I’ve been watching the scrapping over gender issues in superhero comics closely for over two years now, and I’m no closer to being able to predict the sort of reaction a post will get now than I was then. I’d say I’m more baffled than ever by this point.
A short time ago I posted some thoughts on the different ways that artists handle male and female superheroes when drawing danger scenes. I don’t believe artists always consciously do this, but the vast majority of superhero artists emphasize sexual characteristics when a female character is the focus of the scene and de-emphasize sexual characteristics when a male character is the focus of the scene. I wrote it general and specific so as not to lay the blame of this matter on the shoulders of any individual artist, but on the general culture and the expectations they learned to draw with and are rewarded for meeting. I managed to personally offend at least two artists. It was remarkable to watch them argue against the post, because even if neither of those artists had ever done a scene the slightest bit unequal when portraying male and female characters, it still didn’t invalidate the observation that when you walk into a comic book store and look at the superhero rack you see boobs, legs and butts prominently displayed when there’s an injured woman on the cover and you see crotches and butts discretely downplayed when there is an injured male character on the cover. Nevertheless, this post which I had thought was as inoffensive (at some points cowardly) as anything I had ever written caused a sizeable fight.
In contrast, just last week I posted about “gay-baiting.” I looked at an issue and came up with four specific points in the development of that issue that alone implied thoughtlessness, but together added up to malice on the part of a major publisher and one of its writers. I actually accused them of purposefully offending the readers in order to gain sales. Because I mentioned lesbians, I got a fight, but it wasn’t the one I was expecting. After two years of posting impersonal analysis of gender issues and finding that even the most tame of reviews that mentioned sexism could attract comments saying that I was overreacting, that so-and-so did not hate women, and that I thought that the writer/editor/publisher was personally trying to offend me I fully expected something of the sort on this post, a post where I actually said that the professionals were trying to anger the fans. I was seriously expecting a fight about that part.
I got a nice argument on how conservatives are people too. Nobody seemed to notice what I had actually said.
I’m not the only one this happens to. As I’ve said, I’ve been watching for two years and I’m amazed at the reactions sometimes. Posts that I think are the most vitriolic, personalized, unfair sort of criticism aimed at a particular personality barely elicit a disapproving comment, while the comment sections of fairly neutral and reasonable pieces on the sort of things a female reader would want to see in mainstream comics become a soapbox for some random person’s grievances against feminists. In most cases people either discuss something else or accuse the blogger of creator-bashing. Sometimes they’re right about it but usually they seem to call the most innocuous analysis creator-bashing and change the subject (or join in!) when actual creator-bashing happens.
I don’t have a good conclusion for this one. Like most of us, I know pretty much what to expect when an industry insider makes an announcement (“No! Change bad! No change!”, “The Editor in Chief should be fired!”, “Creator X RULZ so this will be AWESOME!”, “I have a MUCH better idea!”), but when it comes to a fan calling for diversity things are a lot harder to predict. I think, however, this is important to watch. Social criticism is tough in any arena, and fans are particularly resistant to change and disagreement.