Mary Jane's Two-Minute Hate
Note: The following is a series of excerpts from the Journal's weekdaily news weblog, ¡Journalista!, and has been assembled here as a record of the strange extremes to which outraged comics fans can reach, and for the convenience of those curious to see what all the shouting was about. If this seems like a weird or goofy subject for discussion, well, it was a weird and goofy week.
May 14, 2007
Novelty manufacturer Sideshow Collectibles has released a cheesecake statue depicting Mary Jane Parker washing the costume of her husband, Spider-Man, and the fangirls have responded by freaking out. The reactions range from distaste to disgust to calls for peppering Sideshow and Marvel with complaints... to this:
She's bending over to make every orifice sexually available to the viewer. In case orifices don't turn your crank, her breasts are available for frottage. In case you might worry about her super-strong husband, she's not wearing a wedding ring. In addition, she's doing a menial and unnecessary domestic task to signal her submission. Hotcha!
Hotcha! Reading the above description without actually having seen the statue itself, you might conclude that some sort of split-beaver shot was involved, wouldn't you? At least a pair of handcuffs, or perhaps a sign around her neck reading "Please degrade me sexually"? Sadly for you evil misogynist fanboys out there, this isn't the case; the Object of Outrage du Jour is actually more Bettie Page than Larry Flynt.
A scroll through the last few days of When Fangirls Attack links reveals less a collection of feminist criticism than a sloppy combination of knee-jerk outrage and reactionary herdthink with which the Attacking Fangirl contingent has gotten embarrassingly comfortable in recent months — sort of a distributed John Byrne Forum for she-nerds every bit as engorged on their own inflated sense of entitlement and inability to see past gender assumptions as the goofiest he-nerd on the Internet.
Let's take the last point first. There was a twenty-year period from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s when organized feminism was marred around the edges by a distrust of male sexuality that veered into outright misandry, a period when blue-nosed nutjobs like Catherine McKinnon, Robin Morgan and Andrea Dworkin could actually influence public policy — mildly so here in the States, moreso in Canada, where the former aided in crafting the obscenity laws that Canadian Customs would later bring to bear against Vancouver's Little Sister's GLBT bookstore to calamitous effect. At heart was the assumption that the male gaze was by and of itself sinister, and that the admiration of a nubile female by a heterosexual male was inherently a temptation toward rape, regardless of context or intent.
In fact, there's no innate malicious intent involved in the male appreciation for cheesecake, nor is it an attempt to "put women in their place." Better people than I have refuted these notions — Ellen Willis, Gayle Rubin and Susie Bright, for example — but really, it can be done in just two words...
Sunset, an oil painting by pioneering homoerotic artist George Quaintance, ©1953 same.
I hate to break it to the funnybook fangirls, but: Objectification is a central component of male sexuality, and gender is irrelevant to how it operates. Male sexual arousal is visually oriented, and an artful presentation of what men find erotic will increase that arousal accordingly. Gender only applies insofar as does sexual orientation itself. One of the most fascinating things about comparing gay- and straight-male porn is how similar one is to the other. The same sexual imagination and visual imagery found in hetero porn for men also occurs in its queer variant. And why shouldn't they be similar? After all, they both have the same goal: Getting the male viewer in the mood. There's nothing wrong with this. Whether you like it or not, we're monkeys, and male monkeys are fascinated by the sexy things that they see. Women are a little less wired for this sort of stimuli, but that doesn't mean they're immune to it either. Witness the growing presence of yaoi manga in American bookstores, devoted to male same-sex romance/porn as written and drawn by and for women. As a gay man myself, I'm generally amused by the often distorted view of homosexual life presented in such books, but I'm certainly not offended by it. After all, it isn't written for me, now is it?
