Tonight PBS is airing a three-hour documentary, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, which, among other things, promises to examine how caped crusaders have addressed “contemporary social issues” throughout their 75-year history in comics, radio, television and film. Hopefully, this will include battlefield reports on the unfair representation of women carried out by the mostly male troops who have historically served in the trenches of the comics industry. However, from comments recently made by some of the foot soldiers interviewed for this program, I don’t expect anyone to break ranks in the ongoing cover-up of a full-scale War on Women currently being waged against female superheroes and civilians in the pages of mainstream comics.
Fortunately, while the industry refuses to police itself, reports from embedded journalists Noellen Clark of the Los Angeles Times, Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress and Joseph Hughes of Comics Alliance, are creating a growing backlash from outraged comic book critics and fans.
Overdeveloped and underdressed
During an August 7 press event for the PBS documentary held by the Television Critics Association, an all-male panel of comics creators displayed an astonishing ignorance of gender issues and their own industry. As reported by Alyssa Rosenberg, according to Image Comics co-founder and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane:
As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys. The guys are all good looking, not too many ugly superheroes. They’ve all got their hair gelled back. They have got perfect pecs on them. They have no hair on their chest. I mean, they are Ryan Gosling on steroids. Right? They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype and do it to both sexes. We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies.
Does someone really have to explain to McFarlane that hyper-exaggerating the pectoral and bicep muscles of male superheroes is not the same as depicting female superheroes with ridiculously protruding breasts and backsides? Has he or any other comics artist ever drawn Wonder Woman bending a steel bar with her cleavage or butt cheeks? A truly equivalent portrayal of Superman or Batman would have them showing off enormous bulges in the crotches of their spandex trunks. Yet if anything, given how little their skin-tight costumes leave to the imagination on every other part of the body they cover, the groin areas of most male superheroes are modestly under-emphasized.
And what does McFarlane mean by “a little more skin”? The costumes of most modern super women look like they belong in a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog rather than a comic book. Comparing the costumes of male superheroes to those of their female counterparts is like comparing police, firefighter or EMT uniforms to the “sexy” costume versions marketed to women (and girls) every Halloween. This is not the sort of apparel anyone would choose to wear for fighting vicious and powerful super villains (or for going outside in temperatures below 80 degrees). Even though he’s invulnerable to harm, in Man of Steel, Superman didn’t fly into earth-shaking battle against General Zod dressed like a Chippendale dancer.
But the physical endowments and skimpy costumes of female superheroes are only part of the problem. While male superheroes are constantly depicted striking heroic and even menacing poses, women superheroes are always presenting themselves like models in a Playboy centerfold. The attitude towards female superheroes apparently shared by many male creators and fans is that they serve a very different purpose from the super men with whom they patrol the streets and skies. Super women aren’t here to inspire and protect but to titillate and arouse.
Another member of the Television Critics Association panel was Len Wein, writer of many of my favorite comics growing up as a kid and creator, with various artists, of such famous characters as Wolverine, Storm and Swamp Thing. Rossenberg’s Think Progress piece reported this perplexing statement by Wein about addressing women’s issues in comics:
I think every time you take a female character, a black character, a Hispanic character, a gay character, and make that the point of the character, you are minimalizing the character.
No disrespect intended (despite how the following is going to sound), but spoken like a true straight, white male (stereotype).
Of course, focusing on any one aspect of a character to the exclusion of all others is most likely going to result in inauthentic and uninteresting storytelling. But claiming that race, gender identity and sexual orientation aren’t relevant to the way people perceive and interact with the world, and the way the world perceives and interacts with them, demonstrates a shocking lack of awareness of sociology and human psychology. It also seems to me to be based on an assumption that everyone’s life experiences are fundamentally the same. This can lead to some incorrect and potentially harmful conclusions when the assumption is being made by someone who has won the genetic trifecta of gender, race and sexual orientation that has directed the course of human civilization for millennia.
Male privilege (as well as white and straight privilege) tends to be invisible to those who benefit from it (and to many who don’t), and this seems especially true in the disproportionately male- (white- and straight-) dominated world of the comics industry. Despite having created the first black woman superhero—or perhaps because of it—Wein doesn’t see any need to have his characters acknowledge the institutionalized injustices perpetrated against women, or any other demographic in our society. He and the other members of the panel intend this willful disregard of cultural context as a great equalizer, when it is really a (likely unintentional) dismissal of the challenges faced by anyone not born into their favored caste.
And the continued failure (or refusal) of creators and publishers to acknowledge this fact contributes to even greater and more offensive expressions of misogyny.
The day before the above statements were made during the TCA panel, another of my favorite comic book writers disappointed me with his quote in a New Republic article. Mark Millar—author of Superman: Red Son, The Authority, The Ultimates and the much less-known Superman for the Animals (on which I served as Creative Consultant)—was asked about the frequent use of rape scenes in his stories, to which he replied:
The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.
That analogy is so flawed it took one outraged reader less than 140 characters to refute it in a tweet that pointed out victims of decapitation don’t live through/with their violation and aren’t blamed for bringing it on themselves.
Or, as Wired columnist and former Comics Alliance editor Laura Hudson put it:
It’s using a trauma you don’t understand in a way whose implications you can’t understand, and then talking about it as though you’re doing the same thing as having someone’s head explode. You’re not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing rape scenes.
