Friday, March 30, 2007

Amy Reads the Week (of March 30th, 2007)

Super Spectacular Women’s History Month Edition #5!

Often in our pop cultures, Gentle Reader, there is a dichotomous presentation of Woman offered; Madonna or Magdalene, Pure or Sexy, Good Girl or Bad Girl, Woman is often one or the other, but rarely, if ever, both. The Good Girl is so very, very good, and the Bad Girl? Well, she’s usually better. Both have sex appeal in their own right, both are desirous to those-who-like-women, and both can tread, just a toe or two, on The Other Side.

Because we so very love when our Good Girls go A Little Bad, or our Bad Girls have that ever-flaunted Heart o’Gold, or when we see a Bad Girl vulnerable and a Good Girl sexy. It seems—just seems, Gentle Reader!—that we like our dichotomies because they offer the chance to be something other than a stereotype.

This is, of course, the moment when the non-stereotype *becomes* the stereotype. That is to say, when Sandy in Grease puts on the leather pants, she’s not *really* a Good Girl Gone Bad, but rather, the Good Girl proving that she can, if Danny so desires, be A Little Bad. Or when Faith cries in Angel’s arms, telling him that she is Nothing At All, it’s not *really* a Bad Girl Gone Good, but rather, the Bad Girl proving that she does, deep down inside, want to be loved. The Good Girl’s Sexiness, and the Bad Girl’s Vulnerability, then, become part of the very definitions of these two types, and therefore are wrapped up in the very stereotype laid out for them in the first place.

Part of our desire for these stereotypes is, of course, our desire to fix things or sully them, our desire to Reform the Rake or Uncross Crossed Legs, our desire to be The One who will change things, for a little Good, or a little Bad. But most importantly, these two stereotypes of female characters, more often than not, demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of women’s power over their own bodies. That is to say, part of the Madonna/Magdalene stereotype is the firm desire to see women either as virginal or fallen, but rarely in charge of their own sexuality.

Our popular culture representations of women’s sexuality are troubling, at least, and Quite Frightening, at worst. Gallons of ink, both literal and cyber, have been spilled over the (Sexy) Woman Question in various media, and We, None of Us, can come to a consensus. Sexy, demeaning, outlandish, uncomfortable, ridiculous, beautiful, all of these words and more have been used to describe the costumes of various comic book characters, of television stars, of video game characters.

Wonder Woman, for example, wears spankies and a bustier, but I certainly would never call her outfit outlandish. She is, of course, very firmly in the Good Girl Camp, as she does, after all, come from an Entire Island Of Women (and no men). Catwoman, on the other hand, covers her entire body, from neck to toes, and still, there is no denying the skintight fantasy of her (literal) Catsuit. Then, of course, Catwoman is very firmly in the Bad Girl Camp, an ex-prostitute, no less, who has no qualms about her own sexuality. At all. Buffy often Slayed Vampires in heels, leather pants, and tank tops, but since she was a Good Girl, those outfits seemed fine, while Faith, the Bad Girl of All Bad Girl Slayers, Slayed in the same, and made it seem overtly sexual.

I work on fashion, Gentle Reader, in my Academic Life, and while the fashion I study is of the decidedly Bustled and Crinolined variety, I do occasionally foray into twentieth-century discussions. I pay particular attention to discussions of clothing—or lack thereof—in the Comic Book Universe, because more often than not, the discussion boils down to a Dichotomy of Its Own: “it’s just a comic book” versus “it’s never ‘just a comic book.’”

As a concluding thought in my month-long Women’s History Month Edition of this column, I’d like to point out this very thought that has haunted me for Some Time Now and is, in fact, the very reason I began this blog in the first place: the idea that Things Don’t Matter if those Things occur in popular culture. It just isn’t so, Friends, and here’s why.

Popular Culture reflects the desires, and fears, of the society in which it exists.

It’s why Wonder Woman and Superman fight off Nazis in the 1940s, why we saw so many movies about the dangers of genetic testing a few years back, why since 9/11 America has had a wealth of film and television about superheroes. It’s why teenagers are punished in horror movies for having sex, why spy movies became so popular during the height of the Cold War, why the Geek gets the Girl, always. Even farther and even faster, it’s why Stepmothers are the Bad Guys in fairy tales, why Cinderella becomes a Princess, why Children should never wander into Dark Woods alone.

It’s why the Good Girl, if she Stays Good, will get the Guy, why the Bad Girl can be reformed, and usually through Death.

All of these desires and fears are represented through familiar storylines, yes, and also, through familiar images, and symbols, and tropes. White for purity, water for birth and rebirth, fire for cleansing, yellow for disease. If there is a killer on the loose, and you say “I’m going to go check the basement,” you know, With Great Certainty, that you will not come back alive. If there are zombies, gardening tools are Your Best Friends, and if there are vampires, images and ideas of Catholicism will save you, whether you’re Catholic or not. It’s why curly hair represents both ethnicity and danger in women, and why certain white shirts on men signal violence against women.

It’s why Wonder Woman’s lasso is golden, Catwoman’s whip is black, and Willow’s hair turns white at the end of Buffy. It’s why Faith of “Young Goodman Brown” fame wears pink ribbons. It’s why Queen Victoria only appeared in public in black, after Albert’s death. Symbols, representations, cultural tropes and motifs that are understood, digested, and *read* by All of Us.

150 years ago, Gentle Reader, Charles Dickens was just about the most popular author In The World. His books were read (and sometimes written) in installments, and he sold thousands upon thousands of copies. Everyone knew the characters, the stories, and the ideas, whether they read the books or not. That is what it means to be an author of popular culture. Today, his books are considered High Literature, and are studied in schools and universities worldwide. This Humble Author herself studies Mr. Dickens, and has yet to hear anyone tell her to stop reading, writing, and teaching his work because “it’s just a popular book.”

Let us enjoy our popular cultures, and let us take them seriously. Let us not dismiss other’s concerns over sexism, or exclusion, because we don’t care about those specific concerns. Let us remember that we, All Of Us, have concerns and joys and fears and hopes in our Popular Cultures, and desiring change for the skimpy fashions of our superheroines, or development of female characters beyond the Good Girl/Bad Girl dichotomy are concerns that are just as important as those over the revival of a character long since dead, or an unpopular retcon.

Because we love them enough to care, to discuss, to blog, to buy, to read, to rejoice, to rebuke, they’re never, ever, *ever* Just Comic Books.

I considered writing a list as a celebration of Complexity, and of Popular Culture, and as a Last Hurrah of Women’s History Month. One consideration was for a Good Girl/Bad Girl list, and another was for 31, yes, 31 Complex Female Characters of Popular Culture. But instead, I want to hear from you, Gentle Reader. Give me your lists, or your recommendations, of women in popular culture. Who am I not following, but should be? What writer am I not reading, To My Detriment? As always, I am on the lookout for A Few (More) Good Books/Films/Shows!

Above all else, enjoy the rest of Women’s History Month, this celebration of Women Remembered and Forgotten, of Heroes who Fought the Good Fight. Let's remember those who fought for our voice, even though they themselves were allowed No Voice Of Their Own. Let us remember those women, Fictional and Historical, who Defied Stereotypes, both Good and Bad, to make the world A Better Place.

For the Good Girls, and the Bad Ones, for the Good Girls Gone Bad, and Bad Girls Gone Good, and those who are Just Okay and Somewhat Middling and Quite In Charge of Their Bodies and Selves and Lives, and Those We Love To Hate and Those We Hate To Love, and just Those That We Can't Help But Love because they Defy Stereotypes and Refuse to be Pigeonholed into One-Dimensionality.

For those women, and the thousands more, We Salute You.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Catch a Falling Star(dust)

Gentle Reader, it's finally online! Go watch the Stardust trailer, won't you?
Michelle Pfeiffer has been one of This Humble Author's favorite actresses since I was a small, small girl. She is nothing but perfect here. Sincerely.

