Women as Victims in Comics, Movies, and Books

June 29th, 2010 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

This is a difficult entry for me to word, because a supposition has been set down by feminists about why women are portrayed as victims, and I don’t disagree with it.  Not one bit.  At the same time, I have some thoughts that I hope will broaden the understanding of why women are the victims in fiction, but that I think could also be used as an excuse.  So I’m trying to make my point clear, without any confusion.

It’s pretty obvious that in fiction, especially in horror or action genre’s, women are sent in to be captured, to scream and be horrified, to look pitiful when they’re being used as a bargaining chip, and in many cases to die.  They’re the victims who wring the most drama from the situation, and they engage the audience’s sympathy more than men do when they’re put in peril.  Some people argue that this decision to endanger women shows that women are considered more valuable than men.  If a guy’s life is on the line, the audience doesn’t care as much.  That argument never worked for me.  If a female character’s most valuable when being a hung over an abyss, female characters aren’t in a good position.  The feminist argument is that women are most often put in the action genre to be prizes and plot points, and because there is something in people that thrills to see women in danger.

Like I said, I don’t disagree with that.

I think, however, that women in danger is compelling because of the way that those women can behave.  Any horror movie trailer will include the blood-curdling shrieks of women.  They’ll scream, cry, beg for their lives.  They’ll whimper when they’re afraid.  They’ll rock back and forth in shock.  They’ll go through a massive range of emotions.

And, more often than not, at the end of that horror movie, the woman will pull herself together, beat the hell out of the villain, and walk away.  (There are exceptions.  Some modern horror movies like to kill off everyone, but they suck.  They do.)

Men in horror movies, or action movies, or comics, or fiction, don’t tend to do the same.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think that actual men in danger would react every bit as emotionally as women do.  No one’s whimper-proof.  It’s just that audiences don’t accept it the same way that they do women.

A woman can be a screaming, quivering wreck and still be tough as nails a few scenes later.  If a man does the same thing, shrieking and begging and going to pieces, its rare that his character is given the same respect, even if he does overcome his weaknesses and become the hero.  Women are given the full range of human emotion.  Men are tough guy stereotypes.  It’s no wonder that women in peril are more interesting to watch.

I’ve always thought that what modern men need most is a ‘women’s movement’ of their own.  The women’s movement made it acceptable for women to not only retain the ‘feminine’ traits that they were always allowed to express, but also pick up any and all masculine traits as well.  They can grovel in the dirt *and* grind their enemies into the dust.  Men, on the other hand, have relatively circumscribed behavior.  Although they do tend to have more power, and get more respect, when they show masculine emotions, when they step away from traditionally masculine traits, they get a tidal wave of disapproval.  It’s an effective carrot and stick strategy, and unless there’s a line of defense for men who men who step outside the masculine sphere, it will continue to limit men’s behavior both in fiction and in life.

Before anyone says that the continued use of women as victims is some kind of sign of female empowerment, or of female dominance, lets remember one more time what we’re talking about.  Screaming, begging, weeping, shaking, and breaking down are signs of weakness.  There’s no question that they’re understandable, but comic books and action movies are power fantasies.  Like women being ‘valued’ as long as they’re being threatened, women having the freedom to be weak is a sign of the social order.  I remember a few years ago, Marvel published a comic in which a female hero was brutalized on camera, for the entertainment of a bunch of villains.  The woman screamed and fought ineffectually, and the film ended to general approval.  Marvel said that the comic was intended to be horrifying and to sicken the readers, not to glorify female suffering.  I believe that that was true.

I also believe that Captain America wouldn’t be in a scene like that.  Or Tony Stark.  They might be beat up on camera, but they wouldn’t be in a scene like *that*.  Screaming, begging, weeping, coming apart, being beaten down as they try to fight – this is not something male heroes do.  At least, not male heroes who will continue to be marketable.  Yes, in general women get a fuller range of expression, but it’s important to remember that they get that range of expression in order to be allowed to behave in ways that would be too degrading, humiliating, and ruinous for male characters.  Being skewered on a hook to tug the audience’s heartstrings is not a sign of social equality.  Especially not when they’re alone out there.

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The Real Power is Choosing What You Want

January 26th, 2010 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

I remember when this poster first came out.  It was entitled “The Real Power of the DC Universe.” 

I hated it.  Absolutely hated it.  Oh, the women are the real power in the DCU, are they?  Sure they’re not headlining books or saving the day in stories.  Their emotional arcs don’t form the backbone of continuity, and there are no movies about them, and mostly they seem as decorative and unnecessary in the comics as they do in that poster, but they’re the real power in the DCU.

It reminded me of all the condescending crap that women have been tossed for a long time – that they have all the power because they can be sexy.  They have all the power because they can be feminine.  Just because all that power depends on pleasing other people, and all that power can be taken away in a heartbeat, that doesn’t mean that women aren’t the real power.

