Friday, June 26, 2009

Teenage Girls

Today, I'd like to talk about girls.

Specifically, teenage girls. Now, this is an unusual topic for the Absorbascon, but there's a reason for it. Last week, I spent three days working with young female quartets and choruses on their stage presence, interpretation, performance skills, etc., as part of a large music festival. The fact that I was working only with girls was a happenstance, but it brought home to me something I'd never really given much thought to...

Girls and boys are very different people.

Boys are interested in being 'cool'. While this means different things to different boys, it's pretty much a universal and generally involves being on top of your game and being emotionally unperturbed.

Girls do not seem interested in being 'cool'. In fact, they seem interested in being overwhelmed and perturbed. That's not a criticism; quite the opposite, really. Boys try to paddle about in safe emotional waters and avoid making waves, while girls are hot-dogging the pipeline on the sea of feeling, with spectacular rides and dramatic wipe-outs.

I could go on, but you all are probably more familiar with the difference between boys and girls than I am. My real question is: are the essential differences between boys and girls well represented in comic books?

Because if so, I haven't noticed it much, and if not, then that's not very realistic. Certainly, there is a tendency for all heroes, even young ones, to be portrayed in a Standard Heroic Personality Mode. And one would except young heroes to be more mature than their agemates, meaning that they might be a bit beyond the personality extremes of 'normal' teenagers.

Still. If there's not difference at all in their portrayal it demands us to ask the question: why? Is it lazy characterization? Is it male writers unable to write female characters? Is it part of the Conspiracy to Claim that there are No Essential Differences Between Men and Women?

You tell me.

20 comments:

Greg said...

Probably, it is a function of all three. However, because of political correctness and the comic companies wanting to avoid the nattering of self-appointed monitors of comic book content, i.e., those who froth at the mouth the moment something is printed that does not present a homogeneous view of society, it is easier for a comic company to join the conspiracy.

Every time an image "happens" to highlight a female character's breasts, it is reproduced many times as an example of all that is wrong with mainstream comic books. I think we would actually hear the screams of indignation if a male writer were to present a female hero actually crying over Michael Jackson's death, joyous over the news of a friend's pregnancy, and then angry because her sister hadn't given her her mail for the last three days. I saw my wife go through that rollercoaster yesterday evening and, no, it wasn't her "time of the month," that is just her. If I were to write Liberty Belle, for example, acting like that, I would be accused of not understanding her character and of perpetuated the myth that women are emotional creatures and lesser for it.

Michael Xavier said...

I agree 100% with the above -- we are expected to be so PC in this society that if a writer puts any female character in an emotional situation, it's "exploiting".and "stereotypical".

Granted, there tends to be a lot of violence against women in comic books, but how often do we hear the "Women In Fridges" chorus whenever a woman is remotely shown in a weak position -- even if that situation isn't anything like what the whole WiR movement was about (i.e. hurting/killing a female character for storyline purposes of a male hero). The modern Wonder Woman is a kick-ass, take no prisoners warrior -- almost removing any type of EMOTION from her (and no, having her "court" Nemesis is NOT a sufficient way to make her "emotional"). Women tend to be more emotional creatures than women. Is that a stereotype? Well, to me it's just as much of a stereotype as saying "African-Americans tend to have darker skin than other races". It is something that is part of the female constitution. Now, I'm not saying we need to go back to WW fawning over Steve Trevor, but we can do better than trying to make her a stone-cold warrior person (not woman).

Unfortunately, we've gotten to the point where people exclaim silly things like "Joss Whedon really knows how to write strong female characters." Which completely ignore the point that his "strong female characters" simply exhibit general heroic traits and there rarely is anything intrinsically "female" about them, unlike, say, Sarah Conner in T2, who balances a heroic archetype with motherly instincts. Most of Whedon's "strong female characters" could receive a gender change and essentially be the exact same character -- as Scipio puts it, the Conspiracy to Claim that there are No Essential Differences Between Men and Women.

Michael Xavier said...

Ack! "Women tend to be more emotional creatures than women." should be "Women tend to be more emotional creatures than MEN."

And let me add that there is nothing particularly WRONG about women being more "emotional" than men. In fact, the storyline possibilities of how differently men and women perceive things are vast. It's not any different than writing a man like a big, dumb jock, because sometimes we men are big, dumb jocks.

SallyP said...

Yes, for the most part, women are more emotional than men...or at least more upfront about displaying emotion. And yes, we do have mood swings. We are also stoic, practical and pragmatic as well as silly and giddy and everything else. So yes, we can be difficult to write realistically and well. But then again...it can't be that easy to write men realistically and well either.

