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Why Don’t I Dig This?

I’m home sick from work today but, as my dad always says, too sick to enjoy it, alas. I’m assuming it’s a mild flu (complete with respiratory symptoms!) but it’s annoying. This is all a prelude to ranting, letting you know there’s a mild chance when I come to my senses I’ll think everything I’m saying is insane. But onward!

I’ve been thinking about Barb Lien-Cooper’s opinion piece “Why Don’t Chicks Dig Comics? Well, Why Don’t You ASK One?” and several things about it have been nagging at me.

First, and maybe most importantly, there’s this:

In addition, in spite of the fact that women are made to feel somewhat more welcome in comic book stores, there’s still a slight majority of stores that WANT to be like Floyd’s Barbershop or whatever. Some places REVEL in being the last place on earth a man can hang out without having to deal with women or their objections to how women are treated as customers, as readers, as creators, and as characters in comics. I’ve been to some stores where I have been made to feel unwelcome because of my gender. Those experiences were like accidentally stepping into a men’s locker room.

Relatedly, Alex de Campi said that German comics stores are more girl-friendly. I have no way of knowing whether the German part is true. I didn’t find any specialty comics shops in Turkey, and I suppose the Spanish stores I was in would have been friendly to girls who liked Conan and porn. But I’m bothered by the constant references to offensive behaviors in stores. I’ve never had any myself, but I stand up for myself. The problem is that if these kinds of things are going on, we need to know details. If there are stores with systematic discrimination towards women or where there’s a hostile shopping environment, there needs to be a list of names all over the internet so the managers can explain themselves and improve and be aware that this is a problem, and so that the rest of us who care about this issue can choose to shop accordingly. It seems like the most basic site for comics activism, and yet I’ve never seen anything beyond such vague complaints.

But then there’s the whole issue of why women need to be reading comics anyway. I’ve participated in lots of male-dominated fields and never considered that much of a problem or a barrier, nor did it deter me from following things that interested me. I’m also a knitter, a stereotypically female activity, and in reading message boards and knitting blogs there are plenty of entreaties to remember that men knit too and not to assume that all knitters are women as well as comments to the pattern makers that they should include more clothing for men, but I haven’t seen much widespread activism to get men as a group more involved in knitting. So why do comics readers get hung up on this kind of Affirmative Action, tricks to get women to read comics? As Barb points out, lots of women do read comics, especially manga. So where exactly is the problem?

I have yet to meet a comics reader who’s really just happy with the status quo. Whether it’s wanting writers to conform more closely to their view of the Platonic form of Green Arrow or wanting new writers (or a return of old writers) or different art styles or more or less editorial involvement, comics fans all want to make comics better. So when the thesis of such gender-driven articles invariably is that comics should be written better with more awareness of interpersonal interaction and characterization, why is this in any way special to women? To me, that feels patronizing; it’s not enough to say “Smart, sensible people want comics that read well and make sense,” but you have to add, “and chicks would dig it too!” I guess what I’m saying is that “what women want in comics” always turns out to be about what the writer wants in comics, which makes sense, but might be more useful if given in a more direct manner. The Class of Women is not a good demographic. Barb wisely suggests aiming for women who are already geeks, which I think is one place where comics have made significant inroads among female readers – or at least comics published by Vertigo and Slave Labor Graphics, as well as the aforementioned manga.

And one more gripe:

Right now, we are a hermetically sealed off order from the mainstream, with more terms of art, jargon, rituals, secret symbols, inside jokes, and offshoots than one can shake a stick at. We’re the bloody Masons of subcultures! And, that’s the way a lot of us like it. We make it difficult for newbies to come inside, as we make it so only those who are willing to study the subculture and take its ways to heart feel welcome.

Maybe that’s true. Certainly superhero continuity seems like a ridiculous mess to an uninterested outsider, but that’s not all of “comics.” And I think what’s just been described is true of just about any self-selecting hobby group. There’s a new language you have to learn to be a part of any subculture, and having gone through several, I strongly disagree that it’s harder to learn to speak comics than it is to get into any other subculture. I started reading comics 4 or 5 years ago and have figured out how to get by, and I have absolutely horrible visual skills: it can’t be that difficult. I’ve also seen many people who do welcome new or potential readers, both online and real-life folks in general, as well as organizations like Sequential Tart and Friends of Lulu, both of which are explicitly interested in helping women transition into The Comics Lifestyle, whatever that is.

None of this means that I don’t want more women reading comics! Most of my comics-reading friends offline have been women, and plenty of the online ones are, too. I just don’t look at myself as being somehow special or privileged for being a woman who (gasp!) reads comics, even the superhero kind! But trying to use women as an excuse to advocate the kind of comics you like is stupid and demeaning. In Barb’s defense, she’s not just talking. Her comic Gun Street Girl was created to fill what she considered gaps in the range of comics currently available. And I agree wholeheartedly that sexist discourse among and from comics professionals and fans needs to stop. I’m just sick of reading about what women want instead of reading good comics, and the ones I consider good won’t be good for all women. I’m ok with that. In fact, I think it’s great. But at least Barb didn’t advocate beefcake. Ick!


  1. David Fiore says:

    If this be sickness Rose, I hope we all catch it!

    Seriously though, I hope you feel better by the time you read this.


    — 12 May 2004 at 9:00 pm (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    No such luck on the health front, but I’m sure this is just a passing fancy.