Amy Reads the Week (of March 23rd, 2007)

Super Spectacular Women’s History Month Edition #4!

Gentle Reader, if you look at the sidebar to the right, you’ll see that Manhunter is on my pull list. Well, I need to confess something: Manhunter only made my list because of the Wonder Woman crossover. I read the first issue of that crossover, realized that I would never understand half of what was going on unless I read the whole series, and then months and months went by, without doing that very thing.

Mr. Reads has sworn, for months and maybe years now, that I would Absolutely Adore Manhunter. He believed this fact so much so that he gave me all 29 issues and said READ. As last week was, so very wonderfully, Spring Break Week for the Family Reads, I actually had Some Time To Myself one evening while Mr. Reads D&Ded with his friends. There were jellybeans, a snuggly Pup Reads to warm my toes, and 29 issues of Manhunter just waiting to be read.

And Friends, I have to say that Shelly is 100% correct: Manhunter *is* the best comic book I probably wasn’t reading. But I’ve rectified that. Scout’s Honor.

How to express the Total Joy over seeing a comic book that understands that a Heroine doesn’t have to be perfect? Or even suffer from One Fatal Flaw? No Hubris for Kate Spencer. No Hubris at all. Just a nicotine habit (which This Humble Author certainly can understand, even after 6 months cigarette-free!), anxiety over career and parenting and marriage, and not one, no, not *one* gratuitous romantic interest. Kate’s anxieties, it seems, are better served by her heroing, or her lawyering, or, God forbid, the Ever-Present Editorial Axe looming over her Precious DC Head.

When comic book readers ask for characters they can relate to—whether those readers are of the Double-X Chromosome Persuasion or otherwise—said readers are not asking for carbon copies. That is, when I ask, “Please, let me see a character I can relate to!” that wish can be fulfilled by a Kate Spencer (workaholic, anxious, ex-smoker), a Hellboy (looks different than others, tries to do the right thing, often confused by conflicting expectations on him), a Batman (slightly OC with a dash of martyr complex thrown in to seal the deal), or an Oracle (workaholic, trying to help and protect friends and family). That wish can be fulfilled a number of different ways, all of them good, all of them relatable by thousands of other readers, as well.

But most importantly—and indeed, perhaps, the Most Important Of All—I ask for characters that don’t suffer under stereotypes, whether those stereotypes are gender-specific, or race-specific, or sexual-preference-specific, or otherwise. Kate Spencer is a straight woman that isn’t running herself ragged looking for That Special Man To Complete Her Life. She belies the stereotype that all single women in their 30s must have a man to complete her. Rather, Kate gets divorced, co-exists rather well with her ex-husband, his new wife, their new child, and Kate’s son, of whom majority custody goes to the father. Nor is Kate The Perfect Mother, or The Failed Mother, two major motifs involving women and popular social conceptions of maternity. She makes parenting mistakes, she recognizes those mistakes, and she does what, truly, is best for her son: she shares custody with his father.

In fiction, we so often see the trope of the Monstrous Mother, that woman, almost fairy-tale in origin and evil, who is selfish, greedy, non-nurturing, sexual, everything that almost every society says a mother decidedly should *not* be. We have the Victorians to thank for our current conceptions of Maternity (the Domestic Goddess in her robes and crown of white), but this Perfect Mother Expectation we have goes back centuries. Mothers are not selfish, or sexual, or greedy, or anything but nurturing. So says society, therefore so say we all (gratitude, BSG).

“Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of all children,” says the Crow in O’Barr’s comic book. “Do you understand? Do you understand?” Not Father, but Mother. Mother is the name for God, the name for perfection, for perfect expectation.


We have, as a society, somewhat romanticized the bond between Mother and Child. We expect it as a biological imperative, and when we see refusals of those expectations—the mother who abandons her children, or chooses leave-the-home-career over stay-at-home-career—we see them as aberrations, not only of our expectations, but of the very fabric of our society. The very things that hold us together. But by placing biological imperatives on parenting, and, in particular, maternity, we discount those parents who adopt, or raise another’s child, or the countless sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and grandparents and friends and teachers who all take an active part in raising a child. It doesn’t only take a mother or a village; it takes a world.

Kate Spencer offers a progressive approach to motherhood that belies the somewhat traditional expectations comic books place on that role. One Year Later, she shares her mothering duties with her husband’s new wife, and even before then, she comes to the conclusion that her husband is a better parent than she is, a conclusion not often reached, even today. But even further, she is a Mother, in a comic book. There aren’t many of them, Friends, and perhaps we should wonder why.

Or perhaps we don’t even have to wonder why. Parenting is hard, the gig that never ends, even after the children become upstanding citizens. One rightfully can’t put one’s life in danger every night of the week and not expect some of that to spill over. Some get a little help from their friends (Catwoman), while some relinquish custody to the better-fit parent (Manhunter), while some enlist the adopted or biological child into the fight against evil (Hippolyta, Black Canary I). Some children’s lives are threatened because of their parents’ crimefighting (Helena, Catwoman’s daughter), and some are downright wiped from existence (Scarlet Witch’s children).

I’ve discussed maternity in comics before, particularly in regards to Catwoman and Black Canary, but I think this is a larger social concern that is being replicated in our pop culture media. We expect our mothers to be perfect, selfless beings, and perhaps—just perhaps, Gentle Reader!—we expect our maternal heroines to be even more perfect, even more selfless. Kate Spencer is a mother *and* a superhero; she sacrifices not only for her child, but for *the entire world*. Selina Kyle does the same, and the reason for both seems to be making the world safe, for the children. For *their* children.

Gail Simone’s theory regarding Women in Refrigerators demonstrates how girlfriends and wives often are used/hurt/killed to get at male heroes, and I’d like to point out the heroine version of this theory. We see an overwhelming amount of Children In Dark Woods stories involving children and their heroinic mothers (gratitude to Ragtime for the invention of the word “heroinic”!). Children in Dark Woods is, of course, the fairy tale motif of Children In Danger precisely because their mother was 1) not their mother (i.e. stepmother), 2) not paying attention (i.e. selfish), or 3) threatening (i.e. a woman of power). Women are put in Refrigerators to hurt male heroes, and children are stolen, threatened, or lost to hurt the female ones. WiR suggests that the worst possible pain for a man is not only to lose the person he loves, but also to be *unable to save her*. Children in Dark Woods suggests the same for women, but make it a child, and make it the suggestion of Bad Motherhood.

And that is the clencher, no? If a male hero’s girlfriend/wife is hurt or killed to get at him, he isn’t considered a bad boyfriend or husband. But if a heroine’s child is hurt or killed to get at her, she most likely is considered to be a Bad Mother. And there are few labels worse in our society than Bad Mother. When Kate Spencer’s son is hurt because he was playing with her Manhunter weapons, she is not the only one who thinks that she’s been a Bad Mother; everyone does. Even This Humble Author has suffered under this assumption (yes, even me, Gentle Reader!) in that I took Selina to task for being so carefree with her own life when Helena needs her, oh so much.

I have No Definitive Answers, Friends, because this isn’t a problem easily solved. Rather, let us think on those stereotypes as they exist not only in comic books, but in the world. And perhaps let us Call Attention to Things Such As This the next time someone says, “it’s just a comic book! What does it matter that Powergirl’s breasts are so large?” or, “it’s just a comic book! Why do the liberals always have to have a gay/black/female/cheesecake-loving hero to read it?” It’s never *just a comic book* because—I’ve said it before and I will say it a thousand times more—our pop culture reflects our innermost desires.

Our popular culture reflects Us.

So in honor of those who fight for our rights, change our diapers, balance our checkbooks, bring home the bacon *and* cook it, I offer you a list of my Seven Favorite Fictional Heroinic Mothers—one for every day I read the week, of course!

1) Joyce Summers – Buffy’s mother, after initial disbelief, took her daughter’s Slaying in stride, and even came to be a formidable Force Against Darkness, in that she kept her daughter, and the Scooby Gang, loved. Her death was one of the more painful and heartbreaking moments in television history.

