“I Guess Comics Aren’t for Me”—My Own Story of Childhood Gatekeeping and Why Just Making Girl-Friendly Comics Is Not Enough
With a special guest appearance from Animorphs!
So August was certainly a busy, complicated, and frustrating month for women in nerd culture, wasn’t it? With so much going better for women in video games and comics and other nerdy avenues, we still have comic professionals harassing women and death threats sent to women in gaming and more death threats sent to women talking about women in gaming, and we have nasty backlash for anyone saying that all those things are not okay. Even just criticizing a really bad cover can lead to backlash, because how dare we question art, right?
The thing is, while all of this feels like it’s crashing down on us at once, none of these stories are new. Women getting death threats for having an opinion about nerdy stuff happened before August. Men in comics harassing women has happened, too. Yelling at people who dare to point out a superheroine looks like a badly constructed sexdoll has happened a lot in the last few years. And while these stories vary in topic and severity, the larger message is that yes, women in nerd culture in 2014 still deal with everything from bitter dismissal of criticism to full-out vitriol and threats. Despite the evidence that things are getting better for nerdy women, clearly women get targeted for even bringing up that there’s still sexism and gatekeeping inherent in the system.
So guess who decided to write an article about her own experience with gatekeeping and why she didn’t get into comics until her 20s?
I have either the best or worst timing for this.
Oddly enough, it was the Animorphs TV show going up on Netflix that got me writing this well before this chaotic month became chaotic. Because while the show itself is a big slice of cheesy ’90s live action goodness starring a young Shawn Ashmore and a young that guy from Royal Pains, the young adult book series it was based on was an increasingly dark, intense look at a group of preteens given the power to turn into animals and the responsibility of being the only ones on Earth able to fight a secretly invading alien force. The books dove into questions of slavery, genocide, and wavering ethics in times of war, and it also happened to be my favorite book series in junior high. Seeing the fandom pop up more online after the show got onto Netflix in the last few weeks, I started thinking about my interests as a kid. I was a voracious reader growing up, and I leaned towards sci-fi and heroes with powers. I loved seeing women characters taking a stand and turning into heroes. While it makes sense I loved Animorphs, comics (especially those coming from the Big Two) seem to fit into those perimeters perfectly, right? So why didn’t I get into comics until I was an adult?
Those who follow me on social media know that I’m a superhero fan and that I’m passionate about superhero cartoons. I was seven when Batman: The Animated Series came out and like so many kids of that time, I adored it. The DCAU not only defined how I see the Batman mythos to this day but also started me on a path to loving what superheroes could be. A lot of that had to do with the great female characters in that universe. Barbara Gordon means so much to me, and while she wasn’t in a lot of the early episodes of B:TAS, the storylines she was in struck a chord. She’s still may favorite superheroine largely because of that show. I also got to see a Catwoman that was different from the one Tim Burton or the ’60s TV show portrayed. This Selina wasn’t evil or crazy—she just had her own ethics that didn’t always line up with society’s or Batman’s. She did what she felt was right, and I loved that complexity to her character.
I was also a huge fan of both the Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons. Of the many female characters on those shows, their versions of Storm and Rogue were especially big for me as a girl growing up. Because I was a really lonely little girl who was maybe a little too chatty and a little too loud, and these heroines were bold and brash. Do you remember Storm’s declarations to the sky in that show? Do you remember Rogue’s sass? Do you remember Catwoman being clever and Batgirl kicking butt? Because I do.
So with those shows kick-starting my love of these characters, why didn’t I get into comics? Well, my resources for books were mainly the town library, school library, and the occasional Scholastic Book Fair, all because they were either right in my school or, in the case of the town library, my mom was happy to drive me there. If there were comic book stores anywhere nears us (I’m sure there were in the surrounding towns), they didn’t advertise for families. It’s a well-known problem with the traditional comic book store format—where they used to be sold in grocery and general stores, comics were being promoted almost entirely in the comic stores and not to the larger public, making the books a specialty product only current readers heard about.
But the lack of a comic book store wouldn’t have necessarily done me in on its own. Comic books were (and still are) sold with a mailing subscription option. When I was younger I had been apart of the super special Baby-Sitters Club mailing subscription. If I had found comic books I wanted, I’m sure my parents would have helped me set up a subscription. So why didn’t that happen?
