Sunday, 21 March 2010

Sex & Gender & Mary Wollstonecraft: 2000AD 1677



1. I've Got A Bad Feeling About This

I've been trying not to think about this. I didn't realise I was trying not to, but I was. When ideas for another blog about 2000 AD would come to mind, the topic of sex and gender would blink across my brain, and I'd put it down on the list for next time, perhaps. Sex and gender is the sort of thing that a teacher of social science always has to discuss, and always ought to discuss. It's practically the first thing on any syllabus. And I didn't want to play at being the teacher, the beke, since I'm not anymore. Not a teacher, not anymore. I'm free. And who would care anyway if I played anything of that role? So, I put the worrying thoughts away. Better not.


2. An Accidental Meeting At Bed-Time

I was reading some Mary Wollstonecraft last night. I didn't expect to. I didn't exactly want to. It was one of those nights when the book within easy reach is "The Vindication Of The Rights Of Women', one of those nights which have happened to me just, oh, the once, actually. Last night, in fact. Sad to say, this isn't because I've returned to the books I studied from and benefited by as a much younger man. Truth the tell, I'm having a huge clear-out of books I haven't read in years. They're piled up on my side of the bed, and they're spilled all over the carpet too. And I'm finding it difficult to actually decide which of them is going to have to go. Books bully me. They demand respect, and I have an intense and foolish sense that they really don't like it if they sense they've being demoted from the upstairs book-shelves - where nobody goes - out into the car boot and away to the charity-shop book-drop outside Waitrose. And Ms Wollstonecraft's portrait was staring up at me with an expression of half woe and half contempt, and so I reached over lazily and picked her up and promised that if I found anything at all that touched me in her pages before I crumbled into sleep, she'd be saved. (I didn't want to tell her that she was staying anyway. I have my pride.)

And hers is - and was - a book I have to force myself to plough through. It's hardly a fun read for, I'll admit, a bloke that prefers things with spaceships and superheroes in them as he drifts off to sleep. Or at any time, really. It's interesting. Insightful. Truthful. Powerful, yes. Yet not exactly fun. But there is a sense that there's a piece of me somewhere in that copy of that book too, invested there by the sheer bloody effort I had to make to be engaged with it, and because of that, I'd find it hard to throw it out. (And, of course, shamefully, it's evidence that I did once read a feminist track from 1792, which my ego wants to hang onto.)

Sentimentally, with the weariness that hard reading at bedtime brings, I do believe that, as I dipped into the book, her portrait's stern expression relaxed somewhat. After all, what once well-read book can't provide something, just something, that touches the reader again? Ms Wollstonecraft knew she was safe.


3. Message In A Book-Shaped Bottle

I am further ashamed to say that I spent the next 20 minutes searching out where a much younger me had destroyed the text with a few hundred highlighted quotes in the hope that, were they to be strung together according to Burroughs's cut-up techniques, I'd have an essay and seem to know what I was talking about. And the one which most caught my eye, ringed in faded and toxically pheroscent green, was the following, because it was also at the top of the lecturer's notes folded up and tucked behind the front cover. Ah, the nostalgia of 30 year-old faded bander copies.

"I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions, which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority."

And, feeling blandly virtuous for even faintly remembering a historical, feminist quote, I didn't think much of it beyond noting profoundly how green highlighter fades, and then, while trying to remember if I ever used the quote in some seminar or another, I was asleep.

4. Our Trivial Attentions

But I remembered the quote when the latest Prog of 2000 AD arrived through my door this morning. That's the way of things. One night, you're pretending to read a feminist track from 1792, and the next day you're wondering whether the sly courtesies of men's "trivial attentions" are in any way present in my favourite weekly comic.

5. Who Did What And Where To Whom?

So I started off with a simple note-taking exercise, the kind you might give a year 10 Media Studies class in their first term. How many women were there in this week's 2000AD, and what roles did they play?