2) Lorelai Gilmore – she raised her daughter on her terms, in her own way, and what a daughter Rory is! There’s no hero like the everyday mom, the one who creates a great life for herself and her child.

3) Linda Park-West – she lost her unborn children because of a fight between Flash and Zoom, and a later fight restored them again. During Infinite Crisis, when Wally’s about to disappear, Linda grabs the twins, and her husband, and disappears into the Speed Force with him. She is a rock, and without her, Wally wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

4) Cordelia Chase – before a deity hijacks her body, of course! She serves as a surrogate mother to baby Connor and helps Angel raise his child. When Connor comes back, before Cordy disappears, she helps heal him, as well.

5) Fallen Angel (Lee) – She hides her child so that he won’t be swallowed by Bete Noire, only to find him come back after years in hiding. So she spends her time trying to protect him from the city, and to undo the pain and hurt done in his absence and his presence.

6) Claire Fraser – Diana Gabaldon’s character who leaves her True Love to give birth safely, and does her best to keep her daughter healthy and happy. Sometimes, this means saying goodbye.

7) Catwoman (Selina Kyle) – and finally, Selina! I considered putting Manhunter on the list, but realized I already Waxed Poetic Enough on her, and decided on Selina Kyle instead. Despite the initial problems I had with the OYL jump, I have adored everything involving Selina’s interactions with Helena.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The “Girl-Standards”: Thoughts on Those Titles We Womenfolk Might Like; or, how I recently read (and watched) a lot of Hellboy

Have I ever told you how much I adore Dark Horse Comics, Gentle Reader? I know I often point to the Two Houses, both alike in Dignity in Fair New York where we Lay Our Scene, but I feel the need to look at the Alternatives, as well. And, yes, I’ve recently read most of the Hellboy trade paperbacks, and purchased issue #1 of Buffy Season 8, and watched Hellboy: Blood and Iron, so Dark Horse has been on my mind, just a bit. But Dark Horse, overall, provides a nice alternative to The Big Two, particularly in that they seem dedicated to fostering new, creator-owned talent.

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy is nothing short of genius, it’s true, but what I find Very Interesting is that it is often touted as one of the Girl-Friendly Comics About In The World. I find these lists, these “How to Get Your Girlfriend/Girl Best Friend/Wife to Read Comic Books” lists to be A Bit Odd. Mr. Reads often crows over his triumphant role in my re-indoctrination into the world of superhero comics, but it must be said, Friends, that I’ve read comics, off and on, for 20+ years. I had Lost Sight of Superhero comics sometime around the time my Wonder Woman underoos started to get a bit snug, but I had my college-years graphic novel reading to fill in the meantime: Sandman, Ghost World, Squee, The Dreaming, The Crow.

You know.


What is it about the Comic Book Audience that, while sometimes Quite Proud of its predominantly-male community, is seemingly so determined to establish a so-called "Girl-Friendly" Canon? And what is it about titles like Sandman, Fables, Y the Last Man, and yes, Hellboy, that some readers are so convinced will help introduce womenfolk to these books-with-pictures? And, the really big question here, why do some readers/writers/etc. not understand why some women feel excluded from the comic book community, but yet remain committed to sharing their comic book love with their sisters/girlfriends/girl-friends/wives?

I find myself working this backwards, in some way, in that I am the only one of my Girl-friends who reads comic books. In fact, at a recent evening at a Dear Friend’s House, I spent most of the night chatting Captain America’s untimely demise, and Marvel’s Civil War Crisis, with said Dear Friend’s Husband. Said Dear Friend (who is, undeniably, Quite Dear Indeed!) appreciates our, well, appreciation for comics, but doesn’t, personally, like the medium.

Some of my Girl-friends have ventured Graphic Novel WayPersepolis, Veils, Box Office Poison—but few, if any, have ever read Superhero Titles. No Tights and Flights, no Capes, no Sonic Cries, no Amazons Attacking, or Villains Uniting, or Secret Wars, well, Secreting. Yet my Girl-friends tell me, again and again, that they find the Blogosphere’s Feminist Discussions of Comic Books Intriguing and, it seems, Enticing.

So believe me when I say that I understand this need to share a love, a fandom, a (Mary) Marvel. I know how it feels to want my friends and family to like and enjoy the very things I enjoy, to want to be able to discuss these things that are, in truth, Very Important to me. But when I attempt to entice my Girl-friends over Comic Book Way, I turn to titles like Fallen Angel, or Birds of Prey, or Wonder Woman, and rarely, very rarely, Sandman, or JtHM, or The Crow.

So I began to wonder: why, then, are these titles considered to be Girl-Standards? What is it about Sandman, or Fables, that seems more “female-friendly,” than, say, the Birds of Prey, or Catwoman? Specifically, I began to wonder why a title like Hellboy, almost overwhelmingly male in its choice of characters, and almost always female in its choice of villains, is considered so very “girl-friendly.” I don’t have A Definitive Answer, Friends, but I have some thoughts, Hellboy-specific.

1) Hellboy Tells Stories.
It’s a title almost solely dedicated to the spinning of yarns, the telling of tales. When you read Hellboy, you not only get action, particularly of the beat-em-up shoot-em-up variety, you get a great story, as well. These stories are also heavily influenced by somewhat familiar histories and mythologies, so there is never the feeling that one needs to catch-up if one hasn’t been reading since The Dawn Of Time. Even in The Big Two’s stand-alone titles are references to other heroes, or stories, or crises, and if one hasn’t been reading *this* title since the mid-80s, or *that* title since 1947, one probably will have no idea who X character is, or why he or she should even care.

2) Hellboy Doesn’t Believe In Essentialism.
Hellboy, the character, is a demon. From Hell. But because of love and nurturing and free will and, in no small part, pancakes, he denies what so many assume to be his Natural Self, his Destiny, his Born Purpose to do and be what *he* wants. Women so often suffer under Essentialist Expectations. That is to say, so many in our society, and in societies long past, believe that because a woman has a uterus, or 2 x-chromosomes, or breasts, or 2 eyes and a mouth, then she must be weak/maternal/sneaky/sexy/super-skinny/catty/etc. Hellboy belies that very idea of essentialism—that we Are What We Are and That’s That—and the entire series is based on this very thing.

3) The Evil In Hellboy Is Often Old-School.
So very often in this title, Those That Commit Evil are often Those From An Older Time. Nazis, Old World Vampires or Witches, people, monsters, or things that try to bring the world back to The Way It Was Before (whatever time that was, Gentle Reader!) are The Bad Guys. Hellboy and the Bureau are about promoting change in the world. They look forwards, not backwards, and are not frightened by new ideas but by old ones. In This Humble Author’s Very Humble Opinion, old ideas are often the scariest because old ideas are often the ones rooted in oppression.

4) Hellboy Is About Equal-Opportunity Chivalry And Challenge.
Hellboy, the character, doesn’t try to save women, specifically, nor does he coddle evil just because that particular evil in that particular story happens to be female. Instead, lines are drawn between Good and Evil, not Men and Women.

5) Hellboy Is Just Good. Period.
This is a point I Can’t Stress Enough, Gentle Reader! The Comic Book Industry shouldn’t have to ask for a female audience, nor should it mollycoddle its female audience. It needs to offer great stories, with interesting and complex characters that women can relate to. Yes, sometimes that character is a woman, but sometimes that character is a man.

Or a boy.

A Hell-Boy, even.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Amy Reads the Week (of March 16th, 2007)

Super Spectacular Women’s History Month (Expanded!!) Edition #3!

