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.