To argue that cheesecake imagery is inherently harmful to women is to argue that male desire itself is inherently harmful to women. Thankfully, this isn't a majority viewpoint among feminists, otherwise the nation would be awash in hijabs, and American beaches would be far less entertaining. To be sure, cheesecake can be annoying in the wrong context. I'd say that it's reasonable to demand that overly sexualized imagery not dominate public spaces, where people who don't share the taste for it (or children, for that matter) must interact on a daily basis. Likewise, one could argue that erotic depictions of teenagers for the edification of adults is a morally dubious venture. But that's not the case here; we're talking about merchandise depicting the playfully erotic pose of an imaginary adult female, which can be appreciated or ignored according to taste.
Of course, one needn't be motivated by outrage in order to take potshots at stuff like this. I delight in making fun of the goofy sexuality inherent in superhero decadence, but that's not a moral argument; I just like to poke easy targets with sticks. And I can't even do that here — laundry aside, there's nobody in a weird set of pajamas to make this look like a fetish object. This thing's no more abnormal than a photo from a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, although admittedly just as posed.
So why the big freakout over a harmless statuette? I'd say it had to do with the earlier point raised: the fangirl's inflated sense of entitlement, and the unwillingness of the rest of the world to feed it. It's no different than the complaints that fanboys lodge over the perceived injustices of the funnybook world, though they usually don't waste time trying to wrap their enormous self-involvement in pseudo-ethical trappings. Fangirls, however, seem to need that extra step. The best example of this phenomenon can be found at Project Girl Wonder, a subsidiary of Girl-Wonder.org devoted to righting a perceived wrong in Batman comics by mandating a display cabinet in the Batcave for a supporting character who served as Robin for a few issues and was later killed off:
Project Girl Wonder is a campaign based around a simple idea. It damages the integrity of Batman as a text and as a character to ignore the contribution Stephanie Brown made to the mythology. We believe that our intelligence has been insulted by those in control of these characters and this mythology.
Ignore the inherent goofiness of phrases like "the integrity of Batman as a text and as a character" for a moment: Isn't this a bit demeaning regardless of outcome? Even if you took the symbolism of such things seriously (a big leap in and of itself), wouldn't the effort put into this be better served by agitating for more A-list female characters starring in their own titles, or the hiring of more female comics creators, or a better outreach to female readers or, well, anything? It's a childish display of cultural dependency ill-serving anyone calling herself a feminist — like nerds demanding that Gilligan get to bone Ginger, lest their sense of manhood be diminished — not to mention a waste of resources on the most minor cause imaginable. Women don't buy superhero comics in sufficient numbers to make DC Comics pay attention to their demands. Like Marvel, they have an audience that buys their wares: adult male fanboys. Lacking financial motivation, there's no reason to pay heed to Project Girl Wonder's demand for fan fiction written to their specifications.
Sequence by someone who Made The Fucking Comics, from Blue Monday: The Kids Are Alright, ©2000 Chynna Clugston.
Contrast this with Cheryl Lynn, who provides a more necessary and empowering feminist statement in just four words that hordes of Attacking Fangirls can say in four thousand: "Make the fucking comics."
And it's not that those books aren't lovely. And I've enjoyed more than my share of them. But those creative teams slaving away at their desks and those marketing teams taking meetings up in their glass towers have a certain vision of the girl who is going to save the day and of the girl who is going to buy the book about the girl saving the day. And neither one of those girls is going to be wearing Apple Bottoms jeans, Reebok sneakers and nameplate earrings. And they damn sure aren't going to have names like Jazmine and Keisha. Because no one gives a shit about Jazmine and Keisha.
This isn't just a sensible statement; it's the jacks-or-better to open if you're going to actually affect change, rather than merely playacting at doing so. It isn't a guarantor of success by any means, but not putting in the necessary work is most certainly a guarantor of failure. And it can work: If it didn't, you wouldn't be seeing all those teenage girls sitting in bookstore aisles reading shoujo manga. They're sitting there because a handful of Japanese women stormed the manga industry in the early 1970s and kicked ass with their comics, inspiring a wave of other women who followed their example, resulting in the economic powerhouse that now throws volumes of Fruits Basket to the top tiers of American bestselling-books lists. Can an American version of this movement, possessed of its own unique and individual vision, reshape comics into something more to its participants' liking? Absolutely — but they're going to have to make the fucking comics first.
