Sunday, June 07, 2009

On empowerment and the language of comic art

As I was browsing The F Word a few weeks ago I became involved in a discussion about a mannequin that had appeared in UK store New Look (here). The comments discussion then got somewhat off topic and a few posts were exchanged between myself and another commenter (named Jen) about women in comics.

I just wanted to highlight a couple of comments from Jen:

“This mannequin - it's interesting. I'd see it as a key, as a set of signifiers, as part of language - definitely not a reason to boycott a shop”

“I don't love her [She-Hulk] because she's empowering, she's not one of the many things that inspire me to do weight training, but she is fascinating.”

She’s got a lot more to say, so I’d recommend reading it, but the above two sentences caught my imagination.

I hadn’t thought of the T+A aspect of women in comics as being part of the language of comics before. When I come to think about it, I think the idea has some merits. It’s true that not all artists focus on T+A, several seem capable of drawing women as people, not wank material, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the majority of art does have a certain T+A element to it.

If that’s the case, if that style is a set of signifiers, is it worth complaining about it? Or does it just serve to make the complainers feel better – we’ve done our bit sort of thing? Jen has more to say about this in her comments on the thread. I mean, if you change the language and the way something is framed, that doesn’t necessarily change the underlying reasons and feelings that led to the offending article being produced in the first place. And if the underlying ideas don’t change, then another offensive product will surely surface at a later date. So what will have changed?

Well, I think that if you change the way the language works you end up with a finished product that doesn’t alienate or discriminate against people. That is a good thing. I also think that the way you can express yourself has an effect on the way you think. I realize that this is probably due to reading 1984 at a very impressionable age. Are there any linguists out there who could tell me more about this?

If you no longer produce such sexist and offending material, if we do not see it in nearly every media article we pick up, then surely the general belief of women only being worth as much as their looks will not be as deeply felt in society. Obviously there are many many other ways in which this message is promulgated, but to change the way and manner in which we currently discuss and refer to women, to make it less oppressive, less one dimensional, would be a good start.

The other thing that came to mind when reading through Jen’s comments, was the idea about comics being empowering. That again is not something that I’ve recently experienced. Mind you, I am not too keen on the word ‘empowering’, mostly because of it’s connotations with pole dancing and lap dancing. It’s funny how anything marketed as empowering generally means adopting traditional roles and ways of being sexy for men. (Wear lipstick, it’s empowering! Wear a wonderbra, it’s empowering! Learn how to lap/pole dance, it’s empowering!*).

I may have felt empowered when reading something when I was little, in the sense that it opened my eyes to the different direction my life could take, the different things I could be. The media that we consume, as much as the people in our immediate vicinity, teaches us about life. It teaches us how people act, what is right and what is wrong and different ways of living. So yes, when I was little I probably found Cheetara quite empowering, I probably found Julie or Katie Power empowering. I probably found the one girl child on every kids TV show empowering – it said to me this could be your place, this is what you could achieve; you can win and be involved in adventure like the boys. Being a girl doesn’t have to hold you back**.

Question time:
Does anyone out there find comics empowering? Do you get a sense of victory when reading about some female character kick someone’s ass? If you don’t feel that way about comics have you ever felt that way about other fictional characters in any media? What was it that resonated with you and why?

I’d be truly interested to hear about your experiences.

*Not to imply that women never feel empowered by these activities, but I am skeptical of the marketing machine when the word is attached to something that would have been pretty much universally decried as sexist 20 years ago. Where are the adverts saying get a degree, it’s empowering! Leave that violent relationship you’re in, it’s empowering! Get some financial security, it’s empowering! Instead, empowering seems to be shorthand for some (straight) male view of sexy. Blah. I hate capitalism.

**Now, just as soon as I develop those mutant wings I’ll really be able to have adventures and visit other dimensions.


Feminist Avatar said...

I thought this was an interesting post, but I don't read comics so can't really contribute. But I thought you migth be interested in this:

Sea-of-Green said...

I've always found super-heroes in general to be empowering, not necessarily the comics themselves. But then, my mom went out of her way to make sure I was raised without any preconceived notions as to what was "proper" for men or women. So, it never bothered me, for example, that there were more male heroes than female -- because I always assumed a girl could do the same things, anyway. It just so happened that my favorite characters were men.

As for the whole T&A thing -- I think that's an artist tradition going all the way back to the Golden Age. Look up "Good Girl Art" and "Bad Girl Art" on Wikipedia to get a good overview of artistic trends toward women in comics. The current Green Lantern artist, Ivan Reis, comes from a strong "Bad Girl Art" background, from his days as the lead artist for Lady Death.

