Serious Issues: The Janelle Asselin Controversy pt. 2 – Representation

Serious Issues: The Janelle Asselin Controversy pt. 1 - Context

Interviewer: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
Joss Whedon: Because you’re still asking me that question.

This exact change may be a tad apocryphal. The rhetoric is too biting, too effective, even for a wordsmith like Whedon to toss out on the fly. The quote comes from a speech Whedon gave on gender equality, and it’s the well-scripted button on the top of an extremely well-crafted, well-reasoned argument for normalizing equality. The reason his response cuts so deep is because it is an intuitive truth. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve patted artists on the back for not being lecherous fuckers, or how frequently we need to sing the praises of a writer that creates female characters with real agency. We are so used to the imbalance between quality female characters and quality male characters that simply resisting this trend is often greeted as progress. This needs to change.

I’m going to be discussing the representation of women in comics published by the Big Two publishers — Marvel and DC. I understand that these two publishers do not make up the entirety of the modern comics landscape, but they do act as ambassadors for the medium, and as gateways for most fans. They are the cultural touchstone, and a common reference point for conversational purposes. This conversation is about characters, and not creators or fans, though we all play our parts in this drama. I do not presume to have any answers here, or even all the information. These are some curious observations I’ve made, and I’d like us all to talk it out, as a big, loving community. Okay, disclaimer over.

First, Some Numbers

Marvel announced 31 new on-going titles, and two mini-series, as part of their All-New Marvel NOW initiative. Of those 33 titles, only five bear the names of female heroes on their covers (Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Elektra, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk). There are also a few team books that might maybe count as having a strong(ish) female presence (Fantastic Four, Inhuman and X-Force), so let’s be generous and say that eight of the All-New Marvel NOW series feature female characters. That’s less than a quarter.

DC’s numbers are even worse: of the 49 comics solicited for May (New “52” be damned, I guess), eight feature the names of female characters in the title, plus Birds of Prey and Worlds’ Finest both have overwhelmingly female casts. That’s about a fifth. This is not substantive critical analysis, this is statistics. Unfortunately, the sales numbers suggest that both companies are right to keep up this 1 : 4 ratio. Comichron’s sales figures for March 2014 lists one female-centric title in the top 25 – Harley Quinn 4 sold particularly well (but that may just be indicative of a different set of problems). Diamond’s list of top 100 comics for February 2014, has 20 titles featuring female characters (though, that number ends up looking a little more reasonable than it ought to — three of those issues are My Little Pony, and two are one-off specials featuring Lois Lane and Joker’s Daughter).

This could well be a chicken-and-the-egg thing: do the publishers only put out a number of comics featuring female characters that the market will support or does the market buy mostly male characters, because that’s 80% of what’s being published? Does the onus lie on publishers to create more female characters or on the public to demand them? And as long as we’re making demands, what new female-lead series would you like to see produced?

Sexualization of Female Characters

I alluded to this above, but one of the more troubling aspects of female superheroes is the way they’re frequently overly sexualized. This is a delicate issue, because there’s also nothing wrong with a character of any gender or sexual orientation expressing their sexuality. The line between exploitative and empowering is fuzzy as shit, but artists often draw female heroes with a blind eye to the issue. This isn’t always the case – Darwyn Cooke’s Catwoman is a great example of a character that is purposely — and powerfully — sexual. Or Poison Ivy: part of that character’s strength is in her ability manipulate both men and women with pheromones, so the skimpy outfits are thematically appropriate and speak to her unique abilities. There are a million ways to be fun and sexy, and this isn’t about limiting those opportunities at all. I know Shelby’s excited for the DC Bombshell covers, and it’s hard to blame her: the couple we’ve seen so far are awesome and tasteful, and they celebrate the characters and classic pin-up art.

Mera Bombshell coverThe problem invariably arises that female characters are drawn in ways that do not celebrate the women, their form, or their sexuality. Instead, the drawings play to the straight male fantasy. We’re not blowing the lid off anything here, this is true in all entertainment, advertising and real life, but comics seem to be holding on to its baggage longer than most. Why is that?

There’s a historical answer for that. Superhero comics were written for little boys, then those little boys grew up and the images in the books changed to reflect adolescent tastes. Those fans continued to grow up both those attitudes toward women, objectification and marginalization, had firmly planted roots. Suddenly, books with adolescent views on women were the entry point, and ingratiated themselves to their readership as the platonic ideal of comics. I wasn’t reading comic books in the 1990s, so I have no subconscious affinity for the era typified by excesses of both sex and violence. A surprising amount of that attitude was carried over to DC’s New 52, and many of the same creators were once again put in positions shape the comics industry. We’ve all seen the way Starfire, Wonder Girl, Catwoman and Bleez were treated in their stagnant “reinventions”.

