Saturday, September 16, 2006

Walkin' on, walkin' on broken gla-a-ass

Yep, that's right, I'm going to make myself look like an ass again. Thankfully, due to the recent brouhaha, I ought to look like a much smaller ass by comparison.

So, for some reason I ended up looking at one of Kalinara's old posts, which I somehow overlooked the first time around. First things first, it's a fantastic post, clearly describing what Kalinara would like to see in terms of female comic characters, and doing so in a very grounded, fair-minded manner. I agree wholeheartedly with her thoughts, (especially those regarding costumes and body types, two topics where I have a difficult time articulating my thoughts) and I wish I'd caught this thread back when it first popped up. So, thanks for a fantastic and enlightening post, Kalinara. If you ever decide to permalink your "best of" posts in the sidebar, I recommend this for the list.

The reason for this post, however, is not to praise a months-old thread on feminism; it really has very little to do with Kalinara's post at all. No, something in the comments section stuck out to me:
At 11:59 AM, Ferrous Buller said…
"At least what *my* brand of feminism is really about."

Well, that's part of the trouble, though, isn't it? Put ten feminists in a room and you'll get ten different definitions of "What Feminism Means." Apart from agreeing that the point of feminism is to make the world a nicer place for women, you'll hear very different ideas about what matters and how we should go about changing things. E.g., I'm sure there are plenty of feminists who would argue that wardrobe and body image are central issues.
Put another way: you'll never please all the people all the time - and that includes feminists.

Good post overall, though: you articulate your stance pretty succinctly. :-)

Emphasis mine. See, Buller makes a good point: there's no consensus on just what "feminism" is, beyond treating men and women equally (and even then there's disagreement on just what "equal" means). I wouldn't argue for such a consensus; there's no one philosophy that will work for all women in all places, at least not one more specific than "equal treatment." You can't take a specific statement and make it apply to a large general population, it simply doesn't work.

Tangent alert: this, I think, is the root of many of the problems with communication between the sexes. People take generalizations (for instance, "women are generally less violent than men") and try to apply them axiomatically ("all women are less violent than men") or individually ("it's a good thing you're a woman, and thus less violent than men, honey. What are you doing with that knife?"). The problem with this is that those generalizations, whether they are biological, psychological, hormonal, sociological, or traditional, fall apart at the individual level. Regardless of those predispositions, everyone is wired differently, everyone thinks and acts differently, and no one conforms to all the norms. I saw part of BBC's Secrets of the Sexes program, which demonstrated this fairly well. They showed that, on average, the participants conformed to what was expected, but depending on the parameters of the test the positions of the individual men and women on the male/female continuum line differed wildly. In some cases, it was a matter of one factor conflicting others (as I recall, one of the women had an unusually high testosterone level, a hormonal predisposition, which worked against some of the other factors), in other cases, it was something less quantifiable. The truth is that everyone is a product of nature and nurture, and everyone is affected by all of these factors--biological, psychological, hormonal, sociological, and traditional (among others; the waters are far muddier than this)--it's the combination of these factors in different amounts, along with upbringing and life experiences, that shapes people into unique individuals. Which predisposition wins out at any given time is the product of any number of variables. Trying to pin down any one factor that determines behavior, or trying to say that one factor outweighs all the others, simply shows ignorance regarding the complexity of human behavior and motivation. Tangent over.

Anyway, I started thinking that if ten feminists will each have a different opinion of what feminism is, then they'll also have ten different opinions about what misogyny is. Like feminism, everyone can agree on the basics of misogyny: hatred of or contempt for women (thank you, Oxford English Dictionary). There are situations where pretty much everyone can agree on the blatant misogyny (husband beating his wife? Pretty clear), but what about more subtle situations?

For instance, I didn't manage to see "My Super Ex-Girlfriend," though I wanted to. I'll probably rent it (come on, she throws a shark at someone, that's gotta be worth the price of admission. That's better than a gun that shoots swords). But I saw a review on some blog which called it misogynistic. Now, it's entirely possible that there are misogynistic elements which didn't make it into the previews, and I'll certainly concede that. But, I'm assuming here that the charges were made against the portrayal of Uma Thurman's character, G-Girl, a superheroine who is, among other things, clingy, emotionally unstable, manipulative, and prone to jealousy, all traits stereotypically associated with women. It looks like the plot revolves around her human boyfriend's quest to dump her and move on, while she's playing the role of super-stalker.
Before I get to my point, let's play the gender-reversal game. G-Guy is an emotionally unstable, clingy, jealous superhero who uses his superpowers to stalk, threaten, and attack his human ex-girlfriend. Isn't this premise just as misogynist? Wouldn't this be "My Date with Major Force" or something? Doesn't this end up the sort of spousal abuse misogyny about which we can all agree?

