It’s no secret that being a woman in geek culture often means you’ve got a long row to hoe uphill, particularly if you want to become a game designer, comic book writer/artist, SF/F author and so on. You can’t help but develop a “thick skin” moving through those spaces – eventually you’re so used to it that you can hardly remember what it was like when your skin was soft. You start making distinctions like “Oh it wasn’t that bad, he just said something about the size of my breasts but at least he didn’t touch me,” or “Today’s comments are nasty, but at least no one’s threatened to rape me today (yet).” The amount of ambient misogyny that women have to acclimate themselves to in order to navigate everyday life, much less the specific subcultures, communities and professions we’re a part of (or are trying to become a part of) is staggering.
So when an ostensible “ally” like Brian Michael Bendis says something like this, I tend to get a bit grumpy:
“Regarding the conversation about hostility towards women in comics — It appears to me that things are changing for the better, no? In the past few years, more and more amazingly talented female creators have been coming in to the industry (Sara Pichelli, Gail Simone, Becky Cloonan, Kelly Sue, G Willow, Ming Doyle…), changing the status quo of comics and thus the opinions of fans. Sure, theres some resistance from the dummies, but aren’t things VASTLY improving??”
Leaving aside for the moment how it’s both laughable and depressing that once again, it’s the opinion of men in the comics industry that’s solicited in determining whether or not things are “vastly improving” for women dealing with sexism and misogyny, rather than the women who are actually dealing with it and therefore might have a rather different perspective and metric for determining what “vastly improving” actually means, let’s look at Bendis’ answer:
“I get a lot of crap for being Mr. positive from people who are having a hard time seeing the cup half-full but I completely agree with you.
I think things are vastly better than they were and that only makes the shitheads stand out even more. Things are not perfect, all of society’s problems are not solved, but I do think the good guys are winning.“
Ah yes, because it’s terribly hard having your optimistic bubble popped by people who might be dealing more directly with the fact that their cup looks very much to them like it’s not only half-empty, the water is fracking-contaminated as well. It’s rather easier to think that the water’s getting cleaner when you’re not the one who is actually having to drink it, isn’t it?
Don’t get me wrong, I do think things for women in comics are improving and “the good guys are winning.” Our voices are getting louder, we’re becoming more visible, and having more of an effect on the industry in general and this is in part why the poo-flinging from the regressive chuckleheads is getting more vehement. However, it’s a victory that’s happening in halting, frustratingly slow increments. Yes, harassers and barriers to entry are being called out more frequently and with less tolerance for excuses, and it may look like it’s getting worse when it’s more likely that what we’re seeing is a more accurate reflection of the industry because those problems aren’t being ignored as much anymore. But harassment is still an issue, and those barriers to entry are still there, to the point where we’re still spending a hell of a lot of time and energy arguing to convince people that they even exist.
“the only thing that is really bothering me about all of this is that there are some people who are letting the idiots get the best of them and are turning away from the medium that I love so much and has so much to offer all of us.
I hope they reconsider.”
But you know what really bothers me about all this is that there are still some people who are telling women that they’re not trying hard enough to ignore the assholes and are letting themselves be turned away from a medium that they love and has so much to offer.
I hope they reconsider how their words aren’t actually helping.
Look, I get it. Bendis loves comics and is frustrated with seeing how the sort of sexist bullshittery that women have thrown at them on a regular basis is causing people, particularly women and other minorities, to look at the comics industry and decide “No thanks.” This frustrates the hell out of me, too, because I’ve been a comics fan for 20 years and it’s vitally important for there to be a greater diversity of voices creating and consuming comics. We need those stories and those differing perspectives, not just to keep the art form moving forward or because stories help us find our places in the world, but so the industry itself can survive because it has a wide and strong consumer base and a constant stream of new talent coming in, as well.
