On the one hand, I want to be Sydney Scoville Jr. One of the main female heroes of the webcomic GrrlPower, Sydney plays Dungeons and Dragons in her spare time before rushing off to her job as the co-owner of a comic book store. And when she’s done spending all day nerding out in comic book heaven, she moonlights as a superhero. On a majority female superhero team.
But on the other hand, GrrlPower isn’t as feminist as it appears. It’s odd to say so because just a few weeks ago I was writing about how the magical girl genre has incredible feminist potential mainly because of its female cast. But I’m realizing now that it’s not the all female team that fosters feminism, but the intentionality of progressive sex and gender representation. As writers, our intentions matter as much as our actions.
GrrlPower is written and illustrated by David Barrack. While his gender certainly does not make him any less capable as a writer or an illustrator, it does inform the way he portrays women. From the About page of GrrlPower, we learn that the story of a female superhero came about because Barrack couldn’t stick to a comic project long term. He writes on the website: “I thought I could keep my interest up if I was drawing well packaged hot women all the time.” GrrlPower isn’t about superheroes, but about “well packaged hot women.” He makes no pretenses on the About page of his webcomic that GrrlPower is a feminist endeavor. Rather, GrrlPower is “A comic about super heroines…Doing the things that super powered girls do. Fighting crime, saving the world, dating, shopping, etc. There’ll be explosions, cheesecake, beefcake, heroes and villains, angels and demons, cyborgs, probably ninjas.”
To break this down, he uses gendered language, drawing attention to the fact that these heroes aren’t heroes but heroines. Their gender matters because the author feels the need to further specify that they’re female. They don’t just save the world like their male counterparts would, they also go shopping and date. Last I checked, men also go shopping and date. But what strikes me the most is his mention of “cheesecake” and “beefcake.” This is the logic that if an author sexually exploits men as well as women then they’re free to put women’s bodies are on display for consumption. As long as women can stare at a hot guy’s abs it’s equal opportunity sexism.
Except it’s not.
Putting a man’s body on display does not have the same effect as displaying a woman’s body. The term objectification gets thrown around a lot, but objectifying women literally means a woman becomes an object. She is something the viewer (assumed male) has control over. So when I go to the first page of GrrlPower and all I see are bra-busting ladies leaning towards the viewer, I’m starting to lose faith that GrrlPower has even thought about why some women adopted the term grrl in the first place or what it means for female comic book readers to only see hypersexualized representations of female characters. But wait! The first few pages were the characters playing Dungeons and Dragons so we saw their fantasy role play selves first. We haven’t met the actual heroes yet, so there’s nothing to be concerned about. Her breasts were purposely ballooning from her body to make a point about how overt sexism is in fantasy, right?
Though the main hero, Sydney Scoville, Jr., remains normally proportioned and plays Dungeons and Dragons in a t-shirt and jeans, the only other woman at her Dungeons and Dragons game is wearing a low cut dress. Let her dress as she wants! More power to her if she owns her sexuality! But it seems this early in the story that her outfit is intended to be viewed by the audience (making her a passive character) and not because it is something characteristic of her style (especially as a side character who may have a very marginal role in the story arc).
When we meet more of the hero team, Sydney bumps fists with Anvil, a six foot seven black woman whose breasts dominate the page, busting out of her “got cookies” t-shirt. This is not a way to encourage women to have control of their sexuality, but rather to sexualize the female characters at first sight. Barrack writes as footnote at the bottom of the page: “I wonder if that woman’s [Anvil] ‘got cookies’ tanktop is standard issue.” He wants readers to laugh with him at his sexist joke. It makes matters worse that this is a hypersexualization of a woman of color.
To be fair, the webcomic has been running since 2010 and I can only comment on the character bios, the About page and initial pages of art. If I decide to continue reading, I can only hope that strong female friendships will dominate the story over large female breasts, or hard male abs.
It’s doubly and triply unfortunate that a series called GrrlPower relies on sexism because the premise is amazing and incredibly creative. Barrack’s goal is to write a “day in the life” story of the superhero, drawing on all the humanizing interstitial moments of character interaction and laughs among friends. I want to read this, but I want to read it as an intentional feminist text.