Certainly Millar must understand this. Rape is experienced differently by its victims, and viewed differently by society, than any other violent crime. A rapist is deliberately choosing a form of assault that will often—undeservedly—generate the greatest sense of degradation and shame in its victim while simultaneously generating the least sympathy and support from the public. If his goal in Kick-Ass 2 was to make the evilness of his story’s villain glaringly obvious through the commission of the “ultimate” “taboo,” why didn’t Millar have him and his henchmen gang rape Kick-Ass rather than the hero’s teenaged girlfriend? When male superheroes suffer the “ultimate” violation at the hands of their arch nemeses, they get to go out fighting heroically. In epic battles with Doomsday and Bane, respectively, Superman was killed (at least temporarily) and Batman’s back was broken—they weren’t bent over a table with their tights around their ankles and sodomized* (as infamously happened to the Elongated Man’s wife, Sue Dibney, in Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis).
Despite assertions from members of the TCA panel that art only ever imitates life— never vice versa—the normalization of rape culture in comics and other media can’t help but have an impact on society. Millar’s and Meltzer’s depictions of rape might not inspire real-life rapists, but they contribute to the attitude that sexual assault is no different than any other violent crime. As Joseph Hughes put it in his ComicsAlliance post:
In a culture in which rape is undeniably endemic, Millar’s steadfast refusal to consider the potential ramifications of his work remains astounding, infuriating, irresponsible, and sad. In the United States, where the majority of Millar’s comics are published and sold, one in six women has experienced an attempted or completed rape, only 16% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police, and only about 5% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail. In Scotland, where Millar resides, incidences of rape and attempted rape increased by 15% from 2011-12 to 2012-13. These are not statistics one typically associates with decapitation.
This diminishing of rape as a crime and rapists as criminals has been repeatedly played out in real life in the past year. Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, the two high school football players from Steubenville, Ohio, convicted in March of raping a 16-year-old girl, received one- and two-year sentences for their crimes. Meanwhile, Deric Lostutter, the man who brought the case to the world’s attention by leaking incriminating tweets and Instagram photos posted by the rapists’ friends, is facing charges of computer hacking that carry a possible 10-year sentence. In August, Montana judge G. Todd Baugh gave 54-year-old former high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold a one-month sentence for repeatedly raping 14-year-old student Cherice Moralez, who committed suicide before her assailant was brought to trial. Judge Baugh explained his leniency by saying that the victim was “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation” as Rambold.
Perhaps once again attempting to reflect society without influencing it, DC Comics announced in September that it was holding a public artist audition that sexualized suicide. Applicants were required to submit drawings of female Joker sidekick Harley Quinn about to kill herself by various means, including lying naked in a bathtub with an array of electric appliances dangling above her. Showing a sick sense of humor the Joker would have appreciated, the contest announcement was made immediately prior to National Suicide Prevention Week. After being subjected to a week of vocal public outrage, DC Comics eventually apologized.
No woman left behind
Even though the ongoing War on Women being waged in superhero comics takes place on imaginary battlefields like Metropolis and Gotham City, it’s inflicting mounting casualties among real-world readers. When I imagine the level of betrayal felt by girls and women constantly subjected to the sexual objectification of the female characters that have helped shape their concepts of personal achievement and heroism, I’m reminded of another military analogy: the sexual assault of female members of the armed forces by their supposed brothers-in-arms.
I made this connection after hearing victims share their stories in the documentary, The Invisible War, and then reading a 2011 post by Laura Hudson condemning a trend in DC Comics toward increasingly pornographic portrayals of female superheroes. The sense of loss Hudson expressed over the demeaning of her fictional role models seemed strikingly similar to that of military women betrayed by those who’d sworn an oath to have their backs. It’s the heartbreak of learning that not only is the relationship of love and respect you thought you had with someone not mutual, it’s a sham being exploited by someone who holds you in contempt. Or as Hudson put it:
I’m so, so tired of hearing those messages from comics because they aren’t the dreams or the escapist fantasies or the aspirations that I want to have. They don’t make me feel joyful or powerful or excited. They make me feel so goddamn sad that I want to cry, because I have devoted my entire life to comics, and when I read superhero books like these I realize that most of the time, they don’t give a sh*t about me.
Of course, it’s the generals of the comics industry—the real-life writers and publishers— who are responsible for this betrayal, not the fictional foot soldiers who are just following orders. And if the comics industry doesn’t have the backs of fangirls and fanboys equally, we need to have each others’. Male readers need to call out comics that promote sexism and misogyny and let publishers know we’re not interested in superhero stories that lift up one half of their audience while trampling on the other.
As I expected, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle spent no time examining the rampant misogyny going on in the pages of superhero comics today. The issue of feminism was addressed almost exclusively through mostly positive interviews with Lynda Carter and Gloria Steinem about the iconic stature of Wonder Woman.
In contrast, the 300-page companion book to the PBS series, Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls and the Creation of Comic Book Culture, does a much better job than the three-hour documentary of exposing the sexism still alive and well in superhero comics. A three-page section, “Women in Refrigerators: Battle of the Superheroines,” takes its title from the disturbingly frequent tendency—identified by comics fan-turned-bestselling writer Gail Simone—for (mostly male) writers to have female characters brutalized, killed, raped and/or stripped of their powers. The name of this syndrome comes from the kitchen appliance in which Green Lantern once found the dismembered body of his girlfriend. (The book also devotes more coverage to comic book racism and homophobia.)
* To be fair, Mark Millar did write the only instance of male-on-male superhero rape I’m aware of in comics, but both the act and the victim’s reaction to it were so subtly depicted as to be easily missed.