Tuesday, October 25, 2011

More Thoughts on Female Comic Characters

This might be a bit more directionless than some of my posts, so you've been warned.

As the days have continued to pass, my mind has been continually on the topics surrounding the problems with the comic industry, how to solve them, etc. As I'm not a business expert and, at the moment, just an aspiring creator with only a small amount of independent work to show, this is all still coming from a fairly outside view. Perhaps that's a good thing, though, as most of the problems that tend to exist with comics are due to the insular nature of the current medium.

Lately, the hot button topic in regards to superhero comics has been the treatment of women. This is not a new problem, but it is one that dies down every so often. It hasn't ever actually been solved, and that baffles me. Everyone knows the stereotype. In comics, men are huge muscle-bound guys and women have huge chests and tiny waists. To a point, one can attempt to argue that both are exaggerations, and yes, they are, but they are different kinds of exaggerations. Both are an idealization, but both come from (and are for) a generally male point of view. Thus, the aspects of men in comics that are emphasized are that of physical power and strength, where as female characters tend to be idealized sexually. Posing in comics is a bit of a staple, that pause where the hero shows their power, but it is, again,  quite different with male and female characters. For some reason, female heroes tend to stand in such a way so as to show off as much of their bodies as possible, many times in positions that normal human spines would snap in.

This is not just a problem with comics, either. Most all media directed towards male audiences is this way. Look at action movies, especially those that star female characters, for basically the same problem. The only real difference is that movies require actual people, so the ridiculousness of proportions doesn't happen to the same degree. But here's the thing. The physical aspects of the problem are the obvious ones and the thing that most people tend to latch onto. But in my view, they aren't truly the problem.

The problem is the next layer down, and that's characterization. Even if the art in comics changes overall to show more varied body types for female characters, none of that will do any good if the overall characterization of women in comics remains the same. While we're nearly entirely beyond the stories of the 60s and the 70s where all the women, even the Fantastic Four's Invisible Woman (Invisible Girl at the time...), are simply damsels in distress, many stories still contain obvious male/female splits when it comes to the roles they take. It is true that there are a great many more female heroes today, but they still tend to take a back seat to the men.

All of these are problems or issues that you most likely know of on some level already, whether you see it as a problem or not is up to you, but most people do realize that it's there. Yet this is all considered normal to us. Men are our action heroes culturally and have been for a thousand years. But for most of that history, when it comes to women in the stories, they exist as objects or a reason for a plot. Active roles for women in stories are a very modern thing, and the transition to female action heroes even more. Yet, somehow, female action heroes are sexualized in ways that males are not. The obvious reason is that the action genre in any medium (TV, Comics, Movies, Books) is aimed at men, and it's no secret that sex sells.

But to me, this feels wrong. Usually, these are subjects tackled by women, something I am very much not. I don't claim to have some special insight, but the thing is, I don't think it's necessary. To me, this kind of thing has never been a so-called "Women's Issue" and I've always felt that framing it as such misses the point. The longer we bury ourselves in this thinking, the longer we'll have to deal with bad stories and the more we put off new, great things.

It is possible to tell a good action story with a female lead that doesn't rely on her being half-naked or constantly posing for the viewer. In fact, it has been done more than once. That isn't the issue. I'm not saying this doesn't exist, just that it should be the norm. Young girls deserve to have role models in Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Wasp, and even Mary Jane Watson without their only actions being centered around sexualization. And that doesn't mean some characters can't be more focused on sex. Some people are. Men and women.

But, again, it shouldn't be the norm.

Not only that, but those women that do read comics shouldn't be ridiculed when they point out these problems. No one should. If this medium is going to continue, it's going to need men and women reading. The explosion of manga a few years back proved that girls will, indeed, read comics if you give them subjects they want to read. And thankfully, while the big two companies may be slow to change, the indie market will continue to lead the charge into places where we should have been all along. Hopefully, as indie creators push forward, Marvel and DC won't wait too long to catch up.