Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Where's My Adolescent Power Fantasy?

(My own Blog Against Sexism Day contribution)



I got into an argument in a chatroom once. I'll pause here long enough for you to get over your disbelief. Anyway, someone expressed annoyance that the majority of new female characters were of the "Amazon" variety. Which confused me, since we hadn't had new Amazons come out of Wonder Woman for a few years yet. He said that he felt that there were personality differences in men and women, and that most of the female characters he saw were like "men with breasts." This statement annoyed me immeasurably, but it was long before I'd really started to think about feminity. I was still taking gender roles at face value. I listed off a few nuturer and female stereotype characters that were popular (Ice, Donna Troy -- which got into an argument in and off itself. "You think Donna Troy is a soft nuturer?" "Yes. She's a soapy supportive type woman who loses her temper easily. Stereotype nuturer") and spouted some New Age explanation of feminity (which now that I've had time to explore the question a bit, seems horrifically erroneous) that he found 'interesting' and we decided to end the disagreement with a truce.

The Point

But this argument stayed with me, long after I'd forgotten the name of the man I disagreed with. I've only recently realized why. He was trying to tell me that the characters that I identified with, the characters who behaved in the way that I wanted to be able to, were unfeminine. He was essentially telling me that not only did I not want to be a woman, I wasn't even a valid woman because I wasn't a soft, receptive, nuturer. The more I think about this, the angrier I get, and the better it is that I don't rememebr his name. I'd love to set him straight, though.

He and like-minded individuals who call strong women characters "men with breasts" or "Amazons" (same tone as "Unicorns") are missing something very important. They've probably realized that superheroes are an "Adolescent Power Fantasy" because that much is obvious. But they think of twelve year old boys when they think of it. They haven't looked beyond their own gender to realize that woman also have "Adolescent Power Fantasies." It's unheard of, because females are supposed to fantasize about love and romance and world peace and crap like that. Women don't want to be punch out the people who offend them. That's ridiculous, only men have those impulses. Women want more substance from their comics. They read Sandman dontcha know?

I suppose now I should clarify that this was a chatroom on a superhero fansite, specifically about Green Lantern. And it would be logical to conclude that a woman reading Green Lantern is probably reading it because it has the same appeal for her that it would if she were a man. I freely admit to reading a lot into my comic books. Particularly superheroics. It's not because I specifically got into superhero comics looking for meaning and symbolism. It's because I was already reading the books and I started to notice the patterns.

I started reading when I was teenaged girl. I was just being exposed to the real world and its attitudes about women. I was not happy about it. My mother embarked on quest to ensure that I would never trust a boy enough to get pregnant during High School or college. To give you an idea of how intense this could be, I'll give you a tamer example. As a pre-teen, I once mention offhandedly that I liked watching Daktari reruns and got a story about a young woman who was cannibalized on a trip to Africa in return.

School was no better. Current Events, World Cultures, Criminology, Sociology, Spanish, Physical Education. We were learning about sexual harassment, and sexism, and seeing it actively demonstrated. Discussing it was good, but frustrating. There was very little that we, as high school students could do about the anecdotes we were hearing. For me, there was something very freeing about reading JLA. My sister complained that Wonder Woman didn't have enough panel time, was drawn as a doe-eyed innocent, and wore a ridiculous costume. But there was no denying the power she showed when she did show up. Zauriel stopped to start at her butt, Hitman made the x-ray vision joke, but as I was seeing, every male on that team still respected her when she did show up. No one dismissed anything she said.



I kept reading, though I spouted off about the same things my sister did. Despite starting out as a mouse, I somehow gained a reputation as the most fierce feminist in my school. Got into more than a few fights. When the "What mutant power would you have?" game came up in the geeky circles I ran in, I was usually assigned super-strength or some other physical power.

Time went on, I still read. I still heard horror stories, to the point that the only school I applied for was an all-girls liberal studies school. At the last minute, economic necessity, my father's example (he's a policeman), and the idealism gleaned from comic books won over. I signed up for the military. Everyone was in complete shock at this news. I plunged myself into the most masculine, traditionalist atmosphere available.