Like it or not, superhero comics are made by and for men. That doesn't mean that's all they can ever be, but that's the way it is now, and until female fans gain enough economic clout to dictate terms, they're going to remain safely ignorable. Want to change that? Make the fucking comics and build the audience you need to affect change. Granted, it's easier to demand that other people do what you want them to do, or whine about statues, but that's how success works: If you want the world, go out and carve yourself a piece of it. Failing that, you can join the John Byrne Forum and complain about how comics "lost their fan purity"... or do the same on your Livejournal and hope for a link from When Fangirls Attack. Either way, you're not going to be getting much done.
May 15, 2007
Yesterday's little rant produced several interesting reactions — a moment please, while I namecheck Alice Hunt, Valerie Dorazio, Laura Hudson and Johanna Draper Carlson. Most of the responses centered around my notion that complaining about funnybook sexism is basically useless without economic muscle to back it up. The counter-argument was best expressed in yesterday's comments section by the indestructible Shaenon Garrity:
Even though I'm a girl cartoonist myself, I call bullshit on the "if you don't like it, make your own comics" argument, which seems to come up whenever female fans complain about sexism and misogyny (and, for that matter, when gay fans complain about homophobia, and nonwhite fans complain about racism and ethnic stereotypes, et cetera, et cetera). Not all readers are creators, nor should they be. Should every girl or woman who just wants to read a damn Spider-Man comic have to make her own comic books just so she can have a reading experience that doesn't ick her out?
In theory? No, of course not, but at this point it's wishful thinking to ponder the notion. In practice, she's up against the reality of the modern Direct Market.
This sequence and below: Excerpts from the second issue of Brian Michael Bendis and Frank Cho's Mighty Avengers, ©2007 Marvel Characters, Inc.
Six or seven years back, Marvel Comics faced an economic slump and was therefore experimenting with new concepts and ideas, launching high-concept comics by the bucketload, throwing intriguing creator choices at titles and letting them rewrite them to suit their temperaments. Alas, it didn't work the way they wanted; fans accepted the experiments that meshed with the superhero decadence incubated by the last decade of comic-book culture, and rejected everything else. Eventually, former president Bill Jemas was eased out of Marvel, and the company retreated to the alternate covers, endless miniseries, line-wide crossovers and appeals to the fanboys' lower halves that we see today. And you know what? They've since made money hand over fist, and presumably would very much like to keep doing so.
Not wanting to be left behind, DC Comics quickly followed suit, which is why you see lipstick lesbians and half-naked lolitas fighting crime in their comics today. Both companies are furiously attempting to compete for the same audience: men aged 25-35 who've been reading comics for at least ten years. At this point, they're practically the only audience left in comics shops, and thus the sole reliable source of money for Marvel and DC's superhero lines. And they want... alternate covers, endless miniseries, line-wide crossovers and appeals to their lower halves. If they didn't, these things wouldn't sell.
When female comics fans complain that they want less objectification of female characters in their cape books, therefore, I'd bet a C-note that what Marvel and DC executives are actually hearing is, "We'd like you to please stop making money, now." The problem is that when dealing with businesses concerned with earning a profit, moral arguments have far less weight than economic ones, and the economic argument here is what is driving the product — I choose that word carefully — that shows up in comics-shop shelves.
This brings us full-circle to the argument that I put forth yesterday: If fangirls want female-friendly superhero comics, they're going to have to prove that this time an audience is ready and willing to buy them, and to do that, an audience is basically going to have to be built from scratch. That means new creators are going to have to show up and figure out how to make comics that will sell to this new audience. Of the existing creative pool, there are women that I expect could do the job quite well — Ms. Garrity herself sits toward the top of the list, but she and Gail Simone can't write them all. New and artistically attractive talent will be required.