Standing womb onlyOr, for a better example, how about the Mother of Champions? I think people are more hesitant to call Morrison a misogynist, given his prestige and body of work, but no one's pulling their punches over the pregnant lady. She's been called misogynist and racist (a double-whammy), and it's easy to see why. As one of the two female members of China's superhero team, The Great Ten, the Mother of Champions has the ability to give birth to twenty-five super-soldiers every three days. She is carried around in an insect-legged robot bed, since she can't move around too well in her state of perpetual pregnancy. The stereotypes are obvious: the Chinese reproduce like rabbits, and women should stay barefoot and pregnant.
And yet...China's not exactly the most progressive nation in the world when it comes to gender equality. The government and society still actively discriminate against the female population. Why wouldn't a team created and run by a sexist government have a token female who represented what the government expects of its females?
Incidentally, if MoC represents the Chinese government's expectations of Chinese women, then the Ghost Fox Killer, an exotic femme fatale, represents the outside world's expectations of Chinese women. Her ability to control the ghosts of the men she has killed makes her, like MoC, dependent on men for her special abilities.
The point here is that, if I were writing (for instance) a Confederate super-team, organized and run by their (shady, Black Adam-aligned) government, I certainly wouldn't fill it with black and female characters who were treated as the equals of the white men on the team. I'd stock the team with characters who represented what the government expected of its people. Is it racist to recognize the prejudices of foreign cultures?

So, back to G-Girl, is it more sexist (and I realize that sexism and misogyny are different things) to craft a female character who has real negative traits stereotypically associated with femininity, or to refuse to attribute such traits to female characters? I discussed the whole chivalric sexism/noble savage/"positive" stereotyping before, and how it ends up being just as discriminatory as the more obvious variety. It seems to me that calling a female character misogynistic, based solely on the fact that she's portrayed in a negative light, is really restricting what kind of characters may be deemed acceptible.
And just how is it that the Super Ex-Girlfriend plot ends up being equally misogynistic no matter what the gender of the jealous super-stalker is?

Here are the long-awaited answers, as I see them.
First, on the problem of G-Girl, I think the character is only misogynistic if the stereotypical traits are the only traits she has. When a well-developed female character gets jealous at her ex-boyfriend or shows herself to be emotionally unstable (assuming, of course, these traits aren't huge departures for the character), it's going to be much harder to get charges of misogyny to stick.

For example, Cassandra "Wonder Girl" Sandsmark, thanks to exposure in Wonder Woman, Young Justice, and Teen Titans, was a very well-rounded character. When she attacked Supergirl in a jealous rage in the early issues of the new series, it seemed wildly out of character. However, her current emotional instability seems like a natural progression given her established personality and all the crazy crap that has happened to her in the last year or so, mainly the death of Superboy. It doesn't seem like the writers are saying "she's lost without a man," it's more like "she has lost everything and everyone--after that, you'd feel lost too."

So if G-Girl was, in fact, stereotype stacked on stereotype with no depth, then the accusation of misogyny seems apt. If she was a three-dimensional character, who also happened to be a bit insane, then I think it's unfair, unrealistic, and antifeminist to make such a claim. Equality means taking the good and the bad, including "equal capacity to be a maladjusted nutcase."

For the problem of G-Guy, I think it's a matter of where the misogyny lies. G-Girl may be a misogynist character in that she embodies a negative female stereotype. Pitting a superpowered stalker against a powerless female is more of a misogynist situation, in which we have a violently dominant male figure and an unwillingly submissive female character. I suppose G-Guy himself might be a misogynist, though that's more of a jump; 'being prone to jealousy' and 'hating women' don't necessarily go hand in hand.
As far as the writers, I think the misogynist charges might be more suited to the G-Girl story than the G-Man one. Assuming every other plot point (so far as I understand them) is the same, then "My Super Ex-Boyfriend" would portray the woman as the protagonist, fighting against a clearly-nutso superhuman. She'd be the underdog, and the story would be more about a lone woman fighting an unbeatable foe than an abusive boyfriend stalking his ex. It might even be an allegory for feminism--women taking control of their lives (symbolized by the girl-initiated breakup) and becoming independent, but having to fight the all-powerful patriarchy to do so.
Whereas in the story-as-is, we have a female stereotype and a doofy male re-enacting the clich├ęd story of amazon anxiety (stereotypical male fear of strong women). Given that, I'm not convinced that the film wouldn't be misandric as well--Luke Wilson's character looks like just about every clueless, goofy milquetoast slacker in romantic comedies.
This leads us, however, to a new question: does writing about a misogynistic situation or misogynist characters (like Major Force) or stereotyped characters make the writer a misogynist? How do you judge the difference between "sexist writing" and "using gender stereotypes to make a point about gender roles (or society or stereotypes or whatever)"?

