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.