In which I talk about those comments from people who claim they would praise or appreciate my writing, if only I didn't focus so heavily on women, or if only I wouldn't "make a big deal" of being a woman myself. After all, they cry, am I not just seeking the attention of men by doing so? Is my whole spiel not hugely sexist in itself? And most importantly, what about the men?!
As someone who actually gets paid to write, I do have a level of confidence in my writing that lets me get down to business and enjoy myself. But when it comes to writing opinion pieces, as I do most often on the subject of women in comics, I'm never entirely sure how well it's going to go down. I question whether I've articulated myself clearly enough, or whether I've given equal weight to each conflicting argument, and I'm constantly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to what pours forth from my brain.
The one thing I never worried about was people criticising my writing because I focus on women or criticising me for being a woman. As a naturally slightly anxious person, you're perhaps thinking this was a little naïve. But no, it's not that I didn't worry about it because I wasn't expecting it – quite the opposite! I knew it would happen, in fact I knew it was inevitable.
As an ideal, the internet sounded like a bold new frontier in mass communication and information sharing: the cloak of anonymity meant that any user can be of any gender, race or background you care to imagine, free to contribute without inviting prejudice. And yet the reality is that the internet is no more than an extension of our generally problematic society. Not just an extension, but an amplification! Whether your username is asbestos99 or zebraspoon, until you state otherwise you will generally be assumed to be male, white, and straight. And if you do step forward and say otherwise, it can be a very lonely place.
Narrowing our focus further, to the communities and sites surrounding so called "geeky" pastimes such as science fiction, gaming, and comics, this effect often worsens as these interests are seen as very male pursuits. Women who enter these fandoms, particularly assertive women, feminists, and those who dare to have a recognisably "female" username, are often victim to very ridiculous abuse. Now, I don't know if these places are necessarily worse than other corners of the internet, but I do feel that in fandom it hits women a lot harder. Why? Because we're all geeks! We know what it's like to have interests that others boggle at or don't understand. We know what it's like to be the outsider. But women are still bullied, silenced or ignored.
Already I can feel the hackles raised, but still your defensiveness for a few minutes and read on...
Women in gaming who use female names, or in some way alert other users to the fact that they are female, are almost always seen to be "inviting" insults, abuse, and/or sexist jibes. The usual retort given to women who complain is that they shouldn't have been asking for it: that is, they should hide the fact that they are a woman and return to anonymity. And by anonymity, we mean the blanket assumption of being male. Women on games and comics forums and websites must often either be "one of the boys" or an "interfering bitch", either one of those cool women who aren't like the others, or one obsessed with a "feminist agenda".
By quite clearly stating here on my site that I am a woman, I was accused of trying to draw male attention to my being female. It's interesting that there was no assumption I might be trying to draw female attention to this fact, the immediate reaction was that I must be doing it for the men. Again, a blanket assumption about the gender and sexuality of the internet. In terms of this specific website, my reason for stating I am a woman is twofold: firstly because this is a portfolio of my work and thus contains my real name with links to my writing; and secondly because as a writer who specialises in comics history and theory, and further specialises in women in comics history and theory, it is imperative that I state my own identity. I speak about women in comics as a woman, from a female perspective which is arguably an important distinction to make in general, but certainly an important distinction to make for many readers.
By stating that I am a woman I am also sending up a flag to fellow women who enjoy comics or writing about comics. Without this statement and thanks again to the blanket assumptions of the internet, I would be seen as the default: as male.
Having made this statement however, I have opened myself to criticism that anonymous or male writers escape: gendered criticism. This is one that all women writers will be familiar with: no longer do you complain, you "bitch"; no longer do you have an interest, you "obsess"; no longer do you express feelings, you get "hysterical"; and of course no longer do you write, you "write women's stuff". While all those things can be generally true about any writer, the fact is that if a writer is known to be female then they experience very different, and more personal, criticism.
"Boo hoo", you may say, "get over it". Well, quite. At this point such behaviour is so predictable that it's hardly noticeable any more. And thinking about it that way it struck me how completely awful that is: sexism in gaming and on the internet is totally normalised and thus excusable?! I think not!
And it's here I have to put in the terribly boring and predictable disclaimer that yes, I know all men aren't like this, and no, I'm not a man-hating "feminazi". The fact I have to even say this is a little disappointing to be honest; at no point have I said "all men" yet I can guarantee there will be people who read this and immediately react defensively and personally. My boyfriend is my trusty proof reader, and I can confidently say that about half the people who've found me on twitter through this site and chat to me are guys. So hey, if this doesn't apply to you then it isn't about you!
The internet is full of jerks, this is hardly new news. But the prevalence of gendered criticism is disturbing, and speaks more to the institutionalised sexism of our society and media than it does to general day to day interactions. Women characters in games and comics (and magazines, adverts, music videos, etc) are ridiculously sexualised: skimpy clothing, sexual postures, cheesecake or porn fantasies. Men in comics and games are often hyper-masculinised: rippling muscles, impossible build, super tough, always gets the girl. And yet both are a product of the same problem: the institutionalised sexism of the patriarchy that determines that masculine is good and feminine is bad. To "throw like a girl", be a "pussy" or "cissy" or in any way girly is a Terrible Thing for men, while women must always be seen to be sexually available with an idealised body. While Power Girl has the cut out window on her boobs, rest assured that Red Hood will never have a cut out window on his butt. While Catwoman's curves are squeezed inside latex, never will there be a lovingly rendered bulge within Nightwing's pants, in panel after panel after panel.
All male characters in superhero comics being buff is part of the same problem as all women characters being sexualised. This is partly why Spider-Man was (and is!) so popular: he represents the everyday geek, and although he gets fit, he's never the same pile of rippling muscles that many other heroes are. Dammit Jim, he's a scientist, not a body-builder.
