Misogyny and Male Privilege in Mainstream Comics

There’s a lot of chatter at the moment in regards to the various issues with misogyny in mainstream comics, and in particular comics fandom as if this is somehow a new thing. It isn’t, but what is new is the venom, not to mention the sheer closed minded ignorance shown by fans and within the industry.

As people who have read my rambling blogs will know, I’ve been reading comics most of my life, and have spent around half my working life working in the industry in retail, publishing and distribution so this is me laying out a few credentials here before any passer-by chips in with a ‘well, what do you know’ load of bollocks. I’ve discussed comics as a medium with the likes of Will Eisner, Alan Moore, John Wagner and a load of other creators over the years. Basically I’m coming at this with just a wee bit of pedigree just in case anyone tries to rubbish my opinions based on what I know so now that’s out the way let’s move on.

Firstly, I’ve no problem with cheesecake. I love artists like Dave Stevens, Steranko, or the great damaged genius that was Wally Wood. Wood especially is someone who is as far as I’m concerned one of the best comic book artists America has ever produced but he could knock out either something so sublime and subtle..

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Or exactly the opposite..

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This isn’t about censorship but it’s about quality, and to make the point clear, there’s nothing wrong with what used to be called ‘Good Girl Art‘ as there’s a naive innocence in much of it even though it’s objectified images of women, it’s playful fun though as pointed out, it did just sometimes cross into soft porn it was mainly relatively harmless, if often crass.

The fact is that mainstream comics in the US are essentially power fantasies, so the male characters are strong defenders of the truth who look like wrestlers, while the women were sexy, but relatively chaste women who were initially window dressing in post Comics Code comics which was the status quo for women in comics up til the 70’s when women started to develop into nearly two dimensional characters (male characters like Spider Man had got acne giving them that much needed realism superheroes needed back in the early 60’s) and being treated nearly like people. Yes, they did dress like Disco Strippers, but Luke Cage also used to wear a tiara and if they can make him look sensible, then they can do that with female characters.

Sweet Christmas!

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The point of this meandering is to basically say that there was sexism and misogyny, that it was plain to be seen, but there was an innocence as things (Red Sonja’s metal bikini for example)  may have been ridiculous, but there were attempts to make things better for women on the page. There wasn’t the pornofication of women characters, though that was happening in Underground Comics but that’s a blog all by itself.

It should be pointed out that the majority of people working then and now in mainstream comics are white blokes with the odd exception like the great Marie Severin or Ramona Fradon it was mainly men so you can see how things developed which isn’t to say that someone like Chris Claremont (Claremont is now marginalised by many modern fans but without him Joss Whedon has no ideas) didn’t try as can been seen over the horrible tale of Ms Marvel’s rape in an issue of The Avengers but the problem was and indeed, still is, a lack of women working in mainstream American comics. This means we get a very male, often very middle class, very white and obviously very American view of reality which sometimes threw up drivel like Ms Marvel’s rape, or the downright mess that the character Power Girl became over the years.

It really wasn’t til the late 80’s that the real pornofication of mainstream comics kicked in, with artists like Rob Liefeld drawing people very badly but to staggering amounts of popularity. It’d be wrong for me not to post this image of Captain America as it’s so bad it never fails to make me laugh….

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But it was Liefeld’s women who were from another world.

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Women no longer started to look real, and the concept of Good Girl Art went out the window for this pornofied, utterly objectified version of women which tapped into an older audience as mainstream comics moved slowly away from being aimed at children and now at teenagers and older. I don’t blame Liefeld all by himself for this as that would do even a hack like him an injustice, but he’s by far the best example of this. There’s dozens more just as bad, if not worse but the Bad Girl Art style was created and as comics were driven away from newsagents and newstands thanks to the growth of the direct market, publishers went for more ”adult” material which in fact meant, tits,& arse with lashings of violence, which by the 90’s was joined by rape, gore, more extreme violence and women’s roles being defined in most titles as the ‘warrior maid/kick ass babe’ type, the ‘whore with a heart’, or the love interest waiting to be killed to give the male hero justification, or  Women in Refrigerators (WiR) as Gail Simone coined it.

Then there’s the subject of rape in mainstream comics, which isn’t to say it’s a topic not to be covered. It should be as Moore and Gibbons did in Watchmen, or Peter David did (within the limits of the Comics Code) in his excellent Hulk run but these writers didn’t use it to shock for shocks sake though when Moore used it in Miracleman #14 it was meant to be shocking and horrifying as it’s a key moment in the story, not to mention a warning for the horrors which follow.

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The problem is that writers with vastly less talent than Moore, David or Simone saw rape as an easy shock tactic which resulted in the obscenity which was Identity Crisis and the rape of Sue Dibney.

