My essay on Marvel and DC as dedicated safe spaces for male-focused entertainment got quite a bit of talk going, which is the best possible reaction to any essay. Several very smart people wrote rebuttals, and these posts also generated very thoughtful comment sections.
The very articulate Laura Sneddon took on my essay and a bunch of recent nerd gender issues with Women in Comics: It Ain’t Over, which also announces that the battle is going to continue. Both Laura and Sue chide me for giving up on superhero comics. Here’s Sneddon’s take:
This double standard still exists today, where women in independent and autobiographical comics are seen as acceptable and normal (much like women authors in prose and poetry), while women creators in action and superhero comics are seen as the odd ones out. And indeed the statistics bear out that they are the minority, even as women readers of these comics continues to increase. Any argument that we should be happy with what we've got, and turn our back on the superhero strips misses the point of these action comics – they are not just for men, and it is not only men that want to create and consume them. That's what the publishers might think, but it sure as hell shouldn't be what they actually think.
Women buy the majority of cinema tickets, and buy the majority of books. Women are a powerful sector of the media consumption pie, and when a large media craze hits, it’s generally women who are making up the majority of sales. Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Grey – each of which single handedly kept the publishing market afloat every time it’s poised to sink. What publisher wouldn’t want to appeal to this mass market of hungry readers? And yet even the independent and literary comics struggle to find such exposure. Why? Because the general public’s idea of comics is that they are the superheroes, the scantily clad tits and ass covers, the boys domain, the shops that women often feel unwelcome in, and the comics that women supposedly do read are often hidden behind them. When any mainstream press article focusing on these latter titles must first establish, again and again, that women do read comics, that comics are for grown ups, and that spandex isn’t a necessity, it’s easy to see why they just skip past them instead to the latest literary wonder prose.
Sneddon’s post has a lot of great links including this brilliant post by Gail Simone which I’ll gank in its entirety:
YOU KNOW WHAT IS EXHAUSTING? …being at a convention, a busy convention, and having dozens, sometimes hundreds of women in my signing line, not there because they are being dragged there but because they love comics—taking pictures with them, admiring their amazing cosplay, listening to their ideas and hopes and favorite stories, listening to their passion about the characters and the medium in general, talking with endless female aspiring writers and so many ridiculously talented female colleagues…
…and then having to go to an interview or a panel and being asked why don’t women read comics.
Sue at DCWKA had a piece called DC Women Kicking Ass – It Takes A While But Even Glaciers Do Eventually Melt or Why Change Will Happen in Superhero Comics, and the title pretty much explains the angle. When my essay first came up, Sue tweeted that it had depressed her, and I’m glad to see that she came roaring back. I’m not going to refute her points, because I agree with most of them—change needs to happen, pigeonholing is not productive in the long run, and so on—but here’s an interesting factoid:
And earlier this week I read something that I believe points to that. When DC announced the digital spin-off of Smallville, I said that this was book that could have a big impact on realizing that female readers can bring incremental financial value (because if there is one thing the Beat and I do agree on is that money talks). The audience of television’s Smallville was made up up of about 1/3 women even slightly edging up closer to 50% at times.
The site iCv2 put up an interview this week with Dan DiDio and Jim Lee and Lee mentioned something very interesting:
And one thing I’ll add, through comiXology we had some data from our sales on Smallville and about 40% of people buying or downloading that comic book were new consumers; they had opened up new accounts. To me, that’s a staggering large number and I think it points to the way we’re going to see a lot of growth, especially in terms of new readers.
There’s not mention of who those “new readers” are but I don’t think it is too much to assume there are a lot of women in that 40%. Women drawn to a book that is a spin-off of a superhero show that had quite a large female viewership. I mean I’m sure there are males in that group. It could be males who don’t like the current Superman books (I’ve heard from those) or male Smallville fans who for some reason just didn’t think to pick up a Superman comic before or current Superman readers who can’t wait for the floppy to appear and need their digital fix of Superman.
There is indeed a message there, and hopefully it will be heeded. But in the comments on Sue’s piece, Mary229 has a post which recounts a story which I think gets to the core of what I’m talking about:
According to the book, Television in Transition: The Live and Afterlife of the American Action Hero written by a Shawn Shimbach the audience as calculated when Smallville was a part of the WB network was 51% female.
The book details in length how Warner Bros. was hoping to use Smallville to bring balance to the WB network by creating a market for both women and men at the same time. At the time, the WB network always skewed female and the idea was that men between the ages of 18-34 didn’t want to watch TV but rather play video games. Warner Bros was hoping to use Smallville to create a balance in the audience. And it worked. According to this publication, “By mid March 2003, the audience (for Smallville) was 51% female in it’s audience composition.”… “Smallville was forming a coalition audience for a growing network even during a period of audience fragmentation.”
The CW network (which was the result of the WB and UPN merging together) specifically focused on the male demo because female viewers were a given for their network. Therefore, they trumpeted male viewers as that was something that made Smallville and Supernatural unique.
