The fairness doctrine

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.

27 Responses to The fairness doctrine

  1. gynocrat says:

    And people wonder why I leave women out my fiction. :/ People wonder why some women flock to erotica that has NO WOMEN in it. Actually, I tend to avoid writing about what women do deal with on an everyday basis because I write to escape the ordinary…so I guess we have to ask ourselves, as creators, should we write to help readers escape the ordinary? Do we have to write women in these situations in the most realistic way possible because reality is dim anyway? And I wonder? Will our male villains somehow become less effective and unrealistic by never causing the ‘extreme harm’ to their female victims that can and does happen in reality?

    I got nothing. I was thinking about many things also, after reading his entry–but none of them were from a reader’s standpoint. Perhaps when I tackle it more from a writers perspective, I can figure out how best to serve the paying readership. 😦

  2. Jack says:

    I stopped reading American comics since I moved to CA, but remembering back to the handful of titles I read… I read the stories, was entertained and I didn’t put too much thought into it. My personal opinion is that I save my deep thoughts for stories that don’t involve any people wearing tights or underwear on the outside. Didn’t Frank Miller kill Elektra back in the 80s?

  3. davidpwelsh says:

    Wait… did I just see a MangaCaster through out the “It’s just comics” argument? I… I think I need to lie down.

  4. […] David Welsh, commenting on Greg Rucka’s comments about writing minority […]

  5. Estara says:

    There were a lot of posts on White Privilege posted duing IBARW this year, which made me aware of the term and start thinking about what it means. The quotes you picked out of Rucka’s post remind me of that. White Sexism?

  6. […] David Welsh isn’t convinced by Greg Rucka’s defense of bad things happening to female […]

  7. Vail says:

    Wow what a great post! You’re right, there isn’t lot of highs. Thus the lows are more glaring. I don’t want female characters to be handled with kid gloves, but I do want there to be times when they shine brightly.

  8. Katherine Dacey-Tsuei says:

    I’m amused that a comic writer would invoke verisimilitude as his rationale for allowing bad things to happen to female, homosexual, and minority characters. In any universe where people fight aliens, evil geniuses, or clones while wearing funny costumes and defying the laws of physics (not to mention anatomy), it seems perfectly OK to me to treat powerful characters of both genders and all colors with sensitivity. After all, men are allowed to enjoy the fantasy that the slightly nebbishy Peter Parker not only has a butt-kicking alter ego but a smokin’ babe for a wife. Why not allow the rest of us to enjoy our own versions of the ultimate White Male Privilege Fantasy once in a while?

    If I’m really in the mood for realistic violence directed at society’s less powerful members, I can read Ralph Ellison, Maxine Hong Kingston, or Toni Morrison, thanks.

  9. Lea says:

    The boy sure does have a skewed vision of where the double standard lies.

    That’s the problem with A-listers: Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, they’re all the same, they’re boring. I prefer C-list and D-list characters I can really enjoy, ones that give me an alternate view of the superhero world.

  10. It’s every woman’s dream, isn’t it, to marry the old man who cheated on you over and over again?

    FYI, Ollie cheated on Dinah a grand total of one ONE time. Birds of Prey #109 says as much.

  11. davidpwelsh says:

    Fair enough. I just remembered the break-up issue from years and years ago, and the impression I got from that was that it had happened over and over again, and that this was the last straw.

  12. Micole says:

    Estara, the term is “male privilege”; the male privilege checklist is a resource inspired by the “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” essay you may have seen referenced during IBARW. David’s post usefully and rightfully other examples of institutionalized privilege, such as heterosexual privilege, when citing the kinds of minority characters who are tokenized, disproportionately victimized, misrepresented, or just plain left out of mainstream media–including literature, movies, and comics.

    Teena, I don’t wonder why women like m/m erotica, but I hope it’s not all or always about disliking female characters, or feeling oppressed by the limited options available to women, as I kind of like both women and women characters and also sometimes kind of like erotica that has something resembling my body in it.

