up and endorsing a culture in which illustrating female characters as porn figures is acceptable.

The recent controversy over Starfire springs immediately to mind.
posted by panboi at 1:49 PM on October 13, 2011


Comics can do better at female characters by not treating femaleness as an anomalous state distinct from normative personhood.

With depressingly few exceptions, women are allowed to participate in mainstream fiction only in specialized roles: as an object of sexual desire, as a mother figure, as a victim (usually of sexual violence, explicit or implied). In real life women are often those things, and they are not necessarily inherently bad things to be, but in media women are only those things, and that has an erosive effect on women's images of themselves and what they can be, and on their desire to participate in media at all. If you don't aspire to be a mom, or a stripper, or a rape victim, but you for some reason still possess a uterus, you start to feel like there's no place for you. Like maybe you had better get busy stuffing yourself into one of those boxes, and trimming off all the extra, if you want to be seen in public at all.

I mean, come on, mainstream comics, how can you stop doing it? How can you stop writing women as one dimensional stereotypes, as automatons who only exist to incur sexual attention from men and/or selflessly support others? Get to know some actual women. Start thinking of them as people first and women second or fifth or twelfth. It's really not that hard. All this protesting to the contrary is starting to sound disingenuous.
posted by milk white peacock at 1:51 PM on October 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm rather fond of what Kieron Gillen says about writing Emma Frost

I think he made some reasonable points, but ultimately we're still talking about a character dressed like a lingerie model. Why not take the logical next step from 'she's framed and written as a powerful, self-possessed character' to 'she's also drawn that way'?

I'm gay, so the balloon-breasted lad-mag depictions of Starfire, Power Girl etc. don't just do nothing for me, they actually kind of gross me out on a visceral level in addition to being annoying for their antediluvian level of sexism. I must say that I think the examples they've selected for that CA article are particularly pneumatic, though -- if the majority of depictions were that extreme I would have been turned off long ago.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 1:53 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think he made some reasonable points, but ultimately we're still talking about a character dressed like a lingerie model.

Yeah, there's no real cure for that other than "don't write Emma Frost", which would be a shame since done right she's a lot of fun.
posted by Artw at 2:02 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it's silly to expect comics to be true to life, and ludicrous to expect them to represent metafilter's ideals.

Comics are fantasy. They are a reflection of their audience the same way that Friends, and Sex and the City are a reflection of their audience, and the fantasy worlds relevant to that audience: ones where the men are marginalized buffoons (like Ross, Chandler, and that other guy), or trophy lays (like Sex and the City.)

Discussing the pernicious effects of mass market art is backwards. The art is not the cause; it is the reflection of the audience. I don't agree that we are empty vessels conquered by art, but rather that the individual is the fountainhead of his or her personal culture.

Part of liberalism, after all, is recognizing the primacy of the individual. If people are so easily swayed from one worldview to another, then what good is bringing them around to your worldview? They'll change their minds as soon they're in a different context.

In any case, some of our ugliest fantasies have been on display since before Shakespeare (wrath, lust, etc.) and by experiencing them through art, I think the human spirit evolves. It may not be obvious how Friends' or Superman's idiotic characters help the reader to grow — except that the audience is motivated to keep watching. How can anyone suggest that they know what's in an adult audience's best interest?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:15 PM on October 13, 2011


there's no real cure for that other than "don't write Emma Frost"

I don't see that it would do any harm to the character to dress her in, say, an all-white business suit.
posted by Zed at 2:17 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Comics are fantasy.
Can we please stop with the broad paint-brushing? Comics are a medium. Superhero comics (which are what this article is aimed at) are a genre. Saying "comics are fantasy" is like saying "film is fantasy" or "prose is science fiction" or "music is farts." Aim at the niche, not the whole.

And I know you're just shorthanding, but it really, really irks me as someone who writes them.

And the single best thing that could happen to the American comic industry would be for Marvel and DC to shut up shop today and focus on films while companies with broad genre portfolios step up their game, but that would lead to the collapse of the entire house of cards that's built around Diamond Distribution.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 2:21 PM on October 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


I think it's silly to expect comics to be true to life, and ludicrous to expect them to represent metafilter's ideals.