It seems intuitive, but let’s get into it: why is this a problem? What’s wrong with sexualizing female characters? The industry’s juvenile attitudes toward the female form hurt women, they hurt men, and they hurt the industry. We try to approach comic books as pieces of art and literature, worthy of the kind of close attention those labels imply, and it’s always hard to do so when the material also gleefully objectifies women. Embarrassing, even. I hate that, in my efforts to explore the smarter parts of a work, I ignore stupid cheesecake art, as I did in our conversation of Inhuman 1That means, on some level, it’s become commonplace to me. I never want that kind of objectification to fly under my radar because I’m desensitized to it.

The “Girl-Friendly” Comics

You know who always had this shit figured out? Archie. Archie Comics have been publishing comics that are accessible to both men and women for over 70 years. The stories are always grounded, and driven by the emotions of its characters, and not by whatever craziness dictates the events in the universe. But Archie also features two of the strongest, most dynamic female characters in all of comicdom: Betty and Veronica. Honestly, outside of Marvel and DC, things don’t look so bad for gender equality. Image has a host of sex-positive series featuring women: Sex Criminals, Velvet, Rat Queens, Saga.

A comic book doesn’t have to feature only women to be “girl friendly” — in fact, there are a number of books with all-women casts that suffer from the worst sexism. I know it had its supporters in the comic community, but Fearless Defenders played with a ton of negative stereotypes, and the art ventured into some serious broken-back posing. A title like Hawkeye plays very well as “girl friendly” comic, partially because Kate Bishop is featured prominently, but also because Clint is a real character, responding to real emotional stimulus. Or how about Loki: Agent of Asgard, which actively inverts the gender formula by sexualizing Loki. I feel like my list of “girl-friendly” comics is just too short, especially from the Marvel and DC (but especially from DC). What qualities do you look for before recommending comics to your female friends? What current comics do you consider the most “girl-friendly?” Also, what’s up with the weird intersection between girl-friendly and young adult (other than the obvious answer, which is Young Avengers)?

30 comments on “Serious Issues: The Janelle Asselin Controversy pt. 2 – Representation

  1. I’m so happy you brought up Rat Queens. I love that book, not just because it’s a lot of fun, but exactly because it’s a sex-positive story featuring strong, realistic women. Yes, a book about a team of a dark sorceress, a dwarf, a Cthulu-esque former priestess, and whatever Betty is is realistic. Even though we’re looking at fantasy (the genre, not the kind of fantasy we’re talking about here), these characters act like real women: they have crises of faith, they struggle with relationships, they rebel against tradition for tradition’s sake, the drink, they curse, they fuck. This is a super important book.

    As for female titles I’d like to see, SORANIK NATU. Actually, any non-Violet Lantern lady title would be welcome; the Green Lantern Corps alone has 3200 members, are you telling me there are no opportunities to tell a story from a woman’s perspective in all that?

  2. You know, I don’t think it fully occurred to me what a missed opportunity the New 52 was for canonizing less exploitative costumes. They took away Batman and Superman’s briefs, added a whole bunch of piping to everyone, and even changed beast boy’s color, but virtually no female costumes changed to address the gratuitous T&A. Or wait, maybe I’m wrong about that — Power Girl’s New 52 design notably didn’t feature the boob window, but it was later brought back (maybe due to fan outcry?) — anybody have thoughts on female character designs in the New 52? It occurs to me that many of the designs come directly from Jim Lee, who isn’t always the best when it comes to this kind of thing. What do you guys think?

  3. I am seriously in love with the DC Bombshells line. I’ve got the Harley statue, I’ve got a Black Canary coming to me, and I’m obviously going to have to get a Mera one once they launch because look at how amazing that is!

    • I understand and appreciate that there is empowering sexiness, but as someone who necessarily relates to female sexiness through male tastes, it’s really hard for me to draw the line. Like, at what point is a powerful, sex-positive female character a symbol of female strength, and at what point is she a male fantasy? Honestly, I don’t even think who’s doing the writing matters — so much of this is tied to concepts of the male gaze and what men want. Maybe the problem for me is that this emphasizes intent in a way that I’m not particularly comfortable with. Does it matter if a writer thinks the Eleanor Roosevelt-type characters he writes is sexy?

