Comics and the Gender Gap
So recently, it was announced that actress Gal Gadot (Fast and Furious) will play Wonder Woman in the upcoming Superman VS Batman. Looks to be a solid casting, but more importantly it means we finally get an appearance of Wonder Woman on the big screen. Admittedly, it’s not a full movie, but baby steps. We’ll get there eventually. However, I feel this is an apropos moment to let you in on a little secret, in light of this news. Please note, that I reveal at no small risk, for the league of Gentlemen Comic Snobs will most likely cast me out for this, but I feel this secret need to be shared.
Girls read comic books too!
Yes my friends, it’s true. Girls read comic books. They also play video games, paintball, skydive and other things I’m too much of a wuss to do. It’s no longer mandatory to have a Y chromosome to enjoy these things. It’s no longer a boys’ club. Traditional gender roles are changing and completely inverting, and none a moment too soon.
Disclaimer: I feel that I lack the adequate authority to speak on gender and any relevant -isms, being male, middle class and white. Nonetheless, it is a subject I care very deeply about. So if you’ll indulge me, there a few thoughts I’d like to bring up.
Depending on the source, women make up anywhere between 30% and 40% of comic book readers. Hard facts are hard to come by, but after talking to different comic store employees the trend is there: more women are getting interested and involved in comic books. It may be a slow increase, but it exists. Chalk it up to marketing, films, the internet, the fact that there are finally a few comics with good female characters, whichever you like. The point being that more comics are being read by women.
And yet there is definitely something askew in comic book land, both from a character and creator standpoint. The percentage of both characters published and creators involved is overwhelming male. And when you add in events like Tess Fowler accusing Brian Wood (a favorite writer of mine) of sexual harassment it doesn’t exactly paint a welcoming picture for women in the industry.
Which is why I appreciate talented individuals like Kelly Sue DeConnick. Like Gail Simone. Like Rachel Dodson, Marjorie Liu, Kathryn Immonen, Fiona Staples, Karen Berger, Emma Rios, and Amy Reeder. The list goes on, but not as long as I would like. To be honest, I had to look up names, while I can rattle off a dozen plus male writers and artist I admire. Something seems off about that. That’s not to say every woman in comics is going to produce great work. I for one think Ann Nocenti writing is a reason to not buy a book. Not because she’s a woman, but because she knows how to make a character like Catwoman boring. But for every Nocenti, there are many talented women who do produce great work, many whose names we’ll never notice.
One issue that has been a persistent problem with female characters in comics (and other media) is that they tend to be solely defined by their relationship to, or totally subservient to the male characters, also known as the Bechdel test. The test has three parts:at least two named female characters, who talk to each other, and the conversation subject isn’t about a man. Sounds simple, but more movies/books fail than you would think. Even in male led solo books, in solo books with female leads, and especially in ensemble books like Avengers or Justice League, failing the Bechdel might be a sign the writer needs to rethink things. It’s definitely a sign of old fashioned writing that ignores half of its potential audience, that ignores half of the population of this planet. And while comics are getting better, scores of books still fail this simple test. Representation is imperative.
And here’s another fact: dollars are the same thing as votes. By purchasing a book, your money sends note to the publisher saying ‘Yes, this is something I enjoy and want more of’, or at least ‘this is the kind of thing I’m curious about’. This is the only way we’ll diversify comics. It’s also the reason comics like Fearless Defenders get cancelled. A success critically, but sales were abysmally low. Why? I don’t know. It wasn’t the quality of the book. People just weren’t buying it, so Marvel cancelled it. This happens all too frequently. Books with female leads getting cancelled due to low sale numbers. This sends the exact wrong message. Talk to your comic store owners about books you’re excited for. Hype them up on social media and with your friends. Get people excited. That’s your job as a fan.
I’m not saying that you should go and buy every book with a female lead (although it would help). But give a few a try. Marvel, DC, Image and Vertigo all have at least a few female-centric books, and we really do need to support them. From Marvel we have Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Black Window, Brian Wood’s all female X-Men, and Elektra. From DC, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Batwoman, and Supergirl. From Vertigo, try The Wake, Fables, and American Vampire. For Image, Ed Brubaker’s Velvet and Fatale, Eve from Invincible, Petra from Luther Strode, and Lazarus. Also, Meru from Dark Horse’ Mind MGMT. The comics are out there, but it may take a bit of looking, and hopefully someday that will change, and it won’t all ways be a search to find good female leads.
Here’s a few more characters I feel are done well, in addition to those mentioned previously. First, the X-Men. Kitty Pryde, Psylocke, X-23, Hope Summers, Rogue, and Rachel Grey. Fun Fact, Kitty Pryde as an inspiration for Buffy. Hawkeye‘s Kate Bishop. Tulip from Preacher. Death, Despair and Delirium from Sandman. Zee from DMZ. Gotham Central’s Renee Montoya. Queen and Country‘s Tara Chace. Sophie from Promethea. Jakita Wagner from Planetary. Jenny Sparks of The Authority. Scarlet, Stumptown, and Fallen Angel.
Let’s talk about pants. For the love of all that is good and just in the world, can we get some of these girls a decent pair of pants? Short skirts and chainmail bikinis may be attractive, but it’s hard to fight crime when you’re worried about someone sneaking a peek. Also, Power Girl needs a new shirt. Anyone got a couple bucks? Seriously, though. It’s ridiculous. I’m not saying heroines can’t be attractive, far from it. But at least give them something appropriate and function to wear. Like Carol Danvers, Kate Kane or Velvet Templeton. Functional, and appropriate to their tasks. Batman needs his belt, right? Same thing for female heroes. For an in-your-face example of how bad it gets, check out the wonderful Hawkeye Initiative.
I’ll be honest with you, things ARE better than they have been in the past. But they’re sure a far ways away from where we need to be. It’s time that as a society we stop treating women as lower class simply because a difference in biology. Why would you discriminate who you share your love of comics with? Now, I can’t change global politics. I’m just a guy from the Midwest US with a keyboard and a soapbox. But I can encourage you to help slowly change one industry. One small thing that will hopefully have a ripple effect. Small actions build up to large actions.
A message to those who think girls have no place in the industry, as readers or creators. To those who want comics to stay the same, ‘the way they’ve always been’. I ask you to reevaluate your thinking. Things need to change, and they’re hard enough without close minded individuals such as yourself making things worse. I hypothesize that if you really sit down and think about why you’re adverse to women taking a larger role, you’d find you have no logical or justifiable position other than that you don’t want them to. You want to feel special, a part of the ‘in crowd’. Here’s the thing. You’re not. Rethink, and do it quickly, because change is coming and it can be a fantastic thing.
Here’s what to take away from this rant: the books are slowly getting out there. We need to support them with our dollars. If we as comic fans don’t, nothing will ever change. But I think this is something we can do. I really do. It’s small and a slow change, but it will get there if we keep at it. Buy the books, spread then around. Talk them up with your friends. Encourage newcomers to the medium (both men and women). A larger and more diverse audience and library of comics to read will only benefit the industry (and you) in the long run.