But there's one small but crucial difference: superhero comics have a lot more male support characters than female, and male support characters have a far more diverse body catalogue than the women support characters who all tend to mirror the sexualised female superheroes. It's all part of the male power fantasy that superhero comics play to, where the men are strong and attractive, and the women are all enormous curves, slim waists, and falling at the hero's feet. Which is great if you only want a male audience but it's becoming more and more apparent that women are willing to pay for comics they enjoy, and that publishers are actually trying to attract them.
Which brings me to the next common question: "why focus only on women?" Which also ties into the similar, "why pick on comics?" Firstly, there are a lot of comic websites out there – some of them fantastic, some of them not – and all of them, thanks to the default male setting of the internet, cover everything to do with the men in comics. The guys are pretty much covered, there's really no need to panic. And that default male view of women in comics tends to be that comics are fine as they are, that they're only for men after all, and that women should be cheesecake, tits and ass, masturbatory material.
Unsurprisingly, many women (and men) disagree. Increasingly there are more and more women led websites and tumblrs popping up. And they're all pretty popular – there is a real desire out there for women writing about women. There are a lot of women fans of comics who feel like their voices aren't heard, and in a declining print market where women are the biggest potential audience, they want publishers to hear them. The Batgirl of San Diego and DC's subsequent reaction show that one person does have the power to be heard, and that many people together have the power to cause change.
Comics are not uniquely sexist; they are part of a systematic problem that all our popular media suffers from. I write about comics because I love them and want them to survive and thrive for decades to come. I write about comics because of the great joy they bring me, and the frustrations they cause women readers and myself.
But am I not being sexist myself in focusing so much on women and not on the men? Well, no. Society in general has a long way to go before women are actually equal to men in the eyes of the law and in terms of pay checks just for starters, and the rest of the internet has well and truly covered men (default!) in comics. The sexism in comics that I'm focusing on (usually) is institutionalised sexism, that which occurs because it is so normalised for women to be sexualised and sidelined. That form of sexism is one way traffic, and hurts both women and men. Can a woman write a sexist comic? Of course, to say otherwise would be ridiculous! But that's down to the sexism in society being so inescapable. Lots of women have internalised sexism, but it's a bit of a derailment; generally speaking, diversity begets diversity, and a more diverse pool of creators will lead to a more diverse collection of work.
It's easy to claim that having more women creators will not ensure that comics will contain less sexism, but my counter to that would be, "and how would we know?!" When women creators make up such a tiny percent of the overall pool, it's very clear that something is off balance. I'm a firm supporter of incremental changes that will tempt more women creators towards superhero comics.
Why do I write about women in comics? Because I love comics, and I love comics history and the role of women within that rich history. I love that some of the earliest big names in comic strips were women, and I find the history of how they were gradually pushed out of the industry intriguing and depressing. I love the various women characters and how they've adapted over the decades, and I worry that the industry is going backwards with regard to those women. I feel that superhero comics are trapped in a vicious cycle where the institutionalised sexism puts women creators off contributing, and then lack of women creators causes the institutionalised sexism to continue unchecked. And I applaud publishers and creators when they make a positive step and it works.
As I stated in my review of Women in the New 52, I feel that on the whole DC are making great steps towards increasing female presence in their comics, and that it's important to applaud the positives as well as point out the negatives.
And finally, something that is hugely important to bear in mind when reading about sexism or misogyny in comics: being called sexist is not actually as bad as being sexist. Let's take a made up comic called Guinea Pig Girl #1 written by Fred Cavy and Jasper Wheek. The comic is okay but there's some sexist stuff in there - Guinea Pig Girl is in her twenties, shouldn't she be Guinea Pig Woman? And what's with the crazy high heeled boots? - and so I state that the Guinea Pig Girl #1 comic is unfortunately sexist. This does not mean that I think Fred or Jasper are raving women-hating misogynistic creeps. I doubt that they are, they're probably pretty normal guys enjoying writing a comic. But that doesn't mean they're incapable of writing and drawing sexist stuff. Sexism in our society is institutionalised. Pervasive. It's everywhere and you have to actively be trying to avoid it in order to escape it.
And maybe if enough people like the comic but voice their concerns, we end up later down the line with a Guinea Pig Woman trade paperback, and a page where she laments having to give up her spiky boots for some steel-toe capped stompers.
So remember, if I tell you that I think you're being sexist, I am not in fact calling you a big giant bastard. I'm actually trying to help, to work towards comics not being sexist, which would be a pretty great thing. And if you, a male reader, don't see the sexism then refer to the above: sexism in popular media is pervasive. To avoid it you have to be aware of it. If you're not aware of it then you won't see the problem. As a woman though, and someone who's had the wolf whistles, the street harassment, the leering lotharios, before coming home to watch adverts full of naked women in showers, music videos of jiggling breasts, films where women rarely even have scenes together, before reading my comics full of tits and ass and chain mail bikinis, and then finishing off with some comments about how people would like my writing if only I didn't talk about women... yeah, pretty aware of the sexism.
And to be brutally honest, despite all the above, I never used to see the sexism either. It's sneakiness is that damn good! This Sinfest comic pretty much nailed it - be sure to pay attention to all the writing. (Bonus points if you get the advert at the top with the woman in her underwear?)
I'll continue writing about women in comics, as opinion pieces, comics history, and theory, because it's what I love to write about and what I'd love to see comics improve on. I do believe that comics are uniquely placed to influence society and culture (even superhero comics!), and that the comics medium still has much more to give. And while women who write about women in comics continue to be blasted or painted as "feminazis", I find it incredibly encouraging that I've had nothing but positive reactions from those within the comics industry itself, including Greg Rucka, Warren Ellis, Gail Simone, and Jim Lee.