At The Risk of Offending: Internet Controversies
Posted by AJ
Of late, it seems that hardly a week goes by when there isn’t some kind of controversy on the internet. Whether we talk about political gaffes, authors having meltdowns, reviewers calling each other out, authors taking the piss out of other people, publishers doing some really dumb things, fans and geeks laying bare their prejudices and revealing their baser thinkings or whatever else, it all happens with amazing regularity. I’ve seen some really startling controversies of late. And there are two that I want to focus on for this post.
The first of these deals with the controversy surrounding a variant cover that Cartoon Network issued for an upcoming issue of Powerpuff Girls, which are currently being published by IDW Publishing. The cover showed the three sisters in a supposedly sexist and exploitative light, and a comics retailer in the US took incredible exception to it and was quite vocal about it.
The second of these deals with something a bit low key. A fellow blogger posted a really interesting commentary on how a lot of readers today are assigning genders to books and are dividing them by who should and should not be reading those books, creating an even bigger stir in the ocean of sexism and misogyny in the book publishing industry, just to name one of the concerns. Another friend took strong exception to some of the things said in the post, and there was quite an interesting twitter conversation on both sides.
To start off with, let’s talk about the Powerpuff Girls thing. This kind of segues into the second point even, tangentially. You can read about the whole thing here, here, and here.
I used to watch Powerpuff Girls as a kid. It was one of the few good, enjoyable cartoons that aired on Cartoon Network in the late 90s, early 2000s. With Genndy Tartakovsky (of Samurai Jack fame) as one of the producers, this was a show that I tuned in for every day whenever I could. There was something about the whole setting that really spoke to me. The girls were very much superheroes, so I suppose that’s one of the things that I liked.
Now, with this cover, exception was taken to the way that the girls are posed and the way that they are dressed. Here is the particular quote by retailer Dennis Barger Jr. who kicked off the whole thing: “taking grade school girls and sexualizing them as way older… they are wearing latex bondage wear mini dresses, which on an adult would be fine but on the effigies of children is very wrong… especially on an ALL AGES kids book marketed for children.”
Personally, I see nothing wrong with that cover at all. It imagines the girls as teenagers, something like 15-17 I’d say, and that’s really it. The artist doesn’t really do anything here that wasn’t already in the original series from Cartoon Network. And also, if anyone has seen the anime that resulted from the original series, they’d see that the cover is much more respectful of the characters, not that the anime was actually disrespectful, but more that it had the girls as older, with really thin and tall legs and really short short skirts, in very typical anime style.
To address the concerns here, I kind of side with artist Mimi Yoon. How hard is it really to stop for a moment and think that this cover doesn’t show the grade-school version of the girls, but as someone in high school, or at least junior high? Unfortunately, I think that Barger fell into the trap of of speaking his mind before considering what he was saying. Does the cover seem appropriate for a book marked as all ages, with the obvious context of being for young readers? Not particularly, no. But to make an accusation of sexism and exploitation? That’s going too far.
One interesting comment I read about the whole controversy was that the girls’ pose is reminiscent of artist Jack Campbell’s typical style when drawing female characters for his covers. There’s a very specific style he uses, and often the girls are shown in seductive/modeling poses. I can see that here. But I still don’t see the problem. Thing is, this cover is a variant. It is not exactly something that is going to be generally available to people. You aren’t really going to be able to walk into a store and see dozens of copies of Powerpuff Girls #6 with that cover. Variant covers often require stores to order particular numbers of the issues in question and there won’t be more than a small handful of variants at any store, if at all. I don’t know how IDW handles variants, but if it is anything like how DC and Marvel handle things, then copies of the issue in question with the variant cover in question are going to be, well, rare.
I personally find Barger’s outrage to be misleading and misplaced. He sees a cover with three female characters, and he goes down the path of thinking negatively of the cover and lambasts the publisher and the artist. His original comment isn’t quite so… aggressive, but the response that I saw on his thread on Facebook was very damning, from the people who agreed with him. IDW made their case for how the cover had been solicited at Cartoon Network itself and that they had nothing to do with it, and the cover was eventually pulled.