I adore Nancy Drew, Gentle Reader, and have ever since I was a Young Girl. She’s smart, and sassy, with two fabulous friends who help her in tough scrapes. But more importantly, she’s smarter than any of the high-powered, high-profile men around her. Chief McGinnis seems to be if not her inferior than at least her equal in intelligence, while her lawyer father, Carson Drew, is so rarely around that Nancy raises herself, with mother figure Hannah Gruen lending a helping—and molding—hand. Even in the few Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew crossovers that I’ve read, Nancy is more competent than Frank or Joe. What does this all add up to, you ask? Well, This Humble Author believes that characters like Nancy Drew—these “Girl Detectives,” if you will—paved the way for the female sleuths we see lining the shelves of our bookstores today.

Of course, it starts before that. We have Wilkie Collins’s charming, original “petticoat detective,” Valeria, from The Law and the Lady, who attempts to save her new husband from the Scottish verdict “Not Proven” for the suspected murder of his first wife. Valeria does several fabulous, progressive things to prove her husband’s innocence: she wears makeup, for starters, and consorts with some people Victorian society would consider “beyond the pale.” But further, Valeria *solves the mystery*, with the help of some men, yes, but they function, mainly, in witnessing roles rather than advisory ones. And it is because of her femininity—that is, the prescribed regimen of domesticity, housekeeping, and wifeliness that the Victorian Era requires of her sex—that she is able to solve the mystery: she disturbs the dust heap, a common part of the household, and finds the wife’s suicide note.

Agatha Christie gives us Miss Marple; Dorothy Sayers gives us Harriet Vane. With Sara Paretsky we have V. I. Warshawski, and there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of female sleuths before and after. Stephanie Plum, Temperance Brennan, Kinsey Millhone, these meddling fictional women prove that professional or amateur, they can get the job done. Call it women’s intuition, call it skill or eye for detail or dumb luck, it’s all the same. There has been a plethora of women solving mysteries and crimes in literature for the past 150 years, and they’ve been Quite Exceptional At It.

Recently, Nancy Drew has been updated, as seen with the Nancy Drew: Girl Detective novel series, the Nancy Drew computer games, the upcoming Nancy Drew movie, and the Nancy Drew graphic novels written by Stefan Petrucha. (Come, come, Gentle Reader! You knew I’d find a way to bring this back to comics, didn’t you?) This series is, like Nancy herself, fun, smart, and sassy, with suspenseful storylines, great art, and updated sidekicks, Bess and George. Bess is still boy-crazy and fashion-obsessed (which, as This Humble Author believes and writes on an academic basis, every day, is a particular arena of power for women), but she’s also a skilled mechanic, who can, ultimately, fix any machine or car that is in her path. George, too, while still a sporty no-frills kind of girl, is now a computer geek and, as some suggest, Hacker Extraordinaire. These two sidekicks, in all of their unique skills and support, are the very complements that Nancy needs.

I’ve given up the love for the sidekick before, and as we all know, I am greatly inspired by Wonder Woman’s famous “Woo! Woo!” sidekick, Etta Candy. Many, many detectives, like many, many superheroes, have sidekicks, and those sidekicks are important, essential parts of the partnership. One could ask, what is Holmes without Watson? the same as one could ask, what is Batman without Robin? But overall, it seems that male heroes get the ego-boosting, back-getting, live-to-learn sidekicks more than female heroes do. And rarely, rarely do male heroes get a female sidekick, or vice versa, and when the first happens, it so often ends badly, not because of incompetence, but because it seems—just seems, Gentle Reader!—that a medium overwhelmed by male writers, readers, and artists can’t truly conceive of a viable, healthy, happy Girl Wonder.

Wonder Woman had Etta Candy, yes, but she doesn’t any longer, and she doesn’t have The Holiday Girls anymore, either. Batwoman, fresh on the scene, has yet to find a sidekick (although This Humble Author has heard in the Blogosphere, but can’t remember where, a suggestion for her sidekick, “Sparrow,” which I think is Marvelous! Please, Friends, if you know who said this, send me the link so I can attribute properly!). Supergirl, in her previous incarnation as Linda Danvers, had Comet, although that was more of a friendly-pairing-with-romantic-sparkage than sidekick material. Mr. Reads has just informed me that in Ms. Marvel’s series, she has just picked up a sidekick/trainee, Arana, although since I’m not reading it, I didn’t know it! But other than this, Gentle Reader, can you think of any others?

Regardless, we can say With Some Certainty that what the Women do, and Do Well, is The Support Team. Perhaps this is the Nature of Women, or the Talent of the Writers, but whatever it is, it’s done Quite Well. Wonder Woman had her Holiday Girls, and Nancy Drew had Ned, Bess, and George. There are the Birds of Prey, certainly, and Buffy has an entire Scooby Gang to help Save the World. The Powerpuff Girls, even, work not as sidekicks but in tandem together. It’s not that the Men don’t have teams; of course they do, and they have wonderful ones. But the overwhelming amount of male-heroes-with-sidekicks—Captain America and Bucky, Daredevil/Matt Murdock and Foggy, the ever-familiar Batman and Robin—suggests that the sidekick is, above all else, a “guy thing.”

What does this say about male/female divides in sleuthing, in pop culture, in comic books, in The World? What does it mean when a hero has a somewhat-inferior person trailing behind, either learning how to wear the mantle, or supporting the hero’s actions, or providing comic relief? And I say “somewhat-inferior” not to mean “not good enough,” but rather, to mean “learning to be as good as or, most likely, better.” Arsenal seems to have outstripped Green Arrow, after all. He’s on the JLA, while Ollie wasn’t asked this time. The Team lends support, yes, and they are not “as good as” the hero, certainly, but here’s the thing: they aren’t asked to be. The Team is formed, *specifically*, to cull varying talents into one super-powered (intellectually, meta, or otherwise) Force To Be Reckoned With.

Part of this Glorification of Mine for the Overwhelming Tendency of Heroines for Teams stems, of course, from the annoying, somewhat terrifying stereotype that Women Cannot Work Together. You’ve heard this before I’m sure, Gentle Reader, the idea that women will backstab and pick and poke and hurt other women in a corporate/work/school situation because *that’s what women do*. This stereotype, that Woman’s Worst Enemy Is Woman, is one of the very things that hampers Woman’s Success In The World. If we believe we defeat ourselves from the inside, then we’re too busy paying attention to the inside to even notice the problems outside. And what happens outside? Nothing at all, because we can’t be bothered to change *that*.

The worst part of this stereotype is that so many people, men and women alike, believe it to be Gospel Truth. People truly believe that if a person happens to have 2 X chromosomes, then she is predisposed to catty behavior. Or, if you believe in social construction as opposed to essentialism, then if a person happens to be “girled” at the moment of birth—wrapped in a pink blanket and given a dolly (gratitude, Ms. Butler)—then she is predisposed to catty behavior. Reinforced and reinforced, ad nauseam, until we actually believe we are Our Own Worst Enemies.

I’m not anti-sidekick, Gentle Reader. Far from it! I adore the sidekick because, in all actuality, the sidekick is the more interesting, the more human, the more sympathetic half of the equation. Male or female, the sidekick ends up intriguing This Humble Author more than the hero, male or female, ever does. But there is something about the formation of the Team, particularly in support of the Heroine, that is truly extraordinary.

I may not have mentioned it before, but Spring Break Week is winding down for the Family Reads. Soon, we’ll have to return to the mundane world of dissertating, teaching, and work, work, work. But for now, we’re rather enjoying ourselves at home, playing the Wii, reading comics, visiting with the Parents Reads, hanging out with friends, and just generally, lazing about. But to prove that I’m not *too* lazy, I offer you two, yes, *two* lists this week, for the price of one! In celebration of the Support Teams of many Heroines, powered and non-powered alike, I offer you a list of my Seven Favorite Heroines And Their Sidekicks or Teams—one for every day I Read the Week, of course! And then, after that, I offer you a list of my Seven Favorite “Girl Detectives”—one for every day I Read the Week, as well!

