Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
DC’s solo, female superhero titles depict women who are firmly focused on emotions, family, home, and sex. These women are so distracted by these things, that they’re barely able to think about their jobs as superheroes. It is disappointing to read so many women characters depicted this way, consistently unprofessional and erratic, and it is hard to imagine a male character ever worrying about any of these things to this level.
Like most people, I was excited about the DC relaunch and since there was a lot of talk about them, I particularly wanted to check out the new solo women comic book titles. In the past, I’ve rarely identified (or even felt comfortable) with the way women have been depicted in comic books, so this seemed like a good opportunity to read a lot further than usual. One of my favorite books is still Elektra: Assassin, and I wanted to see if, in the intervening years, anyone had come up with anything as good.
My first introductions to the women of the New 52 weren’t really my cup of tea, but I soldiered on, since often a first issue might be too filled with introductory exposition to really say much about the actual characters. By the second and third issues I was starting to become irritated at the waste of paper and time. I laughed my ass off at Catwoman, I got bored by apartment hunting with Batgirl, and I was never engaged by Supergirl’s fight with her cousin. DC is being lauded by some for the inclusion in their relaunch of many female-led books, and while I was interested in them initially, it was Wonder Woman who I felt needed it the most. Sadly she is a victim of the same kind of sexism that seems to plague her colleagues as her story descends into tedious family fights.
Despite my best efforts, all of the new female series have left me disappointed and I’m now wondering if it wouldn’t be better to go the Marvel route and not have any titles based around women heroes. It is a sad thing indeed. Perhaps they used the Bechdel test to decide whether they were being sexist. (In case you don’t know, the Bechdel test is from the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and has become a popular, simple test to determine gender bias in movies, TV, books and comic books. In the original strip, one of the characters says that she only watches a movie if it satisfies the following requirements: 1. It has to have at least two women in it, 2. Who talk to each other, 3. About something other than a man.)
This test is a good start, but by this definition, the DC solo female titles are perfectly fine. Believe me, they’re not fine. They ought to have depicted at least one female superhero as professional, focused and intelligent.
At this point I want to amend the rules of the Bechdel Test. I don’t care who a woman talks to, I care what she is talking about and what her actions are. I want to see a woman dealing primarily with events which are work-related and non-emotional. I don’t care if she is talking to a man or a woman, as long as she is talking about her job. I don’t want to hear any more female superheroes whining about their home, incessantly flirting, or arguing with family. I want them to talk about getting their bloody job done, just like male superheroes do for the bulk of their time. Work is stressful, exciting, challenging and it consists of least 40 hours a week for most people. Most importantly, these women are superheroes, not soap stars. Why can’t they focus on their jobs? Surely their jobs are incredibly engaging?
You could argue that Catwoman thinks about her work a lot. Maybe she does, but she does it as an addendum to having no-strings sexual encounters (there are no deep thoughts here.) When she isn’t half naked, she’s humping Batman. No news there. Sex and manipulation is obviously the focus for Catwoman. Being Batman’s fuckbuddy just isn’t enough story content to make me care about her, no matter how pretty her underwear is. They’ve often been depicted as sexually involved, but past writers allowed us to see them working together, building a rapport through mutual respect and enjoyment of the job of being superheroes. Cutting to the chase takes all of the interesting tension out of it.
What about Voodoo, who only thinks about work? But her work is being a stripper / whore / alien spy, so when she isn’t looking hot, she’s shagging random strangers (again, without much depth to her interactions or feelings.) Everyone knows that any random alien spy would do well to look like a woman, since they get all the high paying jobs and responsibility… oh wait, no they don’t. Right, so Voodoo is blatantly another sexually manipulative character.
Then there’s our old friend Batgirl, Barbara Gordon herself, back in the saddle, an experienced adult woman with a ton of work experience, both on and off the field. It ought to be thrilling, but instead she spends at least half the comic book dealing with a roommate and worrying about her insecurities. For a woman of her age and intelligence, she’s too needy and too emotional. Shame she can’t focus on the job because of having so many feelings.
Well, at least Supergirl is super powerful, so that ought to be good, right? It would be if she didn’t simply spend two issues doing nothing but freaking out and fighting her cousin. Apparently, since she’s confused, she decides to lash out and behave like some kind of violent, irrational cliched female. Two whole issues where we discover nothing about her except that she can fight. We knew that already, so she’s all about squabbling with family which is a real waste.
Batwoman is marvelous. The book is an incredible artistic achievement and I applaud the creators. Still, I’m disappointed that there is as much focus as there is on Batwoman’s girlfriend, her mood swings, and her concerns about her sister. It is a good book, definitely DC’s best at the moment, but unfortunately it is yet another book about an emotionally unstable woman.
Finally we’ve got Wonder Woman. Unlike many of DC’s so-called number #1’s about established characters, Wonder Woman truly was a new comic book. With a very new feel and a fantastic new look. Up until issue #3, I was really hoping that this would be the book with a lead female character who focuses on her mission. Issue #1 of the new Wonder Woman was a relief, and while it didn’t really do a great job of introducing the character concept to new readers, it did hint at a whole chorus of Greek mythological characters, waiting to screw with our heroine. Unfortunately, but the end of issue #2, the focus was firmly on Wonder Woman’s relationship with her mother, with issue #3 giving us the full-on showdown between mother and daughter. Are we really expected to read about a grown woman storming off while yelling at her mother?
Apparently DC has a strange, possibly pathological need to depict women as irrational, emotionally unstable (or at best, emotionally detached), indecisive and aggressive. I understand, everyone is like that at some point. Unfortunately, since every solo female superhero book is like this, it makes DC look suspiciously like they secretly harbor a plethora of confusing assumptions about the entire female superhero population. But, try this on for size… I have a suggestion for a workable solution; Write a book about a female character, but tell everyone involved in creating it that it is a man. Get writers and editors who are great at depicting strong, intense, male superheroes. Don’t change the names until the whole thing has been finished, that way the female superhero can focus on being a superhero, she can be assertive and strong without being irrational and upset, she can completely ignore her family, and she can get on with the business of having a job and being a superhero. It would be amazing. I would definitely buy that comic book.
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