I wanted to tell the internet that I am still that shrill and strident fan the comments section has warned you about. I am that angry feminist who has read and agreed with all of those articles, all those skewerings of all those non-existent spines. I have been talking to a wall for years and am frustrated that it has not heard me. I am that woman who should go back to the kitchen, who should be making you a sandwich. I wanted to tell you that, internet, because when I get words buzzing inside of me sometimes I need to let them fly out.
This is a love song, I think.
I love superhero comics even though they tell me that I shouldn’t. I love them enough to spend money, enough to preorder. I don’t like to brag, man, but I have over four thousand posts on the CBR messageboards. I love them enough to have opinions and hold them deeply and Jedi mind-trick myself into believing that one day they will love me back.
It hasn’t been hard, oh G—, is the scary part. I live, you know, to force method from the madness, and Marvel six-one-six is the ultimate dare: let’s see you make sense out of this. It is my love of footnotes and my love of things punched in the face together and there is no way that I ever stood a chance.
I guess you have to understand that I am a girl, the kind of girl who wears dresses sometimes and owns dozens of pairs of shoes. There are a lot of things out there that they make for girls like me, but superhero comics are not one of them. Neither is Diet Dr. Pepper. I know because people keep telling me. Things that are for me: dresses, shoes, magazines that tell me which dresses and shoes would look best and how to lose weight to fit into them. But superhero comics are not for girls, because they are sexist.
2010 was Marvel’s “Year of Women” and they spent a whole year putting out stories that celebrated their superhero women. There are so many of them, so many colorful characters with crooked pasts, woven into the astonishing cacophony of that alternate-universe New York. These superhero women sprung up from all decades, capable of inhuman feats of physical smack-down and incredibly human feats of courage and moral fortitude. Capable, too, of looking good in impossible pants. These are figures emblazoned on t-shirts that say “girl power” and affixed into homages to Rosie the Riveter. We can do it.
Marvel printed a dozen specials, launched four new ongoings, and commissioned two series of variant covers to celebrate their superhero women. They hired women to write and to draw their stories, when they could. One woman editor came up with an anthology project— a comic book jam session written, drawn, edited, created entirely by women. They called it Girl Comics, The title was a winking reference to the heyday of romance comics, a time when the superhero genre was dead as Jean Grey in Uncanny X-Men #137. And comics were made, sometimes, for girls. Marvel published this all-lady anthology, a collection of stories featuring their timeless corporate characters. And instead of wondering at the diversity of female voices telling stories about these timeless, corporate characters, the internet wondered whether calling something “Girl Comics” meant it was sexist. Sexist against men, maybe, men who were alienated. Sexist against women, who were infantilized.
What I’m saying is that superhero comics are not for girls, because they are sexist.
Superhero comics will make you a movie that is seen by millions of people, that brings in billions of dollars. They will make you toys for boys, in the boy aisle, because only boys like to play dress-up with bright colors, because when we call them action figures it is somehow different than playing with dolls. The movie will have a team, and the team will have one woman member, and there will be lots of jokes about how she is there because her boobs look good in spandex. One national, professional reviewer will say, from the self-affirmed perspective of his own inner ten-year-old, that her performance is a disappointment because her boobs do not look good enough.
Here is something else this movie will do: it will treat that character like a character and not a pair of boobs that look good in spandex. It will give her a storyarc, and a past, and gravitas. It will make sure to establish both why she is heroic, and how. It will be made by a man who banks his credentials in pop culture lady kickass, it will be made by women costume designers, women storyboarders, who no one will really mention. And it will be seen by the number of people it needs to be seen by to make one billion dollars, and some of them will be girls, and some of them will be happy to see, to know, that when they go to sleep at night it is okay if they dream about punching aliens, too.
The movie will have a team, and there will only be one woman member.
She will be the only member who is not given her own comic. When the movie came out Black Widow was pushed out of her generous role in Secret Avengers to give Hawkeye more room. He had less screen time and less memorable lines in the film; his comics had never sold more than hers, but he was pushed with cunning relentlessness. Hawkeye was the next big thing.