But, back again to the first point, if these two characters manage to be well-rounded, if their personalities and circumstances are developed beyond the stereotypes, then I think the charges of misogyny should fall apart. Unless every woman in the film is some insane bitch, up against Luke Wilson's flawless knight in dorky armor, having an unstable jealous female villain shouldn't be enough to warrant the m-word. People, regardless of gender, can be and are jealous, petty, clingy, and emotional, and including or excluding those traits in a character, solely on the basis of gender, is sexist and ought to be avoided.

I recognize that there is a long history of those stereotypical characters, enough so that any female character who displays traits like jealousy and clinginess and moodiness is walking a tightrope, where one wrong step will turn them into a terrible caricature. I recognize the impulse to judge such characters immediately, to want a moratorium on those traits in female characters, but that seems like that would only skew the trend toward the 'chivalric' stereotypes. As Kalinara requested above, we should be working for well-rounded, well-developed female characters, regardless of what their traits might be. We shouldn't decry jealous women unless that jealousy is unfounded or is the only real trait they have. If there's a real motivation for it, a reason behind it, a personality that supports it, then why should it be excluded.

With the Mother of Champions, I'm reserving some judgment until the Great Ten become more developed. I think there are a few things to consider when judging her, though. First, the Chinese government is being set up as being involved in some shady dealings, not the least of which is their alliance with Black Adam and their adamantly nationalistic control of their borders and airspace. Furthermore, the Great Ten is meant to be under government control, and is also supposed to be the product of some shady dealings. Like Captain America or Uncle Sam, these characters are each meant to represent some aspect of their culture or society, but at this point none of them have developed characteristics beyond "being Chinese" and possibly "harboring a secret agenda." If Mother of Champions is meant to represent the Chinese government's ideals of woman/motherhood--subservience, silence (since she appears to be a behind-the-scenes player), and complete devotion to the country--then I can't really fault Morrison and crew for her portrayal. I guess the matter hinges on what her character ends up being like, whether or not she's shown to be more than a babymaker (or if her stereotypical nature is explored in-story), and what the Great Ten's story arc ends up being.
Consider this: what if the Chinese government, developing their own version of Luthor's metagene treatment (or perhaps using his--definitely something they'd want to keep secret), went through far more than ten test subjects before they found the right combination of acceptable power sets and controllable subjects. What if MoC and Ghost Fox Killer were chosen specifically because their predecessors were too uppity? What if MoC discovers this, or begins to resent her treatment, her status on the team, the sacrifices she has made for the country with none of the prestige afforded to her teammates. They call her "Mother," but she isn't really, she's a factory, squeezing out two dozen superpowered automatons twice a week to become cannon fodder for the glory of China. She's been denied motherhood in any real sense, she's been denied a sex life, relationships, self-mobility, even her freedom, to languish in the Great Wall, listening to the snickers and chuckles of the staff and her team. Eventually, as would anyone, she tires of this. And what happens when an oppressed woman, with an ever-growing army of superpowered soldiers on her side, decides she's had enough?
A Great Ten miniseries, that's what happens, or so I hope. I mean, it seems to me that the answer to her current apparent status as "racist, misogynist caricature" would simply be remedied by some attention and characterization. Am I wrong? Would she still be an -ist character in the above scenario? Sure, it's a lot of "what ifs," but we haven't really seen her do anything yet. It seems premature to pass judgment before they get a chance to develop her character.

