Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where am I? Female Characters in Superhero Comics.( with a touch of race)

Dan DiDio is a major force behind DC comics.

If you have not guessed by now, I am a major comic geek. What you may not have figured out yet is that I am a person driven by social issues, and when social issues meld with my other interests I am all too happy to address them.

This week I found a melding place.

I want you for the next minute to attempt to think of a major female superhero from a DC comic who is not defined by her relationship to a male character.

I'll wait.....

Done? Good.

How many could you name? I am guessing not many. The truth is in the DC Universe there is a shocking number of female superheros in proportion to males. This became exceptionally evident at this years Comic-con when two female comics fans questioned why so few female characters existed . When asked of this Justice League writer Geoff Johns named Mera as a strong female character that was not basically a clone of a male. Mera. Mera, the wife of Aquaman. While I do not deny that she is a brilliant character, and the modern age has depicted her as a fierce female in her own right. BUT...

WTF Geoff Johns WTF???

I think it is pretty obvious that he simply tried to think of ANY female character that was not simply a version of a male character with female genitalia. The best he could do was to name a character whose entire existence basically hinged upon her relationship to a male character. This is something DC is famous for really. A seeming inability to create new and interesting characters that are completely separate from old ones. If you look at DC comics in terms of female characters you will see what I mean. I have compiled two lists of characters that would be somewhat well known in various media to demonstrate my point.

DC Comic Character Defined y/Originated due to their relationships to men:
Catwoman-paramour to Batman
Supergirl-Superman's cousin
Powergirl-Alternate Supergirl
Batgirl-Sidekick of/spin off batman
Oracle-Former Batgirl, batman contacts
Hawkgirl- lover of Hawkman
Zatanna- descendant of Zatara the magician
Huntress- Originally was Batman and Catwoman's daughter
Miss Martian- "niece"/spin off of Martian Manhunter
Arrowette- created as a replacement for Speedy in the recent cartoon
Stargirl- family friend/ replacement of Star-Spangled Kid
Mary Marvel- Part of the Marvel Family
Star Sapphire

DC Comic Characters Who Originated as Originals
Big Barda
Wonder Woman
Black Canary

Keep in mind I did break up the list into the various "separate" characters that used the same names and I focused on the original origin of each character. The current Huntress, for instance, is the exact same character, but her origin was re-conned so that she had no relationship to Batman. There have been multiple supergirls, four different women to go by Batgirl(I'm counting the original who was simply trying to seduce Batman, mind you), and Wonder Woman herself has two spin off characters who at different points went by Wonder Girl. It's almost pathetic how few truly original major female characters there are.

The common response by a number of comic book geeks is a simple "It's statistics not sexism" based around the idea that because women do not become police officers or join the military in an equal proportion to males that do so...women would not be superheroes. Or that instituting a quota would be unethical. Or women don't read comics like males do...


I'm pretty sure this actually accounts for a lot of shit that goes down. You notice I used both sexist and racist. Well the reason is this argument is one that is constantly referenced when it comes to race or gender in comics. Last year Danny Glover of NBC's "Community" joked about being cast as the new Spiderman on Twitter. Glover, who is a wonderful actor and self confessed geek was met with near instant backlash. It began the classic "I'm not racist but.." arguments among those who took him seriously and those simply responding to other comments about it. People began posting arguments as to why Spider-man could not be Black. Some people tried extra hard with justifying why Spider-man should be white without the intent of being racist. They were in fact annoying comic purists who could not stand for the precious order of their beloved world to change. Some were flat out racists deriding the mere suggestion of a black Spidey. Others trying their best to deny that their opinion was based in subtle prejudices they never really knew they had. All sides willingly turned to the statistics of the US saying that blacks are a smaller part of the population therefore there would not be many black heroes. It sounds logical and wonderfully realistic, and they defend that logic with the idea that comics are based in the real world. They are right, comics are based in our world with the same celebrities and everything. It's easy to understand why plenty of male readers would turn to this logic when confronting the issue of female characters, as well. It's smooth simple logic.