And, since I feel relatively secure with any number between 1 and 20, I can report that there were 14 female characters of even very minor note in # 1677, including 5 who appeared in but one panel, saying nothing and having nothing spoken to them.

a. Lead Roles (Title characters, or protagonists absolutely central to the plot)

Regrettably, there were no female leads in this week's Prog.

b. Supporting Roles (Important secondary speaking parts)

There were 5 female supporting roles.
  1. Inga, the sex android in "Judge Dredd", who looked sexy and said 5 words
  2. An unnamed seated Judge in "Judge Dredd", who informed the title-character that his latest arch-enemy was very ill and expected to die, with 34 words.
  3. Juanita, the emotionally-wounded love interest of an ABC Warrior, who had 33 words as she (temporarily?) jilted him.
  4. Irene, the agent of super-star Brett Grayle in 'Damnation Station', with 104 words
  5. June Akiwara, an "admin officer", in "Damnation Station", with 99 words
None of these characters were operating independently of the authority of a man. All of them were presented taking traditional female roles; Juanita the emotional love interest; Irene the nagging mother-figure; Inga the happy prostitute; the unnamed Judge occupying a passive supervisory post; June, no matter how apparently competent, working in 'administration''.
c. Minor Characters

There were 5 minor female supporting characters with small speaking roles.
  1. An unnamed Judge chastised for incompetence by Dredd, who says "Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir."
  2. One "Sugar Fixx", a dumb sexy gangster moll in "Zombo", who is eaten by a zombie after saying 20 words and begging her male associates to save her.
  3. One Maggie Broon, a Susan Boyle clone, who sings 5 words before dissolving into tears after being called a "repulsive she-beast" in "Zombo".
  4. One sexually available stewardess in "Damnation Station", who says 31 seductive words before, we're led to believe, bedding Brent Grayle. (Tellingly, we see her legs, her backside, her breasts and her smile, but never even a full shot of her face.)
  5. Tura, who's given 3 words in "Damnation Station", an attractive, friendly, smiling women, though we're not told her role on Earth Station One.
Again, I won't too belabour the obvious, except to point out that 3 out of 5 of these women exist solely to be either sexually attractive or to be mocked for being the opposite, and none of them are in a position of any apparent authority.

d. Background Characters

There were 5 female background characters who spoke no words at all.
  1. The mother who appears in one panel "Ichabod Azrael".
  2. The beautiful blonde lover who appears in two panels of "Ichabod Azrael".
  3. The large-breasted blonde secretary who appears in one panel in "Zombo".
  4. The adoring and beautiful check-in girl who appears simpering in one panel of "Damnation Station".
  5. Suzie, seen for one panel behind male gang members, in "Zombo".
There are strangely no obvious female faces in the crowd scenes in Zombo, though Suzie is of course recognisable to those who read her starring panel in last week's Prog. But we do also see the backs of the haircuts on two presumably female fans of Mr Grayle in the first panel of "Damnation Station".


5. I'm Just Saying, Is All.

So, in this one Prog, we have no actively heroic female characters, though we do have two Judges in passive roles, including one getting a fearsome telling off, and June Akiwara seems terribly competent, albeit in looking after people and doing what the (male) boss says. In fact, there's not much, beyond some of the clothes, that Mary Wollstonecraft wouldn't recognise as being par for the course where being female in our society is concerned. We get mothers, whores, lovers, and good competent workers in human relationships.

FEMALE ROLES

NAME

% of 14

Female Roles

Lead Female Characters

None

0%

Characters defined by sexual allure & availability

1. Inga (sex robot)

2. Maggie Broon (repulsive)

3. Sugar Fox (moll)

4. Large-chested secretary

5. Faceless stewardess

6. Check-In girl



43%

Romantic Interests For Male Leads

1. Juanita

2. Ichabod’s lover

14%

Mothering Role In Service To Male Leads

1. Irene

2. Ichabod’s mother

14%

Characters Free Of The Above Characteristics

1. Female Judge

2. Female Judge (minor)

3. Tura

4. June*

29%

Characters Free Of The Above Characteristics

& Free Of Male Authority / Supervision

None

0%

* This is perhaps giving the character the benefit of the doubt, as she does seems certain to become Brett Gayle's love interest.


6. No, I am Just Saying, Is All.

All of this worries me. It nags away at me. Because I thoroughly enjoy reading 2000 AD, and strangely even more than that, have always enjoyed the fact that 2000 AD has always ideologically sided with the powerless against the powerful. And it has. The metaphors of this are deeply embedded in each strip. In Judge Dredd, we have the metaphor of the Mutie population expelled by immoral Judges from their homes in Mega-City One, a challenge to racism and facism in all their forms. In ABC Warriors, we have the Red Mars army standing for all of those who would exploit justifiable anger against the state in order to feed bloody opportunist rebellion. And so on.