Seven Favorite Heroines and their Sidekicks or Teams

1) Buffy Summers and the Scooby Gang – Oh, Gentle Reader, what can one Buffyholic say about Buffy that you haven’t already heard, a million times over, from other said Buffy fanatics? Remember that the origin of the word “fan” is “fanatic”! But I’ve always been a bigger Buffy-and-the-Scooby-Gang fan than a Buffy-by-herself fan. I think the end of Season 4, the defeat of the Big Bad, Adam, proves that when Buffy’s good, she’s very, very good, and when she’s good, she’s with her team.

2) Oracle and the Birds of Prey – While Gail Simone has created a more egalitarian Birds of Prey—and This Humble Author cannot thank her enough for it!—the Birds were, at their root, Oracle’s revolving team of superheroes. Even now, it’s obvious she’s the leader; even when Canary was on the team, it was obvious then, too. Oracle is the heart and soul of the Birds. There is never any doubt about that.

3) Wonder Woman and the Holiday Girls – What to say other than huzzah Wonder Woman and her girly antics! The Early Years, those of a Golden Hue, are bizarre at times, certainly, but fun nonetheless. And Etta had a big heart to go with that big candy appetite (definitely My Kind Of Girl, Friends!). Her support of Wonder Woman kept things going for a long, long time.

4) Nancy Drew and George and Bess – I’ve already Waxed Poetic about Ms. Drew and her Gaggle of Girls, but the newest incarnations, in particular, really show that there is no “girl toys” and “boy toys.” Both George and Bess master what’s stereotypically considered to be masculine, and they do an amazing job at it.

5) Josie and the Pussycats – Complete with long tails, and ears for hats! I adore Josie and the Pussycats, not only for their crimefighting, but also for their music. Do remember, Gentle Reader, that I was born in the 70s! Josie was my Saturday bread-and-butter, as was Jem and the Holograms, and She-Ra.

6) Catwoman (Selina) and Holly – Here we see a true hero-and-sidekick pairing, as Holly is, literally, learning to wear the mantle of Catwoman. Selina is more than happy to teach her, certainly, but also to give her access to the world that she’s known. That includes having various superheroes teach Holly to fight.

7) Manhunter (Kate Spencer) and Dylan Battles (and sometimes Cameron Chase) – This is a New One on the Ms. Reads Radar, and I will gush my love for Manhunter in my next post. But for now, let us marvel over what is somewhat an anomaly in the superhero world: a Superheroine with a Male Sidekick. We love Kate for a reason!

Seven Favorite “Girl Detectives”

1) Nancy Drew – What else is there to say about the original Girl Detective? She was a Meddling Kid long before Scooby Doo and Gang came on the scene.

2) Harriet Vane – Dorothy Sayers created something truly fabulous here. First introduced in Strong Poison, Harriet Vane is on trial for murder. She’s suspected because of the research she’s done on poisons for her novel. She defines “amateur detective,” and helps launch the genre.

3) Renee Montoya – Renee, an actual detective, has come a long way since her Gotham Central days. She’s changing as the world changes (don’t forget the 52!), and she’s very, very smart.

4) Amelia Peabody – This Victorian archaeologist, created by Elizabeth Peters, is exceptional for her no-fear attitude, her progressive character, and the silver-tipped parasol she uses to protect herself. In This Humble Author’s Humble Opinion, Ms. Peabody redefines aggressive femininity.

5) Lois Lane – What is a reporter, a journalist, if not a detective? And Lois Lane always gets her man/woman/story. Perhaps one of the few people Babs Gordon is truly afraid of, Lois has been chasing stories into Certain Danger for several decades now. She’s also, in truth, one of the few reasons I venture Superman way.

6) Sydney Bristow – Syd! Alias started to fall apart in its latter seasons, but Sydney Bristow was always, always brilliant. Something about the Global Detective intrigues, and Sydney was the best at what she did.

7) Dana Scully – Scully is still, to this day, one of the best television heroines I’ve ever encountered. She’s smart, determined, and above all, willing to believe. What would the X-Fileswithout her?

Friday, March 09, 2007

My First Meme: Video Game Covers I Want to See

It’s true, Gentle Reader, that this is Arrogant Self-Reliance’s first meme! I feel as if we Should Celebrate in some way. But I have been tagged by 100LittleDolls, and now, finally, several weeks later, I answer her.

The meme is as follows:

1.Copy the text of the original challenge from Yudhishthira’s Dice and give a proper link attribution.
(that would be this text:
Ladies, what RPG covers (or interiors) have you seen that involve a woman in the art that make you say, “I want to play that” or, just as good “I want to play her.” Or that make you feel like it is a game you could like, or be included in by a group of guys you’d never met and whose maturity you didn’t necessarily know?
Said over at Yudhishthira’s Dice.)
2. Copy these rules exactly (including any links).
3. Find images of game covers (interiors are okay, too) that make you want to play the game. Any kind of game — video game, card game, tabletop RPG, etc — is fine. Post them and include a short (or long) explanation on why the image makes/made you want to play the game.
4. The original challenge is about finding out what women think about how game art is marketed and therefore it is targeted at women. I’d like to keep it that way, please.
5.You can tag as many or as few people as you want. You do not need to be tagged to participate in the meme.
6.When you make your post, please post the link on this thread so we can all see what others have said.

As I’ve just said a few moments ago, this meme has inspired a wealth of thinking about women, weapons, and, in particular, swords. I’ve discovered that I tend to be attracted to anime-ish images, particularly those with women wielding swords. I think this has everything to do with my long-held interests in Wonder Woman, Joan of Arc, She-Ra, and the Goddess Athena! I’ve whittled some of those out to also include some games I’ve been intrigued by for a while, all dependent on their covers.

1) Lost Planet: Extreme Condition - I find the haziness of the snow, contrasted by the soldier with giant gun to be fascinating. There’s a dreaminess to it, a certain ephemeral quality that is almost beautiful.

2) Bullet Witch - This has the unique advantage of presenting a gun that looks like a sword—or a sword that doubles as a gun. I’m not sure. But I like her cocky stance, her over the shoulder I dare you to tell me off look, and the sassy blue hair.

3) Ninety-Nine Nights - Another pretty girl holding what appears to be another pretty sword. And bonus wings! But this cover really speaks to my desire to see *pretty* games. I like it when the designers put as much effort into the characters and backgrounds as they do the smash-and-bash.

4) Aura - As for this game, Gentle Reader, well, I can say nothing else enticed me but the sheer “oh, shiny!” gut response I had. The cover is just *pretty*. And I’ve had some experience with Dreamcatcher games to know that at least the interludes will be beautiful, if not the entire game-play itself.

5) City of Heroes and City of Villains - And finally, Friends, the two games that have intrigued me for Some Time Now. I adore the idea of creating my own Hero and my own Villain. I have The Perfect Hero in mind, as she is the protagonist of my prose-comic-book-in-the-works. But I love the comic book feel of these covers, the bursting out of the box and into the action-ness of them.

Amy Reads the Week (of March 9th, 2007)

Super-Spectacular Women’s History Month Edition #2!

I am a Comic Book Fan, Gentle Reader, a fact with which I’m sure you are quite familiar. But being a Comic Book Fan comes with a lot of fandom baggage. No, no, I don’t mean Fanboy Versus Fangirl in the ready-to-rumble internets throw-down of the century! Rather, I mean it usually comes with fandom of other media or genres, as well. That is to say, Fandom Baggage means that I like Comic Books, and Science Fiction, and some part Fantasy, and a little part Video Games, and the teeniest part RPG—although our Serenity game has never quite gotten off the ground, I’m sad to say.

Whenever I think of my fandoms, I often see them all as different ornaments on the same tree. I like fiction. It’s the largest part of what I read, both professionally and personally, and in particular, I like somewhat fantastical fiction. Not fantasy fiction, per se, though I don’t *mind* it. And not hardcore science fiction, per se, although again, I don’t *mind* it. But for This Humble Author, Buffy the Vampire Slayer wins out over Xena the Warrior Princess, and Ursula Le Guin wins out over JRR Tolkien, and Battlestar Galactica wins out over Star Trek: Any Of Them, and Starbuck (Captain Kara Thrace) wins out over Anita Blake, any damn day of the week.

