As promised, here is my sociology paper on feminism in webcomics. I’ve now turned it in to my professor so I think it’d be okay for me to post it here. I’m afraid the formatting may leave something to be desired, but it is after all an eleven-page academic paper being forced onto a blog. Any sources which are online can be accessed by clicking on the in-text citation (with the exception of those for LICD, because mentioning it here is too much encouragement as it is).
WOMEN WITH EMP CANNONS: Feminism in the Webcomics Community
On August 11th, 2010, the popular videogame-themed webcomic Penny-Arcade published a comic strip in which an imaginary “slave” character begs a hero to rescue him, saying that “every night [he is] raped to sleep” by monsters (Krahulik August 11, 2010). While Penny-Arcade often includes risqué topics, the reaction to this particular strip was swift and unfavorable. A blogger called Shaker Milli A explained: “Rape isn’t a part of the game, so for the slave to explicitly state he is being raped is a ‘humorous’ exaggeration” (2010). Though Penny-Arcade frequently makes jokes about exaggerated violence, it can be seen in some ways to be parodying the senseless violence of video games. This depiction of a rape victim has no aspect of commentary, and thus comes across as more offensive than their usual fare. Unfortunately, the creators of Penny-Arcade responded to critics by making a sarcastic non-apology: “It’s possible you read our cartoon and became a rapist as a direct result,” sneers one of the cartoonists’ avatars. “If you’re raping someone right now, stop. Apologize. And leave” (Krahulik August 13, 2010). While the earlier mention of rape was problematic, this was worse. Now they were directly belittling rape, and their absurd misrepresentation of readers’ complaints (no one implied that the strip would actually cause rape) brought on another onslaught of angry readers (Cruz 2010). This controversy was illustrative of the state of the webcomics community today. It has its share of misogynistic content, with jokes made at the expense of women and many female characters being depicted as sexist archetypes—but it has also become a hotbed of feminism. The openness of the webcomics medium has made it fertile ground for female cartoonists, which has led to an influx of women into the field, both as creators and readers. While misogyny may still exist in many popular webcomics, readers do not allow these slips to pass without comment, and the number of webcomics by, for, and about women is increasing.
The world of comics, since its inception, has been accused of pervasive sexism that excludes women from participation either as readers or creators. The newspaper comic strip, historically an important part of the world of comics, had few or no women creators, and its female characters were largely based on stereotype; in the words of feminist Betty Swords, the world of newspaper comics was one in which “women don’t make the jokes because they are the joke” (qtd. in Walker 103, 1998). The world of mainstream comic books has been little better, as a dearth of female fans creates a vicious cycle which precludes women from becoming interested in entering the field (Katz 101, 2008). Though there were some comics with female characters, they were created by men, and even at the outset largely relied on stereotypical archetypes such as the “dumb blond” or sex-infused pinup, even in the comics aimed at a female market (Robbins 15, 1999). Even Wonder Woman, the quintessential image of a powerful woman, was marred by encroaching stereotypes, her “secret identity” being that of a clerk with a powerful crush on a fighter pilot (Robinson 12, 2004). Where Superman’s masquerading as nerdy Clark Kent took on a kind of “dramatic irony,” Wonder Woman’s identity as Diana Prince constantly threatened to override her heroism and condemn her to a life of “domesticity, motherhood, and consumerism” (ibid., 12-13). Even the strongest female characters in these mainstream comics are menaced by male-dominated stereotypes, and depicted with suggestive costumes and unrealistic body proportions that reinforce the notion of a male-dominated readership, feeding into Katz’s vicious cycle.
From the late 1970s onward, feminist cartoonists began to create work of their own, depicting women more realistically than the male paradigm ever had and occasionally touching on previously taboo themes such as lesbianism, abortion, and women’s eroticism (Robbins 90-94, 1999). Unfortunately, however, these were “underground” or “alternative” publications: printed in small numbers and difficult to find. While some of these publications managed to find their way to their intended audiences and make an impression (see, for example, Robbins 94), they by no means challenged the existing power structure of the mainstream comics industry, and few of them reached any kind of wide renown. One happy exception to this rule is the lesbian feminist creator Alison Bechdel, whose comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For has attained extensive visibility, being published not only in alternative gay and lesbian papers but also the mainstream humor monthly Funny Times (Walker 108). Through her work in comics, Bechdel has also gained notoriety for a tool now called the Bechdel Test, which is used to evaluate the treatment of women in fiction. The test is based on three criteria: a work of fiction must have (1) multiple female characters who must (2) talk to each other (3) about something besides a man (Friedman 2010). This test, while not completely reliable at evaluating whether a work truly fulfills feminist ideals, does provide a useful starting point, and has become widely used by feminist critics, even spawning a website which categorizes movies based on how well they pass the test. Though the platform for feminism in print comics is small, Bechdel and others like her have leveraged it to the best of their abilities and managed to put it to good use.