However, as the mother of a teenaged girl, let me tell you, that they REALLY do enjoy being the stars of their own soap operas.

Matt said...

It's a paradox. If a writer of either sex were to write a female character as emotional, one could argue that that character's sex is being stereotyped as emotional. If the writer doesn't, the character is "stronger" yet ultimately unrealistic.

I'm with the above- Heroism doesn't necessarily mean the absence of emotion.

H said...

Throwing in my two cents, I see a generation to generation lack of realistically presented modern day teen-aged girls (and to a lesser extent) boys. The gap today may not be as wide as it was when Bob Haney was writing teen-agers, but it is there.

Ray said...

Men provide most of the writing for comic-books. So, while comics do down-play the emotions of women to the point of being non-exsistent, having men write females more realistically would probably yield broad generalizations anyway; really absurd stereotypes. But, in a world with mermaids, matriarchal insect empires from space, and snake-god-kings, is a gender stereotype that out of line?

I am in the Army. Females in the armed services tend to deemphasize the feminine in the work place. Marine women, but for the bun-roll in the back of their head, might as well be men. Wouldn't women in a highly masculine world of Epic Acrobatic Super Heroics also deemphasize the emotional?

Scipio said...

I think they would, Ray. But teenagers...? Hm...

Dougie said...

In the pre-Relevance, stick-it-to-the-Man days of DC, weren't girls portrayed differently? I can recall the Legionnaires playing computerised kissing games. Then there was Duo Damsel, who cried herself to sleep over Superboy. The Legion's periodic try-outs mirror the recognition and rejection of school sports teams but there's room for shy girls like Vi as well as sexpots like Nura.

Verification word: Silat. Spock's pet tusked bear.

Michael Xavier said...

Likewise, there is a difference between writing a (female) character with emotions and writing one who is an emotional trainwreck or a frail fragile thing.

That's one of the points being discussed here -- comic writers (mostly male) don't know how to write women because they're often stuck between a rock and a hard place -- too much emotion makes the character fragile, unpopular, and unrealistic, but too little emotion makes the character dull, unpopular, and unrealistic.

In Golden/Silver Ages, Lois Lane, Wonder Woman, Lana Lang, etc. were written as either "frail, fragile things" or "emotional trainwrecks". Even Sue Storm got some "you're a lady!" treatment. These are obviously unrealistic portrayals of women.

Yet too often today we go to the completely opposite side of the spectrum, where women are 100% heroic and kick-ass warriors with hardly any emotion in their character (modern Wonder Woman is the best example). Not many writers are saying that women and "frail and fragile" anymore, but when DC has Superman crying on a cover every six months I think Wonder Woman should be allowed to display some emotion from time to time.

But the PC argument essentially is -- how would people react if it was Wonder Woman crying on those covers? Would they accept it, or would many claim it's sexism to render her displaying a vulnerable emotion? At least someone would complain.

Anonymous said...

But the PC argument essentially is -- how would people react if it was Wonder Woman crying on those covers? Would they accept it, or would many claim it's sexism to render her displaying a vulnerable emotion? At least someone would complain.

The two most obvious flaws with that argument are:

1) Wonder Woman is supposed to be a warrior from a culture of warriors; I wouldn't expect to see Conan crying on a cover of a comic either.

2) Crying on covers is generally a bad marketing strategy because it makes any hero look bad. Go ahead, try to sell a comic where Batman is crying because the Batmobile just had a flat tire and it's the last straw on a particularly vexing day.

A less obvious flaw is that, when done correctly, Wonder Woman can be depicted in tears. She just was about two issues ago in her own comic, and it was done well. And as much as you might be thinking "well people are tolerating it only because a woman writer did it!" ... no, it's got everything to do with whether the character was still allowed her dignity.

You know what started this? When they started depicting the negros like they were as good as regular Americans. Thanks to the legions of Political Correctness, we now have negro superheroes, and even the PC Guardians of the Universe gave a power ring to a negro. You can't even depict a negro like a real negro in comics any more.

Anonymous said...

Aaaand another thing. For a pretty good example of a man writing a heroine well, I always like to point to "Girl Genius" comics:

http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/

The writer / artist, Phil Foglio, does a pretty good job writing a young woman who experiences the gamut of emotions, but who above all is brave, resourceful, and decent. I cannot find anyone claiming that "Girl Genius" is misogynistic (and the comic has won enough awards that people know it exists), and this despite the cartoonishly large breasts on just about every woman.

