Tales from the Ashcan: The Wrong Idea, Part 1: She’s Wearing WHAT?

I thought as a writer, I really needed to get this off my chest.  As fans and as people, we geeks/otaku/whatever live in a sheltered, isolated world, one in which we nurture and care for each other and band together when people start peering from the outside in.  When we do that, we tend to circle the wagons and go on the warpath, because we don’t like our fandom, our passions demeaned.  But sometimes we make mistakes and we end up hurting some of our own.  And sometimes, we’re not even aware of it. And that’s why it’s gotta stop – or else we’ll end up with more like the above picture.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for a while, I’m sure you’ve all heard by now the recent issues that DC Comics has had with sexism and chauvinism.  I’ve already said what I needed to say about it, and I don’t feel the need to start a second round about it.  But it does bring into view a concern that I have: why, in this modern day and age, are we putting an iron curtain between what men represent in sci-fi and what women represent?  Men are powerful, to be admired or feared – one only needs to look at characters like Batman, Rambo or Magneto to see what they are: idealized representations of what is great (meaning larger than life) in manhood.  Now, flip it and show the women’s point of view: you get sexualized (see: any female superhero) or victimized (see: women in refrigerators) or irrelevant (see: female fans).  Even heroines that could be seen as powerful (Wonder Woman, Power Girl) are mainly played up for their looks and not as much for their more positive qualities.  Superhero fiction has been called “a male power fantasy complete with veiled submissive women”, but let’s be honest.  A lot – probably too much – in fandom is like that.

At this point, many of you are wondering what the hell I’m talking about…and the women out there are probably nodding their heads in agreement with everything I’ve said.  And you’re not the only ones.  Google up anything regarding fandom sexism and you’ll hear the stories about the girls being ostracized from comic stores, denied a fandom that “isn’t theirs”, being told that Star Wars is for boys.  Then they turn around and instead of seeing strong, mature women that they can see in fiction as role models, they see T&A, women being killed and shoved into the Frigidaire, Catwoman getting her groove on with Batman on a rooftop.  They’ve been stripped of their idealizations, told that Barbie suits them better than Magic the Gathering and that they should just go read the next Twilight novel instead of poring through D&D source books.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.  Personally?  I think it’s too late to save comicdom – to me, it’s just such an inbred bastion of male fantasy that it will die off before things get better.  But there are other examples, other lights shining in the darkness if you know where to look.  Sometimes it’s just presenting a powerful, normal woman, who’s more defined by who she is than her measurements.  The webcomic Grrl Power is a good example of this.  Yes, the girls in it are hot – but they’re also strong, brave and (keeping in mind that this is a comedic webcomic) professional and serious.  The webcomic industry is a good place to see where the tide is changing, and where the next generation of fans will come from…and where positive role models will be shown.

So why does it concern me?  Yes, I’m a guy, but there’s no reason why this can’t be women’s fandom as much as men; it has to be that way.  Ayne might not have been the artist for this series had she not had a supportive family that let her get her geek on rather than insisting that she go the Barbie route.  Plus, I’ve always been partial to strong female characters: most of the characters I do are female, and all of them are capable – in Claude & Monet Claude may be the only male member of the team, but that’s not because we were planning to set up an anime-style harem adventure, he’s the only male member of the team because he’s the only male member of the team.  All five members – Claude, Monet, Miki, Yin-Feng and Yun-Feng – are on the team because they perform their duties, not because they need someone sexy or weak.  And that’s how it should be.

I’m not saying there’s no need for Barbie; there are plenty of girls who like it (and probably even a few guys.)  But as My Little Pony has recently proven, it is entirely possible to provide great role models for girls while still engaging guys.  Hell, if a show originally meant for young girls can rope in adult males, why can’t the rest of fandom?  Somewhere out there is the next little girl who will create amazing things in fandom, if given the proper motivation…and let’s be honest, showing little girls that their chest size is more important than talent or that they’re doomed to the bottom rung of everything is not motivation.

