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Ahaie Tengwar Angulócello (Rants From the Dragon) - Gendered genres and girls who read comics

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May 12th, 2007


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03:17 pm - Gendered genres and girls who read comics
Johanna Draper Carlson insists that superhero comics aren't for girls, that they are as much of a male-oriented genre as action movies are, in direct contrast to such female-exclusive genres as romance novels (these are her examples, not mine). Joanna has made this argument before (repeatedly), mainly in response to blog entries by feminist comic fans who she feels are being young and foolish when they agitate for Marvel and DC to become more female-friendly.

Her post has provoked some heated dissents in the comments, and a number of angry rebuttals in the blogverse of feminist superhero comics fans, both direct and indirect.

The ensuing internet tempest caused me to do a bit of thinking. In brief, I think Carlson is half-wrong. First, she is incorrect to equate action movies and romance as examples of gendered genres; the two are not equivalent. And by doing that, she stepped into the minefield, because there's a world of difference between saying superhero comics are uninteresting to girls the way romances are uninteresting to boys, and saying that superhero comics are not targeted at girls the way action films are targeted at boys.

(I'm going to natter on for a while about gendered genres; we'll get back to superhero comics eventually.)

I agree with Carlson that action movies are "for boys." But this is not because action-adventure stories are intrinsically interesting only to boys. Action flicks are a male genre because of marketing. The creators and studios who put out action movies are very careful to put in things that appeal to men/boys (violence, lots of testosterone, scantily clad nubile women, explosions, etc), and equally careful to not put in too much of anything that would be uninteresting or repulsive to men/boys (romance, sitting and talking about feelings or relationships, well developed non-sexualized female characters, too many female characters, etc).

This does not mean that women can't/don't enjoy action flicks, or that they are unusual for doing so -- the makers of Casino Royale, for example, are well aware that a small but significant minority of their audience are women, and they put in a brief scene with Bond rising out of the sea half-naked for that part of their audience. But only one brief scene, because too much of that kind of thing will cause the typical heterosexual arrested adolescent boys who are the film's primary target audience to become uncomfortable. Most big budget action pictures are carefully calibrated -- some things are there to appeal to women, and the makers try not to actively drive away their small female audience. But the main focus is always on the male audience, and attracting and retaining that audience is always first and foremost in the makers' minds.

TV has done more genre experimentation than movie studios, and on TV you can find "action movie" shows -- with lots of violence and explosions -- that appeal to both men and women more or less equally -- shows like Nikita for example. The shows dial back the testosterone, and leaven the explosions and violence with more emphasis on character, feelings, and relationships. In the same way, soap operas are a female genre largely because of marketing -- they are broadcast during times when housewives are at home but working men are not, for instance. Shows like ER and Desperate Housewives show that soap operas can appeal to men if they are aired at the right time, and if the heavy emphasis on relationships and feelings is leavened with something else (medical drama, humour). There's nothing intrinsic about action movies or soap operas that restricts them to one gender of audience.

On the other hand, Carlson's other example, of romance novels being "for girls," is an example of a genre that is intrinsically gendered. Romance novels are all about feelings and relationships and mushy love stuff -- things women/girls are taught to like, and boys/men are socially conditioned to run away from. Gay male romance novels aside, the number of men who read and enjoy romance novels is minuscule, and you never see a romance novel contain bits designed to appeal to the male audience, or a romance author calibrate her plots so as not to drive away her male readers. [eta: Romance Writers of America does a survey of romance readers, and they report that 22% of romance readers are men in 2005, up 15% from 2002. I think someone's playing fast and loose with what counts as "romance" here; suffice to say that those men are almost certainly NOT reading Harlequin romances]

Early porn -- stag films, mostly, and to a lesser extent movies like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door -- were just as strongly "for men" as romances are "for women." They were full of anonymous sex, misogyny, and were (literally) prick-centric. Women found them uninteresting, even repulsive. At the time that those early porn films were made, women were just as strongly socially conditioned to not enjoy watching people fuck as men were socially conditioned to not enjoy reading about mushy stuff.

But the men-only nature of porn was not set in stone -- the social conditioning of women underwent a sea change in the 70's as the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 60's set in, so that significant numbers of women became willing to enjoy watching people have sex. Men's cultural conditioning has been a lot more (ahem) rigid and inflexible than that of women -- conventional straight men are just as unwilling to subject themselves to mushy stuff today as they were in the 60's -- so the audience for romance novels remains almost exclusively female.