      • I think of it the same way I think of other people. We can look at people and think they are sexy without objectifying them. I think the problem lies when people can’t tell the difference between those two concepts.

        • Maybe this is white male guilt/fear, or maybe it’s genuine interest, but in all seriousness: how do you define the difference? Like, maybe I only experience one or the other, but basically every time I feel attracted to someone physically, I feel a little bit guilty that I’m being a shallow asshole.

        • For me, it’s about never losing sight of the fact that the men I find sexy are still people, not just some thing that exists just for me to have sex with. If you can recognize that people exist for a purpose outside of just looking hot for you, then you’re not being shallow. This idea also folds in the fact that people can look sexy for themselves, not just for others to find them sexy.

          That’s just my take on it, anyway, and I don’t always succeed. There are a lot of bearded, tattoo’d, hipster men out there, and sometimes I can be a shallow asshole about it.

        • I think it’s that notion of people being sexy for themselves that I don’t totally get. Maybe this is just because I’m a total schlub who takes basically no pride in his appearance, but it’s hard for me to think that the confidence that people get from looking good doesn’t come at least in part from the fact that other people think they look good. Right? I know I’m a bad person to talk about this with — I’m basically allergic to vanity — but I have a hard time seeing the way we present ourselves as anything other than being for the benefit of those we’re presenting ourselves to.

        • It does come in part from knowing other people think you look good. But when I do my cat-eye liner and red lipstick in the morning, it’s primarily because I like how it looks on me. It’s great that other people think it looks good, too, but that’s not why I do it.

          And even if I want to look good so other people think I look good, that’s fine, too. Again, there is a difference between thinking someone is sexy and regarding someone as only a sexual object.

        • Sure, I guess my problem is that “what looks good” is so societally driven. Like, if you think “what looks good” is being rail thin and having ginormous breasts, are you maybe buying into some kind of male fantasy? Or to put it another way: if your image of “what looks good” happens to look nothing like you, isn’t it maybe harmful?

  4. It is also mind boggling to me that the New 52 launched with four superman family books, four books with “Batman” in the title and ONE Wonder Woman series. One.That’s the trinity for you: Batman, Superman and whatshername.

    • Well, but like you pointed out in the piece, female-led titles don’t seem to sell as well. I know the publishers are somewhat responsible for creating the climate, but they also have to respond to the market. Like you said, it’s a chicken-and-the-egg kind of thing.

      • I think if publishers changed the tone of female-led titles, it would create a market for more of them. I’m sure there are plenty of readers (many of them women, but men, too) who shy away from the female-led titles because they don’t like the way the women are depicted in them. You’re right about the chicken-and-egg nature of the situation, but if publishers use that as an excuse, things will never change.

        Honestly, changing the representation of women in comics and increasing female-led titles is a long-game strategy. In the short-term, it probably wouldn’t be super lucrative, but in the long-run the publishers could stand to pick up a TON of readers they are missing out on now. There is a lot of money being left on the table, here, and that is what baffles me the most.

        • I actually think the new Ms. Marvel series might be a great indicator of how successful appealing directly to an uncourted market can be. Sure, there were naysayers who considered it pandering, but I think it’s also finding an audience that maybe didn’t even exist before. Whether that market is big enough to sustain the title long term remains to be seen, but Marvel definitely put their money where their mouths were as far as putting this title together, putting talent behind it, and marketing the snot out of it. If it succeeds, I am almost certain that Marvel will take that lesson to heart, and will continue to make series marketed directly to audiences outside of their traditional demographics.

        • When Marvel was doing the young Thor book, I wanted nothing so much as DC to put out a 14-16 year old Wonder Woman book about Diana coming of age. It would be AWESOME and super fun and really enjoyable. And instead not only did I not get that comic, they also got rid of young thor.

        • J. Michael Straczynksi’s Wonder Woman run (the Odyssey story line) was a sort of coming of age story (though in an alternate world), and features Wonder Woman in pants and a jacket–which I thought was an awesome look, and much more practical than her usual costume. The story is decent, but to me the more respectful treatment of a younger Diana is worthy of note.

  5. Why do none of the X-Men Ladies ave on-going solo titles? I realized I was sorta bummed that Original Cyclops get his own solo series, when Jean Gray seems like the most compelling member of the team. The various X-Men books have always been good about including women, but not that great making them breakout stars (at least, not on the scale of Cyclops, Wolverine and Nightcrawler).

