I’ve grown up reading comics. One of my earliest memories takes place in a hotel restaurant in Saskatoon with parents, siblings and grandparents. We’re eating breakfast at a movie themed place that goes by the name of Oscar’s and I couldn’t have been older than seven. Earlier that weekend we must have visited a comic store, an enormous treat for a bunch of kids from a small town, and my mom must have bought us a couple of comics to share. One of those comics was an issue of Guardians of the Galaxy and like any four-coloured flight of fancy I absolutely loved it. I loved Yondu, the blue-skinned, red-mohawked, one-handed bad-ass archer. I loved Martinex, the chrystiline genius genetically engineered to survive under even the harshest environmental conditions. I thought Charlie-27 was kind of stupid but Starhawk was awesome and he totally made up for that. I loved those characters and I loved that comic and I probably read it until it was ragged and dog-eared. But it’s not those characters who shape my memory in that restaurant. Those characters are all men. It was a woman who really made the impact.
There was a woman on the team, I can’t remember her name, Google tells me that it’s Aleta, but that blank space where her identity should be is kind of the point. Aleta wore a gold and black jumpsuit with a v-neck that went well below her navel and in the back of that issue there was an illustrated pin-up of her posing in her jumpsuit, her arms raised and breasts showcased like some sort of blond science-fiction Bettie Page. I liked that image very much and stared at it for some time. My mom saw that. She was not pleased.
It wasn’t a long conversation and she didn’t oversteer by tearing the comic from my hands but she made sure that I knew that women didn’t look like that or behave in that manner. She took the time to realign my burgeoning perception of gender according to the lines of reality. She took the time to teach me that women deserve to be treated as equals and that sexism –even though she never called it that- should never be tolerated or seen as acceptable. I’ve never forgotten that conversation, it’s become a part of me and it quietly reaches forward into my frontal lobes every time I see something like this:
The facts are these: Comics is a sexist industry and the women of fandom are getting tired of it. There are five major comics publishers in North America (Marvel, DC, Image, IDW and Dark Horse) and not a single one of them has ever had a woman at the helm. Market data that shows young women as a growing market interested in spending their consumer dollars on products that present a diverse and respectful portrait of women as a gender is ignored in favour of data that affirms the white, hetero-sexual and aging status-quo. It took 73 years for a female artist to be invited to draw a single issue of Batman. This is gender discrimination, it is real and it is a serious problem not just for comics as a business but for comics as a culture because the people involved refuse to believe that it is a problem.
On Saturday November 10th 2012 comics commentator Dirk Manning posted this meme on his Facebook page:
It didn’t take long for the culture as a culture to take notice, after all comics fandom is like Canada, a small nation spread across a vast space. That image is offensive and so, unsurprisingly, it offended people. One of those people who the meme offended was Jennifer de Guzman who works as the marketing director for Image Comics. She responded with her own meme and that one looks like this:
Manning defended himself by saying, “I thought the picture represented a funny (and sad) “truism” concerning how some women chose to so blatantly and shamelessly objectify themselves by pandering to what they see as the lowest common denominator of the social hierarchy (“nerds”) in desperate bids for attention. My “sharing” of this picture wasn’t meant as an attack on women — but rather a commentary on the behavior of a very select group of people (men and women alike) who use online venues as methods of perpetuating very negative stereotypes of both women and “nerds” alike.”
De Guzman didn’t like that very much and responded. “You don’t get to call any woman who is not, in fact, trading sexual favors for money, a whore without being out of line. Women in the geek/nerd/whatever community have been fighting against this kind of “goalkeeping” for years. Be aware of what’s going on in your own community. You and other “I’m not that kind of guy” people in this community perpetuate sexism without even being aware that you are.”
Now if you’re still here please hang on for a second because I actually think that this is important and worth your time. I know that it seems very insular and specific to one group but it does apply to a broader scale.
The surprising thing here isn’t that some guy made a public error in judgment. As more and more of our lives take place in public spaces this type of thing is going to become a fact of life. The surprising thing is that he then proceeded to defend his choice, defend himself and find some very vocal support from his community. Actually, this isn’t surprising at all. It happens all the time.
But now let’s relate this to you because you probably don’t read comics and so why should you care? Because you have probably been Dirk Manning. We have all probably been Dirk Manning. As a child I was Dirk Manning in a hotel restaurant and my mom noticed. She stopped me and right then and there entered a little piece of code that reprogrammed my brain. I still make mistakes, think things, accept things and expect things that unfair or biased against a certain group of people but I have that piece of code burning inside my head and more times than not, I hope, it stops me. It saves me.
Laura Hudson is another comics commentator and in the wake of this small industry’s medium-sized controversy she made a couple of comments.
“Listen: nobody thinks they’re racist or sexist. NOBODY. Because people think those words mean “monster,” and no one thinks that they’re a monster. Our culture is infused with racism and sexism, and the only way it changes if we acknowledge that, and constantly check ourselves and others. I still — still! — actively work to deprogram sexist thoughts from my brain. It is [an] ONGOING process for me, and should be for you too.”
And with that she shut off the lights because there was nothing left to say.
Theodore Wiebe is a writer living in Calgary. You can follow more of his important nonsense on Twitter: @TheodoreWiebe
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