Yet...its not. Superpowers tend to come from accidents, alien DNA, being given power, purposely using magic, or seeking out science. Superheroes are depicted as the abnormal minority of society who choose to use their powers for good. Accidents are random chance, and those who choose to become superheroes as compared to the over all population are few and far between. Women and minorities should not be exempt from being near the source of something. Urban areas also tend to have a high proportion of minorities than smaller more rural or suburban areas, so with all these heroes stationed in cities you would assume there would be more blacks and hispanics because they tend to dominate urban life. Factoring in random chance, personal choice, and location the statistics of the real world seem a bit inadequate. A black inner city male may have more incentive to be a crime fighter to clean up his neighborhood than a suburban white male. A woman be more inclined to experiment in her own free time than face the competition of male counterparts, thus increasing the risk of an accident. I find it hard to believe that a white male would be more accident prone than a female, or a minority simply because of statistics. In terms of science and engineering these fields are slowly being approached by non-whites, as well, and a growing number of women. Magic is simply a toss up of interest and being lucky enough to find the right information.

The more intriguing is the issue of aliens, which truly shows the major problem with this argument. It suggests aliens either have the same population diversity of earth or that all significantly human looking aliens have the features of white person. Aliens are alien. They aren't human. They aren't typically citizens and our population diversity has nothing to do with theirs. The reason people think this way is that white is the baseline in our society regardless of species. To be human is to be white unless stated otherwise. It is sad but it is true. The only non-caucasian featured alien I can recall is Icon from Milestone (now a DC Owned property). Who is to say that aliens appear like Caucasian perople and not black, or asian or multi-ethnic?. Who is to say there is not a planet where matriarchy is the status-quo? Who is to say that females in every society are not viewed as the stronger of the genders? Aliens are not confined to our situation. There is no reason why a female alien  or a "ethnic" (I loathe that word somewhat) looking alien cannot become a major superhero.

Furthermore insinuating that the social hierarchy for the police department or the military is similar to the Superhero world makes NO SENSE. Police Departments are an interesting social experiment, as they embody the hyper-masculinity of American society. Women are often ostracized by men who lead the pack. Any woman has to not only prove herself adequate, but often better than the men without, of course, making them feel insecure. IN fact many women are taunted or outright discouraged from joining the force. Beyond gender there are many codes of conduct spoken and not that affect behavior. Police officers look out for each other and their families, squealers are not tolerated. Lawyers are often viewed as either troublemakers or troublesome with a few being "ok guys/gals".There is an official hierarchy as well as an unofficial one.

In the world of DC, so long as you do not cause trouble, interfere with other heroes, or get involved with "the best of the best"(IE Wondie, Supes, Bats, etc.) you are left to your own devices. Few heroes look at your gender and assume you are too weak for the job. They look at your performance and how you handle a situation then decide if you cause more hurt than harm. Male or female you have no real rules, you decide to work outside of the normal societal structure and seek justice beyond what is regulated. This means you can't quite apply the superhero role to a police officers role.

In terms of the military which is only 20% female there is a far stronger order than the police force. Many believe that while a woman's desire to aid her country is admirable it is not proper for her to join. Women are discouraged from being active in the military, and those who are must work three times as hard as their male counterparts. Women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted by their peers, as well. The environments of both the military and the police force are moderately un-welcoming to women, which is why many women avoid such institutions. There is also the simple fact that the hyper-masculine nature of the military and the force lead outsiders to agree that most women are not suited for the force. Unless the vigilante world is as equally unappealing the statistics are useless.

Throwing around statistics to justify your opinion while ignoring the outside factors or reasons behind said statistics is foolish. How many real world people have been bitten by a radioactive spider? How many alien superheroes have crash landed on Earth? How many millionaire playboys have taken up fighting crime?