After Basic, I was a mouse. I couldn't act the way I did in high school and still get away with it. And adult can't hit another adult without legal reprisals, especially in the military. I wasn't a skilled debater, I often found myself backed into a corner during an argument so just stayed out of the controversal stuff. Having been already inclined to modesty (somewhere growing up I picked up the idea that it was a virtue), and now inclined to following orders, I withdrew for a few years. I generally followed the lead of stronger men and women. I had a friend at my first duty station, Liz, who had a great effect on me. She was a country bumpkin type. Too level-headed to get backed into an argumentative corner. She had no need to be violent, and was sexually active without worrying. I spent a lot of time around her at first, and after a while broke away. I latched onto a few more people, and clung to security blanket of military equal opportunity. I didn't experience or notice any problems on the job due to my gender, but I wasn't willing to explore the actual opinions of the men around me. I didn't want to have to argue around it. I dind't get my confidence or backbone back until I learned to discuss these things openly without getting upset, and without getting talked into a corner. This took years and after I got past that, I even found mice following me like I followed Liz. Through all that, of course, I still read.



And through all of that, even now, I still encounter those little moments. Little offhand comments, looks, and overall attitudes. Mostly off the job. Things not really worth getting into, and certainly not worth hitting someone or getting into trouble over, but annoying things nonetheless. I like the quiet moments, when I can take someone aside and discuss it. Sometimes I misinterpreted it, sometimes they didn't realize just how stupid they were being. Sometimes, I'm up against a brick wall. I'd love to punch through it, but this is the real world and there are ways of dealing with problems (long way, involving months of paperwork) that are acceptable.

Some days, you just feel like hitting something. Super-strength and invulnerability would be nice. So would a secret identity. I'd love to be able to take the jerks of the world to task immediately instead of waiting out the system. I want to act like a superhero. I want to talk, dress, and look like a superhero. I want to hit the guy who deserves it. I want to wear what I like and still be taken seriously. I want to say cheesy things like "I can't take time out for a social life, Steve Trevor, until the world is safe from crime!"

I want to get my own damned cat out of the tree.

I see the feminine appeal of Power Girl. Here is a woman so formidable that she can walk around with a hole in her shirt and not worry about attracting unwanted attention. She shows up on the scene, and her colleagues say "Great! A heavy hitter!" She can apply my methods of problem solving, but she can also deal with these problems in a way not possible for any law abiding citizen. JSA #39 was pure fun, simply because I'd had the exact same fantasy years before, sitting in Sociology class and watching a Lifetime-style movie about how difficult it was to prosecute a stalker.



My tastes are matured, yes. I like some depth in a story, I chase symbolism, I'm interested in character interaction and wild plots and entertaining dialogue. Just watching a woman beat up a guy is not enough to make me like a book anymore, I generally want something more. But every once in a while, I still want my Adolescent Power Fantasy. Especially when I see sexism brought up by the characters in the story. If a female character has to deal with a jerk, then I want to see her deal with him in the most harsh way possible. The way I can only dream of dealing with him.

Which brings me to what I'd originally intended this essay to be about -- Witchblade #91 disappointed me. I was in the business of giving Ron Marz the benfit of the doubt. On the second read, I'd enjoyed his Green Lantern stuff, but was still iffy about his handling of female characters, so out of curiosity I picked up issues 89 to 92. Sara Pezzini sounds a little like Kyle Rayner in the narration, which is good actually. I liked Kyle's narration. And he follows through on his rules about supporting cast members getting pounded regardless of gender (Poor Gleason). And, for the first time, the main character of Witchblade came across like a three-dimensional person. But the plot let me down.

A federal agent is introduced who comes onto Sara. Now, right away, he's showing the narrative signs of evil (the writer was using sexual harassment as dramatic shorthand for Jerk) so I know he's not actually there as a sleezy disappointing love interest. He's there to get beat up. Yay! And he does get beat up, in issue 91, proving that the writer understood that a sexist bastard introduced in the first act must have his ass handed to him in the third. What Mr. Marz missed, of course, was that if the offended female character is the main character, then she is the only one with the right to beat up the offender. Here, a guest star did it. Sara never got a chance to touch him. Hell, neither did her partner Gleason and he said some things to him that really deserved a punch in the mouth.



Now, this is just Marz's style of writing. I've seen him do this with Kyle several times, too, and it didn't really bother me because the subject matter was different. In a standard superhero comic, you are going to have stories where the main character doesn't personally solve every problem. I probably would have liked it in this story, were it not for the fact that sexual harassment against Sara was being used to characterize the guy. She had been hit on several times by this guy, and he even grabbed her wrist with his creepy hand. She didn't like him, he was sleezy and pushy. She reacted like a most woman in that position, she glossed over it and tried to get on with her job. He would leave soon anyway. I've seen this happen, I've heard of it happening to friends. This is a problem not far from my mind, or really the mind of most working women. We're not superheroes like Sara, though. We don't have a powerful mystical artifact like Sara does, and so we have to work through our problems in a rational, nonviolent way. But in situations like this, you do feel like hitting someone. It would have been undescribably satisfying to be able to vicariously kick this guy's ass through Sara.

