Female Thor knocks out anti-feminist villain – but this isn’t the coup it seems

By Nicola Streeten Plowman, University of Sussex

Last summer, major US comics publisher Marvel reincarnated one of its most popular characters, Thor, as a woman. Predictably, this prompted an avalanche of opinion, both positive and negative.

The positive reaction celebrated that the new character would provide a lead female role in a predominantly male cast of superheroes within mainstream comics. Mainstream comics desperately needed a new role model for the growing number of young comics readers – many of who are female.

Those who responded negatively highlighted the predictability of a big-breasted, blonde woman character displaying male characteristics and suggesting tokenism. Why not create new characters for women? Of course, there was also the inevitable negative response from comics fans who opposed the new Thor simply because she was a woman.

Marvel decided to respond. In the latest issue of the comic, the male villain, the Absorbing Man, says:

Thor? Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to call you Thor? Damn feminists are ruining everything… You wanna be a chick superhero? Fine. Who the hell cares? But get your own identity. Thor’s a dude. One of the last manly dudes still left. What’d you do, send him to sensitivity training so he’d stop calling Earth girls ‘wenches’?

In response Thor breaks his jaw with her hammer, thinking “That’s for saying ‘feminist’ like it’s a four-letter word, creep”. This scene is presented as proof that Thor can respond to sexism.

Outrage.
Marvel

Victory?

At first glance, it seems pretty cool. A comic facing criticism head on. But it’s important to note her action could be read as an emotional not rational response. And the idea of women being driven by emotions whilst men are ruled by reason dates back to Descartes. Presented hierarchically, this condition of men and women has been used historically to justify patriarchy. Although dismissed within feminist theory, such a belief continues to feed the stereotype of the “hysterical woman”.

Do words speak louder than actions?
Marvel

The scene would have been enhanced no end by a thoughtful rejoinder to Absorbing Man from Thor to accompany her hammer wielding. Thor could have asked any number of things. Why did he assume she was a feminist? Where does the idea of feminists “ruining everything” come from? What is a “chick” or a “dude” and what do those words imply – that women are animals but men are men? What does he assume a “manly” dude is? Someone without sensitivity?

But she doesn’t say any of these things. Because behind the Absorbing Man lies the publishing business of Marvel comics, negotiating the situation like the human man that sits behind the magical front of the Wizard of Oz.

Marvel’s backstage negotiation concerns how to ensure that Thor the woman, the sugar substitute, can be sweet enough to maintain existing consumers (readers) while enticing new ones. The artist and writer are directed accordingly. Versed in the tropes of traditional comics, their expertise is not in the philosophical and political debate surrounding feminism. Perhaps in the creation of a female lead character Marvel could have invited a guest editor, writer or artist?

Thor reincarnated.
Marvel

Where are the real women?

It’s also notable that men hold all three of these roles in the creation of the female Thor. Celebration is due around the appearance of imaginary lead women, but a heartier celebration would be around the inclusion of more women being employed to work on this project.

The male domination of the mainstream comics industry has not changed significantly since World War II. During the war, women took on the roles within the comics industry while men were away fighting, but only until the men returned.

Of course, the gender of a writer or artist does not in itself equate with a different approach. But gender balance and equality in the workplace has been one of the aims of feminism since the 1960s. This continues. A gender balance has never existed within government in the US or in the UK. It has never existed within the comics industry either, nor within many other areas of culture. Women are not a minority group, and women and girls have formed a significant percentage of comics readership historically.

But the status quo remains. And larger publishers cannot afford to publish what will not sell in enormous quantities. The larger bookshops have limited shelf space, restricted to selecting publications that attract high sales. The books that can be sold in the big bookshops gain the most publicity. Though mundane and simplistic to lay out the basic structure of the industry, it is easy to forget the primary motivation behind any business is profit, not ideology. The reluctance within mainstream comics to take risks should not surprise us.

If you have a bestselling chocolate cake, would you jeopardise sales by removing sugar from the recipe? Perhaps, but only if it could be guaranteed that it would taste the same with a replacement ingredient.

So to return to the villain’s conversation with Thor, the challenge to sexism here is limited. And it will remain so until values have shifted on a large scale. That is, when larger, more powerful components of society such as government and major institutions refuse to condone sexism as culturally acceptable, then wider cultural change will occur.

Only then will characters in comics be able to reflect such change without media comment or a threat to sales. To reintroduce Thor as a woman is no big step, it is simply an acknowledgement that such cultural adjustment needs to take place.

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Back from The Dead: Spider-Man’s Girlfriend Is Now A Kick-Ass Superhero Spider-Gwen

Spider-Gwen is a weird title for the newest heroine to swing through the Marvel Universe. Technically, she’s a Spider-Woman. But the ‘Gwen’ part of her moniker highlights the most potentially exciting aspect of her: she’s an alternate version of Gwen Stacy, a character most famous for how she died.

