The question of ghettoization…
Is it self-ghettoization for women comics creators to have their own spaces, either in anthologies, panels, or *gasp* blogs? Is there really a sexism problem in comics, actively keeping women creators out? How much of this issue is just the nature of the market?
Saturday at Boston Comic Con, the Female Creators panel wrangled with these questions, but 45 minutes was not nearly enough to discuss them to any greater satisfaction. One of the panelists who basically dominated the discussion (who, I note in the most charitable way possible, is not actually a comics creator but an illustrator) answered Yes, No, and It’s Only About The Money.
Well, I respectfully disagree. Not entirely, but there are some crucial nuances that did not get discussed, as well as the conflation of personal experiences with a universal standard.
Is it “self-ghettoization”? I say no, in two respects. No, because we’re not really doing it to ourselves. Seriously, how many panels at conventions (especially about the Big Two) have zero women on them? And how many men on those panels speak up and say “Hey, we might be missing some other perspectives here,” (especially when the subject turns to female characters)?
I also say no, because I resent the term “ghettoization” with respect to women’s art and writing. Here’s a short list of what women have created, comics-wise, that reflect a very female perspective on things:
- Fun Home
- A Distant Soil
- Birds of Prey (Simone’s runs)
- Girls With Slingshots
I’d also add a selection of Kate Beaton comics, namely the ones that deal with female historical figures, authors, and fictional characters, because she so often turns the traditional understanding of those figures on their heads to brilliant satirical effect.
If that’s the ghetto, count me in.
Some of you may respond to the above list “Well, those are only sort-of women’s narratives— they’re really more universal.” To which I say, thank you for proving my point. We live in a world where there is a line drawn between “women’s experience” and “universal experience”— which is to say, the male experience is considered the default, and narratives from a male perspective are given the benefit of being considered a “universal” narrative. And any time a woman’s voice strikes a “universal” tone, it becomes less of a women’s narrative (and becomes elevated in cultural estimation, as well.)
Furthermore, as much as I would like to tear down gender roles and for society to allow people of all gender identities to express themselves however they want, we don’t live in that society yet. And I’m not going to be discouraged or shouted down from supporting people who share certain commonalities of experience with me, especially when those commonalities are generally looked down upon or trivialized by the dominant societal structures. Nor am I going to accept that doing so is sticking us in a “ghetto”.
What is this telling aspiring female-identified creators, that what was once beautifully termed “A Room of One’s (or Our) Own” is actually a “ghetto” (a term which in the real world has applied to the most impoverished and violent of neighborhoods, as well as a tool of active oppression in conjunction with genocide)? Should we tell them to forget the refuge and comfort and nurturing feeling they might get from that idea? Forget the joy of community they might feel, they’re only holding themselves back if they actually care about themselves as women and others?
Is there an active sexism problem in mainstream comics keeping women out? Probably not, but in my experience, subconscious sexism is usually enough to do the job. It was mentioned in the panel that sometimes, comics talent scouts don’t even read the names on the portfolios before deciding to hire them. Well, that’s great for when a woman is just dropping off her portfolio to be looked at later, but there are plenty of portfolio reviews where the creator stands right in front of the editor the whole time.
Did you know that in the 1970s, symphonies and orchestras started doing “blind auditions”, where musicians perform behind a screen during auditions so they were being judged only on their musical talent? Every orchestra and symphony that has ever done blind auditions has seen the numbers of women and musicians of color skyrocket. (For women, they went up from 5% to 36% of orchestra members over 20 years.)
Do some untalented aspiring creatrixes cry sexism when they’re criticized? I’m sure of it. Does that mean that every women who suspects sexism is wrong? I highly doubt it. I cannot find the direct quote now (and it is killing me), but I distinctly remember Colleen Doran once mentioning how men would look at her art and love it unconditionally, until they learned that a woman had done it. Then they started finding flaws they had apparently missed before.
