Women in Refrigerators Women in Refrigerators

Fan JEFF MACE responds

Jeff Mace is a freelance writer/editor and confessed pop-culture junkie currently residing in San Francisco. He is plotting his first foray into the wonderful world of comic book creation. Therefore, he needs all the free publicity he can get ;)

Gail and co.-

Interesting page. Seems like you've got quite a discussion going here. With your indulgence, I'll add my two cents and change:

I think your analysis could benefit from some historical context. To a great extent, comics descended from the pulps and genre magazines. If you're at all familiar with pulps and magazines, you know that their covers were replete with images of women in bondage, at gunpoint, or at the mercy of one horrible *thing* or another. The text within could generally be counted on for more of the same. So Campbellian arguments aside (though some of them are relevant here), the origins of the medium itself ought to be kept in mind. Accordingly, I'd argue that some of the incidents listed in WiR are not the result of some recent aberration. Rather, it may well be that the Wertham/Seduction of the Innocent/Strong Comics Code era was the aberration. Now that the Code has been reduced to something of a paper tiger, the images that used to grace the covers of Amazing Stories and its contemporaries may simply be returning to the fore.

That may or may not be a good thing. It may indeed be an obstacle to getting more girls interested in comics. But I sincerely doubt it represents a fundamental shift in modern sensibilities. At most, it represents two changes within the industry: 1) The Comics Code and the restrictions it imposed have become largely irrelevant, and 2) The average reader has skewed older in recent years (from pre-teen to late teens/early 20s) -- these readers are routinely exposed to R-rated material (movies, adult-themed shows such as NYPD Blue, violent video games such as Mortal Kombat, pro wrestling, etc.) forcing comics to become more R-rated in order to compete for attention.

Moving on, if there is a flaw in your central premise, I don't think it has much to do with the presence or lack of "accurate statistics" as it does with your assertion that the depowering, death, and rape/torture of female characters in comics is indicative of a *single* trend. Admittedly there are some commonalities, but I think that, by breaking down your WiR list into the three categories listed above, some important distinctions can be glimpsed.

Depowering of female characters: I'm probably in the minority here, but, as a reader, I find this to be the most offensive of the three categories. Why did Power Girl need to be given a preposterous weakness to "unprocessed materials" in order to fit in with Sovereign 7? Would it have been such a bad thing for her to be the strongest of the team? Why did Jade need to be rendered powerless? What would have been so wrong about Kyle having a girlfriend who was his heroic equal (if not superior)? Creators underestimate and insult their audience when they do dumb stuff like that. The idea that female characters need to be "weaker" so as not to "threaten" their male peers, lovers, counterparts and mentors is as pathetic as it is anachronistic.

Of course, there are exceptions. For example, I don't have a problem with Barbara Gordon's paralysis, but that's because, as Oracle, she is a more prominent (and, in a way, more powerful) character than Batgirl. With books like Birds of Prey, Kabuki, and Witchblade finding success, hopefully creators are getting the message that strong female characters can be valued on their own terms.

Death of female characters: Here, I find myself in agreement with Mike Carlin. Most superhero books have male protagonists. Next to those protagonists (who cannot be bumped off or severely tampered with lightly, as there are issues of merchandising and marketability at stake), the female lead (usually the girlfriend/love interest)is the title's most prominent character. So, if the status quo of a book needs to undergo drastic change, and the lead character is more or less off limits, what's a writer to do?

A digression: With the number of books with female leads rising, you can see that this dynamic cuts both ways. For instance, in the first issue of Witchblade, lead character Sara Pezzini's male partner is killed in a gunfight. In the issues that followed two of the most prominent male characters, Ken Irons and Ian Nottingham, both appeared to die (they later "got better," but still...). Later, Sara's second partner gets himself severely injured, and is currently off the force. In Shi's debut series, the principal male character (her sometime boyfriend, Peter DeNyse) was brutally beaten. Vampirella's longtime love Adam Van Helsing met a violent end a few miniseries back. Prior to that he'd also suffered in many other ways -- being captured/tortured by Vampi's adversaries, being horribly mutated into a Mr. Hyde-like character, etc. In the first issue of Fathom, an ex-boyfriend of the title character was killed off.

Anyway -- sometimes killing off a female character *is* a cheap, manipulative, borderline misogynistic ploy. Sometimes it's merely clichéd, bad, or lazy writing, as Shooter states in his response. Yet, often the death of a female character comes about as the exclamation point within a spectacular story.

Gwen Stacy. Phoenix. Terra. More recently, Karen Page in the pages of Daredevil. These characters died, but continue to endure in the minds of readers because their deaths *meant something*. Rather than diminishing the role of female characters in comics, stories like those enhance them. As Hudnall points out in his response, tragedy is central to heroic myth. In dying, these women ascended to a kind of pop-culture pantheon. Would they have been as memorable, as important to the overarching comic book mythology, if they'd gone on living? Outside of Mary Jane, how many of Spidey's significant others are as well known as Gwen Stacy? Arguably, Jean Grey's tragic past makes her a more multifaceted, intriguing character than most of the other original X-Men. Without the death of Dark Phoenix, would she be any more prominent than, say... Iceman? Most Titans fans would cite "The Judas Contract" as one of that series' high points. Would it have been a better story without Terra's tragic role in it? Would the readership (female or otherwise) really have been better served if she had continued on as the faux-Kitty Pryde she initially appeared to be?