Forty-two years ago, Spider-Man lost a girlfriend in a brutal battle with the Green Goblin that ended in a cruel, twist ending. The final pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #122—in which the wall-crawler snags Gwen with webbing after his archenemy knocks her off the George Washington Bridge—went on become an iconic part of comic-book history. It was a collective loss of innocence for an era of fandom, which dared to present a story where superheroes can’t always save innocents. (Read More)

Seeing the unseen: the stories that comics help us recognise

By Golnar Nabizadeh, University of Western Australia

In the month since the the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, the significance of visual representation has been a topic of much discussion. Political cartoons have the potential to reinforce problematic stereotypes – and also to challenge them.

Relying on basic materials such as pencil and paper, cartoon and comics artists can readily respond to political and social issues; at their most impressive they draw out worlds that tend to remain unobserved.

At the same time, our easy access to visual images can, at times, encourage a superficial consideration of their impact. While there is an ongoing tradition of photographic works serving to inform their viewers, the repetition of particular images can also to stereotype its subjects in problematic ways.

In other words, seeing, by itself, is not enough. How and what we see is also at stake. I’d like to draw attention to two comics that encourage readers to engage with stories of difference: Epileptic (2005) by David B. and The Arrival (2006) by Shaun Tan.

Epileptic

Originally published in six volumes as L’Ascension du Haut-Mal (1996-2003), Epileptic is the English translation of David B.’s memoir of his experiences growing up with an older brother, Jean-Christophe, who suffers from epilepsy.

© 2011, David B. & L’Association
L’Association

Rendered in black and white, B.’s lyrical, confronting, and meticulous drawings access the anger and grief that Jean-Christophe’s condition provokes for the narrator, his family, and for Jean-Christophe himself. B. does not excuse any of the characters, including himself, from scrutiny, and indeed this intimate portrait of a family life is what makes the book so compelling. The book also reflects on the privileges and pitfalls that accompany vision.

For example, in one passage, we become aware of the transgressive potential of “looking”. While on a family holiday, Jean-Christophe suffers a seizure. The authorial caption recalls: “[a]ll the tourists rush up, eager to enjoy this new diversion”. The narrator, David, grapples with his own desire to disappear from this scene, before deciding to stay.

© 2011, David B. & L’Association.
L’Association

Engorged with excitement, the onlookers’ distorted eyes and bodies swarm the main action. The tension here is elevated when we notice Jean-Christophe’s body, which now takes up the entire width of the middle panel. By playing with the proportions of these different bodies B. conveys the claustrophobic impact of the crowd’s attention on B. and his family.

In turn, this scene also encourages us, more generally, to consider the ways in which we regard Jean-Christophe throughout the book.

Through the use of panels, comics offer windows into alternate worlds that the reader must digest individually, and as a whole. In doing so, readers possess a high degree of involvement in the story, amplified by the operation of the “gutter” – the space in between the panels – that provokes us to draw connections between the panels (or refuse to do so). Moreover, the physical arrangement of the panels across the page, their composition, and content, creates an interpretive pulse that orients our navigation of the text.

Finding a home

Shaun Tan – The Arrival.

These features are also apparent in Shaun Tan’s remarkable, and widely celebrated book The Arrival, which depicts the story of “the migrant”, who flees his homeland for a new place. In this place, he meets other individuals, many of whom also furnish stories of displacement. In one encounter, the migrant recalls a fearful memory from his place of origin with a new acquaintance. In response, the latter gestures to himself as the panels zoom towards his eye.

The last three panels in this sequence emphasise the commencement of the man’s story, positioning us to regard the upcoming narrative through “someone else’s eyes”. The double-page spread overleaf then plunges us into his memories. The size, shading and timing of the panels all contribute to our involvement in the story, and encourage our consideration of the characters we meet alongside the migrant.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan, Lothian Children’s Books, an imprint of Hachette Australia, 2006.
Hachette

In his introduction to Joe Sacco’s Palestine(1996), Edward Said recalled the fervour with which he consumed comics as a young reader, explaining that comics:

seemed to say what couldn’t otherwise be said, perhaps what wasn’t permitted to be said or imagined, defying the ordinary processes of thought, which are policed, shaped and re-shaped by all sorts of pedagogical as well as ideological pressures.

Comics encourage their readers to see again, and see differently. In a world that offers, on the one hand, an abundance of things to see and, on the other, frequently limited perspectives on what we see, and how our vision is framed, comics offer a modality that encourage seeing differently. This is particularly important when it comes to depicting marginalised individuals and cultural groups.

In cultures where appearances often count for more than they should, comics create new ways of seeing the world.


Editor’s note: Golnar will be answering questions between throughout the day on Friday February 20. You can ask your questions about the article in the comments below.

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