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Sexism, Misogyny and the 75th Anniversary of Superman
I didn’t really anticipate that I was going to write about this today but enough people are talking about it that it’s time to break it down.
There are some pretty serious and disturbing gender connotations to the way DC Comics is approaching the 75th anniversary of Superman. These gender connotations take on an even more insulting and personal complex when one understands that DC recently was granted the copyright from the Siegel family and understands the personal history that Jerry and his wife, Joanne Siegel (who was part of the inspiration for Lois) had with DC Comics.
There are only two characters known to the Superman mythos that appeared in Action #1 75 years ago: They are Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman himself. That’s it. She pre-dates Lex Luthor, Jonathan and Martha Kent, Supergirl, Superboy, the Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang and every other supporting player in the mythos. She pre-dates Jor-El and Lara and the S shield as we know it. She pre-dates the concept of “the kindly couple” finding Clark Kent. She pre-dates FLIGHT. Clark Kent had asked her out on a date before BATMAN AND WONDER WOMAN even existed. Lois Lane was introduced as a career woman in 1938 when the idea of that would have been unheard of. Even moreso, she was introduced as a career woman who was, in fact, an object of desire despite her brash personalty and many character traits that, in their time (and even today) would have been associated with a male figure. And if you don’t understand why that’s a big deal…..then really need to consider the way we treat powerful career women in this country through mass media—-the way we deem them “un-sexy” and “cold” and un-feminine. So yes—-it’s a big deal that Lois Lane was allowed to be both hard-ass career woman AND the object of Superman’s (Super—as in “better” than your average sexist man’s) desire.
Lois was the first woman of comics. She was one of the first and only female love interests to be introduced with a JOB and her own ambitious career path. She was introduced as aggressive and ambitious in a landscape when the female love interest would have almost ALWAYS have been introduced as being a passive figure. If Lois was in danger it was because she ran INTO the fire. To understand WHY this was important you need to understand the history of feminism. Lois was not a passive damsel. She was not Sleeping Beauty waiting to be kissed. She had a job. She sometimes had a freaking MACHINE GUN. She was often in the middle of the action before Superman even got on the scene. As the AVclub.com first noted, “She was the first response and Superman was the cavalry.”
Let me be clear here: Every time you cheer a relationship in comics where the female in question is presented as strong and smart and ambitious——you are benefitting from Lois Lane existing.
Pepper Potts (who I love btw) being the CEO of Stark Industries? You wouldn’t HAVE that if Lois hadn’t already been there first. The very idea of Pepper Potts even showing up as Tony’s equal in the first Iron Man movie as a brilliant business woman hinged on the history of Lois and Clark already EXISTING for years on end in various forms of mass media—the very idea that a human woman without the privilege of physical power could be the the “one thing that I can’t live without” and the backbone for a MAN of great power whether that “power” came in the form of alien superpowers or a suit made of iron and wealth. This concept did not evolve overnight. It was 75 years in the making, people. And there was another comics’ couple that debuted in 1938 who did the legwork through years of sexism in our culture to get you here. Understand that. Understand the circle of feminism.
Mary Jane Watson (who I freaking love btw and has a legacy of her own) being written as a strong-willed love interest for Peter next to Gwen’s more “pleasing” personality at the time? You wouldn’t HAVE that if Lois hadn’t been there first. There was a template there to create a female partner for Spider-Man with fire in her personality who wouldn’t just nod and smile but would fight back. Again, this concept did not evolve overnight.
Every freaking sci-fi romance that you read now (and I’m not talking about Twilight who took the wrong lessons from Superman, I’m talking about the GOOD ones that took the RIGHT lessons about female power) you owe in some form to Lois Lane. The very idea that a heroine with the ambition and sharp tongue who was going to do things her way and only accept the best in love on the side like Elizabeth Bennett or Jo March could be juxtaposed into a SUPERHERO narrative—-you owe to Lois Lane.
There is serious, bad gender commentary that hinges and infects DC Comics’ choices right now with regards to this character. And if you don’t understand this or if you are one who tries to make excuses for it bc it doesn’t suit your interest to do so, then you are not understanding feminism or gender in the genre and you are an active contributor to the problem.
Lois Lane is a female character who is very hard to objectify. She is very hard to make male gaze. She is usually identified more by her job and her brain than by some physical factor which is why yes, she can be ANY race or have any color hair. She doesn’t exist to be a sex object or to be a male escape fantasy. The CW tried their damnest to objectify her with Erica Durance in the role and yet Durance was so conscious of Lois’s agency and power that she just refused to allow it to happen. The character is so strong-willed that it’s virtually impossible to strip her of agency. She’s always in control. She is very, very hard to objectify and that makes her poison for an industry and a company who really only cares about their female icons when they can exploit them for the male gaze in some capacity. (See the current treatment of Wonder Woman for an example on the way DC has taken a character who was designed to empower women and put her through the lens of the male gaze to instead make her a male power fantasy. DC can’t handle Wonder Woman as she is supposed to be written anymore than they can handle Lois Lane as she is. They just fake it better with Diana because Diana punches shit every once and a while for the cheap seats in the back which allows the company to pretend that they are empowering her even as they continue to devalue her.)
