How Could They Do That?:

Understanding Scott Lobdell and the New Comics Criticism

I’m quite certain writer Scott Lobdell, writer of Red Hood and the Outlaws, didn’t intend to make Starfire in any way diminishing of women.

I know this because it’s leaked that DC was concerned, prior to publication, about Starfire’s depiction. And from this, we know Lobdell’s take on the matter:

Yes, there were a lot of people there [prior to publication], it had become quite the conversation piece. There was a lot of discussion about Kory and her sexuality the day before this issue went to press.

There were a handful of staff, mostly other women, who believed the writer was trying to equate being a strong woman with being, frankly, a slut. No one said that the writer was misogynistic, just that perhaps he was writing from a male perspective. It was firmly suggested to him that he could accentuate the character’s past as a sex slave. And that this might be an explanation for her sexuality, that she was acting out in her new life.

However, we were told he was adamant that Kory [Starfire's real name] not be portrayed as a victim. The argument was made that if she was acting out sexually because of her past it mind that she mentally never left the prison planet.

In the end a compromise was struck and the sentence “I am a woman” was lost.

“I am a woman” was originally going to be in the third of the three seduction panel, just above where Starfire says “I am free to do what I want when I want.”

Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, from the bottom of page 13

In other words, Lobdell saw Starfire’s stance as a far broader statement about female freedom and empowerment.

It’s to the immense credit of DC’s female staff that no one accused Lobdell of misogyny. Because it seems quite clear exactly what was going on, and it had everything to do with how people, especially men and women, interpret female empowerment differently.

Lobdell must have thought “I am a woman” added to the sense of female empowerment. After all, aren’t all women “free to do what [they] want when [they] want?” Well, at least as much as men. And certainly, this freedom includes their choice of sexual partners. On the surface, it’s hard to argue with that.

To the female DC staffers, however, this wasn’t an image of female empowerment. It was more like an equivocation between female empowerment and Starfire’s physical inability to have anything other than casual sex. Such an equivocation sounds like the words of a sleazy male seducer: “C’mon, ain’t you comfortable with your body? Baby, I thought you were liberated.”

Losing “I am a woman” was a poor compromise at best. Yes, it did lessen the equivocation seen by DC staffers, although that same equivocation obviously still remained clear enough, as evidenced by many of the reactions to the issue. But removing the “I am a woman” line also made the comic seem like it wasn’t as well-intentioned as it probably was, and the result is that Starfire and Lobdell and DC come off, if anything, as more thoughtless about these issues than they probably were.

Equally, the invocation of Starfire’s sex slave past was interpreted very differently by the two parties.

To Lobdell, such an invocation would have made Starfire a victim, and Lobdell didn’t want that. It’s hard to believe that Lobdell isn’t aware of Women in Refrigerators — of the sad history of women in comics being raped, turned into sexual slaves, or otherwise victimized. That’s not something Lobdell wants to perpetuate, to his credit. So he’s loathe to even reference Starfire as a recovering victim, especially in the context of her being unapologetically sexual.

After all, any such acknowledgement would imply that her attitude to sex came from a wounded place. It would suggest that a woman who enjoys sex, without any sign of guilt, must be traumatized somehow. Raped by her father, perhaps. Or a former sex slave in an alien gulag. To imply this would only perpetuate the idea that only bad girls enjoy sex. And that’s not just anti-feminist. It’s anti-women. It’s repressive in the worst possible way.

But to the DC staffers, uncomfortable with a strong woman being equivocated with such extreme promiscuity, not to mention male fantasy, Starfire’s past would have at least provided an alternative explanation for her behavior, besides simple female empowerment. It would have implied that casual sex wasn’t the only way to be a strong woman. That having sex with men you can’t remember might not be the best way to feel good about yourself as a woman.

Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, top of page 17

Talk about two different perspectives. It’s virtually a case study in two very different views of female empowerment, one largely male and the other largely female.

In that debate, there’s no bad guy. No villain.

DC promotional page from the week of Red Hood and the Outlaws #1True, Lobdell clearly intended Starfire to be scantily clad and posed sexually. He even pointed out that the page that consists of little more than her emerging from from the ocean. True, he interpreted the page a bit differently, seeing her as “basking in the sunshine” rather than posing for male readers, and he focuses on her “joy.” But it’s hard to believe he didn’t intend for sexy images of Starfire to help sell the issue. Nor that DC objected, based on its including the page in miniature, in an interview run in virtually all of its comics during the week of that issue’s release. It’s another tone-deaf mistake from the publisher that announced its interest in making diversity part of its current relaunch.

