Op-Ed: Girls and Comic Books

Cosplay is a problem. I love dressing up, I love costumes, so naturally, I want to cosplay at the next con I attend. BUT I know I’m not in the kind of shape I would need to be in to make the costumes of any of my favorites work. I definitely don’t want to end up in some sort of “mistakes were made” cosplay photo gallery. Plus, if I’m going to go to hang out with friends at a con, I don’t want to be uncomfortably, impractically sexy!

Now, I am obviously old enough to not need superheroines to look up to as role models. I do, however, want to celebrate the characters I most enjoy reading; what with imitation being the highest form of flattery and all that, cosplay seems the way to go. Between Wonder Woman’s mostly pantsless state and Batgirl’s skin-tight…whatever that thing is called, my options are limited.

All cosplay issues aside, I am generally not bothered by the oversexed depiction of female characters in comics. Of the four editors here, I might be the least put-out by the Rule of Three (that’s anytime you can see a female character’s face, tits, and ass at the same time: not a very natural or comfortable way to stand/sit/fight crime). I am also a big fan of vintage pinup art and anything with burlesque sensibilities. It’s partially because I believe in the empowerment of women embracing their sexuality – taking it back and owning it again, etc. Ultimately, comic book women are so hilariously oversexualized, so overwrought and unrealistic, I almost can’t get mad. The artistic style is so steeped in artificiality it’s practically rendered meaningless. For a long time, comics were made by men, for men, and this is fantasy, folks: this is the genre we are working with.

I think the true danger to women in comic books lies in the writing; I’m talking about the voices of the women in these stories. Surprise! Women are people too, and we display a wide range of emotions. Of the myriad of emotional stereotypes in the medium, there are two I am the most on the watch for: sexy-meek and sexy-angry. The negatives of sexy-meek are obvious: reinforcing the age-old stereotype that women are the weaker sex, merely there to look good and get rescued. It’s the old “damsel in distress” routine, and I think of it every time Golden Age Lois Lane falls out a god-damned window. Even Wonder Woman has fallen victim to sexy-meek; when she first joined the Justice Society, it was as their secretary. Happily, this isn’t a problem in…well, in any of the titles I’m reading. I think sexy-meek has been close to eradicated because it’s such an obvious problem from the past. Any reader with the most basic social awareness can recognize this classic sexism; any half-way decent writer would think long and hard about offering up a story chock-full of old fashioned sexism that’s not blatantly satirical in nature.

Sexy-angry, now, that’s an issue. Sexy-angry is hot women who are needlessly angry, without any sort of story context.  It’s like the author is so determined to showcase powerful women and avoid the pitfalls of the sexy-meek, they create women who are constantly angry and lashing out. There’s a difference between strength and unprovoked anger, in that the first is something to be admired and the second is just going to get you labeled “an unreasonable bitch.” It’s the same trope as the angry feminist, a stereotype that is so damaging to the feminist movement. When I was a younger gal, I hesitated to say I was a feminist, because I didn’t want to be associated with the hate-filled and angry image I felt “feminist” conjured in my brain.

Unfortunately, Geoff Johns is suffering from this issue in his depiction of Mera, Arthur Curry’s wife. Let’s think about it again in terms of cosplay, specifically what it is about the character Mera that would or would not make me want to show how much I enjoy reading about her.

Let’s forget about the skin-tight suit o’scales, huge rack, and ridiculous six-pack. Even if I felt comfortable in a Mera get-up, there’s no way I’d want to cosplay as her – at least as she’s depicted in the New 52. She’s supposed to be unfamiliar with the ways of the human world. Character-wise, this apparently means swinging from extreme naïveté to, more alarmingly, constant and unfounded rage. I think she’s been angry for at least 3 issues now.

