Boys and Girls Together

ADDENDUM: If you're one of the hundreds coming over here from When Fangirls Attack!, welcome to the blog. Understand from the top two things:

(a) Neither Ragnell nor Kalinara like me very much, so you may not get the kind of thing you're used to them recommending here, and

(b) Yeah, my comments are moderated. Go ahead and leave a comment anyway... as long as you're not a troll, I'll let it through, even if you disagree with me. Hopefully, you'll disagree with me in an interesting and/or entertaining way, giving me some food for thought, and I'll try to respond in the same way.

Comment moderation is specifically up to filter out trolls, however -- I'm very opinionated, so I get my share. Bear it in mind.

Oh, and feel free to check out the rest of my stuff, too, if you feel like it. ;)

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Ragnell points me to this. For once, she's not bullshitting -- this post really is required reading.

Under the title "If The Fanboys Think We're Jealous, How Do We Win?", a female blogger who seems to call herself Willow advises --

In my entry "Beyond The Catfight Fantasy" I brought up my concern that fanboys (generic catch all term) may read feminist stances against over-sexualized female characters in comics, as a catfight. They might very well see our objections as us trying to bring down the 'prettier than us' fictional characters. astraldreamgirl of Maid of Might sums it up pretty well in her comment here, quote:

Because that would explain perfectly the average, unthinking fanboy response to complaints, which generally boils down to "But don't you want women to look good? Surely you don't want the women to look ugly?!"

The Pretties vs The Uglies. That primary school scandal raises it's ugly heads. Even if you weren't a part of it, even if weren't paying attention to which side you were on; the boys were paying attention. And they didn't just see it on the playground, it's everywhere. Women tearing down other women who're more successful than they are, or younger, or more beautiful. Sometimes those women don't even realize what they're doing when the claws come out.

But if it's made such a huge impression, if it's become coded behavior, how do we uncode it so that the fanboys running and working in the industry listen to our actual points and not just see the whole thing as noise. I don't agree with James Meeley's points about needing to have patience and not shouting. But I do wonder now if his response was what it was because he was also reading 'catfight' into what we feel is righteous anger at misrepresentation and exploitation.

So now what do we do? How do we win the pre-fight? How do we shift perception, if this is the perception, away from a sterotyped understanding and towards our real points? How do we set up dialogue? What language do we use?

The fanboys point out over and over again that male characters are over muscled, and unrealistic and they don't object. Is it machismo? And if so, do they think we're whining? Are they really saying they aren't inimidated by heroic figures so why are we? If their stance is - we're men, we know we're not heroes, we don't expect to see heroes just like us - is that why they can't understand that we do expect to see heroines who remind us of our mothers, sisters, teachers and other important female figures?

I don't think fanboys are that blind to inspiration. They like Batman's unwavering goals. They like Superman's epic heroism - as in his essential goodness. And those characteristics are displayed within figures who are larger than life, thus muscles and broad shoulders and tiny hips and intensely low body fat. But the men are still men. They're still men fanboys can relate to and understand and feel represented by. If they had superpowers and worked out that hard and had the time, money, energy - they too would do right for the world and try to juggle a private life or social life or any life at all. (Reverse that if they're a villian loving fanboy with private plans for world conquest)

I might not be able to think of a single individual in my life who I see in Mystique. But I do know I admire her survival instinct and her pure mettle. They're attributes I can recognize in myself and women I admire. I admire Helena's pluckiness and grit. She'll go to the dark place, she'll deal with the scum to protect the greater good. That's something I can admire. But Huntress stops being a woman I can recognize when, without super powers, she flaunts her body's weak and vulnerable spots even though she's been previously injured. That's not me if I had the super dedication and worked out hard and had the time, money and energy.

What language do I need to communicate that more clearly than I just did? I know I'm not in competition with a two dimensional representation of a heroic female. I know that it's a fantasy. But it's a fantasy set in a real world analog. Real world dangers apply. People can die or become critically injured. People can be tortured. Science has a level of similarity as well from medical to fissionable. Gravity apparently works the same if they're on planet earth. So what are the right words to use to show the difference in wanting that potential role model and icon to show due concern for her personal safety and self image without it seeming like I'm comparing myself to some norex wearing 'beauty queen' and wanting the bitch to go down?

