Wimmin!

The spelling of this article's title is derived from the impersonations my brother used to do of one of his co-workers who frequently lapsed into tirades against women. When in full rant, his "women" came out sounding like "wimmin." O.K. - guess you'd have to be there.

Oh - the picture? Yeah, it's new. I swiped it from the Spider-Man Crawlspace. I've pondered for some time whether or not to post it as a lead off to this article because it is in such dubious taste that it seems almost perfect for this discussion. I mean, it is so fundamentally absurd, stupid, and yet gloriously tacky and is a perfect illustration of what women find wrong with men and their comics. I don't know who the original creator is, but would credit him/her if I knew.

As a typically emotionally arrested heterosexual male, I can't help but be intrigued by this example of girl on girl art - even against my better judgment. But think about this for a minute you guys - if the portrait above pictured Peter Parker and Harry Osborn dressed in leather and DOING EXACTLY THE SAME THING - would you still find it "fascinating," or would you be so thoroughly repulsed that you'd turn away from it or hit a new link to get you away from it as fast as you could?

Yeah, I thought so. Me too.

I originally wrote this article for the Hero Realm several years ago when the founders of that site got dragged into a ridiculous flame war because they had the audacity to contradict a well-known comic critic's gross overstatement about a character's sexuality in a little known comic that has since been cancelled (it was Meridian #1 from Crossgen). While that particular incident is in the past and no longer any concern - the larger issue of the portrayal of women in comics, and the overreaction of certain women to that portrayal is still a valid discussion - and to keep with the theme of my site - I've even slipped some references to Spidey in it. Probably the singular most popular series at this site has been the Why did it Have to be you, Mary Jane? series. Not only does it have the most hits, but it seems to be the one most frequently cited and referenced in message boards and blogs. And you know what - I have no idea why - because Helen Gurly Brown I ain't. But that's beside the point. MJ's presence in the Spider-Man stories (or at times, her lack thereof, particularly in this Brand New Day era) is a controversial one - and I tend to think that not an insignificant part of that relates to the role, both real and perceived, of women in comics, and how male writers seem to feel about women. Since there are websites and books already devoted to the subject that cover it far more adequately than I could, this article will stick with my humble opinions and avoid any deep-seated Freudian stuff which is way out of my league.

I suppose what inspired me to take a feeble stab at addressing this issue was to rise to the defense of my own flawed gender. During my research for the original version of this article, I was really frosted when I came across a snide comment by a female columnist about how a character in a Vampirella comic was dressed that said "Obviously her artist never expects her to actually move, but hey, so long as she can pose for the fanboys, right?"

When I read things like that, it becomes apparent to me is that the issue at hand with Vampirella or other comics is not necessarily how women's bodies are actually portrayed in comics, but who are the ones doing the portraying, and that is largely men. Many women resent the fact that the power to control how women are presented in media is largely vested with men - regardless of the fact that given the opportunity, many women just might not represent their sex much differently! In fact, I'm reminded of some of the controversy over the litigation years ago surrounding comedienne/former talk show host Rosie O'Donnell's late Rosie magazine. In the middle of some of the more esoteric details of the lawsuit including licensing and editorial control, neither of which I care to weigh in on, one point that was made was that Rosie was specifically peeved by the fact that it was a man with whom she was having the acrimony over editorial control. Obviously, the primary issues of the case may not have been much different regardless of the gender of the publisher, but gender apparently was the primary reason that the lawsuit moved from a strictly legal to a far more personal matter for Rosie. Normally, particularly as a result of Rosie's sexuality, I could just assume that she hated men, period, but that would probably be a very narrow minded and short sighted observation. It's more than likely that she's just plain nuts if her weird rants on The View were any indication, and being nuts is gender neutral.

I honestly believe there would be a lot less sensitivity about the issue if the scales were more evenly balanced between men and women creators, regardless of the nature of the portrayals. Although now that I think about it, considering Rob Lefield's art and others who draw in that almost obscenely exaggerated style - maybe there can never be enough balance. And let's be honest, there is a genuine inequity here, and it can't be denied or explained away. But, I don't believe that anything other than an economic "conspiracy" is at work. Big business has completely whored itself out to the almighty dollar anyway, I don't think the powers that be care about who buys the product, black/white, male/female, as long as someone is buying it in mass quantities - and whoever does the mass buying is the one who it is going to be targeted to. Admittedly, I've probably gone out on a limb, but I believe that the following observations support my opinions:

Now, all of the things that I referenced above are o.k., but by god, big boobed women in comics targeted to the male audience aren't.

Sigh.

