High Five! Comics

The Problem with Madame Lady Girl-Woman

Posted on: May 17, 2010

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.

womder womanThe 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.

marvel's girl comicsPink 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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14 Responses to "The Problem with Madame Lady Girl-Woman"

Supa good post, lady!

First of all, awesome post, and I’m not just saying that (because I’m only being positive this week on Twitter.) Really, really good stuff.

Let me ask a few questions that came to mind, not as accusations or arguments, but to legitimately and honestly further get your perspective:

1) As a male with, ostensibly, a lot of badass superheroes to “look up to”, I think my experience is probably pretty common for a lot of guys like me. I never “related” to classic Golden Age characters because they were so inhuman, but I could relate to Peter Parker’s social awkwardness and the wish-fulfillment of being a confident, funny superhero on the side. It’s conventional wisdom that Stan Lee and Marvel made comics a form for humanized characters in the 60s, but do you think that the only reason we have male superheros who are also relateable people today is because we had those decades of wooden, un-relatable characters preceding them? Are we a couple decades away from female characters being that in the mainstream too?

2) I don’t relate to the vast majority of male superheroes for their specific stories either (I didn’t grow up rich or especially smart like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark did, and how many mainstream superheroes come from well-adjusted suburban families?) But should that preclude my ability to relate to aspects of their personalities as well-defined characters? Batman has complicated issues of guilt and Tony’s personal struggles with alcohol are VERY resonant with me, so I get/like them, even as I am UNLIKE them. Aren’t there a lot of girls out there who had a lack of stable parental figures who REALLY DO relates to Kitty Pryde, whom we all generally agree is a good, naturalistic character? (You’re SERIOUSLY underselling her, Mags.) What does a character have to be to be what you’re looking for?

3) Isn’t this also just sort of an indictment of mainstream superhero comics in general? I agree that its a shame the good characters are so small-potatoes, but that’s endemic to the medium and has been for ever. How/why did you get INTO mainstream superhero stuff? I came to comics from a more “alternative”/modern perspective, and I really don’t get the appeal. Not to be all sanctimonious, but I’m a feminist/queered person myself, and I’d much rather read and relate to- and, yes, romanticize and even “lust” after- “Invincible”s Atom Eve, “Preacher”s Tulip O’Hare, or “Powers”‘ Deena Pilgrim than an Amazons in corsets and bondage gear. I mean, why is the mainstream superhero such a captivating thing to even lament in the first place?

Thanks, bro!

(1) I think you’re on to something here, and we’re seeing the beginnings of that now. With the exception of the grossly mishandled Wonder Woman, no one even attempted to turn female characters into anything other than eye-candy until the late seventies/early eighties. Maybe by 2039 we’ll have caught up.

(2) This is what I’m getting at – Stephanie’s the daughter of a villain. Kate’s mother was shot to death while she was bound and gagged in the same room. Jessica was genetically warped by her own father. I can relate to *none* of those things, but in the same way you might relate to Bruce Wayne’s guilt-complex on a much, much smaller level I can relate to Kate’s differently self destructive version of the Bat guilt. I think we’re actually largely in agreement here. (And it seems notable that it’s the Bat and Spider women who are the most relate-able.) To be honest, I was bored to tears with wimpy little Kitty Pryde until Joss Whedon got his hands on her.

(3) I got into superhero stuff when I was a kid, thanks largely to the X-Men cartoon and the insane popularity of Marvel Comics in my after school program. Here’s the thing: there are mainstream superhero titles that are better than some indie titles. There are some alternative titles that are better than mainstream superhero stuff. This isn’t a matter of quality so much as it’s a matter of kind, because you can find great stuff on either side of the divide as far as I’m concerned. To be honest our library is split about 50/50 between mainstream cape & tights and what you might consider “alternative” (though I hardly consider Image & Vertigo to be alternative or underground, but that’s beside the point.) I wouldn’t say it’s an indictment of mainstream comics in general, but rather an indictment of the way women are treated in mainstream capes books – even some of the really good ones – and especially at the Big Two.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I get a big kick out of mainstream superhero comics precisely because they can pull off a few things that more “alternative” books cannot. First, and you may consider this a fanwank, but continuity done right is a blast. There’s a … heritage to these characters and in the hands of a good writer the longevity of their mythology creates an almost folkloric connection. Second, I don’t read mainstream superhero books looking for meaning or enlightenment (though occasionally it sneaks in there), I read them because to me, they’re FUN. I love these characters. I pick up a book like 100 Bullets for entirely different reasons. But just because I read something for fun doesn’t mean I don’t expect women to get a square deal.