Michael Xavier said...

1) Wonder Woman is supposed to be a warrior from a culture of warriors; I wouldn't expect to see Conan crying on a cover of a comic either.

Wonder Woman didn't become predominately "a warrior from a culture of warriors" until the Perez revamp. She's also an ambassador, a mentor, a friend, a hero, etc. She wears many hats, most of which are ignored these days so she can be "warrior woman," which is boring.

So she's a warrior - do writers tend to write Red Sonja and Conan EXACTLY the same because they're both warriors? Absolutely not -- they have entirely different backgrounds and, you know, gender.

Of course, the "Who is Wonder Woman?" arc was actually about Diana forgetting about her humanity aspect, but being delayed for a year can really kill a story.

Michael Xavier said...
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Michael Xavier said...
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Michael Xavier said...

You know what started this? When they started depicting the negros like they were as good as regular Americans. Thanks to the legions of Political Correctness, we now have negro superheroes, and even the PC Guardians of the Universe gave a power ring to a negro. You can't even depict a negro like a real negro in comics any more.

I understand this is a joke, though it reflects nothing of my argument. You argument here seems to suggest that there are no differences between people regardless of sex, race, religion, and that all characters shouldn't reflect their cultural background. On the other hand, I expect that if you are going to create a Black/Asian/Gay/Hispanic/Woman/Alien/Whatever superhero that that superhero has some reflection of that background and culture. Tony Isabella created Black Lightning as someone who escaped the ghetto to become an Olympic-class athlete and educator -- he doesn't just happen to be a generic character whose skin is darker than Superman's. The writers of the current Blue Beetle have done a magnificent job of rooting him in Hispanic culture without the somewhat embarrassing Vibe characterization (sorry Scipio!)

Likewise, what's wrong with giving a woman character -- especially a teenager -- characterization that distances her from being a male without overdoing it to the point of embarrassment?

It's the ultimate paradox: "let's celebrate diversity, but at the same time ignore all those things that make us different because it's wrong to point out our inherent differences."

Look at Ravanger -- when she's written well, she balances the "warrior woman" and "troubled angsty teenager" with someone who has been hurt emotionally by her family ties. Compare that with Wonder Girl, whose main characterization for the last four years is "now I'll never marry Superboy [sob]!" which is an embarrassing throwback to 1950s Wonder Woman.

Anonymous said...

"I understand this is a joke, though it reflects nothing of my argument. You argument here seems to suggest that there are no differences between people regardless of sex, race, religion, and that all characters shouldn't reflect their cultural background."

Nope, my point is about complaining about horrible, horrible Political Correctness, and how nobody can say or do anything because of the legions of the Politically Correct. I've heard people complaining about Political Correctness for about 20 years now, and as far as I can tell, the only things Political Correctness actually curb are blatant racism and sexism. You want to portray a black character with an urban background? You can do that, provided you don't reduce him to a caricature. You want to portray a woman with emotions? You can do that too, provided you don't reduce her to a frail thing who just needs a man to rescue her.

Like I said in my first post, as soon as someone starts railing about Political Correctness, I know what's coming.

Michael Xavier said...

Anonymous,

Fair enough. We agree that characters should somewhat reflect what is unique about their background/gender -- otherwise we'd get early 60s JLA, where every character's voice and personality is interchangable or harmful caricatures. I think everyone can agree on that.

However, I still profoundly disagree with your assertion that "as far as I can tell, the only things Political Correctness actually curb are blatant racism and sexism". For example, I've read places where people denounce comics (and other media) for putting a woman in any sort of violent situation or showing any type of weakness. How could anyone possibly write a Wonder Woman (or any superhero) story without putting her in a weak position for a next issue cliffhanger?

Extreme political correctness can (and sometimes does) sterilize art to the point of blandness. Keep in mind that there are people out there who denounce the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for being "racist" even though Jim, despite being a stereotypical slave, is the most human character in the book and Twain was a staunch abolitionist.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's always possible to find examples of people with extreme, fringe opinions. But if the Forces Of Political Correctness were as powerful and oppressive as you maintain, Power Girl wouldn't be in comics, Stargirl would wear something that covered her midriff better, and Black Canary wouldn't have any trouble getting the JLA to listen to her. Meanwhile, back on what we used to call Earth Prime, Political Correctness remains a convenient label that ultimately means nothing, though I think it tends to say something about the speaker. You are welcome to disagree, of course.

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