Its all rather unfortunate. There’s all this huge talk of how girls are psychologically conditioned towards being sexualised from a young age, how they are held up to societal expectations where they are to be made out as objects of sexual gratification and what not. Its all very true. It is indeed a problem. But do we need to attack an example as innocuous as this? Does the change in art style, and an aging of the characters in question deserve such a response?
My opinion here is probably in the minority, and I’m sure I’ll get some pushback for this. Still, I stand by my comment.
Now, for the other controversy. You can read about this one here, and here. There are valid points made on both sides. The issue that the second post mentions are a little tangential to those raised in the original post, but the points stand as valid and in full. Just a few minutes ago, the original blogger has put up a second post that clarifies things further.
To give some context however:
I’ve made no secret of my tastes. I happily watch so-called chick flicks if I love the actress(es) in question and if the premise is promising. I watch dude-bro movies for when I am in need for something mindless fun. I enjoy watching romance movies in general, thanks in part to my Bollywood upbringing. I read urban fantasy with sexy female vampires and werewolves and witches or what not. I’ve seen all the Twilight movies, the last two of them in the theater. I love Disney films and the songs often make me cry. I read risque comics like Warlords of Mars: Dejah Thoris and some of the Zenescope titles. I think Pacific Rim and Frozen are the best films of 2013, while those like Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness were shitty. I loved Expendables 2 and want to see both Expendables 3 and Expendabelles. I read all sorts of superhero comics. I read whatever I want, in any genre I want. I watch whatever I want, in any genre I want. I listen to whatever I want, by any artist or group I want to, irrespective of whether or not they have done public gaffes and what not [at the risk of possibly offending some people, I admit that I’m a huge fan of Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, as much as I am a fan of Katy Perry and Shania Twain; and its a bit weird but I’ve noticed that I tend to primarily listen to female artists]. The only kind of fiction that I avoid is out-and-out paranormal romance prose fiction because it just doesn’t interest me in any way.
Up until the middle of 2012 or thereabouts, I was made aware that I tended to primarily read and review prose fiction by men. It was a revelation to me since I was never consciously aware of it. But I changed that around, consciously, and now my reading is much more balanced. Today, I don’t give any thought to what the gender of a writer is before I pick up a book just for the sake of it. I’ve built up a social circle of readers and fellow bloggers who read all sorts of different things and I often gravitate towards what they recommend, whether the writer is male or female, irrespective of what colour their skin is, or where they are from. If a book is written by someone who identifies as neither male nor female, I’m not going to turn down their book. And this applies to all sorts of different things.
For me, a book is not good or bad unless I read it for myself. I avoid a book only if the writer has a negative track record in my experience. I don’t really care what that writer’s background is. And why should I? Why should anyone? Anyone can write a novel that is good or bad. The quality of a novel is not dependent on an author’s sex, gender, skin colour, religion or whatever else arbitrary constriction you set. It is foolishness to think otherwise.
And neither is the type of a novel, the genre that it is set in. There are a fair few examples out there of male authors writing novels set in “traditional” female-centric genres. The reverse is also true, much more so. Sadly, a small minority thinks otherwise. Sometimes, I just feel sorry for being a geek. There are plenty of geeks who malign the community with their ill-thought, ill-considered, sexist and misogynistic remarks. Because of the controversial nature of such remarks, they become publicised and gain attention that they are not deserving of, in any way.
Anyways, back to the matter at hand. There was a certain context that was not present in the original post. That, more than anything else, was the cause of this disagreement that happened. Thankfully, it has all been cleared up, now. And so we come to the heart of it. Disagreements on the internet, such as this, often result from one of two things: either deep-seated biases one way or another or because of simple miscommunication. This particular situation was because of the later.
