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Sunday, August 30, 2015 

A woman explains why modern superhero comics don't find much of a female audience

Two years ago on Geekmom, one of their writers explained very well why you can't be surprised when mainstream superhero comics don't win over the lady audience:
In a previous column, “But He’s Black!“, I covered some well-known comic creators who seemed to think women didn’t like superhero comics.

Marketing fail is part of the reason women aren’t reading more superhero comics, as the largely male creators seem to have a very odd idea of what their geek female readers want. Another part is that violence against women is being used for entertainment value.

Rape should never be just an everyday plot device, though given the past actions of DC comics and the statements of Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar, that should be okay.
Even Millar's Kick-Ass was one loathsome little tale, and moviegoers who figure out what the source material used for the adaptation is like could feel embarrassed, with good reason. She had the following rebuttal to Millar's poor statement to the New Republic 2 years ago as well:
Let’s take this one by one:

1. Rape is just like any other violent, horrible thing.

Well, no. It’s not. For one, one-third of your potential female audience might have personally experienced it. I doubt 30 percent of the current male reading audience has personally experienced some of the over-the-top violence in Millar’s stories, especially decapitation.

Rape is all too real for many women. There’s a reason we’re taught to walk in pairs at night. The reason we’re careful on first dates. Louis CK summaries the problem nicely in one of his comedy routines. Violence against women is the reason Gail Simone had to be a real-life hero this week.

I’m fairly sure most men don’t incorporate the concern that a first date could end in decapitation or being beat down when making dinner plans.

2. It’s not the worst thing that can happen to your hero.

It seems to be conventional wisdom among male comic writers that the worst thing that can happen to a hero is that his girlfriend is raped. Identity Crisis was of this mindset when it put a rape at the core of the entire DC superhero universe. Wait, no, it put the male reaction to a rape at the core of the DC superhero universe. (Which is just wrong on so many levels. More of this below.) Hence the “women in refrigerators” trope, an expression based on Green Lantern #54 in which the hero finds his girlfriend dead in the refrigerator and the story is all about him. Marvel has had its share of “women in refrigerators” incidents as well, starting with Carol Danvers giving birth to her rapist’s child back in the day.

Newsflash: The worst thing that can happen is for the hero to be raped.
As a fate worse than death, yes I suppose it could be, and there was once a Mr. Miracle tale where this was done. But I guess for many male writers, it's something they don't have the guts to explore, unless the rapist is female, like in Starman?

The writer also says:
Now imagine your favorite superhero universe is basically based on a male rape and the reactions to it by the women in the story. The guy is just a prop. Well, he’s dead too. (I’m speaking of DC’s Identity Crisis, and, yes, I think Joss Whedon should not have written the introduction to the collected edition.) And then you hear these women writing the comics screamed with glee when the pages where Superman is raped came into the office. “The rape pages are in!” (Such was the report of a former DC editor about Sue Dibny’s rape.)

Then you might come close to seeing it from the female perspective of reading mainstream comics.
Thank goodness somebody else took Whedon to task for paying lip service to the rancid miniseries, which contradicted his supposed support for the ladies. It just demonstrated how poor his grip on a solid path really is.

It's worth noting that a lot of sensible women do not like - and are not comfortable - watching rape scenes on TV and films, and neither for that matter are men with common sense. That's why a lot of stories involving rape on TV and some movies in past decades usually kept it very indirect, because nobody truly wants to see that, and there's more than enough audience who can figure out just what happened anyway. And depicting sexual assault from a 1st-person perspective as Identity Crisis did only makes it worse.
The entire DC comic universe was based for several years on this rape and the fall-out events. Not on the fallout of Sue dealing with what happened to her and taking some agency. No, the fallout because the men were all upset and fought about how to handle it.
Also worth noting is that nearly all the staff/contributors who worked on Identity Crisis were men. How can a book involving a serious issue work properly when there's no women's input, let alone input from victims of sexual assault themselves? That's precisely what so many of the apologists refused to consider.

And this is why superhero comics aren't finding much female audience today, if at all. The editors and publishers shouldn't delude themselves.

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Women have almost always gotten short shrift in the comics medium, and it has only gotten worse as its audience demographics have shifted, from boys and girls under 14 to males in their teens and twenties. And the relaxation of standards (including the end of the Comics Code), and allowing more graphic sex and violence, has not helped matters, either.

Female characters have usually been defined as some man's girlfriend or assistant. It was actually worse at Marvel than DC for many years. The girlfriends and secretaries, and even super-heroines like Sue Storm and Scarlet Witch, were just there to get kidnapped by male villains and rescued by male heroes. At least some of DC's women characters (Lois Lane, Iris West, Carol Ferris, Jean Loring) were usually portrayed (in the Silver and Bronze Ages, anyway) as competent adults with their own jobs.

There is also a tendency to have secondary characters get murdered just to provide a revenge and/or guilt motivation for the hero. Some characters (not just women) were created for that sole purpose: Bruce Wayne's parents, Peter Parker's uncle, Frank Castle's family, Matt Murdock's father. And not just in comics: Steve McQueen's parents in Nevada Smith, James Stewart's father in Winchester '73, Randolph Scott's wife in Seven Men From Now, the wife and daughter in Death Wish, the wife and child in Mad Max.

IMHO, though, it's almost always a mistake to do it with popular continuing characters, like Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man, or Tara MacClay in Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both of those were such good supporting characters that it was a waste to reduce them to MacGuffins (a plot device to motivate other characters).

And there is a misogynist streak in action-adventure fiction in general and in the superhero subgenre in particular. You can see it in the almost loving detail with which the rapes and/or murders of female characters are depicted. And the glee (or, at best, casual attitudes) of some writers and editors. "The rape pages are in!" (And, the editor who approved The Killing Joke: "OK, cripple the b*tch.")

The superhero genre has always been a juvenile male power fantasy, but at least kids in the 1970's and earlier identified with the heroes. Today, it seems that a lot of comic book writers identify with villains. Including those who brutalize women.

Or why not more sci-fi and fantasy authors?

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