Girls and Comic Books: How to Help Your Daughter Bypass the Underwear Suits and Find the Feminist Heroes
I both love and fear watching my 11-year-old daughter Isobel embrace everything science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Love it because because I share her enthusiasm -- As Stephanie S says, "I do believe that there is educational value in all forms of media, including television about teenage vampire slayers." Fear it because Iz is both smart and beautiful -- and female characters with those traits often get treated badly in fantastic realms. Especially in fantastic comics or graphic novel realms.
If it is irritating raising a girl in a culture obsessed with living blow-up dolls, it is even even more so when my daughter falls in love with intelligent, capable characters like Marvel's Emma Frost or Misty Knight, then sees those women's bodies drawn like living blow-up dolls. Though Iz currently seems less concerned with the comic artists' objectification of women and more perturbed by comic writers' proofreading errors ("Mommy, Cyclops misspelled 'anarchist'!"), I worry that those images, those attitudes will warp the way she sees herself and how she judges other women.
Gratuitous boobs and and porn star poses have always been the primary reason Iz's comic requests get vetoed. (I'm less concerned about violence -- as long as it's superhero-cartoonish and not From Hell- or Sandman-nasty.) So I will admit to stereotypical first child overparenting in monitoring which comics Iz reads and how much we talk about them afterwards. I started her as a wee thing with Baby Mouse and Spider-Man Family (featuring FrogThor!), then Courtney Crumrin, then Re-Gifters, and now Runaways and Astonishing X-Men. All recommended. All very curated.
But she will soon be reading whatever the hell she wants, the same way I'd plow through any trashy novel I could find when I was her age. I don't want to keep her away from the stories she wants to read. Instead, I want her prepared to critically evaluate female characters so she doesn't internalize the absurd way they look and the infuriating way they get treated.
This kind of guidance is often best received when it comes from a non-parental figure. So I recruited three comics-loving feminist mentors to give Iz their perspectives on the female characters who populate the fantastic:
What draws you to comics, science fiction, and fantasy?
I am always lured in by the promise of visiting another world -- whether it's really another world in the case of sci fi, or this world from another person's viewpoint. This started early with The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, The Wind in the Willows, and others. When I was really little, someone gave me an art book for kids that I think also paved the way for comics and graphics novels later. It included Castle in the Pyrenees by Magritte, which was super fascinating to me because it looked like a photograph but obviously could not be.
I've been a science fiction fan since my mother got me into Star Trek re-runs when I was a kid. I don't know how to explain it, but science fiction as a genre clicked for me in a way that nothing else has. People with amazing powers and gadgets, robots, spaceships, strange alien species ... I'm sure I should say something deeper, but the truth is I like the flashy whizz-bang stuff. And that's okay.
Conflict and triumph in a setting that is fantastic or fantastic things in an ordinary setting gives this play in contrast that is attractive to me, whether the unreal aspects unfold over a long narrative or I/we are thrown right into them. I'm attracted to films/TV/comics that give me pretty pictures and good acting (yes, comics have acting!), with prose, words that build those pictures in my head. I especially like sci fi/fantasy that makes me laugh. I've been watching all of a series called FRINGE in about one week. It's a great soap opera sci fi show with humor that is snarky but sometimes pretty earthy.
If you could advise your 11-year-old self about female characters in comics and how they are represented, what would you say?
Comics can be and are about so much more than boobies and crotches. Quit readings books where the creators can't seem to draw women without having them bend over. Just because a woman draws or writes a demeaning book doesn't make it okay. You'll probably have to make the comics you want to read yourself.
When I was 11, I don't think comics (female characters or not) were interesting to me at all, sadly. The only clear memory I have of comics in childhood were Archie, Jughead, Donald Duck, etc. I have a vague connotation in my head of comics = superheroes = boys, and I wasn't into those things as much. If I had seen a book like Charles Vess/Neil Gaiman's illustrated Stardust in the library, I think I would have been sucked into comics much faster.
My dear, I know you love the superhero stories. But quite often, you will be trying to enjoy the comics you want to read in spite of the artists and sometimes even in spite of the writers. For some reason, almost every woman in the superhero comics world is skinny, white, temporarily able-bodied, with C-cup breasts -- and they all run around in their underwear. There are writers who think the best way to motivate a male character is to hurt a female character he cares about, and there are writers who feel like whenever a woman gets too powerful, she needs to lose control of her powers and/or die.
It's going to make you angry and sad and feel like you don't belong or don't matter. You're going to love some of these characters so much, it's sometimes going to feel like slap in the face.