But telling women in effect that “they’re letting the idiots get the best of them” as if the onus is on women to buck up and not let themselves be chased out, rather than on the assholes doing their damndest to push women out and keep them out to fucking quit it, is the opposite of helping. Women have to fight every day not to let sexism and misogyny “get the best of them” because it isn’t coming from just the loud assholes – it also comes from our friends, our family, even ourselves because so much of it is a normal part of our everyday experiences. It’s exhausting and demoralizing and we’re already kicking ourselves for feeling like we’re not trying hard enough to succeed, not speaking up enough, and not being tough enough when we’re on the verge of breaking down and admitting that we just can’t do it anymore because we keep trying and it never seems to fucking stop. We can’t ever walk away from dealing with sexism and misogyny because it permeates everything, but sometimes all we can do is walk away from specific professions or communities, even if we love them, because no one should have to be this tough all the time and it’s what we have to do to protect ourselves.
If more women and other marginalized people are going to decide to stick around, keep creating comics and not be chased away from what is a fantastic medium, we need to do the work to make that industry more welcoming and safe for them by making it inhospitable for the assholes. Until that happens, you cannot blame those who are being subjected to this sort of bullshit for not wanting to stay and fight or even step foot into comics because why the hell would anyone want to subject themselves to the crap we’ve seen flung at people like Janelle Asselin (and Gail Simone, and Rachel Edidin, and practically every other woman who expresses a critical opinion on anything)?
Yes, it’s important to encourage women and other minorities to explore comics as a profession, and as a fandom which they can grow to love. We need allies to make comics (and geek culture in general) safer and more welcoming to more than just straight white cis men, and we can’t do this alone. Male privilege means that men’s voices will carry where women’s will not, and as much as I hate that, it means that it’s extremely important for men to keep speaking in support of women. So please, speak up and tell women that they’re not alone, that you will support them against the misogynistic jerks and work to make the industry a more welcoming, inclusive place for anyone who loves comics, regardless of their gender (or race, or sexual orientation, etc.). Please, call out the misogynistic jerks and tell them that their hateful, narrow-minded views are neither needed nor wanted, and that they should shut up and get the hell out of the way.
Just please, stop telling women that they just need to be tougher and ignore the jerks, because while those jerks may be a loud minority, they’re a loud minority backed up by societal power and pre-existing structures. Continuing to push the notion that women need to toughen up ignores the facts that: 1) women and other minorities do not have the same power/access to resources and are already starting from a serious disadvantage; 2) the systemic and deliberate barriers that exist, so there’s a desperate need for the industries to address those inequalities and be more supportive and welcoming to minorities; and 3) it is inherently fucked up that women and other minorities should expect harassment, threats and being treated like their work is wanting just by virtue of not being straight white cis men, so they shouldn’t let it bother them because “it’s just a few jerks.”
It’s still ultimately blaming women for not trying or not being “strong” enough to ignore the assholes who are threatening to rape them for criticizing a piece of comic book cover art. We grow up being told from day one that it’s our responsibility to “be strong and tough” because the world is sexist and not a friendly place for women – and we’re often found wanting. We don’t need to hear it from those who are supposedly supporting us.
In short: Want more women and other marginalized people to stay and/or consider comics as their profession? Keep doing the work to make sure this bullshit isn’t tolerated or excused, focus criticism on those who are being harassing assholes, and quit implying that for women who want to be a part of the comics world, it’s as simple as “not letting the idiots get the best of them.”
UPDATE 4/23/14: A recent study was released that points to how normalized sexism and misogyny is in our culture, and how many women end up looking at instances of harassment:
According to sociologist Heather Hlavka, many of the young people she interviewed viewed these incidents as a normal part of life. One interview subject told researchers, “They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s okay, I mean … I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.”
According to a release on the report, there are several of the reasons why young women do not come forward about the abuse they experience, including a belief that men “can’t help it” and a fear of being labeled a “whore”
It’s a sobering if unsurprising read – quite often, when women finally do say something about the harassment, sexism or misogyny we experience, it’s because that instance is the final straw on top of a mountain of bullshit we’ve spent a lifetime trying to ignore because we’re told “It’s not that big of a deal” or “You don’t want to be *THAT* woman.”