My point is not that I am trying to diss this type of entertainment. Hell, for the most part it's completely harmless, and most people, even kids, are more than capable of distinguishing healthy fantasy from unhealthy obsession. But the point is that both sexes (and sexual orientations) have their puerile interests, their guilty pleasures, and their fantasies. It just seems that many people prefer their offense to be "convenient." In other words, when it's convenient, we'll be offended. When it's not, we'll ignore it. That pisses me off to no end.

Another thing that upsets me is in the mainstream media, no one makes any connection with those fantasies that are specifically directed at women, no matter how lurid, to criminal behavior. On the other hand, even the genuine, healthy, "adolescent male fantasy" gets placed on the same level as "woman hater," "exploiter," or "pornographer." It is implied, oh hell, it's outright stated that boys who have these fantasies, or boys whose attention is captured by depictions of scantily-clad women with big boobs and big butts are going to grow up to abuse, rape, and mutilate women. That is just so damned stupid I can't believe that educated people make these claims.

For example, one typical adolescent male fantasy is the rescue of the cute heroine from the diabolical fiend, whoever or whatever he/she/it may be. I mean, hey, when you looked as seriously malnourished as I did when I was a kid (definitely not an issue anymore at 45+), with dopey glasses and no social graces, you actually had more of a chance of meeting girls by rescuing them from diabolical fiends than through the normal course of interaction in those quasi-Nazi concentration camps with their rigid, Hindu-like class structure that are euphemistically called "junior and senior high schools." Usually in the healthy fantasies the fiend does little more than tie the girl up and think about doing all kinds of nasty things to her - but the story seldom, if ever gets any further than that. And once the girl is rescued by the hero (usually the idealized version of the fantasizer), then it's usually up to her to dictate how much farther the relationship went with the hero. Obviously she can't help but fall madly in love with her rescuer, but that's still her choice. Normal boys don't follow the fantasy to the point where they actually force themselves upon her - because then they'd be acting just like the bad guy! And frankly, when I was a young boy, I didn't realize that it could go any further than just some heavy petting. Hey, I grew up in rural Southern Indiana - o.k.? And boys who seriously consider going to the extreme have problems that have nothing to do with their reading material.

Part of me is puzzled why there even is a debate on this subject, considering who actually buys and reads most of the comics. Since it's young and not so young males, then the women are going to look rather voluptuous because that's what gets young and old boys' attention. The lead picture on this article certainly worked, eh? And it's old news that men are much more visually oriented than women in the first place. People a lot smarter than me with all sorts of initials after the last names have made that statement - and any book dealing with male/female relationships will state that as well. However, that being said, the companies producing this material can't mouth off about why they can't reach female audiences. If they truly WANT to increase the size of their female readership - then yes, they may very well have to tone down some of the imagery. You can't have it both ways.

But men don't just objectify women in their fantasies - they objectify their own sex as well. After all, most male superheroes, Spider-Man's popularity due to his very ordinariness nothwithstanding, are going to tend to be braver and beefier and more chiseled because that's how most young boys would like to be. Talk about ideals that no one can reach - how about Superman and "John Wayne" (moreso the image than the actor, who as I'm sure you know, was really a guy by the name of Marion)? One reason men are accused of acting like "jerks" is because they try to become these idealized male figures that really don't exist.

So, I guess what I wanted to say with that part of my article is that a lot of this slamming of the way women are portrayed in comic books is the result of jealousy, pettiness, bitterness, feelings of disenfranchisement and plain hot air.

After all, as the husband of one woman who has been a professional in the work force, and the father of a daughter, I have no interest in perpetuating a system where women are de-humanized, sexually harrassed, or treated as mere objects whose use is only for the pleasures of men. And I can't see any other real man tolerating such a system either. And going back even further, I actually kinda like my mom (in a non-Freudian sense), even though modern psychotherapy has made me realize that she is the cause of all of the problems in my life and I am free from any personal responsibility whatsoever.

Still, it shouldn't be hard to understand why women are much more sensitive to the issues of violence and powerlessness than men. Being a big fan of America's Most Wanted, that forensic science stuff on the Discovery Channel, and crime stories in general, it seems that most of the truly ugly and horrific crimes detailed are committed by men against women. And it has to be an uncomfortable fact to live with knowing that where ever you go (unless of course, you have a gun, or self-defense expertise) virtually every member of the opposite sex is more than capable of successfully forcing himself upon you against your will. When you are a woman in the company of men, you are not relying on you or your own abilities to take care of yourself, but on the discipline and self-control of the men who are around you. Even a relatively small male, spurred by either adrenaline or psychopathic behavior, oftentimes both, is capable of overtaking more than his fair share of women. And that sense of powerlessness is simply damn scary. If you don't believe me, take it out of the sexual context and walk down the middle of the rottenest section of the metropolitan area near you.