I said above that this would have very little to do with Kalinara's post on well-rounded female characters, and after all that, it turns out that I'm advocating just that. I started out by trying to examine misogyny, and I guess I'm still trying to understand it. The conclusion ends up being obvious: the way to eliminate prejudice is with understanding. In storytelling terms, the way to eliminate stereotypes is with depth and development. That's what, in the beginning, separated Cassandra Sandsmark from every other tomboyish teenage rebel. That's what separates Raquel Ervin from the stereotypical unwed black teenage mother. When you give a character personality and motivation, the traits they share with stereotypes no longer seem so offensive. It's okay for an Irishman to fight, it's okay for a Korean to be good at math, it's okay for a woman to be jealous, as long as it fits with their characters, as long as there are reasons for those traits, as long as single traits doesn't define them.
And, as a corollary to that, understanding and development take time and patience. It's unfair to judge a character before they get a chance, whether it means looking at Power Girl and thinking "big boobs and blond hair, must be some bimbo adolescent fantasy woman," or looking at the Mother of Champions and thinking "Chinese, barefoot, pregnant, and endlessly procreating: thanks for setting back race and gender relations sixty years, Grant." I'm not saying you should stick with a character for ten years before passing judgment, I'm not saying you should wait until some writer decides to flesh out what used to be a stereotype, I'm not saying that you ought to stick with a character who spends his or her first panel going "Ah so, me get you flied lice chop-chop!" I'm saying that you can't judge a character from a sketch and power description and a couple of cameos, any more than you can judge a person from such cursory meetings. Everyone deserves a chance.

In conclusion, it took me three times the space to come to the same point Kalinara started with. Hopefully, there's been some sort of insight and interesting content along the way, hopefully I can get some of my questions answered, and hopefully I didn't make myself look like too much of an ass.
I hope I haven't misrepresented the culture and/or government of China; I did some cursory searching for "China" and "gender equality" before writing about it, and came up with the UN site on the subject. If there are serious flaws in my judgments or information, please let me know.
I hope I haven't come across as a passive-aggressive jerk who thinks he knows more about feminism and the female condition than those who experience it first-hand. I've spent enough time mocking just that sort of attitude in the past couple of days that I certainly wouldn't want to emulate it. Everything I've said has been in the interest of honest, open discussion, and I've meant everything with the utmost sincerity. I don't presume to tell women (or anyone else, for that matter) what to think, how to act, what's acceptible, etc. The only advice I'm giving is that no one should make snap judgments. Well, and that people should make their characters three-dimensional and well-rounded. The bottom line, so far as I see it, is that everyone benefits from equality, not just the oppressed party. Conversely, discrimination of one segment of the population comes at the detriment of the whole society. Feminism can only accomplish good things, but rushed judgment works against that spirit of equality and understanding. A little patience never hurt anyone.

If you've read this far, I think you've demonstrated just that sort of patience. Feel free to comment.

Edit: I've read at least two more posts on the subject since writing this post, and the possibility of "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" featuring three-dimensional characters who rise above common gender stereotypes and the conventions of pedestrian romantic comedies and don't just exist to make the male protagonist look like a flawless god, is looking pretty slim. I won't pass judgment for myself 'til I see it, naturally, but the volume of criticism suggests that my ideal "what if" scenario simply isn't the case. That's really a shame.

Keep walkin'!


Matthew E said...

A couple of points. First of all, you say:

The truth is that everyone is a product of nature and nurture

I think that this a) is widely believed but b) incorrect. Yes, it's true that both those things have their roles in shaping who a person turns out to be. But. There's a third factor, in some ways the most important factor of all, that also goes into it, and that's the person's own free will. We aren't passively shaped; we help shape ourselves.

On Mother of Champions: I'm not necessarily bothered by this character; depends on how they portray her. After all, childbirth is a major part of the human experience. Therefore it makes perfect sense to me that there would be a superpower relating to it somehow. I'm a big Wild Cards fan, and that's a perfect Wild Cards ace manifestation.

Richard said...

The problem with "put ten feminists in a room and you'll get ten different definitions of What Feminism Means" as a rhetorical position is that it can be applied equally well to any philosophy or cultural critique, reducing any rational discussion of the topic at hand to meaninglessness. Put ten self-described capitalists in a room and you'll get ten different definitions of What Capitalism Means. Is "pure" Capitalism merely the private ownership of property, or is it support for a completely unregulated free market without restrictions? Put ten socialist thinkers in a room and you'll get...well, look at the early history of the Soviet Revolution and you see how well they agreed. So this may be a droll remark, but it's not exactly helpful to understanding the fundamental concepts, you know?

