Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
I had a whole other post written for today that had nothing to do with Power Girl’s boob window, I swear. Because even though the Power Girl/Jen Van Meter controversy has been stirring up the web everywhere from Esther Inglis-Arkell’s column at 4th Letter (where it originated) to sister CBR blog Robot 6 to somewhat remote locations like Jezebel I had decided to skip talking about it since the controversy seemed to be drawing to a close. However, the developments over the holiday weekend, namely Jen Van Meter showing up to comment on the discussion, really elevated this controversy to something I was interested in discussing here – and since this column is about ‘women in comics’ it seemed almost negligent to ignore it.
So here we are – talking about the boob window that just won’t die. For those not already in the know Jen Van Meter (who I should mention I’m generally a fan of) wrote a story called “Spin Cycle” in Justice Society of America’s 80-Page Giant #1 and a page within that section (see below) has Cyclone/Maxine and Power Girl discussing Power Girl’s costume. And it had fans up in arms.
So my problem with this (and I think others have said it better) is that it’s one thing for Power Girl to have a ridiculous antiquated costume – and she does – for even Amanda Conner’s pitch perfect art cannot save it from being ridiculous. It’s a whole other thing for a writer, artist, or DC Editorial to take a time out to reprimand fans (and women fans specifically) for having feelings that aren’t “pre-approved”.
Ironically, I don’t really mind the boob window on its own. It’s ridiculous, but especially considering the way the Power Girl title is currently being written and drawn with a really great sense a humor, I don’t mind it so much, and I find myself liking Peej despite the silliness of her costume. However, I do mind the costume in context. The context that is the boob window AND Supergirl’s skirt AND The Huntress’ bare midriff, AND Black Canary’s fishnets, AND Catwoman’s unzipped leather number AND Poison Ivy’s lack of any clothing that isn’t branches and leaves, AND Star Sapphire’s ridiculousness, and the list just goes on. It’s all of them together…that’s what drives me crazy…I can accept one or two…but all of them together? It’s too much. I start to get tired. It all starts to look the same…and it makes it impossible for me to believe any writer or editor “reasons” for such silly costumes. I start to see it as a massive cover up – ‘er non-cover up and I do believe it sends female fans, feminist fans, and potential fans away in droves.
But this is an argument we’ve all had a million times before, and I’m not sure I have anything revolutionary to add to the discussion. However, where this whole drama became more interesting to me than your average fan criticism about sexist costumes and the fact that we’re supposed to be happy about it, is when Van Meter herself showed up to talk about the story at 4th Letter. Van Meter discussed openly what her intentions were in her story, and part of why she thinks went awry.
Here’s an excerpt of Van Meter’s comment on 4th Letter:
“So one thing led to another, and I found myself wanting Maxine to come upon PG doing something simple, ordinary, humanizing, and when I decided on laundry I started wondering what Maxine would think of Power Girl’s costume. There was nothing externally meta-textual going on for me, but I was indeed thinking that Maxine looks at super-heroics as at least one part theater; she’s got the theater background and knows that–in their world–there’re lots of reasons they’re not all running around in track suits and army/navy surplus. What I had in mind was that in “reading” the costume to this apparition of Power Girl, what Maxine is really doing is explaining to herself some of why she finds Power Girl so intimidating. I’m not pretending to be unaware of the conversations amongst fans and creators about the sexism that seems so deeply embedded in the genre, especially as it focuses on costuming; I am saying that what I was concerning myself with at the time was the notion that similar conversations might/must be ongoing in the world the characters occupy as well. I wish I had caught how the scene could be taken while I was working on the script. I would have done something about it.”
So Van Meter was called out, and I think 4th Letter was right to do so, but in her comment we see that Van Meter is surprised by the fan response in part because the result is so different than her original intention, she apologizes, and also asks us (rightly so I think) to acknowledge that it was not only the writing here that caused the problem, but rather the combination of art and writing together working somewhat to cross purposes – and certainly not for any deliberate evil intention.
And I think Van Meter’s comments bring us around nicely to “the microscope” that I discussed in my first article. An idea that while it’s critical that we have fans speaking out about what they see creators doing wrong, it can also be a crippling way to have to create new work – knowing that every little word and panel is going to be dissected (I have read no less than 10 great articles about this and they all focus primarily on one panel). I can easily see how Van Meter, having one set of intentions clearly in her mind, handed in her script and didn’t really give it another thought. After this incident I suspect she’ll be a little more aware and careful, and I hope she doesn’t find that awareness paralyzing as I think negative attention can sometimes be.
But it’s hard to feel too worried about that because I’m just so excited to see the system actually working. To see that criticism and blogs and news sites can actually make a difference is awesome to behold. And I think it has to do with more than just Van Meter being an intelligent, rational, engaged writer (although that’s certainly part of it) it also has to do with the level of criticism she received on 4th Letter from Inglis-Arkell, who although writing sharply and passionately, still kept things professional. Van Meter acknowledged that herself when she commented the following day:
“I have to admit, I debated engaging the conversation for quite a while once I’d become aware of it. I’m usually pretty thick skinned, as comic writers must be, about negative reviews. We can’t please everyone, we know it, and writing for a living means getting called a hack on occasion. This is the first time, though, that I’m aware of my feminist cred being on the line because of something I’ve written, and I’m pretty uncomfortable with some of what’s come of all this elsewhere–people who clearly know nothing about me saying some pretty hateful, personal things. The tone of your initial post, while angry, was intelligent, precise, well-argued and reasonable; that’s what made it possible for me to post here, and I thank you for that.”
So this, to me, is “the microscope” doing what it’s supposed to be doing. It’s not here solely to whip fans into a frenzy and to get them to hurl insults at each other and creators, it’s here to get creators to see what influence they’re having on their medium – positive and negative. And when the system is really working like it is here – creators and fans learn something and move forward together more informed and better for it. This whole dramatic controversy and Van Meter’s measured response is the success I think of good blogs at work and it’s quite frankly refreshing, because though giants like Marvel and DC may never “get it” or just not care, I feel confident that Van Meter does. And I think that’s how you change this industry – slowly and from the inside – with fans that speak up about what’s not working and writers, artists, and creators that hear them and get it, and pay more attention next time. And so that feels like a win for the little guy – that feels like constructive criticism actually piercing the veil and bringing about change.
So, here’s to breaking through walls – whether they be seemingly unimportant – like Power Girl’s boob window – or not.
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