I read comics. I also tend to draw certain comparisons between the comics industry and the video game industry, whether it’s their history of being accused of corrupting their consumers through violent content, or the general stigma of being “kids’ stuff” despite all evidence to the contrary.
And like video game players, comic readers – certainly those that consider themselves fans – tend to be very passionate about the medium and the characters and creators they follow. It’s easy still to discount comics as all capes and costumes, if you’re on the outside, because that’s still where the money (relatively speaking) is, and that’s what gets made into movies. But as a medium, comics host many nuanced and personal stories across all genres, things that speak to readers in ways that stuff with a higher budget – television or movies, say – often cannot afford in their quest to appeal to the broadest audience possible.
But hey, there’s nothing wrong with superheroes, either; Marvel, in their new Ms. Marvel ongoing, has recently premiered a title character who is an American Muslim teenager, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. How many places in American culture, even now, can you find that very real part of the American population represented, much less in a positive, leading role?
Regrettably, though, I’m not compelled to write this because of my favorite media moving forward. I’m compelled to write this because of my favorite media being held back.
I should provide a few disclaimers here.
First, though I won’t be going into anything terribly explicit myself, I feel I should provide a trigger warning to be on the safe side. Some of the anecdotes I’ll link to will have their own, and need it much more than this article.
Second, I need to be very upfront. I am a white, middle class male, and I fully acknowledge how much that equates to winning the genetic lottery. I get the privilege that comes with that. The most discriminated against I’ve ever been has been by people who think that atheists (or liberals) are evil, and being told I’m going to hell or that I’m a wholly immoral individual by someone who does not know me (and who I’ll likely never see again) is tame compared to what a lot of people experience.
We’ve all seen one controversy or another. This is, unfortunately, nothing new. The latest in the all-too-long line of incidents came after Janelle Asselin, a comic journalist and former DC Comics editor, amongst other things, picked apart the cover of the upcoming Teen Titans #1 on Comic Book Resources. One of the fixtures of the cover is Wonder Girl, front and center. She’s sixteen, by the way.
Agree or not with Asselin’s assessment – and a skim through some of the post’s nearly six hundred comments shows that more did not than did, even if their main complaint was that it was “nitpicky” – a person can only be so incensed by someone on the internet saying something they disagree with. At least, you would think. Now, to be clear, the whole article was not about Wonder Girl’s breasts; Asselin brings up many points about composition, about how it doesn’t showcase the team, about the weird perspective on Robin and the odd placement of the jumping-out-at-you signature by Beast Boy’s knee. But the thing most people fixate on was that she didn’t like that a sixteen year old girl was being presented as having implausibly huge breasts with physics that only implants could achieve. I don’t always agree with these kinds of criticisms, but in this case she has a definite point, and her point extends beyond just the depiction of women; it’s also a point about how DC is approaching their audience (and, indeed, what audience DC is trying to grab), especially in a world where a much larger part of the public knows the Teen Titans from the Cartoon Network show of a decade ago.
She goes into some of the backlash here, but I’m guessing that, if you’re reading Tap, this isn’t your first internet rodeo. You know the drill: namecalling, shaming, men calling her out for not really knowing much about comics (reminder: she was an editor at DC), and – because this is the internet – rape threats. And plenty of those came through via a survey she’s currently running (also in that link above) about sexual harassment in comics, because internet trolls don’t seem to understand irony, I guess.
Needless to say, this is a terrible thing for a person to be put through, but it happens all the time. It’s clearly far from the first time Asselin herself has experienced this sort of behavior. And that’s ridiculous. It’s also really hard to fix or even mitigate. The conversation about internet trolls has been ongoing for ages, now, and the video game community is a common battleground, of course. It’s fairly clear to me these days that the conventional wisdom doesn’t work. “Don’t feed the trolls” might discourage the sort that pops into a forum and drop a straw man in the middle of a discussion, but it’s hardly sufficient for the more dedicated and vitriolic. But neither is blocking accounts, and when worse comes to worst, getting the law involved can be daunting, even hazardous. And that is a humbling and discouraging fact if I ever heard one.
And that makes a bit of sense, because trolls are sadists, psychopaths, and narcissists, according to research from the University of Manitoba. Considering that such disorders are notoriously difficult to treat, this never-ending battle might be what it is partially because there’s literally very little way to fight back. Ignoring that sort just provokes them to push harder, or assume you are unable to face them. Fighting them – whether through argument, blocking, or other action – means they’ve gotten a response out of you. So I wish the solution were as simple as outrage, but no outrage ever seems to make a dent. These are people who are, often in a very literal way, shameless.
But we still have to admit to letting this environment in our hobbies (or professions) fester, that this sort of strategy becomes obvious and effective. In video games and comics alike, there’s enough implied misogyny that women find them very unwelcoming places. Sure, yes, there is a big difference between someone doubting a woman’s “geek cred” and someone threatening to sexually assault her for daring to look at something he likes. But the fact that some part of these fandoms is marginalized – by people from within (“You aren’t a real gamer!”) and without (“Aren’t comic books only for boys?”) makes them targets to anyone who wants to strike a nerve with minimal resistance.