(If this is disjointed, I’m mid-post-work-beer.)

(People are gonna think that you actually call me “bro”, which you have now done exactly ONCE since I’ve known you.)

I’m not gonna keep the 3-point thing going, mostly because I get what you’re saying on one and two and I’m with you now.

I guess if you’re into the specific “big publisher”-ness of mainstream superhero books, you have a reason to stick around with them, but if one f those defining aspects is the history and continuity of characters, and the characters you like/see as good examples of females represented in comics are all so new, then what continuity do they really have?

Also, you’re gonna make me write a big thing about how I like superhero comics too and don’t turn my nose up at anything published in the mainstream Marvel or DC universes. I have preferences, sure, and a lot of criticisms of mainstream superhero comics in general (as you obviously do as well!), but that’s really not what my comments were about. I’m just wondering how/why you stick with the books that you say were doing wring by your sex/gender, since I don’t know if I could.

Yeah, I don’t know why I typed bro. I blame the alcohol.

For a long time, Batman was a one-trick-pony. Same with Captain America, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Namor, and yes, even Superman, but in the past 70 years or so they’re became more than just smash ’em uppers, with most of them having at least one amazingly written must-read arc that redefined the character. There’s a lot of potential for this with the long standing female characters – I’d say Black Canary is a prime candidate, even Wonder Woman might be salvageable in the right hands.

I’m not gonna make you write a big thing, I just like to poke you. The fact is, I don’t stick with the books that suck in regards to women, I won’t buy them. That’s not to say that if I hear J. Michael Strazcynski’s managed stand on Rucka and Simone’s shoulders and finally save Diana I won’t start pulling Wonder Woman, but right now I don’t buy them precisely because they do wrong by my gender. This is why I read the Bat-ladies, or Spider-Woman (who was recently shelved for a while) and, hell, even S.W.O.R.D. (more on that later. )

But it’s not just the characters who are done a disservice here, it’s the female reader and the female potential reader. To find a well-written woman at the big two, you’ve really got to dive into the lower circulating books, you know?

I enjoyed reading that! You make some excellent points.

I only started reading comics about 4 years ago. And what got me hooked was Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey drawn by Ed Benes. Nobody over-sensualizes females more than Benes. But I LOVED the books. From then, I was hooked. I’d officially consider myself a “spandex” kinda girl.

I think women read comics for different reasons. I read comics for fun, fantasy, and the high ass-kicking factor. I recognize, the varying ways that the female is still refrigerated. I could write paragraphs of irritation about the Star Sapphire get-up or X-23 being a prostitute. The comic book world has been a boys club for a very long time, but I seriously don’t see that changing unless fangirls brush their damn shoulders off, and have some fun in spite of it all.

Every once in a while, we get writing that transcends the misogyny that the collective sub-conscious has assigned to many of our heroes. And, THAT is where I spend my money. When you are talking about DC and Marvel, that’s all that matters … to them.

I know how you feel and completely agree with what your saying, especially the Wonder Woman thing… I could never figure out why I don’t like her that much.

On the other hand what do you expect? It is what it is and if it wasn’t I wouldn’t like it. I like a lot of thing that most girls don’t like, oh well. I have zero girlfriends that I can talk to about Super Hero comics with, the only person I talk to about the excitement of Wednesday is my brother, and that is good enough for me.

I have friends from all walks of life, even hipsters! and most of my girlfriends have to put up with me and my comic book addiction. They always say the same thing, they think it’s too fake, they want to read something real about murder and abuse and things that happen everyday in the real world. As much as i try to explain how much diversity is out there they are just not gong to give it a try no matter how relateable these super-heroes may be.

