The fairness doctrine

September 7, 2007

So I’m reading Greg Rucka’s take on the whole “Characters from Underrepresented Groups Are Tragedy Magnets” discussion, and looking at the “Bad things happen to straight white men, too” argument. And that’s fair enough. I mean, you only have to look through just about any given run of Spider-Man or Daredevil to see a rich tapestry of misery and misfortune, and it’s by design. They’re underdogs, and part of the pitch is that their lives suck but they keep trying.

On the other hand, this argument jumped out at me, and not in a good way:

“We live in a world where women are treated worse than men — where they are abused and attacked and degraded on the basis of their gender alone. It’s wrong, and it’s vile, and it’s evil, but it’s the truth, and refusing to recognize the same in fiction leads to dishonest fiction, and that’s bad writing.”

I think I prefer the “I’m ladling out abuse with a blindfold on” position to the “Not reflecting grim societal realities in my escapist power fantasies is irresponsible” gambit. Super-heroic fantasy is at least partly about portraying a better world than the one we live in. There are lots of societal trends, positive and negative, that aren’t proportionately represented in comics, and arguing that you’re just being honest by folding in some of the fouler ones strikes me as specious.

And this:

“It’s the same thing here again — this double-standard that says female characters should be allowed only highs, and not lows; that they should be spared harm, and treated with kid gloves.”

Okay, this might carry some weight if there was a litany of highs in the canon that someone could point to – moments of triumph or achievement for women and gays and characters of color. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I read super-hero comics with any regularity, so I might not be cognizant of a recent spate of success stories for characters in this category, but I’m guessing that trend hasn’t exactly blossomed during my period of inattentiveness. (Maybe I should count Black Canary’s “Wedding Planner”? It’s every woman’s dream, isn’t it, to marry the old man who cheated on you over and over again? You’ve come a long way, baby!)

A few legitimate success stories for these characters might not be such a bad idea. The grim bits might be less glaring if they were balanced by some victories that the minority characters owned. People might not care so much that Northstar dies over and over again and gets brainwashed by villains if he affected his own escape from those grim circumstances. If, instead of being a sexual help-maiden allowing a straight, white male super-hero to overcome his bitterness, the Scarlet Witch got her act together and reclaimed her heroic nature. If, instead of being supporting character cannon fodder or prisoners of misfortune, these characters got to save the day and feel good about it.

There’s a difference between survival and triumph, and it seems to me like the two things are being disproportionately portioned out to a certain class of character. Part of that is the difference between an A-list character and those who are further down the alphabet, obviously, but the A-list might become larger and more diverse and more interesting if everyone else got a chance to be victorious.