In the entertainment medium, when it comes to highlighting the cruelty one human being commits against the other, a woman is more often than not on the receiving end. My own wife stopped watching sci-fi movies with me for awhile when during one week, two movies with very graphic scenes of violence against women, A Clockwork Orange and No Blade of Grass were on TV. In neither movie was the brutality the point of the film (and there was only one such scene in each). The former's graphic violence was part of the overall subtext of the film (involving whether or not the government has the right to purge objectionable behavior from the minds of its citizens), and the latter's a demonstration of what occurs when the societal framework collapses. Still, my wife was so repulsed by the violence that she couldn't see past it to the larger points that were being made. Since I got no gratification from either scene - as a younger man I couldn't understand what the hell she was upset about. A couple of decades later - yeah - I can see her point.

In researching this article, I came across a site called Women in Refrigerators that lists all of the female characters who have been either killed, or sexually molested in some form. Frankly, I was shocked (the purpose of the article, I suppose), but then again, how many male comics characters over the year have been assaulted, sodomized, or murdered over the years? Quite a few, I must say. Something that always returns to me is when I rifled through a What If from several years ago in which it was postulated what would have happened if Kraven had simply killed Spider-Man during the "Last Hunt" storyline rather than simply played head games with him. Fine - because sometimes we should be reminded that the world in which these people exist is indeed a very dangerous one - and if it was anything like reality, the casualty list of both superheroes and supervillains would be very long. There are a number of What If stories in which the heroes die. However, the author of this particular story was not content to leave it at that - so when Captain America, Daredevil, and the Human Torch followed Kraven back to where he kept the wall crawler's body, they caught him while he was in the middle of eating Spidey's corpse.

It sickened me then and it sickens me now just thinking about it. There's no excuse for something like that other than the writer is simply trying to see what he can get away with. And lest you think I'm a pansy on this sort of thing, I loved the first two of George Romero's Dead movies (the third wasn't very good and the 4th was rather average). But, such a scene simply did not belong in this kind of comic book, with a hero of such universal appeal to kids of all ages, particularly in an industry that is right now going begging for readers, particularly young ones.

In a way, I'm in favor of the comic rating system that states whether the subject matter inside is of a more adult nature. However, I am leery of such things because radicals on BOTH sides of the political spectrum like the idea of ratings and restrictions on reading certain things not because the material may be inappropriate for an age group, but because they usually want to control what opinions reach the general public and censor the distribution of viewpoints that their group does not approve.

There was a period where there were way too many instances of death among female companions of the superheroes, from Betty Banner's death in the Hulk, to Karen Page's death in Daredevil, to Mary Jane Watson's (alledged) death in the pages of Spider-Man (remember, this article was written not long after Amazing Spider-Man #454, or volume 2 #13). Part of me does feel that some of this is the male writers simply getting these characters "out of the way" because having them around compromises their perception of the macho male superhero (although there are indications that the writer of Spider-Man was not in favor of offing MJ, but that it was directed by an editor who has since been dispatched). Also, it's very apparent that some writers are taking their anger at women in their own and transferring that anger to their comics. No less a writer than Peter David admitted that his decision to kill Betty Banner was influenced by the fact that he was going through an ugly divorce. At the very least, this is horrendously sloppy writing and editing, and reminds me of what a co-worker of mine once said "don't assume conspiracy when simple incompetence will suffice."

Another trend I don't like is the dismissal or reconstitution of middle-aged women into something more "acceptable." Again, most of my experience is with Spider-Man, but I recall a time when Drs. Ashley Kafka and Marla Madison were both comfortably middle-aged women. Then, Dr. Kafka apparently went on a space-age diet and both she and Dr. Madison took "babe" pills (since then, Dr. Madison has returned to a comfortably middle aged look, more appropriate as she is the wife of J. Jonah Jameson, who has many flaws, but one of them is not a predilection for young girls). The change in Dr. Kafka, who originally was just a shrink that Spidey talked to occassionally, is most striking:

Since both of these women are very minor supporting characters, who really don't appear that much or have any significant effect on the readership or plotlines (Dr. Kafka hasn't appeared in the regular continuity in nearly 10 years), there is no need to doll them to appeal to the young demographic. If that were the case, it would be more logical to "doll up" Aunt May since she appears a lot more frequently than either one of the female doctors. Pretty absurd thought, ain't it? But then again, when Paul Jenkins originally conceived of the character of "The Queen" in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, she was closer to middle aged than looking late teens, early 20's (as she was supposed to have been a contemporary of Captain America's during World War II, and was subsequently genetically altered). However, as Jenkins stated, most artists do not want to draw middle aged women - they want to draw young attractive women - and therefore we get more of a sexually oriented, skanky looking "Queen" than a true, thoughtful, older villainess.

