May 19, 2014

Changing Demographics in Comics mean Women aren’t Content Being Fridged

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In the past few years, there have been countless examples of women “invading” traditionally male spaces.  Beyond just becoming the breadwinner in most households, beyond joining the workforce and leaning into* the C-suite, beyond even taking on roles in STEM and politics that were traditionally accessible only to men, women are opening clubhouse doors and ignoring the “No Girls Allowed” signs in an entirely different brave new world: hobbies that most people would claim belong to their husbands, sons, brothers, and male friends.

I am not here to argue the point that there are women who read comic books and sci fi, women who play video games.  That is a foregone conclusion. But even with the news of continuing success for female creators like Kelly Sue Deconnick and Gail Simone, even with sales for books like the new Ms Marvel surpassing expectations, even with women and the books they read and create being features prominently in the Eisner Award nominees, even with women as the fastest growing demographic in comics readership,  there’s this constant worry, wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.

And it always drops.

Janelle Asselin, who has worked in the comics industry as a professional for years, wrote a piece for Comic Book Resources about why she didn’t like the cover of a new book.  It’s a good piece.  Solidly written with fair criticisms about the art and the way the characters are physically portrayed, since that’s all you can tell about a comic book just by looking at the cover that’s issued with the solicitations (industry speak for the teasers that are released in advance of the actual issue).  She’s was, at the time, also in the middle of compiling some really interesting data on how women in the industry are treated by men, particularly male professionals who often act as gatekeepers when it comes to young, amateur (female) creatives.

And after her piece on CBR went up, she got the expected for a woman in comics: rape threats.  On her personal blog, Asselin outlines the behavior of some of the professionals and fans.

“…of course implying that I’m not a real professional in this industry. Which is still by far not the worst of what I got. I was called a whiny bitch, a feminazi, a feminist bitch, a bitter cunt, and then the rape threats started rolling in.”

The thing that surprised many women who work in or are fans of the industry was that so many men were shocked to learn this behavior was standard operating procedure.  We’re talking about a medium that so regularly kills, maims, or otherwise devalues female characters in order to advance the journey of a man that there’s shorthand for it that’s migrated into other mediums.  Comic books are so well known for “fridging” women that it’s a joke at this point, with countless parodies and satirical pieces based on it.  We’re talking about an industry that really doesn’t seem to understand it’s own demographics a lot of the time, and feels a little lost.

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Many people play the “big two” (DC and Marvel) against one another.  As a fan of both, I don’t like this habit overmuch and I’m going to do my best to avoid it.  In the past few years, both companies have increased the number of books that are lead or populated almost exclusively by female characters: Batgirl, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Captain Marvel, Catwoman, Ghost, Justice League Dark & JL United are both led by women, Ms Marvel, She Hulk, Storm, Wonder Woman, and X-Men, just to name a few.  But of that list, only Batgirl, Catwoman, Captain Marvel, Ghost, and Ms Marvel are written by women; the number of male-led books written by women isn’t much better.  Storm is being written by a white man, which has a lot of other problematic implications, and several female-led titles are written by men frequently accused of repeated sexual harassment at professional events and conventions.  Female creators, in particular colorists, inkers, and editors along with artists and writers, are woefully underrepresented, as are people of color.  Comics are, by and large, pretty great; there’s just enough people who make it not a friendly place personally or professionally for women.  There’s a ceiling made of decades of experiences and expectations that don’t allow for a lot of new talent that doesn’t fit what publishers believe their demographics want, regardless of if those beliefs align with reality.

