Women are on my mind even more than usual this week. Talk of misogyny, Mother’s Day, and liberal doses of early Kinky Friedman records have made my brain reflect on how women (and, by extension, men) are treated in comic books. Random much? Yeah, but that isn’t really as unusual as guys and gals strolling around New York in spandex smacking each other like teenagers with hot-mops.
I pray to God, Yahweh, Allah, Al Gore, and Yoda that you have had the great fortune of listening to Kinky Friedman (or misfortune, depending on your point of view). Kinky Friedman has been described as the Frank Zappa of country music. This is a pretty apt description for much of his satirical musical output, but Kinky is much more than a musician these days. He now dabbles more in hilarious detective novels and running for governor of Texas, but his music is where it all started. One of his most famous songs is “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.” This little song is decidedly sexist, chauvinist, and misogynist, but pretty funny in a tongue-in-cheek way. I guess it is offensive in the same way that Borat is offensive, which is to say that it is distastefully amusing.
It was funny that I was listening to this very song when I read Bill's post,Dave Sim is Not a Misogynist . I remember reading about this misogyny charge in Rich Johnston’s muckraking column Lying in the Gutters. My Mother’s Day card lay on the desk next to me as I read too, featuring a picture of a ratty looking fanboy type wearing a pair of daisy dukes and a fanny-pack, with the inscription, “There are scarier things than having me as a son.”
A question came roaring together in my brain in one giant crash as all of these things aligned. Comic books. Misogyny. Mother’s Day. Kinky Friedman. Just how are women treated in comic books?
Look to the covers on the stands and you will find many women with humongous chests and submissive posturing. Flip open nearly every comic book from the Big Two and you will find big-busted ladies having their tight spandex ripped to shreds as they slug it out with the men of their respective teams. Sadly, you won’t find many leading ladies holding their own in a solo title. Many of the women in team titles are nothing more than wallflowers or kidnapping fodder. Often they are characterized as being either brutally insecure about their own heroism or are so holistically masculine they could be a candidate for a speedy sex change operation. The kind where hormone therapy is not necessary. There is also the occasional portraying of women as being devious, conniving witches that want to either (a) tear your heart out, (b) desire control the galaxy, or (c) make you watch 27 Dresses... again!
Sound familiar? It should because I could be talking about the magazine rack, the DVD aisle, or any advertisement you run across on television, the interstate, or internet.
This treatment of women isn’t exclusive to comic books, but comics are stigmatized as objectifying women more than other media. It is a convincing argument for people to believe when Power Girl’s breasts are staring down at you from the comic shelf. That issue of Maxim or episode of Lost won’t do much to remove the mark of objectifying women either, but many people in the general public think comic books are juvenile, female characters marginalized.
The objectification of women isn’t a new trend to comic books. It probably won’t be an old thing to comic books either. But honestly, do men do any better than women in comic books? Testosterone obsessed, muscle-bound, skirt-chasing heroes are almost as stupidly prevalent in comic books as is the big busted bad girl. Almost. It is no secret that women aren’t treated as equals to men in the funny book pages, whether you keep score by characterization or by the number of solo titles available.
However, that inequity may be a function of the audience. Let’s face it; males are the predominant audience for comic books. The bean counters and creators know the demographic game. We supposedly want to see big breasted, spandex clad women crying in distress for a big strapping man to rescue them. I would like to think most comic fans are smarter than this, but then I see the sales numbers for these idiotic crossovers and I have my doubts.
God help us.
I think there should be more positive portrayals of women in comic books, but can’t that argument be made for any entertainment medium? Sure, but that’s a societal battle that can be won on many fronts. If comic book fans are interested in seeing women in a better light, they should demand that from comic companies.
Unfortunately, those demands may or may not pan out. Sex sells; that’s Modern U.S. Marketing 101. If there are boobs, the comic fans will come. So will the movie fans. Or the television fans. Whatever the pop culture medium may be, the fanboys will line up to eyeball awkwardly. In high school, my friend Doug bought Uncanny X-Men just to look at the T&A for that month. I haven’t spoken to him in years, but I hope he has moved on to bigger and better things like Swank or Hustler.
I want to make it clear that I am not saying that comic readers cannot appreciate the female form, nor am I advocating an abundance of modesty. I just want to read a comic book that is populated by strong female leads, not trembling bombshells.
It really is too bad the big companies seldom have realistic women populating their titles, but there are a slew of independent titles that have done this well. Love & Rockets, The Waiting Place, and Strangers in Paradise are some examples that jump right out at me.
Of the big two, DC’s Vertigo line is rife with strong female characters, with Fables and the recently ended Y the Last Man being strong examples. Many people enjoy Marvel's She-Hulk , but I think the humor was more of a draw there that She-Hulk's femininity. I hope you folks will offer more examples of strong women in comics in the comments!
What would a comic book outsider like Kinky think of the way women are treated in comic books? I think a witty sexist like Kinky would laugh at it. But Kinky is an equal opportunity satirist, and I believe he would find just as much fault with the men in comics.
We really should demand better treatment for women in comic books. The age old adage of “vote with your dollar” really could work in this situation. That is the impetus for change. If people are interested in better, stronger portrayals of women in comics, write a letter to the editor or mail page. Stop buying books that may do more to objectify women than make them equals. Write to industry magazines. Get the word out on books that treat women with dignity. Again, you good readers out there in cyberspace probably have a lot more suggestions that I do.
The bottom line is to do something besides ogle the lusciously drawn lady. Can comic book equality happen? As Kinky Friedman would say, “Why the hell not?”