Tuesday, June 21, 2011

THE SHE-RA MAN-HATERS CLUB

In EXILED AT LAST I said:

But I'm sure Heidi will still provide me with lots of material for my blog even if I can't get into abortive arguments with Tom Spurgeon over there. She's just that kind of girl.


Old habits die hard, and in the last week I did succumb to the temptation (BAD posting finger!) to post a couple of nuggets at THE BEAT. But even without my having made those posts, Heidi has now given me material for a new post these three months later-- albeit rather indirectly.

In this thread Heidi reported on an apparent publicity stunt by Ladydrawers, "an organization based at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago." Said stunt took the form of postcards mailed out to various comics companies and comics professionals, which took the comics industry to task for massive gender inequity. Ladydrawers' web-address was on at least one postcard, but when I checked out the site I couldn't find info on just how the participants compiled their evidence for claims like "75% of DC/Vertigo titles contain rape and abuse."

Though the source of these dubious statistics may be veiled in mystery, this sort of broad ultrafeminist statement has at least one clear political predecessor: the venerable WOMEN AGAINST PORNOGRAPHY, whose history I briefly explored in WAPSTERS VS. FACTSTERS. A repetition of the Susan Brownmiller quote seems appropriate:

We are unalterably opposed to the presentation of the female body being stripped, bound, raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered in the name of commercial entertainment and free speech.


Surprisingly, posters on the BEAT thread said very little about the accusation that DC/Vertigo was a haven for "rape and abuse." Instead, most of the posters, including Heidi, became more exercised over Ladydrawers' corollary accusation: that the comics-industry (which in Ladydrawers' estimation included not just the "Big Two" but also "non-mainstream" publishers like Last Gasp and Fantagraphics) were underrepresented in terms of hiring female personnel.

Other posters did point out the obvious flaw in Ladydrawers' second accusation: that one cannot be sure (1) that a disproportionate number of women applied for work with these companies, and were turned away, (2) that a signficant majority of the women turned away had professional-level talent but were turned away because all of the companies were "boys' clubs." Possibly Ladydrawers had access to such data and simply couldn't fit it on their postcards, but I tend to doubt it.

I said "indirectly" earlier, because Heidi herself didn't anything say I found worth quoting here. However, poster Trina Robbins more than made up for the lack.

No, I don’t believe that the mainstream comics publishers are rejecting women because they are women –they are rejecting women because their comics, which are still aimed at a predominantly male readership, tend not to be the kind of comics that women read, write, or draw. This sorry state of affairs will continue as long as mainstream comics continues to aim their product at guys. So forget about the mainstream! Where you’ll find women is in the indies, the self-published comics, and the graphic novels, lots of graphic novels by women out there! Let the boys have their superheroes.


OK, so I'd support Robbins' supposition that it's possible that the Disproportionate Number may have been rejected because the comics these women were doing weren't in tune with the "mainstream comics" that are "aimed at a predominantly male readership." However, Ladydrawers didn't accuse only the mainstream comics-makers. Indeed, L. Rigby, one of the Lady-drawers herself, responded to that inaccurate summation:

And as far as the Indie environment being the only place ladies can truly excel I’m going to call bullshit. Our numbers show that Top Shelf, an Indie publisher of some very good books, had the lowest amount of female contributers at 8%, even Image had higher at 10% and Image is notorious for publishing some very, hmmmm interesting titles.


But Robbins' inaccuracy interests me less than this statement:

This sorry state of affairs will continue as long as mainstream comics continues to aim their product at guys.


So on one hand, Robbins is saying that there is some evidence that each sex tends to write comics with different interests-- but OTOH, it's a "sorry state of affairs" that Marvel and DC concentrate so heavily on male readership, which leads to the aforesaid gender inequity.

The argument hinges on the possibility that mainstream comic books could rope in more female readers if there were more female creators and other personnel. This remains only a possibility, however, which might need a helluva lot of other factors to converge, beyond just more female personnel.

The success of manga TPB's with female readers is perhaps one of the few solid indicators that such a transformation might be feasible. But one might keep in mind that the success of the TPB's was preceded by a long, hard process in which anime fans stumped for VHS and laserdisc copies of their favorite cartoons, or pestered TV stations with requests for more ROBOTECH, et al. For all the artistry of the better mangas, and the inexpensiveness of the TPB format, I wonder if the TPBs would have enjoyed any long-term success had the American market not been "seeded," as it were, by mass-market television translations of the anime.

Moreover, one cannot help but notice that a majority of the translated TPBs were authored by-- men. It would seem that the female manga-readers of the 1990s were drawn in the comics with little or no influence as to whether men or women authored them-- though I'm sure that the prominence of female artists like CLAMP and Takahashi encouraged many female readers to aspire to making their own manga.

Ironically, this setup resembles the state of affairs of Golden Age comics. In those days, even those comics aimed explicitly at female readers were dominantly written by men. Often McDonald and Robbins have praised this period in terms of offering a wider stratum of "comics for girls" than does the current mainstream. But it would seem that in both time-periods, the dominance of male creators does not seem to have dissuaded female readers from partaking of whatever genre-comics they desired.

The fact that I find Robbins' statement without logical basis does not in itself mean that I necessarily defend the idea that either mainstream comics or artcomics publishers should be a "boys' club." I do think that female creators can bring a lot to the table. But I don't believe they can do so in the mainstream without a clear vision of how modern genre-comics work, no matter what success they have in the greater world of graphic novels. And I've very leery of Ladydrawers' unsupported and underdefined accusations of "rape and abuse at DC Comics," because that sort of overly-politicized reasoning is anathema to good genre.

More on this in a forthcoming essay, "Snakes and Snails and Puppy-Dog Tails."

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