But these are symbols. Where are the actual women who aren't locked into traditional roles? The walk-on role for a female sheriff and her fellow townswomen in Judge Dredd in one Prog? (OK. But they are motivated by the loss of their menfolk to a killer female seductress. Oh. They're defined by the loss of their men.) The Countess in Stickleback and the Empress in "Stickleback"? (But the Countess is appalled by her own body and appearance, as if appearance must be the key to the female character, and the Empress is the traditional "princess" role, mother to Stickleback's child, who is shown to be the real focus of her narrative.) Juanita, the gun-weilding super-Barbie doll warrior? (Well, yes she's strong and violent, but she looks like a taller Pamela Anderson and the arc of her story is that she's been brainwashed and raped emotionally and physcially by the President Of Mars. And it worries me that I can't recall a single male character ever having been raped once. It's something that only happens to female characters, and sometimes it feels that it is always going to happen if a character survives long enough.) June in "Damnation Station"? (She's kind and very efficient, fearsomely competent, but perhaps she might be less attractive, and perhaps she might not be her grand-father's daughter, and perhaps she might be doing something other than ad-min?)

And if 2000 AD is about, at heart, a traditional British non-conformist support for the under-dog against the bully, for, as I said, the powerless against the powerful, and it always has been, then how is it possible that Susan Boyle is drawn as a snivvelling, ugly, weeping failure here and then raged at and slandered as " ... a repulsive she-beast"? Because Ms Boyle is not a representative of the powerful. She has always been one of the powerless, as her longing for fame, as her psychological breakdown, as her rush to embrace the art of the stylist and the make-up artist in order to look more conventionally attractive, surely shows us. If there ever was a symbol of a woman with talent who was and is mocked because she doesn't fit the standard definition of sexy, then Susan Boyle is it. And yes, she's now rich, and yes, she's now respected by many, but that's not the point. We don't pick on the powerless. Does she annoy me? Yes. Is she a symbol for how crap TV talent shows make the trivial an apparently vital part of much of the nation's day-to-day narrative? Yes. Can I stand the sound of her voice? No. But I think she's been laughed at enough, really. And you know what, I think you, whoever you are, one of the 3 blessed people who visit this blog, think so too. She is NOT the enemy. I don't think we need to see her weeping while her attractiveness is mocked. And I don't think that a man would be mocked in the same way at all.

If the point needed to be made that the ranting character in "Zombo", who insults the Susan Boyle clone is a monster, then why not pick, oh, a figure who's less obviously a victim already? Because, in the absence of any positively represented women in that episode of "Zombo", the impression is given that the creators don't really respect women. Which is obviously not true. I've been haunted, and I use that word deliberately and respectfully, by the last page of Mr Ewing's Judge Dredd story in the latest Megazine, and anybody who can write that well about fascism and terror is obviously not sexist. Mr Ewing is obviously on the side of the powerless.

So what's going wrong here?


8. No, I AM Just Saying, But I Will Soon Be Getting My Coat. Promise.

The worst thing is that this isn't a matter of explicit sexism or conscious policy. I absolutely believe that. There isn't a writer or artist in this week's Prog that I'm familiar with who hasn't shown themselves to a humanist in their work, and it strikes me as a long shot to believe anything other than the same for those less familiar creators. No, the problem is rather thoughtlessness, a kind of - oh, God, I'm going to say it - institutional sexism, where nobody thinks to notice and object because nobody realises what's happening.

Let's be frank here. John Wagner's work has always been pro-Feminist. Always. Unlike a cardboard cut-out version of a feminist, for whom every female character must be perfect and perfectly powerful, Wagner has given us women of all shapes and sizes, of all human qualities. Which is the real purpose of feminism. To have women possess and control the same rights and freedoms as men. Which includes the right to be portrayed as villainous as well as heroic. Because women, like men, as the radical feminists of my long-gone University days would never accept, are each as unique and imperfect as men.


And yet Mr Wagner's work this week, and in recent weeks, has had as its lead female character a sex android, who even happily has her own head replaced to further titilate her owner. And I have no doubt that somewhere down the line, this whole issue will be attended to. Mr Wagner always attends to the contradictions apparent in his own work. He is, in my book, the most laudable craftsman. But when considered in conjunction with all the other strips in this week's Prog, a different picture emerges. What might be seen as a loose end which can be carried over to another Prog, a negative portrayal of one or two female characters which will be counter-balanced later, becomes a serious problem when all of the stories have, to one degree or another, the same content. It is the cumulative affect of all the stories that becomes the problem. It doesn't matter how many excellent stories Mr Wagner has written which challenge sexism and demolish the myth of male superiority, if the person reading Prog 1677 gets 5 stories in a row which to one degree or another fail to challenge traditional gender streotypes.