One more thing about porn: very early on, the producers of porn films started experimenting with the genre in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, which meshed nicely with the cultural changes in women's attitudes. As a result, today you have "couples porn" and the soft core porn that shows on various cable stations -- porn watched by significant numbers of women, porn with plots, sex in the context of a relationship, a general lack of misogyny and prickishness. At the same time, prick-centric misogynistic porn continues to be made, and watched almost exclusively by men.

So porn, today, has diversified into a number of sub genres, each with different marketing choices that have led to different gender ratios in their audiences. Couples and cable TV porn are made with an effort to be friendly/enjoyable to women as well as men; today's prick-centric porn (your typical skin mag, for instance) is made with an effort to appeal as strongly as possible to certain specific groups of men, and one way it strengthens its appeal to them is by cultivating a boys-only air that actively excludes women readers/viewers.

So, getting back to superhero comics: when Carlson says "superhero comics are for boys" does she mean that women find the superhero genre intrinsically uninteresting (like romances are uninteresting to boys), or does she mean that superhero comics are, accidentally or intentionally, marketed to boys, (like action movies are)?

The numerous feminist comic bloggers who have disagreed so vehemently with Carlson mostly appear to have read Carlson as saying hero comics are intrinsically uninteresting to girls. I think what she meant to say was merely that hero comics are not marketed to girls. Maybe not; her failure to credit the vast difference between the (mostly male) action flick and the (exclusively female) romance makes it hard to tell. Since Carlson has already trotted out the "I have a graduate degree in this subject, so I cannot be incorrect" internet flamewar trope, there's not much use asking her (there have been no Nazi or Hitler sightings yet, so as flamewars go it's pretty mild).

I think it's quite clear that there is nothing intrinsic to superheroes that make them "for boys." There are numerous manga and anime titles that are targeted at and widely enjoyed by girls which are, in essence, superhero stories (Sailor Moon, for example). And there have been several superhero-themed TV shows with large female audiences (Heroes, Smallville, etc).

On the other hand, superhero comics today are, I think, clearly marketed to boys, and not to girls -- a brief glance at the way women are portrayed in many comic book collectables or a glance at how women are often portrayed on the covers of comics shows that to be the case.

So, the next question is, are they marketed to boys like action movies are -- designed with males in mind, but at the same time being careful to not actively drive away the minority female audience -- or are they marketed to boys the way prick-centric porn is -- by cultivating an air of active hostility to women readers?

Back in the 60's and 70's, Marvel and DC tried to hit all the bases -- they published horror comics, humour comics, and romance comics in addition to a variety of action-adventure comics (war, western and SF as well as superhero stories). Most of the action-adventure comics published during the silver age continued to suffer from the "blood-curdling masculinity" that William Moulton Marston complained about in the 40's. They were designed to appeal to boys; there was no mushy stuff to be found, and female characters were few and far between. But at the same time (sticking to DC because I don't know enough about other publishers) a look at 60's Wonder Woman, Lois Lane or Supergirl comics reveals stories about women with whom girls could identify, dealing with plots and themes that they would not find alienating. Trina Robbins argues, based on circumstantial evidence, that Wonder Woman, at least, was read by at least as many girls as boys.

So I would say that while DC in the 60 and 70's's knew that boys were the main buyers of their action-adventure comics, they also knew that they had a significant minority of girl readers (nobody knows how many), and were careful to, on the one hand, provide comics (including hero comics) that those readers would particularly enjoy (Wonder Woman, etc), and on the other hand, to not do things in their comics in general that would actively drive what girl readers they had away.

Today, DC knows that about 10% of their readers are girls (Carlson posted the results of an internal survey done in 1995), which I would call a significant minority; 10% lost sales is enough to make heads roll in any company. But DC today doesn't seem to give a flying fuck about their female readership, and often instead appears to be doing its best to drive that readership away, not only with the kinds of comic covers and merchandise I linked above, but also with boneheaded editorial cluelessness, and a corporate culture that either encourages or tolerates misogynistic, frat-boy attitudes on the parts of its creators and editorial staff.

So, basically, over the past few decades, DC has been moving from an action-film model of marketing to boys (welcome what girl readers you get, be open to having them), to a prick-centric porn model (strengthen the attachment of boys to your product by driving the girls away). Which is hardly sound marketing practice, and hardly good for the boys whose attitudes towards women it poisons, or for the girls who are told "you aren't welcome." And that's why I think Carlson's griping about feminist comic geeks who agitate against such misogyny in superhero comics, and in favour of making superhero comics more friendly to women, is horribly wrongheaded.

