Be Careful What You Ask For

For years feminists clamored about the lack of female characters in comic books. They demanded more titles featuring superheroines. The comic book industry needed these super women, feminists claimed, in order to break up the “boys’ club.”

Feminists demanded strong female leads. They wanted women who were unafraid of anything. They wanted women who did not rely on archetypes or tropes. They wanted women who did not need a man. They wanted books that not only focused on women, but featured all-female casts.

So the industry gave feminists what they asked for. It took some time. There were a few false starts — the Minx line, Marvel Divas, Girl Comics. However, eventually Marvel and DC, the former in particular, managed to get it right and give feminists exactly they wanted. And now:

Smart, Nice and Sassy: ‘Good Girl’ Role Models Make Boring Heroes

I will allow ComicsAlliance’s Juliet Khan explain:

And I am bored.

Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy many of these books, or that I think they have no redeeming qualities. But these brave new heroines can, by and large, be summed up as “smart, nice, vaguely sassy.” There is individual conflict, sure — Barbara’s academic work, Gwen’s band, Kate Bishop’s desire for independence — but it’s rarely defining, and never truly risky. Certainly none of these books approach the kind of comedy, pathos, or danger that define the greatest male characters. They’re all a little safe, a little tame, a little quiet.

It is true the characters are boring, yet what Khan describes — this smart, nice, vaguely sassy woman — is the very character feminists adore. All their icons fit that description. That is Tina Fey. That is Lena Dunham. That is Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Kristen Schaal, and Mindy Kaling.

It also describes the women they flock to online. That is Anita Sarkeesian. That is Brianna Wu. That is Zoe Quinn, Leigh Alexander, Lindy West, Amanda Marcotte, Jessica Valenti, and Zerlina Maxwell.

This is precisely the personality type one finds among female comic book creators like Gail Simone, Kate Leah, and Kelly Sue DeConnick.

This is exactly what feminists asked for. What did they expect would happen?

The character type they prefer is boring. Nothing of interest will happen to the character because she has no flaws, makes no mistakes, and does nothing that could make her look bad. She is nothing but a snarky Mary Sue. There can be no character development from that position.

Khan is not ignorant of this:

Sex Criminals exemplifies the dichotomy: While Jon struggles with mental illness, gender expectations, self-loathing, and love, complete with surreal looks into his mindscape and a brutal flashbacks in which he must reckon with childhood sins, Suzie…really wants to save her library. She has a brief tiff with her friend. It’s not a terrible story. But while the male lead is given the room to screw up, lie, fume, and lament, the female lead is given an exterior problem that no one would object to. Like Barbara’s crusade against her impostor. Like Gwen’s tangle with The Vulture. Like Diana’s war against the First Born. Like Kate Bishop’s California misadventures.

Yet Khan does not consider why this may be the case. Consider Kelly Thompson’s reaction to Brian Azzarello’s run on Wonder Woman. In response to Azzarello including part of the original Amazon myth, namely the part in which the Amazons rape men to maintain their population, Thompson wrote this:

It’s hard to ignore that this is a society that increasingly hates and distrusts women, especially as they gain any ground or power for themselves. And so it’s doubly hard to see that reflected back in our fiction right now. To see powerful women – which The Amazons have unequivocally been – as THE example of a society of powerful women in DC Comics – stripped of everything that might be good and honorable so that we may see the broadest most hateful stereotypes of them presented. The erroneous and damaging stereotype reinforced yet again that women with power will become absolute monsters. I would never make an argument that a matriarchal society would be a utopia. I would argue that any society that has inequality can by its very nature NOT be a utopia. But I see the Amazons, time and time again turned (primarily by men I’m sorry to say) into horror stories. Wildly exaggerated speculation of man-hating, man-killing, war-like unreasonable monsters. The question in fiction seems to lately be – how could powerful women be anything but monsters? For me, it’s a bridge too far.

How does one write complex characters with flaws if the moment the characters have flaws someone complains? This is an extreme example, yet one sees a similar fallout over the Black Widow’s character arc in the Avengers 2.

Yet Khan opines:

If a woman is to live through these characters, as we all love to argue the reader is meant to do with superheroes, she cannot plumb the depths of anger, sorrow, or joy. These heroines are too busy implicitly role modeling to become true characters.

Now we know why: because the moment one dips a toe into the depths of anger, sorrow, or joy feminists like Khan lose their minds.

