The Consequences of Ignoring Women

Comics. How I love to hate you. How I wish I could love you. Mainstream comics are made for straight, white men by straight, white men. Yes, yes, I've said as much before, and this is not news. My dislike of comic books knows no bound at this point - it's getting to the stage where I'm so completely fed up of seeing the same goddamn tits 'n' ass pose - when they have women at all - that I can't justify getting into comics at all, because the likelihood is high that I will be sorely disappointed and made to feel bad about myself at some point.

This is the same reason I don't go to see some movies that my better half is interested in. I always ask the same questions: is this movie about straight, white guys doing stuff? Yes? Then I will probably not like it. Does the cover of this comic book display female characters in not enough clothing and/or poses better suited to X-rated movies? Then I will probably not like it. It's a useful shorthand for whether I'll regret spending my money on something or not. Unless I know that I will probably enjoy a movie in spite of it being mostly about straight white guys doing stuff - see Avengers, for example - I just don't go. It's working for me so far.

I just don't trust Hollywood, or Marvel and DC. This isn't really surprising, seeing as they've spent quite a long time breaking my trust when it comes to comics in general or action movies in particular. It'll take time for them to earn it back.

(Joss Whedon, guys. He is my only sure thing. I will watch anything he writes without asking whether it's all about straight, white guys doing stuff - because he's better than that. He fought to keep Black Widow in Avengers and give her a major part. He wrote Firefly. He doesn't always knock it out of the park but by all the gods, he's the only one really trying.)

Anyway, back to comics. I'm getting sidetracked here.

I've been thinking about what happens when you have a large demographic of women, like myself, who have a largely unfulfilled need for two things: actual fanservice, and relatable characters. Some writers and artists get it, and they're working on the characters. It's slow, but it's a start. But the other problem... hoo boy. It's going nowhere in mainstream comics.

I am, of course, talking about the fact that you can see softcore porn for straight guys in comics any day of the week, but softcore porn for any other demographic is pretty much absent, even when a sexualised male character would make sense (Namor, I'm looking at you). There is no beefcake in comic books. We do not get sexy superheroes to oogle. Women are allowed to be sexualised in comics to hell and back, but sexy men? Nope. No comic superheroes pander to the female gaze.

Case in point: do a google search for the following - 'superman pin up' followed by 'supergirl pin up'. Notice how Superman gets the tall, proud heroic stance poses, and Supergirl gets pouty lips and balloon tits.

Again, there's an unfulfilled need. What do women do, when they want fanservice and don't get any?

I have a theory about all this.

Fan art and fan fiction. 90% of it, or some ridiculously high number, is produced by women for women. It's a genius idea. If the mainstream don't see the point in it, then why wait around for them to notice? There are plenty of talented amateur artists, for example, who really, really want to see Captain America and Iron Man making out. (I DARE you to do that google search.) They draw it, share it, then draw some more. The same is true for writers - hell, slash has been popular since before I was born. I suspect Mary Sues were an overreaction to the lack of stories headlined by women.

What's very odd, if you start looking around various online archives of this stuff, is what is popular and what isn't - and the incredible range on offer. Take a look at stories listed on Fanfiction.net, for example.

  • Top anime - Naruto, at 311,000, of which 72,000 are marked as mature.
  • Top books - Harry Potter, of course, at 611,000, of which 112,000 are marked as mature.
  • Top TV shows - Glee, at 60,000, of which just under 20,000 are marked as mature.

I find it incredible, for example, that a third of the 1,000 stories listed under Team Fortress 2 are mature. (Mature in this case means X-rated, for the most part, and dear god I do not recommend you read them. 'Bizarre' doesn't even begin to describe it.) Isn't it insane? If nothing else, it suggests that women's tastes are anything but uniform.

How about on DeviantArt? There are galleries - hundreds of images - of... Captain America and Iron Man. Ahem. If you know where to look, you can find whole communities on Tumblr that trade pictures and stories. There is the ever-scary Y!Gallery, like DeviantArt except dedicated solely to slash fan art, which hosts tens of thousands of images - and believe me, it is not safe for work.

Fan fiction and fan art has turned into a deeper subculture that spends all its time explicitly pandering to female desire. There is no pretence about it, as far as I can see, which makes it absolutely fascinating when you consider how women are routinely slut-shamed for having that desire. There's pseudonyms, etiquette, and an entire vocabulary surrounding the production of what is basically porn for women, and a huge chunk of it is so far beyond hardcore it might as well be on another planet. Terrifying and astonishing in equal measure...

The weird thing about it is that this is a representation of sexuality with all the brakes off. Male sexuality, for example, is still largely restricted to the kind of representation that is controlled through the mainstream media. i.e. that men like submissive women with big tits, and nothing more. Female sexuality, however, as expressed through fan fiction and fan art, is so variable as to be impossible to classify. By ignoring women, the mainstream media have inadvertently allowed a wonderful kind of diversity to flourish. Can you imagine what it would be like, if men were ignored in the same way? What would the representation of male sexuality look like, then?

I think mainstream media is just starting to wake up to the idea of pandering to the female gaze, and I don't think it's an accident that they seem a little clueless about it sometimes. Up to this point, they've been pandering to and controlling a very restrictive view of male sexuality, whereas female sexuality is too nebulous to nail down with any certainty. Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, for example, exiting the water in a very flattering pair of swimming trunks, is pure female fan service - and yet, most straight women I know are divided on whether he's actually attractive or not. Compare this to Ursula Andress in the white bikini in Dr. No. How many straight men would debate on whether she's attractive?

So here is my point, belabored as it is - the mainstream media has ignored female sexuality for a very long time, and, as a result, women have pretty much taken matters into their own hands. The result is that there is a brilliant, diverse, and hidden culture spread across the Internet that glories in the female gaze. I can't help finding it just a little bit awe-inspiring, especially because it seems to have happened largely by accident.

(Disclaimer - this is my opinion, take with grain of salt. I get philosophical at 1am, go figure.)