It’s not this cut and dry, but there’s a memory that’s stamped into my brain. I mentioned before that I was an enthusiastic but lonely kid, and while my mouth got me in trouble more often than I like to admit, I still tried to find ways to connect with classmates because I did want friends. During a random day in sixth grade (so it would be 1996 or 1997), a bunch of boys were looking at a comic binder one of the boys brought from home. I heard one of them mention Black Cat, and I got excited because I knew that character from the Spider-Man cartoon. I zipped over to their desks and asked if I could check it out, and the boy who owned the binder (confused I was even talking to them) pointed to one of the larger pictures. I leaned over to see Black Cat with her costume zipped all the way down. Of course, her cleavage was the stuff of bad Liefeld breasts. I froze because I was embarrassed to see a picture like that at all and also because I realized that the boys were looking at her because they wanted to ogle her, not because they liked the character. I saw a picture of Rogue (one of my favorite characters) on the opposite page, similar to Black Cat’s picture with the zipped down suit, bad proportions, glassy fake “come hither” stare.
I didn’t know the term “male gaze” yet. I wouldn’t learn that there was a name for it until many years later, when it would be in the back of my mind while watching so many movies and TV shows and, yes, even reading comics. But looking back, that was what I saw in that boy’s scrapbook—some of my favorite characters stripped of their agency and their personality for the sake of the all-consuming male gaze. They weren’t there to be characters. Merely objects.
And I distinctly remember looking up to the group of boys and them maybe looking a little embarrassed that they got caught with pictures of sexy girls. But at the same time they looked at me annoyed—how dare I ruin what they were enjoying? How dare I butt in? It was like they were all holding up signs saying “You’re not welcome.” And I distinctly remember thinking, “I guess comics aren’t for me.” Maybe superhero cartoons were still okay for me to watch, but clearly comics was a boys thing, and I didn’t want to deal with those looks anymore than I already had to.
This wasn’t the only time I felt like I was pushed out of comics or even just pushed out of nerd hobbies in general. But when I think about gatekeeping and sexism, that memory comes to mind. It made me very weary to share my nerdy tendencies with guys my age for a long time.
Side note: when I wrote about this experience on my blog a few years ago, a male acquaintance messaged me on Facebook to say he read my post and declared that I (and girls like me) were to blame for comics failing in the ’90s because we couldn’t suck it up and just get over ourselves. I unfriended him that night.
I realize not every girl superhero fan had this issue. I know women my age and older who did find comics (both from the Big Two and other comic companies) that fit their likes and requirements for good reading. But that’s the saddest thing to me! The fact is, there were comics I would have liked back then. The kicker is that one of those was a long-running tie-in comic to Batman: The Animated Series, and I never knew about it until a couple years ago! If I had been told about this connection to one of my favorite shows, and if it hadn’t been for those warning signs telling me “No Girls Allowed,” maybe I could have found myself loving comics a lot earlier. It’s not that there were only sexist comics out there when I was a kid—it’s that the message drilled into my head was that sexist comics were the standard and if I didn’t like it, I shouldn’t read them.
So instead of comic book stores, I had other resources—namely the Scholastic Book Fairs, which came right to my school with young adult literature in a variety of genres. It was one of those book fairs was where I first saw Harry Potter around 1999, but in 1996 it was the first few books in the Animorphs series I spotted. The covers look pretty crummy now (the transformations don’t age particularly well), but I remember seeing kids just like me, girls just like me, on the covers. The girls weren’t there to be eye candy; they were just the main characters. And they happened to be morphing into amazing animals. Girls like me getting to turn into animals to fight an evil alien invasion… it’s no wonder I ate these books up.
And one of the things I loved about Animorphs? It didn’t talk down to its readers. Any fan of the Animorphs books will tell you that the series dealt with intense issues and featured violence in every book. In the first book, the kids see an ally eaten in front of their very eyes. Within the first ten books, one member of their team gets bitten in half during a mission (and said member being able to morph back safely doesn’t erase the mental stress of being bit in half). Because of the parasitic nature of their enemies, they have to constantly question where the line is drawn as far as killing human hosts. There are various moments throughout the series where the line between ethical and unethical methods of fighting their invaders blurs. Oh yeah, and there are a couple of instances of genocide on the part of the “good guys.” These themes weren’t always handled perfectly (especially when K.A. Applegate brought in ghostwriters to help her complete the stories), but you can’t say that the series pulled punches.
Point being, it was never a matter of comic books being too dark or adult for me to handle. I loved that Animorphs brought up the moral greyness of war and how ethics can waver. I loved that I was reading a story where heroes weren’t perfect and whose lives got darker as they got further into the fight. I didn’t necessarily need “rated G” stories that ignored tough subjects. Even ignoring my reading Animorphs entirely, my other dives into sci-fi and fantasy included Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time universe and Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series. All of these books have complex themes of ethics that helped me question my own world. All of these books also happened to have young women as protagonists and avoided objectifying them. When I had novels that treated my heroines like people, and with comics’ bad reputation, can you blame me for not going near a comic book shop until I was well into my 20s?
