Friday, March 23, 2007

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.

Mother.

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.

10 comments:

Shelly said...

Great post. I'm gonna refrain from saying "told ya so." :)

Comparisons with fathers with children might be of interest. Ie, the times Lian Harper has been in danger. She was put in danger by her evil mother a few times (now, there's a bad mother) and was kidnapped because of Roy's activities with the Outsiders.

Matthew E said...

Here are seven that I thought of. (I was thinking, maybe I should have done fathers instead, because I have a little more insight into them, but I didn't.)

1. Mara of the Acoma (in a fantasy trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts) - through three books, Mara is fighting for her life and the lives of her people in a complicated political dance. She has to balance the lives of her children against the pressures of necessity without a misstep, and it leads her places she never thought she'd have to go.

2. Jenny Waynest (Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly, and a trilogy of sequels) - she never really wanted to be a mother, but was surprised at how much it ended up meaning to her.

3. Nanny Ogg (various books in the Discworld series, by Terry Pratchett) - second witch on this list. Bawdy, homey, ruthless matriarch of a large sprawling family in a small mountain kingdom.

4. Beatrix Kiddo (heroine of the Kill Bill movies) - aka Black Mamba, aka Mommy. No, you can't stay up to watch Shogun Assassin! It's too long!

5. Dr. Tachyon (major character of the 'Wild Cards' series of superheroish shared world stories, especially in Book X, Double Solitaire, by Melinda M. Snodgrass) - the plots in the Wild Cards books were getting a bit excessive for a while there. In one of them, Dr. Tachyon (a flamboyant aristocratic chauvinistic alien telepath, and the central character of the series) has his mind transferred by his psychotic grandson into the body of a teenaged girl. The grandson then torments, rapes and impregnates him/her. Tach must chase the grandson across the galaxy to get his/her original body back, but also to come to terms with the female body he now inhabits, and to experience and understand motherhood.

6. Catelyn Stark (in George R.R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series) - Cat cares a lot about her kids and does what she can for them, but this turns out to be nowhere near enough. The series is just past the halfway point, though, so for now we'll have to trust that she and Ned Stark raised them right... the ones that are left, anyway...

7. Commodore Marian Alston and Swindapa (from S.M. Stirling's Nantucket trilogy) - Marian and Swindapa are enthusiastic mothers to their children, but I have to admit that they're not on here because of their maternal abilities. I put them on the list because they're cool.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Shelly,
Great post. I'm gonna refrain from saying "told ya so." :)

Oh, feel free! Mr. Reads has been singing the "I told you so" song since I finished :)

Comparisons with fathers with children might be of interest. Ie, the times Lian Harper has been in danger. She was put in danger by her evil mother a few times (now, there's a bad mother) and was kidnapped because of Roy's activities with the Outsiders.

I have a Fatherhood post brewing in the back of my mind, and it's been there since the Bat-Ghul child showed up, just around the same time the Kryptonian boy showed up in Superman (and I am *months* behind on Action *and* Superman, so I don't even know where that went!). But I've been thinking about the fathers, too, particularly Batman, Wally, Alan Scott and the like. Roy will definitely make the list, as soon as I finish reading Outsiders :)
Ciao,
Amy

Amy Reads said...

Hi Matthew,
Here are seven that I thought of. (I was thinking, maybe I should have done fathers instead, because I have a little more insight into them, but I didn't.)

As I mentioned above to Shelly, a fathers post has been brewing in the back of my mind. Perhaps we should all write one together???

As for your list below, fantastic, as always. I'm only going to comment on the ones that I'm familiar with, and the others (also, as always!) have gone on the "To Read" list, which is getting longer and longer, day by day, thanks to My Fellow Bloggers!

2. Jenny Waynest (Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly, and a trilogy of sequels) - she never really wanted to be a mother, but was surprised at how much it ended up meaning to her.

I'm reading Dragonsbane right now, as a matter of fact, and I thought of Jenny when I made my list, but I don't know her well enough yet!

4. Beatrix Kiddo (heroine of the Kill Bill movies) - aka Black Mamba, aka Mommy. No, you can't stay up to watch Shogun Assassin! It's too long!

ARG! I can't believe I forgot Black Mamba!!! Thanks for rectifying that for me!

In one of them, Dr. Tachyon (a flamboyant aristocratic chauvinistic alien telepath, and the central character of the series) has his mind transferred by his psychotic grandson into the body of a teenaged girl. The grandson then torments, rapes and impregnates him/her. Tach must chase the grandson across the galaxy to get his/her original body back, but also to come to terms with the female body he now inhabits, and to experience and understand motherhood.

!!!

I also thought about Athena/former Boomer on Battlestar, as she's quite the interesting mother to Hera.
Ciao,
Amy

Matthew E said...

One author who may be of some interest to you is Robert B. Parker, who writes the 'Spenser' series of hard-boiled-ish mystery novels. (He has another couple of series going, too, but I haven't read them.) The thing about these books is how they portray families, especially parents, especially mothers, as being nothing but sources of trauma. The mothers in Spenser books tend to be monsters; occasionally they're neutral. Sometimes there's a vaguely positive portrayal of a father, but if a mother was ever a positive character in a Spenser novel, I missed it.

Spenser himself was raised by his father and two uncles after his mother died in childbirth. Presumably this is why Spenser is the hero of the books.

Scott said...