Because the issue is - and it is the issue, though I almost wish it wasn't - what would a woman, young or old, think of this issue if they were unfamiliar with 2000 AD and its sterling reputation? And what would they think if presented with a string of issues where the cumulative problems being discussed here really pile up? I know that many women can choose to see past the gender roles, to consider them as being merely genre tropes, as being images which they can decide to ignore in order to engage with the narrative. And I know, absolutely know, that the men producing the comic and the men reading it aren't men who hate women or who want to see them banged up and back out in the kitchen.

But it's not what we believe and value that counts. It's not what we think in our head and hearts that counts. It's what we do, often by mistake and often without knowing that we're doing it. It's what we do when that effectively runs counter to what we believe that needs attending to.

And this does need attending to. Somebody needs to look at all the stories that are going into a single Prog and be asking themselves: "How do these stories work as a cumulative body of work?" Because as things stand, American super-hero comics, with all their dubious images of sexual body-fascism, are producing far more respectful and challenging representations of powerful and distinct women, for all the problems there-in, than the last few months of 2000 AD have. Just take the single recent example of Paul Cornell's "Captain Britain & M13" series, where Dr Faiza Hussain, a female Moslem doctor, becomes the bearer of Excalibur. (Which ought to make 2000 AD think a little. Because I have an awful feeling that the issue of race is another elephant in the room which needs attending to. *)


After all, it's almost 26 years since Alan Moore and Ian Gibson's splendid "Halo Jones" first appeared in 2000 AD. So where are the female lead characters? Where are the characters who are women not defined by their relationships to men and their traditional sexual allure? Where are the characters who aren't beautiful, who aren't anything other than, well, you and me, really?

Here's an idea, an idea that feels very "2000 AD" to me. A crew of entertainers are trapped on a planet where the only currency that outsiders can manipulate is their own talent. They must sing well or die, dance beguilingly or starve. And as the narrative progresses, the handsome wooden actors and the silicone enhanced soap divas are getting weeded out, because they simply aren't talented enough. They're shaggable, they're photogenic, but they can't produce. It's up to the more normal members of the troupe - the brilliant actress who's short and not-blonde, the fantastic singer who is overweight and carrries an excessively square-jawed - to not only earn the resources to keep everybody alive, but also to fight their way out of there. We could have some older women who aren't someone's mother or harradins. We could have lots of different types of people, men and women, young and old, and so on, and on, And, on our planet of starving entertainers, it could be the less cosmetically perfect who might inspire their beautiful colleagues, perhaps, because we're all in this together, as the cliche goes, whether we want to be, and though we often don't. Because that's what I always thought 2000 AD was saying to me.

The powerless against the powerful.

* I discussed Mr Cornell's "Cpt Britain", along with Dan Dare and other aspects of Englishness represented in comic-books here, if anybody would be interested: http://toobusythinkingboutcomics.blogspot.com/2010/02/dan-dare-test-match-cricket-and.html

8. Our House, In The Middle Of Our Street.

There's a lovely panel at the end of this week's "Damnation Station", illustrating Brett Grayle being introduced to his new colleagues in his new life. You can see the panel below;

And I thought, when I saw this after realising that I was going to write this entry, that I bet this is one of the ways in which many if not all of 2000 AD's creators and readers see the issue of men and women. We're all people that we can meet down the pub. We're a family, and some of us are cool and some of us aren't, but that's not about gender, or appearance, or race, or culture. Nope. (The very fact that we're comic book readers puts us outside the mainstream of "normal" for so many people, so it'd be daft for any of us to start playing insider and outsider groups here.) You can see the love for the characters in this picture by artist Simon Davis, love for the very idea of women and men, for the idea that we all need somewhere to go to be ourselves with the people we live and work with. There's nothing other than love for the men and women here.

And that's perhaps what 2000 AD might strive just a little more to become. Because whatever my reservations, I do love this comic, and I have thoroughly enjoyed coming to visit its' worlds every seven days for two months now.

But there's an elephant in this room, and it isn't Elephant Boy.

9. In Closing.

There's another quote I came across this morning from "A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman"." This one was underlined in blue biro, with "imp" scrawled next to it, and an arrow scrawled from the "imp" to the blue biro underlining. I must have thought it was really important to an essay or a seminar or even a class I taught once. All that's gone now, but the quote hasn't;

"If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?"