Keep in mind, I first fell in love with the character when she was a Red Lantern in Blackest Night. That’s right: I liked her more as a mindless avatar of rage incarnate. In Blackest Night, Mera was overtaken by rage because her family was murdered in front of her, their bodies and memories used and abused by the Black Ring. Her anger had a source, a reason for existing. Now, though, she’s just always angry for no reason. It’s tiresome. Frustrating, too, considering how much I used to enjoy her character.

For the most part, though, the titles I’m reading have highlighted some incredible female characters; costume hang-ups aside, I love these characters and would gladly celebrate them. First and foremost on my list is Gail Simone’s Batgirl.

The voice Simone has crafted for Barbara Gordon is phenomenal in its groundedness and believability. It’s not just a matter of her thinking like a regular person, she thinks like a woman. It’s a subtle difference, one I didn’t notice was missing from other titles starring ladies until I picked up this book.

I have conflicted feelings about Wonder Woman. Sure, she was created to showcase the kind of woman girls wanted to be: she was strong and peace-loving, certainly an equal to (if not better than) her male contemporaries. The only problem I have with all that is she was still created by a man, and a man’s idea of the kind of woman girls should want to be. That, combined with the faint S&M undercurrent (she can only be defeated by being tied up with her own lasso by a man!) has always left me slightly uneasy. But Brian Azzarello has crafted something much grander with her character. He has showcased the gods in Wonder Woman’s world. Character-wise, there is neither the terrible nor the spectacular in his Wonder Woman, but the world he has created is so incredible, I want to emulate the heroine of it any way I can.

Starling from Duane Swierczynski’s Birds of Prey is a runner up, but only because I’m not reading this title right now, and I would feel like a super poser dressing up as a character from a book I haven’t read. For the guys, she’s a favorite: a sassy badass with a fashion sensibility I can really get behind. A strong cosplay contender, once I read this title.

Right now, my cosplay solution is Abby Arcane, from Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing (when she was traveling with Alec, not when she was naked and covered in flowers, you perv!).

It’s true, the bulk of the costume is just what I wear on the weekend, but if I can get a good wig and some purple contacts, maybe some dead vines around my face, I’ve got a costume going. Character-wise, Abby is strong and to-the-point. She’s got a hell of a burden to carry, with her rotten family history (ba-zing), but with help from Swamp Thing, it was Abby who won the first battle in the War of the Rot. She’s a character I love from a title I love, I only hope I can do her justice.

Comic books have some issues when it comes to their female characters, simple as that. Ultimately, I’m not going to let the inherent problems of a mostly male creative staff AND mostly male audience distract me from the fact that there are some superb stories being told. I’m also not going sexy-meekly accept out-dated and sexist tropes, so watch it: you wouldn’t want to see me sexy-angry.

14 comments on “Op-Ed: Girls and Comic Books

    • Yeah, yeah, I know. It is, however, composed of clothes that could mostly be purchased at regular person stores, and the pants appear to include pockets.

  1. I also wish Johns would just start over with Mera. She’s not been totally horrible in every issue, but her actions in Aquaman 6 (I think it was 6) color all her other actions as irrational and CRAZY. When she, Atom and Flash were the only heroes left to defend the earth against the Black Lantern Corps, it was easy to fall in love with all three characters. In a post-Flashpoint world, my love for Barry is the only love that carried over. Shame – that.

    • Agreed. So far, his solution has been “add another angry woman” which isn’t really doing it for me.

      • Yeah – she’s also my least favorite Other. Which is unfortunate (as the other Others are all being murdered). Come on Geoff, let’s keep the characters you’re rounding out and shave off those you don’t know how to develop. OR develop them all and stop being a jerk about your lady characters.

        • Yeah, Kahina wasn’t all that great either: super passive, no control over her power, completely reactive.

        • She could have been really cool. She was one of the few characters we read with any kind of religion. She may not have demonstrated all that much agency in the couple pages we saw her in, but damn that character had potential to be SOMETHING.

  2. Pingback: Worlds’ Finest 3 | Retcon Punch

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