The other problem is that it's not strictly true. Feminism has a well-established history and -- exactly like capitalism or socialism or fundamentalism or any other "ism" -- it's best understood not as an absolute unto itself, but by what it stands in opposition to. Feminism comes out of a culture which gave women lower status and fewer rights than men, and states that this is wrong and steps should be taken to give women and men equal status. Does being feminist imply support for reproductive choice? Does it imply believing that gender roles are social constructs? Does it entail a certain view on gay rights? Does it mean a feminist hates porn, and someone who doesn't hate porn is anti-feminist? Those questions are open for debate, to say the least...and that they're subjects for argument indicates that the feminist movement is broad (no pun intended) and healthy, not that it's a hopeless muddle.

Just to make it clear, I'm not disagreeing with anything you say above -- and I totally agree with ShellyS as well; feminism is for the benefit of all, not merely women -- I just don't think we should allow a fundamental principle to be obscured by bickering over subdivisions.

Tom Foss said...

ShellyS: Yeah, I considered the complexities of spousal abuse before using it as an example (and it's why I picked that as opposed to something like rape, which is usually tied up in power dynamics), but regardless of the feelings of the person doing the beating, it seems to me that the situation or the action is misogynistic in and of itself. Maybe that's a misuse of the term...I'm hesitant to make that claim. I guess examples are a tougher game than I'd anticipated.

I read some Wittgenstein a couple of years ago, though I honestly don't remember much about it. After Kierkegaard, my brain more or less shut down for a week.

I was thinking about the issue of stock characters last night, and their importance, prevalence, and continued utility. There's post fodder in that someplace. Not every Redshirt needs a full backstory. Still, much as I like Wayne's World 2's Naked Indian Dude, there's something to be said for not making all your background characters act like rejects from a minstrel show.

Matthew: There's certainly a free will component, but I'd question also how much your free will is impacted by natural and nurtural factors. Certainly we have a hand in our own development, and I ought not to have left that out (though I think it would have warranted a couple more paragraphs than necessary in an already too-long post). "Incorrect" seems like the wrong word, however. "Incomplete" seems better, but I don't think there's any doubt that we're shaped by both nature and nurture.

And there's also the contention that "free will" could fall into the "nature" component; after all, it's a confluence of biological traits that allow for human consciousness.

But the fact that we are affected by a variety of natural/nurtural factors is indisputable. They aren't the only components, but they are important.

Rab: Fair points all, and I think it was the matter of "bickering over subdivisions" which really prompted me to post this. To mee, it seems like feminist discourse in comics too often gets hung up on the issue of boobs and tight-fitting costumes, and moreover, trying to come up with some unified opinion on the subject, yay or nay. The more I read, the more complex I think the situation ends up being, and the more I wish people could draw the distinction between "spandex" and "overt sexualization/objectification," between "unrealistic body types" and "extreme anatomical exaggeration for the sole purpose of sexualization." One set of these things is inherently negative and shifted very much against women, the other is a feature of the genre, and while I think we ought to change the way people are sexualized and objectified in comics, I'd also like to keep them in spandex and idealized bodies. I don't think the two things are mutually exclusive, and I think it hurts discourse when people approach every issue like it needs to be defined with (or can be defined with) absolutes.

But you're right, philosophies tend to be a generally-understood core idea with a fuzzy corona of debatable details surrounding it. And I certainly wouldn't have it any other's what keeps discourse alive and philosophy interesting. I just wish folks wouldn't miss the core for the corona.

Thanks for the insightful comments, everyone! Keep 'em coming!

kalinara said...

You know, I was going to have some nice insightful comment, but it escaped because my head suddenly became much to big too catch it.

:-) Thanks!

(I know with me personally the thing about the girlfriend movie that rings the most sexist is just that it's billed as a comedy, where I think the Major Force movie wouldn't be. *That* strikes me as a little off, rgardless of the content. But I can be touchy about stuff like that.)

Tom Foss said...

You think you've got a swelled head now? Wait 'til your bloggiversary.

As far as your point about the comedy, yeah, now that you mention it, that seems off to me as well. And I really have no response to it, other than "you're right."

Tom Foss said...

True enough. I mean, when I think "jealous spurned male lover," I think Othello.

As far as feminism, though, I think "absolutely equal" would be "better for everyone." I think equality benefits the majority as well as the minority--it leads to greater overall freedom and happiness and opportunity, and it enhances the variety and quality of relationships that you're able to have (romantic and otherwise). It's an improvement on everyone's quality of life.

Ferrous Buller said...

It is disconcerting to see myself quoted in someone else's blog. It's even weirder for that citation to be meant as a positive thing. And when it's something I said about WOMEN?

I always presumed Bizarro Earth was more cubist than this.