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CSBG Archive

She Has No Head! – Context, She Is King

One of the first posts I ever wrote for CSBG was all about context, and specifically, how truedetectiveMarvel’s context was showing when it came to their portrayal of women. Since then I’ve frequently talked about context, but never entirely devoted a post to it again. New Yorker writer Emily Nussbaum’s harsh take on critical darling True Detective a few weeks ago though had me thinking a lot about that context post, and about how much context shapes how we process things.

I loved True Detective (though I’ll agree they did not stick the landing in the finale) and I didn’t agree with all of Nussbaum’s points but I couldn’t get away from the value of her argument, less because I related to it from a television perspective and more because I couldn’t help but see the relation from a comics perspective.

Nussbaum reviews television, so she sees a whole lot more of it than I do, and thus she’s better positioned to say whether she’s seeing a lot of stuff that’s trending this same way (specifically sexist/misogynist material). In her piece she references a whole bunch of shows (Boardwalk Empire, Ray Donovan, House of Lies) that have the same sexist vibe as True Detective — and none of them are shows I’m watching. Am I not watching them because they DO feel a little bit sexist to me from the limited bits I’ve seen of them and/or the way they appear in marketing and previews? I think this is probably true. And Nussbaum doesn’t have that luxury; she has to watch a whole lot of stuff in order to be able to talk intelligently about not just one show, but the television landscape as a whole. And the same is true for me of comics.

At the end of the day context can so easily kill something for me.

It’s not as hard at this particular moment in time for me as it used to be to read a really good comic that might also feel a little sexist because I honestly have a lot to choose from. So I’m able to compartmentalize the perspective in that particular piece and see it simply for what it is — one take. And it if it happens to be particularly well done then accepting it for what it is is easier in this current comics landscape. Sure, there are still infinite steps to do before our work in diversity and positivity is “done” in large part because though we’ve seen a lot of positive change, it’s hard to tell how lasting any of it will be. But when I read a book today that is maybe not so female positive or is outright sexist, I can also point to (and read) dozens of books that are female positive and feel progressive and positive as a contrast. So that context, of having a lot to choose from, makes it easier to both understand and even enjoy a book that may have a sexist point of view, so long as it’s done well and has value.

True Detective wasn’t an ensemble piece, it was a story about two men. They were detectives but they were men first and foremost, and their maleness (for a whole bunch of reasons) was a key part of what made them who they were. They came with flawed and damaged selves and world views and the show reflected this with painstaking accuracy. The way they treated women and the way that women were perceived through their eyes (and thus relayed to the viewers) felt accurate to me. Not every show is about women, not every show should be about women. And not every show should be about women being portrayed in a positive light. That would be boring and unrealistic, small-minded and limiting.

To be honest, a strong and layered female character tossed into True Detective would have thrown off the balance of the whole piece. Sure I would have liked to see the same exact story told through the eyes of a female character as it would be fascinating, but it would no longer be the same story in any way shape or form. This was about Rust and Marty, and it had a clear and cohesive vision on that front. What’s fascinating about good character pieces is the way in which we are shown their world, and True Detective was a great example of that. It’s true in comics as well. Before critiquing a work for being sexist or even something not female positive it’s important to think about whether it should be in the first place. Not everything should be or that would indeed be a narrow (and unrealistic) world view indeed.

However, it’s easy to see and understand Nussbaum’s frustration when you are pummeled constantly with works that take a similar world view and leave little room for other viewpoints. And because I live in the world of comics I can easily sympathize with Nussbaum’s discontent. I’m not there RIGHT now because things are looking up for ladies in comics, but man have I been there…and I may well be there again (I mean what the hell are these bombshell variant covers about…jesus).

The only way to change a system is to keep hammering away at it. Simultaneously raising up good work and those that do good work, speaking out and drawing attention to problems you see, and encouraging diversity in your stories. Those are all, still, in my opinion, the best way to get all the best stories.