When David posted about Benes doing the art for Birds of Prey earlier this month, I felt some flickerings of that old irritation.  Rather than festering, though, as much of my irritation does; it passed away pretty quickly.

Here’s why:

I can go to the shelf and buy Detective Comics, which have a grittiness that, in my opinion, often clashes with the almost surreal artwork of JH Williams.  And there will be a Renee Montoya back-up, with an art style that matches up better, but a more conventional story.

Or I can buy that confection of a comic book, Power Girl, and laugh at the stories and try to find the cat in every issue.

Or I can buy Wonder Woman, although I can only read it when I’m not feeling depressed because, come on, can’t Wondy chalk up *one* in the win column?  She and everyone else in the comic have been kicked down and down and down since the third issue.

Or I can buy Batgirl, because it has two characters I love in a relatively by-the-numbers coming-of-age superhero story, and one character I despise making things interesting.

Or I can buy Supergirl, although its embroiled in a massive crossover continuity nightmare.  I liked the kids mini-series of it much better.

Pretty soon I’ll be able to buy Birds of Prey, the funny, soapy, wildly varied team book.

I could even buy that abomination, Gotham City Sirens, although I never will.  Ever.

And of course, if I have a few extra dollars I’m willing to throw away, I can buy the Streets of Gotham series, rip out the first 22 pages, and find Kate Spencer in a kind of Law & Order: Superheroes Unit comic.

I can find funny books starring women, and sexy books starring women, and dark books starring women, and kid’s books starring women.  I can like some of the books for the story, and some for the tone, and some for the characters, and some for the writer.

There are a bunch of books about women out there.  If I’m reading DC I can choose, out of that bunch of books, the ones the ones that suit my taste at the moment.  It was not always so.  I like, very much, that it has changed.

Which is not to say that there can’t be improvements.  There are a lot of books that are lead by female characters, but the percentage isn’t half.  Yet.  Almost all the characters are white, straight, young, and are drawn so that they are exceptionally easy on the eyes first, and characters second.  And if there is never again a story that mentions, contains, threatens, or even alludes to a rape, it will be too soon.  However, being able to pick and choose, not having to search the shelves for female characters, not feeling like I have to support that one book that has a female lead, having a selection presented to me and comparing, contrasting, and finally choosing what I like; I enjoy this feeling.   It feels like real power.

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Okay. Now I’m Getting Mad.

November 19th, 2009 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell


Wow, I’ve never read about many female characters giving her a hard time in the comics . . . oh.  Oh.  That was meta.  The ‘most women’ comment.  The character looking out at us from the panel.  This is a little speech given to the women who, for some crazy reason, criticize Peej’s uniform.

You know, I think I’ve heard a similar speech.  It was about how Peej was proud of her body, and if men decided to degrade themselves by looking at her, then that was their business.  And I’ve heard the speech about how she had the ‘S’ and ripped it off, and that patch of fabric would stay absent until she found a symbol that represented her.

And I heard the justification about how Canary’s outfit was in tribute to her mother, even when that means she’s in panties and a jacket in the First Wave books.  And I’ve heard the one about Poison Ivy being a plant and therefore unconcerned about human modesty.  Oh, and I’ve heard the one about Supergirl being invulnerable and therefore not needing pants.  There are a few about how Huntress wanted to show off the fact that she was shot, and she lived, and that’s why she fought in a bikini.  And then there’s the one about Batman and Superman . . . oh.  Wait.  There aren’t that many excuses for how  Batman and Superman dress because, golly, for some reason, the male heroes in this mostly male-controlled medium put their fucking clothes on when they’re going to fight someone.

Are you kidding me?  I’m getting an ‘I choose my choice’ speech from a fictional character?  Feminist fans are getting a slap because they won’t accept one bullshit excuse after another for why male heroes are mostly fully-clothed and female heroes mostly walk around in their underwear?

Let me make this clear:  No matter how many times you have the female characters talk about how they decided on their outfits, they are still fictional characters.  These aren’t women who have decided on what they want to wear for reasons of their own.  These are characters who are dressed as playboy bunnies because a bunch of creators decided to dress them that way for fun and profit.

Jen Van Meter; I don’t know what you were trying to do here, but you failed.

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Sexy is good, right? Sexy sells, right?

May 14th, 2009 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about how women are portrayed on the covers of various comic books.  I’m relieved to hear it because my frustration level, every week when I see the solicits, has been rising.  At least I know I’m not alone.  I’ve planned a longer post on this issue later on, but for now, I’ll keep it short.

I’ve seen many positive responses to the covers.  ‘Being sexy is good, not bad,’ and ”this is what sells’ seem to be the most popular.  Maybe they’re true.  But at the same time, they’re the ones that bother me the most.

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