And yet you say comics arema reflection of the audience. I'm going to guess the Venn diagram of Mefites and comics readers is enormous. Why is it unreasonable for us to be reflected back?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:29 PM on October 13, 2011


And yet you say comics arema reflection of the audience. I'm going to guess the Venn diagram of Mefites and comics readers is enormous. Why is it unreasonable for us to be reflected back?

Maybe I'm misunderstanding the general mood, but it seems that people are upset at what comics exist rather that what comics don't.

If there's nothing out there you really love, maybe someone will write it? (MefiPerson the androgynous, overthinking, superhero?—I'm joking. I don't know what you want to read, but I wonder why no one writes it?)
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:36 PM on October 13, 2011


Example: TV Starfire, Teen Hero vs. Sexbot Comics Starfire


AAAHH! What have they DONE!? She was strong, she was adorable, she was smart, she was exploring the weird human culture, and then THIS? My first (hopefully last!) exposure to the new Starfire. Back to watching the delightful and undervalued animated TT.
posted by bouvin at 2:36 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


jedicus: Those are all good reasons, but none of them is "Comic book women don't look like female comic book fans," which was the objection jb raised.
posted by Etrigan at 3:54 PM on October 13 [+] [!]


I didn't say that none of them looked like me - but that I couldn't RELATE to any of them.

I've been fans of books about tall, thin women with white hair (the Books of Great Alta, genius men with dwarfism (Miles Vorkosigan), books where main characters are all cats (Tailchaser's Song) - and in every case I could relate to the character because - physical differences aside - the story was about their character, not their bodies. Other female characters from comics who don't look a thing like me but who are relatable: Death, Delerium and Despair from Sandman (Despair, of course, being the most relatable, since she is the most human), the title character of The Black Orchid, the really cool girl from Books of Magic - I liked that magician character in the fishnet stockings too, (Zantana? it's been a while) - despite the fishnets, I don't remember her ever being particularly sexy (rather, powerful).

Next comic I want to read: Pride of Bagdad, where all the main characters are lions. I am not a lion, I don't look like a lion, but I trust that the lions will be written and drawn as characters, not as sex objects.

Maybe I could get into one of the super hero stories and learn to relate to the characters; I was very drawn to Rogue in the first X-Men movie. But the pornographic ways that the female characters are drawn in so many mainstream/superhero comics bothered me so much I couldn't get past it.
posted by jb at 2:37 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]



There are very few aspirational figures for women readers, and there are very few fantasy fulfillment figures for women readers. The same issue rears its head with male/female figures in video games. Women aren't drooling over the manliness of Marcus Fenix or Kratos the way men are drooling over Bayonetta.


This is EXACTLY the problem. We want to aspire to be like the female characters - not to be attractive to the male characters.

Also, if you want to see what (many, though not all) women regard as fantasy men, go over to your josei or yaoi manga section. Not exactly rippling abs (more pointy chins, and prettyness).
posted by jb at 2:42 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


esprit de l'escalier

No one is asking that comics be true to life. Crazy people with crazy powers in crazy situations are fun. What's being objected to is the massive disparity in the portrayal of women while these things are going on.

Discussing the pernicious effects of mass market art is backwards. The art is not the cause; it is the reflection of the audience. I don't agree that we are empty vessels conquered by art, but rather that the individual is the fountainhead of his or her personal culture.

There is no such thing as a "personal culture". You like to think of yourself as a free-thinking individual who arrives at your own ideas on your own terms. Everyone does. But you're not completely. You exist within society, are affected by society, and in turn affect it.

A moment's consideration will make this obvious. Where do your ideas about women, or anything, come from? Did you spring forth from your father's forehead fully formed? No, sadly, like the rest of us mortals you grew up and absorbed what was around you. And media forms an enormous part of our everyday experiences and is a major way in which we absord and transmit ideas.