The first webcomics appeared in the late nineties. Superficially, a typical webcomic looks fairly similar to an independent comic: they are usually produced by non-professionals and are distributed without a publishing company, instead being posted directly to the internet by their authors. Webcomics differ from independent comics, though, in that they take very little money or effort to distribute (some avenues being completely free), and potentially can reach a larger audience, as they can be accessed from any computer with internet access and can be viewed a practically infinite number of times (as opposed to independent comics, which are printed in small numbers). The concept of webcomics has been revolutionary for the industry, as people who were never able to reach an audience before now can display their work to potentially millions of people. The most important aspect of this is the elimination of any editorial hand: no matter what the content of a webcomic may be, it can be quickly and easily published on the internet. This allows comics which would have been dismissed by editors can now reach potentially large audiences, especially topical niche comics, which can include everything from comics for videogame fans (such as Penny-Arcade) to comics for lesbians. Webcomics have become a completely free space, one where everyone has an equal chance for success and no one is denied entry.
Another important aspect of webcomics is the way in which they simulate a community. In webcomics there is little distance between reader and creator, the reader having frequent opportunities to communicate with the creator directly, either through email or through comments left on the site itself. This aspect of webcomics makes them a highly social medium, one which is highly conducive to dialogue. Readers can communicate with each other just as easily, and the conversation between fans and creators is an important aspect of the webcomics medium. Furthermore, since establishing one’s own webcomic is so simple, it is an easy matter to create a completely new comic in response to another. This is another way in which webcomics differ from print comics of the past: they are more than simply a medium and are also a forum for community and social interaction.
Unfortunately, however, the freedom of the medium has not meant that all webcomics have taken the lead and elevated the comics medium from its history of sexist associations. Indeed, many webcomics have continued to reinforce these ideas, and have done so since the medium’s inception. One of the very first webcomics was User Friendly by J.D. “Illiad” Frazer, which premiered online in 1997 (Comixpedia). User Friendly is similar in structure to a newspaper comic, making technology-oriented jokes about the employees of a fictional internet service provider (ibid.). A quick application of the Bechdel Test immediately reveals a problem: User Friendly has only one prominent female character. This character, Miranda, is a systems administrator, as are most of the male characters. Miranda struggles daily with the challenges of being the only woman in the department. A typical example can be found at her initial introduction, in which a male character ignores her lengthy list of credentials and explains to her, “This is [a] mouse. Click-click. Easy to use, [yes]? Now you try” (Frazer, 1998). This is a promising beginning, as Frazer appears to be trying to criticize the sexist assumptions held by many computer professionals. Unfortunately, as time goes on it becomes apparent that Miranda is completely defined by her femaleness, and has practically no personality beyond her gender. In a strip from 2003 she meets a new (male) employee and begins to defend her computer skills immediately, preemptively assuming that he will prejudge her (Frazer, 2003). The use of the name “Cathy” in this strip refers to the Cathy comic strip, which has been derided by many feminists for its stereotyping of women (see, for example, Beyerstein 2010) (ibid.). An “interview” with Miranda (with questions sent by the strip’s fans) reveals just how shallow her character truly is: her fictional answers frequently return to the idea that “being a female geek is difficult,” many questions reference her appearance or attractiveness, and in response to the question “What’s the best and worst thing about being a female geek?” Miranda replies, “The men” (Frazer, no date). The “interviews” with the strip’s male characters, by comparison, have practically no references to gender. While Frazer does attempt to use Miranda to criticize the gender discrepancies of the field, the character’s shallowness and stereotypical handling place him in the same camp as the creators of Wonder Woman: well-intentioned, but ultimately a product of the status quo.