Still, it must be said that Lobdell’s thinking, at least as I’ve speculated above, is quite sound and not at all ill-intended. That’s not to say that his portrayal of Starfire wasn’t potentially horrifying in its implications, as I’ve explored at some length. It was. But his thinking about how to fix or amend that portrayal is only horrifying in that it betrays a deep rift between how men and women view these depictions.

And the immense gulf there, between two very different views of female empowerment, is symptomatic of a much wider social problem.

American men generally feel that American women are empowered. American women have every right to have sex with whomever they want. Well, at least as much as men.

True, some women and men may chastise sexually promiscuous women as sluts. This is a complicated issue. In my own, anecdotal experience, the most savage comments about promiscuous women have come from other women. And it’s easy to understand why this may be the case, consciously or not: promiscuous women represent a threat. A distraction that keeps men from committing and also may encourage them to “stray.” For their part, men might enjoy the company of promiscuous women. But if men don’t see themselves as these women’s potential sexual partners, they’re likely to be jealous. More importantly and for evolutionary reasons, men are likely to treat these women more like sexual partners than life partners. From the standpoint of evolution, female promiscuity carries the risk of spending one’s life raising another man’s offspring, which might be emotionally rewarding but which is an evolutionary null zone. So there are many reasons why sexual promiscuity is frowned upon in women more than men, and they certainly aren’t all arbitrary, cultural reasons. This isn’t to excuse such condemnations, but it is to explain that they aren’t rooted in simple misogyny. And these deep roots makes changing this behavior extremely difficult.

But even if an American man himself personally mocks promiscuous women, as long as he’s not harassing anyone, that’s freedom of speech. He’s unarguably entitled to his opinion, ugly and hurtful though it may be.

And while acknowledging this ugliness and hurt, it’s actually entirely consistent to say that women have an absolute right to have as many sexual partners as they wish, while simultaneously looking down upon those who choose to exercise this right. In fact, the entire concept of democracy and religious toleration depends on being able to distinguish between one’s own opinion, about proper or smart behavior, and what one tolerates others doing. That’s what makes it okay to personally think abortion is wrong while not also shooting doctors who perform it. Rights do not guarantee that others won’t disapprove, nor express that disapproval. Sadly, this distinction has been sorely missing, throughout humanity’s blood-soaked history, in which people largely felt free to impose their own opinions upon others and couldn’t fathom the idea that a belief in how others should behave didn’t necessitate its imposition.

So from the perspective of most American men, women are already liberated, when it comes to sex.

Except that these men have the sneaking suspicion that women aren’t, at least psychologically. After all, most men would have a lot more sex, with a lot more partners, if they could. For men, sexual freedom means, well, sticking it in a lot of girls. And men have been told that one of the women would be far more sexually adventuresome, were it not for cultural inhibitions. So if women could toss off these inhibitions, women would be a lot happier. You know, the way men are, when they’re having good sex. Lots and lots of good sex.

Most American men look at Starfire in Red Hood and the Outlaws and assume she must be happy. Most men would be happy, believe it or not, having their choice of sexual partners and losing themselves in (apparently disease-free) endless casual sex with gorgeous, willing partners. Not being able to tell these partners apart wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. It might, in fact, appear blissful.

Yes, it may appear that such men want women to be more promiscuous because it would benefit these men. And that’s not untrue. Most people, including both men and women, believe what they believe less because it’s accurate and more because it’s convenient. But that doesn’t mean that men don’t believe they’re helping women to be happier, by presenting sexually promiscuous women as role models.

To make matters even more complex, American men tend to be extremely confused about what constitutes feminism. Mainstream American feminism has said often said both that women are different, when convenient to the argument (such as more nurturing or life-loving), and that all gender differences are entirely cultural in origin. It’s said that all heterosexual sex is rape and all men are rapists (no joke), but it’s also said that women need to be less sexually repressed. It’s gone from saying that a man opening a door for a woman is sexist and offensive to saying that this same behavior is charming and fine. It’s gone from saying men should be more emotionally expressive to ridiculing this as weak and unattractive. Frankly, American men have been getting so many mixed messages that they have no idea what they’re “supposed” to do anymore. Many want to be sensitive, but they don’t know what flavor of sensitive is in fashion this year.