This is the reason why the "the audience wants it!" idea fails. Why does the audience want it? Because it's been the way things have been depicted. The depictions in the media influence how the audience thinks, which in turn influences the kind of media the audience wants.

If you can change the way women are portrayed in media, you can change the way people think about women. This is just simple fact, Randian philosophy aside. Look at the older battles to change how women or racial minorities were portrayed in the media. If you grow up seeing women only being wives or mothers or maids or sex objects, you're inclined to think of it as such. A woman doctor? Who ever heard of that?
posted by Sangermaine at 2:53 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Comics are fantasy. They are a reflection of their audience the same way that Friends, and Sex and the City are a reflection of their audience, and the fantasy worlds relevant to that audience: ones where the men are marginalized buffoons (like Ross, Chandler, and that other guy), or trophy lays (like Sex and the City.)

Two things.

One, the issue, as Bunny says, is that they're NOT a reflection of their audience. They are a reflection of the desires and/or ignorance of part of their audience. And even in being so, they're self-limiting! There's also a subtext here among those of us who like comics in that this garbage is actually making a tough situation worse. It's not like comics are being Girls Gone Wild and therefor raking in the bucks and viewers. They're in the toilet in sales as well as female portrayal. David Willis makes this point very well.

So is it fantasy, sure. It's tempting to make the "THAT'S the part you find unrealistic?" sort of joke. As a former Miamian I grumped about a restaurant a character said she wanted to go to on BURN NOTICE and it's not like that show has a whole lot of the realistic going on. But we're holding back our perceptions on certain fantastical things - people with godlike powers - not this belief that the comics universe ALSO has women who just can't wait to be fucktoys and are allergic to having more than 15% of their skin covered.

Two, your examples in tv don't really work. All the character on FRIENDS were butts of jokes but they all had complex lives and varied interests and were alternately good and bad. They may have played up some stereotypes but one entire gender wasn't completely unrecognizable in its goals and actions. Everyone drove plots.

Even Sex in the City, where I found the characters to have become really loathsome, unlikable people over the course of the seasons, had male characters who were more than just movable plot points and complications for the women. As I recall the redheaded one had an ongoing plot issue with her poor treatment of the father of her child. He wasn't in pursuit of just one thing from her and was neither a bully or a doormat all the time. The prissy brunette - Charlotte - hurts the feelings of her husband because of her perception of his looks in one plotline.

None of those represent stereotyping men to cardboard cutouts the way comics do. They're not reduced to sterotype or simply written as men speaking the lines of the female gender. They may not be the focus but they're still given their own depth and believable motivations. More so than the leads, in my opinion.
posted by phearlez at 3:07 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


How about requiring all publishers be made to read their comics in public to 13 year olds with their parents present.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:41 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am sorry I got the discussion off badly because I expressed myself poorly. I've been thinking about this for the last few hours (buses are boring), and I realised that teenage me didn't really object to the sexy super-heroines because they didn't look like me. I didn't look like anyone from Buffy (where all of the female characters are definitely in the 90th percentile of attractive), but I didn't even notice this.

What I noticed with the comic characters was the explicit sexualisation - and not just the attractiveness. It wasn't that they were unrealistic - it's that they were unrealistic in a way that explicitly emphasised their sexuality. It's as if all male comic characters had massive penises and testicles and were posed to show these off. (I'm sure there are some - but not as many). It made me really uncomfortable - and I am bi-sexual, so it's not just that I'm not attracted to women. It's that it seemed like the world of superheros was a world in which the value of women came from their bodies as sex objects, and not from their accomplishments or personality.

It's the same thing that makes female gamers uncomfortable around booth babes - the presentation of women in gaming as passive sexual things, instead of intelligent gamers and doers.