Of course, we all know who is to blame for this situation:

[…]the Good Role Model for Girls is a manifestation of the patriarchy she claims to rebuke. Because the thing is, girls know how to be good. Good is waxed eyebrows, D-cups jiggling temptingly above hard abs, eyeliner techniques that might give you an infection but nail that “no-makeup makeup” look that guys just love.

Except none of those things appear in the current stream of feminist trite passing as storytelling. Batgirl was sufficiently de-womaned by her current creative team. Barabara Gordon now looks like a 12-year-old girl who sewed her suit together and spends an inordinate amount of time retweeting hashtags while dropping massive loads of snark.

Khan cannot blame feminism’s favorite scapegoat for this. Feminists are the ones buying these books. They are the ones clamoring that the boys’ club has been torn down. They are the ones who find certain covers, certain storylines, certain costumes, even certain creators “offensive.” This is what one is left with when all those things are removed.

She goes on:

What girls need — and what the Good Role Model for Girls rarely dirties herself with — is ugliness. Ugliness, in this sense, is what makes women human, rather than role models. “Ugliness” is bodies beyond Barbie, but also more than that; ugliness is a heart full of envy, hope, cruelty, anger, and fatigue. Ugliness is an interior life, and thus, an acknowledgment of women as independent beings.

Ugliness is not present in these comics. Nothing these heroines do is truly objectionable, none of their thoughts too dirty, none of their actions ill-considered. They might trip, but they do not fall, and they certainly never swear upon doing so.

Consider this: many of the books featuring female characters are written and drawn by women, many of whom are feminists. Yet none of them have the “ugliness” Khan wants. In other words, when feminists can create their own worlds, the women in those worlds are inevitably flawless.

She continues:

For all that the past few decades have wallowed in grit and “realism” (as defined by teenage boys with a nihilism fetish), superhero comics are still, I would argue, best suited to telling stories that are heightened.

Firstly, most comic book fans are 40-year-old grown men, so there was no need for the typical feminist attack on teenage boys. Secondly, this realism and grit resulted in a booming cinematic interpretation of comic books, one that appeals to a broader audience. That includes the women who suddenly find comics interesting now that they are part of pop culture.

Look at the classics: Simonson’s Thor, All-Star Superman, Batman: The Animated Series. These are stories that may deal in death and degradation, which tempts us into calling them “realistic,” but they are each and every one a melodrama — which isn’t actually something to run away from. “Subtle” is not a synonym for “worthwhile” or “intelligent.” That vivid emotions, broad symbols, and highly-colored tales of good and evil resonate with us is a sign of our humanity, not our inferior taste. We want to feel. We want to understand our world. We want to understand ourselves. And sometimes we want to do it in the big, emotional way that superheroes were explicitly created to do.

This is precisely what these tepid superheroine comics avoid. What creators need to indulge, then, is ugliness and melodrama. While the trail has not yet been fully blazed, positive examples exist. Emma Frost, for example, is the first female comics character I ever really loved. She wears her conflict — her big, emotional conflict — on her sleeve: she was bad, now she’s good, but she’s never going to be nice. After wading through a sea of smart, nice, sassy girls, her turmoil was a revelation.

Fair enough. However, consider the feminist opposition to Barbara Gordon’s backstory with the Joker. Feminists have such a negative reaction to the idea that Babs would have to overcome the Joker’s brutal attack that artists are no longer allowed to depict the event, even in passing reference. Never mind that the Killing Joke is a perfect example of ugliness and melodrama. No, it cannot be depicted or mentioned again because it victimizes women.

That is why Khan is left with the “smart, nice, sassy girls.” Creators cannot have women do bad things, cannot play on stereotypes, and cannot have bad things happen to women. There is nothing left for creators to use except snark and sass.

Khan wants flawed female characters, noting:

These women aren’t role models. They’re not telling me how to be a good girl, for the benefit of everyone around me. They’re for me. They acknowledge that I am a human being capable of evil and virtue, sadness and joy. They are fantasy — the fantasy of adventure and superpowers, but mostly, a fantasy of emotion and humanity. And fantasy — unabashed, unfilitered, untethered — is the very soul of superheroics.

No, no, no. You knew what the end result would be because comic book fans warned you. They told you your ideas were boring. You ignored them and demanded these characters anyway. You do not get to change your mind because you now realize your ideas suck.

You got what you asked for.

