Ideals and Identification

October 19th, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

I was thinking today about Diana and Stephanie, the two female characters whose comics I buy.  Diana, Wonder Woman, is perfect.  The embodiment of compassion, strength, honor, bravery, and beauty, she’s a princess and a warrior and an ambassador.  Despite her iconic status, and the fact that she’s had an ongoing comic for the better part of a century, female fan interest in her has only recently heated up – due to Gail Simone’s decision to write her comic.

Stephanie, Spoiler/Robin/Batgirl/Who’sNext?, is decidedly not perfect.  A perpetual screw-up, she’s earned both my and general female fandom’s accolades by picking herself up, dusting herself off, and starting all over again.  It’s possible that her moment of greatest popularity was after her death.

While it’s normal for fans of any gender to decry a comics character’s death while pretty much ignoring their life, I wonder if something extra is at work, here, especially when I think of other media.  Most TV shows and movies about female characters are about the adorable main character trying to get her life together.  She’s clumsy, and awkward, but tries so hard.

And she’s at war, usually, with the ultra-perfect glamazon who is after her job/man/scholarship/position in society/what’s next?  I hate that dynamic because it has always been, in my experience, false.   What’s more, it embraces the values it supposedly abhors.  Whether it favors the popular girl or the outsider (And who are we kidding?  Like any show, book or movie in the last fifty years hasn’t sung the praises of the noble outsider), it still villifies one segment of the population for, basically, having different values, tastes or interests.  Still, I wonder if, no matter how I resist it, it’s at work in me, or at work in many women.

While media that sings the praises of the powerful man (The Sopranos, The Tudors, Kings, etc.), the brilliant man (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, CSI Miami, House, Monk), or simply the eccenric or egotistical man (Dexter, House again, Nip/Tuck) do well, women are always given a heroine they can relate to not one that they feel they have to compete with, and certainly not one they feel they’d lose out to.

Even in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the heroine is usual beset with troubles and struggling, instead of blowing everyone away with her strength and brilliance.  Buffy, the mystical chosen one, is always one step away from getting kicked out of school.  House, the doctor who can’t be assed to restrain his own bad behavior, finds out that his supervisor has budgeted in lawsuit money for the various patients who sue him because he is just that good.

Is this about what’s offered to women?  Is it about what’s taught?  (Tina Fey’s movie, Mean Girls, was hailed as an insightful satire about teenage girls.  It had a group called ‘The Plastics’.  We never had groups like that in my school, but how many movies can you watch before you develop an attitude of ‘it’s us versus them’.)  Is it just my lopsided view of pop-culture?

In the end, girls and women are given many examples of heroines about winning out when odds are against them (just as men are) but relatively few examples of just plain winners.

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6 comments to “Ideals and Identification”

  1. Well said.

    I’m getting pretty tired of the “girl-hero has to prove herself to the (often male) Powers That Be” plot. And with Stephanie, it feels especially tired because she’s had similar stories before. I’m definitely glad the friction between her and Babs seems over for now, but judging from the solicits for the next few issues she’s going to have to “prove herself” to Dick and Damian now too. (Fingers crossed that she gets to one-up Damian somehow!)

    Something I think that gets overlooked with Stephanie is that a lot of her hero-ing “screw-ups” were caused by her trying to follow other people’s orders or trying to live up to their expectations. I can’t help but think if she didn’t let those bat-influences pressure her so much she might not have done so badly.

    Although I do love Batgirl: Year One, the entire book has Barbara feeling like has to prove herself at every turn: to her father, to Batman, to the world. I think the “must prove myself” aspect of her becoming and being Batgirl gets more and more centred on getting approval from Batman with each successive re-telling. That might partly be due to the fact that they made her younger, but IIRC, her very first introduction as Batgirl had her entering in at a level pretty much equal to Batman and Robin.

    (Of course, if that happened today, everyone would jump on it with the “Mary Sue” label, and I’d say the frequency with which that label gets applied to female characters is indicative of just how unusual “just plain winners” are, as you put it.)

