Breaking the Vicious Circle

Written for the Women Write About Comics blog carnival, but also written because it needs to be. The topic: Women In Refrigerators 13 Years Later.

During the latter decades of comics, following the “social relevance” of the ’70s and the “gritty realism” of Watchmen (those quotes are more or less deserved), the threat of real violence entered the utopian world of the superhero. Rape and murder were now on the table for any villain seeking to prove themselves as a real threat. The superheroes’ non-superpowered significant others became targets to be victimized. And since most superheroes were men, that meant that it was the helpless women that got killed.

It’s not that it couldn’t hypothetically happen to men. If, say, Wonder Woman had some cute-but-mortal boyfriend (like Steve Rogers? Does she still date Steve Rogers? I can’t keep track of these things), and some XTREME new villain called BLOODICIDE or PAINSPIKE or similar came along looking to prove how HARDCORE EVIL he was, then poor hapless non-superpowered guy (who might be Steve Rogers) probably fits in a refrigerator just the same as any girl. But when was the last time a superwoman had a stable relationship with a regular guy? If she’s in a team book she’s probably seeing somebody on the team for purposes of narrative convenience. Only in the solo series where the characters date normal people so they have someone to keep their secret identity hidden from, and 99.999999999999999% of all solo series are about men.

Superheroes are a men-centric world. Written and drawn by men, assuming a male audience, with male central characters. Thus the women are incidental, usually side characters, objects to be desired or protected, defined entirely by their relationships with the men of the series. And they’re drawn to reflect that. Sure, there’s body dysmorphism for both sexes in comics, but it’s only the women that get distorted into sex objects that always pose for maximum T&A. The men are always hypersculpted icons of power, with nary a hint of sexual characteristics even when wearing a skintight body suit that ought to leave nothing to the imagination.

This male-centrism is the confluence of a lot of factors. The classic, iconic superheroes were created by white men, and tend to reflect that. It’s tough to sell any superheroes that don’t have the iconic status of Superman or Spider-Man, so any character that isn’t from the old-school pantheon tends to be a tough sell, and that means a lot of good female and/or minority characters get marginalized due to low sales figures. So since all the central characters are men, the female side characters are put in a position where they can be killed off for sympathy, or ditched to provide romantic tension, but never are their own stories told.

Not to mention the fact that superheroes are still seen as a “boy thing.” All that shit nerds like, you know, action, martial arts, horror, sci-fi, they’re all “boy things.” Nerd culture basically enshrines adolescent masculinity. It’s a culture that’s the byproduct of white men demanding that their white male power fantasies be idolized and and revisited over and over again. A lot of nerd culture aggressively shuts out any art that isn’t made with that teenage boy viewpoint in mind. And that’s led to a culture that’s often toxic and misogynistic, that refuses to let girls into their clubhouse because they’d rather stare at huge-titted sex objects.

Yet somehow there’s still a vocal female fanbase for superheroes out there. Why would girls be into this stuff when there’s so many factors conspiring to push them away from it? I don’t know, I’m not a girl, don’t ask me. But let’s say it’s because there’s still hope in there. There are good female-centric superhero books out there (even if they’re usually written by men). There are female characters that resist demeaning sexualization, that don’t get killed off for cheap emotional impact, that aren’t just adjuncts to the men in their stories. It could be better. But it’s a start.

The superhero world is an inherently utopian one. Superheroes can save the world against all odds, can destroy evil, can conquer death itself. Maybe the sexism inherent in superhero comics is just a reflection of sexism in the real world. But superheroes have the power to make a better world. All you have to do is fight for it.

That means men learning how to write and draw better female characters. It means making more books that express diverse viewpoints, and less sidelining new versions of characters to return to the status quo of old white guys. It means standing up at conventions and holding the creators accountable for all these things, and calling the community out on its bullshit. And it means not shouting people down when they try to make their voices be heard.

To paraphrase Batgirl: right here, right now, this moment is yours.


4 Comments on “Breaking the Vicious Circle”

  1. […] Erik Bear of Cold Dark Matter sent us this response to our theme: Superheroes are a men-centric world. Written and drawn by men, assuming a male […]

  2. TS says:

    Love this. Thanks.

  3. […] Erik Bear of Cold Dark Matter sent us this response to our […]

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