    As for the post, I realized that my real problem with the Cooper piece is that she’s complaining about comics pros who talk about their fans as “he” but is nonetheless writing to an implicitly gendered audience. Her “you” is the same as a “he.” I should have picked up on that sooner, since obviously if I wanted to know what a woman thinks about comics I’d just talk to myself. And I’m not sure what I think about that, but I don’t think women have any more right than men to generalize about what all women think.

    (edited to add the word in italics because it was there in my head and makes the sentence readable.)

    — 12 May 2004 at 9:22 pm (Permalink)

  3. Anonymous says:

    You have an audience full of Daves, it seems.

    Part of the problem stems from my old hobbyhorse: the incredibly sloppy way we use the term “comics”, a term used to refer to not just the books but also the market and also the greater comics reading community, among other things. Retailers obviously want more female customers, ergo affirmative actions and marketing tricks. Of course, wanting to expand the market doesn’t tell you at all what types of comics–if any–would appeal to women; as you note, if you define the market as broadly as Lien-Cooper does, you can support an proposition you want.

    Oh, and hope you feel better….


    — 13 May 2004 at 12:31 am (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    Anonymous Dave (Intermittent?),

    That’s certainly a good point about definitional problems, and I try to hedge my way around the issue whenever possible. I don’t mind retailers trying to attract female readers; that makes perfect sense from a business standpoint. I’m just not comfortable with a politicized viewpoint that wants women to be manipulated consumers. It’s just a little too close to the women’s magazine stuff about how to trick your man into what you want him to do because you apparently can’t just have a reasonable conversation about it; it seems unfair and demeaning to the people on both sides.

    And thanks for all the good wishes! I promised my boss I’d be back at work tomorrow, so I’m hoping sleep will help a lot. I’m certainly not too sick to function, just drained and cranky.


    — 13 May 2004 at 1:29 am (Permalink)

  5. Dave Intermittent says:


    Yeah, that’s me. Sorry for any confusion.

    I think the definitional issue is more a problem for Lien-Cooper’s piece than for your response; I merely flagged it as a possible answer to the question of why folks care about more women reading comics, versus caring about more people reading comics. With respect to manipulating consumers…not sure there is any way around that. Or at least, given that manipulation seems to be somewhat effective, arguing against it on moral grounds seems a losing proposition, though not a worthless one.


    — 13 May 2004 at 2:54 am (Permalink)

  6. Rose says:

    I’m not sure I was clear enough. I think the direct market should, by all means, target all sorts of new demographics. Publishing companies should try to do this too, because like any other business, one of the best ways to grow market share is to create new markets rather than duke it out with the other competitors. I’m just not sure what audience Barb was aiming for, and maybe that’s why her advice wasn’t too helpful. Me, I don’t think retailers or publishers are paying attention to anything I say, so I was just talking to other readers of comics and of comics commentary.


    — 13 May 2004 at 2:30 pm (Permalink)

  7. Barb Lien-Cooper says:

    When trying to engage in a dialog that attempts to make people think about the conditions that prevail, there will always be disagreements concerning what is said, comments about generalizations, and things you can pick apart. Then again, it’s so much easier to pick apart an argument than to initiate a discussion of a topic such as feminism and the old boys’ network of comics. Having told my truths the way that I saw them at the time of the column and having my opinions make you think about the article enough to disagree with points in it, means that I made you think about what I had to say. I know that my opinions aren’t always popular or universally agreed upon, but sexism in comics is the proverbial “elephant in the living room”. We all know it’s there, but no one has the guts to confront it. One sometimes has to be confrontational in order to get readers’ attentions. If you didn’t like parts of the article, oh well. I said what I wanted to say the way I wanted to say it.

    BTW, I only clicked on your sight because of a google search concerning my comic Gun Street Girl, which was mentioned in the link. I was a little surprised to see a criticism of a column instead of a review of the comic, as it’s dearer to my heart than my commentary. But, as long as I was in the area, I thought I’d speak my mind, then have done with it. I mean, the last thing I want to do is engage in a web debate. I find that such pass-times are usually a waste of time. After all, I was just expressing myself concerning a topic I feel passionate concerning because so few people are willing to even talk about it.

    — 3 June 2004 at 5:09 am (Permalink)

  8. Rose says:

    I certainly agree that women are underrepresented as comics readers and far, far more as comics creators, and didn’t disagree. But I do disagree with your statement that sexism is a problem that isn’t discussed. It often isn’t discussed in a sophisticated way or discussed well, but I’ve seen plenty of people pontificate and give honest opinions and state their own ideas about how to improve the situation. There’s a lot of discussion and not a lot of action, and ot that point I repeat my plea that if you know what comics stores treat women badly, I hope you will be willing to talk about this publicly. Comics activism shouldn’t just mean giving books to new readers, and it certainly shouldn’t mean protecting parties who behave badly just because they’re comics retailers.

    I’m not sure I understand why you say you want “to engage in dialog” and yet don’t want to respond to criticisms or engage in “web debate,” but I’ve given my responses anyway. I linked to Gun Street Girl because I thought it was worth alerting what few readers I might have of the work you are doing in comics as well as in commentary. However this is a site for criticism more than reviews. I’m glad that you’re passionate about this issue and would appreciate hearing any disagreements you have with my own impressions of the situation and of your views, but I understand that this may not be a venue in which you like discussing such things.

    — 3 June 2004 at 12:55 pm (Permalink)