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6 comments:

  1. With Al Ewings writing, I take it that he is not only tapping into thr ridiculous stereotypes of b-movies and comics from the 50's, he is mocking the very genre that he is part of. Al's male characters are just as much ridiculous cliches in this episode of Zombo as the females. I agree with much of what you say, there is some distance for women to go to be represented as varied independant & interesting humans, some way to go before there are a good smattering of women comics creators, and yes it is an Elephant, I am subjected to torrents of abuse if I dare say anything in public about power girls stupid sized chest being insulting. feminism is a dirty word these days, but hey, comics are great even if the girls in them tend to be just window dressing.

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  2. Hello Vicky! Thank you for your comment.Of course you're right about Mr Ewing's work, a fine writer who along with John Wagner I have written reems of quite justified praise regarding over the short lifetime of this blog. It's the problem of how 2000 AD holds together as a whole that's the issue here. I look forward to next week's Prog, where another 5 stories in another sequence could well spell out a very different story.

    You're absolutely right that the issue of feminism is a "live" one today. I understood something of the theory of feminism before I began teaching, but it all really hit home when I witnessed year after year of female students suffering - usually unknowingly - from attitudes & behaviour which you might believe had gone out, if not with the dinosaurs, then at least with the dawn of the 20th and especially the 21st century. It would upset me then, though I doubt my students ever thought mean old me could really feel that way. And I guess it upsets me now too.

    Thank you for leaving a comment. I hope you might consider dropping in again, even if only to let me know where we may not be in agreement!

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  3. There's something up with the formatting on the blog, the first half of this entry was missing (until I clicked the direct link) and covered by the first half of the newest entry (which misses its second half!).

    Even though I did laugh at the Boyle cameo in Zombo, you're pretty much spot-on here. The comic should be - can do and has - doing better.

    (I don't think June's the guy's granddaughter though, "Grand-Pere" seems like a nickname as he's both old and French)

    - Charles RB

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  4. Thank you for the warning about the formatting, Charles. Much appreciated. I think things are OK now. I hope so.

    And I think you're absolutely right about the relationship between June & 'Grand-Pere'. It certainly read that way better when I went back.

    Thanks for stopping by. I hope you'll consider doing so again.

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  5. Sorry, but I think that you were trying a little too hard to spin some controversy out of this prog. Choosing to fix on Susan Boyle rather than the rather more obvious (and heavy-handed) exaggeration of Simon Cowell in particular stuck out as making the comic fit your theme, rather than vice-versa.

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  6. Hello, Robert. It's hard to know what to say to convince you that the last thing on my mind was spinning controversy out of Prog 1677. I've never respected folks who set out to make waves rather than merely writing what genuingly concerns them. In truth, I thought long & hard about publishing this blog once I wrote it. I hesitated to offend & on a personal level, I felt as if I would look like the new kid in the playground telling everyone else how to play. I recall going out into my back garden after I wrote it & saying to my wife how uncomfortable I felt with the possibility of offending the creators I respected with what I'd written, if by chance one stumbled on my blog. And she asked me if I believed in what I'd written & if I'd been as honest & fair as I could. And I believed in what I'd written & I believe it now, so I felt that I ought to have the courage of my convictions. But if I'm honest, I came close not to putting it up & I sometimes very much wish I hadn't. The response in some areas has not been good, just as in others its been the opposite. I guess I started this Blog because I loved the comic & wanted to communicate that given that I know no-one who reads it -in the end, especially considering how few people read this Blog & how unimportant my opinion is to anyone except my own conscience, I thought that the best way to express that love, if you like, was to tell my own truth.

    But I wasn't setting out to create controversy. If I were, my Blogs would be full of attempts to generate such a thing. Or at least more full. And I hope you'd agree on reflection that that's not so.

    Sometimes, Robert, it's possible for someone to set out to state something they believe in NOT because they seek controversy, but indeed terrified that they will do so. I am by nature a shy individual. I do not seek trouble out. And I hope the evidence as time passes will support that. I wrote what I wrote despite something of a timid nature 'cause I felt it was true. That's all I was doing. And we can disagree about what I wrote, that's very cool. But the "why" of what I wrote? That was me trying to be honest, despite my fears of, in part, coming across as you've described me here.

    I hope you'll consider coming back to the blog as time passes & seeing which explanation fits what I write most. You'd be welcome, I assure you.

    ReplyDelete