CULTURE VULTURE

Fixing sexism in comics and real life

Women have to speak out to stop the rampant stereotyping in graphic novels and their cavalier treatment in TV and film circles

What with The A-Force debate, the GoT rape controversy and Flatgate, the big theme of pop culture discussion for the past couple of weeks seems to be gender representation.

If this list sounds like Greek to you, let me recap this series of little pop culture quakes.

The A-Force is a new comic in the Marvel universe, one of the spin-offs of Secret Wars, this big picture narrative cutting across the Marvel- tainment universe of comics, TV and movies.

The comic features female superheroes and is co-written by one of my favourite writers, G Willow Wilson. She's American, writes rocking comics and also happens to be Muslim.

The debut issue of A-Force found a critic in Harvard historian Jill Lepore, who wrote a snarky dismissal of it for the highbrow New Yorker magazine, prompting a thoughtful riposte from Wilson on her blog.

Much as Lepore is a respected academic in her field, she is obviously a novice when it comes to comics as her lamentably ill-informed op-ed (http: //goo.gl/Af386G) proves.

The fact that she confesses her ignorance of the genre is no defence and, in fact, her preconceptions are well on display as she talks about consulting a comic book fan who is in the fourth grade. A 10-year-old can be excused for not understanding the cultural context and ironic subtext in a comic meant for adult readers, but not a mature academic who has presumably been trained to think about these issues.

Lepore's beef with the comic was that the women all look like "porn stars". Evidently, she has not looked at any comic ever because the Spider Woman cover by erotic artist Milo Manara last year was way more graphic and objectionable compared to anything in The A-Force.

In fact, if Lepore had bothered with research and context, she would have realised that The A-Force presents superheroines in ways that deliberately counter the rampant stereotyping of women in graphic novels. The heroines may be clad in leotards, but they are not overly sexualised in the skimpy outfits and posed in the suggestive positions that are all too common in other comics.

The fact that Wilson is also writing a revisionist take on Ms Marvel - in which Ms Marvel is a Muslim girl - should also have alerted readers that The A-Force also challenges comic book conventions.

Wilson points out the shortcomings in Lepore's essay much better, so I will simply refer you to her blog post (http://goo.gl/5RY0PV).

GoT refers to Game Of Thrones, the very hyped, very hot HBO fantasy series based on George R.R. Martin's successful books of the same title. The most recent episode of GoT featured - spoiler alert! - a disturbing marital rape scene which victimised a well-loved character, Sansa Stark.

Last but not least, Flatgate is the name of the storm that erupted at the Cannes Film Festival last week after a few women were turned away from screenings for wearing flats instead of high heels. Apparently, this is an unwritten rule in the dress code.

Now all these things might seem like little storms in teacups. The A-Force, though published by Marvel, is a pipsqueak newcomer compared to bigger titles in the stable. But this exchange between Lepore and Wilson is memorable in the way it has been picked up and spread far and wide online and on social media.

Comics, despite Lepore's dismissive attitude, are a pop culture force to be reckoned with. Sales reached US$870 million (S$1.16 billion) in 2013, an impressive threefold increase from a reported US$265 million in 2000. The fact that movies are crammed with comic book adaptations also means that more women are reading comics, drawn by the movies, and the issue of gender representation becomes more important because comic book movies in turn now reach an even wider audience.

The conversation about the representation of women in comics has become more urgent, loud and yes, even strident, as more women have started reading comics in the past decade. There is a very real problem in comics where even superheroines are clad in itsy-bitsy costumes and posed in leering fashion (Google "brokeback pose" for a primer).

Then there is the tendency for male writers to so-call "fridge" female characters. The term refers to how female characters are killed and/or abused in horrible ways in order to advance the male protagonist's narrative. This tendency is on full display in GoT, of which Stark's story arc is the latest, laziest and most repugnant example.

Fridging is not just an issue in genre stories - it is a common trope in mainstream entertainment as well. How many cops-and-robbers, spy thrillers and action TV shows/movies have thoughtlessly reached for the murder and/or abuse of a female character to advance the plot or, even more speciously, "develop" the male protagonist's character?

Once again, the lead in the conversation about GoT's cavalier treatment of women and sexual violence has been taken online. Some of the most thoughtful pieces about the showrunners' decisions have been published on niche websites such as Indiewire and The Mary Sue.

The Mary Sue website, a women-oriented genre- focused website, also announced its intentions to boycott GoT, an admirable editorial stance that is likely to cost the site in economic terms. It is akin to a mainstream publication boycotting Star Wars coverage.

Similarly, Flatgate blew up because some of the women who were turned away took to Twitter to vent their frustrations and #flatgate took off as a hashtag. The highlighting of this obscure dress rule has provided an entry point into a bigger discussion about sexism in the film industry. It also capped off a week during which the issue had dominated the festival, with actress Salma Hayek leading the charge with her blunt statement that "The only kind of film where women make more money than men is in the porno industry".

The fact that these sorts of conversations are still happening, even after more than 100 years of feminism, proves that there is still much to be done for gender equality. And a big part of it has to be in the field of pop culture, where it is all too common and acceptable to use sexist and denigrating tropes and images.

The range and diversity of female voices only reflects the growing awareness that women have to speak out and up if they wish to see changes made.

There is reason to hope that change might come sooner rather than later, as women speak out online and on social media. The power of social media to amplify voices can work to the advantage of the cause as #flatgate proves. Festival director Thierry Fremaux had to clarify the shoe code and, given the media attention, high-heeled shoes are unlikely to be an issue in years to come.

Now if only sexism in TV and film entertainment could be fixed as easily and as quickly.

sorfern@sph.com.sg

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