I'll tell you how to get through it in the meantime, though. First, a lot of eye rolling. Every time you see a woman drawn in a way that you can't tell whether her anatomy is the result of a plastic surgery accident, a car accident, or both, just roll your eyes. Good characters can be trapped in bad art. You'll know when the way she is drawn, or what she says or does, does not fit with the reality of that person.
Second, community. You're not the only one reading this stuff and loving it, but flinching:
These women are your support squad, the ones who feel your pain and also can recommend something to read that doesn't suck on days when you really need to not be wondering, "Is it even possible for a woman to stand so that you can see her backside and her chest at the same time?"
There are amazing, strong, fierce women (and men) in these stories. There are stories that will keep you almost breathlessly turning pages to find! out! what! happens! There are pieces of art that make you stop, and look, and look again because it's just that freaking cool. I know it sucks to need a coping strategy for enjoying your entertainment. I promise you, it's worth it.
Which characters or series do you consider role-model-worthy for pre-teen girls?
Don't assume all pre-teen girls are inspired by the same things. And I know I'm probably supposed to say Runaways, but it left me cold.
So I'm going to nominate Jakita Wagner of Planetary, because she rocks the house.
Also, shout out to I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Niimura. It's not a personal favorite of mine, but I thought it was tremendously well done, and the main character is a girl in fifth grade with a giant-killing hammer.
Finally, I was expecting to hate Azumanga Daioh after catching a glimpse or two of the animated series, but the print version won my heart. Such an amazing diversity of girls' personalities, all in one story! How can it be possible?!
Yotsuba Kiyohiko Azuma. Yotsuba is this little girl who is blissfully unware is how weird she is, and just does her own thing. It's funny and has great art. Speaking straight to the girl kids here: You won't have to hide this from your mom or uptight relatives, you'll have to hide them from siblings and friends or they'll disappear.
Smile, a Dental Drama by Raina Telgemeier. An autobio about what happened physically, emotionally and dentally after the author had an accident as a preteen and knocked out her front teeth. Smile originally ran as a webcomic on a site I created and edited, GirlAMatic.com. I'd scarred my face in an accident when I was eight and would've loved something like Raina's story then. I also knew that any girl who ever had to wear braces would feel they had a friend, and better, a friend who eventually got their braces off.
Flora Segunda and Flora's Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce. At first, Flora will seem rather put-upon and conveniently the opposite of slim and pretty, but these books take off fast. Flora demonstrates that she has a lot of brains and guts, and the setting of an alternate California is fantastically chewy. I know if I was 11 when I read these, I would be tearing up the web to learn the language of insulting someone with a fan and wishing I had to dodge an angel when I was tardy to school -- and writing my own wobbly bad versions of same.
I'm not sure how to answer this, because it's hard to know what's really appropriate for pre-teen girls?
Isobel appreciated what her mentors had to say, and I think it sank in. I think she'll be better prepared when she decides to make the leap from feminist mascot Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men to comics like the unrepentantly pneumatic Ultimate X-Men.
For now, she's still more interested in discussing the theoretical genetics and biology of X-Men mutations and tracking down characters' backstories on Wikipedia. Last night we watched Daredevil, which partially made up for having only one female character by having that be the ass-kicking Elektra. The message Iz came away with was gender-neutral: If you're going to be a superhero or a supervillain, you need to know how to do a back handspring. Which seems reasonable to me.
Additional Comic Book Resources:
- Caroline Pruett: Fantastic Fangirls vs. The Girlfriend Lists
- Charlie Jane Anders: Supergirls Gone Wild: Gender Bias In Comics Shortchanges Superwomen
- Natalie Wilson: Gender 101 at Iron Man 2 (plus some backlash)
Lea Hernandez is know in the comics business for being a vocal pain in the ass about how women are depicted in comics, animation, anime and movies (and how women working in those businesses are treated). She makes the kind of comics she wants to read. She blogs at divalea.livejournal.com and shares her art at divalea.deviantart.com.
Skye Kilaen is co-blogger at HeroineContent.net, a blog about women kicking ass in action movies. Her current hobbies include buying X-Men trades by the linear foot and wondering why no one at Marvel knows the difference between "discreet" and "discrete."
Solveig Zarubin reads almost everything she can get her hands on, and has for most of her life! Currently she works as a producer of casual games at PlayFirst in San Francisco.
Shannon Des Roches Rosa keeps comic books and sci fi novels stashed in fifteen different access points -- something she has never revealed on her personal blog, www.squidalicious.com. She has spent years sitting on her complete collection of Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs, waiting for her eldest to turn twelve so they can watch them together.