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Tag Archives: race/gender/sexuality and comics

Perhaps Inevitably, some Fanboys still don’t get it.

Apparently there was some brouhaha in the DC panels at SDCC. Said brouhaha apparently involved questions about why there were so few female creators, and female characters, being featured in DC’s big September relaunch (as well as in general). Though I’ve not heard said comments for myself, apparently the questions were not answered terribly well during the panels, and DC was prompted to make a statement.

Most of the opinions of DC’s response have ranged from cautiously optimistic (with some not-so-cautiously optimistic) to guarded pessimism that this is just a PR stunt, or that the books will simply be short lived. I’m generally inclined to side with the more pessimistic side of things; I don’t generally trust press releases, particularly not when they come about as the result of foot in mouth disease. Most of these comments, while I don’t always agree with them, have still fallen within the bounds of being reasonable. Some of them, however, have fallen squarely into the realm of bullshit.

I’m sure people are about to accuse me of having an agenda. So let’s set the record straight; while I’ve read more than my share of feminist writing, I am not a feminist. I’m a humanist and a philosopher, which means that I am not something that many of you fanboys are once again proving yourselves to be; narrow-minded asshats. My only agenda, fanboys, is not being like you.

Let’s kick off by demolishing claims that a good writer is a good writer regardless of gender or any other factor, shall we? I can write female characters. For that matter, I can write female characters well. I can do this because as a human being I both have the capacity for empathy and the ability to gain knowledge. I can observe what women are like. I can read things, both fiction and non-fiction, that has been written by women. I can talk to women and ask them about their experiences. With my capacity for empathy I can then, to a degree, create a female character that is not simply a flat representation, and might well be able to speak to women about the experience of being a woman.

However, I lack, and will always lack, understanding of what it means to be a woman. I’ve talked about this twice before, though it was in relationship to characters; however, it remains just as true when talking about actual people. For all my knowledge, and all my empathy, there is a limit to my ability to understand what it means to be a woman, because I am not a woman. I have not lived the experience of being a woman, just as I have not lived the experience of being black, or being gay. As such, a woman, or a black man, or a gay man, brings to the process of writing an understanding which I do not have, and this understanding, forged solely through their lived experience of being in the world, will inform and shape the stories and characters that they write in a way that is different from the way in which being a white, heterosexual male, raised in a lower-income family, and who came to formal education late in life will inform and shape the stories that I write.

No amount of talent, skill, genius, or any other name you care to give it will ever overcome this fact. Gail Simone, for example, will always have something that Gaiman (or Moore, Ennis, Morrison, Ellis etc.) do not have. This remains true even if I performed a female gender role, as I would still lack the phenomenological understanding of what it is to be pregnant (though it is certainly true that the experiences which informed my work would be different in other ways; however, that moves us into the larger role of gender roles and gender as performance as contrasted against biological sex [which many argue itself isn’t a simple binary system, and is itself constructed]).

This is true whether it’s male characters being written, female characters being written, or what genre said characters are appearing in. The inclusion of diverse voices means that you’re going to see different ways of handling themes, and different themes that are being spoken about (and spoken to). This is one of the reasons Moore’s early work was so fucking ground breaking; he brought a mind, and a voice, that looked at and spoke about things in a way that (for mainstream comics) was new. Not every writer, regardless of gender, skin color of creed is going to be the next Alan Moore. Yet the only thing that stifling diversity accomplishes is to stifle the ability of comics to change, grow, and improve.

We are both trapped and liberated by the experience of being human. This is something we need to understand and embrace.

So how about the claim that there just aren’t that many good female creators in comics? Feministing was kind enough to provide a short list. That’s 19 entries, and it still leaves off a lot of names; which makes the defense that the other three female creators that DC asked turned them down rather weak, since there were plenty of others they could have made an offer to. Not to mention that both Marvel and DC have made a habit of poaching writers from other sources in recent years. True, it gave us the excrement that was Whedon’s run on X-Men, but there are no talented writers working in Hollywood or writing novels that they could have asked? What about any of the female manga-ka whose works are already rather popular with readers; might one of their number have been interested in being asked? (The answer to that last question is that I have no idea, particularly since manga-ka are often ridiculously overworked. The point still stands that there are plenty of talented women who could bring their A game to comics.) There’s no need to “quota” hire in women who can’t do the job, as there are any number of women are perfectly capable of doing said jobs (and I imagine the same holds true of other under-represented creators).

