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Saturday, December 20, 2008


"Valerie has been following the current New Avengers storyline in which Tigra is repeatedly brutalized and humiliated. Writer Brian Bendis hints that it’s just so she can make a triumphant comeback against her oppressor. That’s certainly a valid storyline taken on its own merits. The question is how much the artwork resembles Superheroines Demise. Because if it looks like that, there may be some kind of ulterior motive....So next time you claim your interest in superheroes is completely innocent and devoid of fetishistic aspects, well…you’re going to have to PROVE it!"--Heidi McDonald, 'The One with a Lot of Comments," 1-31-08.

"Naturally, this formula [of men beating women] is not popular with girls. Granting all the masochistic excitement of terror, it is difficult to identify yourself with a corpse. And so there are published not only a handful of female crime-and western-comics, but whole series of so-called 'teen-age' comic-books specifically for girls, in which adolescent sexuality is achieved in sadistic disguise... through a continuous humiliation of scarecrow fathers and transvestist boyfriends by ravishingly pretty girls, beating up the men with flower-pots and clocks and brooms..."-- Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH (1949), p. 47.

Let's do the usual compare-and-contrast between these two statements on comic-book sadism:

(1) They were written by different people in different eras and for very different audiences. Also, the writer of the first comment is a woman; the writer of the second was a man (now deceased).

(2) The first quote is from a short blogpost on a comics news-blog that by virtue of brevity alone probably does not represent every aspect of the author's thoughts about the subject of sadism in entertainment, while LOVE AND DEATH was a book of essays specifically devoted to its author's ruminations on the subject.

(3) Both assertions are dominantly serious in tone though the end of McDonald's becomes somewhat flippant, perhaps because she knows that one cannot prove a negative, as in, "There's no fetishism of any kind in my superhero-readings," etc.

(4) Neither assertion is backed up by any great quantity of specific textual examples. McDonald cites two storylines and a cover to "prove" that female brutalization is rampant in mainstream comics, but then, she may not be all that serious about making the point, and of course it is just a short blogpost. Legman devotes one essay in his book to comic-book sadism, but doesn't provide very many more specific examples than McDonald does, though for the above citation about "ravishingly pretty girls" beating the hell out of male victims Legman does reference an old Timely-Atlas comic, JEANIE #16.

(5) Legman was imo a full-blown crank; McDonald is imo merely cranky.

(6) Finally, though most of Legman's tirade is directed against adventure-comics, and thus against boys' entertainment, he does assert that girl readers of his time were also capable of being warped by sadistic entertainments, not all of them within the adventure-genre. In contrast, McDonald's post speaks only of male-over-female sadism (in the Superheroines Demise website and her three specific references) and of male-over-male sadism (in a reference to a fellow involved in superhero-oriented "rough trade" of the "boys only" variety).

So, since McDonald asks the average superhero-reader for "proof" of his "innocence," should I now ask her for "proof" that she did not intentionally privilege male fantasy-sadism as being a thing unique, without parallel in the female of the species?

Admittedly, though Legman clearly believes women were capable of sadism, he merely "proved" it with overblown rhetoric. His fellow traveler Wertham was no better, excoriating Wonder Woman for providing an unfeminine ideal for young girls, and citing his typical undocumented anecdotal evidence to prove that girls as much as boys could become fascinated with comic-book violence.

Testimonials from female readers of superhero comics don't generally seem to provide much evidence for the existence of female sadism. Trina Robbins is one of the few underground creators to cite an early love for superheroines, to whom she devoted a book, THE GREAT WOMEN SUPERHEROES, but if any of them tickled her in that way she didn't write of it (though she did emphasize how one heroine, name of Lady Fairplay, defeated a bad guy with a huge POW-ing punchout). Gloria Steinem, in her introduction to the 1972 Holt reprint of several WONDER WOMAN strips, reflects on her early love of Wonder Woman in terms of the heroine's accomplishments, though one wonders if there isn't a whiff of pleasure in seeing villains of the male sex brought low when Steinem expresses satisfaction in the "sweet vengeance" of seeing a female heroine in action. (Of course Wonder Woman fought female villains too, but what aspect of their defeat would connote "vengeance?")

Camille Paglia was one noted if controversial author who openly believed that the biology of men predisposed them toward sadism, while the biology of women had the opposite effect. I disagree, for I believe that though both biological and cultural conditioning keeps the genders from having the exact same orientation toward any aspect of life (such as power-relations), those factors don't inhibit in either sex fundamental human desires, such as the desire to see evil defeated and justice done via fantasized proxies.

