I am thrilled to announce our latest post, from soon-to-be-an-alumn, Isabel Gonzales. Isabel was the Women’s Studies Program’s Martha Welch Award recipient this year, and this smart, well-written post speaks to Isabel’s contribution to the program. Here, she looks at comic book culture, considering the ways that patriarchal values have informed even “subversive” genres. If you are a comics reader, I’m betting you’ll find a lot that resonates in this post, and if you don’t read graphic narratives already, Isabel’s essay will make you take notice.
A quick note: to those of you who are new to our blog, we are generally pretty quiet in the summer, but we’re looking forward to a robust schedule of posts in the Fall. And to those of you like Isabel who are about to graduate from our program, let us take one more opportunity to thank you for being such great students and to wish you well. Please stay in touch, online or otherwise!
The popular image of the comic book industry—from the storylines, the most popular characters, the producers, and the consumers—is one of a male-dominated, even males only, sort of space. Though this is far from the growing reality, this “boys club” reputation persists, in spite of the fact that women and non-binary individuals have been comic book readers and creators since the inception of the comic books industry itself. There are even members of the comic book community who wish to uphold the “by males, for males” image of the comic book industry. While the environment for women in comic books is improving slowly and slightly, there are still constant reminders of the constructed male hegemony. The headlining characters of many comic books remain mostly-homogenous, even as Marvel makes more pushes for diversity with its changes to legacy characters. Male creators—some of whom are actively hostile towards women, people of color, and people of marginalized genders and sexual orientations—still create the industry’s dominant plotlines, and dictate the vast majority of narratives. And as more women, MOGAI-identifying individuals, and people of color begin to create spaces and representation for themselves in the comic book industry, they are faced with resistance and retaliation from the “old guard” for the radical notion of wanting their lived experiences to have some sort of representation and respect. See, for example, the reaction to female fans discussing the inappropriateness of a Batgirl variant cover that harkened back to a storyline that ended with her victimization and rape, or the attempts to sexualize and de-power Spider-Gwen—a teenage character that many young female fans are finding power and representation in—by drawing her in the same pose of an infamous Spider-Woman cover that lovingly-rendered her back and buttocks with the same detail as if she were shrink-wrapped into her costume.
Even in some of the most pro-women stories, a problem exists in that there’s a constant dance-stepping away from the dreaded f-word. Creators are wanting to create “strong” or “empowered” female characters, but do so while avoiding associating themselves with feminism, and, for that matter, the intersectional core of modern, third/fourth-wave feminism. For many creators, in spite of the industry’s progress, “feminism” remains the “Voldemort” of the comic book industry. Even Wonder Woman, a character long-associated with female liberation, isn’t safe from being de-powered and disassociated from female empowerment, with the current artist of the Wonder Woman series outright stating that he wants the titular character to be seen as “strong”—but not “feminist.”
Even if the artist’s intentions weren’t to discredit feminism, wanting to dissociate a character that has been so associated with women’s empowerment speaks volumes to the environment of male hegemony that women participants in the comic book industry must deal with. Considering this, it’s hard to believe that Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro’s Bitch Planet—one of the most overt works of feminist fiction released this year—is a comic book. But at the same time, it’s almost fitting that a narrative challenging male cultural dominance is coming out of such a hypermasculine industry. It’s a form of poetic justice, of sorts, or an act of resistance in and of itself. As it sits on the same shelves as openly exploitative books and books that tout their “girl power without the feminism,” Bitch Planet acts as an openly-angry, openly-unapologetic, openly intersectional challenge to all aspects of the patriarchy, including the “boys club” mentality of comic books, down to the iconic double-middle finger salute of the cover to the first issue. Spoilers below. Continue reading