Sobering stuff. Especially for a nearly lifelong 'fanboy' who is about to turn 45 (in two months, thanks), who is about to marry the finest woman he's ever met (assuming I stay lucky and don't piss her off too much) and become stepfather to the three finest girls in human history... the elder two of whom already read superhero comics (thanks largely to my influence) and the younger of which almost certainly will read superhero comics when she gets a little older. (Hopefully, the good ones from the Silver Age I point out to her in my collection.)

I admit, I hadn't looked at this subject from Willow's viewpoint before, as those few of you who actually read my largely ignored Chick Fight! entry from a few weeks back already know. In fact, I closed that (lengthy) entry with the following paragraph:

As for the rest of it, though, well, superhero comics are inherently unrealistic, and that’s part of their charm. They are also, at least right now, a genre created, consumed, and supported almost entirely by males. Until that changes, I wouldn’t expect to see anything else change… and as a male myself, well, the only change I’m ever in favor of is better writing. But, hey, I like the good girl art as much as anyone else… and I really can’t see anything wrong with that, either.

Well, we live and learn. Some of us have to be hit over the head with a two by four, but, still, when someone does us the office, we can absorb some new information from it.

In the previously mentioned Chick Fight! entry, the main point that I made (if I made any at all) was that yes, women have a right to be upset about how female characters are portrayed in comics -- not at their appearances, because male characters have appearances just as exaggerated, and fangirls certainly don't mind that -- but at the subordinate roles that female characters in comics always find thrust upon them by the male characters all around them (and the male creators behind them). I also waxed rhetorical at some length about the need for more writers in comics who understood that violent confrontation is far less natural or instinctive for women than it is for men, and that therefore, superheroic (and, for that matter, supervillainous) women would attempt to solve problems and resolve conflicts using a different paradigm than most male superhumans. (Which is to say, superwomen, even those with superstrength, would be more inclined to use their wits, and manipulate their environments to advantage with their powers, and defuse confrontation, than they would to put on a violent dominance display with the intention of bludgeoning their opponent/obstacle into whimpering submission.) Here's one of many such passages:

Female comics fans may continue to clamor for female characters in superhero comics with more modest mammary endowments and who do not dress like topless dancers at the beginning of a three song routine, but the commercial reality of comics precludes the modification of such details, and that’s just how that is.

If we men don’t feel our gender is being sexually exploited by its universal representation as ‘beefcake’ in these four color rags, it seems to me that female comics fans (who certainly don’t seem to mind the beefcake, either) could lighten up a little bit about the cheesecake, too. But, women tend to have different perceptions of sexuality than men do, and in this regard, we may simply have to accept that this particular sub-genre of graphic art is now and always has been predominantly created for (and by) and consumed by males… and leave it at that. Or, as I noted before, declare it a wash and put it behind us.

Having now read the article I opened this entry with, though, I realize that I was wrong to so quickly dismiss fangirl concerns about superwoman physicality. Because women simply don't see these things the same way as men do... and that's very valid.

But Huntress stops being a woman I can recognize when, without super powers, she flaunts her body's weak and vulnerable spots even though she's been previously injured. That's not me if I had the super dedication and worked out hard and had the time, money and energy.

Uh... yeah. Okay. I can see that.

Huntress dresses like a ho. I admit it. I admitted it more than once (I think) in my previous entry on the subject. Of course, I then blithely dismissed any concerns about that from female comics readers by noting rather patronizingly that superhero comics are a subgenre designed for and largely supported by adolescent males, and that's just the way that is. Essentially, I said "Well, we like looking at the boobies, don't you know, and you girls like looking at Kyle Rayner's ass, too, so all you fangirls out there, just suck it up and move on."

But I overlooked something, and that is this: the way a woman presents her physicality to the world around her is a very large part of her essential, characteristic behavior... much more so than with men, or boys. We males are much more unconscious of our physical appearances, because culture does not judge us anywhere near as much, or as intensely, on that basis. Men are judged largely on their actions and their behavior, and yes, we have to adhere to the dress code at work and appearances are important in certain situations. But personal appearance is much much more important for a woman than it is for a man. So, again... how a woman presents herself to the people around her, is something that says far, far more about her essential character than the equivalent behavior in a man.

