Serious Issues: The Janelle Asselin Controversy pt. 3 – Marginalization

Serious Issues: The Janelle Asselin Controversy pt. 1 - ContextNo girls allowed!


As we continue our discussion of the Janelle Asselin controversy, we’re daunted by the sheer scope of the issues it has brought to the surface. Asselin’s article addressed issues of representation — a noble endeavor we’ve taken up more than once here — but the reaction to that article turned this story into something much more complex. Clearly, the climate in which these conversations happen isn’t entirely healthy. Looking at the solicits for May, women make up less than 10% of the talent pool at either of the Big Two publishers — something that may explain the overrepresentation of male characters, but may also belie a more deep-seeded issue in comics at large.

The comics industry is far from the only boys’ club out there. Indeed, aside from a few specialized professions long associated with women (nursing, teaching, etc), men are overrepresented just about everywhere you go. Business, politics, civil service — almost every corner of our society is a boys club. Sure, women are allowed to pursue careers in these fields, but are marginalized, dismissed, and underpaid for equal contributions, discouraging many from trying, and handicapping those that chose to press on. This is a societal problem, much bigger than the comics industry, but as a home to straightforward morality plays and high-profile role models, I believe comics has a responsibility to light the way for our culture at large.

I won’t pretend to know how to fix this problem in comics, but I know that the first step is understanding where it comes from. I have seen too many discussions over the past few weeks dismissing the culprits as mouth-breathing neanderthals, and while I appreciate the sentiment, I think it actually only makes the situation worse, effectively draining the discussion of what scraps of humanity might have remained. I want to be clear: I am not aiming to excuse the marginalization of women within the community, but I do hope a closer examination might help us understand this problem more intimately.

As I mentioned, the marginalization of women is a society-wide issue. I don’t have space to expound on the plurality of causes of this marginalization at large (though I’d love to take up that discussion in the comments), so I’d instead like to focus on some of the unique quirks of the comics community. Specifically, how did violent threats towards female fans and creators become commonplace?

I’m not a sociologist or a historian, but I think both subjects are important for understanding the landscape of the comics industry as we know it. Superhero comics were originally marketed to young boys, a group that isn’t known for its enlightened views on gender. Many fans outgrew comics, but a few, either out of nostalgia or by virtue of maintaining their 12-year-old tastes, continued to read them, allowing comics to cultivate an increasingly adult audience that was only becoming more attached to the status quo of comics. There have obviously been numerous upheavals and maturations since then (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen some article or another proclaiming that comics “aren’t just for kids anymore”), and is much more diverse than that assessment lets on, but the point remains that many fans are attached to the way things have always been.

Another important piece of the puzzle is that comics has long been a safe haven for the socially awkward. It’s no coincidence that escapist fantasies might resonate with the socially ostracized, and the fan community has become famously welcoming of those who can’t find a place elsewhere. (I suppose now is as good a time as any to acknowledge that this obviously doesn’t represent everyone. There have been female fans and creators from the earliest days of comics, and plenty of well-adjusted adults, too.) Some may harbor active resentment towards (or anxiety around) women, but many others simply fear the mainstreaming of their private corner of the world. The growing contingent of women and girls in the comics community represents that mainstreaming in a very clear way, becoming a target of ire from those that fear that change.

I believe that those two emotions — nostalgia and fear — are what make certain fans so violently resistant to change. The way they lash out may be colored by a lack of social graces, as well as the anonymity of the internet (a subject Shelby will touch on next week), but I think it’s those two potent emotions that motivate the responses in the first place. It isn’t logical — and it certainly isn’t excusable — but it may be easier to comprehend as an emotional response.