A week or so ago, 100LittleDolls tagged me on a meme, Video Game Covers I Want to See. The purpose of this meme was to determine what game covers appealed, specifically, to women, and my next post will finally (finally!) respond to this tag.

I find this meme fascinating on various levels, but most importantly, for the objective of the question. Women, as much as men, play video games, although the stereotype seems to suggest differently. Certainly, many video game covers seem to appeal to those-who-are-attracted-to-women, but further, many of these covers seem to appeal to those who, in some fashion or another, are intrigued by the notion of Strong Women With Weapons.

Perhaps I’m used to this in the Comic Book Universe; several—if not most—women in comics either have weapons, or are weapons themselves. But outside of the comic book arena—that is to say, outside of the most fantastical of the fantastic—we see a continuation of this sort of image. Buffy was not only a weapon herself, but also utilized all sorts of weapons including This Humble Author’s Personal Favorite, from season 2, a rocket launcher. Xena quite famously had her sword (and what people had to say about that Sword, Freudian-wise!), Kara Thrace has her very large, very long, very-certainly-shaped jet. And isn’t that the kicker, Gentle Reader? With all of these images of women with weapons, whether they be swords, rocket launchers, or planes, we always get the Freudian backlash. That is, a woman has a very long, very-certainly-shaped weapon, and therefore that weapon, by process of elimination, must be a substitute phallus.

This suggests that women can never have power of their own. That women must always usurp masculine power, best represented by a suggestive masculine shape, in order to gain any power whatsoever. In line with the Hero/Heroine discussion I offered last week, this becomes yet another part of the Batman/Batwoman, Superman/Supergirl discussion. The woman cannot exist without the man; the woman gains her powers and weapons from the man; the woman’s weapons must retain a masculine ideal because her Sex Which Is Not One (gratitude, Irigaray) must *become* one, in order to have any power whatsoever.

In short, when I started to view video game covers in order to answer 100LittleDolls’ meme, I noticed a plethora of Women With Swords. Or, rather, I noticed that I, in particular, was attracted to games with Women With Swords on the covers.

Now, I know enough about myself to assume that this attraction has little—if nothing—to do with usurpation of masculine strength. I don’t view the sword as a gender transgression, or a female grasp for power of a male representation of masculinity. But I find sword usage to be Quite Fascinating, if for nothing else than it requires some skill. Now, I understand that my idea of swordplay skill is certainly colored by my lack-of-knowledge, and that sharpshooters would certainly disagree with my easy dismissal of skill-in-gun-fighting. But we, as a society, tend to dismiss gun-fighting as a particular skill as we look back, back, always back to What Came Before.

For us, it seems, the Sword is Romantic. It suggests a time pre-Crisis, weapons-Crisis, that is! A simpler time (that pre-public-sanitation simpler time we have romanticized), a kinder time (that pre-women’s rights kinder time we have romanticized), a better time (who is to say if it’s better or worse?). What the swords seems to represent is complicated, surely, but it also suggests a time before The Bomb. Before one button could be pushed to end Life As We Know It. The sword is up-close-and-personal. The sword is a hand-to-hand combat item. The sword requires that there be two people, both with weapons, fighting face-to-face. There is an intimacy there that we can rarely, if ever, match today.

But the Woman-With-Sword image that we see, so very often, is even more complicated than this. Certainly there is the stereotypical image discussed earlier, but there is more to it than that. There is Catherine Zeta-Jones fencing in Zorro. There is Rory Gilmore fencing with her classmates in Gilmore Girls. There is Buffy, fighting off Angel (one of those from that Sword-Era-Gone-By, even!) in hand-to-hand combat. In Sci Fi, and even in Plain Old Drama, there is, to put it mildly, a slight obsession with women with swords.

And I, too, succumb to it. I have my Wonder Woman action figures with full armor: chest plate and wings and lasso *and* sword. I have my Buffy obsession, my Elektra obsession, and, it seems, a slight inclination towards Women With Swords in video games.

When I ask myself why, I come up with several reasons, but none, I think, more suggestive than this: Women With Swords belie the stereotype of “Women’s Weapons,” a la Lucrezia Borgia. That is, Women With Swords belie the suggestion that Poison is a “woman’s weapon,” and, perhaps, should be women’s only weapon. Because it is passive, certainly, and because it requires no feats of strength. But above all, because it is *sneaky*. Because it contributes to the mythos regarding the manipulation, trickery, and beguiling nature of women.

Above all else, the Sword is Up Front and In Your Face—literally, as it were, Gentle Reader! The sword represents honesty, particularly in Christian legends. How many Knights swore their love and devotion by their swords? Saved a virgin’s chastity by placing the sword between them in the bed? A man can live “by his sword,” and he can die “by his sword.” In Rome, it was considered an honorable death to throw oneself on his sword.

So for women to live “by the sword” in fiction is to usurp some small part of this mythos, yes. But further, it demonstrates that it’s not all usurpation. Xena was a Warrior Princess, Buffy, the latest in a long line of Girl Slayers, Diana of Themyscira an honest-to-goodness Amazon. These women who lived “by the sword,” certainly, but further, were skilled and trained in weaponry, offer an alternative to the age-old tradition of “women’s weapons.” It’s not mere usurpation, or creating a female counterpart to a male part, but rather creating a mythos from the ground up.

So in celebration of these Women Warriors—that is, of these Women-Skilled-With-Weaponry--I offer you a list of my Seven Favorite Women With Swords—one for every day that I Read the Week, of course!

1) Buffy Summers (the Vampire Slayer) – What is not to love about Buffy? She’s smart, she’s talented, she’s witty, and the woman can wield a sword with the best of them. In particular, Buffy’s skill with a sword helps her defeat Angelus in BtVS, Season 2.
Recommended viewings: Becoming Parts I and II (for swords), Once More With Feeling

2) Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman) – I’m certain that you don’t need to be reminded of This Humble Author’s adoration for Wonder Woman, Gentle Reader! But just in case you’ve forgotten, I offer you the Amazon Princess. When she wears her full armor, as best seen in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, she is downright beautiful and terrifying, all at the same time.
Recommended reading: Kingdom Come (for swords) by Waid and Ross, Eyes of the Gorgon and The Hiketeia, both by Greg Rucka

3) Elektra Natchios (Elektra) – From what I understand, the sai are considered to be defensive, rather than offensive weapons. No matter; Elektra does whatever she wants with them, whenever she wants. Her morality is ambiguous, and various writers script Elektra in various, and fascinating ways.
Recommended reading: Ultimate Daredevil and Elektra, Elektra: Introspect, both by Greg Rucka

4) Princess Adora (She-Ra, Princess of Power) – And to think, Gentle Reader, that I almost forgot the Princess of Power herself, She-Ra, until Mr. Reads gently reminded me of my absentmindedness. I adored She-Ra as a child, wanted to be her, and even dressed like her, one Halloween. Her sword, the Sword of Protection, enables her to transform from Adora to She-Ra.
Recommended viewings: why not go with Season One, available through

5) Nellodee (Queen Nell and Her Mouse Army) – Many people seem to have a love-him-or-hate-him attitude about Neal Stephenson. I side emphatically with the love-him camp. The Diamond Age, in particular, is one of This Humble Author’s favorite novels. Nell spends her entire youth learning through the instruction of her Primer, and her mother-figure, Miranda. When the time comes, she invents a sword that saves her life, and enables her to greet her Mouse Army. Trust me; you just have to read it.
Recommended reading: The Diamond Age: or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

6) Joan of Arc (Saint Joan) – I have a slight obsession with Joan of Arc, Gentle Reader. Or, rather, with images of Joan of Arc. In short, I collect art with Saint Joan on it, particularly those with her Sword Held High. It’s a tiny collection thus far, but it’s growing, I assure you. I’m not sure where it started, but I’m sure it has everything to do with Growing Up Catholic, and Liking Swords.
Recommended viewings: The Messenger

7) Athena (Goddess of War) – And in truth, my fandom of Wonder Woman, Athena, and Joan of Arc all seem caught up together, don’t they? Three women who Stand For Truth and Justice, three women who ride Armored Into Battle, Swords Held High. It seems only right, then, that images of these three women resemble each other.
Recommended reading: The Illiad and The Odyssey by Homer

Friday, March 02, 2007

Public Service Announcement #2

My deepest apologies, Gentle Reader, if you feel slighted in any way by the sudden removal of your webpage/blog link from my sidebar. I assure you, it has Absolutely Nothing to do with you, and everything--yes, every-bloody-thing--to do with my transition to new blogger.