Incredible to think that an audience that’s a mere 51% female would be seen as a triumph of male-viewership. But yes that is what we are dealing with. What everyone needs to come to terms with is that Hollywood doesn’t see things in terms of “this is a good show” they think of it as “This is a good show for women 18-25” or “tween boys” or “urban viewers” — Hollywood produces EVERYTHING with a target demo in mind. They are very happy when something reaches more than one or two quadrants — because that means the things is probably a huge hit.
The irony here is that the most successful superhero movies have been successful because women went willingly with men or even—brace yourself—on their own to see them. I’ve seen plenty of groups of teenaged girls or women at superhero movies. FACT. The ones that women didn’t like — Ghost Rider, Green Lantern — have been meh or worse at the box office.
I think most of Marvel’s Disney-era superhero hero movies have been fairly “woman friendly” — the female characters have all been integral to the plot and given motivation and back story. All the characters played by Natalie Portman, Liv Tyler and Hayley Atwell have been perfectly acceptable. Mystique in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is one of the best characters ever in a superhero movie, and the greatest female superhero. We all loved Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in The Dark Knight. And so on and so forth. Sadly, this doesn’t mean we’ll see an awesome Daughters of the Dragon or Birds of Prey movie any time soon, but the movies, at least, have followed the “all you must do to keep women readers is not actively repel them” rule.
As all the above points out, there are women who like superheroes in a multitude of mediums, and when people don’t see that, it’s because they don’t WANT to.
But when I was a kid things like this image had a powerful effect on me:
It would be great for today’s teenaged girls to have a similar image, but this is a more typical image:
I think the fight that Sue and Laura advocate should go on and needs to go on, but it needs to address the proper foe with the proper tactics. The importance of superheroes as “the boy space” to Warners and Disney both is definitely a powerful factor in how they approach DC and Marvel. People are fretting everywhere about how boys aren’t reading, or learning or doing anything much but playing video games. Superheroes are seen as a way to keep them engaged.
NOW, we do know there there are ways to present this material in a boy-first way that doesn’t offend or alienate women. THIS is where the most pernicious effects of comics long-running sexism are most apparent. In my earlier essay I didn’t really address the existing sexism that affects a lot of the superhero comics industry — mostly because I’ve written about it many, many times before, but also because it is a slightly separate issue from the “demographic imperative”. One can argue — as Sue and Laura do — that the demographic imperative is an outgrowth of that sexism, but I think the remedies and pushback against it are somewhat different in nature. Sexism is institutionalized in the TV and film industries, as well, but we still get things like the Amethyst cartoon and the new Lauren Faust Supergirl segment of DC Nation. TV is a popular medium that is consumed by boys, girls, men and women, so appealing to different demographics there is not such a devastating turn-off for male viewers.
However, my guess is that comic periodicals are viewed as a very niche product that is NOT consumed by women — at least by the corporate shot-callers.
And of course, that’s partly true. In a wider sense, this is the argument for the future of the comics periodical. It is true that both Marvel and DC produce some diverse material — Marvel does Oz and Jane Austen, DC has Vertigo. But Vertigo is very much an endangered species these days, and Marvel’s literary adaptations are just a small deviation from the overall superhero publishing plan.
As we’ve discussed endlessly here—and by the admission of just about every Big Two executive—their sales model is currently driven by requiring readers to pick up more and more of the line via crossovers and events. The New 52 exploded loose from that sales model, but we already have news of more events and crossovers coming as sales find their level. Marvel is actually in a worse pickle right now — they’ve just about evented themselves into unconsciousness. It’s the era of editor-driven comics. The driving need to focus on a very narrow reader segment has led to an era of onerous corporate control at the Big Two—freelancers are generally unhappy, and Image has been the main beneficiary. I’m going to go into this in more depth in my next long post, but the way the Big Two operate now, it is impossible for creators to be creative or initiate anything. And by sticking with the house style, superhero publishers have cut themselves off from everything innovative and exciting in the comics industry—as Chris Butcher wrote in his own essay which referenced mine:
Basically, the gates are down. There are smart publishers, and they aren’t turning down projects by rote anymore. Projects with queer characters, for girls, for women, for kids, for people of colour. And where there aren’t publishers, there are now distribution systems for creators to put their work directly in the hands of readers. If your sole desire is to write/draw Spider-Man or Superman (or god help you Batgirl) then, yeah, the gates are tighter than ever. They probably aren’t going to loosen, either. But if your goal is to do comics, and tell stories that reach people, then that’s at least possible now. There is an industry now, where there wasn’t 10 years ago.
Outside, there’s a riot going on. But inside the superhero industry, where the mandate is to be an idea factories for film studios, it’s a one way highway to a man-cave. If present trends continue, eventually the Big Two will be about as creatively innovative as all those licensed Princess storybooks that Disney puts out.
And I’ll get into that more in a little bit…
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.