Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Sue Storm Syndrome

I am a huge comic book fan, which you probably know already if you've been reading this blog or know me in person. Superhero comics especially are near and dear to my heart, which can be rough sometimes because of how terribly female characters and creators are often treated in this industry. There is a lot of excellent discussion online about these problems already. Gail Simone has been documenting the phenomenon of 'Women in Refrigerators' for years, which is basically a huge trend of female characters being severely injured, killed or de-powered in order to give a male character a better story or some personal drama to draw on for inspiration and angst. Then there is the infamous 'brokeback pose', where a female comic book character is arranged in an anatomically impossible fashion in order to show off her tits and ass simultaneously. This one is all over the place.

Female fans of comic books see this so often we almost don't notice it anymore. We love these characters and these stories so much, the fact that all women are drawn as supermodels who routinely show off their assets while fighting crime just seems like part of the medium. We would all be much happier if the women were well-rounded, actual people we could relate to, but men are still seen as the default audience for comics and changing that is an extremely slow process. Frankly, sometimes it feels like we are moving backwards in that regard. Pay attention, comic book creators: the absolute easiest way to alienate your female readers is to take a character women love and actually relate to and turn her into a male sexual fantasy. I almost quit DC entirely over the Catwoman and Starfire reboots. Seriously, fuck you guys for that. I love those characters with all of my heart, thanks to Batman TAS and the Teen Titans cartoon, and you took them and told me, in no uncertain terms, that these characters are no longer for me to enjoy. They are there for men to fantasize about. Not to say there is no place for cheesecake in comics, but please don't drag the few characters we can actually relate to down that path. If I want cheesecake I'll read Tarot.

Which brings me to the biggest problem, at least as far as I'm concerned, with female comic book characters: they are often terribly written. A big part of this is the fact that there are so few female comic book creators, especially in the Big Two (DC and Marvel). A lot of positive stuff is being done to change that, but the status quo isn't going to change on its own, guys. That's why it's the status quo.

Seriously, though. Female characters in comic books are often shallow, one-dimensional characters that are unnecessarily sexualized and fall right into line with female stereotypes. Not always, certainly, but often enough that it drives me crazy. Like I said, I can accept the sexy art as a stylistic aspect of the medium...but when the characters make stupid decisions or act like walking stereotypes or don't seem to understand how to use their superpowers? When the women are constantly second-stringers or lackeys? When they are deployed defensively while the men take the offensive even when the ladies could be way more effective if only someone would write them that way?

To illustrate this, I'm going to share with you one of my biggest comic book pet peeves: Sue Storm. I have a soft spot for the Fantastic Four (even though Reed Richards is a dick who thinks he knows what's best for everyone, cause Civil War and shipping the Hulk into space worked out so well you arrogant prick). It was literally my first exposure to superheroes when I was a kid. Whenever I would visit my grandmother (who actually had cable, wow!) I would spend the whole day watching Cartoon Network, back when they basically just aired old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. But occasionally they would show me something amazing: The Fantastic Four, Space Ghost, Birdman, the Justice Friends, Thundarr the Barbarian...those guys were the coolest thing EVAR. My love for animation and superheroes springs pretty much directly from the time spent watching those old cartoons, and basically determined that for the next ten years or so my life would be scheduled around not missing a single episode of Batman TAS, Spider-man, X-men...anything that was animated and had superheroes in it, basically.

The Fantastic Four cartoon was a favorite of mine, and Sue Storm was the only female so of course she was my favorite character. It didn't take much more than that when I was a little girl. There was usually only one female character in any given cartoon, so of course that one was your favorite. Sue also had really cool powers: she could turn invisible and create force fields. How cool is that?!? She could do anything! Though, all she ever seems to do is hide and put up a shield to protect the boys while they go clobber everything. Really. That's it. And that's all she ever did, in every incarnation of the Fantastic Four I encountered for most of my life. The 1960s cartoon, which introduced me to the characters. The 1990s cartoon, which I had to tweak my little black and white TV just right in order to watch on Saturday mornings. My early encounters with the comics. In fact, the first time I saw Sue's powers being used effectively was when her and Johnny had temporarily switched powers while he was running around the galaxy as the Herald of Galactus for a while. Because I guess it takes a guy to figure out that you can pop a force field up around someone's head to smother them or around their heart to make sure they know who is boss or any number of creative uses for the unbreakable force fields you can generate at will with your frakkin mind. Argh!

So yeah, it's a sensitive subject for me. So is the fact that Zatanna is consistently a second stringer, even though she can do literally anything just by speaking. Or that Power Girl and Supergirl, while as powerful if not more so than Superman, are always the backup or only called in for emergencies or whatever the fuck. Thank all that is awesome for Gail Simone, or Black Canary never would have been anything more than a love interest for Ollie...despite being twenty times more powerful than him. Miss Marvel, even when she is running the fucking Avengers, still has to take shit from Tony Stark. Wasp spent most of her career as a love interest and foil for Ant Man, despite being at least equal to him in power and definitely surpassing him in common sense. Oh yeah, and he was abusing her somehow despite the fact that she can shoot lasers

There are a lot of really annoying stereotypes about women that are perpetuated in comic books. Maybe this is because a lot of these stories and characters were created back when sexism was the norm and change is hard? Poor comic book industry. Time to grow up, if you really do want to have women like me buying your comics. It is just plain frustrating to see crap like this so often: Women are best suited to supportive roles. Women aren't as violent or aggressive as men. Female characters are only developed or interesting based on their relationship to other male characters. Stories about women have to be about uniquely 'female' challenges, like romance or motherhood or domestic abuse or rape or 'making it in a man's world'...cause how else can you possibly write characters that women can relate to?

How about by not being a terrible, lazy-ass writer and creating awesome characters that just happen to also be women? Yeah, I revelation. Now get on that shit. I want more comics like Birds of Prey and Worlds' Finest so I can give you more of my goddamn money. And if you do what you did to Catwoman to anyone else I love I will cut you.

Things are getting better. I don't want to only talk about the things that are wrong with superheroes. The most recent cartoon, Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes actually had Sue progress in power level considerably as the series went on. She even went head to head with the Hulk and popped a force field around his head, just like I would have done. She was also a total airhead who, being the woman, was constantly nagging and mothering the rest of the team...but I'll take what I can get. I just wish I didn't have to say that so often.

For awesome superhero comics with amazing female characters that earn your respect rather than your facepalms, check these out. Or, you know, borrow them from me.

Birds of Prey (or really anything by Gail Simone)
Batwoman (especially while Amy Reeder was illustrating, because zomg pretty!)
The Authority ( Both versions honestly, though for now I still like Warren Ellis' version best, because duh it's Warren Ellis.)
Wonder Woman: League of One (Wonder Woman can be hit or miss in terms of awesomeness, but this one is a hit, especially with the amazing art, and great as a standalone.)
Astonishing X-Men (Joss Whedon's entire run on this series is awesome, and definitely features his characteristically outstanding treatment of female characters.)
X-Factor and X-Force (What can I say? About half of your average X-team is made up of extremely powerful women. The odds are at least some of them wont be idiots or walking stereotypes.)

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