The lesson to learn here, I think, is to stop thinking in terms of binary genders: male or female. Today, gender cannot be easily classified into two divisions. There’s a whole new world out there where people identify as so much more. We need to respect and accept that. And the same goes for sex. I’ve had (and do have) friends who identified/identify themselves as QUILTBAG. Increasingly, the fiction we consume is slowly coming to give a voice to these people, who are just as human as either you or me. There’s nothing unnatural about them. There’s nothing unnatural about them wanting representation. Just because they write fiction to promote their identities, does not mean that their fiction is unnatural. We all write to explore ourselves and the worlds around us. We write to explore the people around us. Some people are better at it than others. Some people are really able to tap into these identities (and by these I mean the whole range, not just the binary or the all-inclusive). And we won’t find out unless we read that fiction.
We just need to keep an open mind. The best recent example I can give of this is Jacqueline Koyanagi’s recent debut Ascension, which features a character that identifies as QUILTBAG. Oh and not just one character, but two, at least. I didn’t like the novel as much as I wanted to, but that was more because of the plot, than because of the characters themselves. The characters weren’t executed well, but they were interesting nonetheless, and that’s the big appeal right there. QUILTBAG characters can be just as interesting and nuanced as characters of the typical… identities.
I think that somewhere along the way here, I’ve kind of lost what I wanted to say, and that I’ve gone on several tangents here. That usually happens to me.
But, I hope that the points are made nonetheless. Your thoughts are welcome.
Posted on February 7, 2014, in Editorial and tagged All Ages Comics, Author Gender, Cartoon Network, Cartoons, Comics, Controversies, Dennis Barger Jr., Editorial, Exploitation in Comics, Genre Fans, IDW Publishing, Internet, Mimi Yoon, Powerpuff Girls, Publishing, Reader Bias, Reviewer, Sexualisation in Comics. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.
Funnily enough, it’s the context that caused that cover to be controversial. It took one of the final groups of non-sexualised characters – the Powerpuff Girls – and put them in, essentially, a cheesecake style. In context, it’s just another group of sexualised young women posing on a cover.
I can think of a hundred things wrong with it, or at least aspects that combine to cause the issues. The clothing seems fetishistic in some way – it’s shiny, like latex or PVC. The skirts are short. They’re very, very form-fitting. They have thigh-high boots. On top of that their posing/anatomies are weird, and they just look creepy (to me, anyway). You say they look 15-17? That’s kinda the issue, because the legal age for someone to appear in adult materials is 18. These characters look under-age, thus sexualising them (or giving that appearance) is kinda creepy.
This is an industry where the major titles sexualise young women with regularity, and hire artists like Greg Land, J. Scott Campbell, Adam Hughes, etc. who all draw women in a sexist manner (okay, Land doesn’t draw). Heck, Marvel even have a variant cover for Ms. Marvel by cheese-cake superstar Arthur Adams. And yes, it’s a bit creepy. And just plain ugly, actually. This particular cover – the PPG one – isn’t exactly a huge issue in itself, but in *context* it kinda just fed into this much bigger issue in comics, and one of the few untouched properties (one many people around my age experienced at the time) was finally sucked in. It’s defensive behaviour as much as it is people rallying against a prevalent issue in comics.
If it was in a vacuum, fine. But it’s not. I don’t think it’s as bad as some said, and the issues have to be thought about and looked into, but if it’s opened people’s eyes to issues in comics – heck, we have a lot coming from Marvel & DC with young (16-ish) girls running around in skin-tight costumes – then I think that’s a good outcome. Heck, I think I saw less outrage about Kick-Ass 2…
It’s also worth noting it’s a subscription cover so shouldn’t be seen by anyone who doesn’t order it (except for it’ll be shown as a thumbnail inside the issue). It’s a less problematic cover than some, sure, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been challenged.
All good points.
“Its all rather unfortunate. There’s all this huge talk of how girls are psychologically conditioned towards being sexualised from a young age, how they are held up to societal expectations where they are to be made out as objects of sexual gratification and what not. Its all very true. It is indeed a problem. But do we need to attack an example as innocuous as this? Does the change in art style, and an aging of the characters in question deserve such a response?”