Now whenever someone sees this word they sigh and grumble about being forced to do something unpleasant. Yet when properly implemented in business quotas can be used to help ensure a company breaks even at the end of the day. Quotas do in fact have their place.

That said I am against the use of quotas in many situations. For instance a show dealing with the lives of a rich white family in California having only one or two main minority characters makes sense to me. Just as a show about a black musician going back to teach music at his inner city high school having only two white main characters makes sense. There are times when reality is necessary to demonstrate the setting. The difference between this and a comic book is that comic books have more freedom due to the nature of its contents.As I stated before most powers are gained by random chance, genetics, magic, science, or some combination there of. This negates the statistics argument, but NOT a location argument, like the two examples I use above. There are not quotas in place to ensure a rainbow equal gendered cast because the shows setting doesn't allow for it. The fact is many affluent neighborhoods are populated by white people, the fact is not many white people live in the inner city. These shows do not deal with the "super-fiction" of abnormal things. Each show deals with the occasionally wacky events that the characters fall into. The races and genders for the characters typically fall in line with the setting of the show. Comics have far more leeway due to the nature of their being "Super Fiction", they bend and twist into the impossible and improbable. Heroes come and go from one place to the next, and they come from a variety of backgrounds that make the intermingling of ethnic groups possible, perhaps more so than we can think. 

While I do not believe quotas are necessary, so much as common sense, there is one statistic that should be acknowledged....51% of the population  is female. As far as random chance goes there should be more female characters. There should be more female characters who are independent of another hero. I am not saying there should be some magical number for every team. I am certainty not saying that every team should be an equal 50/50. I am saying to those who use statistics that by their own logic they should be arguing for more female characters. I am saying that there simply should be a higher percentage of non white male heterosexual characters. I am saying that there should not be a need for any quota because making a good character, that so happens to be female isn't hard!

Basically there is no reason the number of independent female characters in DC comics should be so low. There should be no need for quotas.

Most Women Don't Read Comics and Those Who Do Should Shut Up.

Once again....What.The.Frak?!?!?

The fact is we all know that males make up the more significant amount of comic book readers. This fact will not ever change so long as DC comics, and other comic companies do not attempt to branch out. It's a fucking cycle. It is not that females do not wish to read comics. It is that most comics do not connect or interest females because the companies tend to appear contemptuous of complex women.  Plenty of females can connect with a male character. Numerous women admire Spider-Man and Green Lantern. Yet whenever a woman seems to complain about there not being a female role model or hero the immediate retort is why can't women see men as role models, or what difference does gender make? Well it makes a major difference. No one says that someone is incapable of respecting and looking up to someone of the opposite gender, but it is human instinct to try and imitate the social cues of one who we feel akin to. By this I mean that people tend to drift towards people who are similar to them. If you go into a high school cafeteria in the US you will most likely find that the majority of kids are sitting closer to people of their own, race, gender, and school grade. The same goes for role models. I will be using the example of "The other" Wes Moore from the book "The Other Wes Moore".

Wes grew up never having known his father outside of meeting when he was 5. His mother was young but did her best to raise him despite her own personal follies. She warned him to stay away from drugs and moved him to better neighborhoods and schools through out his childhood. However Wes's older brother Tony was the only role model the young Wes had, and while Tony constantly told his brother to stay away from the drugs and gangs of their upbringing, Tony himself was a prominent drug dealer. Tony constantly lectured Wes, but all Wes saw was how Tony was respected as a leader, how he always had knew clothes and sneakers, and how Tony always seemed to have spending money. Eventually Wes himself got into selling thousands of dollars in drugs.

While Wes's mother tried to be a role model by working hard and telling him of the value of education, he found that the better person to look up to was Tony. Wes admits to the author(also named Wes Moore, hence the title) that he always tried to be like his brother. He was innately draw not only towards his brother success, but to his brother as being the only male role model he knew.

