My goodness, I haven’t seen his much shade since Mr. Burns blocked out the sun. Last Friday, acclaimed New Yorker writer and Harvard Professor, Dr. Jill Lepore, wrote an opinion piece criticizing the depictions of several female superheroes as they appear in A-Force #1. In it, she along with a set of ten year-old boys (one of whom was her son) observed that the heroines more closely resembled “Porn Stars” and questioned why so many of them were ostensibly just female versions of established male heroes. What followed was an uproarious “Are you fucking kidding me?” from the entirety of the comics community so uniform and vociferous the Earth slighted tilted on its axis. Okay, deep breaths. Turn on some Enya or Dido or Kenny G and hop in that tub surrounded by candles for a minute, comic book people. That’s not meant to be snide, I too was among the horde of comic lovers ready to point out just how uninformed Lepore’s article read. But, here’s the problem and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of days now: Lepore isn’t really that far off-base and I think a lot of us are getting caught in a perspective trap.
I personally disagree with a number of points in Lepore’s article, but then again I know a thing or two about the awesomeness that is Jen Walters and Nico Minoru. The idea that none of the characters on the cover to A-Force cannot be feminist icons because of the history of their visual depictions is, frankly, offensive. The article itself is written for people with no familiarity with these comics and characters. Which is a big part of the problem for many a comic fan because many of us consider it an unfair tarnish on our chosen hobby. People who thought comics were just over-muscled men and brainless sexpots in tights certainly aren’t going to rethink their position after reading Lepore’s article. Ugh, right? But it’s hard to argue that this sort of assessment is now completely inapplicable in the industry; the problem is that it’s hard to paint A-Force of all comics as a guilty practitioner. Which brings us to perhaps the hardest part of actually rebutting the thesis of her opinion (keyword) piece: you can’t really refute a statement like “They look like porn stars to me and to these ten year-old boys.” You can argue that there are far worse examples or that they just aren’t looking at the image with a trained or even reasoned eye, but you can’t argue against a person’s initial response to it being what it is.
The fact that the two boys primarily noticed that the women all have “gigantic cleavages” is part of a much much much larger and infinitely interesting conversation. Did they see this because ten year-old boys see cleavage in everything anyway? If so, why do they see it? Do things like comic books only reinforce this? And on and on and on. It’s an interesting conversation and one that I wished was explored in Lepore’s piece more thoroughly instead of using the boys as more of a narrative tool, but it’s not really what she wanted to address. If you know anything about the characters on that cover or anything about the creators who put them there, finding this sort of critique as anything other than an uninformed attack is difficult. But Lepore never really chooses to address the characteristics and motivations of these superheroines (which is interesting considering unlike all of us, she’s actually read the damn book) because that’s not really her point nor her prerogative as a writer. This is an opinion piece, not a piece of hard-hitting investigative journalism.
What Lepore chose to do as a writer was use her immediate response to the cover to explore the evolution and history behind the visual depiction of women in comic books. She does that using her intimate knowledge of Wonder Woman and her creator, William Moulton Marston. It’s this part of the article that’s actually supremely interesting as it is addressing a topic I had little knowledge about, unlike that which the outlandish opening addressed. It’s here she lays out the history of the idealized female form as depicted in male magazines, from which comic books adopted as their own. That’s basically what she’s shaped the piece to be and those of us that take umbrage with the information she omits (perhaps intentionally or perhaps not) need to remember that this opinion piece wasn’t written for us and that it is difficult to say her initial reaction to an image is invalid because she didn’t read 60+ years of comic books to understand the finer nuances of She-Hulk’s persona.
Thank god for G. Willow Wilson, however. Earlier this week, Wilson addressed Lepore’s piece with a post on her Tumblr and unlike many of the earlier objections, actually decided to refute some of the specific points. Clearly, Wilson takes quite a bit of this personally because…how could she not? But instead of merely telling Lepore to contextualize better, her rebuttal also reads as “Look, I know better than anyone what you’re talking about except I am actively trying to fix it from within. This shit isn’t going to happen overnight, but I’m trying okay?!?” It’s a welcomed retort that aims to provide the essential contextualization missing from Lepore’s thesis and validated because, you know, she actually wrote the damn thing. On one hand simply telling Lepore to read more comics is still kind of missing the point of her (arguably) flawed piece, but on the other, Wilson is trying to directly explain that the visual depiction of the A-Force were very intentionally chosen to subvert the very “porn star” imagery being discussed. The bit about an appropriate hem length for a 9-foot tall green woman is particularly biting. While the majority of Wilson’s piece has a self-described “cheeky” delivery (it’s at least as snarky as Lepore’s, if not more so) it’s her closing that really strikes at the heart of what upset so many of us. An opinion piece may not require an abundance of research in order to achieve validity, but when discussing the topic of female representation in comic books, the glaring lack of context and acknowledgement for the specific work of the creators of the book you’re using to prove your point undermines its impact. Especially when it could be argued that both sides here are fighting for the same thing except one is an active participant and one an outside observer. That’s what this has all really been about though, right?
Obviously, I’m biased and so are most of us who immediately lambasted Lepore’s piece. (The fact that she seemed to miss the underlying theme of Ex Machina didn’t help her case though). I showed this article to my girlfriend, who has about as much interested in comic books as I do in things that are not comic books or burritos (i.e. not much) and her reaction was that it read like a feminist stance, but she took exception to the use of the word “pervy.” That seems right to me, that someone with no knowledge of virtually anything Lepore was referencing would consider her points interesting and her delivery a little snide. I explained that was my concern as someone who was very familiar with these references and that Lepore was ignoring important context that would undercut the strength of her position. My girlfriend looked at me and asked, “So you’re saying that the way women are typically depicted in comic books isn’t a problem?” To which I fervently stated that “No, of course it’s still a pervasive problem, although it’s getting better, but I’m just upset because it just isn’t in a problem in this comic that she’s talking about.” She then smiled and said, “Sounds to me that that’s a small sticking point to the much larger problem being discussed.” Damn. She had a point. So did Lepore and it’s a matter of perspective as to how strong a case she made. There’s a hopelessness to her piece that Wilson heartily counters as well as that much needed context, but Lepore likely wants the same outcome as Wilson does. Maybe in five or ten or thirty years, comic books won’t inspire pieces like Dr. Lepore’s to be written at all because they will have finally managed to fully shed their problematic representation issues. If that’s the case, it will be largely due to the work that G. Willow Wilson is doing now.