I don’t have easy solutions — indeed, my larger point is essentially that these threats are actually symptoms of a much larger problem — but I do hope we can move away from the notion that the marginalization of women in comics is only done by monsters none of us have ever suffered the presence of. Sure, the internet provides a megaphone to the most repulsive opinions, but these attitudes grow from a larger climate that we have all cultivated, whether through action or inaction. We may not be the ones making the threats, but we’re all a part of the village that raised them. Dismissing them from the conversation isn’t any better than when they dismiss women — what we need is conversation. They might be hard, they might be uncomfortable, but that’s really no worse than what we have now. Change may be slow, but it’s certainly better than the alternative.

14 comments on “Serious Issues: The Janelle Asselin Controversy pt. 3 – Marginalization

  1. Seeing as we just talked about ASM #1 yesterday, I’d just like to reiterate how disappointing Ramos’ artwork in that HUGE HUGE HUGE issue for that very reason. The return of Peter Parker should be enough to entice fans back to any kind of story – so why’s it got to be packed with exploitative drawings of female characters? I used to think that people drew that way because of the inescapable “sex sells” adage, but here’s a fine example of something that needed no help being sold, full of outrageous tits and broken-back posing.

    (Though, I suppose you would also ask why they bothered to print Inhuman #1 in its entirety in this issue – didn’t that shit have to go back to the presses for a second time? Pretty sure anyone that wanted to read it already did…)

  2. It’s weird being the only member of your gender in the room. When I’m not rolling around in piles of comic books in my apartment, I work in IT, and I am most definitely the only woman in my department. I had to tell the men I work with to stop apologizing to me personally for swearing. Now, if they feel the need to apologize to the group because they feel foul language is inappropriate in the workplace, that’s one thing, but don’t single me out as the reason to watch your mouth. I curse like a fucking sailor, and am generally the reason they feel the need to swear anyway.

  3. Shelby and Patrick and I talked about this a bit during C2E2, and one of the things that I think is holding back the conversation is how defensive this conversation makes men — not because they’ve done anything wrong, but because the way this is talked about often vilifies men. I, too, was horrified to hear of rape threats being directed at someone over a cover of a comic book, but I’ve seen far too many reactions from men that claim the acts as utterly unfathomable, as though they had never heard of actual rapes. I don’t mean to minimize the utter scumbaggery of threatening someone on the internet, but we’re have to be kidding ourselves if we didn’t think humanity was capable of such a thing — or indeed, capable of much, much worse.

    For me, that reaction, which seems to be a specifically male reaction, is an exaggerated way from distancing ourselves from the threateners. We’re men, sure, but we’re not one of those men. There’s nothing wrong with making your position clear, but the so much of the conversation is given over to this kind of posturing as to utterly distract from any actual progress. Honestly, I think the problem is that the conversation often notes the gender of the culprits as though they somehow represent half of the world’s population. Imagine every time during this conversation the word “men” was replaced with the phrase “black men,” and you’ll see how problematic it becomes.

    I’m no more or less responsible for these strangers than anyone else, man or woman. That is to say, none of us can be held responsible for the behavior of individuals, but we’re all responsible for the behavior of society. This isn’t a problem with men, it’s a problem with society, and I accept that my role in fixing this problem is equal to the size of my voice, not my gender. I’d love it if this space can be used to move past the hand-wringing that has plagued so many other discussions on this subject, and gets us all down to thinking about what actions we can take to make this better.

    • Hey, gang. That’s an excellent point, Drew, and I think you’ve pretty much hit one of the tougher things about talking about privilege of any kind: if you have it, it’s pretty uncomfortable to talk about it, and if you don’t have it, all that righteous indignation can really distract you from making that uncomfortable conversation more approachable. And that’s a real shame, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because a gender dichotomy that has long outlived it usefulness is hurtful to everybody. I know a couple of feminist organizations that have adopted as a major talking point, “Bring a man you love to [organization event],” which is maybe still casting it a bit too narrowly, but I think the general direction is right. And “imagine if you replaced [gender indicator] with [racial indicator]” is a pretty good litmus test for systematic sexism.

      • Hey Courtney! Good to see you back around these parts!