So when we’re told that Scott Lobdell essentially wanted to make a feminist statement with Starfire, it’s totally believable. “I’m a woman” was clearly intended as an aggressive, pro-sex feminist statement, even if the character’s visual depiction was clearly designed to titillate men.

But it’s not as if that’s an odd combination. Critics praised Angelina Jolie’s character in Salt as a good feminist depiction, but it’s not like Jolie isn’t ridiculously, unattainably good-looking.

And for those who said that Starfire sounded like a man, that’s exactly what many feminist voices have asked for. Sometimes in so many words. In fact, Salt was originally written with Jolie’s character as a man.

Again, none of this is to defend Scott Lobdell’s depiction of Starfire. Nor do I think I went soft on that depiction, in saying he’d written her as the team’s live-in sex object.

But it’s not difficult to see Lobdell’s choices as symptomatic of the confusion many American men have about feminism and what constitutes female empowerment.

Many of these confused American men feel as if they’re in a Catch-22, and that’s easily illustrated by the debate between Lobdell and various, largely female DC staffers.

If he had referenced Starfire’s past as a sex slave, many would have almost certainly read the message that women can only be sexually liberated if they’re somehow traumatized. That’s a horrible message, and it’s one that’s quite clearly oppressive towards female sexuality. It’s understandable that Lobdell wanted to avoid that, at least examined in isolation.

Yet in trying to avoid that, Lobdell didn’t insulate himself from charges of sexism. And it’s situations like this, in which there doesn’t seem any right answer or way to avoid being tarred as a sexist, that have caused many American men to throw their hands up in frustration, feeling that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

To be sure, that’s not necessarily an accurate statement. The deeper problem is that Lobdell’s depiction of Starfire was already so tone-deaf to DC’s stated intentions towards diversity that he’d painted himself into a corner, in which there was no easy fix. The only real fix wasn’t to remove “I’m a woman” or to reference Starfire’s past. It was to go back and rethink the entire way Starfire was depicted.

Of course, there may not have been time for that. Because it now seems that the DC relaunch was so rushed that editors were left with these kinds of quick fixes as their only option.

I’ve now spent some considerable space trying to explain the view of American men, including their confusion about what exactly constitutes a liberated woman today. That’s in part because it’s rarely articulated. American men aren’t exactly the most forthcoming when they feel confused and helpless, especially about any topic concerning women. They’re a lot more likely to be brazen and defensive about it.

A man only sounds cocky when he says, “I thought you’d like women to be unashamed about sex?!? So which is it?” What’s underneath that exterior, designed to sound cocky and confident and masculine, is a lot of frustration and confusion and, yes, pain. Sure, some guys who say these things are just assholes. But there’s a thin line between the confrontational language above and what I read as underlying the same statement. Which goes more like, “I thought we were supposed to support women being unashamed about sex. Now I’m lost again, and I’m frustrated, and I don’t know what even constitutes being sensitive to women anymore, and now I’m angry because it sure seems like nothing’s going to please you, and any depiction of women is going to be branded sexist.”

Now, I’m not excusing the kind of hostile reactions against any charges of sexism that one finds all over internet message boards. I’m also not naive about the fact that most of these men aren’t remotely as thoughtful as I’ve been, in articulating what underlies their frustration. But I do think I’ve done that. And that, as inexcusable as some of these hostile reactions are and continue to be, once one recognizes them as part of the problem with the current comics culture, one has to go about identifying the real, underlying causes that have produced this reactionary zeal. At least, if one is serious about ending such reactions.

But there’s another reason why it’s important to articulate the American male perspective: it’s that perspective which currently dominates comics. And if we’re going to change that perspective, we’re going to have to be able to speak to it, in order to articulate where it’s incomplete or misguided or offensive, when it comes out in depictions like that of Starfire.

I hesitate to follow this with a description of the female equivalent, in part because I’m not female and in part because others, such as Laura Hudson, have already done so eloquently. But it’s fair to say that the American woman doesn’t see things remotely the same way, and it’s this gulf that produces the kinds of disconnects seen in Red Hood and the Outlaws.