One of the most popular webcomics is xkcd by Randall Munroe, which as of this writing is the first result in a Google search for “webcomic,” and is estimated by compete.com to have approximately 1.5 million readers per month. Like User Friendly, xkcd caters to the “nerd” community, billing itself as a “A Webcomic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math, and Language” (Munroe). Also like User Friendly, its relationship to feminism is complicated and problematic. One comic, entitled “How it Works”, demonstrates the process of sexist assumptions: a man and a woman both make the same math mistake, causing an onlooker to make a generalization about women but not about men (Munroe, no date). At least one blogger, Jason Schultz, interprets it as a criticism of sexism, misquoting the strip’s title as “How Sexism Works” and calling it “Another brilliant anti-sexism comic” (2008). Is it, though? The strip is very vague, and could just as easily be interpreted as sexist. In a strip more widely celebrated as anti-sexist, a man confronts another man who is accused of harassing women over the internet (Munroe, “Pix Pls,” no date). He tells the offender that if he attempts to go online, his female sidekick will melt his computer with an “EMP cannon” (ibid.). While this strip does highlight a common problem, that of sexist behavior on the internet, its handling of the subject is problematic. Two women are in the strip (“Joanna” and the unseen harrass-ee), but neither plays an active role. While this strip intends to criticize sexist internet culture, it reinforces the idea that the internet is the domain of men by showing women standing by while men defend their honor. While well-intentioned, Munroe manages to feed into the status quo even as he attempts to critique it. Other xkcd strips are slanted enough that arguing an anti-sexist interpretation becomes difficult. See, for example, the strip “Friends,” in which a male character lays out a plan for how he will slowly win the heart of a woman against her will (Munroe, no date). Though the final panel implies that the man‘s plan is wrong, it does so somewhat ambiguously, and does not really override the strip’s misogynistic overtones to any satisfying degree. Whether xkcd passes the Bechdel Test is hard to evaluate, given that its characters are all nameless stick figures and not even intended to be fully-developed in any way. Overall, Munroe’s handling of feminist issues is vague enough that it does nothing to correct problems and could possibly reinforce them.
While the sexism of User Friendly and xkcd is largely unintended, there are other comics which are less subtle. Least I Could Do (LICD) by Ryan Sohmer may be one of the most blatantly misogynistic webcomics of all—and with over 100,000 visitors per month, it is also among the most popular (compete.com). The strip’s protagonist is Rayne Summers (whose name bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the strip’s creator), and much of the strip centers around his selfish and gratuitous sexual exploits. The very first LICD comic, published on February 10, 2003, features Rayne celebrating that he’s had sex with fifty different women (Sohmer). Rayne is a veritable satyromaniac, his life completely revolving around his conquest of women. In one series, Rayne embarks on a quest to have sex with Indian women—and naturally he succeeds within a few strips (Sohmer, September 2010). In a strip titled “Buffet Style,” Rayne goes to a brothel and systematically has sex with all of its prostitutes (Sohmer, October 2010). These are both typical of the LICD format. Rayne is a sex-crazed jerk, one whose every fantasy is fulfilled by willing, brainless women who he manipulates to whatever ends he desires. “It’s bad enough that Rain [sic] is a sexist asshole,” comments blogger Angelina Fernandez, “he’s one that wins all the time” (2010). The strip is a constant onslaught of misogyny so hard-boiled that is nearly impossible not to be offended by it—and yet LICD has hundreds of thousands of readers. With thousands of webcomics available, there is no reason for a reader to continue reading LICD if he doesn’t like it, so the fact that it has such a high number of readers cannot be disregarded (although it should also be noted that these statistics can be deceptive and tell us nothing about who these readers are; many of them may well be feminists who feel a need to keep Sohmer under observation). Any attempt to apply the Bechdel Test here would be needless: even if LICD can weasel its way through it on technicalities (and my rudimentary foray through its archives suggests it cannot), it is as clear-cut a case of sexism as one could hope to find.
We’ve now looked at three webcomics, two of which are among the most popular and one of which ushered in the age of webcomics as we know them. All three of them to have a problematic relationship to women. Is, then, the world of webcomics really no better than that of print comics of the past? The answer is complicated. The webcomics community, in addition to being completely open, is also practically infinite in scope, so we cannot draw conclusions about the medium as a whole based on such a small sample, especially from three which are so similar (all cater to young male technology enthusiasts, roughly). One important thing to remember is that there can be no “typical webcomic.” While some kinds of webcomics may exist in greater numbers than others (the videogame comic being a perennial favorite), there is too much diversity to declare that any one genre is the most typical of the form. Genres of webcomics are more like a series of nations, and readers drift between the “nations” they favor. And, as we will see, some of these nations have formed an outlet for feminism in comics the likes of which has never been seen before.