Cover-VSSomething that often gets suggested or misunderstood about my personal point of view, since this column is about “women in comics,” is the idea that I only want female positive books, or that I only want books that feature women in certain positive roles. And that’s not the case at all. I’m interested in all kind of stories, I just don’t always talk about them here since this column is, as stated, about “women in comics.” I embrace and enjoy plenty of stories (and creators) that many assume I would hate, but I strongly believe that artists and writers are best not hemmed in and restrained as limitations to creativity do not create the best work. Conversely, it’s only when the landscape of a medium is more balanced and inclusive that there’s the freedom to explore more controversial material and judge it solely on its merits. It’s easier to embrace and love True Detective for what it is if the field around it is also not desperate for strong female positive work, the same way that in comics it would have been easier for me to accept something like Marvel Divas from five years ago had Marvel’s field been filled with other female positive work to choose from like it is/is poised to be today (Black Widow, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, X-Men, etc.).

But it wasn’t. It wasn’t and it made me righteously angry and it eventually lead me here…to this column, where I regularly try to support the good work, support the good creators, and draw attention to the problems I see. It’s been exhausting but also rewarding and I do honestly feel excited about where we are, where we’re headed.

18 Comments

I’m not normally the kind of person who leaves comments to people I don’t know in person, so I don’t know how much this is going to mean to you. I wanted to tell you that I follow your articles every week, and they mean a lot to me. You’re part of the reason I am felt inspired to start my own blog, start writing my own comics and self-publish them, and have the gall to try to get up and do a panel at ECCC 2014 (Women: Comically Portrayed). First I feel like I should say that I’m a white man in my mid-30’s with a family and a love for comics. It took having a daughter for me to realize how incredibly sexist the comics industry is, as well as our culture as a whole. Obviously I want what’s best for her, and I started paying attention to what you and several other women had to say about the comics industry. Then last year, Todd McFarlane insinuated that comics weren’t for women, Mark Millar equated rape in his comics to not different than decapitation, and the whole thing about Brian Wood being a two-faced sexist at heart came to light on the internet. I was incensed. I thought about these white men in power using white male privilege to disregard, denigrate and invalidate the concerns of women (which btw SHOULD be all of our concerns), and I looked at my 3 year old daughter… and I was furious. Why isn’t everyone as incensed as I am, I thought. Don’t they have daughters, sisters and mothers, as I do? So I decided, I would try to write my own comics with egalitarianism in mind as the goal. Then I decided that wasn’t going to be enough. I decided I wanted characters my daughter could relate to. Then I decided I needed to do more… I now feel compelled to speak up at a panel at ECCC. I now believe it’s important for EVERYONE to stand up to sexism, and I am continually shocked by how few white men are unwilling to do this. In fact I find that there seems to be SO much resistance that other men will say things like, “do you wish you were a woman or something? What’s wrong with you?” This is in no way comparable to the load of sexist BS that many women have to undergo every single day, but it has been eye opening to me, and every day I feel more emboldened to try to do what I can to help change this. My particular focus is in comics, although I realize this is a much larger deep seeded issue. Anyway, I’ve rambled enough. I guess I just wanted you to know that your blog and articles mean a lot to me, and I read them every week. I genuinely hope there is a positive future for egalitarianism in comics and I’m going to keep trying to do my part to create, write, and discuss ways in which we can all keep working to push the industry toward evolving into something positive. I also want to say, thank you. You’re one of several people who inspire me to be a better person.

-Walter of Corvid Comics

It seems your thinking and mine mirror each other here. I’ve heard criticisms about the show due to its shallow portrayal or religion and even the parts of Louisiana it was filmed in. All I can say is to spend time with side characters would’ve taken away from the two main characters, and this is a show that is ALL about those two characters. I’d wait several seasons before making any outright sexist claims about the creators, when we’ve had a chance to see their worldview play out over more episodes. Their comment about next year’s detectives being women is promising.