For one thing, American women obviously aren’t feeling the sexual freedom men think those women have. Here, we return to the point above about how men don’t necessarily see criticism of promiscuous women as being at odds with sexual liberation. To those men, sexual liberation is primarily a legal matter: women have the right, which isn’t nearly as stigmatized as it used to be, but everyone has the right to think what they wish about how women exercise that right. But women have long had technically had the right to have sex with whom they want. For women, their sexual liberation isn’t legal but social. In other words, what good is it to have a right if one is going to be shunned for exercising it?

Why, that’s a little like saying women have the right to vote, but only a hussy would, don’t you know. It’s simply not done.

In the article I linked to above, Laura Hudson suggests exactly this:

I would like to say first and in the strongest possible terms that I absolutely support the right of women to embrace and act upon their sexual desires in whatever way seems right to them, within consensual boundaries. My sense of justice is inflamed by the double standard that tells us that every person a man sleeps with makes them more of a stud, and every person a woman sleeps with makes them a little less valuable and less respectable. I know this in particular because unlike all the guys who sent me angry messages last night defending the sexual honor of an imaginary character, that double standard is something l have had to live with and be judged by for my entire adult life.

This is heart-wrenching, raw, and honest stuff. It’s something American men need to read and try to understand, just as I’ve argued for the importance of understanding the American male perspective.

Equally, it’s important to recognize that, while Lobdell may well have found himself in a Catch-22 about referencing Starfire’s past, it was a Catch-22 of his own making. Because of the way he’d written Starfire, he was left with no good options.

But there’s something deeper at work here. Traditionally, women were seen as either virgins or whores, as either chaste mother-figures or “loose women.” The same extremes of feminism that have created the crisis of masculinity, described above, have also been damaging and confusing to women. While the right has championed the chaste mother-figure, the left has sometimes ridiculed that figure as unadventurous, boring, old-fashioned, and downright puritanical. “Soccer moms” isn’t exactly as tainted an expression as “slut,” but it’s not exactly a positive term. At the same time, “slut” hasn’t lost its taint. Women are encouraged to be more sexually liberated, but they’re still often stigmatized for acting on their desires.

The virgin / whore dichotomy may have been eroded, but it hasn’t disappeared. And now both of its poles are subject to social ridicule.

The end result is that no one, neither men nor women, have a stable position to occupy. Sensitive men are often ridiculed as “pussies,” and they very rarely find women who are sexually attracted to this sensitivity. Their only alternative seems to be being an asshole. Meanwhile, sexually adventuresome women are often ridiculed as “sluts,” and they find men more interested in them as sexual objects than emotional beings. Their only alternative seems to be going back into the sexual closet, which is not only unsatisfying but likely to be ridiculed as stuffy and repressed.

No one wins in this situation. No one’s left feeling fulfilled.

And although men and women often have opposing interests, it’s easy to see how the crisis in masculinity, described above, is related to a similar crisis in femininity.

Now, I might take issue with Laura Hudson’s use of the term “double standard,” which is something of a pet peeve of mine. Because a double standard doesn’t mean simply having two different standards for two different things. After all, we do that all the time, and life depends on it. No, a “double standard” only has meaning when there’s no significant difference between those two things, relevant to that standard. Thus, it’s not a double standard to fail a poor student paper and give a good grade to a good one — although students will sometimes claim that this is. It is a double standard to expect African-Americans not to date outside their race while tolerating the same in whites — because there’s no significant difference at play. Yet men and women are very different sexually, not only in terms of their obvious biological differences but also psycho-biologically. Some of these psychological differences are cultural, but many have deep, evolutionary roots. Our brains are not designed to judge male and female sexual choices identically, nor has any culture in our species’s evolutionary history done so.

That doesn’t mean this shouldn’t be a social goal, nor that socially rewiring of these brains isn’t possible to a large extent. Those same brains evolved to be wildly socially adaptable. It also doesn’t mean that a double standard can’t exist where sexual difference aren’t at play; it’s clearly a double standard (not to mention self-defeatist) to judge an idea differently from a woman than from a man (at least where gender bias isn’t at issue). But as we build a 21st-century outlook on gender, we desperately need to admit that the radical social constructionist outlook of the second half of the 20th century has been discredited, and this means that men and women cannot casually be compared to find “double standards” the way one can between races.

This may seem like a minor quibble, but it’s actually at the heart of the matter. Because the old, 20th-century patterns have left a massive gulf between men and women. It’s a gulf that’s perfectly visible in the dispute between Scott Lobdell and female DC staffers.