These are only my own experiences, my own memories and regrets. I’m not sure how they relate to other women who loved superheroes in the 90s, but I see young women in nerd culture today and I wonder if they’ve gone through their own versions of those boys and that binder.
I mean, it has gotten better for girls in comics. Sort of. Aspects of it have improved. But how much of it is just exchanging one kind of gatekeeping for another? On one hand, there are comic book stores catering to female customers (including my own shop of choice, Downtown Comics in Indianapolis). On the other hand, there are still far too many stores that treat women customers badly (for instance, this little piece of awfulness that came out just yesterday), and the assumption that girls don’t go to comic book stores is perpetuated in pop culture to the point where The Big Bang Theory has had multiple episodes treating it happening like a miracle.
On one hand, it’s so much easier for young women to find out about new comics, find out where to start with older series and connect with other readers around the world thanks to Tumblr, Twitter, and even just a quick Google search (not to mention the expanding electronic options for buying and reading comics that have come with e-readers). On the other hand, those same young women could have quiet dirty looks from classmates replaced with online screaming and ranting from male comic fans who don’t want stupid girls ruining their stuff. And god forbid you’re a girl writing about comics online—it’s so easy for angry, angry fans to become unneeded defenders of these characters against the evil girls who dare to want to see better representation.
And although we have awesome comics catering to young women, including but not at all limited to Lumberjanes, Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, Cleopatra in Space, Storm, Batgirl (Simone’s run and the new team alike), and the upcoming Gotham Academy, that doesn’t mean that girls are finding them. Just like I read Animorphs and other YA lit and watched the superhero cartoons but never got into comics, we have young women today who read The Hunger Games and other YA lit, who watch the Marvel movies and the more recent DC cartoons, but never get into the comics. There are girls who love archer Katniss Everdeen but didn’t know about Kate Bishop in Young Avengers. You have a primarily female viewership for Arrow, and yet tons of those fans won’t touch the New 52. For crying out loud, when girls and women make up over 40% of the audience at MCU movies and girls still hesitate to read the comics for either the content or the community around the content, then you’ve got a problem. And I think it’s the same problem that had 12 year-old me loving Animorphs but avoiding comics like the plague.
The larger identity, the larger culture, of comics is still a boys club, and it’s telling that for all of the great comics that cater to girls, too many comics getting the largest promotion by their companies are the ones that alienate female readers. Heck, Spider-Woman was helmed just a month ago as the next great pro-women Marvel comic, and yet it was promoted with a Escher Girl-level variant cover right alongside their main cover. More than that, the tone-deafness of Marvel’s reaction, how they’re baffled and irritated that someone might find that cover to be counter-intuitive to their mission of cultivating a female audience, says volumes about how frustrating it still is to be a female reader. Not to mention their eventual explanation for the cover that they were “aiming for collectors.” Because even if a series is proudly hailed for women, we better not forget to include the straight male hardcore readers who want sexual poses on their covers, right? It just wouldn’t be fair otherwise. So who cares if women looking to get into comics get the wrong idea about the series since we announced the variant cover next to the official one, right?
Like I said at the beginning, none of this is necessarily new—even sexist covers hailed as empowering—but if the comic industry is really getting better, then shouldn’t we be passed this kind of obviousness by now?
The question is how much the comics (and those who create them) should be responsible for making comic book culture an inviting place for girls. I don’t know an exact answer here, but I think a certain Shortpacked! comic still applies in 2014. Because I think about about the girls who watch Starfire on Teen Titans Go right now, who maybe even checked out the older Teen Titans cartoon and decided to find the comics with her in it. How many of those girls will come across that Red Hood and the Outlaws cover from June with Starfire sprawled on a car like a centerfold? How many of those girls will have their enthusiasm drop like a rock and think, “Well, I guess the comics aren’t for me,” and never get up the nerve to check out all the great comics out there that are actually being made for their demographic?
It comes down to this: are we going to blame potential girl readers for not trying harder to get into comics, for walking away from nerdy things that make them uncomfortable and for avoiding nerd spaces for fear of being unwelcomed and hassled? Or is the comic industry, especially the Big Two, going to take some responsibility for pushing young women away by catering primarily to the lowest common denominator over everyone else? Are all of us (comic fans and shops and creators and companies alike) willing to not only point girls towards the comics that fit them, but be willing to show them that they fit within the comic culture and are going to be embraced as fellow readers? Can we make sure it doesn’t take this new generation of comic readers years to find out these stories can be for them, too?
Katie Schenkel (@JustPlainTweets) is a copywriter by day, pop culture writer by night. Her loves include cartoons, superheroes, feminism, and any combination of the three. Her reviews can be found at CliqueClack and her own website Just Plain Something, where she hosts the JPS podcast and her webseries Driving Home the Movie. She’s also a frequent The Mary Sue commenter as JustPlainSomething.