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[User Picture]
From:lavendertook
Date:May 12th, 2007 08:20 pm (UTC)
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Hey glaurung, you'd probably enjoy a friend on my flist who runs girlwonder.org, sharpest_rose who used to write a lot of Tolkien fanfic, too.
[User Picture]
From:victoriacatlady
Date:May 12th, 2007 09:55 pm (UTC)
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(I see you encouraged us to comment, by posting the "reply" URL in your e-mail. ;-) However, I was going to comment anyway.)

Romance novels are all about feelings and relationships and mushy love stuff -- things women/girls are taught to like, and boys/men are socially conditioned to run away from.

What we truly don't know is just how much of that is social conditioning and how much is innate. The social conditioning is there, in a big way, but there are probably innate biases as well. The closest we can come to finding out is cross-cultural studies of gender differences. I admit I haven't kept up with that, so I don't know. My very out-of-date understanding is that all cultures have gender differences, but what they are vary from culture to culture. What I was told does not vary is that "female" consistently has at least a somewhat lower value than "male".

What are the consistent characteristics of "masculine" and "feminine"? I read once -- but I don't know if it was true or just someone talking through their hat -- that in Arab cultures, men are considered more emotional than women, and women are considered the practical ones.

Gay male romance novels aside...,

And who reads gay male romance novels? Judging from the writers and audience of m/m slash, it's women. But I don't know about the novels.

...the number of men who read and enjoy romance novels is minuscule, and you never see a romance novel contain bits designed to appeal to the male audience, or a romance author calibrate her plots so as not to drive away her male readers.

You could also cite Western novels as the opposite example. I read one (and only one) because someone had done a brief reading, about a man adopting a mistreated boy, and I thought there might be some interesting relationships in there. But other than that one short bit at the beginning, it was all hyper-masculinized and quite disturbing to me -- the whole kill-for-your-honour-and-pride thing.

Nevertheless, it was a woman who read that extract, and she likes that (prolific) Western author. I'm not sure whether she likes all Westerns, but I got the impression that she may.

So, getting back to superhero comics: when Carlson says "superhero comics are for boys" does she mean that women find the superhero genre intrinsically uninteresting (like romances are uninteresting to boys), or does she mean that superhero comics are, accidentally or intentionally, marketed to boys, (like action movies are)?

I wonder if romances are intrinsically uninteresting to boys. A few decades ago porn was intrinsically uninteresting to girls, but as you point out, the porn itself, its marketing, and social conditioning changed so that much of it is now interesting to girls. Could the same things be done, if anyone wanted to, with romance novels? After all, consider Shakespeare's "romances." Or consider that the entire concept of romantic love was invented by men in the Middle Ages.

Here is one data point for you: when I was in high school, I read a lot of superhero (and superheroine, when I could get them) comics. I always identified with the superhero and imagined myself doing all those marvelous things.

BTW, you may want to fix the spelling of your subject header. Even in Canada, it's "Gendered," not "Gendred." (Gendred genres and girls who read comics)
[User Picture]
From:glaurung_quena
Date:May 12th, 2007 10:44 pm (UTC)
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Spelling fixed, thanks.

I wonder if romances are intrinsically uninteresting to boys. A few decades ago porn was intrinsically uninteresting to girls, but as you point out, the porn itself, its marketing, and social conditioning changed so that much of it is now interesting to girls. Could the same things be done, if anyone wanted to, with romance novels? After all, consider Shakespeare's "romances." Or consider that the entire concept of romantic love was invented by men in the Middle Ages.

I touched on this, but at greater length: what it means to be a man is much more tightly controlled than what it means to be a woman. Women are much more able now than in the 50's to be assertive, independent, strong, etc, without the culture frowning upon them and calling them freaks. Men, however, are just about as unable today to cry, be emotional, talk about their feelings, etc, as they were in the 50's. Any man who does do that kind of stuff was and still is today consigned to the outer darkness, socially speaking -- treated as a total freak, called a queer, and worse.

That means that short of there being a very radical change in what it means to be a man, men are going to continue to be taught that romance novels are icky because they are about everything that men are not allowed to acknowledge in themselves -- emotionality, vulnerability, softness, etc.