It’s a gulf so profound that the same terms mean different things on either side. And both men and women have assumptions, based on their own experience, that need to be understood and addressed, if we’re going to assemble a truly 21st-century attitude towards sex and gender. And part of the failure of the second half of the 20th century, with respect to sex and gender, has been its naivety, that gender roles were completely social and could be changed as easily as changing terminology.

To do this, we’re going to have to create a discourse. One that examines gender and sexual depictions honestly. One that tries to read the hostile, hurt, and defensive reactions of both men and women charitably.

For too long, American comics haven’t had any significant discourse about issues such as sexism. Its culture has been a boy’s club, too often with a fraternity mentality, at best occasionally countered by elite voices who put down almost all of comics, along with those comics’ excesses. People like Colin Smith have eloquently insisted upon social thoughtfulness in comics, too often greeted by fanboys screaming some variation on “You’re ruining my fun!” As if comics were such a fragile thing, such a politically incorrect boy’s club, that they could only survive in the utter absence of any scrutiny.

That culture’s changed. Because as I noted earlier, the outcry against Red Hood and the Outlaws has been both widespread and, just as importantly, reasonable. Almost every critic has pointed out that cheesecake and sexploitation have a right to exist, are appealing to men, and continue to exist for commercial reasons. That’s not a small thing. It’s a hand extended across the gender divide. It’s an important and, yes, touching gesture to male comics readers that their sexuality isn’t under attack.

It’s also a far cry from the bad old days of socially constructionism, when the fact that men liked to look at scantily-clad women could be deemed the deeper problem — a sign of patriarchal conditioning of male sexuality, as opposed to anything intrinsic in men and deserving of respect, as all sexuality should be.

That doesn’t mean that critics can’t point out the ways in which this comics culture, including sexploitation itself, hurts women and alienates female readers. It can’t mean that, if meaningful exchange is to occur.

And there’s more of that than ever before. Comics companies even seem to be listening, more than ever in the past.

This same frank and respectful debate has extended beyond sexuality. It’s also true about the restoration of Batbara Gordon’s legs, which has understandably upset many people. But there too, critics have been remarkably reasonable.

From this point, two things need to happen.

First, comics’ male readership has to take the olive branch that’s being offered, in those important and reasonable caveats. They must embrace this discussion as part of the maturation of the medium — and as good for the long-term health of that medium. If you continue shouting like a defensive maniac, in the wake of reasonable criticism, you only make yourself look like the worst stereotypes of comics readers — and you can hardly complain if that reasonable tone disappears. By all means, these male readers should respond frankly and honestly, expressing their own thoughts about these issues. But those thoughts must be respectful of the hurt and the implications being discussed, just as those critics have been frank but respectful.

It’s not too much to say that this, at this moment, is comics’ greatest challenge. Because the risk isn’t only that the lack of a respectful response from comics’ largely male audience invites critics to retreat from their conciliatory, thoughtful tone. It’s that comics are branded a sexist, restrictive community that can be easily culturally marginalized, in the same way that all “weird” subcultures can be.

And already there are rumblings, “Should feminists abandon comics?” Which would be a one-way ticket to cultural marginalization. And which is totally understandable, if the response to the very measured points about sexism that I’ve been reading is to scream back defensively as if what was being said weren’t measured but was simply “Comics are sexist! You’re a pig!” Which decidedly hasn’t been the case. Yet if we want to marginalize comics as an insular and pathetic little boys’ club, filled with awkward man-children hostile to any criticism of its tropes, one can hardly think of a faster path than refusing to seriously discuss the very reasonable, sincere objections that are now being made.

But second, we must do everything possible to ensure that this newly widespread and reasonable debate continues. That it’s not a passing reaction to the DC relaunch. That it becomes the new normal. And that comics, consequently, achieve at long last the sort of responsible, serious body of criticism which films and novels and music take for granted.

This is that moment. When the current discussion of these issues gels as part of a continuing part of a mature medium, which can have reasonable and intelligent debate, or when this discussion faces so much resistance that comics veer once more into marginalization.

This isn’t a threat to comics. It’s an opportunity.

Seize it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

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10 Comments

  1. David Balan says:

    Really great article, Julian. I like how you touched on the fact that clearly Lobdell and the DC staff weren’t trying to be sexist – and I would actually argue that Lobdell could have written in the part about Starfire’s past without it being offensive. When something like that happens, it hurts, on a number of levels, and it can and likely will influence your behavior later on. That doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable – but that would have provided an interesting conflict for the character, I think.