“Of all the creative fields you can go into, webcomics is totally neutral about gender. It’s your work, speaking for itself, on the Internet. … It’s a very level playing ground” (Moen qtd. in Polgreen). These are the words of Erika Moen, whose autobiographical webcomic DAR!: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary wrapped up at the end of 2009 to great acclaim. More than anyone else, Moen understands the relation of webcomics to feminism and gender. DAR! began in 2003, and the six years of Moen’s life chronicled in its run see her through a number of gender-related quandaries (Moen 2009). In the first year of the comic’s run, Moen embraced her lesbianism, but in a few years found herself attracted to a man, leading her into a confused re-examination of her sexuality, all of which was explored in depth within the comic (ibid.). DAR!, as its subtitle suggests, takes the form of a diary, Moen using each installment to relate events from her life, and her life being what it is, she frequently touches on issues of gender and “queer” sexuality (to use Moen’s preferred term). In one early example, she details her mother’s attempts to explain her (Moen’s) lesbianism, with explanations ranging from “Your school is too liberal” to “Boys haven’t paid you enough attention and you’re discouraged!” (Moen 2004). As she comes to terms with her gradual realization that she is only partially homosexual, she uses the comic as a podium to explore those issues: is she a “Lesbian Until Graduation”? No, she insists fretfully, “it just looks like I am!” (Moen 2007). She attempts to find a label for herself: “I’m a dyke…with an exception?” (ibid.). Finally she comes to the conclusion that her attraction to women is simply another thing she can have in common with her husband (ibid.). Not to be pigeonholed as an exclusively gender-focused cartoonist, Moen adores crude humor, even descending to the level of fart jokes regularly. How does DAR! differ from the alternative comics we’ve looked at before? In many ways it does not. Both are using an alternative medium to publish materials of interest to a minority group. The difference is that the webcomics medium allows Moen to reach a potentially much larger audience than a small press would, her traffic averaging nearly 13,000 viewers per month—a year after she ceased updating the comic (compete.com)! This is probably due in no small part to the fact that her work is funny and appealing enough to attract readers outside of her expected audience of the queer community. Had she published through small press, it is unlikely that many people outside of that minority would have seen her work. DAR! is a great example of how well the webcomics world can support an uncategorizable cartoonist like Moen—she is simultaneously a lesbian, not a lesbian, a feminist, and above all, a real human being and a humorist, and the open nature and wide reach of webcomics has allowed her access to the audience she deserves.
Back in the realm of fiction, Meredith Gran’s Octopus Pie is a prime example of a work centered around richly-developed female characters in the world of webcomics. Starring Eve Ning and her roommate Hanna Thompson, Octopus Pie follows a cast of characters through their adventures in Brooklyn. With a fairly equal distribution of male and female characters, it stands to reason that Octopus Pie should pass the Bechdel Test fairly easily, and indeed it does fulfill all the requirements for the first time in the fourth strip (Gran 2007). Octopus Pie is typically a drama or “slice-of-life” comic, although Gran does throw in a good deal of wackiness here and there for humorous effect. The comic is driven in part through the interactions of Eve and Hannah, Eve being fairly withdrawn while Hannah confronts life head-on. Both characters have extensive personalities, and while neither is particularly realistic, they could not be accused of being underdeveloped either. Eve struggles with depression, half-heartedly searches for a soulmate, confronts her past, and attempts to understand her relationship to her family. Hana (the wackier of the two), concocts cockamamie schemes to improve her small business (which involves marijuana-infused baked goods), tries to help guide Eve through life, and waxes eloquent on the joys of public nudity. This is not to imply that Octopus Pie has any kind of political slant, though; it simply seeks to tell an interesting story. What makes it important from a feminist perspective is that it centers around well-developed female characters, using women to carry its story while the male characters remain in satellite positions, though they are no less well-developed. This is important. Octopus Pie is not the antithesis of typical sexism, wherein the male characters dominate and the female characters are flat and few. Instead, Octopus Pie demonstrates a gender-neutral equity, with plenty of female and male characters. Though the presence of two female protagonists immediately grabs our attention, it is this equality that truly defines Octopus Pie as a feminist work. Being difficult to categorize within existing genres, it might have been difficult for Gran to find a publisher under an established print structure, but Octopus Pie is perfectly tailored for the webcomics format, and has won much acclaim within the webcomics community, and even had a positive writeup in the New York Daily News (Romano 2007). Gran has used the freedom of webcomics to set a new precedent for comics stories in which there is no gender imbalance, and the response from the community has been very positive.