I do not know that it was sexist, that they rolled out the welcome mat for Clint, in ways that they wouldn’t, for Natasha. I know that despite the conventional wisdom that female leads do not sell, Black Widow books have always done as well or better than ones that star Clint Barton. And I know, finally, that Marvel still describes Natasha as one of their most prominent characters, and that maybe they are right.
But some of her most prominent appearances are as a love interest in a book with a man’s name in the title, where right now she is brainwashed and kidnapped and putting men in anguish. Men are conspiring to rescue her. This would never happen to Hawkeye, not because men never need rescuing, and not because he routinely stars in his own stories. There are no superhero women, though, that would get billing over Clint Barton, who has never had a title very long, who I love dearly but who has never been bigger than the B-list. There is no woman big enough to make him her love interest, to make him her sidekick. He was introduced that way, internet, as the Black Widow’s love interest/sidekick/henchman, but in this moment he’s completely eclipsed her. And that is the surest sign of this legacy of sexism, that there is no women superhero that has lasted on her own terms. Only Hawkeyes, only those sometimes stars. A lot of love interest/sidekick/henchman roles that are always held against them, that they are not written to grow beyond. Not in a way that sticks.
I know also that the Hawkeye book they’ve made is brilliant, that it bends the genre against itself in all the best ways. That it has something there to say about being a superhero and being lonely, and that all the critics are mad for it. I do not think this is sexism, internet, though I know by my contract I am bound to find it everywhere.
Let me tell you, internet, about one Black Widow book they put out after the movie. You might not have heard of it, it’s pretty obscure, it wasn’t front-page promoted or interviewed about or talked up much maybe at all. It was just a limited series, just a mini, three issues and then done, not in the mainline continuity. It also took all three issues for Natasha to put on all her clothes. They had Natasha inhabit various disguises that ranged from fetish club waitress to bikini model. The comic was originally published in Maxim.
Just watch your back, agent. Everyone else will be.
I cannot tell you how deep that stabbed me, internet, but for your sake I will try. I have spent years, you see, collecting these stories, taking parts of them and clipping them out to show to other people and saying: look, superhero comics are for girls. I have spent years believing in Black Widow as a hero, brilliant and melancholy and sometimes cruel, but still fascinating, still admirable. I believed in that strong enough that I willed myself past cheesecake covers, past questionable art, past that nagging voice that told me, in those foreboding tones that can only come from inside the house: this is no place for a girl. Fred Van Lente, who wrote Black Widow Strikes, said that he’d been allowed to read the Avengers script beforehand and that it captured all the best parts of Black Widow. He was right, the movie did, and then superhero comics turned around and captured only the worst.
They took my hero and they made her into a sex object, something peddled in her underwear for the greedy eyes of men’s magazines. Instead of riding that movietide wave and publishing a Black Widow comic meant for me, for the people who go to comic stores because Joss Whedon is like a religion, for people who like good comics or for girls who saw the film and thought for a second that they could be a superhero, Marvel only published crude suggestions of Scarlett Johansson in the acrobatic nude.
For two months this was the apex of lady-centric superhero stories at Marvel, because it was the only one they were publishing.
You might wonder, internet, why Marvel can’t put out a book that sings the arrow like Hawkeye does and also happens to star a woman. Here’s how that story goes: superhero comics are not for girls, because they are sexist. And because they are sexist they do not produce stories about girls that are worth reading. I have read this on a million blogs and on a million messageboards, and I might be exaggerating but I am still honest. And I am getting angry at things made by men for men, always and forever. I am blaming a genre rooted in adolescent male fantasies for reveling in that exaggerated id. I am mad that I do not like something that was never meant for me in the first place. To run their superhero women through the pages of Maxim is not a betrayal, it is an acknowledgement.
