Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Crisis of Infinite Feminisms, Part II

It has been suggested to me, Gentle Reader, that the comic book world is nothing short of a He-Man Women Hating Club. I see my fellow bloggers expressing disappointment after disappointment over the general male-bias of comics and the fan world (see, most recently, Ragnell's post at Written World). The readers and writers of comic books are overwhelmingly male, certainly, but why are they dismissive of the female comic book fan?

Let us look to one of the centers of the comic book arena: the comic book store. Several of my Sister Bloggers have discussed the isolation they feel when they walk into this male-centered arena. To walk into the comic book store alone, in particular, is a feat that requires Great Strength. The customer dismisses you. The proprietor dismisses you. And if you enter with a male companion, why, then the proprietor directs all of his attention to him, regardless of the fact that *you* are the comic book fan, and not your y-chromosome-enabled friend.

Can you, for a second, remember how it feels to be the only one of you in an enclosed space? People of non-white races often say they feel isolated and on display in an all-white environment. I have seen, time and time again, my Male Friends run practically screaming away from an all-female baby shower. But some people still refuse to accept the discomfort the female comic book fan feels when she walks into this mysterious, mystical realm.

I live in a Very Small Town, Dear Reader, that owes its population almost entirely to the large university housed here. As a result, we only have the following: 1 Target, 1 Barnes and Noble, 10 Starbucks (well, 3, but This Humble Author expects another 7 to pop up by tomorrow), and 2 comic book stores. Of those two stores, one is owned by a man, and one is owned by a woman.

Mr. Reads and I gravitated to the woman-owned comic book store quite by accident; it happens to be located next to our favorite restaurant in town. We entered, we browsed, we shopped, and over the passing months and years have become regular customers. It's where we have our pull list, after all. But the few times I've been to the shop owned by the man (Store B), I have felt out of place. I have browsed, for several minutes, with no offer of help from the employees. I have stood patiently at the register while the employees play D&D *right next to me*, until after ten minutes I finally tire of waiting and interrupt the game. I have been dismissed, out of hand, skipped over in line in favor of a male customer.

At the store owned by a woman (Store A), however:
1) I am known by name while...
2) My husband is known only as "Amy’s husband" (although to be fair, Friends, he is the bigger comic reader in the relationship)
3) I am known as "That Woman Who Buys Comics" by the other shoppers
4) Wonder Woman action figures and paraphernalia are set aside for me the moment they enter the shop, just in case I may want to buy them

Now perhaps this comparison isn't fair; we frequent Store A, after all, while we rarely go to Store B, and only if we're looking for something Store A doesn't have. But is it the effect or the cause? Do we go to Store A because it is more welcoming of the female fan, or is Store A more welcoming of the female fan because we go there?

Gentle Reader, chicken or egg?

This is not to say that I haven't been to stores owned or worked by men and made to feel completely welcome. Chicago Comics, for example, is a store that has happily served me, time and again, with complete and utter respect. I walked in as a tourist; I left feeling like a local. I also go home with a ton of local comics because the employee finds out what I read, and suggests books to me "because you just might like them!" But the reverse of this is also true. I have wandered into comic book stores and been stared at, ignored, ogled, questioned as to my true fandom ("really? You read Catwoman? Ugh..."), questioned as to my true purpose ("Can I help you find something for your boyfriend?"), and just, in general, Felt Unwanted.

This isn't just a strange form of masculine inclusion; this is downright Bad Business.

I've worked retail, Friends, and I worked it long and well. Why would you, as a business owner or employee, isolate part of your customer base? Why would you not instead foster it? I don't have many female friends who read comics, true, but my enthusiasm for comics has tempted some to try them (I point to Mommy, Ph.D. as evidence of a recent possible conversion!). I teach comic books, I write about them, and I am just one of a vast number.

It's a market that's practically untapped. Women read comics. Women write comics. Women write about comics. They are as rabid fans as their male counterparts and still, time and again, are pointed to the "girl standard" books in the store. I love Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane as much as the next reader, but I love it because it's well-written, not because it's "girly." I read Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, and Supergirl not because they're about women, but because they're *good books*.

Okay, so I'd read Wonder Woman even if it were written poorly. But that's just me.

I also love The Ultimates, and Daredevil, and 52 and Superman and Wolverine. I adore Batman, and Civil War and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and any other number of books that are male-centered and male-oriented. In the same way that I believe a man can write a feminist book, I believe a woman can love a book without a feminist agenda. Women have been doing just that very thing for hundreds of years, after all.

Another chicken or egg question: do women in general not read comics because they believe that they're "for men," or are comic books "for men" because no one believes women would read comics?

In a recent blog, Kalinara at Pretty, Fizzy Paradise called for a Big Barda book. I say Amen. Give us a Big Barda book, not because she's a female character, but because it's what your readers would like to see. Tap that untapped market; poll your female readers. Give us advance stories and get our feedback. Understand your entire fan base. There is nothing to lose in this scenario. All you have to gain are *more fans*.

I turn 30 at the end of this year, Gentle Reader, and yes, I am experiencing those first pangs of True Adulthood. But more importantly, Mr. Reads and I are beginning to have The Discussion. Children? No children? One child? Two? And Dear God, will no one think of the poor dog and how she'll feel about an addition to the family?

The one thing we've agreed on is this: if we have a child, that child will be introduced to comics. We coo over the Supergirl lunchboxes at the stores. We've already bought a baby Iron-Man for the future Baby Reads. We are scouring the internet for Wonder Woman baby tees for our goddaughter. Why? Because children need the fantastic in their lives. They need a true sense of Wonder. Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and most importantly, comic books, offer all of these things, and more.

Because I grew up with Wonder Woman and other strong role models, I believed that women could do anything. I believed that I could do anything. Because Mr. Reads grew up with Spider-Man, he believed that the dorky smart kid was cool. He believed that he was cool. We identify with characters like ourselves, and to see those characters save the world, again and again, is empowering.

Many comics inevitably reflect life, and I ask you to let them continue to do so. Continue to hire writers who treat comic books with joy and write their characters, both male and female, with complexity. Continue to understand your fans, all of your fans, and what and why they read. Experiment, publish, take risks, because *we're here*.

You had us from the moment you Bam, Powed!, remember? You had me from the moment I saw a woman twirl and turn into an Amazon goddess. And I'm not going anywhere.


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