    • It certainly could have been done. But I do see how easily it would have been to criticize. The deeper problem was the overall depiction of Starfire. But I do think that the difference in thinking here is worth talking about.

  2. Well mete article Julian. Meaty without being preachy.

    Clearly our medium is need of some overhaul to our philosophical foundations.

  3. Ben Marton says:

    Again, a smart, even-handed articulate call for keeping the debate alive, Dr. Darius (upon reading my proudly displayed comment in another thread, my wife Amy, who is herself a member of the Ph.D. Club, suggested I honour you with the correct title, rather than ‘Mr.’)

    I must say that I have always been suspicious of any kind of ‘affirmative action’ initiative, but I noted with interest Laura Hudson’s citing of the example of Dan Harmon, creator of my current favourite TV sitcom, ‘Community,’ who has a policy of staffing his writers with 50% women. I wonder how the face of Marvel and DC would change, were this idea adopted by ‘The House of Ideas’ and ‘The Original Universe.’ Only for the better, I suspect.

    • I was so worried about this piece, because I really tried to be fair and even-handed, while getting at something I find important and care very much about. But that’s risky in terms of possibly alienating both sides.

      I would love to see DC hire more female writers. Diversity doesn’t hurt; it helps. Because, of course, there are multiple points of view. I don’t think DC could move to 50%, but a solid 10% would be a great improvement, and we could go from there. Honestly, if you’re at a loss, ask Gail Simone to name 5 female writers and work with them to put books together. I can’t imagine they’d do worse than the average comics writer, and maybe their perspectives would keep DC from repeating some of the bad storytelling that’s endemic of people who are too used to super-heroes. It can only help.

      As for the “Dr.” prefix, I’m flattered but certainly don’t take offense when it’s left off. My father also has a Ph.D., and I grew up being taught to be very modest about academic success, if only because it can intimidate people in undue ways. (Of course, education is related to intelligence but certainly not equivalent to it, and many brilliant people don’t have degrees, for various reasons.) Then I spent a couple years really wrestling with my dissertation committee, fighting for principle with a sword of Damocles over my head, and I came through it thinking, “Fuck it. I earned this!” :) End self-indulgent anecdote. But do pass on my smile to your good wife, to whom I’m bowing with a flourish. :)

  4. Colin Smith says:

    “This isn’t a threat to comics. It’s an opportunity.”

    Well, in the fact that these wretched comics are already on the stands, and therefore impacting upon the consumer’s opinion of the industry at a time when the reboot might’ve been winning even more new friends in considerable numbers, I’d argue that this misogyny’s very much a threat. After all, this rotten sexism reaches down to the everyday contents of so many books, and that means that changing things will be an impossibly tough business. I’ve just re-read two of the Ultimate line re-boots, for example; there’s not a single speaking role for a woman in either. No-one thought to have a single women in either book! What we’re debating re: the New 52′s worst offenders is simply the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This could be the beginning of a genuine transformation, but I suspect that even if the worst of the cheesecake is pushed out of sight, the fundamental issues will remain. Of course, I hope it’s obvious that I think that this kind of debate is essential. I’m just unconvinced that there’s any will to really deal with the problem, and I fear a touch of minor surgery will be applied while the fundamental problems remain.

    By which I mean, I share your sense of purpose and your hopes, but not your optimism,

    Yes, we’re seeing a far-larger-than-typical net-debate which does suggest that readers might engage more with these issues and make their feelings and thoughts plain to the publishers who’ve cared so little about these things. And articles such as yours and Ms Hudsons and all the others too do highlight how lacking in care and responsibility a great deal of the industry is. So, yes, DC’s insensitivity has resulted in a far greater degree of criticism and argument, and that’s cool.

    But is it an opportunity? I’m glad there’s more debate, I really am. I believe that that can only be for the good. But as to what degree of good we’re looking at, I’m unsure. And I fear that too much hope can make folks disappointed when change doesn’t really arrive. I’m also concerned about the Red Wedge effect, by which folks feel that change has occured just because noise has been made. A splendid, principled noise, I agree, but I think the industry’s ability to entirely ignore pressure is all too obvious.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to criticise and debate. Of course we should. It’s just that public debates tend to fizzle out, and I suspect that the industry is just going to tone down the very worst of its ill-choices. Well, unless the cheesecake books really do sell over the longterm. In which case, I’m not sure anything much will change at all.

