The Problem with Madame Lady Girl-Woman
Posted May 17, 2010on:
cross posted on geek girls’ network
Geeky women feel constantly isolated, female comic book geeks most of all. Plenty of women are into sci-fi. Plenty more are into fantasy. Female gamer geeks abound in numbers that seem astronomical compared to the measly population of female Wednesday afternoon comics consumers. Some of my girlfriends read “graphic novels,” a term used mostly to make the more intellectually elite comics sound like something, anything, other than a serialized comic. Some of my girlfriends like Sandman, they like Watchmen, they LOVE Fables – but to date I’ve only converted one graphic novel girlfriend into a voracious cape & tights installment reader.
Every week, I bound into my comic shop to pick up my pull list. I have seen two other women there, ever – both employees. (I’m sure plenty of other women shop there. I just never see them.) When I make pilgrimages to Meltdown in Los Angeles, I might see one other lady in the store, but more often than not she’s someone’s mom, someone’s bored girlfriend, or she’s just popped in to pick up some “graphic novel” her hipster friends have been raving about.
(Understand, if the term graphic novel brings more readers to the medium, I’m all for it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think you sound like a snobby jerk when you say it. Are there pik-chers and words in balloons? It’s a comic. Stop kidding yourself.) Ahem.
While the influx of casual new female readers to the comics industry is a great leap forward, we still lag far, far behind in terms of week to week fandom, and even further behind when it comes to superheroes. The general female disinterest in superhero comics isn’t terribly shocking; comic book superheroes are thematically steeped in male wish fulfillment. True, movies like The Dark Knight and Iron Man have made some heroes accessible on a wider cultural level to both men & women, but getting a woman to read anything other than the direct movie adaptation is still going to be a tough sell. Superhero narrative in comics has come a long way since Action #1, but it’s still laden with rock-em-sock-em, save-the-day, get-the-girl motifs.
The Big Two have attempted to market to women in a million different ways over the years. (Don’t get me started on Marvel Divas again.) We’ve had Wonder Woman shoved down our throats so much that we’ve choked on her. Writers like Greg Rucka and Gail Simone have certainly brought her out of bondage – literally – but at the end of the day she is fundamentally un-relatable for most women. Wonder Woman is steeped in male wish-fulfillment fantasies just as much as Superman & Batman are. A writer might be able to rise above that over the course of a single arc, but the truth remains that until we finally find the ret-con that works, Wonder Woman is still a reactionary warrior, a man’s woman. We don’t relate to her, no matter how much they play up the COMPASSION aspect, no matter how much they de-power or over-power her, because she’s not one of us. We need women we can relate to, women that fill a FEMALE superhero wish-fulfillment fantasy, not a warped version of the male one.
Which brings me to the modern Bat-family. I couldn’t relate one bit to Cassandra Cain, the until-recently Batgirl. Cass was socially handicapped and functionally illiterate, thanks to growing up in near-complete isolation. For Pete’s sake, she fought crime in a fetish suit. Her mouth was literally zipped shut in the thing. Even as Rucka and then Simone tried desperately to guide Diana out of the sub-dom bondage subtext, Cass Cain embraced it heartily. Cass Cain was a trained assassin at the cost of severe childhood abuse and some serious Daddy issues, she’s an over the top, beyond screwed up problem for Batman to swoop in and solve. And when Bruce died (sort of) Cass just gave up, passing the cowl to Stephanie Brown, once Robin, once Spoiler and now, something entirely new.
Stephanie’s Batgirl is the most relate-able since Barbara, if not more so, at least as far as so-called “regular women” are concerned. She’s young, she’s in college, she’s kind of a screw-up. True, she’s also a product of the hit-or-miss nineties comics industry, but Steph is just…normal, unlike most women in capes. The first arc of the new ongoing Batgirl book dealt with Stephanie desperately trying to grow up, to see something through and gain the blessing of her forebear, Barbara Gordon. And when she did, I wept. You see, I was kind of a screw-up kid too; I spent most of my early twenties desperately trying not to be total screw-up and generally failing miserably at it. Not everyone was a big mess of young adult flakey-flix, but the need to overcome, to be better than what you’ve been on a realistic human level – as opposed to trying to learn to read and be a little less traumatized by your assassin upbringing? That’s relatable. That’s interesting. That’s a story women who don’t read comics just might pick up. If they knew it existed.
At the other end of the Bat-spectrum, we’ve got Kate Kane, the awesome, punk rock, redheaded, kick ass grown up holy crap-I-want-to-BE-HER Batwoman. And oh yeah, she’s a lesbian. Of course, her sexual orientation is more a matter of fact than a matter of narrative. Batwoman is not an after school special. Kate is the cool senior girl we all wanted to become when we were freshmen. She’ll throw an elbow and kick you into the wall, and she’ll do it in full body armor with her boobs covered up. She’s got awesome hair, badass tattoos and sweet red stomper boots. While Kate gets ground support from her Colonel Dad, she doesn’t need the him or the Oracle in her ear to tell her to watch out for marauding frat boys. In a way, Steph is what we were, and Kate’s who we wanted to be.
Too bad neither one of them actually has POWERS. Even Marvel let the ball drop here. While Marvel technically has more high-profile powered women than DC, most of them are, as Wonder Woman, completely unable to connect. Storm was a princess turned orphan turned queen, Jean is so over-powered they had to turn her into a metaphor for PMS, Emma connects a bit, but only because she’s totally that one girl we ALL hated (admit it, you still know the first and last name of the first girl who told you she was better than you.) The Marvel women we DO relate to on some level, we relate to in the most depressing ways. Rogue is a runaway who hurts everything she touches, we might relate to that on some level as well, but there’s just no happy ending for her – be it in marriage or gratuitous sex or just, you know, being able to be close to ANYONE she loves physically.
And Kitty? Mommy and Daddy loved her so much they sent her to the special school where she could learn to be more specialer. Her biggest problem was that her boyfriend died for, like, ten minutes. And when it comes to Sue Storm, you kind of expect Reed Richards to start humming “Under my Thumb” at any given moment.
Granted there are slightly more obscure female characters that might resonate more with some women, on some level – but when it comes to solo titles, women aren’t buying female-hero helmed ongoings because, for the most part they (a) don’t exist or (b) don’t speak to women. At all. This is beginning to turn over a bit with Kate (+Renee), Steph, and Jessica Drew all heading up their own books right now, which is great – except most women have never even heard of these hero identities, much less the women under the cowls. And the Bat & Spider prefixes don’t help, unfortunately, most women hear _____Girl or _____Woman or Lady _____ and lose all interest.
Pink trade paperbacks and Sex & the City with tights rip-offs aren’t going to bring women around on Wednesdays. Comics only recently became remotely socially and intellectually acceptable for dudes, it’s going to be a while before boys don’t double take when they realize that, no, I am not messing around, I really do know way, way, more about Wolverine than they do. Marvel’s recent Girl Comics is a step in the right direction, celebrating not only female characters but also female creators. The only thing is – why do we need to get our own special book? Why aren’t female characters and creators just standard issue? Women will start reading comics in droves if we can ever get the word out that, holy crap, some of these are good. At this rate, we’ll all be reading comics projected onto the wall by the implants in our brains by the time female creators are standard issue instead of rare & novel. But to get there, we need well written, relate-able, at least vaguely plausible female ass-kickers, not gimmicks and women desperately trying to fulfill male fantasies while kicking half-naked through the air.
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