Sincerest apologies to Robyn at First-Person Narrator, Matthew E at Legion Abstract, Mister Fanboy at said blog, and the Wonderful People at Girl-Wonder.Org for being four of the links randomly deleted by my blogger upgrade. Please, Friends, if you notice any more links missing, let me know!

Amy Reads the Week (of March 2nd, 2007)

Super-Spectacular Women’s History Month Edition #1!

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, Gentle Reader, I read books for a living. Some of them are old and dusty; some of them bright and shiny and new. That is to say, my area of specialization is Victorian literature, and one of my sub-interests is popular culture. I do lots of work on the first, and some fun work on the second, and sometimes, I even talk about the intersections between the two. It happens a lot more than you would expect.

For example, I believe that popular culture, as we know it, really got its start in the nineteenth century. Writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were so popular that their works would sell out before they even hit the shores in America, and writers like George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell really cemented women’s role in a profession heretofore associated, mainly, with men: writing. While women always have written—let us ask Hawthorne how he felt about the “damned mob of scribbling women”—they didn’t always have the opportunity to make a true profession out of it, or even, to be considered professional writers. What pioneers like Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, et al did was open a doorway for Western women to make their livelihoods by writing the wacky newly popularized form, the novel.

But further, the nineteenth century allowed not only for professionalization of novel writing for women, it also allowed for a proliferation of genre writing as well. With the nineteenth century, we see the invention—or rediscovery—of such genre forms as the Gothic (Wuthering Heights), the Romance (Emma), Science Fiction (Frankenstein), Thriller (Lady Audley’s Secret), the list goes on and on. Two things go hand in hand at this point: the female writing public, and the female reading public. With the rise of the middle class comes the rise of leisure time, particularly for women; with the rise of leisure time comes, more often than not, time for reading. And, of course, with the rise of genre comes the rise of popular culture.

So many other things add to this mix: standardized education for both sexes and all classes, mass production of consumer goods, the department store, women’s access to the public sphere (partially in thanks to the department store), advertisement campaigns, magazines geared specifically towards interests and/or towards women, the list goes on and on. But popular culture, while existing prior to the nineteenth century, gets its firm footing in the 1800s.

In celebration of this reading-and-writing “damned mob of scribbling women,” I offer you a list of my Top Seven Greatest Genre Writers of All Time—one for every day that I Read the Week, of course! Novelists only, of course, genre writers only, of course, spanning the 18th-21st centuries.

In no particular order:

1) Connie Willis (science fiction) – it seems only fair to talk about Connie Willis’s work not only as “science fiction,” but also as “fiction about science.” Ms. Willis is, in fact, My Favorite Living Writer, and one of my Favorite Writers Of All Time. She shares the list with Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Jane Austen, so that is, indeed, saying a lot. Her work is funny and brutal and witty and perfect, all at the same time.
Recommended Reading: To Say Nothing of the Dog, Bellwether

2) Dorothy Sayers (mystery) – I adore Ms. Christie, too, of course, but Ms. Sayers really creates more likeable—and loveable—characters. Lord Peter Wimsey and Ms. Harriet Vane, once they unite as a sleuthing team, are unstoppable. The humor is dry, the prose fun, and the stories never bore.
Recommended Reading: Strong Poison, Gaudy Night

3) Jane Austen (romance, social novels) – Any list of great novelists would be remiss without Ms. Austen’s presence. Her wit, her dialogue, her memorable characters all make you want to read her books, in bed, with chocolate close at hand. Further, her strong characters belie any belief that women were milk-and-water misses at the turn of the 19th century.
Recommended Reading: Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice

4) Barbara Michaels (gothic, thriller, mystery) – Also writes as Elizabeth Peters. Ms. Michaels is a powerhouse of a writer, with dozens of books to her name under either of her nom de plumes. Often, her heroines are of the Liberal Arts Persuasion, which makes her novels super-fun, and makes her characters possess interesting methods of solving mysteries. Great reads, with great historical research.
Recommended Reading: Be Buried in the Rain, Shattered Silk

5) Diana Gabaldon (romance, historical fiction) – I read Ms. Gabaldon’s first book, Outlander, when I was fifteen years old, and I haven’t stopped since. Not only does she write one of my favorite fictional conventions, time travel, she also writes amazing characters that live on long after you close the book. I believe that these books are, in large part, responsible for my Scotland obsession.
Recommended Reading: Outlander, then the rest of the series

6) Elizabeth Gaskell (romance, social novels) – Mrs. Gaskell is, without a doubt, my favorite Victorian novelist, and that’s saying a lot from This Humble Author, who has made it her life’s mission to read, teach, and write about Victorian novels! Her prose rivals George Eliot’s, in my opinion, while her storylines and characters are more entrancing than Ms. Charlotte Bronte’s.
Recommended Reading: Cranford, Wives and Daughters

7) Charlaine Harris (mystery, supernatural) – Ms. Harris is perhaps most famous for her Sookie Stackhouse series, which follows a telepathic barmaid from rural Louisiana through her trials and tribulations in the newly-revealed supernatural world surrounding her. While this series is loads of fun, Ms. Harris also has several other series under her belt involving amateur sleuths that are, perhaps, even smarter than the Stackhouse series.
Recommended Reading: Shakespeare’s Trollop, Dead Until Dark

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Fishes without Bicycles: Thoughts on Gender in Comics

You may not know this, Gentle Reader, but I quibble just a bit with the terminology “heroines.” Not that I believe that we should accept all forms of male-dominated speech—I don’t believe we should go back to “mailman” when “mail carrier” or “postal worker” is much more succinct and, I believe, direct. But I think that Hero is a term that can apply to men or women; the only reason it’s gendered is that we’ve made it gendered. To imply that there are Heroes, and there are Heroines is to say that men and women differ in their heroism, and that they are, for the most part, Separate But Equal.

You see the problem with this, don’t you, Gentle Reader? The terminology separates the male heroes from the female, sets up camps along the gender divide, and in the end, for This Humble Author, anyways, adds to the somewhat staggeringly odd idea that Women In Comics have Nothing To Fear from their male counterparts.

We’ve heard this sort of talk Across The Blogosphere, at Comic Panels, in Our Local Comic Shops, on Streetcorners, in darkened bits of the Pub, and it seems that there are several people In The World who think that women, now that they’ve the vote and a decent enough salary and a few laws protecting their bodies from physical and sexual abuse, should Quit Their Whining. Yes, it’s true, Friends. There are people In The World who think that Star Sapphire’s lack of outfit, the perpetuation of Women In Refrigerators, and the general Bias Towards Heterosexual Male Desires and Needs in Comic Books actually don’t mean anything at all. That since these are “just comic books,” then they don’t actually say anything about society, up to and including gender inequality.

I’m going to share with you a little secret about the way the Amy-Reads-Brain works: no, I don’t think there are men or women sitting in an ivory tower somewhere, cackling to themselves, rubbing their hands together in glee, and declaring that This or That comic book will Subjugate Women Today. That’s not the way inequality works. The reason it’s So Very Scary, for This Humble Author, anyways, is that prejudice is often systematized. That is to say, no one need sit in a tower and cackle, plotting the downfall of Womankind, because frankly, thousands of years of tradition have already done that for them.