Just for the sake of contrast: in any given month, you can purchase around six Batman titles.  Not “Bat Family” titles, including the Robins and Batgirl, etc.  Just Batman.  There are six different books with Bruce Wayne’s Batman as the primary character.  If you include the rest of his Bat Family, there are twenty or more, depending on if you count team books and the rogues’ gallery.  But books featuring female leads still struggle to get the support they need to thrive, not in the least because the pool of female characters can feel so limited sometimes.  On top of dealing with editorial restrictions and decades of continuity, writers also have to cope with decades of T’n’A culture, the expectation that the male gaze is primary.  Just look at the way Catwoman or Black Widow’s “stealth” catsuits are constantly unzipped for no discernable reason and it becomes clear that as much as comic books may require a suspension of disbelief, established female characters require a suspension of more than that.  Getting a new character, or a set of new characters, into a book requires a lot of heft.  Gail Simone managed to get a twelve issue run of The Movement at DC comics, featuring people all over the orientation and gender spectrums, people with disabilities, and people of almost every ethnicity I could think of.  Twelve issues is a full year of comic books, and besides cameos from more established characters, Simone created The Movement from scratch, and I sincerely doubt anyone without her name recognition in the industry could have pulled it off.  Sadly, with the cancellation of that title, the number of female characters in comic books, while better than decades past, is certainly still diminished.

Many new readers have been drawn in with the success of a variety of comic book movies.  For all the hubub about the fact that DC has ten feature films in various stages of production without a solo Wonder Woman movie, Marvel has 13 films without a solo female title.  After five Sony Spider-Man movies we still haven’t been introduced to any of his female superhero counterparts, only the women that stand on the side lines waiting for him.  In current X-Men film continuity, owned by Fox, we have two Wolverine movies where the only women are his love interests who are promptly killed off, and I haven’t seen a single blog post dedicated to the fact that the upcoming Days of Future Past film, based on an arc by the same name, has completely cut Kitty Pryde out of the movie.  She was the main character in the comic book arc, and has been completely replaced by Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine.  Sure, comic books are doing pretty poorly when it comes to representing women, but at least they’re doing better than Hollywood.

There is no question that female characters and creators are woefully underserved in a variety of male-dominated spaces.  Science fiction and fantasy literature, women who work on video game plotlines or even just comment on the dearth of (positive, normalized) representation of women in nerd spaces are harassed and worse.  The most comment retort that I, as a fan, get when I point out the inequality.

If I don’t like what the big publishers are doing, I should make my own comics.

wonder-womanThis is a refrain that many women who read comics hear.  I’m part of a group of women that participates in a Ladies’ Night at my local comic shop once a moth.  After meeting for about a year and hearing “make your own” one too many times, the founder (Hannah K Chapman, who went on to organize Comic Book Slumber Party) floated the idea of making a comic book anthology of our own, a la Womanthology.  And so, the Ladies’ Night Anthology Volume 1: Chicago was born. Many of the people who participated in our first volume were students, all but a few had never been published before.  And as an editor, having the opportunity to guide young women through the entire process, from just the inkling of an idea to the reality of holding a published book in their hands was pretty magical

We’re currently trying to fund our second volume; the theme this time around is Death & Prom.  There’s a lot going on in this book, 12 brand new stories, and no small amount of catharsis.  Just like our first volume, most of our participants have never been published before.  Many of them have never even worked on sequential art before.  We’re one of the few anthologies that pairs writers with artists, rather than requiring that pairs come to us formed with completed work.  This allows writers who have never dipped their toes into visual mediums to explore something completely new, and artists trying to build their story-telling skills to have guidance and a partner in crime.  Each pair is assigned an editor that works with them through the entire process, guiding every story from inception to completion and publishing.

But I’ll be honest.  I’m motivated in no small part by being able to say to those “make your own” strawmen, “I do.  I’m an editor contributing to published comic books.  Are you?”

coupon cabin-83By day, Caitlin Rosberg works hard to never throw computers out windows when they don’t do what they need to. By night, she’s a writing, knitting, tea drinking, baking machine with all the requisite robotic enhancements. You can see her love of supporting cast comic book characters (especially named Jim) and too many pictures of her dog at youruinedmychildhood.com.

About Alison Balaskovits

A. A. Balaskovits is a Ph.D. student in Fiction at the University of Missouri and the curator of the Literature on Lockdown series for The Missouri Review. You can follow her on twitter @aabalaskovits or at aabalaskovits.com

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