Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Do Women Get Empowered?

So, I re-read Empowered Vol. 2 and read through Vol. 3 tonight. As usual, I loved it, and it's great to see some of the subplots coming to a head. Hopefully next issue (September?!) will give us the Weregiraffe-By-Night, because few things would be awesomer.

But I was thinking, I don't see many of the illustrious feminist bloggers talking about Empowered. Granted, I don't see many bloggers of either gender or any political philosophy talking about the series. Sure, Chris Sims does, and he reads great feminist titles like Anita Blake and Tarot, but what about everyone else?

When I read Empowered, what I see is someone trying to do something more worthwhile with fan service. After all, that's how the book started: Adam Warren drew some heroine-in-bondage commissions, and eventually turned them into a real story with fleshed-out characters. That seems to be the mission statement for the series; even when it delves into blatant fan service, it does something clever with it. In the latest volume, one passage was used to give us the lowdown on the unwritten rules of superheroics, while another was narrated by the always spectacular and amazingly alliterative Caged Demonwolf.

But gnawing at the back of my brain, borne no doubt of a healthy dose of liberal guilt, is the lingering question: isn't it still fan service? Doesn't it still just boil down to fetish porn? Sure, Warren's using it to poke fun at superhero tropes and the objectification of women in comics, but he's still using objectification and fetishy fan service to do it. Does a good story excuse what might otherwise appear sexist?

I'm not exactly asking for an answer, because I doubt that there is one. And I'm not looking for validation, for Lady Feminist to drop by and say "I grant thee permission to enjoy the books of Sir Adam of Warren, who doth verily draw women of the bootylicious sort." I'm just curious as to why there seems to be so little conversation about a book that ought to be pushing buttons all over the place. Seems like fan service and objectification are some of the blogohedron's favorite topics, and Warren attacks them head-on. Why isn't this book causing more waves?

Whatever your more philosophical musings on the subject, I recommend picking the book up. At least from my point of view, it's fantastic, albeit a little too brief. I polish these things off in a half-hour, then curse the heavens that another installment is six months away. Damn you, Warren!


Greg said...

I actually see quite a few male bloggers writing about how excited they are that the latest volume is coming out, but you're right - I hardly ever see anyone actually review them. They just show up on Top Ten lists where the blogger writes how awesome they are without really telling us why they're so awesome. It's strange.

I don't like Empowered, and I'm not exactly sure why. I think it's juvenile, but I like other juvenile stuff. I don't think it's particularly funny, and maybe that's it - Warren seems to think it's hilarious, but I don't, so there's a disconnect there. I don't think it has anything to do with guilt over the subject matter, but maybe it does.

I would like to see what women think about it, because it is such an obvious send-up of what is commonly done in superhero comics, but it still wallows in those same stereotypes. Maybe you'll inspire a woman to blog about it!

Will Staples said...

I've seen Cheryl Lynn speaking very highly of it, and a lot of the Empowered posts at scans_daily seem to be made by women. For what it's worth.

LurkerWithout said...

I've seen plenty of female fans on S_D as well. And I recall more than a few female members of my F-list expressing interest or enjoyment from it...

Ami Angelwings said...

Personally I'm not a fan of Empowered tho many comic fans I know are. :] I dun hate it or think it's horrible or that ppl who read it are horrible or nething, it's just not my thing, b/c of what you say, while I know that he's sending up tropes and stuff, it's still showing those tropes, and many of those tropes make me uncomfortable, even if I know that they're meant to display them :\

To me, just saying "hay look! tropes!" isn't enuf for me, and my own personal experiences with some of the stuff she's put thru prolly adds to the level of uncomfort I get, also that it triggers some very personal stuff for me. As I said, I understand what's trying to be done, it just doesn't work for me :\

It's a personal thing for me, I GET it, I understand why ppl would like it and stuff, it's just not my thing. :) I think it is mostly that ppl keep pointing me at it when I'm talking about wanting comics that subvert the superheroines in peril thing, not just call attention to it and play it up in an over the top way. And it kinda bothers me when ppl are like "why are you complaining? Go read Empowered, then you'll be happy" :\ It's just not my thing. :)

Tho I give you my magical thumbs up of girlness stamp of approval to like it tho! xD

Tom Foss said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

One thing I feel bad about (and want to clarify) is the title of this post: What I meant by "get" was intended to have a double-meaning, but in the sense of "get" meaning "purchase," and "get empowered," meaning, you know, "rise up, liberate, feel the girl power, etc." I didn't mean to imply that women don't understand the book, to make the "All-Star Batman" argument--'the only reason you don't like it is because you don't get it'--and I realize now that it comes off as condescending. Apologies all around.

Ami, with regard to subverting the damsel-in-distress trope, I think "Empowered" does do that, more than just call attention to it. There are stories that avoid the trope (by not having the women in that position at all), stories where the trope is subverted in a supposedly empowering way (the woman breaks free and gets mad, the damsel in distress is still dangerous, etc.), and then there's Empowered, which subverts it in a somewhat different way.

The trope is supposed to play out as such (from my POV): the damsel is captured and bound, and this leaves her utterly helpless. The hero goes on a quest to save her, and they're blissfully reunited with the damsel no worse for wear.

Most subversions twist it at "captured and bound," changing up our expectations of the damsel's response: she becomes angry, she manages to escape and fight back, she manages to fight back despite being tied up, etc.

What Warren does is let the trope play out longer before the subversion. Naturally, this requires a different sort of subversive tactic, but by putting the twist after "bound and helpless," I think he's done something fairly new. The subversion is that the heroine is rarely rescued by her Prince Charming, instead by the obnoxious boors she calls teammates. Unlike most in her situation, she is the worse for wear, but she tries to turn her fate around nonetheless.

Perhaps I'm being too laudatory, but I don't see it as simply calling attention to the tropes. I see it more as allowing the tropes to play out a bit longer than usual before doing the subversive thing. After all, if everyone subverted it in the same way (which I think is largely the case with the damsel in distress especially--even Lois Lane was subverting that trope in the same way back in the '30s), we'd just have a new trope on our hands.

Ami Angelwings said...

o.O That's not the trope I was talking about XD

Ami Angelwings said...

Also as I said, I "get" it (I know that's not the get you meant in your title).

It's just not my cup of tea. It's not like I dun get what he's trying to do or nething. More explaining isn't going to make me like it more :\ I'm not saying there's something WRONG with Empowered, it's just not what I like. :)

philippos42 said...

Empowered is interesting, & think people try to justify as feminist when mostly it's just funny. I just posted some thoughts to my LJ.

The Bun said...

Ami, forgive me if I sound like an idiot, but what trope *were* you talking about, if not the damsel in distress one? I'm not so much part of comicsland, so I think I'm missing something obvious here.

Unknown said...

I have to say, I've read Empowered and didn't find it particularly offensive - it's very mild, playful cheesecake, and not a bit exploitive - but it was very very boring. I have no sexual interest in women whatsoever, so Adam Warren's lovingly detailed pictures of women tied with up their clothes falling off amount to a panel where nothing worth looking at is happening. I wish people who eagerly recommended the series would realize how aesthetically barren Empowered is for someone with no sexual interest in the female body, or that such a lack of interest is even possible. Empowered is at heart striving to be a sexy comedy, and I do not think the humor operates with someone who cannot find the art sexy on some fundamental level.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thoughtful discussion! Being waaay behind the times in the comics world, I had not heard of Adam Warren's Empowered before, but now I am definitely going to check it out. I respect folks (mainly gals, I guess) who may be offended or simply bored by this kind of material, but I hope we can all value the freedom to look, or not, at whatever we choose.