    • I think Cyclops, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler (but especially Wolverine) are actually exceptions to the notion that the X-Men are best utilized as an ensemble. So much of the power of the X-Men lies in the way they band together against prejudice, so I think they make the most sense as a team. There are obvious breakout characters amongst them — Wolverine being obviously the most notable — but they tend to go in cycles. Dazzler, Emma Frost, Mystique, and Rogue have all had solo titles in the past, and I’m sure more will come in the future. Honestly, I don’t expect either the Cyclops or the Nightcrawler ongoings to last particularly long (Nightcrawler has had two 4-issue miniseries and one ongoing that lasted twelve issues), and other, female X-Men will be tried out for solo titles. Wolverine will always have solo titles, though. Wolverine is eternal.

    • To be fair, we don’t know exactly how any of these books came about. Did Marvel decide to create a Cyclops or Nightcrawler book instead of a book starring a solo female X-Man, or did Greg Rucka and/or Chris Claremont approach Marvel with the pitch first and Marvel just went “man, we’d be INSANE to turn away Rucka and/or Claremont!”. Rucka’s such a great writer and Claremont has so much pull with the X-Men that I can imagine either of their books coming about because the writers had interest in the character rather than Marvel specifically looking to catapult either character into the spotlight, but at this point all I can offer on the matter is pointless conjecture.

      There’s room for every book and property in comics to do better with women, of course, but for my money The X-Men’re one of the best franchises in terms of including and featuring female characters in prominent roles. More than anything it has a LOT of female characters, and then those characters all have varied looks, personalities, and powers and have very prominent roles. There’s a reason the X-Men have always had a large female fanbase and been considered one of the bigger gateway titles for female readers.

  6. Great article. It’s a shame neither DC or Marvel have more female ongoings, because they have a number of great female characters. I want to see a second Zatanna ongoing, and I’m excited for Morrison’s Wonder Woman GN going back to the roots of the character but yeah there’s not enough. Also, Elektra this week. And the thing is, the books they do have can get pretty bad. Birds of Prey is a pretty boring title that goes nowhere, and Batgirl is the worst Simone book I have ever read and this is coming from a fan of her work on Secret Six and BoP. I’m not a fan of the new harley book in general but that’s just attributed to personal taste as opposed to overall book quality.

    I do think there could have been a mention of more indie comics, and how stuff like Sex Criminals and Saga actively subvert sexualized comics in a way by making them comfortable with sexuality and whatnot.

    • Not to mention Lazarus, Velvet, and Tales of Honor that all have awesome women leads who are complex, compelling characters portrayed realistically and not overly-sexualized. In fact, a fairly major story point in Tales of Honor 1 deals with an attempted rape in a military academy. The character is afraid to report it as she doesn’t think anyone will believe her (although the fact that the character beat the shit out her attacker is unfortunately not reflective of reality in most cases). But the psychological impact is presented pretty well, as well as the character’s realization later that people would have believed her if she had come forward. Having worked with survivors of sexual assault, I thought this was handled pretty well–the fears of not being believed and being blamed.

      Maybe to make a commentary on society more broadly, 1 in 4 women experience sexual violence at some point (and 1 in 10 men)–(and as shitty as that is, the U.S actually looks pretty good compared to most of the rest of the world…). The fact that sexuality and gender inequality are handled so poorly in comics in some ways is probably a reflection of how shitty sexuality and gender inequality are handled in society

      • Yeah, the indies definitely have a leg up on the Big Two, and while that’s awesome, it’s disappointing that that’s also sort of what makes them subversive. I wanted to discuss representation in the mainest of main streams. Maybe that means it’s just a matter of time before the Biggies catch up.

      • “The fact that sexuality and gender inequality are handled so poorly in comics in some ways is probably a reflection of how shitty sexuality and gender inequality are handled in society”

        This is exactly why I think it’s so difficult to talk about “comics culture” as if it exists in a vacuum. Comics may be more or less enlightened about any number of issues, but it isn’t some isolated island of our culture. The problems we see in comics are symptoms of a much larger societal problem that seems to have existed since prehistory. It’s gets better every generation, but it’s a long, slow process.

  7. Okay, so the top selling female title is Harley Quinn right? Why is that? And I wonder what is the top selling title to females? THIS is a survey id like to see.

  8. I love your opening quote! Honestly, I think that the portrayal of women in media and in literature is one of the biggest problems with modern society, and as a man with many great women in my life, it makes me sick. Sometimes the best way to change a culture is by playing make believe. I like your post man, good stuff, I would ove it if you culd check out my page, it’s full of make believe

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