Women like to be sexual - sometimes. Not all the time, and not as the whole of their value. We want to be valued for our witchcraft or our staking ability or our ability to ride dragons through time or to compose music (all of which are, of course, completely aspirational and unrealistic things for me to accomplish - especially the last).
posted by jb at 4:00 PM on October 13, 2011 [9 favorites]


I am sorry I got the discussion off badly because I expressed myself poorly

/vaguely regretting mentioning Sex and the City.
posted by Artw at 4:04 PM on October 13, 2011


also - I'm pretty sure that aspirational is a real word. I hear social science and marketing types use it.
posted by jb at 4:06 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


But for some really kick-ass and profound writing about women

Actually, while it's great and I still hugely recommend it (especially if you like nerdy literary references because man!), I think Y: The Last Man is a comic about men. Yorick is just a disproportionately interesting and developed character compared to everyone else, and one of the best exemplars of positive masculinity I've ever seen in fiction. It's actually kind of a neat trick, to me, the way the book ends up with this well rounded masculine ideal defined by the relative absence of any other male characters.

Anyway, I can't take any "women in comic books!" stuff very seriously, because actually, there are lots of (maybe not quite enough, but lots of) interesting female characters in comics. Just not in superhero comics, and I don't expect that to change any time soon.

Jamie McKelvie

I love Jamie McKelvie. Phonogram is lovely. But, actually, now that I'm thinking about it, the first volume is totally lacking in interesting female characters. Which is...interesting. I guess.

(Despair, of course, being the most relatable, since she is the most human)


I always saw Death as the most human. Delirium is the Ur Manic Pixie Girl, except for a few instances here and there where she pulls it together. Despair alternates between wicked and pitiable. But Death covers quite a wide range of moods and modes, and manages to be the strongest of the Endless--Dream dreams of being free but remains chained to his post, Destruction can only be happy by abandoning his purpose and Desire, Delirium, Despair and Destiny are all consumed by their functions to varying degrees. Death is the only one capable of doing her duty without being defined or confined by it. She's just somebody working at an emotionally exhausting job, trying to get to the end of another day feeling fine.

Also, "well written female characters" don't have to be nice. Plenty of Real Life Women are mean and petty; Ghost World is a pretty good example of a comic that allows its characters to be vaguely unpleasant sometimes. In the end, her occasional vague unpleasantness makes me like and relate to Enid more.
posted by byanyothername at 4:09 PM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is the reason why the "the audience wants it!" idea fails… The depictions in the media influence how the audience thinks, which in turn influences the kind of media the audience wants.

If you can change the way women are portrayed in media, you can change the way people think about women. This is just simple fact…


I think that this is an simplistic view of the way art affects people. Are people so easily overwhelmed by society that sexism diffuses into them by the sheer concentration gradient? People react to art, they don't just absorb it. They filter out everything but those ideas that accord with their nuanced personal experience, whether real or fantasized. So, it doesn't matter what constitutes the bulk of art; it only matters that there's a little bit of diversity to put words to our feelings at the right moment.

So, I don't believe that your conclusion follows: "that you can change the way people think about women" because I don't think that the world is the way it is only because of unvaried art. Experience plays a big role. What you're railing against in some comics are presumably the fantasies of their readers. So, you may as well rail against the readers, but what's the point? Everyone grows up on their own schedule.

If you're right that people are choosing art based on cultural inertia — that their imaginations are somehow limited by the narrowness of existing art — then, the solution is to give them the art they thirst for — just as Lewis Caroll did for his friend's daughter. But, if this is what they're choosing, then: everyone has a right to choose the art they create and consume.

It's one thing to ask in these discussion, "Why is culture this way? What does it say about human experience?" I don't think that depicting more "woman doctors" (as you suggested) is the transformative event that you're making it out to be. In fact, I'm pretty sure that in North America, more women study medicine than men despite comic books.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 5:33 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ooh. Related: NYCC: Ann Nocenti Returns To Comics With "Green Arrow"
posted by Artw at 5:54 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey, hey Lady. Hey, Lady, Lady, hey, hey, Lady. Hey. Heeeey. Lady, Lady, listen:

CLOTHES. Not necessary solely for travel in SPAAAACE.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:56 PM on October 13, 2011


I think Y: The Last Man is a comic about men. Yorick is just a disproportionately interesting and developed character compared to everyone else, and one of the best exemplars of positive masculinity I've ever seen in fiction. It's actually kind of a neat trick, to me, the way the book ends up with this well rounded masculine ideal defined by the relative absence of any other male characters.