I’m with you, as well, in terms of it all being about context. The problem isn’t with True Detective; it’s with TV in general. I should say the problem is with high quality shows like that one. There are lots of female detectives on CBS, solving crimes every day. When you move into the cable shows, though, it’s still primarily white and male. It doesn’t mean shows like True Detective or Justified are bad because of it, and it’s not their fault. Their creators have a clear, compelling vision and should be lauded for it. There should be room for more perspectives, though. That’s on the heads of the executives. For a really evenhanded approach, check out this article:
http://time.com/14455/true-detective-hbo-and-nudity/

No piece of fiction can be all things to all people. It’s futile to even try.

I do understand the frustration people feel when there is a prolongued lack of positive representation of certain groups. However, just because one specific show don’t have strong female characters isn’t sufficient reason to call it sexist.

Also, sometimes people don’t “see” feminism, except if it’s obvious, and they confuse portrayal with approval. I know of people who disavowed THE SOPRANOS because there are some female characters who are basically sex toys, and in one instance one of them is murdered. But does anyone actually think the creators of THE SOPRANOS approved of the Mafia and their sexist, racist, homophobic worldview?

Actually, THE SOPRANOS was a great deconstruction of a certain kind of traditional masculinity. But some people seem to believe François Truffaut, that to depict something in detail is the same as advocating it. Maybe the problem is in the audience. Anyone watching THE SOPRANOS and MAD MEN and seriously thinking “I want to be one of those guys” is probably beyond the reach of any feminist message.

Forget continuously hammering away–it should be JACKHAMMERING away.

TRUE DETECTIVE reminds me of nothing so much as WATCHMEN. Like the graphic novel, the HBO series uses pulpy material as jumping off point for a character study wrapped inside a murder mystery. Also like the graphic novel, the one area of the pulpy material that the author doesn’t seem to to have given a lot of thought is its depiction of women. Finally, both are so good at everything else they are doing that I am inclined to give them what may be an unearned pass on gender.

My feelings are TRUE DETECTIVE are complicated by its use of the archtypes (wife, mistress, sex worker) that seem to turn up on a lot of post-SOPRANOS quality TV. It really feels like the use of those types at this point demands some careful thought before they are employed.

Totally random but I thought of Kelly when I saw it, I am guessing Marvel is taking a step backwards with the cover for UNCANNY X-MEN #19.NOW.

My take was the misogynism was kind of a point in the series. At least my view was upon seeing those scenes (especially Marty’s home life) was that the show was portraying that as characters flaws. It seemed to me that the show was intentionally pointing to these as bad things. That said I also have not seen any of those other shows you mentioned as well. Supposedly if it wasn’t in jest, a season 2 would feature female leads which I think would help.

I will recommend Broad City. That show is pretty awesome.

Personally, I felt like True Detective was almost a sister series to Top Of The Lake (which of course had a female protagonist). Both series dealt with a tangled web of small-town corruption and child abuse; both had cathartic deaths of the alleged villains who turned out to not be the final villain anyways. I guess what I want to say is that True Detective is my second-favorite series of the year, after Top of the Lake which was much more nuanced and after watching, it felt like life was a flat sphere.

“…it would have been easier for me to accept something like Marvel Divas from five years ago had Marvel’s field been filled with other female positive work to choose from like it is/is poised to be today (Black Widow, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, X-Men, etc.).

But it wasn’t. It wasn’t and it made me righteously angry and it eventually lead me here…to this column, where I regularly try to support the good work, support the good creators, and draw attention to the problems I see.”

And now your latest column goes back to the beginning of your writings here. It’s like time is going in a circle…

Also: J. Scott Campbell. How did he ever get so popular? The artistry on the Divas cover is as poorly executed as the content.