I just started reading Manhunter as well. Such wonderful flaws.

I was surprised when her son was injured after finding her weapons. I didn't think anyone would allow her to screw up that badly, but I'm glad they did.

I think you're right, in that people have this idea of how mothers "should" be, and tend to expect that in their fiction. The sign of a good writer is when he/she anticipates what we expect, and then goes the other way. Very whedonesque.

Do you happen to read Spider-Girl? She's not as delightfully imperfect as Kate Spencer, but neither is she a great big pile of stereotypes.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Matthew,
One author who may be of some interest to you is Robert B. Parker, who writes the 'Spenser' series of hard-boiled-ish mystery novels. (He has another couple of series going, too, but I haven't read them.) The thing about these books is how they portray families, especially parents, especially mothers, as being nothing but sources of trauma. The mothers in Spenser books tend to be monsters; occasionally they're neutral. Sometimes there's a vaguely positive portrayal of a father, but if a mother was ever a positive character in a Spenser novel, I missed it.

Very cool, thank you! The Monstrous Maternity book is a not-so-secret book I will one day, and I've a little file with references like this for that very thing :)

Spenser himself was raised by his father and two uncles after his mother died in childbirth. Presumably this is why Spenser is the hero of the books.

The Mother is such an important character, even in her absence, that it's amazing more people don't talk about it (and so many do already!)
Ciao,
Amy

Amy Reads said...

Hi Scott,
I just started reading Manhunter as well. Such wonderful flaws.

It's so wonderful! We must all thank the Shellys and Mr. Readses of the world who give us these comic books and make us read! :)

I was surprised when her son was injured after finding her weapons. I didn't think anyone would allow her to screw up that badly, but I'm glad they did.

I find characters so very interesting in their terrible flaws. The fact that she screwed up that badly made me love her even more. I never love Batman as much as I do when he's sad and vulnerable, you know?

I think you're right, in that people have this idea of how mothers "should" be, and tend to expect that in their fiction. The sign of a good writer is when he/she anticipates what we expect, and then goes the other way. Very whedonesque.

Exactly. It's the reason I like writers like Whedon, Rucka, Simone. They do that very thing.

Do you happen to read Spider-Girl? She's not as delightfully imperfect as Kate Spencer, but neither is she a great big pile of stereotypes.

I read a couple of collections a few years back, but I haven't read the reboot. Is that what you're referring to?
Ciao,
Amy

Scott said...

It's so wonderful! We must all thank the Shellys and Mr. Readses of the world who give us these comic books and make us read! :)

I actually started reading because I heard they were getting into some of the Azrael mythology. I was just glad that someone remembered he existed. (You know what they say: Every character is someone’s favorite.) Of course, the book was top notch and surprisingly adult. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about the mature content in comics nowadays. Well, as long as it’s not boring, right?

I find characters so very interesting in their terrible flaws. The fact that she screwed up that badly made me love her even more. I never love Batman as much as I do when he's sad and vulnerable, you know?

One of the reasons why I enjoyed Knightfall. Of course, much of the time, writers won’t allow their male heroes to be vulnerable. And if they are vulnerable, they tend to cover it up with bizarre macho behavior. You won’t find too many stories where they let the male protagonist cry—not unless the intended audience is female. A male audience would be disgusted at such a display, which is a pretty disappointing attitude. I mean, if you look at the reaction to Superman crying in the Countdown promotional artwork, people are complaining about how “emo” he’s become. He’s cried, what, a half-dozen times in 50 years, and that makes him too emo? Sheesh.

I read a couple of collections a few years back, but I haven't read the reboot. Is that what you're referring to?

I was referring to the digests. Enjoyable series.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Scott,
I actually started reading because I heard they were getting into some of the Azrael mythology. I was just glad that someone remembered he existed. (You know what they say: Every character is someone’s favorite.)

It's really, really true. I tend to be in the minority in my Buffy fandom in that Tara is, next to Spike, my favorite character. So many fans dislike her, and I don't know why!

Of course, the book was top notch and surprisingly adult. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about the mature content in comics nowadays. Well, as long as it’s not boring, right?

I actually don't mind the adult content, personally, but that's me. I do think some of the younger lines (Teen Titans Go! for example) are helpful for parents and teachers making decisions for younger readers, though.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed Knightfall. Of course, much of the time, writers won’t allow their male heroes to be vulnerable. And if they are vulnerable, they tend to cover it up with bizarre macho behavior. You won’t find too many stories where they let the male protagonist cry—not unless the intended audience is female. A male audience would be disgusted at such a display, which is a pretty disappointing attitude. I mean, if you look at the reaction to Superman crying in the Countdown promotional artwork, people are complaining about how “emo” he’s become. He’s cried, what, a half-dozen times in 50 years, and that makes him too emo? Sheesh.

I'd rather point to the hundreds of times Superman's been a Rather Large Ass throughout history. But then, I don't see any problem with anyone crying, male, female, or superman :)
But I do think that demonstrating other outlets for emotion, like, say, Batman popping by Selina's for a shag when he's feeling particularly lonely, or his horrible taste in other women (of the al Ghul variety) shows his vulnerability moreso than his tears ever would. Part of the Superman crying thing is, I think, a way of demonstrating his human-ness.

I was referring to the digests. Enjoyable series.

I may have read these, but I'll double check. Our local library has them. Thanks for the rec!
Ciao,
Amy