I must disagree with you here. Yes, we do need to attack examples such as this (any and all examples of the hypersexualization of girls), precisely because it seems innocuous. It’s not. It’s part of a larger culture that sexualizes young girls, and that culture is itself part of rape culture.
Even you claim that the girls depicted on the cover are girls — in junior high, or, at best, high school age — girls, not women. Junior high girls should not be sexualized in media. Period. And aging the PowerPuff Girls (I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I’ve seen the cartoon a few times) on the cover without aging them in the comic itself sends creepy mixed signals.
Later in your post, you write: “The lesson to learn here, I think, is to stop thinking in terms of binary genders: male or female. Today, gender cannot be easily classified into two divisions. ”
That’s true, but the current culture doesn’t allow for the expression of fluid gender identity to any meaningful extent. And this cover absolutely plays into a culture of binary gender roles.
Hypersexualisation? I don’t think so. This cover does not do that. And you say that we need to attack all examples of such. Well, where do you draw the line? Just because a female character is dressed in (apparent) latex form-fitting suit cut just above her knees, does that mean it is offensive?
As for your comment about sending creepy mixed signals since the girls in the comic itself are not aged: this is a variant cover. I don’t know if you read comics, but just to clarify, variants are often not about what is in the script of an issue. That is part of the nature of the variants. Look at it this way: it shows an alternate setting where the girls are older. Variants are not supposed to, nor are required to, be representative of a comic script. Hell, more often than not, regular covers for comics are hardly representative either, especially from the Big 2.
And is being sexy something that is only the provenance of “women” and not “girls”? This goes back to the first point above. Where do you draw the line? What is sexy? Are short skirts and tight-fitting clothes offensive, in that context?
For your last point, could you explain how “cover absolutely plays into a culture of binary gender roles”?
You’re confusing “offensive” and “tasteless”. The cover is tasteless. It is not necessarily offensive, there’s just no need for it to exist. Of course, it is possible to take offence to it.
As for the variant cover thing – Variant covers are simply to make money. They’re also a marketing device now, and feed into the the comics collectors market (they do play a role in helping comic stores make enough money to stay afloat – I saw the Phil Noto cover of Hit-Girl #1 (which, by the way, was rather gross) sell for £15-35, i.e. 5-to-12 times the normal cover price – and some are more visible than others. This one was a subscription cover, and I *believe* it’s not one you’d generally find on the shelf.
Sexy is something anyone can be, but again, it comes down to context. We think adults can be sexy because they have the legal ability to engage in any consensual form of sexual act (provided the other person(s) are not blood relatives), with obvious exceptions for those who are mentally impaired. There’s nothing wrong with adults being sexy, because they have the mental and emotional maturity to do that and to understand it. Children, i.e. those under 18, typically don’t have that (at least until the ages of 16 or so), and even if they do, the law does not take that into consideration. They are protected. A sixteen year old girl or a seventeen year old boy or whatever could walk down a street in tight leggings or shirtless or whatever, and be legally protected from sexual behaviour. Sexy is an attribute either self-given or attached to something. If you attach ‘sexy’ to someone under age, that is wrong.
But we’re not talking people with this example. We’re talking art. An artist has decided to draw three sexualised – some would say hypersexualised, and I can see where that is coming from – young women, almost certainly underage (i.e. under 18), in tight, almost fetishistic clothing, with alluring expressions and so on. That cover was then authorised. There are a few hands at play here, and in the great cacophany that is comics, this cover doesn’t stick out. I’ve seen much worse come from Marvel, Zenescope, etc. But that doesn’t mean this cover isn’t problematic. And it is. It’s also worth noting it probably got some attention due to the cross-medium appeal, i.e. it’s a comic that appeals to animation fans due to its subject matter, so it appeared on more than just comic sites.
That and it’s just plain ugly.