Lois Lane deserves a variant cover for the 75th anniversary of Superman celebration. Lex Luthor, a character who btw is not 75 years old, has not only not been featured in as many comics of media properties as Lois as…but it’s not even close. But he’s an important figure in Superman history. So if they want to feature him on a cover….fine. That’s great. But not at the expense of the feminist icon of the narrative. This comes on the heels of the new 52 where Lois has been continually downplayed, marginalized and shoved out of roles she has held in this mythos for 75 years.
Jim Lee apparently told a fan at Wonder Con today that they might consider putting Lois on a cover “with Perry White and Jimmy Olsen.” So they want to shove the only other character from Action #1 and the DEBUT FEMALE CHARACTER OF THE DCU on a cover with two supporting MALE characters who debuted years after she did. They want to do what many, many employers and companies across media do daily to women: they want to downplay the contributions of the female player by forcing her to share space with two men who are nowhere near as important to downplay her power.
There was a WOMAN who debuted in Action Comics #1. And she was wearing a business suit. She had a JOB in the Great Depression. She had her own comic book for years on end that outsold Batman at one point. She endured years of sexism as women were shoved back into their traditional gender roles after World War 2. She endured terrible sexism at the hands of male creators only to rise from the ashes again in the Bronze Age through the Modern Age as the powerful career woman she was intended to be. She has been in more media properties than any other female character in the DCU roster. She headlined a TV show watched by 20 million people—-many of whom were women.
Oh yeah…and in the ultimate recognition that career women were allowed to CHOOSE their own paths she was married to f***ing Superman on and off in various continuities (including the MAIN DCU CANON) for 30+ years. She was the mother of his child in-canon both biologically and in an adopted capacity depending on what era you were in. So with all due respect, this stunt with Wonder Woman should go burn in the insulting hell fire from which it was spawned. Let’s just hope that the two feminist icons that DC offered up as sacrifices survive the burns from those assanine flames.
There was a woman in Action Comics #1 and she was an icon for millions of women who grew up seeing her on television and in comic books. So ask yourselves why DC Comics is now trying to erase the influence of the first woman of comics and more importantly, ask yourselves if it wouldn’t just be easier for Dan Didio and Jim Lee to just openly spit on Jerry and Joanne Siegels’ graves.
You claim to care about sexism in comics? Got news for you…THIS is sexism in comics at play. This is the attempted erasure of a feminine icon on her 75th anniversary. It’s not right. It’s not fair. And it shouldn’t be something that ANYONE who claims to care about women or gender in comics has tolerance for.
“It’s not as if women have some sort of mysterious homing pigeon hormones that allow us to swarm the best in lady culture when it’s published even if no one lets us know about it. I’d be genuinely curious to know if Marvel and DC have done substantial advertising campaigns in women’s magazines, or on female-oriented television shows when they’re rolling out new storylines or new artists on comics with female characters? Or if they’ve pitched their comics characters as cover girls or interview subjects a la Marge Simpson’s Playboy spread? Just for fun, I checked the Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire archives for references to She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, the Scarlet Witch, Catwoman, Wonder Woman. Only the last produced any results actually related to comics or related products: in a guide to famous breasts in Marie Claire that misstates Wonder Woman’s history. If any other industry was making a push to get a product to its core audience and was failing that miserably in reaching them, they would fire their PR people and their marketing department. Maybe someone can offer information I don’t have here, and if so, I’d be curious to hear it. You can’t expect women to go into comic book stores if they have no idea that anything’s there for them. You can’t expect them to swing by comics and graphic novels sections in physical or online bookstores if they have no conception that there are characters they should get excited about. If you really want a female audience, go after it.”—Alyssa Rosenberg on the issue of why, perhaps, Marvel & DC can’t sustain success with female audiences to the point that they’ll continue to publish titles they’d want to read. She mentions Dan Slott’s fantastic She-Hulk run and that maybe it didn’t have better success because women didn’t know about it. Quoted for truth. Please reblog for truth.
Great comics with women in starring roles: a rec list.
To start off, I’m gonna go ahead and say two things:
- You might not like all of these recs. I’m more fond of some then others. I am recommending these because I think their portrayal of the women characters as either main characters or main characters out of a mixed gender ensemble is strong. And by strong, I mean, well-rounded, well-characterized, not overly sexualized (though even with great writing, there are some cases of this still), with strength and weaknesses of character both well and accurately portrayed.