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the fact that, “chicks don’t like superheroes.” My Twitter feed suggests otherwise. I follow any number of women who read superhero comics. For that matter I suspect they talk about them more than I do. Erika Peterman and Vanessa Gabriel of Girls Gone Geek are just two examples, and I damn well know my Twitter feed doesn’t cover even a fraction of the women who are interested in superheroes or other elements of geek culture. If it weren’t for the fact that superhero comics are often given the gendered identity of being for boys, I suspect that are even more little girls who would enjoy superheroes, and would then grow up to be women who dig superheroes. Yet despite what strides toward equality have been made, it’s still traditional to teach the girls that they should want to be princesses etc. while being a superhero or soldier is for boys. It’s a bullshit practice, particularly when for all the fanboyish whining there is no meaningful difference between an action figure and a Barbie doll, while there is a very meaningful similarity between the two; the fact that the majority of them are designed to play into and reinforce (frequently unhealthy) stereotypical depictions of masculine and feminine and what it means to be a man or woman.

This is the third time that Professor Bastard has had to take you to school over pretty much the same theme, fanboys, and I’m getting well fucking sick of it. You’re not right, and to say that your arguments are still made of the weakest of bullshit is an understatement of epic proportions.

 
 

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Dear Interwebs, I Can’t Believe You’re Making me do This Again

Because in the comments of this post right damn here I talked about the very sort of thing I’m about to talk about again. By way of Gail Simone’s Twitter feed I was made aware of Comics & Shit. My life would be easier if it wasn’t on a tumblr, which is why you’re reading this here instead of as a comment over there.

The way I begin telling a story is with the characters themselves. I lay the foundation of my protagonists and antagonists by determining individual personality traits. Then I connect characters together with any multitude of relationship types (close friendship, strained association, tentative love interest, mortal enemy, that sort of thing). After those two steps, I decide on the characters’ motivations, and then the story spools out of those three attributes; my stories are never about the event, they are always about the characters. It’s only after I’ve given a character these things do I determine their physical appearance (race, ethnicity, hair and eye color, costume, etc.), religion, and sexual orientation.

I liken beginning the character creation process with things like race, religion, and orientation to filling a quota. I’m just as much a proponent for diversity in comics, literature, and cinema as the next person, but, to me, creating this quota and filling it is disrespectful, not only to the story, but everyone involved: the reader, the writer, and the group which the character was meant to represent. I would even go as far as calling it exploitative.

As you might have guessed, this is a quote from the original post. The first comment that comes to my mind is to say that if this is how the original poster goes about creating characters those characters must be amazingly one-dimensional and uninteresting. Maybe putting this next bit in bold will finally help people get the point: Our personality traits, relationships, motivations etc. are not, by any stretch of the imagination, something that comes before things like our physical appearance, religion, and sexual orientation.

I don’t know anything about the original poster, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that he’s writing from a position of relative privilege. The problem is that we are not autonomous beings. Who we are has been shaped from the day we come into the world, and continues to be shaped by our interactions with the world. Our socioeconomic class shapes us. Our sexual orientation shapes us. Our appearance shapes us. The list could go on and on. In each case each of these things affects the way we view the world. I talked about this in the cases of “Muslim Batman” and “Lesbian Batwoman” (Night Runner and Kate Kane, respectively). In both cases the respective religious belief and sexual orientation are not just tacked on as afterthoughts, but have changed the experience they have had of the world, and thus influences who they are along with why and how they do what they do.

If I had grown up rich, or black, or gay, or Jewish, or attractive my personality traits, relationships and motivations would all likely be substantially different than what they are. Obviously I can’t know that beyond any doubt, but I can make a pretty informed guess.