    Jack, for some of us it doesn’t actually take deep thought to realize that “people like us” in comics lead miserable lives and die a lot. Not noticing this is an expression of male privilege, by which I don’t mean that you’re a bad person because you’re male, but that you have the privilege and luxury of not noticing oppressions that don’t directly affect you. It’s male privilege because what you’re declaring a form of escapism is actually a form of entrapment for any woman, any person of color, or any gay person who tries to read a comic to escape from deep thought or daily stress and finds themselves reading about a world in which their lives are even worse than they are in the real world — because in the real world they’re more than just a tragedy that happens so straight white men can emote.

    The storytelling conventions of comics aren’t apolitical just because they’re the storytelling conventions you’re used to.

  13. gynocrat says:

    Teena, I don’t wonder why women like m/m erotica, but I hope it’s not all or always about disliking female characters, or feeling oppressed by the limited options available to women, as I kind of like both women and women characters and also sometimes kind of like erotica that has something resembling my body in it.

    I assume this is for me? My name is Tina. ^_^ That aside – I stated quite clearly ‘some women’, and never use the term ALL in order to avoid comments like yours. Also, nowhere did I state I disliked female characters – ever; I wrote those as well, just not in the erotic genre. I still stand by what I did say though, I avoid writing them when I can, because of the arguments that spring up over interpretations on how they should be handled in comics.

    Also, thanks for sharing with me your like of heterosexual erotica, I like it too–hell, I’ve even engaged in heterosexual sex, at least twice. (^_^)d

  14. Also the bad things that happen to the male superheroes seem to involve women in their lives dying or be harmed or something. >.>;;

    And yus! Great point about the power fantasies 😀 Ppl forget that the minorities and women being tortured and harmed aren’t just there as plot devices, they’re SUPERHEROES. The great thing about superhero comics is that every superhero is a main character, they’re not just there to support the “hero” cuz they’re all heroes. 🙂

  15. Micole says:

    Tina: I apologize for misspelling your name.

  16. Jack says:

    Micole — I stopped reading all American comics about this time last year and I’m not a Greg Rucka fan at all and am completely unfamiliar with his work. My motivation to continue my argument is non-existent.

    Here’s a question for you though — what do you suggest then? What type of stories with what type of characters do you recommend? If you agree with DW, then I’m going to counter with — “Those books don’t sell.” It’s the same reason why Japanese manga generally don’t star African Americans, Koreans, Libyans or any other race. Do you at least find hope that with the success of Japanese manga in the US, that essentially the entire book represents a point of view of a minority and more often than American comics — the point of view of a female?

  17. bellatrys says:

    Jack, how can anyone know they “don’t sell” when nobody has ever seriously tried to sell them? It’s like Western Civilization that way. (Half-assed messes like Amazons Attack and unsupported titles like the New!Lesbian!Batwoman are examples of Not Seriously Trying To Sell Them.) The fact OTOH that manga – and webcomics with female stars like “Girl Genius” – do very well indicates that if the Big Two ever did take the effort to do a good job with other-than-Stock-White-Squarejaw main charas, they’d be raking it in – but they’re too afraid of the girl cooties, gay cooties, and cooties of color to even try.

  18. Vail says:

    Actually Koreans have their own manga … I’ve read some but I can’t remember titles off the top of my head. Japanese don’t usually include too many other races in their comics (I think) because Japanese culture isn’t very diverse. They don’t allow a lot of emigration to their country. There are some African Americans in their comics (I know one where the guy is best friends with the main character and is very cool but again I’m terrible at remembering names). But they have a lot of strong female characters for example in Bleach, The Wallflower etc. So really, since America is so diverse, and women have more rights here (they only made birth control pills legal in Japan when Viagra came out for example) that it’s SAD to compare the US comics to Japanese comics.

  19. Jack says:

    bellatrys – My personal opinion is that I disagree. I may not read American comics now but I have come across and bought lots o’ minority-lead character comics and see they usually don’t last long. IMO, if they sold well… we would be seeing plenty of them on the shelves. For example in my collecting days, I bought: Deathlok, New Warriors, Cloak and Dagger, Shadowhawk, and Spawn. I’m pretty sure Micole will chime in saying this is a product of MP serving MP… but let’s see.