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After this the floodgates opened and what were fun children;s characters all ages could enjoy were turned into violent nutters, whores, or victims. The justification often given is that we live in a post-911 world and mainstream comics should represent that, which is true but this does not represent the world rather than a version of the world through male eyes and in particular, male eyes who’ve grown up seeing women as purely objects or plot devices in comics, so you get this grim world where writers throw around rape casually, or women are killed or maimed to make a point (yes, I’m aware of the Killing Joke before anyone asks) and we end up in a point where we have stuff like this from the fucking awful Red Hood and the Outlaws #1.

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Which is laughably defended by some as empowering for women because a section of male fans think what is empowering to women is fucking everyone around them, which brings us screaming out of providing a bit of backstory to the whole thing about male privilege.

There was always the attitude that girls were breaking into a boys world with comics in the US (unlike the UK where girls comics were huge business from the 50’s to 80’s when the weekly market collapsed) in the 60’s onwards but it moved from the ‘eww, girls have cooties‘ phase to something nastier as it is today where it’s genuinely unpleasant to read forums or the reports of women essentially being assaulted at conventions because they dress up as their favourite characters which seems to be free range for some blokes to grope, feel and molest their way round conventions.

I admit to still being puzzled by the whole cosplay thing, even back in the day when cosplay was called fancy dress and you used to have people pretending to be Mr. Fantastic by taping together a load of cardboard tubes, painting them blue and sticking them on their arms. It’s all harmless fun and should be treated as such though, as opposed to trying to cop a feel because it’s probably the only time you’ll get near a woman.

It’s also worth pointing out that mainstream comics do try now and then to give realistic versions of women and one such example was the splendid Alias written by Brian Bendis around a decade or so ago. It didn’t last and when the main character joined the mainstream Marvel Universe she moves from this real woman to one we see in superhero comics all the time with her tits and arse in such impossible poses that you wonder when her body will break.

There’s a very good article here by Kelly Thompson which details a lot of the debate, including examples of the infamous brokeback pose such as this.

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There’s always been sexy females in mainstream comics, but there was a vague attempt (within the context of the superhero universe) at realism in all but the very worst examples. Now this ridiculous idea that all women leap around fighting like Porno Jugglers with their underwear up their arse. It doesn’t serve the story, nor the context of the characters but it does serve the audience, or at least, a part of the audience. And again, I’m against censorship, and some porn is fine but there’s a context and a time and a place and it isn’t using children’s characters marketed at kids, or pandering to a core misogynistic and vocal group of fans who tend to dominate online debate.

Thankfully things seem to be changing slowly even though the debate over ‘fake Geek Girls’ continues, and people point out the inane insanity of the poses women are put through but it’s going to take a load of work to make things right and that’s going to start with Marvel and DC pulling their heads out their arses to appeal to more than 20-40 something males. Make superhero comics fun, enjoyable and most of all accessible without making them childish or excluding your next two generations of readers only know your characters through cartoons, or games, or toys rather than the source medium. Fans should pull up other fans groping women at conventions or shaming them, or calling them whores.

Before anyone says ‘but, but it’s an AMERICAN problem!‘ let’s not be so bloody stupid. I’ve seen the few women who used to go to cons here be ogled and groped, including one girlfriend of mine at a Bristol Expo around a decade ago. We’re not even talking drunken stupidity (of which I’ve done my fair share) but opportunism to feel some female flesh because you don’t know if you’ll ever get another chance in life to do so. There’s also been incidents going back to the UKCAC days which I’m not going to go into detail about as they were dealt with at the time & they tended not to happen again, but you get the point that if you sit back watching these things happen & don’t try to make it better then you’re making things worse.

There are a number of things horribly wrong with ”Geek Culture” and the modern mainstream comics fan ranging from an ignorance of the comics medium, to a concentration on things being AWESOME at the expense of anything else, and ooo, lots more I might write about another day but at the same time, for most people it’s about finding something fun and enjoyable so nothing spoils that more than being told you’re a slag because you’re wearing a short dress or you see the wandering hands some fans have.

It feels as if things aren’t going to change unless something very, very horrible happens to a woman at a convention, and even then they’ll be blokes blaming her. I hope it doesn’t and I hope the various campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic educate or shame enough blokes to stop what they’re doing and grow up. It really isn’t that hard just to keep your hands to yourselves and act like decent human beings is it?  Comics as a medium is just fine, but mainstream superhero comics are taking a kicking, much of it rightly so, which is why expanding the audience and thinking long term for the future is better than just running Marvel and DC for a core, mainly male fanbase while the parent companies run off and make summer blockbusters from these characters because Marvel & DC are now basically intellectual property farms for film & the associated merchandising spawned from these characters. This is why women are coming in. They like these characters but the core fan doesn’t want their boys club broken into. Tough. If you love the medium and the characters then celebrate the fact it’s not just a relatively small number of people who enjoy them now.

Sadly I don’t think things will ever be perfect, or indeed, get anywhere near it but if anything we should be standing up against the sense of entitlement from some fans, and also, praising those who do turn and want to change things.

And with that, I’m off to read some old EC Comics so I can look at some Wally Wood art….

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8 thoughts on “Misogyny and Male Privilege in Mainstream Comics

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