    I wonder if the proving oneself aspect that’s common in comics, or the competing with a glamazon thing is a product of the stereotype that women are inherently catty and competitive, that they don’t like other women who are better than them.

  2. @Maddy: I think the proving oneself is part the catty stereotype, but more the way comics readers tend to be hostile to new characters. You have to have a reason for this new person to replace the old.

    Like, apparently Jason Todd was very poorly liked pre-Crisis, because he just usurped Dick’s position in the Bat-clan. Years later, when Tim Drake became Batman, they made a big deal of Dick or Bruce giving him their blessing. The Jason Rusch Firestorm had that whole arc about a year into his series where Ronnie Raymond returned (or something like that), Spider-Girl had to prove herself to her father…

    I think there’s also a dash of just normal adventure stories in there. “Peasant from a village comes to castle, gets insulted, has to prove that he’s just as good as everyone else.”

    What was that, Aladdin? “Street rat!”

    One day Batman is going to be confronted with a new hero in Gotham (“I am The Gothamist!”), look that person up and down, ask a couple questions (“How do you feel about brooding?”), and then just be like, “Okay, cool. Wanna meet here once a week for a team-up?”

    Heads will explode.

  3. “Despite her iconic status, and the fact that she’s had an ongoing comic for the better part of a century, female fan interest in her has only recently heated up – due to Gail Simone’s decision to write her comic.”

    Not to go off topic too much, but do you have a source for that comment? I’ve never heard anything about the female demographic breakdown of a comic (or Wonder Woman in particular), so this is the first I’d heard of any increase in female readership due to a writer. Did DC or Gail come out and say this somewhere? Any link to where I could see other demographic breakdowns on comic sales?

  4. @Kirk Warren: Sorry, I don’t have the numbers. What I’m basing the ‘heat’ on is the sudden huge outbreak of announcements that Wonder Woman was getting a ‘female ongoing writer’ on a number of feminist sites, including Jezebel, Feministing, Feministe, Pandagon and so on. It was how I found out that Gail Simone was on the book. There has also been an increase in blogging about WW since Simone took on Wonder Woman.

  5. I don’t see Buffy and House as all that different–extremely competent at their jobs, and seemingly incompetent outside the workplace. House certainly isn’t a “winner.” Conventional wisdom holds that “winners” make for lousy stories (see every complaint about Superman for the last 50 years.) And the “proving yourself” narrative is more about youth than gender. What stories could be told about teenagers otherwise? Isn’t that why Marvel turned Spiderman back into an adolescent?

  6. Something I think that gets overlooked with Stephanie is that a lot of her hero-ing “screw-ups” were caused by her trying to follow other people’s orders or trying to live up to their expectations. I can’t help but think if she didn’t let those bat-influences pressure her so much she might not have done so badly.

    Actually, this idea is the thing I least like about the character because I don’t see how it’s true at all. Plenty of other characters want to live up to the expectations of more experience heroes and listen to their good advice. It looks to me like her problems stem clearly from her own personality and skill set. Sometimes she follows orders, sometimes she doesn’t. She doesn’t seem to try to live up to other’s expectations so much as want to be a superhero so keep doing it. The problem isn’t that she has to prove herself over and over, it’s that she’s proved herself already, but doesn’t accept what she proved herself to be, so we start again like it’s the first time.

    I don’t hate the character and often find her sympathetic and sometimes think other characters treat her badly, but not nearly as universally and consistently as some people do. I don’t at all like her being held up as some sort of metaphor for the female condition. She just seems like somebody who really wants to do something and continues to do it even though she’s not very good at it and isn’t much bothered by any bad consequences for that for her or anyone else. It makes it sound like the female condition is about lowering the bar to avoid rejection or something. That, it seems to me, is the conflict that comes up everytime the character is discussed. I’m just not sure it always breaks down along gender lines.