But just a few months before they put out that miniseries that I swear I try not to think about, Marvel released this brilliant single-issue Black Widow story, aggressively intelligent, high profile creators, one of the best of the year. Secret Avengers #20 is complicated and lonely and it is about why and how Natasha Romanov is the world’s greatest secret agent. It does not ask her to take off her shirt to prove it. It is exactly the single issue I would hand to my friends who think I am cracked for caring about Marvel so much. “See,” I would tell them, “superhero comics don’t have to be sexist! And they can be more than that: they can be good.” And my lips would write themselves into a triumphant line and the victory fanfare from Final Fantasy VI would be playing in the back of my head. I’d win.
The problem isn’t the books I buy, it’s the ones that I don’t, the books that wink at me when I browse the racks at the comic store and promise me everything I do not want. It is the garish cardboard cutouts of elf ladies in chainmail bikinis that line the place, the fact that I am the only woman there, the sales clerk directing me to the manga section though I did not ask to be.
I lied, though. It is the comics I buy, because I know that good stories about women often wrapped inexplicably in showy pin-up covers. Because good writing can come packaged with bad art, and vice versa. I buy comics I hate because they are about women, because I do not know how else to tell Marvel that I want to buy comics about women. They keep saying that they do not sell so I preorder and hope for the best and like the story but hate the art. I swim through all these reminders that comic books hate me because how else will I discover the characters I have come to love.
This is the paradox of liking women, liking superhero comics. They will put out Black Widow Strikes and Secret Avengers #20 in the same six months and I will trick myself into buying both things because the one fuels my hope for the other. Because I am used to making myself see past the airbrushed commodification of Greg Land’s art and covers. Because I try to find the part that is for me, in all these stories that aren’t, and over the years I have gotten really good at it. Because sometimes comics are just really good.
Stephen Wacker, a Marvel comic book editor who I hope does not find this rant of mine by googling himself, said that he wanted to push the Captain Marvel book to show his daughter there was a place for her in this hobby. And internet, I believe in Steve Wacker, I believe he is telling truths, that he wants to publish comics he can show his daughter without shame and that he wants Captain Marvel to soar. I believe in Captain Marvel, too, I preordered two copies. I have a souvenir pin. I take Mr. Wacker exactly at his word, but to his daughter, I say beware: superhero comics are not for girls, because they are sexist.
Because superhero comics will produce stories that welcome women, celebrate them, even. They will put “girl power” on their t-shirts. But they will also pay their editors to remember whether Wonder Man is meant to be stronger than Luke Cage but not always that women cannot be believable heroes and also sex cartoons. So they all play both roles, part time, in some impossible whirling dance. Half hero, half object, wholly nothing. As long as they are still putting out comic books that draw women boobs first, that song of empowerment will be part-sham. But as long as they keep putting out books like Captain Marvel, that dream of mine won’t be dead.
Wonder Woman is almost shorthand for four-color feminism; she’s emblazoned in the pop culture like a cross on a shield. She was fashioned as propaganda for a new woman world order, Gloria Steinem put her on the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine. But the old Paradise Island is gone, now, and comics keep trying to reinvent her. The comic is broken, they say, and men argue academically about just how much bondage played a role in those Golden Age issues. Girls, never having read a Wonder Woman comic, still go to sleep knowing that they want to be her when they grow up.
I go to sleep sometimes wondering how I have become that shrill and strident fan who takes everything so seriously. I just wanted to read about aliens getting kicked in the face, occasionally by talking gorillas, I tell myself. How did it ever come to this?
But I’m in love, so I spend my nights talking to walls, trying to convince them to love me back. I know one day my voice will run out, that I will get tired of being told that I do not belong here in these aching, gnawing ways. I will throw up my hands, exhausted, and I hope then that my only regret is what might have been. I will not be giving my money to this hobby forever because superhero comics are not for girls and because I am breakable and easily frustrated and it’s really a miracle I’ve held out this long. This is a message in a bottle to my future self, so she can know what, precisely, I was thinking at the time. It is a message to everyone on this dark path, who braves those moments of insult for moments of four-color joy. I am glad to have shared this with you, fellow warriors of paradox. I hope you carry on when I can’t.
This is still a love song, I think.