Thankfully, Birds of Prey was next on the pile that week.

24 comments:

  1. I don't see the 'men with breasts' thing as being that legit, but (and maybe this is more what they're responding to?) I am sick and damn tired of male writers who write their fantasy women into their books.

    Yes, I know they're nerds and can't actually TALK to women, so the idea of a woman constantly seeking sexual favors appeals to them, but the 'overly sexual super-independent female' supporting cast member is way overused.

    The fact is most people aren't like that, so it comes off as either a failure on the writer's part to create an 3-dimensional character, or POSSIBLY a character who seeks approval by behaving in this manner. And besides, it's sleazy when it's a guy so why is it attractive when it's a woman? I just can't stand it, creatively.

    On Power-Girl, I was really enjoying that JSA: Classified story with her, which sputtered into Infinite Crisi...before that happened. I thought Amanda Conner's art really captured PG in a way I don't think I've seen before. Re: Wonder Woman, man Darwyn Cooke really understood that character in New Frontier. I like WW, but she's just hardly ever given much of a personality.

    As for you and your opinions, I don't ALWAYS agree with you, but you tend to make me think more than other comics blogs do, and I really appreciate it. :)

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  2. Wow, Ragnell, this was really a (pardon the pun) powerful essay. Not to mention brave - I learned so much about you! One of the best pieces you've ever done. Thanks so much for writing this.

    Trust me, if you have adult female power fantasies keep reading BoP, it won't disappoint you. :)

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  3. Nice essay. Very powerful. I'll stand up for the guy making the "men with breasts" comment in part, though. I don't know about being a "warm nuturer" as the be-all, end-all for women, but a lot of female characters are indistinguishable from men other than the body. Power Girl is a happy exception to this, and a reason I think she's a well-liked character. She's tough, she's strong, but she's still a woman. Donna Troy, at least as cemented in my mind by Marv Wolfman, not so much so. In fact, it's probably better to distinguish by writer than by character, and Mr Wolfman never really got a feminine character down, IMHO. Johns does a much better job. What do you think of Stargirl?

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  4. "Yes, I know they're nerds and can't actually TALK to women, so the idea of a woman constantly seeking sexual favors appeals to them, but the 'overly sexual super-independent female' supporting cast member is way overused."

    ... Well, this sounds like a failure to create a 3-D portrayal of the average comic writer. Most of them (and I've met a few) seem happily married.

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  5. Very cool post. Some thoughts:

    Re: "men with breasts"

    There are some behaviors we're socially conditioned to think of as masculine or feminine; and violence - especially in-your-face superhero violence - is definitely considered masculine. [Men punch; women slap.] So when a female character takes on these masculine traits, it can confuse a reader's ingrained expectations. In particular, if a reader thinks a female character has only masculine traits, the question becomes: what about her is still feminine?

    Apart from looking hot, of course. ;-)

    And in some cases, I think there are lazy or incompetent writers who fall back on the "men with breasts" cliche: they don't know how else to portray strong characters, so they just write a girl as if she was a male hero, then flip the gender bit at the end. Which would be fine, except it renders gender irrelevant, and I don't know too many men or women who argue that their gender didn't have an impact on who they were.

    I'm not saying that gender should predispose a character to one set of behavior or another. I am saying that a writer who doesn't take a character's gender into account - who doesn't ask him or herself how it affected that character and their development as a person - is being sloppy and will usually end up with a shallow character. A female writer who writes "girls with dicks" as male characters is being just as sloppy.

    The stereotype is women don't like violence, and by and large that's true. Then again, most women don't like superheroes, either. The fact you were discussing superheroes on a GL fansite should've been his first clue you weren't like most women in that regard. :-)

    Re: adolescent power fantasies

    I don't read Witchblade myself, so I can't comment on the issue in question. But in some sense, what you describe is what we all go through when we finally outgrow adolescent power fantasies. Or rather, when we finally realize that we can't solve everything with violence, we can't always punch our way to victory, we can't beat the crap out of every smug asshole who crosses our path, no matter how much they really, really deserve it. Because in the adult world there are rules and one of those rules is "no punching people just because you want to."

    Dagnabbit.