As to how much of it is innate, it is definitely almost entirely cultural -- there are just too many cultural differences, both from culture to culture, and from time period to time period (early-to-mid 19th century boy's magazines had what were basically sentimental novels for boys, where the male protagonists would break out in tears at the drop of a hat, etc, just like the heroines of romance novels of the period... the romance novels are still read, the boy's magazine stories are now forgotten except by scholars because they don't fit in with the modern paradigms).
[User Picture]
From:furikku
Date:May 13th, 2007 11:04 pm (UTC)
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I wonder if romances are intrinsically uninteresting to boys. A few decades ago porn was intrinsically uninteresting to girls, but as you point out, the porn itself, its marketing, and social conditioning changed so that much of it is now interesting to girls. Could the same things be done, if anyone wanted to, with romance novels? After all, consider Shakespeare's "romances." Or consider that the entire concept of romantic love was invented by men in the Middle Ages.

In the Japanese comics market- both in Japan and here in the US- there's a significant amount of fellas that enjoy romance comics. These aren't the Harlequin-style bodice rippers of the West, but they do feature a heavy dose of Mushy Stuff.
[User Picture]
From:lost_angelwings
Date:May 13th, 2007 06:57 am (UTC)
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:)

I rly liked this post :D

I think you're completely right about how comics aren't intrinsically uninteresting to girls and also that even if only 10% of the readership are women, that's still a large minority :o And saying that we dun matter is stupid. >:|

Also ppl who say that comics have ALWAYS been just for guys completely ignore the 60s and 70s, and I think they just assume that clearly women comic readers must be a new thing b/c modern always is more inclusive than older times. :\
[User Picture]
From:abostick59
Date:May 13th, 2007 09:43 pm (UTC)
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I'm just driving by; I found this post because someone bookmarked it on del.icio.us. (Although I note from your flist that we know a bunch of people in common -- do you go to Wiscon?)

I've looked over many of the links you include. You make a good argument, but I don't think you get very close to the mistake that it seems to me that Johanna Draper Carlson is making.

I read Carlson as saying, "Of course superhero comics are sexist, silly! That's a fact of life; you can't change it; and you're a fool for even trying." What she is arguing is that the hegemony of sexism is inflexible and irresistable.

I wonder how old she is -- I think it is a near-certainty that she was born after 1970, and there's a reasonable shot she was born after 1980. I put the line at 1977; which would you take, the over or the under?

I say this because I was born in 1959, and the changes I've seen in my lifetime convince me that while sexism retains its hegemony, despite the feminist movement, it is most assuredly not inflexible, and that fighting it can change it. Which is why noticing and calling out the sexism -- the increasing degree of sexism in superhero comics in recent years -- is important.

And while crotch shots of Green Lantern are a fun and funny way of making the point, sooner or later what needs to happen is that feminist artists and writers need to produce superhero comics of their own, chock-full of the stuff that jazzes them about superheroes and at the same time consistent with their own values, to be put on their Web sites, self-published, and so on, so that the stuff is out there waiting for the lightning bolt of popularity to strike it.
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From:kalinara
Date:May 17th, 2007 05:51 am (UTC)
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I don't presume to know much about Ms. Carlson's career, but she's mentioned before having about thirty years of experience regarding the comic industry, so I think it's fair to estimate her birthdate as before 1977.
[User Picture]
From:glaurung_quena
Date:May 17th, 2007 02:11 pm (UTC)
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I'm less and less sure of what Carlson is saying the more I think about it. I've read her blog, so I know that she's a feminist, but I'm starting to think that her feminism has some blind spots where she falls back on essentialism (Boys are this way, girls are that way, and that's just the way it is). Because that's the only way I can explain her equating romance:girls to action movies:boys and comics:boys.

As to her age, Kalinara is right; she's no spring chicken and strikes me as coming of age in the 70's or perhaps 60's, so that doesn't explain things.

"What needs to happen" -- there's nothing wrong with your suggestion, but I am more interested in how to change the big two, who have a massive effect on comic book culture. At this point, the big two comic companies are simultaneously churning out product that reeks of the boys-only treehouse, sort of pornography without the sex or nudity. In other words, they're retaining their hard-core zombie fanboys while sacrificing any possibility of ever bringing in new readers. And they're also getting most of their money from merchandising and movie/tv licencing deals, where they have to appeal to a mass audience. The basic scizophrenia involved in those two contradictory markets is going to sooner or later blow up in their faces. When it does, hopefully all the agitating feminist comic book geeks have been doing and will continue to do will have an effect.

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