21 thoughts on “Be Careful What You Ask For

  1. Which is why I’m a far bigger fan of Indie titles than either DC or Marvel (though Marvel has a number of “ugly” and actually human female characters that DC simply doesn’t). When you’re not considered one of the Top Two, there’s more leeway in how your characters are portrayed. Some good examples of these would be Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, Alan Moore’s Top Ten, Joe Hill/Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke and Key, Warren Ellis’s The Authority and Transmetropolitan, J.Michael Straczynski’s Rising Stars and Midnight Nation, the Luna Brothers Girls and The Sword , and of course Brian Vaughan/Fiona Staples’ Saga.

    There are certainly more that I’ve neglected to put here, including some of my own favorites, but you get the idea. Writing believable human beings who have insecurities, flaws, moments of weakness and anger yet happen to be female is *not* difficult under any stretch of the imagination. However, with a few exceptions, they are not going to be found in Marvel/DC universes.

  2. You seem to not understand what Ms. Khan is talking about. What does Barbara’s role in The Killing Joke have to do with the ugliness that Ms. Khan is talking about?

    “Ugliness is not present in these comics. Nothing these heroines do is truly objectionable, none of their thoughts too dirty, none of their actions ill-considered. They might trip, but they do not fall, and they certainly never swear upon doing so.”

    She wants female characters to be flawed and to make poor decisions. What poor decisions does Barbara make in TKJ? Yes, there is ugliness in TKJ… on Joker’s part. That’s not what Ms. Khan is talking about. I suggest you reread the article.

  3. Galaga, maybe try comparing what TS said to the quoted section he was actually attaching the point about TKJ to.

    “These are stories that may deal in death and degradation, which tempts us into calling them “realistic,” but they are each and every one a melodrama — which isn’t actually something to run away from.”

    (emphasis mine)

  4. Galaga:

    What does Barbara’s role in The Killing Joke have to do with the ugliness that Ms. Khan is talking about?

    It refers to this part of Khan’s article:

    Ugliness, in this sense, is what makes women human, rather than role models. “Ugliness” is bodies beyond Barbie, but also more than that; ugliness is a heart full of envy, hope, cruelty, anger, and fatigue. Ugliness is an interior life, and thus, an acknowledgment of women as independent beings.

    Babs fearing the Joker and having to face what he did to her was “ugliness.” Yet this was undone because it took away from the perception of Babs as a “strong female” character. Ironically, being assaulted by the Joker made Babs a more interesting character because she became the Oracle. She had to live with the aftermath of what happened while forging ahead to create a new identity.

    “Ugliness” is simply Khan’s way of saying “complexity.” This is what these characters lack.

  5. As a writer myself, I’d say that they need decent writers, and none of this ‘women-are-pure’ neo-victorian nonsense, which is what this is, just in a different format.

  6. “Smart, nice, and vaguely sassy” aren’t words I would use to describe Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn. They are demanding, obnoxious and either idiots or outright liars. I assume you are stating that from a femnazi’s point of view (I use the term “femnazi” to differentiate them from true feminists that really are about equality).

    But yes, heroes with flaws (regardless of gender) are more believable and interesting especially for an adult reader. Perhaps femnazis should stick to stories intended for children in which their heroines won’t make mistakes, be in any real peril or grow as a person in any way if unable/unwilling to handle more realistic, fleshed out characters. Yes, I’m suggesting they don’t possess emotional maturity.

    This goes for the movie Black Widow too. I found her to be far more interesting than most of the male characters in Age of Ultron but no, how dare she be capable of feelings or show any weakness?! Ironic really considering femnazis appear to be more ruled by feelings than logic.


    Ah, yes, yet another feminist who treats gender equality and female empowerment as synonyms, even when an example of men getting screwed – in this case literally – is staring them right in the face. Not a lick of concern for the, y’know, victims of male rape. The closest she comes is noting the illogic of the situation (to which I would retort comic books), including saying the men are “morons” who should know better.

    I don’t think it’s actual rape, unless the men who wouldn’t comply were forced where the others couldn’t see them.

  8. SYAMB,

    Did we read the same link?
    Yes, she does use the term “morons” to describe the hypothetical men in a version of that situation, but to her credit she doesn’t ignore or condone the rape of men. In fact, she specifically calls the Amazons liars, rapists, and murderers.