I respectfully completely disagree: Yorick may be the main character - but the comic book is still primarily women - the place of women in the world before the plague (eg US Army is decimated, but not Israel's), how women react to the loss of them men, and (most importantly) how they interact with each other in the aftermath. Yorick feels like the everyman (appropriate, eh?) who is really a stand-in for the reader (male or female) while a lot of the biggest drama is happening with 355 (or 335?) and the doctor character. I thought that even bit characters - the new president, the Israeli commander, Yorick's sister, the convict women - were really well-developed and had a lot going on even given their short appearances on screen (esp given how I remember them several years after reading, and can't even remember the doctor's name). The two least interesting characters were the two male astronauts (they felt like they were just there to be sperm donors - in another ironic twist).
posted by jb at 6:03 PM on October 13, 2011


Honestly I think the best way for "comics" to do better at female characters is to stop only thinking of the stuff Marvel and DC put out when you say "comics". There is a ton of stuff that treats women like humans - both in "independent" (which is to say "not Marvel/DC") comics and in imports from around the rest of the world.

There is also a lot of stuff that treats women as poorly as some of the Marvel/DC stuff does. And worse. But the fact that Marvel and DC are not very good at putting awesome women in their superhero comics is like extrapolating from a few testosterone fantasy summer blockbuster movies and saying that the entire field of movies has a problem with aiming at an audience besides the horny male mindset.

So here's a few some awesome comics about female characters who are not Maxim centerfolds for you to go read and support.

Cucumber's Quest - lovely Mary Blair-like comic fantasy about a timid bunny and his ass-kicking sister
Skadi - a barbarian and her quest to eat of every meat in the world
Athena Wheatley - increasingly convoluted time-travel shenanigans (also see Curvy (NSFW) by a totally different artist, not their porn pseudonym at all)
Frog Raccoon Sttrawberry, a teenage superhero who happens to be pretty much completely insane
Decrypting Rita - a robot lady has reality problems (warning, my own work)

"Comics" are not bad at writing and drawing a wide variety of women. "DC and Marvel" are bad at writing and drawing a wide variety of women.
posted by egypturnash at 6:38 PM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Artw,

Thanks for the link.

I know we're supposed to be all "Hoorah! Another prominent female is joining the D.C. ranks," but that's a really depressing interview. I know the new 52 is supposed to be about reworking the characters, but I figure that in order to do that properly a creative team should have some sense of who the character is and what worked/didn't work about him/her in the first place. Mind you, I'm not the one running D.C., so what do I know?

Additionally, adding one woman to the roster might be a tiny step in the right direction, but it's such a small step that it's pretty much impossible to see any forward momentum at all.
posted by sardonyx at 7:00 PM on October 13, 2011


"Comics" are not bad at writing and drawing a wide variety of women. "DC and Marvel" are bad at writing and drawing a wide variety of women.

Hmm. No.

You'd be forgiven for thinking from some of the recent coverage, and DC has put out some agressivly bad stuff as part of this new 52, sufficiently so that people feel the need to talk about it, they're also running some stuff that's really, really good, some of which, *gasp*, has a range of non crappy female characters in it. And Marvel runs a fair amount of good stuff too.

FWIW fair number of those good DC and Marvel comics are by the people in the second link.

And, TBH, it's not like you won't find a similar mix of good and bad outside of DC and Marvel.
posted by Artw at 7:07 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was actually going to make the caveat that (a) I have vaguely heard there are some really well-portrayed women in DC/Marvel's superhero books* and (b) there are also some equally horrible depictions of women in comics outside the American superhero ghetto that is somehow often conflated with "comics" as a whole, but I decided to edit for punchiness.
posted by egypturnash at 3:02 AM on October 14, 2011


I remember when I first started teaching myself to draw, I started with western comic guides. As most people in the author-insert stage of story telling I started by trying to create a lot of female characters.

