Impossible Standards

I’m in the middle of reading books by women for a year and it’s a struggle to find comic books which fall within this definition. According to Bleeding Cool, in April 2015, only 17.6% of DC’s writers were women. Only 8.9% of Marvel’s writers were women from the same month and year. With my comic book selection already limited to the public library, my options for comic books by women are almost zero. I’ve decided that if at least one woman is involved in the creative process I’ll read it. And yet, you’d be surprised by how many comics I pick up only to put back down because no women are involved.

As women in the literary world, we live in a be-grateful-for-the-scraps culture. It’s rare to find female writers or well developed female characters. It’s innovative if there is more than one female superhero on a team! It’s extraordinary and deserving of media attention if there’s a lesbian character! When Wonder Woman (finally) got to wear pants, it made headlines! Pop culture media treats any one of these baby steps like a miracle for all women to have this bit of inclusion. Yet none of these miracles necessarily produce well-developed female characters or close the gender gap in publishing.

wonder woman 2wonder womanI’m so often disappointed by the gender disparity in mainstream comic books.

Thankfully, I found a copy of Runaways: Homeschooling (issues #11-14). Much to my surprise I found women’s names on the contributors page. Kathryn Immonen wrote the story. Sara Pichelli produced the art. Christina Strain provided the color. The collection editor is Jennifer Grunwald.

Runaways, created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, stars four female characters on an initial team of six heroes. These young heroes discover that their parents are a group of super villains called The Pride and the story spirals from there.

I was excited to see how a female creative team would handle these characters and what bold, adventurous, feminist stories they would create. Homeschooling is good. I wish there was more urgency and more at stake in the plot, but the characters are written with humor and the back-and-forth between them reads with the snap and wit of television dialogue. I had to read the comic twice to understand the story so at first, my main complaint was that I was confused. But after a Wikipedia search and a quick reread I can appreciate it more.

Yet it’s not bold, adventurous, or feminist.

It’s a strong comic. The art portrays the characters’ youth and does wonders with the subtlety of emotions through facial features and body language. Above all, the characters act like teenagers and pre-teens, with the younger characters gagging over how stupid kissing is.

But it’s not bold, adventurous, or feminist.

And so, reading books by women becomes more complicated than picking up a text by a female author: I want the book (graphic novel or otherwise) to be perfect and feminist. I’m guilty of holding female authors to impossible standards, with the hope that if this female author could do it, maybe I can too. Maybe this will be the book to open up the doors for all women to join the industry on an equal playing field. I demand perfection, placing these authors on pedestals I know I’ll knock down. But is it so much to want a comic book which sells stories not women’s bodies? A story with autonomous female characters who are not defined by their sexual/romantic relationships to male characters? A female lead who is marketed to all regardless of the reader’s gender? I want perfection. It’s shameless and unfair to female authors but I can’t help it.

I know that not everything written or created by women needs to be feminist or needs to take huge risks. But I catch myself placing women on pedestals, the same pedestals feminists are fighting to dismantle entirely.

In Roxane Gay’s collection of essays, Bad Feminist, she critiques putting feminists on pedestals because “when they do something we don’t like, we knock them right off and then say there’s something wrong with feminism.” We expect our leaders to be perfect, but that is not attainable, nor should it be the goal. Female authors, likewise, do not need to be perfect. Yet, I cling to the few women writers and artists and the characters they create because I have to hope that one day we, as readers, won’t have to beg for scraps and won’t have to rely on perfection.

So, where do we go from here? Do we settle back into the be-grateful-for-the-scraps culture and sing praises every time a women gets credit, a panel on the page or a scene in a novel? Do we demand more from our female authors than standard stories which are fun but not groundbreaking? If so, how can we support these authors instead of tearing them down with minute (or unfair) criticism?

My goal is to be a woman who supports women. That means reading books by women but also allowing women the human flaw of error, critiquing her work fairly and balancing critique with praise.