Monday, April 8, 2013

Gender issues in comics: Inevitable generalisations and naked truths

While this blog regularly features rants about the state of pricing in modern comics or something stupid that I read 25 years ago, it rarely touches on the really big issues – the ones that really matter in the world. I never really gets into things like racism and misogyny and homophobia in comics, even though the medium is regularly guilty of all these things.

Partly it’s because these issues are so big, that there is almost nothing worthwhile that can be said in a single blog post. You have to go deep on the subject to get anywhere. Some writers manage to dedicate their focus to specific issues, and have done a thoroughly worthwhile job of raising debate and pointing out problems, but it takes a lot of work to really get into the meat of the difficulties facing comics, and a long-term focus that I totally lack.

Sexism, racism and homophobia in the world of comic books should never be tolerated, or ignored, or justified, but they can still be bloody intimidating topics.

Taking stock of all the gender issues in modern comics is a full-time job alone. Especially when the treatment of both female creators and characters is fairly appalling, and continues to be fairly appalling on a regular basis.

It’s almost impossible to see the solicitations for any of the major comic companies without finding something ridiculously sexist, from an impossible pose to the brutal treatment of a female character. Strong female characters are abused or misunderstood, and the blithe misogyny of many mainstream comics is embarrassing for all concerned.

And the lack of female creators is even more shameful. High-profile relaunches from both big companies recently are been notable for their comparative lack of a female voice – DC can find room in their schedules for 52 new titles, but couldn't find much room for a feminine perspective, and then offered up things like the gross climax to Catwoman #1 instead – a potentially complex character once again reduced to cheap titillation.

That lazy default sexism, in both product and attitude, filters all the way though to the convention room floor, where many women can recall tales of deeply inappropriate behaviour. It's certainly there in the venom directed towards the new faces brought in by things like Twilight, insulting their vampires and telling them they don't belong in the world of geek culture, instead of welcoming the new blood.

These things are obviously wrong, and there is almost no need to keep banging on about them, because they are self-evidently ridiculous, and not worthy of any real thought. But they do keep on happening, and it's only right that they should be called to account.

But even though I have my own platform here, I don't really talk about it, for three main reasons.

Firstly, it’s just so hard to talk about this kind of thing without resorting to gross generalisations. When you’re talking about 50 per cent of the world’s entire population, it’s impossible to avoid making absolute statements. Not everybody likes the same thing, not everybody reacts the same way. To say that girls just don’t like comics as much as boys ignores the significant amount who do bloody well enjoy them. There are girls who like The Punisher, just as there are boys who are into Twilight.

But my own anecdotal experience certainly suggests that fact – over the past three decades, I've found boys were far more into comics than girls. I've tried to get female friends, sisters, cousins, girlfriends and a wife into comics, with varying degrees of success, but it's been competitively simple to hook boys.

I'm not entirely sure why this has been the case – weekly UK comics for girls were outselling their male counterparts healthily in the early seventies, and the incredible success of authors like J K Rowling and Stephenie Meyer show that girls dig fantasy as much as guys, if not more.

This personal failure to intice girls into reading comics might be due to the fact that I'm coming from the male perspective, and the kind of comic I really dig tends to involve some kind of intense hyper-action, which they're not interested in at all. But it illustrates the problem – it's temptingly easy to make the bone-headed declaration that chicks don't dig comics when that's been my personal experience, but that ignores a huge number of female comic fans.

There is the creeping feeling that any kind of conversation about women reading comics is inevitably going to be some kind of generalisation, which only serves to antagonise those who it lumps in with the masses.

Even the idea that modern comics is inherently sexist is uselessly general, because it discounts the scores of great comics created by women and even more that feature strong female characters. We'll have no absolutism here.

There is also the obvious factor - so much of the blatant sexism seen in modern comics is just that: blatant. Pointing out that something like old issues of Lady Death is sexist is like pointing out that the sky is blue.

It still shouldn't be tolerated, but a lot of sexism stems from an extremely misguided attempt to be noticed, so why feed the fire and give idiots a platform they don’t deserve?

Ignoring it won't make it go away, but it won't encourage them, either.

The third reason why I don't really talk about gender problems with the comics medium on this comic blog is the most naked of truths - I am a painfully white and tragically heterosexual male. My people have had their say. Let other folk talk about the issues that actually affect them.

The only real solution for something as complex as this is time – attitudes change over the years, prejudices fade and innovators take major steps forward. No medium can survive on such blatent sexism, and the comic medium is certainly getting better at dealing with these issues, over and over again.

And a lot of that is due to the criticism and discussion that is generated by people who aren't willing to let these things lie. Catalogues like the often misunderstood Women In Refrigerators provide data, and the superb Hawkeye Intitative proves that ridicule is the best way to deal with ridiculous attitudes.

I can't talk about these things properly, but I'm so glad others do.

Change can also be seen in webcomics, where a pleasingly large proportion of online comics feature female creators, who aren't constrained by institutionilised barriers against diversity, and just get out and do it.

There is the future, and it might be a bit girly for some boys, but they'll get over it.

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