Naked lesbians selling superhero comics to grown men... it's all about the Benjamins, of course. Panel from the eighteenth issue of the DC miniseries 52, ©2006 DC Comics.
Even then, the pervert-suit aesthetic isn't going to go away. Mainline publishers will be far more willing to buy into the concept if it supplements the current cashflow, rather than taking its place. That means sensible heroines and lipstick lesbians and half-naked lolitas fighting crime — otherwise, you're simply asking publishers to replace a surefire money machine with one that might grow and thrive, if only someone is willing to throw the dice. I'm sorry, but that's just not going to happen. Where large companies with fiduciary obligations to stockholders and/or corporate owners are concerned, the money always comes first.
So no, complaining by itself isn't going to work, and yes, someone's going to have to Make The Fucking Comics (and Publish The Fucking Comics, and Market The Fucking Comics) if they want things to change. Fucked up? You bet! If you have a realistic Plan B, I'm all ears. Myself, I don't see it.
Related: GalleyCat's Ron Hogan offers commentary on the "superhero comics are for boys" meme that kicked all this off.
May 17, 2007
Just when you think you're done: Neil Graves of New York City's right-wing tabloid, the New York Post, has picked up on the
The rendition has gotten so many catcalls that a Web observer, in a six-part outline, said enough already: Cease and desist.
Now that's what I call a cherry-picked quote. You can find more nuanced takes on the subject from Cheryl Lynn, Valerie Dorazio, Lyle Masaki, Dorian Wright and a surprisingly nuanced discussion over at Millarworld. Running a bit farther afield, Dick Hyacinth has a two-part commentary on the utility of fan activism — here's part one and part two. Fox News picks up the story as well.
Certain information has been brought to my attention regarding the whole "Mary Jane statuette" controversy, and as a result, I've come to conclude that I owe my readers an apology. I was wrong. In my defense, I've been busy, hard at work putting together the site update for the next issue of the Journal and writing reviews — in addition to assembling this weblog, of course. Consequently, I've slipped up and overlooked a very basic error:
This really is just a laundry basket, isn't it?
I read the text in the above link, looked closely and carefully at the images of the statuette for the first time since this whole stupid controversy reared its ludicrous head, and realized that I'd been misrepresenting Adam Hughes' playfully sexy work all this time... by omission, if not outright. Mary Jane Parker is not being depicted as "hand-washing" the Spider-Man outfit. She'd just found it in the hamper, is all.
This whole kerfuffle is even more deranged that I had previously acknowledged. I apologize to Adam Hughes and Sideshow Collectibles — and to you, dear reader — for allowing this to pass unnoticed. When reading the initial posts of outrage from women who objected to this Concentrated Burst of Evil Misogyny, I didn't spare the time to examine the object of their ire closely enough. What can I say? Somewhere, on some level, I took the complaints at face value. I was insufficiently cynical in the face of demented fannish entitlement, and for that I'm truly sorry; I'll try not to let it happen again.
Okay, all kidding aside: The saddest part about all of this is the fact that there really is a great deal of misogynistic imagery in the modern American comics scene, and the boys-club atmosphere really does the Direct Market no long-term favors, regardless of the short-term gains. I largely agree with Heidi MacDonald in this regard, though I think she underestimates the degree to which the 20th- and 21st-century comics models have split; sure, there are plenty of new female comics readers, but they aren't shopping in comic-book stores, by and large, and they aren't reading superhero comics. The revolution is indeed happening, but it sure as fuck isn't taking place in the Direct Market, and I see no sign that it will anytime soon. None of this is new, of course. I've said so at great length in the past, and have long decried the domestic comics market's inability to learn from more inclusive models. Others have offered light in the fog as well; I realize that picking through the morass of nonsense to find the thoughtful critiques has been like picking through cowshit in search of diamonds, but all this week I've nonetheless tried to link to some of the more sensible and thoughtful comments from men and women alike in regard to issues raised and subsequently distorted in the recent collective wigflip. I hope that you've found at least some of it edifying and informative.