When a guy opens a comic and sees Superman, Batman, Iron Man, or Thor whipping around the panels in absurdly unrealistic, skintight materials that cannot possibly exist in the reality we all share (and that, despite being skintight, generally do not show off sexual anatomical details to any great extent, because most comics artists are male and the idea of drawing Spider-Man's package makes them vaguely queasy), we don't think anything of it. We don't care how they dress, because we don't much care how we dress.

Or that's what we tell ourselves, and it's what we (or, at least, I) write condescendingly to the female fans when they get all huffy over Power Girl's giant melons or Black Canary's fishnets or the Huntress in her skank suit. If it doesn't bother us guys that Superman and Batman dress like Chippendale's dancers wearing a coat of paint and have zero body fat, why can't you girls just roll with it when Sue Storm parades around in a layer of blue saliva with a big 4 stretched between her constantly erect areolas? C'mon! It's the same thing!

However, even as I typed this, I realized it was all bullshit. Why? Well...

In the late 1970s, Legion of Superheroes fanboys rose up as one in disgusted revulsion, shaking our fists at the skies while averting our eyes in appalled nausea from the horror that was Mike Grell's Cosmic Boy costume. That's it, on the right, behind Superboy. It looks like Cosmic Boy broke into Tim Curry's dressing room during the filming of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and ran off with some of Dr. Frank N. Furter's extra wardrobe. It made us all, as one, reach for the closest receptable we could vomit into.

That Grell has an interesting point of view on human sexuality can be seen from these other two covers of his from this time period I found after a brief hunt on the Internet. Did guys, in general, enjoy seeing other men, especially gigantic burly black men with huge... er... afros... depicted in this kind of sissyboy leathergear? Fuck no we did not.

It would seem, then, that this idea I keep setting forth... namely, that getting all pissy about the constant sexualization in comic books of one's own gender is just a crazy chick thing, and they need to get over it... this would seem to require a little more thought. Because, as the above covers and my outraged response to them at the time... a response echoed throughout Legion fandom... show inarguably, guys get just as upset when characters of their gender are depicted as blatant sex objects, as girls do.

So why is it so hard for us -- why has it been so hard for me, anyway -- to understand that women respond to Huntress in her skank outfit, or Power Girl in her absurdly skintight leotard with no support garment underneath it for the biggest goddam rack since Dolly Parton's, in much the same way I used to respond to Mike Grell's Cosmic Boy outfit?

I don't know. I really don't know. I guess I just haven't wanted to face up to it, and I think I probably owe female fandom assembled a thirty year long apology for it.

All this is exacerbated by the fact that the original blog entry by Willow is entirely correct when she points out, as I have reiterated above, that women are far more careful about, and far more conscious of, the appearance they present to the world around them, than men are. Us guys generally really don't care how we dress, unless we have some pragmatic reason to do so -- our boss will send us home to change if we wear our HULK sweatshirt to work, our girlfriend will break up with us if we wear that goddam twenty year old, ripped and frayed and faded RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK t-shirt out to the mall with her one more time, etc. Women, on the other hand, are generally much more aware of how they look at any given time, because they've been judged on it since birth. And they've been taught to judge other women on their own appearances, too, and they do it as unthinkingly as we all breathe.

So, when a female comics fan opens up an issue of BIRDS OF PREY, a comic that is supposed to be about some strong, competent, independent superheroines who take no shit from anybody, and they see athletic martial artist type women whose entire profession is based around physical combat with (generally) bigger, bulkier, nastier men, and these women are dressed like strippers in ridiculously tight non-existent fantasy fabrics, fishnet stockings, and high heeled thigh high boots that an Olympic gold medal gymnast would have trouble tottering across a room in, much less highkicking some thug through a wall while encumbered by... it bothers them. These superheroines are supposed to be intelligent, they're supposed to be competent, they're supposed to be among the finest physical athletes and martial artists in the world. And they're dressed like THAT?