        I’ve occasionally heard people expressing that it’s actually a good thing to make those with privilege uncomfortable during these discussions in order to either punish them or to make them better understand the discomfort of oppression — a “let’s exclude them right back and see how they feel” approach. I totally understand the sentiment, and hate to begrudge anyone their anger, but honestly, all it does is make me less likely to engage in these conversations. I feel like I’m maybe more sympathetic and open to discussion than the average person, so if I’m put off, I can’t imagine how somebody who’s already uncomfortable might react.

        If the problem is exclusion, the only solution is inclusion. It won’t be “fair” in the sense that it doesn’t make up for past transgressions, but it will light the path for how things can be done in the future/should always have been done up until now.

        How we get there may be a more sensitive subject. Society at large (and comics is no exception) has always been disproportionately influenced by straight, white men, and that fact alone may inherently work to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit that mold — perhaps what we view as meritocratic is actually a manifestation of some kind of latent societal prejudice. How do we cultivate diversity in an environment that isn’t built for it? How do we intercede responsibly? When? When do we stop? I don’t want this to turn into a debate on affirmative action, necessarily, but I’m struck by how much messier it becomes when enmeshed with artistic tastes and corporate contracts. There are no easy solutions here.

  4. Well, Drew, I guess that’s exactly the trouble: most people (gender irrelevant) do not approach this subject or any subject with the sensitivity and intelligence that you’ve shown here. In fact, I’d regard the mere fact that Retcon Punch is running this series as a show of egalitarianism WAY above the standard. Your argument is completely sound and very compassionate, but happens coincidentally to have a few lines in common with the more ubiquitous rhetoric of, “When can we have White History Month?” etc. People who take a combative approach have learned through experience not to tailor their strategy for the Drews of the world, because it’s not exactly economical. I mean, my god, what happens when you try to be sensitive and inclusive, and a man/privilegedwhitewhatever who has not done the legwork to examine his or her prejudices and privileges just uses the moment to put you right back down again?

    Having said that, I think you’re absolutely right, and inclusion has to be the answer. I try to have high expectations of other humans, at the expense of frequent and sometimes heartbreaking disappointment. Like you said, no easy solutions, just a lot of time and hard work. There a lot of issues that are not helped by righteous gum-flapping, but honestly, I don’t think gender inequality is one of them. I think one of the most constructive things we can do is talk about it, and it warms my heart to see Retcon Punch doing that.

    • I agree that discussion is actually incredibly important here — any problem that can be chalked up to ignorance may be overcome with education — but I disagree that righteousness is at all constructive. Or, maybe my problem is that one person’s righteousness is another person’s zealotry. Either way, the tactic when dealing with bigots of any kind too often feels like simply shutting them down, as if the fight for rights was ever a shouting match. We would never berate and shame a child for their ignorance — why would we do the same for someone who has never confronted the plights of those they might oppress?

      Or, to answer the hypothetical of “what happens when you try to be sensitive and inclusive, and a man/privilegedwhitewhatever who has not done the legwork to examine his or her prejudices and privileges just uses the moment to put you right back down again?” Either we can turn that into a teaching moment or we can’t — we can’t expect to win all arguments — but I personally think you’ll convince more people with sensitivity than with “shut up, stupid.” The latter may more accurately reflect our righteousness, but may actively harm our cause.

      Ultimately, I don’t need every feminist out there to know (or even agree) that I’m on their side, and I certainly don’t need to be coddled when it comes to discussing these issues, I just think the language we use can occasionally be alienating — even to our allies. If we expect our opponents to be sensitive to these things, than we have to expect ourselves to be even better at it. We can avoid putting people on the defensive by simply presuming common decency. If they fail to live up to that standard, so be it, but at least we haven’t sold anyone short.

      (I feel like I should add here that I understand that Courtney was not defending “shut up, stupid,” and that I may have created a false dichotomy with that glib characterization, but such is the nature of illustrating a point on the internet. I feel like we’re basically in agreement on the most salient points, but gaming this out has helped me better understand why I’m often frustrated by discussions of privilege.)

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