It didn't take long to discover the only feature that changed on the women's faces was small configurations of facial features. They didn't even have variable cup size, while at least men came in variations of muscle bound lunk (basically the kid, the heavy and the regular). It was to the point when in super hero universe if a super villain wanted to find out the secret identities of all powered women he or she just needed to open a clothing boutique that catered to exactly those, hard to fit measurements, and when the poor women went bra shopping or to find work pants, you'd be able to pick off every single hero, wife, girlfriend or character with any connection to the story line except for Martha Kent and Aunt May.

I got into doing anime because while there was equally hyper-idealized nonsense, at least women had variable height and variable breast size. MOEs and magic girls aren't that much better, but at least I don't feel like they draw by tracing Barbie.
posted by Phalene at 6:38 AM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


If I may out myself as a wrestling fan, though the WWE is by and large just as cheesecake-driven (if not moreso) as Superhero comics (it being something of a live superhero comic in and of itself), I'd say that they could do worse than cribbing Beth Phoenix. Hell, her whole "Glamazon" schtick is pretty much a Wonder Woman motif in and of itself, the DC folk might learn a thing or two.

Sure, she's a pretty blonde woman, and as prone to cheesecake photo shoots as the rest of the WWE Divas,

I know most people shut down completely when they hear "Wrestling", but if you got 8 minutes, here's Beth in a 5-person handicap match (meaning, she faces a 5 person tag team by herself). I recommend it, but if you AREN'T interested in watching a Diva match (and even as a WWE fan, I can't blame you), I'll do my best to describe this one:

The vid starts with her entrance; watch her come to the ring; her entrance music, the crown she wears, her determination and display of strength; Yes she's a pretty blonde woman, but her outfit isn't slutty, she's not vamping sexily for the camera, she's there to do damage; This is especially apparent (after Vicki Guerrero comes out and gives her supervillain monologue) when her 4 other opponents come to the ring; skinny, scantily clad vixens, posing and cloying as they make their sultry climb into the ring. The match begins, and then the magic happens.

Now let me clarify a few points here:
1. Yes, Beth Phoenix is largely an exception to the rule; most Divas look like the other skinny girls in booty shorts cartwheeling around the ring. I'm not here advocating WWE as terribly progressive (it doesn't really do a lot of favors in their portrayal of men either, but as in comics, different implications, etc), and like someone pointed out upthread regarding comics, it's so commonplace that the 'sexy all the time' doesn't even register to me anymore.

2. While Divas (hell, the fact that the female wrestlers are Divas while the men are Superstars speaks volumes on its own) are primarily there to give insecure wrestling fans to point to as evidence of having a case of the NotGays, I feel i should point out that in the last 5 or so years, there's been a gradual increase on emphasis on wrestling ability in the female wrestlers; Even Vince seemed to realize that while staring at cheesecake is fun, taking up a chunk of the show for dopey pillow fight matches aren't sexy, they're lame. Sure there are still some useless Divas (like Eve Torres) that are mostly there to look pretty and not do much else, but then, we also have David Otunga (for you non-fans, he's a big burly man who's a boring worker and sucks on the mic. For you fans that haven't been watching lately, he's a black Hardcore Holly.) I make this point because while the sex-object factor is still strong, even a California-Blonde bit of eye-candy like Kelly Kelly has grown into a talented worker worth watching for more than just T&A, and that deserves some respect.

3. Finally, I know that someone's dying to point out that wrestling is "FAKE!!!!!!1" and yes, it's scripted and largely choreographed, but as the great Mick Foley said in his book "You can't fake a chair-shot" (taking a steel chair to the head). Yes, wrestling isn't a true competitive sport like boxing or MMA, but the hits, the slams, the acrobatics, the bumps, while executed to do the least damage are all real. It's a bit like Porn: yeah, the people on screen probably aren't interested in one another or even attracted to one another (and no way that guy is really a plumber), but you'd be a fool to say that they aren't 'really' fucking.