Now, I will admit that I'm pretty partial to the takes that artists such as Frank Cho, Mike Deodato, and Terry Dodson have on Mary Jane and Felicia Hardy in issues of Marvel Knights Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man. I mean, geez - I am a guy after all. But frankly, it wouldn't bother me if the artists would've toned MJ's sexuality down a bit, maybe by putting a few extra pounds on her or something - because I don't think she should necessarily be portrayed as a sex object. She is the hero's wife, his partner, not his toy. Now Felicia - well, she's the "bad girl," so hey - all bets are off.

One of Hero Realm's former columnists, Professor Jeff Wahl (an old blurb on the Hero Realm front page referred to him as the resident scholar - so I thought I'd have a little fun with it) wrote a column on how comics publishers dumb down the subject matter of the stories and fail to give kids credit for intelligence. One of those matters, I believe, is that young boys cannot relate to characters who have mature, intelligent relationships with women. After all, on the message boards that I have seen, the dispatch of Mary Jane is highly unpopular, with male fans of all ages, single or married. And I don't think they like her just because she looks good in a bikini (which I couldn't care less if I ever see her in again), but because when written well, she brings a balance to Peter's character, and also, frankly, because I think that deep down, most men, both young and old, do want a woman whom they can share their deepest secrets and feelings with, which is what Peter does with Mary Jane.

In summary, I believe some of the complaining about the portrayal of women in comics is hollow, particularly how they are drawn. But whatever, if a large potential audience refuses to purchase comics or enter comics stores because they are pissed off with the way their gender is portrayed - then the industry better listen. And face it, the comics industry, though recently rebounded, is still hanging by tooth and nail to survive - we all know that. I'm sure that most young men who like comics will endure a toning down of the T & A to ensure the survival of the industry if that's what it takes.

So, what kind of comic do I think is good, and accessible to all, but still kicks butt? Marvel's Spider-Girl line. All of the characters, male, female, whatever, are treated fairly intelligently, the parents aren't complete morons, Mayday Parker doesn't run around in her underwear all the time, the book has had good stories, character development, and lots of flying fists and rock 'em sock 'em action without becoming overly violent or disturbing. Of course, sadly, it continually posts among the company's lowest sales for a regular title.

And I will confess, I was disappointed to see that when MJ did come back in the spider-titles, Peter did not confront the kidnapper and beat the sonofabitch to within an inch of his life, with MJ subsequently showering him with kisses. That would have been uber cool. Rather, he got beat up himself like a pansy and the bad guy just walked off and killed himself. That sucked.

For some interesting areas dealing with women in comics (and this is only the merest fraction) start with Sequential Tart , Friends of Lulu and of course, the above referenced "Women in Refrigerators."

Addendum: The Mary Jane Statue
Sigh. I can't let this article go without addressing one of the more recent controversies, and that's the statue of Mary Jane, bent over at an impossible angle yet still remaining upright - with her butt sticking out prominantly, and in her bare feet. Women were offended, but that didn't stop the statue from being a quick success - in fact, that offense resulted in nationwide publicity for the thing. I don't really blame them, and once again, let's reverse the situation and put Spidey in the same position, except this time with a prominent bulge in the front. Now that's gross - right? RIGHT?!? My only wish is that the people who take offense would think how often their taking offense only helps perpetuate publicity for the very thing they take offense to. Otherwise, how many people would have seen the damn thing? A lot less.

My opinion of this statue is that it's stupid, sexist, and I wouldn't have it in my home whether or not I was married. Not so much because I take offense at the subject matter, but I sure as hell can think of better things to do with $125. What I do find peculiar is that Marvel thinks that Mary Jane is such an albatross in the regular books, but has no trouble trotting her out and exploiting her when they think they can make a buck. Oh - she's sexier as a girlfriend (or currently ex-girlfriend) than as a wife - a lifelong partner?

There's an old Chinese proverb that states that "A great lover is not a man who can please a different woman every night, but one who can please one woman for a lifetime."

I'd say that Peter Parker would be up to THAT challenge, regardless of what Joe Quesada and Marvel thinks.


Back to Spidey Kicks Butt!

Back to SKB Archives

Write me at MadGoblin

Or join me on the to talk about this article with me and the Crawlspace Crew!

Copyright 1998-2008 J.R. Fettinger. All Rights Reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of J.R. Fettinger. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel Entertainment.