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:
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.
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.