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!

6 comments:

Ragtime said...

Well said! A very heroinic effort!

Amy Reads said...

Hi Ragtime,
Well said! A very heroinic effort!

Huzzah! Thanks, Friend! Let us reclaim Heroine for An Epic Of Her Own!
Sometimes I fancy myself Virginia Woolf. Just saying...
Ciao,
Amy

LurkerWithout said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VB1nfDBDMdU

Fish + Bicycle!

Amy Reads said...

Hi LurkerWithout,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VB1nfDBDMdU
Fish + Bicycle!


You can't see it, I assure you, but I've a very large, very silly grin on my face.

Yes, of course you're right. Some fish *do* need bicycles--and to control them with their minds??? Or just their swimming?

Thanks for a great link!
Ciao,
Amy

Karen Strang said...

Very interesting. Keep going.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Karen,
Very interesting. Keep going.

Thanks so much! Glad that you're reading and enjoying. Keep checking back; I plan on many more Fun Posts for the Month of March.
Ciao,
Amy