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.
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.