Friday, September 30, 2011

An Unproductive Response

Lots of people are talking about sexism in comics, and the often negative and stereotypical portrayal of women in superhero stories. When this type of topic comes up, invariably some version of this discussion will happen:
Person 1: I don't like how GENRE X depicts THING A.
Person 2: While you're complaining about GENRE X, GENRE Y has been depicting THING A in a respectful way for years. Why don't you read GENRE Y?
This is not a productive conversation. Seriously, can you imagine this conversation:
Person 1: I don't like how action movies depict women.
Person 2: While you're complaining about action movies, independent romance comedies have been depicting women in a respectful way for years. Why don't you watch independent romance comedies?
Put in those terms, the response should be obvious: because you don't watch action movies for the same reasons you watch independent romance comedies. They don't fill the same role. They're different things almost entirely. Plus, you know, maybe some people just don't like independent romance comedies.

And yet, some people use this exact same argument with respect to comics: "If you don't like Catwoman, then why don't you read Love and Rockets?" Responding to the silly and strange question with something like "because I want to read superhero comics" is met with scorn and derision, as when Image publisher Eric Stephenson called superhero comics a "security blanket."

There are a few reasons for this, but the main one seems to be a confusion of genre and medium. "Superhero" is a genre. "Comic books" are a medium. For a long time, the superhero genre dominated the medium of comics, but they are not the same thing. There have been novels and movies and television shows in the superhero genre, just as comics often explore romance and realism and autobiography.

I would be more likely to read Catwoman than Love and Rockets not because I'm unaware of the latter, nor because I buy comics out of some sense of habit or childish need for security. I would be more likely to buy Catwoman because I like the superhero genre, the same reason I'm more likely to go to the theater and watch Green Lantern than 50/50, or tune my TV to Batman: Brave and the Bold rather than Toddlers and Tiaras. I like superheroes as a genre, and comic books are one (in fact, the main) avenue for stories in that genre.

I also like science fiction, and so I read sci-fi novels and watch sci-fi TV shows and buy sci-fi comics. I like murder mysteries, so I watch murder mystery TV shows and read murder mystery novels and go to see murder mystery movies. But if I say "I don't like how atheists are portrayed in courtroom dramas," it does me absolutely no good to say "well, atheists are portrayed very well in steampunk adventure." If I wanted to read steampunk adventure, I would be. I don't pick the genres I read or watch because of how well they portray issues and minorities to which I am sympathetic, I pick the genres I read or watch based on the kinds of stories I like to experience.

I understand some of the plight of people who do non-superhero comics, because it often is difficult for them to gain notice. If I say "I don't like the way young people's relationships are portrayed in superhero comics. I sure do wish I could read an autobiographical story about a young man's coming of age and attempts to cope with a crisis of faith," then yes, it might be relevant to point me to Blankets.

But that's not what people are saying here. They aren't saying "I don't like how women are portrayed in superhero comics, I wish I could read other comics that would portray women realistically and respectfully," a statement which would reasonably be followed by "Well, have you heard of Love & Rockets?" They're saying "I don't like how women are portrayed in superhero comics. I wish superhero comics would portray women better." The point being that people who enjoy superhero comics want to continue to enjoy superhero comics without having to endure negative portrayals of women. Suggesting that they give up on an entire genre is not just counterproductive, it's ridiculous. I don't know anyone who reads or watches a genre based on one aspect of how they portray some group or issue, who doesn't actually have any attachment to the other tropes and features of the genre. I suppose it's possible that someone reads Amish romance novels solely because they treat carriage-drivers with the proper amount of respect and verisimilitude, but I somehow doubt it.

There is another, more subtle aspect to this, which results from a different level of "what I like." I like action movies, but I really like the character of John McClane. Consequently, I would be more likely to see a new Die Hard movie than some generic cop action flick. I like James Bond, and so I'm more likely to see the next James Bond sequel than some random non-Bond spy thriller. And yes, I like Superman, and so I'm more inclined to read Superman comics than other generic superhero comics. If someone's complaining about the portrayal of women or marriage or relationships in Superman, then it might be reasonable to direct them to Astro City or Love and Capes or something in the same genre with similar characters that provides that missing aspect.

But it's also reasonable for someone to want to read about Superman (or Catwoman, or Power Girl, or Black Panther, or Amadeus Cho, or whoever), and not "character who is like Superman in some ways but is not actually Superman." It's reasonable for you to like various traits of a character based on other stories with that character, and to want stories featuring that character to be better. And it should be trivially obvious that, if I want my superhero comic book about a woman who dresses like a cat and steals things to feature a strong, independent, often-clothed protagonist, it's not particularly useful to suggest that I read Invincible. It's not unreasonable to like particular characters for whatever reason--you like the concept, something about them resonates with you, they have a cool costume, you read or saw a great story with them in the past--and following from that, it's not unreasonable to want those characters to be in good stories. Every character is someone's favorite, and there's no accounting for personal taste.

Which is why it's so unreasonable to suggest another genre or a completely different kind of book or character as the solution to the complaint of "I don't like how THING A is portrayed in GENRE X." The complaint is not meant to imply "I want to experience some story, any story, that portrays THING A well," but "I enjoy various things about GENRE X and wish that their treatment of THING A didn't so negatively affect what I'd like to enjoy."

Or, to put it in more pithy terms, the "why not try GENRE B instead?" response is borne out of a simplistic, black-and-white understanding of things. It treats a complaint about a detail as a condemnation of the whole thing--and indeed, if that were the case, then it sure would seem silly for people to keep buying it. Its' comics' (and really, genre fandom in general) "love it or leave it," a media-centered version of "if you hate the country so much, why don't you move to Canada?" It ignores the existence of a vast middle ground between "like" and "dislike," labeled "room for improvement," and it treats caring about something, having a sense of investment in the things you like and wanting them to be better, as a defect. And it does so in a crass, myopic, self-centered attempt to get people to care about what the responder likes instead.

This attitude is asinine, petulant, and wrong to the point of being entirely backwards. And it really needs to stop popping up with such predictable frequency.


The Bun said...

hay Tom, can you maybe go explain to these admittedly otherwise-awesome webcomics dudes why the Starfire thing is a big deal? check it here:
People are trying to explain but they are all hung up on "oh you should have paid attention to the rating dumb bitch"
which is sad because the guys at Blind Ferret are great.
I just don't expect I could make a dent, but you certainly could!

Unknown said...

I understand completely what you’re saying. I love sci fi tv shows and if I found a certain subject offensive I would not like to be asked to watch some other genre where that subject is presented differently.