I realize that case-by-case defenses of storylines are beside the point. My point is that death, in and of itself, does not necessarily devalue or otherwise diminish the integrity of female characters. Admittedly that is not the case with category #2...

Rape/Torture of female characters:

Comics don't do many rape storylines. However, when female characters are in violent confrontations or held prisoner, the threat of sexual violence is often implicit. Some of that has to do with the highly sexualized way in which many female characters are drawn and costumed.

I think there's some cause for hope on that score though; the era of butt-floss chic seems to be in its waning phase; there don't seem to be nearly as many schlocky "bad-girl" books dotting the shelves these days. There are, and will probably always be, myriad pneumatically-enhanced females in comics -- but the books in which they appear offer more than *just* titillation. For instance, Fairchild's proportions are patently unrealistic, but she's also a competent team leader (Gen13) who does not charge into battle in a bikini. Ditto for Storm of the X-Men.

These and many other female characters are presented as powerful women who emerge from confrontation after confrontation bloodied yet unbowed -- heroines who refuse to become victims. Storm has been through some very tough times -- the loss of her powers, her transformation into a child, etc. -- but she remains a character whose fundamental strengths have not been compromised. Adversity has only served to strengthen her.

In this respect, comics seem to do much better than, say, soap operas (a serial medium functionally and structurally very similar to comics), where rape is often used as a tool to engender sympathy for bad girl types and where last year's rapist is often this year's romantic lead.

In general, I believe the problem of female sexuality in comics to be one of extremes. I find Lady Death and her bad-girl ilk juvenile and unappealing, examples of the worst adolescent excesses of the mainstream. However, I find the modern Wonder Woman equally pathetic. Granted, Steve Trevor was pretty lackluster as love interests go, but who has stepped forward to fill his post-Crisis shoes? The current Diana is presented to readers as the ultimate female role-model: strong, intelligent, eternally beautiful... yet untouchable and practically asexual (outside of a brief, ill-fated fling with Superman). Is it possible for a female comics character to have a healthy appreciation for the opposite sex without descending into Catwoman-esque amorality? How can we expect girls to sympathize with, much less see anything of themselves, in either Lady Death *or* Wonder Woman?

As always, there are exceptions: Black Canary, the Huntress, Sara Pezzini, and a (growing?) handful of others have managed to sidestep the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. However, comics seem to have fallen behind TV in this respect. Unlike Wonder Woman, Xena can be strong, intelligent, and brave *and* a mother. Buffy and her "Scooby-gang" can deal honestly with sex and sexuality where the students of Marvel's Generation X fear to tread. I remember an imaginary "interview" PAD wrote (in one of his CBG columns) with a comics pro from "the future." In that pro's time, violence in comics had been partially supplanted by depictions of healthy, consensual sex.

Therein, I suppose, lies a possible cure for the WiR malaise: Close the refrigerator door and turn down the sheets! ;)

Of course much of the fascination with violent and sexual subject matter is simply the nature of the storytelling beast, the Eros-Thanatos interface that has fascinated writers since the dawn of time. Naturally myths and melodramas aimed at men and boys will contain liberal doses of Damsels in Distress. That can be an indictment of the audience (and of the creative community as well), but IMHO not a particularly damning one. Again, I'd argue that it is execution that matters most here.

Personally, I happen to believe that quality outs. I think material that deserves a larger audience will, more often than not, find it -- late, lamented exceptions like DC's Chase notwithstanding.

To bring my ramblings to a close, I do think the WiR list raises important questions. However, they are not questions that lend themselves to a unitary set of answers. There are many, many grey areas here and very little in the way of black and white.

When tragedy befalls a comic heroine, it might be due to the lineage of the medium in which she exists, it might be due to cultural universals that have been with us throughout human history, and, yes, it just might be the work of a untalented, incompetent, and/or misogynistic hack.

It also might be part and parcel of an important story, a story that deserves to be told.

Or it could simply be a product of the symbiotic, cyclical relationship between the storyteller and the audience: male characters written by male creators for male fans, some of whom will become male creators and write stories about male characters for... you get the idea.

That's it in a nutshell, I guess. Superhero comics are primarily written by and for a male audience. Period. Pop-art (by which I mean art that is produced in order to be sold and thereby consumed), by its very nature, tends to pander to its audience. I think it is wise for fans and pros alike to keep that in mind, but, honestly, I'm tired of the comics community continually castigating itself about it. I don't think the superhero set needs to lament the lack of female readers any more than the the Harlequin romance crowd needs to concern itself with attracting male readers.

That said, I think it behooves those of us who enjoy superheroic fare to support work that manages to entertain *without* catering to the lowest common denominator. Helping books with strong, fully-realized heroines reach the larger audiences they deserve strikes me as one very obvious way to do just that. And if some of those books find their way into the hands of our girlfriends, spouses, sisters, and daughters... so much the better.

Jeff Mace