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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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“Demographics may also account for Marvel’s decision to withdraw a variant cover of the then-upcoming Invincible Iron Man #1 that featured a sexualized depiction of fifteen-year-old Riri Williams. After the comics site The Mary Sue criticized the image for promoting the attitude that the character was “not a true female superhero until you can imagine having sex with her,” Artist J. Scott Campbell responded on Twitter that “‘sexualizing’ was not intended,” though he added, “Is it THAT different?” The character’s crop top and low-cut leggings would be unremarkable by 90s standards. The issue was released November 9, the day after Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump to become the first female President of the United States.”

I wrote that paragraph a month ago, thinking it would appear next year in my book Superhero Comics. I went back to the manuscript on November 10 and deleted that last sentence. The chapter is about gender, how superhero comics have represented female characters for the last 75 years, and it had been nice to end the section on an upbeat note. Yes, comics have traditionally defined strong male heroes in relation to weak female victims and love interests, and, yes, comics have created strong female heroes through hypersexualized images that still paradoxically suggests the characters’ physical weakness, but those norms have begun to change, probably due to the rise in female readers and the larger cultural shift away from sexism.

I guess I should delete that last bit too: “cultural shift away from sexism”? Is that still a thing?

I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the book manuscript, and had recently added another paragraph to the gender chapter:

The 90s also coincides with Gail Simone’s identification of the “Women in Refrigerators” trope encapsulated in Green Lantern #54 (August 1994) in which the hero discovers his girlfriend’s corpse stuffed in a refrigerator by his arch enemy. In 1999 Simone published an online list of dozens of female characters who had been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her.” Simone hypothesized that the “comics-buying public being mostly male” was a reason for the trend:

So, it’s possible that less thought might be given to the impact the death of a female character might have on the readership. Or, it’s possible that there’s rarely a fan outcry when a female is killed. Or, maybe since many major female characters were spin-offs of popular male heroes, it was felt that they had to go to keep the male heroes unique, and get rid of “baggage”. Or maybe many of the male creators simply relate less to female characters. Or maybe it’s a combination of these.

Whatever the reason, she asked:

if most major women characters are eventually cannon fodder of one type or another, how does that affect the female readers? … Combine this trend with the bad girl comics and you have a very weird, slightly hostile environment for women down at the friendly comics shoppe.

Many online responses to the list confirmed that hostility, but most comics creators responded sympathetically, including Ron Marz, who wrote the Green Lantern episode that inspired the list’s title:

Comics have a long history as a male-oriented and male-dominated industry. … I do think comics can and should be more sensitive to female characters. But these are times in which the general editorial mindset is “cut to the fight scene,” in which half-naked women on covers spike sales.  Publishers are unfortunately more concerned with survival than with sensitivity to women. And that’s a shame. If we want to save our industry, maybe we should stop ignoring half the population as possible readers.

Dwayne McDuffie responded with that hope that “maybe more women will be inspired to take the reins and write some female characters who aren’t plot devices to complicate the hero’s life.” Simone would later write Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey, which featured Barbara Gordon, a character prominently featured on the WiR list.

See how naively upbeat I like to be? All it takes is one white women like Simone and one black man like McDuffie, and superhero comics are saved. Never mind the reactions I got when I posted about superhero gender norms at the very-weird-slightly-hostile-toward-women-environment of the friendly Reddit comicbooks subgroup. Here are some highlights:

“I see someone is finding out that sex sells. You act like this hasn’t been going on forever in every medium man has ever invented.”

“Power Girl isn’t even human so it doesn’t matter what she looks like.”

“men are hyper visualized as much as women if not more, and are probably more unnatural and unrealistic than women. While women in the comics don’t wear that much clothes, women in other competitive sports don’t wear that much either. While the big tits seems unrealistic, there are others who would beg to differ (Gina Carano for example, [the chick in deadpool])”

“Heterosexual males can’t ignore boobs. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean we start a campaign to stop it.”

And my cringingly least favorite:

“This shit gets me so hard.”

But, hey, it’s all just locker room talk, right? Hostile workplace environment? What’s that? When President Trump reduces or eliminates the Department of Education, all of those Title IX coordinators hired to comply with former President Obama’s anti-discrimination mandates will be fired, and we can go back to old school norms.

A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 72% of Trump supporters feel that America has changed for the worst since the 1950s. Were things THAT different then? Well, in 1950, 34% of women worked outside the home. In 2002, 60% did. In 1977, 74% of men and 52% of women believed husbands should earn money and wives stay home. In 2008, only 40% of men and 37% of women held those minority views.

There was also only one female superhero in the 50s: Wonder Woman. Lynda Carter, who played her in the 70s, guest-starred last month on Supergirl. Instead of an Amazon of Paradise Island, Carter was the President of the United States. The show is goofy as hell, but I actually find it moving sometimes–the portrayal of so many strong women and, even better, how both other women and men look up to them as role models. One episode featured a twelve-year-old boy whose hero wasn’t Superman but Supergirl. We watch the show with our sixteen-year-old son, and I was proud that he was growing up in a world where that was normal. Why wouldn’t everyone look up to a woman as a leader?

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But you know me. Naively upbeat. I guess I’ll delete that last assumption now too, since according to our next Reddit-minded President, a woman is not a true woman until you can imagine having sex with her. Or, as Trump explained to Fox News anchor Sean Hannity last March after the first round of groping allegations:

“I was so furious about that story, because there’s nobody that respects women more than I do, Sean, you know that. And I treat women with respect. And I have — we all have fun. We all have good times.”

It’s hard even for me to imagine that more women will be inspired to take the reins after last week. America has a long history as a male-oriented and male-dominated nation, and it looks like those fun and good times are back again. (Refrigerators sold separately.)

Image result for Green Lantern #54 women in refrigerator

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