Ooooh, I did a Google search for “UNCANNY X-MEN #19.NOW” after reading Nicole’s reply. So, um, I guess one of those blonds with her goodies hanging out is Magik, and the other is, hmm, Emma Frost, I guess, since she’s A) blonde and B) hanging out with Cyclops. Honestly, the only way you can tell the two women apart is that one is slightly shorter than the other and has a slightly different costume.

Yeah, not a good cover. But I’m sure whoever drew it will probably get plenty of $$$ when they sell the original artwork, though. To heck with coherence and taste; it all goes out the window in favor of the money shot… pun intended.

As @Kelly knows, I have been in @Walter ‘s described position for sometime, with Kelly and other women’s help I have, become clearer on these issues, which have always bothered me, but have not always been clear in my own understanding.

@Ben , Top of the Lake has been my favorite example of female led stories since seeing it last year. Incredible work. However, as @renenarciso said, “No piece of fiction can be all things to all people. It’s futile to even try.”

We don’t need (want) copies of success, as much as we need (want) the diversity balanced by equality, Kelly speaks of. I don’t think we are just signaling diversity of gender, ethnicity or sexuality. It is also a diversity of approach to the techniques in storytelling and the short of stories we tell. If we push the market by rewarding innovation and risk in storytelling approaches and consume stories that represent not only what we already identify with, but stories that are foreign to us, we will be rewarded with knowledge, community and the excitement of seeing something new.

For sometime, maybe it has been the fatigue of fighting for equality, I have bristled not just at works I interpret as exploitative (not in a cool 70′s way), but also at those who call out a piece of work that I see as quality and true to the story and it’s characters. The thing is, they happen to be made at a time when we struggle with equality and they depict those who still hold the power. Even if the work is realistic in showing the flaws of these people. Like, Kelly, I saw the same piece she is reacting to and wondered about it in a similar light. I just watched the first episode of True Detective,with my wife, last night, because we havea couple we are good friends with and love the show. Now, my wife, Erin, is a pretty good gage of BS and of wether a story is sexist of not. She is a women…so she would know. I like Boardwalk and Lillehammer. She doesn’t. Sexist (still fine shows, but still sexist). We both like Dexter, Orange is the New Black and Girls (not sexist). Breaking Bad was a tough call for her; she liked it, but would not rave about it. Dexter…she loved. All kinds of acts and manipulations that cause horrible damage to the characters happen on these shows (Top of the Lake…yikes). So far…one episode…Erin loves it.

Many comics are the same way. However, as Kelly points out, “context,” is the key. Kelly and I both LOVE the Venture Bro. Context makes that possible. We both like Love & Rockets…Context.

So I think the context is working for both of us so far for True Detective. It is absolutely pathetic that even with Comics positive trajectory and I think film/TV’s (I don’t make films…so…) that we are still saddled with so much work that is just not quality and contributes to a deleted and eroded culture of inequality. Setting up perfectly fine shows, if not brilliant, for attack. All things being equal, True Detective could be perfect. But things are not equal.

I agree that diversity is always a good thing, Ben. I was never one of those guys that only enjoys a story if the protagonist happens to be just like me. But, to be honest, I may be much less engaged than you, when it comes to fiction. In real life, I hate sexism. But when it comes to fictional depictions… There are writers that may disturb me, like D. H. Lawrence, but I’m more liable to justify it as “Well, that is his viewpoint, not mine” and keep reading the book, if it’s interesting. At some level, aesthetics trumps morality for me, even with a proto-fascist like Lawrence.

But I am more aware now than I used to be. Being married will do that to you. I like to read aloud for my wife, and she does the same for me. I was reading the first few volumes of the Wild Cards novels to her. I always loved that series. She liked them too, but was quick to point out the sexism. No, not the many female characters that are killed off to provide tragery for the protagonists, she took that in stride as something that just happens a lot with supporting characters in stories, regardless of gender.

But she pointed out how almost all the female characters were “pretty girls”, while the males were much more varied in appearance. Something that I barely realized before, so used I am to pretty much all the female characters in genre fiction being beautiful.

