Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why I'm Pissed Off at Paul Levitz

I and others have seen a number of comments suggesting that the anger Paul Levitz's statement engendered was based solely on a misreading of his statement, and that by drawing attention to a couple of qualifiers any reasonable person will cease to be upset at the sentiment. On the contrary, I believe that these commenters are the ones who lack understanding in this case, but that may be because none of use have chosen to spell it out directly enough for them.

So, Levit'z statement:
I’m not sure that young women are as interested in reading about superheroes. The fundamental dynamic of the superhero story has historically been more appealing to boys than to girls.

For emphasis, let me repeat the part that has pissed people off:
The fundamental dynamic of the superhero story has historically been more appealing to boys than to girls.

Now, as many of you have noticed the words "no" and "never" do not appear in conjunction with "girls" or "appeal". I have noticed that too. That is because yes, I and most everyone else I've spoken to understands that he didn't say "Superheroes will never appeal to girls, and there are no girls who read superheroes." He merely implied that we were insignificant.

Either way, the words "no" or "never" are not the irritating parts of this quote. Nor is historically, though it is actually quite infuriating because there've been arguments that historically the genre had a lot of cross-appeal that has been squandered away in the past few decades. But that's not it either.

Allow me to present the rage-inducing part of this quote to you in bold:
The fundamental dynamic of the superhero story has historically been more appealing to boys than to girls.

We can argue back on forth on what precisely constitutes the fundamental dynamic of a superhero story, but the specifics such as costumes, secret identities, heroes, superpowers, villains, individualism and so on don't matter in this discussion. Only one aspect matters to this argument, and that is this: sexism.

There's a terrible strain of sexism coded into superhero fandom and industry culture: it's evident in the way women are drawn in comparison to how men are, how women are posed in comparison to how men are, the way women are dressed in comparison to how men are, the stories women get versus the ones men get, the prominence of female characters (well, lack thereof), how female characters are marketed, how male characters that appeal significantly more to women than to men are not valued either, how homosexuality and gender issues are (not) handled, how female characters are treated for the sake of male character's stories, how powerful female characters are cut down, how female characters are reduced to their sexual relationships and sex appeal to the straight male reader, how women are dismissed as a marketable demographic, how complaints of sexism are dismissed down to what artists are chosen to go with what characters.

And there's a philosophy in the female-dominated areas of fandom that states that this sexism is there, but is not in any way fundamental to the genre. It's excess fat that can be trimmed off without any loss of substance, that in fact trimming this unhealthy fat sexism will improve the quality of the product.

When someone like Paul Levitz suggests there's something fundamental in superhero stories that women find distasteful, he pisses a great deal of us off. Because what women find distasteful is the rampant sexism so obvious from the first moment a dramatic angle is sacrificed in order to highlight a superheroine's butt or bust, and that is in no way part of the fundamental dynamic of a superhero story.

I can only speak directly for myself, of course, but I can attest that a lot of the women who are annoyed about this also subscribe to the two part theory that "sexism is rampant in superhero comics, but sexism is unnecessary to superhero comics." Maybe, yes, there's a couple who didn't see the qualifiers and are backing off, but I'm pretty sure a few more have pointed out that they're pissed off at "fundamental" in there. There's probably even some who haven't quite realized exactly what bothers them about the statement, but know that they find it spectacularly offensive. Whatever it is exactly, I'll bet they're as unlikely to be pacified by an adverb as I am.


  1. Makes perfect sense to me. It will of course however, infuriate any number of people who won't read it carefully, and start shrieking. As usual.

  2. Yes, sounds right to me. I could, if I felt like being extremely charitable, assume that Levitz was very stupid and clumsy in his choice of phrasing and simply meant that the superhero genre in all its historical permutations has appealed less to women than men, and that the choice of "fundamental" was merely inept...

    ...but I don't see why I should bend over backwards like that. :)

  3. As somebody who was initially boggled by the vitriolic reaction to Levitz's comments, I appreciate the clarity you've brought to the issue here -- and, given your interpretation of what Levitz considers to be the 'fundamental dynamic', I see how you (and others) could reasonably be offended.

    That said, do you think it's possible that Levitz's 'fundamental dynamic' could have been referring to, say, action/adventure, rather than 'embedded sexism/misogyny'? If one looks at action/adventure subgenres other than superheroes (cop shows, action movies, crime/western comics, etc.) male viewers/readers seem to outnumber women in those segments of the pop culture landscape as well. If Levitz sees superhero comics as action/adventure tales at their core (which they may or may not be, but that's a discussion for another time), he might be viewing their 'fundamental' nature in that larger context.

    And I still can't quite buy that 'more appealing to boys than to girls' equates to 'so much more appealing to boys than to girls that any female readers are rendered insignificant by extension.'

    That's as far as I'm willing to go to play devil's advocate w/r/t Levitz, though. I'm liking the new LSH series, and have enjoyed some of his other writing in the past -- but his tenure as head honcho @ DC was characterized by enough questionable editorial meddling that it does the opposite of inspiring confidence.

  4. I can't think of anyone who hasn't considered that, but the problem there is that he is also wrong. His actions as publisher--his reluctance to reach out to the audience and accommodate their complaints about the sexism--suggest that he feels the difference in action/adventure audience so strongly favors men that women are an insignificant minority not worth courting. I think that he's wrong, and that the audience is much more evenly divided than anyone suspects and may even favor women in a lot of cases (if you want to talk historically, off the top of my head Arthurian romances in old France--stories about men bashing the shit out of each other for honor--were SPECIFICALLY tailored to the female court audience). And I think that he and anyone else who works at that company that may have picked up that attitude needs to be disabused of the impression as quickly as possibly.

    How does one do that? Well, I imagine as many female fans as possible getting mad at this sort of statement and making enough of a fuss that DC management sees there's a significant vocal female audience is a good start.

    My point is, the qualifier doesn't make him right and is where we have to argue to point out that we're a possible source of money if they'd just stop being idiots, but the "fundamental" is what's so blinding-rage-inducing.