While anyone can be a role model to anyone, people are predisposed to those who they find similarities with from the shallow to the innate. It is simply how we function as human being. Therefore it is only natural for a girl to wonder why there is no one that looks like her outside of Wonder Woman, and even Wonder Woman is depicted as...eye candy sometimes. Plenty of young girls watched the Teen Titans cartoon on Cartoon Network, and it was because both Raven and Starfire function as real people. They are women who never are depicted as being less than the men because they are women. These two heroes gained role model status, and yet characters like the Raven and Starfire of this cartoon are few and far between.

Furthermore this argument makes me question...why can't males look up to female superheroes? If you're argument rests on the fact that gender is irrelevant why can't a boy look up to a female superhero? This reeks of a double standard. It essentially says, "women should be happy idolizing men." or that "Of the genders men are more worthy of being role models." Which is offensive, untrue, and asssssssss backward!

The reason many females do not read comics is because females often find a western comic is just not welcoming to women. The women are drawn to be over sexualized, are given slutty costumes, and are once again typically defined by a man. Nothing wrong with a slutty costume, but when art constantly depicts a vast number of women so sexually it does not embrace sexuality, but it makes a statement that women must be overtly sexual to be interesting. These costumes aren't even sexual, they're trying to be sexual, but in the end they come across of juvenile attempts to target teenage boys and drive away women(along with some men) who aren't comfortable with that. This isn't about slut shaming or women wearing what they want. Most of the artists are men and they don't draw women in reasonable costumes or to empower them often. There are many ways toe be comfortable with your sexuality and not flaunt it. A truly comfortable person, whose personality isn't overtly sexual, doesn't just flaunt their body without a reason.

Starfire is a wonderful character, but how do you give a teenager a Starfire comic and say "Live up to her kindness and goodness" when those are not the things the art, which is part of the story, focuses on. Starfire's people believed in openness and wore revealing clothes because of that fact, providing a good reason to her outfits. Yet artists enjoyed abusing this by portraying her in pornographic poses for posters and art. George Perez and early Titans artists avoided this and focused on her beauty as a person by drawing attention to her face as well as her body. In some art you are immediately stuck by how kind her eyes are and how soft her smile is. You know she is filled with love and just wants to make sure everyone is happy like she is. Yet she is often reduced to her body, her face plain and the vibrancy gone with past artists. She's only one and far better off than the Barbwire, Witchblade, Lady Death, or the Star Saphire's of Green Lantern. It is worth noting the Star Saphire costumes tend to be on the revealing side on average unlike most other Lanterns, as though their representing of love is the same as lust because they are an all female core. Ultimately these characteristics drive away women, and even men because there is a complete lack of diversity in what it means to be sexy and a woman. Ultimately what these artists and editors tell us is that to be a woman, a powerful one, your sexuality must be present not for yourself but for everyone else because you are not valid enough to not be eye candy. It's insulting to men and women in dozens of different ways leaving very few happy except those who only want ass and titties. Essentially everyone loses.

Another thing...as a woman...I can suspend my disbelief, but you have to be kidding me that a teenage Supergirl would feel comfortable wearing a skirt that literally only covers her ass, or that Psylock would wield her psyblades in stilettos without hesitation. These artists and the people who approve the art they are driven to make inadvertently tell me that these things are normal and every woman cares about being a sex object all the time. It's not about embracing sexuality or even being sexy because it is often sad. These powerful women are posed and dressed to be sex objects because they wanted to be. That is what they would have me believe, and in some cases that's true because the character is that way BUT that's a character thing not a female requirement. Catwoman is sexually confident and doesn't need a damn bit of male approval to know it. She walks into a room she can choose to own or not because she is Selena Kyle and she knows how to work the room and herself. Whether she's weather zipped up catsuits or cocktail dresses Selena Kyle is a sexy woman because no matter how you draw her she is drawn with confidence and written with confidence in that fact. When you pull down that zipper you almost dis empower that sexiness because she doesn't need to show anyone anything. She is one in charge not you.
There are MANY WAYS TO BE SEXY but not every woman needs to be sexy all the time or puts their sex appeal on display. I can't believe that in these worlds of fiction every woman tries to be a sex symbol or a 13 year olds masturbation fantasy without ever thinking about it outside of occasional jokes.

