Cupsize is not Characterization

November 15, 2010

I’m pretty sure the most popular entry in this blog is the one from late April: Women Lacking Complexity—For SCIENCE! about blogger Jen McCreight’s initiative Boob Quake.  Wow, who would have thought it?  The most popular blog was about tits.

Yes, there are two big issues looming when it comes to women and comics. Seriously, that’s not a rhetorical flourish, there are two. Let’s deal with the D-cups first, because there is a reason they go on the cover: Men like breasts.  A couple months ago, Warner Bros posted screencaps to Arkham City, the sequel to the Arkham Asylum computer game.

The gullible souls who bought into the Brubaker/Cooke scam and continue to believe that flat-chested and short hair are the hallmarks of a dynamic empowered woman started frothing at the mouth: Look at those breasts!  How can it be!  It is the goggle-whore costume we have all been trained to defend as practical no matter how nonsensical the word is as applied to any costume in any comic including the one this displaced.  It is black and not purple, she has no long flowing hair cascading luxuriously out the back of her cowl, how can she have breasts that can be seen without special lenses?! It does not compute.  The horror, the horror!  How dare they defame the good name of Catwoman by giving her a body men will enjoy looking at!

I really had hoped the Iranian cleric that started the whole Boob Quake thing would have woken those silly women up. Because if you buy into the idea that boobs are bad and there is something wrong with men who like them, then you’re standing with Fahas Ahardtime Acceptinghalfthehumanrace-majad.  That doesn’t strike me as very enlightened or feminist, ladies, but hey, you don’t see the problem with the whore/stripper/ambiguous street trash origin, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

For those who aren’t irrevocably committed to the doctrine of Men Suck, let’s briefly revisit why the male of the species like the breasts. I’m sorry Notting Hill fans, there is an actual reason and it’s not “because they’re stupid.” It’s because we’re primates. For a long, long, long, long time, the male approaching a female for mating purposes is looking at a rump. Now fast forward a few million years.  We’re all walking upright. What in the general vicinity of the new eyelevel looks like that? There’s nothing perverse about it. Men are hardwired to notice cleavage. Put it on the cover, they’ll notice your cover. That’s not an automatic sale, but it gets their attention. What you do then is up to you.

Which brings us to the second issue when it comes to women in comics: who they are as opposed to how they look.  Let’s start with a quote from a creative writing forum, which was sent to me after the recent blog on Fridging:

“As it was explained to me by a comics professional years ago at a convention panel on the topic, the vast majority of comic writers are men who simply don’t understand women. Since they don’t understand women (and earn more by churning out stories as quickly as possible), they save time by reducing women to cliched roles as either the girlfriend or the victim.”

I include the elaborate provenance – that this is something told to a reader in a con/panel situation—because there is always the possibility that it is simply not true. That it was given in the context of “Look, we don’t serve up all these rapes and murders because we’re sad little trolls who can only feel like men by bringing down women.”  If that was the tone of the panel, then this could have been presented as a simple expedient.  Rather than debating if there is any palpable difference between murder of Sue Dibny in Identity Crisis and the murder of Duncan in the Scottish play, the above quote diffuses the situation quickly without controversy by playing into the widely held preconception of comics writers as arrested adolescents.

The irony is if that’s true and not an invented excuse, it’s completely unacceptable.  Women are 53% of the population.  You can’t be a professional writer in any medium and “simply not understand” half the human race. You’re going to embarrass yourself, embarrass the idiots who hired you, and you’re going to fail—over and over and over.  So let’s cut these guys a break and reveal the key to writing the kind of female characters that the entire audience will love.  Then everybody will be able do it and that removes “I don’t understand lumpy people” as an excuse.  The following has been said elsewhere, but never as well as by the late Harold Ashman:

“In every classic musical, one of the first three songs belongs to the heroine.  She comes downstage, often sits on a convenient planter or bale of hay, and sings about what she wants from her life.  And the audience falls in love with her… and they spend the next three acts rooting for her to get it.”

It is, honest to god, that simple.  And that complex.  Start with what she wants.  If Cattitude succeeds where other Catwoman origins have failed, it is because it is grounded in what Selina wants from stealing: a restoration of the love and safety she felt as a child, which she came to associate with the wealth and comfort she knew in her parents’ home.  I cannot accept that the ability to pee standing up somehow short-circuits the ability to understand that simple human motivation.  What we want is seldom a function of gender.  The best art and jewel thief in the world comes from privilege and not poverty because the root associations make sense.  If any man wants to step up and explain what in his anatomy screws up his comprehension of something that shampoo simple, I would be fascinated to hear it.

Food, shelter, love, freedom, a sense of self-worth.  None of them have anything to do with reproductive plumbing.  If you “simply don’t’ understand” women, then you simply don’t understand people and if that’s the case, you have no business writing at all.

Now, if you don’t get a particular subset, join the club!  Twilight fans, the gals who take the Sex and the City bus tour, the Real Housewives of anywhere… Don’t ask me, fellas, I’m as confused as you are.

Chris Dee

Originally posted with the title ( . )( . ) for humor.  Edited to the descriptive headline for happier indexing.  Sorry, Google.

%d bloggers like this: