#ChangeTheCover or Don’t #ChangeTheCover? Which way did you vote?
In the grand scheme of things, the fate of a variant cover is pretty much a raindrop in a very large body of water. Anyone familiar with the book Half the Sky can tell you that debates about comic books are a privilege in and of themselves. This isn’t to downplay the very real and legitimate concerns expressed by many people who took issue with the Batgirl #41 variant cover. There are some very important, and long overdue, discussions that are taking place in the world of comics. Battle lines have been drawn around Wonder Woman’s costume, Spider-Woman’s posture and Batgirl’s reaction. These are discussions that have needed to happen. I’m happy to see them happening in my lifetime and I’m excited for what the outcomes mean for the future, particularly when I think about my 11 year old niece whose comics addiction rivals my own. I’m excited that my friends young daughters have a chance to have role models that look like them and can experience the same thing I did when I picked up my first Superman comic.
I have to admit to having the slightest bit of apprehension as well. But, it’s not because of some perceived threat to the white male hegemony or because I’m proudly waving some flag in favor of patriarchy. My apprehension is doesn’t come from any threats to the status quo, it comes from the fear that the aforementioned battle lines might be ignoring a significant amount of collateral damage. I’m worried because in a battle of “us vs. them,” it becomes far too easy to want to be on the “winning side.” At the risk of being overly cliche, I have a legit fear that we’re so focused on an “eye for an eye” that many comics fans are willingly choosing to be blind.
There are a few disconcerting things with the cover to Batgirl #41 that I’ve seen very few people discuss. Any time you’re referencing The Killing Joke you’re dealing with implied rape. I doubt that Rafael Albuquerque had any intention of endorsing rape. The fact that he requested that the cover be pulled seems to support this notion. In the man’s own words, he was simply trying to draw an homage to a book that was important to him. But, it was going to be a no-win situation. At worst, I think Albuquerque was guilty of being a bit culturally tone-deaf and DC was guilty of having variant-itis. As an aside, I think Marvel suffered the same when they solicited a variant cover of a female hero from an artist who specializes in erotic/pornographic imagery. Both decisions were profoundly stupid, but not necessarily evil. Once the battle lines were drawn, complex business decisions were quickly reduced to black and white issues. Suddenly, supporting an artist’s choice was tantamount to endorsing the denigration or violation of women. Unfortunately, that reduction misses a few very important points. In the case of Batgirl, it overlooks the fact that there might bigger issues to consider when it comes to the use of rape as a trope. At some point writers, particularly Alan Moore, began to use rape as a story crutch. If you want to let the audience know that a character is truly evil then you make him a rapist. To me that brings up two particularly disturbing truths that don’t seem to be getting much attention:
- It is uncomfortably comforting that rape is still universally recognized as an evil act. I don’t think I want to live in a world where rape is just another crime, or worse, a way of life. (Although, let’s not forget that there are women in other countries for whom this is the case.)
- How desensitized have we become as a populace that it takes a crime as invasive, egregious, and disgusting as rape to illustrate that a character is evil??
With regards to the second point, in a world where a murderous rampage by Frank Castle is applauded as heroic, we’ve seriously moved the bar for what it takes to be considered a villain. I’m not trying to be an apologist for writers like Moore or Ennis who, in attempts to be “real” or “edgy,” reduce rape to a cliche or trope. But I do think we need to look at ourselves and what we consider to be heroic with the same amount of scrutiny that we do with our villains.
Arguably, the Batgirl cover isn’t disturbing just because of the implications of rape from the source material. It’s also disturbing because the image of the Joker holding a gun isn’t frightening enough.
As I write this I can almost hear more battle lines being drawn, which brings me back around to the aforementioned apprehension. Someone reading this is going to see themselves as an “us” and I’m going to be lumped in with “them.” I’m a white middle class dude. I’ve got privilege oozing out of every pore of my body. For some that means that I don’t get to have an opinion.
I’ll pause to let the irony of that sink in for moment….
As I said earlier, these are important discussions that are long overdue. I’m excited for what this means for the future, particularly with regards to having comics that allow for fantasy and escapism without expecting (or forcing) everyone to have a fantasy that looks like whitewashed American television from the 1950s. But I also think it’s important to remember that not every old white guy is secretly a closet rapist, and that we don’t all belong to a secret society of misogynists on a mission to enforce the status quo. I’m not suggesting that either of the former doesn’t exist (after all, a quick glance at Reddit would prove me wrong). But I am suggesting that things might be a bit more complex than folks want to either admit or recognize.
I’m going to diverge a bit and share a personal story. As I said, I’m so covered in privilege it’s practically a second skin. But that doesn’t mean that my life has been a parade of roses along roads of gold. Like most geeks my age there was a time where being a geek meant regular torment at the hands of my fellow students. Getting beaten up during school was a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. Back then the only “us vs. them” battle was “the kids who read comic books” versus the rest of the school. Gender didn’t make a difference. At the time, nearly every experience with girls was negative. We, the kids who read comics, were either laughed at, mocked, or became the target of their boyfriends, while the girls pointed and laughed. We clung together simply because we thought there was safety in numbers, but we also made the barrier to entry as high as possible. We had learned that you couldn’t trust “outsiders.” Life was better in our fantasies. The women in comic books were beautiful, and not only did they not laugh at us, they seemed to “get” us. They were one of us, and they could protect us from the “them” that was waiting for us after school.
I agree that portrayals of female characters is unrealistic, sexual objectification, and that it’s designed to reinforce a male power fantasy. I also think that this is something that is long overdue to be changed. But, I also remember the barriers to entry that we erected as children. I remember a time when I was just as frightened by girls as I was by football players, because both meant certain physical and emotional torment. The barriers were meant as protection for already abused and scared children. We were like cornered animals and would lash out to protect our “dens,” using whatever means necessary.
It’s a different world now, and some of us are having trouble realizing that those barriers aren’t necessary. Decades of mistrust is something that is hard to dismantle. Metaphorically, it’s difficult to see the star quarterback wearing a Spider-Man shirt and want to take him seriously. It’s hard to see the pretty girl wearing a Batman shirt and not be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Trust is hard to come by when you grow up in a world where comic books are dangled like bait over a bear trap. As a grown man I still occasionally find myself correcting irrational thoughts when I see certain people file out of the most recent showing whatever comic book movie is in theaters.
It’s hard to let go of the fear of what will happen when “we” let “them” inside our castles.
Being an adult means accepting that life isn’t binary. Just as many of “us” need to grow up and accept that women are comics fans too, I think that we also need to remember that being inclusive doesn’t just apply to race, gender, or orientation. I think that we’d all do well to remember that, sometimes in spite of privilege, everyone is carrying their own shit. Sometimes a misogynist asshole is actually a misogynist asshole. But, sometimes, that misogynist asshole is really just someone who is still hiding behind the barriers he built to keep him safe. Those barriers can’t be dismantled through argument and debate. They require empathy and understanding. It requires that “we” be willing to let our guard down, and risk that “they” might hurt us.
These battles won’t be won by more fighting. Once upon a time our heroes taught us that. There are real villains in the world and they want nothing more than for us to treat everyone like a villain. Because, if everyone is a villain then no one is. At the moment, I’m worried that the villains are winning. This is the source of my apprehension.
But, more importantly, I’m hopeful that we’ll remember what it means to be a hero. I hope we remember that being inclusive starts with understanding, empathy, and, at times, sympathy. Even if it’s sympathy for the devil.