So anyway, back to the match: Watch Beth just straight up wreck shop on everyone. Again, yes the opponents are jumping into the slams to make them look cooler, but how many times could YOU straight up power clean another person straight over your head, and then run around and do it 20 more times while people jump on you?

So moving on, SPOILER, she ends up losing the match (She's super tough, but it is 5 on 1, and McCool's kick to the face was a bit of a sucker-punch), Vicky takes the pin as revenge for... whatever she was pissed off about that week, the "good" Diva team runs in and sweeps all of Vicki's henchwomen out of the ring, then Beth proceeds to...

ok she just pantsed Vicki, who then runs out of the arena screaming, and Beth stands on the ropes , swinging Vicki's pants about, triumphant as her music plays (unspoken rule of pro-wrestling: it doesn't matter what the actual outcome of the match is, if your music plays last, it means you win, at least in the 'moral victory' sense)

I probably should have watched this match to the end, I admit I was largely looking for an example of her ring entrance and got sucked into jibbering about wrestling, but my point is, if you're looking for how to flesh out a female superhero, you could draw from a worse template than Beth Phoenix.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:11 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are people so easily overwhelmed by society that sexism diffuses into them by the sheer concentration gradient? People react to art, they don't just absorb it. They filter out everything but those ideas that accord with their nuanced personal experience, whether real or fantasized. So, it doesn't matter what constitutes the bulk of art; it only matters that there's a little bit of diversity to put words to our feelings at the right moment.

Except that actual science shows that's not true. Studies have shown that you can negatively impact girls' test success with exposure to negative stereotypes in the minutes beforehand. It may not drive anyone to leap off a bridge or go on a shooting spree but there's an unquestionable impact from exposure to negative stimuli.

That aside, I think that's just a macguffin anyway. We don't need to have some sort of huge societal harm to have a reason not to do stuff that sucks. These garbage portrayals of women don't make better stories or more interesting plotlines. They's just lazy storytelling at their absolute best. Which, you know, fine, sometimes on the way to something else you leave some background as a blurry sketch. But this is -constant- and that's just crap.

I'm willing to be wrong. If the DCs of the world can point to a lot of people saying no, no, we really like it this way and we're going to leave if you do better in this area... okay. But it doesn't seem like the folks who are willing to push back against those of us who want better work are the folks actually buying this stuff.
posted by phearlez at 8:21 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I got into doing anime because while there was equally hyper-idealized nonsense, at least women had variable height and variable breast size.

I'd thought about throwing in the Manga/Anime angle earlier as a useful point of comparison, but there's such a huge gulf now between the Japanese and Western approach to comics that it's like apples and oranges (plus I've found that mention of Anime/Manga usually elicits its own knee-jerk reaction).

I'd be hard-pressed to think of any recent memorable female characters in Western comics. It could be that I'm reading the wrong titles, but I find the female characters in many Anime/Manga titles to be a lot more engaging on the whole.
posted by panboi at 9:03 AM on October 14, 2011


wait so if readership is in the toilet and there is no real reason to keep writing female characters so shitty, why do it? who is benefiting from these lovingly drawn cartoon asses?
posted by beefetish at 9:32 AM on October 14, 2011


Suffering Sappho!
posted by Artw at 10:22 AM on October 14, 2011


I wonder if Morrison's read What They Did to Princess Paragon...
posted by Zed at 10:25 AM on October 14, 2011


I'm sure he's read Charles Moulton's biography, which is saucier.
posted by Artw at 10:31 AM on October 14, 2011


Female comic artist produces: Oglaf (nsfw or most other places for that matter)
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 11:31 AM on October 14, 2011


I don't see that it would do any harm to the character to dress her in, say, an all-white business suit.

Because it wouldn't be Emma Frost. Sorry, but that's how it is. Her character is this very appearance orientated/ body flaunting/ incredibly in control type, and suddenly having her dress like a female version of Doctor Nemesis would just be wrong. You can even look at her primary and secondary mutations in line with this (it's been flirted with before that mutations reflect character), she's one of the most powerful telepaths, and she can turn into indestructible living diamond. Could compare her amount of skin on show quite easily with Colossus at the moment.

