Sunday, December 24, 2006

I wrote this this morning. I woke up thinking about it, and obviously, I've been thinking about it for a while. I'm not sure it gets at what I was trying to get at. Maybe what I'm trying to get at is difficult to discuss objectively. It may come across as accusatory of other people's ways of looking at certain parts of comics. That's not what I wanted to do. One of the major points is that it's unfair to assume accusatory things about someone based on how you interpret their art, but I kept veering towards assuming accusatory things about poeple and their motivations based on their interpretations of comics.

Leave a comment if you think I got at anything worthwhile in this, or if you have any thoughts you'd like to share about the topic. I'd rather not get into detailed discussions about particular creators or their works, however.

Sexism in Comics

I've been sampling a lot of comics blogs lately. There are lots of themes that show up across many blogs, and the one that's caught my attention the most is about sexism and mysogyny in comics. Reading these critiques has brought up some really conflicting feelings.

There are two fundamental problems I've run into when reading this type of criticism. First, the conclusions drawn about the details of illustrations and story elements are often based far more on supposition and on conforming the material to preconceived interpretations than on unclouded, logical assessment. Secondly, the critics go beyond the work itself to make very serious accusations about the artists.

It seems necessary, before I get into this topic, to identify where I'm coming from on this. I'm a guy, and straight, and I like women a great deal. The images in comics are, of course, merely a representation of them (their physical aspects for this discussion), but in so far as they suggest real aspects that I enjoy, I enjoy them. I don't think it has much impact on which comics I choose to buy.

The moral environment that I grew up in was strict. Sometimes I've described it as "morally paranoid", indicating a fear of anything that might even be perceived by someone else as being morally questionable. Obviously, I don't think this was very healthy, and over the years I've had to work through many "issues" that it brought about. My own moral maturation had (has had?) more to do with growing out of prudishness and judgementalism than curbing excessive attitudes or behaviors.

Now, this experience has made me very wary of any criticisms that pronounce something bad or wrong based on judging externals. To the point, when I read a criticism that a certain image in a comic represents mysogyny because a female figure is posed such, and dressed so, it recalls the unhealthy dictums of my youth, like a certain person is morally suspect because they dress so, or because they listen to certain types of music, or use certain unpolite vocabulary. So I'm biased against moralizing critiques, even when they come from different perspectives than those I grew up with. I'm likely to discount them, and to wonder what screwed up thought processes brought the critic to those conclusions.

I'm also reminded of ways of thought I encountered in literary criticism classes in college. Those classes were fun for me, and I thought the methods of criticism were good mental exercise even when they were unhelpful in understanding a text. Frankly, I think that a great deal of literary criticism is pure malarkey. Sometimes it's fun, but it's not to be taken seriously. There are influential literary critics that I respect as accomplished intellectual grifters, but never as scholars.

Despite that, there was reward to be had in class for taking them seriously. You could get a good grade, or praise from a professor, or admiration from classmates. And of course any of those contribute to a personal sense of accomplishment and esteem. I certainly wrote essays of criticism that I didn't believe a whit of, but I accepted the high marks happily enough.

I believe that many critical theories and positions have no basis in their proponents' convictions, but rest entirely on their proponents' desire to secure rewarding employment in their field. While not ideal, that is understandable. The real problem occurs when their theories are used to make judgments about the real world.

Many techniques of literary criticism would rightly be considered absurd or grossly prejudiced when applied to other parts of life. If I were to say to you, "You see how our friend Amy wears blue shoes? That's because she hates Montenegrans," you'd very reasonably tell me that I was full of it. However, when critiquing art or literature, just these sorts of statements can be made, and accepted, as long as the critic can intellectually connect blue shoes with hatred of Montenegrans using theories, presumptions, and biases held by his audience. It's much like the tactics politicians use to elicit votes, by calling on a variety of loosely associated concepts and images (defined either over-broadly or over-specifically, depending on the targeted association) in order to cast either himself or his opponent in a desired light.

When I read blog entries critiqing the particulars of images in comics, and concluding that not only the images, but the people who created them, are hateful towards women, and psychologically ill in themselves, I am strongly reminded of the techniques of literary criticism that I have found to be concerned much more with reaching advantageous conclusions than with understanding or appreciating the text.

This paragraph didn't fit into the tone I was trying to take. It's coming more from my particular "issues" and experiences than an objective assessment of the topic. But I guess it's part of how I view this, so maybe it should go in some how.

There's a comics-podcast hosted by a woman that I used to listen to. It was a good show, but I ultimately stopped listening to it because the host's attitudes towards sexuality was so annoyingly inconsistent. Images of Power Girl with lots of cleavage were childish male fantasies that probably indicated the artist's deep psychological problems, yet images of Conan in his tiny briefs was simply awesome. This is a contradiction that bugs the crap out of me. It essentialy says that a male's appreciation for an idealized, sexualized female image is wrong, insulting (at best) to women, and rooted in psycho-emotional malfunction, while a female's appreciation for an idealized, sexualized male image is all in good fun. (Of course that podcast is not the only place I've encountered this.) The inconsistency in that should be obvious, and the insulted feelings it engenders in me only slightly less obvious. The consistency is more important than the feelings, but both are easily considered.

There's also a question of how far to go in defining "where I come from on this." Do I go into what I like and don't like? None of us would be too comfortable with that, I suspect. Though I feel compelled to say that, for the record, I've always thought Power Girl's costumes have been crummy from a character design perspective, but I won't go any further into it than that. I don't want to be seen as defending stuff that's tacky or gross or obviously drawn from porn, or stuff that is really sexist. I just want to make it clear that a guy doesn't hate women, or fear them, or suffer from psychological problems just because he thinks hot girls are awesome. I mean, how would it be better if he wasn't attracted to them? Truly bad attitudes about women should be decried and disrespected, but since folks tend to paint with such broad strokes (in all controversies, not just this one), I fear that normal, healthy attitudes -- ones that girls appreciate from guys -- aren't painted in the same tones as the unhealthy or harmful ones.