Next week, I’ll go over another pet peeve that I’ve noticed webcomics are also doing well to overcome.

Rob Barba (71 Posts)

  • http://www.stevensavage.com/ Steven Savage

    Actually I think this is part of a larger phenomena of odd, inbred issues appearing in a variety of media.

    A lot of us geeks are meta types, so we miss it. But it’s easy to think everyone has rather broad interests, and that’s not true.

    When we zero on on a variety of media, we find very strong “inbreeding,” limited playgrounds, blinkered perspectives, etc. I’m still not sure WTF DC was thinking. Reality shows are almost unverisally dismal. The History channel doesn’t seem to be about history anymore, the SciFi channel is monsters and horror, etc.

    I think the sexism you’re concerned about is a sign of both A) some areas of media being so inbred and inward-looking they get worse/wont change, and B) we’re a hell of a lot more aware of it. Maybe there’s C) too – today it’s easier to put your filters on thanks to the internet.

  • http://www.stevensavage.com/ Steven Savage

    As a side note, I also think we’re seeing a cultural resurgence of sexism.

  • http://ashleychappell.blogspot.com/ Ashley Chappell

    Speaking as a life-long femme-fan of Star Wars and all things SF, reading about this issue from a man’s perspective was very interesting to me. I haven’t been personally offended by the comic culture’s treatment of women, but that isn’t to say that I can help rolling my eyes every time I see a new female superhero/villain introduced: “Oh, yes, she fights/masterminds crime in that bodice and those heels.” To your point that male characters, even when over-stylized, are rendered to visually represent some aspect of their attributes or characterizations – why do they limit themselves so much with the women? I feel like the visual representation of the character is such a relevant and important part of how the art impacts the story and the reader’s impression of the characters, and yet with the women they consistently fail to bring any depth to the artwork at all. Unless you count the gulf created by the 38-22-36 figure, that is. There are only so many variations of scantily-clad, big-bosomed, and wasp-waisted that can be conceived.

    Aside from the failings in artwork, one thing that does bother me is that any comic trying to break out of this pattern with more realistic female characters that offer more than a contrived butt-kicking power and a leather bustier seem to be automatically assigned to a subset of comicdom. For instance – the last time I saw a guy post a link to Grrl Power on Facebook, he automatically added the caveat “Funny for a chick comic.”

    It’s that assignation that seems commonplace among the comic industry. It seems to say that these are in some way not ‘real’ comics and, unfortunately, I just don’t see the culture ever changing to fully embrace comics that don’t hold to the classic standards without feeling the need to remand newcomers with new ideas to similar subsets.

  • http://www.stevensavage.com/ Steven Savage

    There is an odd feeling of a “boy’s club” in comics at least some areas, despite crossover appeal of some properties or variant properties (I loved the first season of Lois and Clark). For me, who was never part of “the club”, I don’t quite get it myself. Perhaps it’s a kind of identification/culture that hasn’t been fully explored.

    Some of it, however, is an understanding of female power. Comics is a language, and in many cases, the “words” available bay be limited and need to be expanded. The language now is limited to ass-kicking in funky outfits.

  • http://genjipress.com Serdar Yegulalp

    I noticed only in hindsight that the ratio of male to female characters in my current project, “Flight of the Vajra” (http://www.genjipress.com/writing/flight-of-the-vajra/) is also a little funny:

    – Main character: male
    – Major supporting character: female
    – 2nd major supporting character: female
    – 3rd major supporting character: gender-mutable (can be male or female, is most commonly male)
    – 1st minor supporting character: male
    – 2nd minor supporting character: apparently female but actually gender-neutral
    – 3rd minor supporting character: female, but of a culture where the biology of gender is again more of an element of choice than assignment (esp. since bodies are renewable/interchangeable)

    Makes for an interesting set of dynamics, to say the least.