Sunday, July 4, 2010

THE GENRE-GENDER WARS

The same emotions in man and woman are, however, different in tempo: therefore man and woman never cease to misunderstand one another.-- Freidrich Nietzsche, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, Aphorism 85.


Over three years ago Johanna Draper Carlson blogged this article, "Superhero Comics Aren't for Girls," a brief but accurate examination of the fact that certain genres are simply more favored by one gender than another:

“Superhero comics aren’t for girls” is true the same way “romance novels aren’t for boys” or “action movies aren’t for girls” are. They’re gender-identified genres. The people who make them and the majority of the people who consume them know who their audience tends to be. Recognizing that doesn’t make you sexist or invalidate anyone’s tastes; it’s just realism. “Chick lit” and fashion mags are aimed at women; Mack Bolan books and gun and car mags are aimed at men.

That doesn’t mean that they’re 100% enjoyed by only members of that gender, but it does make the cross-gender participants exceptions.


Three years later, this simple but telling assertion has gone largely ignored, as both male and female fans continually act as if the cross-gender participants are not exceptions, and further, that any aspects of the genre enjoyed by the gender which dominantly buys the books-- in this case, the male-- should be corrected to fit the preferences of the minority gender, who is in this case happens to be the female of the species.

To some extent I can respect the attempt of a minority audience to make its voice heard, to make an impression on a genre dominated by the opposite gender. But when the demands seem determined to leech away those absurd or larger-than-life aspects that characterize the genre itself, that comes down to a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

For instance, on 5-18-2010 Hope Larson posted her "Girls & Comics Survey Results" on LiveJournal, which features, among other conclusions, this unsurprising assertion:

The hypersexualization/objectification of female superheroines makes female readers uncomfortable, and sexual violence as a plot point has got to stop.


From the gender-political stance implied in the second part of the sentence, it's almost a given that the respondents were primarily thinking about sexual violence of male characters perpetrated against female characters. But even if this was the only kind of gender violence perpetrated in comics-- which it is not-- I'm not sure that one would wish to forbid it so absolutely.

Not long ago, I more or less finished the Marquis deSade's elephantine novel JULIETTE. I say "more or less" because despite my having a general ability to weather some pretty hardcore writing, I frequently got bored and skipped past many of the Marquis' lumbering and repetitive scenarios of multiple rapes and murders. Despite the facts that the victims include some young men, and that the novel itself is told from the POV of a female initiate into Sadean ethics, most of the victimizations are women being raped and killed by men.

Sade, of course, is the original poet of sexual violence. By way of comparison, I would say that the entirety of all the male-over-female violence in mainstream comic books from the Golden Age to the present-- from Sheena getting tied up by drooling African tribesmen to Jim Balent's stories of "haunted vaginas"-- is baby stuff next to even one chapter of JULIETTE.

But of course, though one can certainly find particular authors who *may* have been kindred spirits to Sade in terms of their preferences, violence in the mainstream comics-genres does not begin and end with tormented, refrigerated women. Even Frederic Wertham and Gershon Legman, the Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber of the anti-violence screed, recognized that the Golden Age of Comics included many opportunities for the Fair Sex to be unfair. Legman went so far as to assert that the teen-humor comics offered female readers the chance to get some of their own back, watching as female characters continually maimed and humiliated their fathers and "scarecrow boyfriends" in orgies of slapstick schadenfreude.

If Legman's wildly-phrased assertion contains even a germ of truth, then one would assume that not all female readers today are entirely uncomfortable with images of sexual violence of one kind or another, even if none of them were represented in Larson's survey of 198 readers. Certainly female horror-fans on assorted blogs have shown themselves comfortable with playing out the gender wars via fantasized sex-n-violence, so it may be merely that the majority of female superhero-readers are not speaking for all tastes within their community.

But let's say for sake of argument that all superhero-readin' women don't like no kind of sex-violence, no matter who's on top. I would allow that their voices should be heard, but should their complaints be allowed to cut off the nose (or perhaps some other more pertinent body-part) of the superhero genre?

At the risk of misrepresenting of Friedrich Nietzsche-- who's isn't exactly the go-to guy for gender relations-- I think his notion of "tempo" could be applied to the disparities of dominant male and female preferences in pop fiction.

It isn't that men are incapable of having "ooh ahh" reactions to babies and puppies, for they have the same range of emotions as women. But for reasons of biology and/or sociology, the "tempo" with which they are expressed is less immediate, more roundabout by reason of gender defenses.

And it isn't that women are incapable of going "yeah!" when they see some nasty bastard (or bitch) blown away by hero or heroine. But their reaction to such purgative scenarios is generally less immediate than a male's, and has to be justified more by appeals to character and situation than a man's does.

Thus the superhero genre would seem to be dominantly attuned to the male "tempo." Any modifications to it that don't account for that tempo are bound to end in a sort of chaos that benefits no one but the anti-fanboy elitists.

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