- If you disagree with any of these choices, or would like to rec others, feel free to reblog and add opinions or recs!
And now onto the list. Not reccing these in any particular order!
- Wonder Woman: The Hikiteia by Greg Rucka. This was Rucka’s first go at writing Wonder Woman, and he is quite honestly my favorite writer for her. The story follows Diana after she makes a vow of protection to a young woman, who is being chased by Batman for past crimes. Wonder Woman must battle one of her best friends in order to keep her honor—and her life. It’s a fantastic stand alone story, and truly shows how much Wonder Woman values her honor and integrity.
- Huntress: Year One by Ivory Madison finally gives us a clear origin story on Gotham’s most violent superhero. There are a lot of mixed feelings about this origin story—some people, like myself, love it; while others hate it. I recommend it because I legitimately think it adds depth and history to the character of Helena Bertinelli, exploring her family’s roots in the mafia and her deep spirituality.
- Manhunter (vol. 3) #1–38 (October 2004 – March 2009) is a run I have mixed feelings about, but cannot deny her importance as a character. Kate Spencer is not a typical female character—not just for comics, but media in general. Hard smoking, hard drinking, an inattentive mother, with a failed marriage and an overtly aggressive personality, Kate Spencer is one of a kind within the comic book universe. And that’s what makes her so special, and worthy of the list imo.
- She-Hulk: Single, Green Female by Dan Slott is a bright light in an era of what are jokingly called “grimdark” comics. Sincerely funny and light-hearted, this book takes the fantastical world of Marvel and follows Jennifer as she has to prosecute over the top cases while being the She-Hulk. At one point, she even helps Spidey sue the Daily Bugle for slander! It’s a great light-hearted comic with what I feel is very well-rounded writing for Jennifer.
- The Question: The Five Books of Blood by Greg Rucka (have you noticed that I love Greg Rucka?) is an extremely dark story following Renee Montoya’s descent into obsession with stopping the religious Cult of Crime, as well as her decaying relationship with her girlfriend Kate Kane (Batwoman). It’s a gory, supernatural noir story that certainly isn’t for people who can’t take horror, gore, or sexuality.
- Birds of Prey vol. 1 issues #56-127 and vol. 2 1-13 by Gail Simone and Tony Bedard is the biggest, longest run I will recommend here, but only cause it’s worth it (and all of these ARE in trade paperback). Following the adventures of the Birds after original autor Chuck Dixon’s departure, Gail Simone masterfully navigates the relationships and personalities of a group of very different women. Not only are their adventures interesting, the characterizations are all brilliant; and Tony Bedard’s brief takeover is also wonderful. The story also introduces several new female characters who are beloved by fans, particularly Misfit.
- Alias: Ultimate Collection Volume One by Brian Michael Bendis is….depressing. But also amazing, and by far the best Jessica Jones stories ever written. It follows her career as a private detective for the seedy part of the Marvel universe. It also probably tells the story of anti-mutant prejudice better than any actual X-men comic has ever managed.
- Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, et al. is a heartfelt look at Death transforming herself into a young woman to better understand the people she guides to the afterlife. It’s full of emotion and twists, and is just a wonderful read.
- Black Widow: The Name of the Rose by Marjorie Liu is a bit of a difficult read for those not really familiar with Natasha’s history, but if you can get past that, this is an absolutely great read. It highlights the true strengths of Natasha, not as an alien-fighting, in-your-face ass-kicker, but a subtly strong master of espionage and psychological combat.
- Vixen: The Return of the Lion by Willow Wilson is a great Vixen solo story, following her as she returns to Africa to hunt down the men who killed her mother. It also has several great scenes where she explores and monologues about her powers, which is surprisingly deep considering how common transformation powers are for superheroes.
- BOOSTER GOLD #34. by Keith Giffen, because Barda punches a dragon. That’s honestly it. She just punches a fucking dragon.
- Batman and Huntress: A Cry for Blood by Greg Rucka is a book that many cite as what made them a Huntress fan. It really explores the thirst for approval she has for Batman, while she still refuses to compromise her goals. It also explores her background (and in some places contradicts Year One).
- WONDER WOMAN #37 by Gail Simone explores the relationship between Diana and Donna and their mother with great emotional power. It’s something you really have to read to appreciate.
- JLA CLASSIFIED #14 by Warren Ellis contains probably on of Oracle’s finest moments. Her determination to save the JLA with only her computer (even if it’s just to give them a proper burial) is fantastic, and the characterization is spot on.
- BATGIRL #50. by Dylan Horrocks is the most defining moment of Cassandra Cain. Out of the entire Bat-family, I feel that Cassandra probably understood Bruce and his mission the most and this issue encapsulates that perfectly.
- Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka showcases some of the best Batwoman stories ever told, including her incredibly powerful coming out scene and her pretty scary first meeting with Batman.
I’ll add more later in a second part!
It's Time for Women to Read Comics in Public, Again!
Once again August 28th has been declared Read Comics in Public Day and once again I am going to run an concurrent event via a Tumblr blog. I started this event two years ago with the idea of ”what if we could show the world the diversity and a snapshot of the breadth of female comic readers. How would that look?” As it turns out pretty amazing. I honestly didn’t know if I would get one photo and I got many wonderful pictures from around the world.
I did it again last year and despite most of the Eastern part of the country being lashed by a huge hurricane I still got lots of pictures.
And this year I’m doing it again. But there are some differences. This year the day is in the middle of the week so I’m expanding the event to include the two days after. But if you can take your photo on the 28th, do it! Read on the bus, in the park, in your office, anywhere that isn’t your home. And if you don’t identify as a woman send in pictures of your girl friends, sisters, daughters, moms!
I don’t care what comic you read but if you are so inclined to read a superhero comic from Marvel or DC, that would be great. And if you want to post a sticky telling how much you spend on comics per month, all the better.
This year’s header for the event was designed by two of the youngest comics fans I know the wonderful Cate and Grace of “5 Minute Marvels”. I think it’s terrific!
So let’s do this ladies; Let’s show ‘em. Help me spread the word and get as many women to participate possible in:
“So that said, here it is. My sincere thoughts on how to promote the presence of women in comics: Pay them. No, seriously. Pay them with money. [...] I bring this up because I've seen a lot of recent attempts by well-meaning people to highlight the works of women. Anthologies, convention spotlights, blogs, interviews, charities, and special events all dedicated to the cause of promoting women in comics. And I think it's wonderful that people want to organize and discuss these things. I think it's wonderful that we want to raise awareness. But awareness only goes so far. Tons of young women already want to - and are good enough - to work in comics. Tons of them are already doing their own thing in the self-publishing world. Many of my friends are releasing graphic novels to rave reviews and impressive sales. Conventions are jam-packed with women. It's not a question of awareness. It's a question of who's getting paid. Frankly, there's no amount of awareness that can pay the artist to be an artist. Asking female creators to donate their time and efforts for non-paying projects is, at best, ineffectual to the cause. There is no pedestal flattering enough, no validation tangible enough, to outvalue a month's worth of rent. And that's what we want - for underrepresented artists to pay their rent, so we can see more incredible art from them.”—
Well worth a read, very interesting.
BoP #4 and how covers like this hurt the industry
So this cover to Birds of Prey #4 has been making the rounds:
and it’s yet another prime example of how companies like DC and Marvel obviously have no idea what their target demographic is or should be. This is the cover to Birds of Prey, which even in it’s new form since the reboot is a book about friendship and female superheroes kicking ass. But this cover screams ‘pin-up eye candy inside, women need not apply’ and is the same as every other cover aimed at 18 to 10 year old males. I would personally feel uneasy about holding a comic with a cover like this in public no matter how much I wanted to read the book.
More than anything a comic cover is supposed to sell a book, not drive consumers away or make them think twice about spending their money on your product. People I’ve seen defending this cover have said, ‘well it’s not that bad, it could be worse.’ When someone says to me ‘it could be worse’ I imagine someone walking up to me on the street, picking up a dog turd and rubbing it in my face and then when I get angry they yell ‘don’t be mad, it could be worse. I could have rubbed two dog turds in your face!’
Yes, it could be worse. But DC is a business and they’ve been in the business of comics for a very long time, you think they’d be some improvement along the way - especially since they’re trying to push ‘diversity’ post-reboot. The same reaction was received to David Finch’s variant cover of Justice League #1 and now only a month later we have this awful cover. Surely someone could take Finch aside and just say, ‘we love your work but maybe you should think about your female poses. Picture your wife or your daughter in that pose. If it makes you uncomfortable perhaps you should reconsider.’ I mean I love David Finch’s work, I really do. I just think when it comes to the female form he has no idea what to do with it besides propping it up next to some male counterparts just to make them seem cooler as if he’s selling a car.
Some brilliant people have re-drawn male superheroes in Wondy’s pose from JL #1 and I took it upon myself to do the same with the Birds of Prey cover:
It’s freaking ridiculous and proof of a terrible double standard at DC. You’ll never see males posed like this on any DC covers but it’s acceptable to have women littering the covers of their most prominent books looking like this. The ever-awesome Kyrax2 wrote a wonderful blog entry recently about the depiction of the female form on comic covers and how the marketing of such is ultimately hurting the comics they’re trying to promote. I recommend you read it, it’s called ‘Judging a book by it’s cover: How women see comic covers.’
Come on Marvel, come on DC. Switch on those brains and those common sense chips.