    So I'm sorry you didn't get to see Sara punch that guy. But Marz probably didn't want her to get arrested. :-)

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  7. James, not to speak for Ragnell, but personally I see it the opposite way. See, if Sara were a man, facing a jerky comment like that, she probably would have been allowed to be professional *and* take action. "Steve" would have punched the guy once, then calmly stated that they had work to do. We've seen that sort of scene often enough in comics.

    See, professionalism allows for putting a stop to behavior that impedes the goals, which this guy's did. A single take down would have been well within her rights, and *expected* if she were male.

    Honestly, men have been using the idea of "professionalism" and "not making waves" as means to keep women from defending themselves at the workplace from those sorts of comments.

    And women are trained to think, "Well, if I just ignore it, it'll stop, and I don't have to look like the bad guy." But it doesn't stop, and honestly, it doesn't matter how professional you are in the work place, if the work place is not professional, you're pretty much screwed.

    I'm sorry, but I will *never* see keeping quiet in the face of that sort of behavior as "empowering". No matter if it's a man or a woman in either role. There's absolutely nothing empowering about silence.

    *Doing something* is empowering. Not all of us women can...but Sara *could* have. And that would have been inspirational. To me, this wasn't a moral lesson, it was a missed opportunity.

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  8. Speaking for myself, I also don't find it an empowering example. What is "empowering" about not taking control of the situation and having others address it for you? Even if Sara's behavior was "professional", as you say, it doesn't sound like the other guy's behavior was professional at all. Why should Sara have to suffer a less-than-respectful work environment? Maybe she couldn't sock the guy in the face, but she could have done something about his behavior.

    Just _her_ personally doing something about her own circumstances is much more satisyfing than "random other guy fixes things for her".

    Also: Sexual harrassment as an identifier that a character is a jerk? So cliché!

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  9. Witchblade's a superhero - they solve problems with violence, regardless of gender. In the real world, you get arrested for punching people, even jerks. But in comics, punching is as common as sneezing.

    In other words, I think she should have kicked that guy square in the nuts.

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  10. I agree that "doing nothing" isn't empowering. However, the idea that a man could punch another man for being a jerk - and get away with it - is just as much an adolescent power fantasy as a woman punching him. Granted, maybe the punchee reacts differently depending on whether it's a man or a woman who hits him. But it's just something we're not allowed to do in the real world.

    Again: I don't read Witchblade, so I can't comment on this specific scenario. But if Marz intends to handle things at all realistically, then the guy who did punch jerkface will likely get into trouble: one doesn't deck a federal agent without there being legal consequences. [Unless at this point said federal agent has been revealed as eeeevil, rather than just a creep, of course.]

    Though obviously, there are a lot of things Sara could've done to jerkface to get him off her back which fall short of punch-to-the-kisser.

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  11. Hi!
    This article was excellent, I'm gong to forward it to a few people.
    Thanks for writing!

    -casey-

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  13. I'm with James. I don't see a situation where the woman had to keep quiet for fear of making waves. I see Sara pretty much ignoring the guy. Having not read the issue, I don't know what the next panel is like. Was she offended? Did she feel threatened? Was there a thought balloon depicting her reaction to this guy's remarks? Granted, it would have been nice if Sara kicked his ass at a later time, but the fact that didn't doesn't indicate that Marz was trying to portray here as the professional that doesn't want to upset anyone. And the 3rd party that's doing the ass whooping, that's probably Marz writing himself in saying that he wishes he could be the one that wants to punch someone when he see things like this happen.

    As for wonder woman, the only interpresentation of her that made sense to me was her appearance in the New Frontier. She did exude many of the same traits that male super heroes have, however I never saw her as a "Man with boobs." I just saw her as a tough ass broad who came from a Warrior culture of Amazon Women. And that has always been the problem for me. I never saw room for anything more than that. She doesn't need it. She's a stranger in a strange land that's a warrior princess whose the daughter of a Goddess that can throw tanks and flies in an invisible plane. Any attempt to add anything more to that never seems to stick and doesn't seem very believable because it steps away from the core of the character. As much as I'll probably be flambed for saying it, that's not enough for her to warrant a monthly book. I'm sure there are much more interesting DC female characters who deserve a book much more than her, they just aren't subject to losing their rights if they don't have a book about them being published.

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  15. "It shows that Sara knows when to make her move."

    Which is apparently never - which was Ragnell's point. How can your actions be empowering when the stereotype is that you can't do anything - and you never do anything? Especially when, as Ragnell points out - the situation has real world counterparts in which women feel trapped physically and legally? It just undermines her strength and turns her into someone being rescued - which is hardly my superhero fantasy and apparently isn't Ragnell's, which again, was the point of the essay.