    Vail – So you’re agreeing with me that Japanese comics as a imported product showing distinct views from perspectives of another culture by a better ratio of men and women is a valid option over traditional American superhero comics?

  20. Estara says:

    “Estara, the term is “male privilege”; the male privilege checklist is a resource inspired by the “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” essay you may have seen referenced during IBARW.”

    Right, that was the main essay I read and ruminated over. I think I might have read it on your LiveJournal, too. Where did you go? I had you on my read/friends list and the journal is gone. Male Privilege makes much more sense as a name.

  21. gynocrat says:

    Micole: No harm no foul, I figure one good nit-pick deserved another. ^_^

    Jack: There are many comics from Japan serving up women as the main course for murder, death, exploitation, et al. Many-many comics from Japan do this, some of which are licensed here in the US. Trying to say that ‘Superhero” comics does this, and is some how ‘lacking in evolutionary skills’ is sort of silly. The only thing the US is guilty of here is that it doesn’t have an actual genre devoted to women and female comics readers and we don’t have a bounty of titles that depict an equal amount of female-positive depictions to counter-balance the so-called ‘reality’ of ‘gender inequality’ that Rucka seems keen on trying to cater to.

  22. Jack says:

    Tina – So are you saying a possible solution is that the US comic market needs more women and more titles geared towards women to counter balance the male oriented POV? If that’s how you feel then I salute you because you’re a female creator doing your part to solve the “problem”. Here’s a question for you now though: Do you feel the popularity of Japanese manga where female creators create for female readers is essentially a stand-in for the non-existent US genre?

  23. Jack says:

    Tina – So you saying a possible solution is that the US comic market needs more women and more titles geared towards women to counter balance the male oriented POV? If that’s how you feel then I salute you because you’re a female creator doing your part to solve the “problem”. Here’s a question for you now though: Do you feel the popularity of Japanese manga where female creators create for female readers is essentially a stand-in for the non-existent US genre?

  24. gynocrat says:

    If that’s how you feel then I salute you because you’re a female creator doing your part to solve the “problem”.

    Is this you trying to be snarky? ^_^ Is so, you fail–BL comics isn’t my only writing gig, but I digress…

    Tina – So are you saying a possible solution is that the US comic market needs more women and more titles geared towards women to counter balance the male oriented POV?

    I don’t know has that scheme worked in Japan? There are entire lines of comics dedicated to women readers, with women creators–and yet there’s still a wealth of titles that objectify, vilify, and exploit women, in genres typically aimed only at males. In Japan there’s a tad more diversity in what’s considered ‘mature’ markets; just look at seinen for example, it’s got titles that run the gamut of exploitative crap where the women are whores, victims, sluts, or have been raped, or still, have been empowered by a prior violent act or cybernetic interference, or just end up being the object of someone’s issues with mommy. I don’t think having a genre solely devoted ‘to women by women’ has done anything to eliminate the female-exploitive genres in Japan…but the existence of those markets certainly helps tolerate it.

    I guess I wouldn’t care so much about ‘the real dangers women face everyday’ being constantly depicted in my comics, on this notion that ‘reality must rule’ in shitty situations, if there weren’t some equal balance of ‘women enduring bad situations without being raped, killed, or exploited.’ There are incidents in real life to counter balance all the ‘negative realism’, if there weren’t, there wouldn’t be many women in this world, would there?

    Time to shoot this teal deer. There are women out there that haven’t been raped while being carjacked, there are women out there that have had extremely bad relationships that did not involve them being physically abused–and by golly, they walked away from them without being stalked! There are women out there that can empathize with the problems of others–without ever having been victims of said problems… Realism? Okay, there’s just as much good shit out there that happens to women and those good things often have ZERO to do with romance and childbirth; if you can’t write that, then please, stop thinking that ‘keeping it real’ means having to ‘keep it real shitty’ when it comes to women.

  25. gynocrat says:

    LOL! WordPress is being psycho, please disregard post #24 – I hit preview on it to check myself, and it posted…twice.

  26. Jack says:

    Tina – I don’t do snarky. I’m into learning and understanding new ideas.

  27. […] big “what he said” goes for David Welsh’s reaction, which manages to cut through the willful ignorance that typically appears in these discussions […]

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