And let’s not even touch the sexual harassment issue (though I can name women from the Golden Age to today, Big Two to underground who have all publicly spoken about sexual harassment). However, I would like to elucidate a factual omission for anyone who was there: Stephanie Buscema mentioned how her personal hero, Marie Severin, never experienced any discrimination or harassment. However, Marie was not the only Severin in comics. Her older brother John also worked at many of the same companies as she did at the same time. That may have helped.
Now, let’s talk about “the market”. I agree completely that comics publishers, especially the Big Two, are in it for the money. That’s not in question. I also agree that in general, if you are a good artist in the “house style”, they will want to hire you. If you’re a great artist in your own unique style, they may still want to hire you, regardless of gender.
However, let’s unpack the implications of that. The issue of the female audience came up— and was met with the same kind of dismissal (“Well, we all read comics, so who’s to say they’re doing anything wrong anyway? And I can relate to characters who aren’t female, and I don’t mind female characters with huge tits!”). But the Big Two has made it clear that for decades their target audience has been entirely male. Neil Gaiman has famously said that when he started Sandman (a series famous for its appeal to women) he wasn’t going after the female audience because there was no female audience to go after. Though 25% of the self-identified comics fans on Facebook are women, it is not unlikely that an even smaller percentage are superhero comic fans. I considered myself a comic fan for three years before I picked up a superhero comic, and my pull list has fewer and fewer superhero comics every month.
What this means for female creators is that fewer of them are going to be inspired by Big Two styles and characters, making their work less likely to strike the “right” tone for those companies. Girls who get into comics via manga, or Sandman, or Persepolis, or newspaper comics, or Archie are less likely to be in the running for regular work at Marvel or DC. Which would not be quite a problem if Marvel and DC did not control 2/3rds of the market, and are often the best way for a creator to make a living off of their comics work. Plenty of male creators openly admit to only working for Marvel and DC to pay the bills.
Another major flaw in the “it’s just the market” argument? The market is dying. Marvel and DC do not publish comics to make money, they publish comics so their parent companies can make movies. If Marvel and DC were really interested in comics that make money, they would have tried their damnedest to find the next Scott Pilgrim. Instead, we get the same old nostalgia recursion from guys in their 40s writing stories they came up with in their teens based on the comics they read in their tweens, which in return mainly appeal to guys in their teens to their 40s.
Discrimination by mandate is not necessary when discrimination by omission and alienation works just as well.
Also at the panel, Stephanie Buscema also said that Marie Severin personally inspired her to go into comics because she was a talented creator who was a woman—she was a role model in part because of her gender. Leaving women out of the talent roster deprives future generations of women artists of their role models.
Steve Niles tweeted last night: “I realized my favorite comic artists and writers are women….there’s amazing stuff happening…Gail Simone, Jill Thompson, Fiona Staples, Jordie Bellaire, Steph Buscema, Amanda Conner, Chrissie Zullo, Kelly-Sue DeConnick….And Michelle Madsen!…I can’t even keep up with all the talent.” When I informed him of the CBR survey that put 6 women in the top 250 of comics creators, he was floored and insisted on seeing some links. Surely that couldn’t be right!
Women want to work in comics. Women are working in comics, and do amazing work. Some of the best work in comics these days is being done by women. But for whatever reason, they are by and large being ignored, or dismissed (“Oh, it’s just webcomics. Oh, it’s manga-style. Oh, she’s some male creator’s wife/daughter/granddaughter/niece. Oh, her books are all about women characters. Oh, her art is ~girly~.”). Is it getting better? Of course it is. It can’t help but get better, given how bare the landscape has been. But to claim there’s not a “real” problem, and that by having spaces for women in comics, whether on panels, in blogs, or in anthologies is “self-ghettoization” is a gross misrepresentation of what is really going on in both the comics industry and ancillary media. Furthermore, describing women’s spaces as a “ghetto” does a grave disservice to women creators, many of whom want that community.
Should women comics creators be a remarkable thing? In an ideal world, no. Do we live in that world yet? Hell no.
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