    Fingers crossed, ah :) For I agree 100% with the proposition that “if we want to marginalize comics as an insular and pathetic little boys’ club, filled with awkward man-children hostile to any criticism of its tropes, one can hardly think of a faster path than refusing to seriously discuss the very reasonable, sincere objections that are now being made.”, I also find it hard to be so admirably enthusiastic when I think of how tough this fight’s going to be, and of how unlikely success in anything other than the – very – long term will be.

    For the fact of debate doesn’t necessarily bring with it the probability of chance, and a lack of short-term success might depress and alienate folks who are currently upset. I suspect fighting without too much hope is the key here, and that the next challenge is how to make such critiques consistently eye-catching and entertaining so the whole matter doesn’t largely disappear from the agenda.

    Or, this ISN’T that moment. It’s the first of so many of them that even thinking of them is enough to make a body reach for the big tub of choc chip ice-cream. I agree with what you’re saying, I admire and envy your determination and enthusiasm, and I’d love to see a substantial change in things. But I tend to think that we also need to think about what happens if the bridgehead doesn’t manage to fight itself off of the beach …

    • I intended the “this,” in “this isn’t a threat to comics,” to refer to this debate and discussion, rather than the depiction of Starfire.

      I share your fear, Colin, about whether minor touch-ups will be made, in lieu of more serious change. I’ve tried to illustrate some of the more fundamental problems above, and I do think these issues need to be negotiated. Because it’s not enough to simply increase the percentage of female creators, nor of female characters, nor lessen those characters’ sexist implications. That’s necessary but not sufficient. What’s far more important is that creators think through their basic assumptions and have thought seriously about gender. That’s incumbent upon any writer, I should think. And without it, changes to female characters are going to not only be window-dressing but feel like political correct rules. Without trying to sound like a Buddhist monk, change has to come from within. And yes, it’s sorely needed.

      But I do think that this discussion is ultimately more important than any outcome. That may be a stupid, democratic faith in people. But it’s in me. And I have faith that, in general, dialogue will cause the majority to see sexist implications. But I’d rather, in a million years, have that occur due to people honestly being aware of those implications and caring about them, rather than having it imposed editorially (not that doing so would be bad; in many cases, it would simply be responsible). And this is why I’m so concerned with debate: it’s only through honest and open debate that we can address the fundamental, underlying problems.

      So the hope for me very much is that this debate will continue — and continue to be honest. I’ll take a Red Hood and the Outlaws now and then (as we do with novels and movies) if there’s a culture that points out its implications responsibly. And it’s that culture which we must change, and that can only happen through debate. The challenge for me isn’t to prevent another Red Hood and the Outlaws from ever occurring. That I do take as overly hopeful. Indeed, I don’t even think it’s necessarily desirable (much as I had problems with the book, which I stated publicly). My own hope isn’t for any outcome other than the reasoned and thoughtful debate itself. Which it’s essential doesn’t fizzle out, as you point out most debates do.

      Actually, I take it back: I don’t want a Red Hood and the Outlaws to be possible. But I don’t want it to be possible not due to any editorial fiat, but because there’s a culture of criticism in which the creators are immersed and cannot be ignorant of. A culture in which sexist implications surely will continue, but at least they might occur within works that are thoughtful about these issues.

      Put that way, my goal might not be so unreasonable: to have such criticism embraced as part of comics culture. And while even this is hopeful, I do think it’s quite possible.

      But yes, in some sense, the worst thing DC could do is tone things down enough that the debate simply stops or becomes marginalized, leaving the underlying assumptions unexamined. And that is quite possible, as you point out.

      All the more reason why we must commit to continuing this debate. To making it permanent.

      But I’m starting to feel like I’m blabbering here, restating what I’ve already said, especially in the wake of your very fine and thoughtful comment.

      What do others think? Is this debate a passing thing? Or is it possible that we’re seeing the dawning of a more responsible comics criticism, one aware of these issues and willing to discuss them?

      • David Balan says:

        Things probably won’t change on a grand scale. 90% of comics, like 90% of every other media form of entertainment on the market, will remain rather pointless, or at least poorly thought out and executed. That’s the nature of the beast – there is no great success without a great problem.