So once again I find myself calling bullshit on people claiming that religion, or sexual orientation etc. are always forced P.C. bullshit or yet another publicity stunt, and have nothing to do with making interesting characters. Once again I call bullshit on the idea that we are autonomous beings complete unto ourselves. Once again and forever I call bullshit on little whiny children everyone afraid to look in the mirror and examine their own privilege.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2011 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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One Muslim Batman, One Lesbian Batwoman, and a Shot of Insomnia Driven Self-Reflection

R. K. Milholland, the man behind the webcomic Something*Positive, recently did a guest strip for the comic Shortpacked!. I can’t claim that I’m particularly familiar with the series in question, but Mr. Milholland’s strip deals with the recent brouhaha surrounding the fact that one of the members of Batman, Inc. is going to be a Muslim. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with this. Despite the fact that Muslim terrorists have become the flavor of the zeitgeist in that since the events of September 11th, 2001 they’ve become the pop culture go-to villains that everyone in the West can hate, I’m pretty sure Muslims are still people.  That means that just like everyone else they may fall broad, socially constructed and determined categories, but just because one Muslim, or a given group of Muslims does something doesn’t automatically mean that all Muslims hate the West, and think it is best brought down with high explosives. You’d think that would be self-apparent, eh?

As frustrating as the kind of bullshit that has cropped up around DC’s ann0uncement, that’s not what I’m here to talk about right now. This is my blog, so I’m going to talk about me, my reaction to Mr. Milholland’s comic, and a DC announcement from a few years ago. Back in the days of the dinosaurs I wrote for a now-defunct website called Comic Avalanche… all right, it was only a few years ago, but there have been several miles of bad road since then, so it feels like longer. Regardless, at the time DC was announcing the imminent arrival of their new “lipstick lesbian” Batwoman.

I admit that within the space of one of my columns I raised something of a fuss about this. My problem wasn’t that they were introducing a lesbian Batwoman, my problem was with DC’s use of the word “lipstick” in their promo announcements. Among the gay community the phrase lipstick lesbian seems like it generally has negative connotations, and outside of that community it seems to be used most frequently as a way to advertise female-on-female porn to an audience of straight men. So this struck me as less of a move toward diversity, and more as a marketing ploy to draw in the undersexed fanboys.

Since then I’ve had a chance to read some of the Batwoman stories. In particular I’ve read the “Elegy” arc by Greg Rucka and J. H. Williams III that ran in Detective Comics. I enjoyed reading it. While I won’t say it was the best comic I ever read, I had no particular objections to the way Kate Kane was portrayed. That said, I still like to think that I had a valid objection to the way in which DC was hyping the character’s introduction. After all, I didn’t have that kind of negative reaction upon hearing about Grant Morrison’s hermaphroditic Negative Man or Danny the Transvestite Street. I wasn’t particularly bothered by Northstar finally coming out of the closet. And yet…

… and ask why it is everytime a hero shows up who isn’t white, male, hetero, or possibly Christian, it’s a P.C. stunt?

On the other hand, when I read quotes like this (taken from the comic by Mr. Milholland that inspired this post), I have to wonder. Was my objection a valid one, or was I simply engaging in the kind of xenophobia and bigotry for which I condemn the people whining about a black actor in the upcoming Thor film, or the nonsense that has cropped up in relation to a Muslim Batman?

I would like to think that the answer is no. However, because I am a staunch believer that living philosophically means to engage in a constant critical and reflective engagement in the world, I can’t let it go at that. Is there a part of me that objected to the new Batwoman simply because the character is a lesbian? Did I really have a valid objection, even if that objection would have perhaps been better focused on DC’s marketing department rather than on editors and creators? Or maybe, just maybe, is there still some baggage I’m carrying around, some social conditioning that is implanted so deep that I’ve never even thought to question it?

I had many of the same questions when I was working through the challenges raised by George Yancy’s* Black Bodies, White Gazes. In both his own words, and the words of others, he articulates the idea of the race traitor as someone who doesn’t behave as a “good” white person “should.” I would like to think I am one of those people, and that it extends beyond race. I would like to think that I do not behave as a good hetero should, or as a good person of my economic class should. Yet at the end of the day, the only honest answer I can give to any of these questions, including the question raised by Mr. Milholland, is “I don’t think I’m that person, but I just don’t know.”

Yes, I would like to think I’m a better person than the unwashed hordes and whores who live uncaring, unreflective lives. I would like to be able to say “Yes, I live every moment of every day in philosophical engagement, and at no point is my thinking influenced by an unconsidered opinion.” I’d like to be able to settle for that, but sometimes saying “I don’t know,” isn’t a bad thing, just so long as we follow it up with, “but I’m not going to stop asking the question.”

 
6 Comments

Posted by on December 30, 2010 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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