But there is one other factor at work here:

"Where am I?"
"Where are the real human women>"

Where is the strong central protagonist that is female with a consistently interesting storyline?
Well I can tell you where she is, Manga. Japanese Manga is typically read by a higher percentage of women than men, in particular Shojo which is catered to women. I am the first to admit that I was once an anime/manga junky, but I am also the first to admit that honestly... a fair amount of it is kind of trashy overly romantic love stories. Yet a fair amount of it isn't. Women read these books because there is usually a lovable female with a strength of inner character. For instance Fruits Basket is primarily a love/drama story, but the protagonist proves herself to be brave, loving, and immensely generous. A better example is Dinah of the American Binzenghast series
Dinah is a girl plagued by the innate ability to see ghosts outside of the ghost realm, and suffers from a series of psychological issues. She is prone to bouts of rage, depression, and making brash decisions. She learns to deal with her emotional problems by being forced to confront the numerous ghosts that inhabit her town. While Dinah often relies on her best friend Vincent to help, she is quite determined to become her own woman, and eventually becomes willing to confront the ghosts of the town herself. She is a true female protagonist. She is her own person, suffers from her own demons(real and figurative), and goes on a journey to overcome them. One final example is Zodiac PI a series about a 14 year old fortune teller who takes up the mantle of her mother, as a detective known as Spica using a mystical ring to solve mysteries while searching for her missing mother. The mysteries are deadly and she is in constant danger of being killed by her mothers enemies as well as those who want to keep their crimes a secret. Her love interest is second fiddle, and she often finds herself saving him.

These are stories women and men like. These are stories that captivate many women and men while DC comics tends to captivate mostly men. Even if you look at Marvel comics there are plenty of female characters that are popular and done well that stand independently; Storm, Jean Grey, Ms. Marvel, Black Widow, Electra, Spider-Woman, Songbird, Psylocke, Black Cat, and more are recognizable. By neglecting to reach out to female readers by having a strong female protagonist, or characters, DC neglects part of the market as well as simply spits in the face of the readers.

It solidifies the perception of what comics have been for years...a White Heterosexual Male fantasy that excludes diversity on the basis that it should stay its own little niche.

I'm a black female who loves comics, but I guess between the color of my skin and the parts between my legs, I am not supposed to read them. My money is not the money aimed for.

I don't even think I can address this accurately within the post. If you listened to the audio clip at the top of this post. You will know why.
Baffling....truly baffling...
"Who should we hire!?!" Dan DiDio demands with every ounce of hostility that is in his body.
We all know what he is really saying---"Who are you to tell me how to run this business!?!?!"
Well Mr. DiDio we are your fans. We are the people who keep you employed. We feed that grubby little face of yours with our hard earned cash. As fans we demand answers to our questions. As fans we demand to know...why women aren't good enough for DC comics. We demand to know why Women are SO invisible to you. To act like there were no women who wanted to be part of the Comic book industry AT COMIC-CON is, for all intents and purposes, plain dumb. Just dumb. If DC is looking to hire, sign me up! PLEASE!

Women can write just as well as men. Women, like men, can create male and female characters equally well. Harry Potter, one of the best selling movie and books series of all time, is written by a woman. Agatha Christie one of the founders of the modern mystery novel was a woman. There may not be as many comic book fans with vagina's in the world right now, but there are a signifigant amount who would be thrilled to work at DC.

This all leads to one question, true believers...Is how many female characters and female staff does Marvel have?

If you want to both listen and take a look at what happened at Comic-Con here is the link.

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