What I have to say this week applies not only to comics but to writing in general. A couple of weeks ago, I lamented negative portrayals of women and children in graphic novels and used early issues of Wonder Woman to exemplify my arguments. While it might seem irrelevant to get upset about something that is obviously dated and silly in retrospect, I deliberately used images that would seem tame or even harmless. To be honest, some of the more current images are so graphic that I felt it would have been in bad taste to include them in my post. I contend that the points I made are valid, and using seemingly inoffensive examples might actually encourage readers to take a more careful look at how they and the rest of society think. Fantasy isn’t real, but it has real consequences, good and bad. Keep in mind that Wonder Woman is often uncritically regarded as a feminist icon because she is a superhero and because she is a woman. It is good to read thoughtfully and to choose one’s heroes carefully.
Our modern mythology in western society is embodied primarily in movies, comics, and popular fiction. The key here is writing. For something to be seen, it first must be written. Our culture in general and fantasy entertainment in particular are saturated with damaging portrayals of women. Those of us who write have the opportunity and the responsibility to help reverse this trend. Compelling characters and stories can have tremendous influence on the attitudes of many people. I am not suggesting we write propaganda at the expense of story quality. This takes too low a view of our respective readerships. These are people who can and will think for themselves, but they will choose from available options. Let’s offer them something better.
It isn’t enough just to have lead characters who are female. This can lead us into an insipid numbers game which actually defeats our purpose and continues to feed the beast. We need to take a more qualitative look at what we are doing and why. The following comments are based on my own limited experience, so I would appreciate any additional insights you might care to contribute.
I have noticed some trends which have been lauded as steps in the right direction in fantasy writing. Most with which I am familiar simply involve the raising of awareness by describing unsettling societal issues and incorporating them into plot and character development. It is fairly easy to describe the mistreatment of women, somewhat harder to shed light on the internal suffering this causes them, and much more difficult to create solutions which can show us a way forward. For example, a plethora of female superheroes have been written with backstories of abuse and discrimination. If I can say anything about them as a group, it is that they are portrayed as damaged and often angry. Internal conflict is the base from which they combat evil, and they have a tendency to remain hurt, angry, and conflicted as they unsuccessfully try to exorcise their personal demons. In other words, they don’t often get better.
The challenge for fantasy writers, as I see it, is to begin with characters who are damaged and then make them believably whole. In doing this, care must be exercised to prevent the story from devolving into a predictable morality play. Some would argue that healthy characters aren’t as interesting, but I respectfully disagree. Would you rather have a conversation with a disturbed stranger or with one who is more balanced? Healthy characters can have as many, if not more, interesting facets to their personalities as those who are damaged. The trick, and it is not trivial, is to make them interesting in their damaged condition and then to make them even more interesting when they are whole. Then, of course, there is the type of female character who starts out from a good place and ends up in an even better one. These are relatively under-utilized roles in current fiction, and they represent considerable literary potential.
Folks (and especially guys), we don’t have to keep our female characters in chains. They can also be more fully clothed. Superheroines are good for more than ogling, DTR talks, catfights (and other girl-on-girl drama), sexual abuse, and even social statements. They and other female leads are deep wells with many unexplored possibilities. As in relationships with real women, we have only scratched the surface.