    And it doesn't really make sense to say that not decking the guy is the same as "know[ing] when to hold 'em, know[ing] when to fold 'em" when the guy is set up to be pummeled and is but by someone else. In the absence of explaining why this situation is unique, rather than universal (as Ragnell asserts) your arguement simply suggests that women should always wait to be rescued.

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  16. Off of the Witchblade example (I agree with Ragnell) and back to the problem of masculine traits in women overpowering other characterizations:

    It's a bigger problem in comics than just the flattening of female characters. Superhero comics, taken over the decades, have become increasingly dominated by fight scenes as their reason to be. That doesn't leave a lot of room for exploring the feminine characteristics of female characters. It doesn't particularly leave room for exploring feminine (or even non-violent) characteristics of male characters, either.

    Which is a damn shame.

    PS: Mickle-- is that your given name? I know a Mickle irl-- and it's unusal enough a name to have caught my attention.

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  18. James run quickly!

    They're like jackles! JACKLES I SAY!

    And none of us are going to be able to help you.

    I'm an idiot and the other men just want carnage!

    And if Ragnell's most recent post is any indication she's coming down from the mountain soon!

    Run my friend for there is blood in the water!

    Exclamation point!

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  19. Ken, sorry to dissapoint. :) I picked Mickle as my screen name because I write about books a lot (ok, well, I meant to write about books a lot) and it's the nickname for one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite series by one of my favorite authors: Queen Augustus from Lloyd Alexander's Westmark series. That and Sara Crewe, Anne Shirley, Jo March and countless others were already taken.

    James,

    I rather thought Ragnell's point was that a) this type of attitude is so pervasive it even infects relatively good comics. (good meaning good as far as treating women) and, more importantly...

    b) Comics are about fantasies. Being able to deck the jackasses we have to deal with every day is a big fantasy of most women I know. Denying Sara that opportunity jerks women out of the story because it's so at odds with what we are fantasizing about. So the whole set-up reminds us that even in comics that try include us, we are still secondary readers in the minds of the writers.

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  21. Hold it right there, James. You are venturing into bad territory here. This was an all-around amiable discussion until your last comment.

    I normally avoid commenting when I'm angry. That's why I haven't answered your argument yet, but I'm stepping in here before this discussion gets any nastier. And from what I've read of you, I can easily predict that you're going to claim that you're taking the high road and being polite, but what I'm reading between the lines is highly offensive.

    I knew, writing this post, I'd likely see you here to argue, as you have a sensitive spot for Ron Marz. But every writer has high points and low points, and criticism of their story and yes, even the themes behind their story is not a personal attack.

    Mickle was not attacking Ron Marz as a person. She was interpreting my post by outlining a pervailing social trend that is reflected in Marz's writing. In fact, she articulated what I was trying to say.

    And you know for a fact I don't find Ron Marz's writing overall misogynistic. I'm still going to say so when when he writes one of his female characters as weak. And I'm going to outline why I was disappointed because I am personally within my rights to be disappointed.

    In case you haven't noticed, James, you are the only male commenter on this thread who has tried to tell the female commenters what they, as women, should find empowering. Even when someone else agrees with you, they have not taken this liberty. In your rush to defend your favorite writer, you've demonstrated less respect to women than anyone accuses of him.

    I very much doubt the man you are defending would have this attitude. I would put money down that if I emailed this link to Ron Marz he would most likely tell me he wasn't thinking so deeply about it, to try some of the other storylines and that not everyone's going to like everything he writes so "Sorry" but I very much doubt "I wanted my female readers to see standing aside and taking sexism quietly as empowering" will be in the response.

    Now, you may want to leave in a defensive huff right now and I don't blame you, but if you check back you might find a friendlier comment somewhere after this one. Before this display of temper, I was planning on dissecting the major holes in your argument without ranting about your arrogance and condescending tone.

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  23. Sarcasm meters activa--BOOM!

    Mr. Sulu?

    Sir I don't understand.

    Damn it all!

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  24. My friend Micah pointed me towards this Power Girl article. This is really great stuff.

    I would love to invite you to contribute to a superhero theory forum that I host over at www.thecapesymposium.com

    It is for people who not only enjoy superheroes, but who actually enjoy THINKING about them.

    Check it out, I think you will like it.

    Thanks,

    Josh Dahl

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