To return to the Main Theme of this particular post, for example, we can look at the dichotomy of the Hero and Heroine divide. There is a saying, a rather old, second-wave-feminist saying by Irina Dunn that argues, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” The irony of this statement should be lost on no one, of course, but let’s take a look at it anyway. Humor a lady, Gentle Reader! I Read Books (and therefore words, words, words) for a living; I certainly can’t stop now!

The first part of the statement, “a woman needs a man,” can be taken in several contexts. Romantically: it argues that a woman must have a heterosexual relationship in order to be fulfilled. Socially: it argues that our society is founded on heterosexual coupling. Professionally—and here’s the kicker, Friends: it argues that a woman needs a man to come first, to pave the way, to “allow” her access to power.

Unfortunately, this final statement rings true not in its sentiment but in its history. A woman does not need a man to come first, pave the way, allow her access to power, but a patriarchal history and a long line of male bias and female subjection has forced men to come first in most—if not all—things. That is to say, if we continue to differentiate between, say, heroes and heroines, we are actually insisting that without the definition of the male part, Hero, we can have no female counterpart, Heroine. A Heroine, therefore, is only definable through the original male definition. It’s the reason why I don’t like the distinction between actors and actresses, waiters and waitresses; there is no job distinction other than gender.

Do you see it, Gentle Reader? The problem is not the *word* but what the word *represents*. That is to say, I have no problem, personally, with the term “heroine.” What I do quibble with, however, is the continued insistence that “separate but equal” is still okay in gendered situations. There is a decided male bias in comic books, whether that be in the authorship, the subject matter, or the readership. The distinction, then, between heroes and heroines, becomes representative of a history of male bias, one that we see, somewhat prominently, in our popular cultures.

There are solutions to this, yes, and I offer you a few possibilities:

1) Call them all heroes, and try to avoid the “male hero” and “female hero” distinction. This one’s rather tricky, I think, for the sheer fact that I don’t actually think anything’s wrong with *different*. Men and women are different, regardless of race, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation, and there is no reason to pretend otherwise. But when we see distinctions made along gender lines—heroines presented as gendered counterparts of male heroes—that we run into the systematized entrenched sexism that has plagued us, as a society, for millennia.

2) Reclaim the term “heroine” so that she is definable by her own merit rather than as a female counterpart to the male part. Let her rediscover herself, and let society rediscover her, as well, and figure out how she differs from her male peers.

3) Avoid creating heroines as double-x-chromosomed counterparts of male heroes. Why do we need a Batman and a Batwoman, a Superman and a Supergirl, a Captain Marvel and a Ms. Marvel? Why can’t we have, say, more heroines like Big Barda, Oracle, Gypsy, Storm, and other such superpowered women with non-gendered names? Why can’t we create more female heroes from the ground up, rather than adding breasts and a short skirt and a diminutive alias?

4) Avoid writing or approving sexist words, deeds, and actions from male characters that don’t add to characterization, plot, or setting. That is to say, we expect Hercules to be a sexist pig. That’s kind of his thing, right? Wolverine, even, is somewhat sexist, although that seems to stem more from a general air of misanthropy than anything else. But let me offer you an example from a video game, Marvel Ultimate Alliance. In the opening sequence, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Thor all fight a battle together. In the aftermath, Wolverine turns to his companions and asks, “what are you girls looking at?” Why is it necessary there to be derogatory towards women? Why is calling Spider-Man, Cap, and Thor “girls” an insult? It shouldn’t be, but it’s an insult that has been ingrained in our social mindset. Let’s work to change attitudes like this, not only because they imply that to be female is to be inferior and weak, but also because it’s been so systematized that no one found it offensive enough to change it.

5) Finally, and indeed, most importantly, Scout Out And Hire More Talent. I don’t believe that only women can write strong female characters—Greg Rucka, Brian K. Vaughan, and Brad Meltzer defy that stereotype, for example. But it is true that if we are to change a bias, if the Big Houses are to, say, gain a larger female readership, as they seem to want, then there must be vast changes across the board, from the bottom up. Part of that is, I think, hiring more women writers. And part of that is taking a chance on plucky unknowns, too. Allow for blind or moderately regulated submissions not only for art but for writing, as well. Look for new ideas as well as new talent for older, established books. Add a serialized book to the back of already established books—3 pages of said New Title at the end of, say, Action Comics or Detective Comics or Spider-Man. Let new writers get their feet in the door and get their work out to larger audiences.

Further, when you hire new talent, or established novel writers to guest on a comic book, try to get Comic Book Fans. There are several out there—I point to Brad Meltzer, and the Tamora Pierce/Timothy Liebe creative team as a few examples. Because while a guest writer is all well and good, a guest writer that doesn’t love comic books doesn’t offer much in the way of storyline or add at all to readership.

I’ve heard a lot of great stuff coming out of NY Comic Con about the new Minx line, and I look forward to reading Plain Janes very much. Minx is a great start to gaining a broader female comic-book-reading audience, and I applaud DC for starting this line. Don’t stop there, Friends! We eagerly await your next idea because, well, despite what people think, we are reading because we love comics. I adore Batman and The Flash and Daredevil just as much as I adore Big Barda and Catwoman and Wonder Woman. I like reading superhero books; in fact, most of my comics are cape lines.

Above all else, I like good stories. Keep offering that to me and I’ll keep reading.

Edit: I just found Rachel Edidin's post, "Be Vewwy, Vewwy Quiet--We're Hunting Wimmins!" over at Girl-Wonder.Org that says a million and one smart things about gender issues in the comic book medium and community, a million and one times better than I can. Enjoy!

Women's History Month

Happy Women’s History Month, Gentle Reader! I find these celebratory moments—Women’s History Month, Black History Month, and yes, even National Poetry Month (April)—to be excellent times to revel in exactly what makes us, as a society, so very interesting. Further, I think it’s a time to express gratitude for Those Who Fought Before, and always, Those Who Fight Now. Thoughts like this come at an interesting time for me, as I work on my Suffrage and New Woman chapter of my dissertation. It makes me question, just for a moment, what it means to Fight for Women’s Rights.

And what exactly does it mean, Friends? Well, for me, it means calling attention to the struggle, to the gender inequalities that still, even now, even after All This Time, face us across the board. To point towards those media through which I do some of my feminist, academic, and academic-feminist work: popular culture.

I’ve said it before, and I suspect I will say it again, many, many times, that That Which Entertains Us always, always Will Challenge Us. To say otherwise, to say that “it’s just a comic book,” or “it’s just a television show” is to completely and utterly discount the possibility of entertainment as a reflection of current society. Even further, it completely discounts the work that authors, artists, actors, and readers put into entertainment. It is an idea that rejects symbolism and the power of fiction. It is, to put it Rather Bluntly, a tired and worn-out excuse.

They are not “just comic books,” or “just television shows,” the same as Austen is not “just a romance novelist” and Dickens is not “just a whiny pro-children’s-rights author.” Let us all, for a moment, realize the extent to which our pop culture media entertain us, challenge us, reflect us, and most importantly, entrance us. We write about comics, or television, or movies because we *care*, so very deeply. Whether we care that the A on Cap’s mask stands for America or whether Willow was a more interesting character pre- or post-Tara, the specifics don’t matter. What matters is, ultimately, that we care enough to discuss, to debate, to post, to applaud, to lament, to challenge, to hope, to despair.

To this end, in honor of something I care deeply about, both professionally and personally—although as a feminist, I know, deep down, that there is no separation since the personal is political, and the political is personal—I will offer you a month of celebration of Women In Popular Culture. Each “Amy Reads the Week” column for the month of March will celebrate a different aspect of women’s roles in popular culture media, and there will be several other posts peppered throughout the month to the same end. Let us revel together, Friends, in the accomplishments women have made throughout history, and throughout popular culture!