It seems more than a little ridiculous, I have to imagine. In fact, it may well seem so ridiculous as to be offensive. That last bit I really didn't get until just now, as I contemplate how I would feel if I opened an issue of AVENGERS or JLA, and discovered that Mike Grell had redesigned all the male characters' costumes, and they were all now wearing black leather skintight Speedos with black leather high heeled thigh high boots and criss crossing chest chains. Would I scream my head off? Would a hundred thousand fanboys scream right along with me? I believe we would.

And, again, it can't be stressed enough -- what I learned from Willow's post is that to women, this is even more important than it is to men. Women grow up in a world where they are judged on their appearance far more constantly, and far more intensely, than men are. How a woman dresses, how she styles her hair, how much of her body she puts on display, how much and what kind of make up she wears... all of these things are extremely meaningful to herself, and to other women. They say something important, not just about what the woman looks like, but about what kind of person she is.

No woman, not anywhere, not in all of human history, has ever dressed the way every costumed superwoman in superhero comics routinely and unthinking and apparently unconsciously does. No real human woman has ever so routinely displayed her body to such an absurdly unbelievable degree as characters like Catwoman, Power Girl, Huntress, Colleen Wing (in the new HEROES FOR HIRE book) or the Wasp do nearly every minute of every day of their lives, especially while fighting for their lives against lethally superpowerful opponents. Strippers dress like superheroines do, but they do it for about two minutes at a time on stage in a highly artificial setting while in the process of disrobing, and they do it because they get paid (a LOT) for the service. Nobody in comics has ever even jokingly suggested that Tigra, Crystal, or the Valkyrie actually get paid to constantly flaunt their gigantic bosoms, and in many cases, perpetually erect nipples, to everyone around them all the time... and yet, they do. They do it constantly.

Why do they do it? Because fanboys buy comics and, for the past several generations at least, fanboys have also drawn comics, and fanboys like to see that stuff and presumably fanboys enjoy penciling and inking it, too.

But what this means is that when a woman reads a comic, the characterization of all the female characters in that comic -- at least, all the young, pretty, glamorous ones -- is completely wrong, on a subtle but fundamental level they cannot get away from. Women are no more enamored of seeing every representative of their gender depicted in a blatantly sexualized way then we men are when an artist like Mike Grell does it to male characters, and where we guys can and do simply assume this is a case of artistic stupidity and never once feel like it somehow reflects on Cosmic Boy's behavior (we seem to simply preconsciously assume Cosmic Boy would never actually dress like that if the artist didn't make him do it), for women it's different. They do not simply shut off their emotions and move past the appearances of the female characters in the comics, because to them, how a woman dresses is deeply reflective of what that woman is like as a person.

If the Huntress and the Black Canary go out to fight crime dressed like hookers, well, a female reader cannot help but feel that they are probably skanks in real life. And it doesn't matter how nuanced their dialogue may be, or how many kids we see them pull out of how many burning buildings at great risk to their own life and limb, because no matter how courageous or competent or valorous or noble they are, the fact remains, they are dressed in costumes specifically designed to give any man seeing them a gigantic woody, and most women have nothing but (perhaps merited) contempt for any woman who specifically dresses simply to provoke that kind of reaction in men.

The fact that these female characters behave like admirable, wonderful, fabulous people while dressed as porno starlets is, on a fundamental level, confusing and offensive to female comics readers. It causes them, to say the least, some emotional conflict.

And, I regret to say, until I read Willow's blog entry last night, and until I reflected further on it while typing this today, and recalled Mike Grell's horrific Cosmic Boy costume from the 1970s, I really didn't get this at all.

I don't know what can be done about it, though. It seems to me that as long as fanboys are predominantly drawing and buying superhero comics, women in those comics will continue to be portrayed as pretty much visual fodder for adolescent male wet dreams. The only real solution would seem to be involving more women in the creation of superhero comics... and getting more women to buy superhero comics, as well.

Right now, the fangirl segment of superhero comics readership is comparatively tiny, and comics companies, and creators, pretty much disregard its collective voice with impunity. Until more women start buying superhero comics, this isn't going to change. Although I suppose... hmmm. You know, every superhero comics fangirl pretty much has to know at least ten superhero comics fanboys. And superhero comics fanboys tend to be pretty eager to please any female of any sort who pays any attention to them (us) at all. If all the fangirls started to speak as eloquently to all the fanboys they know as Willow did on her blog... hmmmm...

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