Alas, lacking a sense of perspective or an ounce of common sense, the amassed Attacking Fangirls whipped themselves into a self-righteous frenzy that rose to increasingly bizarre levels of vehemence as the week has progressed. My worst fear is that what many male comics readers will take away from all this is the unfortunate idea that most fangirls will find their erotic desires to be demeaning regardless of context or circumstance. Given the astonishing number of truly risable images, characters and stories out there in the Direct Market, seizing upon a harmless bit of cheesecake like this only reinforces the notion that there's no way to win against such complaints — that male sexuality is somehow offensive by definition — and that the only reasonable thing to do therefore is to ignore them altogether. And that truly would be a shame.
May 21, 2007
Are we all sick of Mary Jane finding her husband's supersuit in the laundry basket, yet? If not, here's Lisa Fortuner:
This little statue has gotten us more attention than ever before. This is not like Batwoman, when the attention was on the company. This time the attention is on the complaints. Don't squander this. Blog about women in comics. Complain about women in comics. Rave about women in comics. Rant about women in comics. Go to your comic book store and start talking about women in comics. Go to a convention and be visible. Ask about a female character at a panel. Ask about the statue at a panel. Write letters. And when you meet resistance, push back.
This image and below: Screen captures from MSNBC's less-than-reverent coverage of Statuegate.
Alas, it's pretty hard to see the gold for the toxic waste at this point. If putting pressure on Marvel was the point, the Anti-Statue Brigade has done a piss-poor job of it. Even the mainstream media attention the argument attracted has been a wash — sorry, dreadful pun, I know. The story made the New York Post and Fox News, where it appeared in their "wacky news" round-ups, the last place you'd want a story on sexist media representations to appear, while Wired Magazine and Entertainment Weekly's blog coverage was less outraged than amused. I've heard references made to CNN and the Guardian's coverage, but was unable to find links. I did, however, turn up a link to streaming video of MSNBC's coverage, in which the controversy was briefly and ineptly summarized before a guest was brought on to discuss the matter...
...yes, it's Feedback, winner of the television reality show, Who Wants to Be a Superhero! You can pretty much guess the level of seriousness that followed, but I'll give you a hint: It involves Feedback's six-pack. Aside from a pair of pieces in the Toronto Star by Malene Arpe (first link, second link), the news coverage I've found so far has been overwhelmingly devoted either to shining a mildly condescending spotlight on Those Wacky Comics Nerds and Their Trivial Obsessions, or questioning whether the Spider-Man milieu had gotten "too sexy" — two words not exactly known for leading to a decrease in sales. If this is victory, I'd hate to see what defeat looks like.
So much for the outside world. What about the comics world itself? The response from statue fans was about as far from conciliatory as you could get; they jumped right into the comments threads of the anti-statue brigade and began flamewars of their own, a situation documented best by Johanna Draper Carlson. By going after a harmless bit of cheesecake fluff rather than actual misogynistic storytelling in actual comic books, the anti-statue brigade has thus cheapened their own cause as effectively as if they had, say, reacted to the funnybook torture and murder of a teenage, female Robin by merely demanding that a glass case commemorating it be placed in the Goddamn Batcave. Far from promoting understanding or advancing the cause of better female representation, the end result seems to have been the opposite, with battle lines drawn and fewer people listening to one another than ever, battle lines along which further skirmishes will be waged. Mission accomplished? I don't think so.
I keep thinking that I'm done with this topic, only to watch it sink to new levels of eminently bloggable stupidity. Hopefully this is the last one — barring further flare-ups, let's end with a pair of feminist perspectives, give the last word to Lea Hernandez and Neal Quigley and move on with our lives, shall we?
Top Right and Bottom Right: The statue that kicked off the whole inane controversy, ©2007 Marvel Characters, Inc.
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