But I've always thought the artistic trend goes both ways. I mean, HOW many guys have you ever seen in real life who LOOK like comic-book heroes? The muscles, the cleft chins, the hair ... Even movie producers have a hard time finding actors who LOOK like that. Male comic book heroes represent fantasy versions of men, no doubt about it. And I certainly haven't been complaining! ;-)

Jha'Meia said...

For a while, I was a fan of Catwoman (particularly during the time when she was drawn by Jim Balent). She was an outlier, had her own code, lived outside the rules of normal society, and she made it work, dammit. I was an impressionable kid at the time - 13, maybe? Perhaps slightly younger. She made an impression on me - I wanted to be like her: alone, independent, a beautiful smart, don't-take-shit cat lady.

But the T&A aspect of it was also something I didn't consider when I was younger. Into my teens, I discovered anime with its slew of female characters, and that's another conversation.

Eva said...

I agree with you that changing the tone of public discourse would almost certainly begin to change opinions as far as gender issues go. In the mean time I guess I look at it a lot the way my parents looked at my brother and I watching tv unsupervised or reading their old fantasy and sci-fi books. You have to teach kids the difference between reality and fantasy to start, and then you have to teach them that there are people out there who look at the world in various backwards ways and they should be critical of the media that they take in because of it.

I read a lot of very old and _very_ sexist books as a kid, but I understood that "people just didn't know any better" than to write that way long ago. One of my favorites was the Lensman Series, which as the genesis of space opera is pretty darn bad. The author very much starts the series with women in a separate and not-quite-equal position (although he had some strong female characters for his time), but then he does something that's rather awesome. Over the course of the 6 books, he reverses his position and by the climax of the story he's introduced female characters who are just as tough and just as indispensable as their male counter parts (in some ways more so!).

I think as a kid it was a reassuring lesson, to know that even someone who wasn't raised to understand the potential in the other sex had the potential themselves to learn it. It reaffirmed for me that the world was a better place than it used to be, because _people_ grow and learn, not just because generations die off. :)

Jen said...

Hi there,

Thanks for reacting to my comments! I blather on so much, nice to know it's not all going to waste.

Mind you, I am not too keen on the word ‘empowering’, mostly because of it’s connotations with pole dancing and lap dancing. It’s funny how anything marketed as empowering generally means adopting traditional roles and ways of being sexy for men. (Wear lipstick, it’s empowering! Wear a wonderbra, it’s empowering! Learn how to lap/pole dance, it’s empowering!*).

Totally - that's because those wonderbras and lipsticks and so on are a form of currency, so they will make you more empowered, or increase your market value, as things currently stand.

I much prefer the concept of enfranchisement - the possibility of having a political presence, which is something a lot more tangible.

There are things that make me want to get off my arse and do some weight training - I've got that from fighting games, very occasionally comics, and generally anything that features people flying around martial arts-style, but I wouldn't call that "empowerment", I just like to move and use my muscles. And any time I've experienced that feeling of, wow, a woman is doing something awesome!, I find that pretty depressing in a way, because I don't want to feel that way - I want to be able to feel the same way about, say, Patti Smith, as I do about the Beatles, just: that rocks, not: a great leap forward for womankind!

But anything to do with popular culture - and that's why I get impatient with a lot of feminist discourse about popular culture sometimes - it strikes me as learning a language, something that will help to become enfranchised. I think the way women are drawn, well, it's not meant to be realistic to start with, it's a style (or even a set of signifiers), and anything that is signified by it, the writers and their audience are usually well aware of it, so pointing out "that's sexist!" seems a little redundant. Better to decode the political intent of the writer (if there is one) and attack that if need be.

Although to be honest, I find a lot of Marvel and DC comics politically hideous, and it seems pointless to complain about that once you've bought them too, after all they're superhero comics, they're going to be incredibly individualist to start with - everyone who has a name in them has superpowers, or practically, and anyone who doesn't have superpowers is part of this huge mass of vulnerable and stupid. If anything, when you read those you're there as an observer of that particular cultural event.

I'm not sure why I like them so much, probably because they're radically opposed to my own politics, and they're just so interesting. Plus they're pretty daft as well.

If anything, it's a constant struggle not to turn the things you like, the language you learn, into currency - I mean, we get to be The Only Girl Into Comics in whatever social circle we're in, which means inroads with the guys. That would be empowering - on the other hand, currency gets devalued easily. Mind you, so does language, that's why I think it's important to know about these things, to learn the language of popular culture.

And so much feminist analysis of popular culture is done by people who seem to hate it. It's almost like a Christ-like approach to it, enlighten people by being in the world but not of the world.

I say screw that: if you have a social movement, you have to be part of society. So that's probably why I love comics, dodgy libertarian politics, warts, green G cups and all.