If this were not a real possibility, I would think it impossible that any women could ever be fans of any sort of adventure-genre in any medium, not just the genre of superheroes in the medium of comic books. I would think that at the very least McDonald might grant that women could be as given to what I define as "casual sadism" as men are. Perhaps she might argue that men are more dominantly drawn toward the extremes of syndromic sadism, as Paglia believed, and of course this is a question that will never be "proven."

However, even if one wished to grant that men are more prone to fantasy-sadism of differing types than women are, one still must get past the formidable barrier of logic that shows a character like Wonder Woman succeeding in the comics-market long before feminism proper made its cultural debut. True, some critics have argued that much of the feature's appeal was rooted in seeing beautiful women bound, either by men or by other women, but if this was the feature's sole appeal, then WONDER WOMAN would have looked much more like the more titillating breeds of jungle-girl comics of the time.

Instead, WONDER WOMAN was a full-fledged superhero comic of the time, which meant lots of fighting-- and if a comic contains fights and remains popular, then it seems obvious that the fights are one element pleasing readers (thus leading to "sthenosadism" of both the syndromic and non-syndromic varieties). Certainly WONDER WOMAN's creator argued that part of the feature's appeal for male readers was in seeing her dominate men with her superior power, probably as much with her muscles as with her magic lasso. Marston's statement ignores that his heroine also dominated a lot of women both ways as well, but though Gerald Jones' MEN OF TOMORROW implies that this chickfight-aspect was the feature's real main appeal for the male fans, I think Jones was incorrect on the same grounds I stated above with regard to the "bondage of women" theme. Marston's WONDER WOMAN was a polyvalent pulp masterwork which, unlike any other comic of its time, regularly depicted all four of the possible permutations of gendered fantasy-sadism, which are, for anyone who forgot:

Male-over-male// male-over-female// female-over-female//female-over-male

Regarding contemporary comics that are not quite as broadly contoured as the Marston WONDER WOMAN, I do sympathize somewhat with Heidi McDonald's ire against casual depictions of the male-over-female species of sadism. Of all the four, it is the configuration that one could most consider, to borrow from Levi-Strauss, "bad to think." And yet, unlike McDonald I don't think that the configutation's presence "proves" anything about the propensities of modern superhero-comics readers. For many such readers, the possibility of a heroine being thrashed may signify nothing more than the risks of the game, with no syndromic interest. And if such readers also read features where women regularly beat the crap out of male opponents, maybe they should really worry about "proving" that they're not of the Marston persuasion, rather than that of "Superheroines Demise."


Asterios said...

Y'know, I never thought about it, but that New Avengers scene was pretty insane...there was probably a better way to have depicted the same basic idea.

"The Hood need someone within the Initiative to provide critical information." It could have been as simple as that, but the creepy, creepy art...

Then again, Bendis gave us Jessica Drew, one of the coolest characters ever in comics. Ditto, Veranke. I think I can give him a pass on being a sexist in general, but that particular scene was pretty lame.

Gene Phillips said...

I haven't read the NEW AVENGERS story MacDonald referenced. I have only hazy memories of the WONDER WOMAN sequence mentioned, but I will allow that the HEROES FOR HIRE period after Palmiotti and Gray was a mess in a lot of ways, which might include a certain amount of misogyny.

But one has to ask, "Is it sexism every time a woman in a dangerous profession loses a fight and gets the shit kicked out of her?" Some of the controversies have been quickly forgotten, like one during the Micheline-Layton IRON MAN. Don't have issue number, but basically an Asian female bodyguard, comrade to Tony Stark's then-girlfriend Bethany, came up against some thugs and got beat to shit. A letter-writer (presumably a real one, tho one can't be sure) protested that the woman should've been able to take the thugs out with her martial arts skills. The editors judiciously responded that the stories had never in any way asserted that the Asian lady had phenomenal fighting-skills.

So-- was that unhappy outcome sexist?

Asterios said...

Gene, I think you should check out the specific scene. The issue it's in (I think it was New Avengers Annual #2?) is pretty awesome, on the whole.

They way they depict them beating up Tigra...it's pretty gross. It's kinda something you have to see for yourself.

To address your larger question, I think the answer's pretty simple, "No." But I don't think anyone was asking that question.

Gene Phillips said...


Well, in the post to which I linked, Heidi sort of did raise the question, by comparing mainstream-readers generally to readers of Superheroines Demise.

As I say, it may not have been entirely serious, but I don't think she was entirely joking either.

Indirectly she also raised the question: if many male comics-readers are sadists (or what I call "sthenosadists"), does the same apply to the female readers?
If not, why not?