    From the article:
    “As for the rape question, I have seen so many people being ignorant on this one point that I’m exhausted. The Amazons boarding a boat at sea and having sex with the men on that boat absolutely makes them rapists. If there’s magic involved, then that means the men cannot consent, therefore it’s rape. If the there’s no magic involved and most of these men do consent then great, but there are obviously going to be exceptions. There will absolutely be men that do not consent – most obviously – gay men. And the “it would be every man’s fantasy!” leaves out every gay man on earth. You simply cannot to that. I would also argue that you have to concede that at least a few are so in love with girlfriends or wives that they would abstain (sure it’s going to be rare, but there are some dudes out there actually like that, I’ve heard the tales!). Not to mention the men who would be savvy and paranoid enough to know that nothing in life is free (if I was a dude I would be one of those for what it’s worth).  Quite honestly the whole situation makes men out to be utter morons and paints The Amazons as nothing more than murderous sirens. For those that say that a man simply cannot be raped by a woman, I urge you to read up on the subject matter. It is absolutely possible, has happened, will continue to happen, and is horrifying, the same way the rape of a woman is horrifying.”

    I am certainly not a feminist, and find that most of what they say is pure double standard or sexist/misandric…but in this particular instance, I don’t see such vitriol towards male victims of rape.

  9. Tarnished, while there is no vitriol toward male victims in the article, Thompson’s concern was not for the men. Her concern was how “bad” it made the Amazons look.

  10. I agree, TS, and was simply pointing out that the writer at least came closer towards having sympathy for male victims than I’ve yet seen from most feminists. There’s always the hope that…with a bit more introspection…these types of feminists will see how sex-exclusive/unequal their ideology is, and eventually shun it for true equality. Feminism *does* need to die, make no mistake. But if people are led to the truth rather than dragged, they are more likely to pick up the banner.

  11. Tarnished, this was Thompson’s response to recent criticism about her article concerning “strong female characters.” She also waxed poetically about the Mad Max film and its “feminism,” all while ignoring the horrors the male characters are subjected to. I highly doubt Thompson has any sympathy for male victims.

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  14. “The Good Role Model for Girls can be entertaining, and even inspirational. I have loved her, in certain incarnations, as a girl, a teenager, and an adult. But at her worst — and she is frequently at her worst — she is boring. :”

    Because if these characters are done as women, with women’s concerns, then it’s the patriachy forcing women into a pink ghetto. If they are done as men-in-drag, then it’s the patriarchy not letting women’s voices be heard.

    “But why”, you ask, “can’t they be done simply as people?”. Two reasons. Firstly, the feminists specifically wanted female characters, not neuter. And secondly – and more deeply – to be human is to be gendered. We are a sex-dimorphic species. It’s what we are: male and female.

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  18. Not a bad read, and I enjoy seeing people like Khan get the skewering they deserve. I will say though, that the “smart, snarky, and having almost no flaws” female character may be considered “boring” to a lot of people or not sell well, but I can think of examples of that character archetype that really work (Don Bluth’s Anastasia for one). But I think the distinction there is this:

    Don Bluth’s Anastasia in many respects fits much of what that article describes: snarky, street-smart, beautiful, and overall “perfect”. But the difference is, her story remains interesting, because it’s a very personal, poignant story that should be able to resonate with anyone no matter what their background is, because it’s universal human desires: wanting to know who you are, wanting to know that you belong to a family, and wanting to be part of a family or find one that was lost. All of that is inherently interesting, powerful storytelling material. So even though Anya is overall morally perfect (though she does have flaws such as insecurity and a bit of a fiery temper), she is still interesting because her backstory and character journey are both immediately sympathetic and relatable.

    On the other hand, Marvel’s new slew of female protagonists suffer from what I’d call “the worst of both worlds”. It’s not only that too many of them are made too perfect (as opposed to just a few who are morally perfect while the rest are flawed to varying degrees), but also that many of their stories, as noted in one of his other blog entries, sacrifice good storytelling for the sake of just pushing a progressive/SJW agenda and being more interested in doing that then in telling a good story. So I think THAT might be the issue; you could still have multiple female characters who are morally pure/”snarky and smart”, but still be given interesting things to do and compelling stories that are interesting whether the protagonist is a Neo-Victorian pure lady or an Anti-Hero.

    Marvel’s problem therefore is, again, “the worst of both worlds”; characters who are lacking in both flaws AND good stories and so are just overall boring. After all, let us not forget that many of Marvel’s best heroes are overall morally pure and, while capable of making mistakes don’t really err morally. Examples of this would include Professor X, Captain America, Spider-Man, and others. So clearly, a morally pure hero isn’t necessarily boring, but in order to work they have to be given interesting things to do and feel relatable in some way. I guess the problem is that these “for the feminists” heroes aren’t really succeeding at that.

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