It might not be where you'd start a character from now (see someone like Dust or Hope for modern X Men), but you can't ditch decades of back story*.

(* unless you scream "it's magic!" at any objections, like Spiderman One More Day)
posted by MattWPBS at 2:04 PM on October 14, 2011


If nothing else came out of the DC New 52, this renewed and more enlightened discussion regarding the portrayal of women in comic books is quite a good debate.

I think that we are moving toward a better period of women-in-comics writing. One of my favorite female superheroes is Barbara Gordon, who became Batgirl, then later Oracle, and is now Batgirl once again. Although she's always worn a skintight outfit as Batgirl, there was never any unnecessary cleavage. I think it's partly because there is reverence to her being Commissioner Gordon's little girl.

As Oracle, Barbara Gordon's sexuality is in some ways removed altogether when she becomes paralyzed. Although this ranks among the "women getting killed/disfigured" trope prevalent in comics, it had an interesting side-effect. Gone was her ability to make unnecessarily sexy poses (although she did suddenly develop cleavage); her superpower was her brain (note that she is a librarian by profession), and she was very kick-ass.

Anyways, she's Batgirl again. And she's written by Gail Simone, who is a really good comic book writer.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:18 PM on October 14, 2011


I know this has nothing to do with anything, but way back in the day, I used to love the fact that not only was Barbara Gordon a (former) librarian, but she was also a congresswoman. Now there was a role model for young girls. Smart, powerful, and involved in running a country. That was an ideal to emulate -- at least for a young kid with an interest politics.

I wasn't reading comics looking for role models. I was just happy with a good tale of adventure and daring-do, but looking back at those stories now with a few years under my belt, it certainly seems like there was a healthier attitude to representing both men and women and showing kids (because at that time it was actually kids reading comics) examples of who and what they could be when they grew up. Smart, dedicated people who made positive contributions to society were depicted: lawyers, doctors, scientists, politicians, businessmen, philanthropists, reporters, archaeologists, Olympic athletes, military officers etc. Admittedly there were very few (if any) blue-collar workers, but there was certainly a vast collection of people the readers could aspire to be -- not Superman, Spider-man, Batman and Wonder Woman -- but professionals who used their brains.

These days it seems like many of those professions have been replaced by categories like stripper, hitman, thief, prostitute (I will never forgive Frank Miller for that retconning of Selina Kyle's past), sex-slave, etc. Going in that direction may be a way to appeal to "mature readers" (although I personally don't believe this) but it doesn't seem to be the wisest approach if you want to encourage new, younger readers and turn them into long-term fans.

And for those who care about such thing, I do seem to recall that Congresswoman Gordon had a romantic life as well. Admittedly she was usually juggling dates (or bowing out of them because she was busy chasing bad guys), but it wasn't as if that aspect of her character was completely ignored.
posted by sardonyx at 8:47 PM on October 14, 2011


Because it wouldn't be Emma Frost.

It wasn't until the late 80s that I got into comics. I think this Ann Nocenti story was my first introduction to Emma Frost.
posted by the_artificer at 10:01 PM on October 14, 2011


I used to love those back-up stories in Classic X-Men, but then I'm a sucker for character studies in comics.
posted by sardonyx at 10:43 PM on October 14, 2011


If the X-Men represent inclusive, less confrontational minority rights movements, and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants represent violent confrontational minority rights movements, then what is the Hellfire Club? Assides from just self-interested perverts?
posted by Artw at 10:57 AM on October 15, 2011


Isn't the Hellfire Club is simply a corollary to the ruling elite? You know, the 1%. Who, in real life, are just a bunch of self-interested perverts.
posted by jabberjaw at 1:18 PM on October 17, 2011


DC Ladies in Sweaters
posted by whir at 10:02 AM on October 28, 2011


« Older "Then who opens the pickle jar?"   |   Occupy Everything Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post