I assume Nicole meant the variant cover for Uncanny XMen 019.now
the regular cover is unusual with Magick upside down so only her head and sword are visible at the top of the page (But at least she HAS a head)
..of course Emma is showing too much cleavage (which is her norm)

” I embrace and enjoy plenty of stories (and creators) that many assume I would hate, but I strongly believe that artists and writers are best not hemmed in and restrained as limitations to creativity do not create the best work.”

Will you cite a particular original comics-work which might be construed as “not-female-positive,” but which you find to be ameliorated by “context?”

@Watler: Thank you so much for your comment – I’m sorry I am so delinquent in responding. Things have been crazy for me lately and it took a while for me to circle back around. But seriously, thank you, it means the world to hear something like that and I really appreciate you sharing it.

@Ben; You too! :)

@gene phillips:

For starters, I don’t know that ameliorated is the right word…but I’ll try.

For example, if you put a couple of the Marvel stories (and “big bad girl villains”) from the piece I linked to above in the current Marvel world – one where we have Captain Marvel, X-Men (all ladies all the time), Ms. Marvel, Black Widow, She-Hulk, and a forthcoming Elektra book as well as a selection of other really female positive books (Hawkeye is regularly a fantastic book about Kate Bishop, stuff like that) then it’s harder to complain about those particular “big bad female villains/stories” – it no longer looks like an agenda so much as just a story with some bad guys that happen to be female. So that’s how the context changes how I view something…but that’s not exactly what you’re looking for (I think) so I’ll try again…

Oh. Okay, I hated the developments over in Rick Remender’s Uncanny Avengers (SPOILER EVERYONE) where he killed off Scarlet Witch and Rogue, in absolutely brutal fashion, and also managed to at the same time cull a big and important team’s roster from 3 women to 1 woman in one fell swoop, AND it performed absolute character assassination on one of the characters (Rogue). In a different Marvel universe I probably would have written a big post about that book and how disturbing it was (like the Context post I wrote about Marvel years ago, linked above) but in the CURRENT Marvel universe, that story choice doesn’t feel like a sexist or potentially misogynistic mission statement or agenda or anything, it just seems like what one writer wanted to do with a particular story and characters. And since things are generally well-rounded, more diverse, and I see an effort being made for inclusion in the books that surround that one book, it’s okay if I don’t like it, it still doesn’t reek of conspiracy in the current landscape/context.

That’s not a perfect example because you’re looking for a book that I like/love and/or a story I approve of/enjoy despite being “not-female-positive”…but it’s honestly hard to come up with an example like that in the current landscape. In Marvel’s case, I’m reading a lot of their books, but most of them have at least some positive female characters/stories – enough that I can’t call it “not-female-positive” – I’m sure there are books that would fit this requirement, but I’m just not reading them – perhaps because there are so many good books out there with female characters that it’s not necessary for me to read them – which is a great thing.

It’s a similar story with “Indie” publishers.

DC has kind of the reverse issue right now. There are a few books there that I love/adore and that are not wildly “female positive” but I would never call “female negative” but I’m reading very little DC these days because they’ve created a landscape I find outright hostile to female characters and readers…so context is not in their favor these days.

@ Kelly Thompson:

Oh. Okay, I hated the developments over in Rick Remender’s Uncanny Avengers (SPOILER EVERYONE) where he killed off Scarlet Witch and Rogue, in absolutely brutal fashion …

Sweet baby Jebus … really? How did I miss THAT?

Good for you in sticking to your context guns, but … wow. Those are two of the top ten ladies of the Marvel U.

@Dean Hacker

I’m sure it’s not going to hold. They were EXTRAORDINARILY brutal deaths (especially Rogue’s) but there was magical Scarlet Witch-y shenanigans afoot so I’m sure there’s some pre-planned exit strategy.

Still, fuck that book. ;)

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