Of men (and I know this includes myself) who seem to only surface during a major controversy such as this one, it is not unfair to ask, “Where have you been?” The answer, at least for me, is that honestly I’ve always felt unwelcome in the conversation. I’ve addressed this a little before in my Tap vs. Tap conversations with AJ. Sometimes, when men put in their two cents against misogynist behavior, whether against the guy on the forum who just really hates “feminazis” or the deluge of rape threats, women (some women – by no means all) respond with frustration. I saw it this morning on Twitter.
Is that supposed to mean its REALLY a problem? That when women discuss it it doesn’t somehow resonate? That a man must address it?
— DC Women Kicking Ass (@dcwomenkicknass) April 18, 2014
This was one in a series of tweets in which she also calls for people to “play a role” in solving the problem. Over the last hour or so I’ve struggled to figure out if it’s wrong of me to feel somewhat offended by the implication, because I am constantly coiled in self-doubt over my own understanding of these issues. But I’ve heard this kind of response. I’ve heard it in conversation; I heard it in class in college. I acknowledge that there’s a certain facet of gender culture that encourages men to protect women, and so sometimes these responses can come off as patronizing – as a “Have no fear, a MAN is here!” But I’ve seen this sort of response directed at guys whose input, at least as I read it, was not that.
Some of the frustration clearly comes from how many people look at something like this rape threat epidemic and are surprised it’s really a thing. And that’s completely fair. But we’re trying to help, and we’re trying to understand. There is no question that, especially for men who do not experience this firsthand, there is a lot of room for education. We aren’t going to completely understand the nuances of the problem the first time we hear about it. We probably never will fully since we can only see it as a third party. But to shut that down as being patriarchal is problematic, too. It’s difficult to know how we can contribute when the response, especially out of context, and especially on the internet where we lose the nuances of things like tone and inflection, can be so easily read as “We don’t want your help.” It can make it really hard to figure out where we fit in the conversation.
There’s also a problem in the industries themselves, of course – not just when it comes to this or that character being oversexualized or strong or weak or stereotyped, but in the audience to which the publishers decide to cater. On Kevin Smith’s frequently excellent (if you don’t mind the language) podcast Fatman on Batman, Paul Dini, a major writer in kids’ television (especially things like Batman: The Animated Series), explained: “‘we need boys, but we need girls right there, right one step behind the boys’ — this is the network talking — ‘one step behind the boys, not as smart as the boys, not as interesting as the boys, but right there.’” It’s a business decision – arguably a bad one – but it has repercussions for how kids learn to view themselves and others through the heroes they see and play and read about. But at least that one I can comprehend as one of those, “Someone has numbers somewhere that lead them to believe this is true, even if they are stupid numbers with stupid heads.” I mean, someone driven by profit wouldn’t exclude a whole segment of the population, their potential customers, for no apparent reason. Probably.
But then, you might have even heard about Funcom’s backfiring April Fool’s joke. This one I truly do not understand. Well, I do, but I wish I didn’t. In a nutshell, for April Fool’s, Funcom released some special costumes into their dark fantasy MMO The Secret World: a full-body wetsuit for female characters and a flamboyant and revealing “mankini” for male characters. They were poking a bit of fun at themselves, since they are not immune to having more sexualized outfits for female characters than male ones. Befuddlingly, though, Funcom eventually backpedaled, removing the latter from the game – but not the former – after a number of people had bought it, and despite many saying they wanted it. Because it didn’t fit with the message they wanted to send with The Secret World. The mind boggles at how this happened, especially since the item was not a commercial flop. The official argument goes that the item didn’t fit with the IP, and I suppose that’s true to an extent; still, it’s a peculiar double standard that skimpy outfits fit with the seriousness of the setting (to be sure, that might be because of movies in the genre) as long as women are wearing them. And this not from an American company, but a Norwegian one – a country ahead of the US in both gender equality and LGBT rights.
These are profound problems that plague video games as much as comics.
I’d like to think that this is one of those issues that will sort of work itself out as my generation – which seems undeniably geekier across the board than our predecessors – gradually take over the world. But that hardly justifies resting on our laurels. If we like something – if we are fans of it and love it – let’s make an effort to make it better. We’ve seen, in recent years, that considerable public backlash can provoke action even from major companies. These media can be vehicles for unprecedented levels of inclusiveness: a comic can be very personal, and very nuanced; a video game can allow an interactive exploration of being someone Other; instead the focus is on epitomizing a singular slice of the audience. That’s just archaic.
I know that no amount of equality on the comics page or in a virtual world will make the truly terrible human beings who make this kind of discussion even necessary go away; I am not under some illusion that I’m proposing some kind of magical fix. But maybe, if we can affect this change for the better, through our feedback, through our dollars, they might feel less implicitly welcome.