        The manifestation of that problem will change – in comics, right now, it’s largely sexism. We may not be able to eradicate sexism from comics – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

        If just one book is made that offers a well-crafted story with an ensemble of believable, compelling characters of both genders, portraying something truthful about the world in which we live, and all of its constituent parts, then it will all be worth it.

        That victory will overshadow all defeats.

  5. Colin Smith says:

    “What’s far more important is that creators think through their basic assumptions and have thought seriously about gender. That’s incumbent upon any writer, I should think. And without it, changes to female characters are going to not only be window-dressing but feel like political correct rules. Without trying to sound like a Buddhist monk, change has to come from within. And yes, it’s sorely needed.”

    Perhaps it’s a good moment to start wondering where change WILL come from. Although I’m appalled by how many creators seem to lack the slightest grasp of what the implications of their work might be, the truth is the power in the Big Two lies with the editors at the top of the corporate tree. Of course, it seems that the Bendis and the Johns have a huge degree of freedom, but they, by all accounts, have always been good team players anyway. By which I mean, the change is only going to happen when the major editorial figures are convinced that such is necessary, or when their corporate bosses make the decision for them.

    What can be done to help push through this particular issue. The “Batgirl” who so bravely faced up to the DC staff at one of this years cons certainly pushed DC into making some concilitary comments. Looking at the New 52, it can’t be said that most books are committed to anything that looks like a feminist agenda, and the politics of most books seem far less engaged and controlled than even DC’s famously under-achieving books from the mid-Seventies. Perhaps the corporate bosses do need to be written to. Perhaps there needs to be an attempt to engage editorial staff in a greater measure of communication.

    But at the moment, the only thing that will really help will be financial pressure. Marvel is having to lay off apparently well-thought of executives. DC is undoubtedly under pressure to generate a great deal more cash from its line after all the millions which have gone into the New 52. And strangely enough, neither company seems to be too concerned with anything other than the Rump and those who’ve recently left it. You’d think a failure to attract more female readers might be a career-ending screw-up, but that level of ambition seems to be missing.

    I guess what I’m saying is that although the debate is important, and indeed vital, it’s where and how the institutions concerned are engaged with. A general discussion is a fine thing. A general and positive broadening and evolution of the debate can only help. But it’s easy for the companies to ignore the net. They’ve been ignoring so much of importance for so long, and even now the New 52 has been marked by so many daft errors. It doesn’t sound as if the C.C.C. is open even to logical debate at times.

    I wonder: the points which you raise are vital. And David’s right; every single good book is a victory. But is there any way to move those mountains?

    • Colin, you make excellent points, as always, and ask great questions.

      It’s inarguable that a lack of sensitivity to matters of gender and sexism have not exactly hurt sales. I also do not see boycott as a likely option, and I don’t think individuals dropping sexist titles is going to have a huge effect on the bottom line. So the pressure isn’t going to come financially, at least through those means. Although you are right that, in theory, a desire to reach female readers could lead to change.

      I personally think that the “Batgirl” example you cited is the best one. There are a lot of indications that DC is very carefully watching reviews and criticism, as a way of steering its new line. I suspect that, even amid the huge financial success of the new line, it’s quite concerned about these charges of being retrogressive generally, including about both women and the handicapped. A more general reaction from DC has not yet been forthcoming, but I’m personally certain that this dialogue is very much felt, behind the scenes. DC does not want to be considered a sexist company, and I’m sure it doesn’t want a mainstream news story about “Look at what your kids are reading!” For all these reasons, I suspect that DC is concerned about the level of criticism it’s received on these subjects. This concern may not have changed its publishing plans, as far as we know, but (1) those plans are formed months in advance, especially with the deadlines for digital day-and-date publication, and (2) DC would probably not want to publicize that it’s made changes due to such criticism, which might encourage this criticism and would risk becoming an embarrassing news story itself.

      This “saving face” aspect may have something to do with why DC hasn’t responded to the criticism about its lack of female creators. We might think the smart move would be to hire someone fast, but DC may not want to look like it’s capitulating, nor would it want such a title to become a news story that feeds the idea that it’s been sexist in the past.

      So I’m left with the fact that the best way to achieve change is in fact actually to create this debate. To permanently cement a concern for these issues into the mainstream of comics criticism.

      And a few more brave “Batgirl”s wouldn’t hurt either. :)

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