If LICD could be said to have an opposite, it might be Girls With Slingshots (GWS). While it paradoxically bears the “Hosted by LICD.com” insignia, GWS by Danielle Corsetto is everything LICD isn’t. Passing the Bechdel Test in only the second strip, GWS has a wide variety of female characters, every one of which is well-developed enough to hold down portions of the strip on her own. The characters are somewhat larger-than-life overall, but this is to be expected in a comic which features a talking cactus as one of its primary characters. While DAR! and Octopus Pie both attempt to be fairly realistic in the treatment of their characters, the world of GWS tends to be wackier, featuring storylines that include everything from ghosts to a man infected with “Loonius Toonitus,” a disease which causes anvils to fall in his vicinity (Corsetto 656). In its focus on nutty adventures GWS has a vague resemblance to LICD, but it is technically superior in many ways, focusing primarily on the relationships between its characters and maintaining realistic development throughout its goofy plotlines. Just as Octopus Pie is not actively trying to be a “feminist comic,” GWS is not blatantly making any specific point either, but its strong female characters exemplify a feminist message nonetheless. Unlike the newspaper comics discussed earlier, in GWS women make the jokes and are the joke—and men are the joke too. GWS is a little theater of human behavior in which Corsetto excercises her strong grasp of absurdity to create humor from everyday life. GWS can in some ways be seen as the fulfillment of feminism in comics, a story centered around women, but which treats the male and female characters as equally human and equally funny. This not to say, however, that GWS never discusses feminist issues. In one strip a (female) feminist character advocates abuse of men and another character calls her on it, saying, “You’re confusing feminism with reverse sexism here. … [Y]ou’re just mimicking the characteristics that you find so repulsive in a small handful of men” (Corsetto 295). Corsetto is indeed working at the very heart of feminism, demonstrating that in the end it really is all about equality.
The blossoming of female characters in webcomics is not even limited to female creators. Male creators are also beginning to come on board with webcomics which feature strong female protagonists outside of the Wonder Woman superheroine archetype. The prime example of this is Tom Siddel’s acclaimed fantasy webcomic, Gunnerkrigg Court, which has a cast of predominantly female characters (most of them in their early teens). The action takes place at a boarding school, a setting which has often been sexualized, but Siddel’s treatment of the subject is completely different, using the setting simply as a backdrop for the cast’s surreal adventures. Gunnerkrigg Court‘s characters are not treated as the stereotypical “girl” characters seen in many comics by men, but are all developed in their own rights. Their femaleness is not dwelt upon at length, it is simply there, as irrelevant to their personalities as their hair color. Siddel’s characters could be said follow in the footsteps of Nancy Drew: young women embroiled in a mystery which they must use their wits to solve. Was Siddel inspired by the work of female webcartoonists? It’s hard to say, but Gunnerkrigg Court is simply another part of the puzzle; another way in which webcomics show their openness to strong female characters which break the mold.
On October 26, 2010, the popular webcartoonist Kate Beaton posted the following via Twitter: “[W]hen you tell a female creator you like her work so much you want to marry her and have her babies, you’re not doing anyone any favors. … No one makes comics looking for sexual attention. …
[B]y doing so you invite others to critique that person’s works based on their looks, which is uncomfortable, sexist and unfair” (Beaton qtd. in Bennett 2010). Reaction was swift, people lining up in camps to defend or refute Beaton (Bennett 2010). The world of webcomics has come a long way in its inclusion of women. Its openness to women creators and characters is unparalleled in the history of the comics medium, and the community’s enthusiastic support of feminist works has made it fertile ground to develop previously neglected themes. Unfortunately, however, there are still plenty of webcomics like LICD out there, and the violent reaction to Kate Beaton’s honest plea for compliments sans sexism shows that the field still has aways to go.
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