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The comic book as a story-telling medium has been a subject of heated commentary for generations, especially for some artists' and writers' penchant for portraying women in a less-than-favorable light.
Critics often cite the overwhelming use of the "woman in the refrigerator" technique, in which a female character is murdered or depowered for the purpose of advancing a male character’s storyline.
Another source of much indignation is how many female characters, when they are not getting mangled or raped, are used as little more than eye candy for the male masses – sex symbols whose personalities are as flat as their cup sizes are disproportionately huge, whose roles are as thin as the fabric of their poorly designed, anatomy-hugging costumes.
Recent interviews with Mark Millar, the creative force behind Kick-Ass, and other industry legends such as Todd McFarlane of Spawn fame, have reignited familiar, yet fiery complaints about sexism against women in comic books.
Mark Millar on the rape of women in comic books
In a recent interview with New Republic, the controversial Mark Millar, touted as the medium’s foremost deconstructionist and advocate, had a few things to say about rape in comic books that drew a considerable amount of flak: “The ultimate (act) that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”
Laura Hudson—former Comics Alliance editor-in-chief and Wired’s senior editor—found the rape scenes in Millar’s comics repugnant.
“There’s one and only one reason that happens, and it’s to piss off the male character,” she stated. “It’s using a trauma you don’t understand in a way whose implications you can’t understand, and then talking about it as though you’re doing the same thing as having someone’s head explode. You’re not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing rape scenes.”
Rape and sexism: Trivial?
In response to Millar’s controversial quote about rape, Jen Bosier of the Examiner pointed out that rape is not only one of the most painful physical violations a victim is forced to endure, it also has lasting, damaging effects on the person’s psyche.
In Bosier’s opinion, Millar’s seeming treatment of rape as a trivial act of violence implies his sexual objectification of women, who only exist in his comics to be desired or avenged by the male character. Despite the shock value of Millar’s most recent quote, however, he has apparently held this stand for years.
In a 2011 interview, regarding the debate about sexism and the unseemly portrayal of women in comic books, he offered the following thoughts: “I think it’s meaningless. A tiny storm in a tea-cup. And in ten years time I’ll copy and paste this again when the argument raises its head like it did a decade ago. The fact is that more women are reading comics right now than at any point in my life and they’re not picking them up because they feel they’re demeaning in any way.”
According to Comics Alliance, one in six women in the United States have been sexually assaulted, including completed and attempted rapes. While the police receive reports of only 16% of these violations, the rapists, on the other hand, have it easy: only 5% of them are ever caught and land in jail.
And this is in the country where most of Millar’s works are published and sold.
In Scotland, where Millar makes his home, the incidences of rape and rape attempts have increased by 15% between 2011 and 2013. These numbers, which far exceed the numbers of people who have had their heads blown off, suggest a hideous phenomenon that is far from trivial.
“In a culture in which rape is undeniably endemic, Millar’s steadfast refusal to consider the potential ramifications of his work remains astounding, infuriating, irresponsible, and sad,” wrote Joseph Hughes of Comics Alliance. “To pretend depictions of rape and sexual assault in popular fiction play absolutely no role in further informing a culture that seems largely hellbent on not dealing with these statistics is, at best, willfully ignorant, a position adopted by a writer more concerned about the money he’s making than actually improving as a creator.”
McFarlane, Conway, and Wein on diversity in comics
Three legendary comic book creators appeared onstage at the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills to answer questions about the new PBS documentary series, “Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle”. They were Todd McFarlane, creator of 90s anti-hero, Spawn; Len Wein, co-creator of Wolverine; and Gerry Conway, co-creator of the Punisher, according to Think Progress and iO9.
“The vast majority of dudes (are) doing this high testosterone sort of storytelling, and so we put our fantasy on the plate on the pages,” said McFarlane regarding the stereotypical portrayal of women in comic books. “As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys. The guys are all good looking, not too many ugly superheroes. They’ve all got their hair gelled back. They have got perfect pecs on them. They have no hair on their chest. I mean, they are Ryan Gosling on steroids. Right? They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype and do it to both sexes. We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies.”
Conway suggested that the lack of diversity in the medium is due to comic books being a mirror of society: “The comics follow society. They don’t lead society.”
Another of Conway’s implied reasons for this scarcity in racial and gender variety is that comics are also reflective of history: “I think it’s a mistake to sort of, like, pigeonhole superheroes, or to add so much to superheroes that you’re missing the fact it’s a genre within itself. It’s like saying, ‘Why are there no medieval stories about female knights?’ Because there was only one, you know, Joan of Arc. It’s not it’s an inherent limitation of that particular genre, superheroes.”
McFarlane went on to claim that if his own daughters were seeking a source of empowerment, he’d direct them away from comic books. “It might not be the right platform,” he said. “I’ve got two daughters, and if I wanted to do something that I thought was emboldened to a female, I probably wouldn’t choose superhero comic books to get that message across. I would do it in either a TV show, a movie, a novel, or a book. It wouldn’t be superheroes because I know that’s heavily testosterone – driven, and it’s a certain kind of group of people. That’s not where I would go get this kind of message, so it might not be the right platform for some of this.”
Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress criticized McFarlane’s and Conway’s positions. “The production of superhero comics is not actually a biological function determined by whatever bodies we’re born with,” she wrote. “A lack of equality in the nobility’s ranks in the medieval military hasn’t kept Tamora Pierce from writing dozens of fantasy novels involving female knights, because that is a thing that you can do in fiction. If superheroes actually existed, and their ranks were exclusively male, writing fantastical fiction to consider how women might handle that sort of power, and how the world might react to their use of it would be a perfectly legitimate subject for superhero fiction to explore.”
She added: “The decision to stay within the narrow lanes of your own fantasies is a choice, not biological determinism.”
When Conway suggested a third reason for the dearth of diversity in comics – that people are just not interested in such a motley crew of characters – Rosenberg denounced the creators for blaming readers for being the cause of the gender-insensitive imagery employed in comic books.
“They were suggesting that the failure of more diverse representations of superheroes was on readers, not on the companies that decide what kinds of images to promote and what kinds of artists they want to employ,” she said. — TJD, GMA News