I can’t complain much if your into cars then you will be surrounded by guys and the only women allowed are hot car models or mechanics. Gender typing is not a comic bookissue its a social issue that happens all the time. As for me I will stick to what I like and speak up when something has taken the sex appeal to far(do not read psylockes Get Matsu’o). I think super girls look hot because hey they workout, and there is nothing wrong with showing off your hard work. I could bring up that there is not enough cultural diversity in super hero comics but hey we are slowly getting there…

The best I can do for the ladies is support them in trying to break into the Boys club. Gail Simone rules!!! and a lot of girl are putting out there own web comics and not letting anything stop them from being awesome. For now I have plenty of girls that make me proud.
Oh and I hate Emma Frost too, she needs to die already.

Super-Fly Girls Role call:
Batgirl, Oracle, Power Girl(trust me she has a lot of personality thanks to Palmiotti and amanda Conner) Daisy(secret warrior) Pepper Potts, Elektra, Echo, Batwoman, Soranik Natu, Maria Hill, Zanatana, Vixen, the Huntress, and Yes Black Canary.

We’re coming from different places on this; I think gender typing is a societal ill. I don’t believe that equality means sameness, but your comment about “super girls showing off their hard work” is a bit off for me. These women aren’t showing off their workout bods, they’re drawn (mostly by men) and they’re drawn specifically to titillate. They are glorified centerfolds.

And again, referring to the industry as a “Boy’s Club” is part of the problem. Yes, the comics industry (and heck, the film industry too) are male-dominated, but that’s thanks to hundred of years of female oppression. Heck, as little as 50 years ago, a female comic book writer/artist would have been laughed out of the room. We’ve come a long way, but we need to get to the point where a female creator is not a big special deal simply because she’s got boobs, you know?

I don’t see anything wrong with a Glorified Centerfold, beauty is empowering, and the same thing is done with the Male Super Heroes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with eye candy, and I don’t blame guys drawing really hot girls, we are damn sexy what do you expect? And you have to admit most are drawn with muscles, which is a lost aesthetic for females, if all the art was just to titillate don’t you think there would be more skinny girls with big boobs, or girls with a J-Lo booty, which is the popular aesthetic.

Like I said sometimes it is taken to a level where I am like did you go to the strip club before you drew this? Psylocke: Get Matsu’o was nothing but ass shots and just took so much away from her Bad-assness. That is unacceptable, and a lot of male readers would agree.
I don’t think you can blame everything on female oppression nowadays colleges are dominated with women. If women are not doing what they want it is their fault. No one said its easy being in the minority but there have been so many people who don’t let their Gender/Race stop them from doing what they want or define their destiny. The more adversity the greater the reward. Your right I shouldn’t call it a “Boys Club” but I don’t know how else to explain it.
“We’ve come a long way, but we need to get to the point where a female creator is not a big special deal simply because she’s got boobs, you know?”
I totally disagree, most people support Female creators because they are GOOD not because of their gender. Maybe I just don’t understand what you mean.

“We are in the MINORITY but we are doing MAJOR things!”

Well, here’s one major thing wrong with this. Women are not a minority. We’re half the world’s population! (Unless you meant female creators are a minority in comics, in which case I concede the point.)

I’m not blaming everything on female oppression, but if you think that any woman who doesn’t get to “do what she wants” must clearly be entirely at fault, you’re gravely mistaken. Even considering that, yes, in many situations women have the chance to take advantage of the same opportunities as men, we STILL treat them differently. Kathryn Bigelow was the very first woman ever to win a best director Oscar. But did you notice that in the run up to the ceremony, almost no one was talking about her work – they were talking about the fact that she used to f*ck James Cameron. That’s a huge, huge problem. Women are most definitely still affected by this sort of crap, in real life, in the movies, in their careers, and in comics.

As to the specific depiction of women in comics, I concede the floor to a great piece someone shared with me this morning: http://jezebel.com/5543919/the-problem-with-representations-of-women-in-comics

Sometimes “minority” refers to a group that has relatively less power in a society than the dominant group, and not necessarily a small minority of a population – in some contexts females are “minorities” due to a lack of power apportioned by a society

Interesting post. As a male reader of comics, I find it difficult to relate in some ways, but as a man of (near) average intelligence, I can at least say that I acknowledge and understand many of the problems you have noted.
Oh yeah, glad to see someone else poop on Cassandra Cain for once. I can honestly say that I’m getting just a little bit tired of the “female killing machine with social issues” trope I.E. Hit Girl, Batgirl, X-23, etc.
Keep it up.

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