The Women of DC – Kids Edition

In reading comic blogs and talking to other comic book readers I find that the way female characters are portrayed is a big and somewhat thorny topic. It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that I’m not very fond of how most women are objectified in comic books. For the most part I find that when I go to the comic shop I’m staring at endless pin-up fantasy girls who I have serious trouble believing are superheroines because of the total lack of musculature and impractical footwear for roof-jumping, just to name a few of their problems.

But all of those comics are aimed at adults. When I decided to check out the current comics aimed at kids, I found some very different versions of some of the most iconic superheroines ever created than the ones you see just a few feet away on the adult shelves.

A typical little girl in our culture is most likely to have heard of Supergirl, Batgirl and Wonder Woman. Sadly, Marvel has no female characters nearly this iconic, especially for little girls. So those were the characters I payed most attention to. Johnny DC is the DC Comics imprint has aimed at kids right now. Looking through their current titles I managed to easily find Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl along with all the Teen Titan and Legion girls and a number of villainous women as well.

Supergirl just finished up her very own mini series called Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the Eighth Grade and it was wonderful. It was well written and funny. Supergirl actually felt like a kid lost and trying to figure things out. She looked good and even though she messed up a lot (as first time heroes tend to do), she felt heroic. I could easily believe that she was a hero, if for no other reason than she tried really hard even when things got tough. Nothing about her was objectified, she was portrayed (visually) as a regular girl, as was every other girl in her series.

Batgirl appears in The Batman Strikes. Her costume is totally redesigned (purple, like the 1960s TV show, but with a skirt over the bodysuit and other stylistic changes) and she’s younger than we’ve ever seen her. Despite being so much younger, she’s still on her own and able to hold her own. She’s compitent, clever and strong. The story I read had her fighting with and against Catwoman, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy and it never felt like she was not in control or outnumbered at all. This is a great portrayal of a smart young heroine with no powers and no real mentor (Batman mentors Robin, not her) who totally kicks butt.

Wonder Woman appears in DC Super Friends, which is sort of the newest kid-friendly incarnation of the Justice League. It’s the adventures of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash and Aquaman. Notice that Wonder Woman is the only woman here? The art style is sort of a blocky, squashed toy-like style (obviously designed to look like the toy line). This actually really works for Wonder Woman. Rather than being wasp-waisted and super lean, she actually looks as strong and powerful as the men around her. The artists on this comic vary and some make her less muscular and more hourglass-shaped than others, but it’s never as bad as she’s usually drawn. She’s still smaller than the men are, but I have absolutely no problem believing this woman is a warrior just from looking at her. The stories are cute and all about teamwork and cooperation and things like that, but the idea of being a superhero is very much there.

I can definitely imagine a little girl aspiring to be like any one of these heroines from reading these comics, and the letters at the back attest to that happening. Capes aren’t just for boys and Johnny DC has definitely given girls some great superheroines to pretend to be as they wear their capes! I would absolutely recommend any of these titles to kids of either gender. Thank you DC for giving kids some great images of female heroes! I’d like to see the female characters take less of a backseat and have more staring roles, like the Supergirl mini-series, but at least this is a good start.

If Edward Stalked Buffy Instead of Bella…

Buffy Summers is probably one of the strongest female characters ever written for television (and I don’t mean because of her supernatural strength). She’s a teenage girl who goes through perfectly normal teenage girl experiences, but she also fights real monsters. She doesn’t let herself be manipulated easily and never lets anyone else direct her life for her. She is her own master, even at sixteen. She is definitely her own person and has her own distinct personality.

Bella Swan of Twilight is not really any of these things. Not only is she passive to the point of being almost unable to do anything on her own, but she’s got so little personality that it’s hard to describe her without mentioning at least one guy. I don’t think she fell for Edward because he was special (he wasn’t unique in any way other than perhaps his ability to stalk disturbingly effectively). I think that she would have fallen for any guy who paid attention to her, and who could have paid her more attention than obsessive Edward?

So what would have happened if Edward had obsessed over a girl like Buffy instead of the willowy nothing Bella that he did? Through some creative editing, Rebellious Pixels has given a likely answer to that question.

Hmm… picking a girl with a backbone doesn’t seem to have gone well for Edward, does it?

The commentary this video makes is really interesting. While Bella seems unaware of the inherent creepiness of Edward’s behavior, Buffy notices it right away. She is bothered by him from the moment he walks through the door, although perhaps the moment when he introduces himself (something people do every day without being creepy) best illustrates how off-putting even the most innocent of Edward’s overture’s can seem. Buffy seems to decide that Edward is harmless, if annoying, and pretty much tries to ignore him.

I noticed two pivotal moments in this video. The first happens when Edward comes to talk to Buffy at the dance club. She makes it very clear that she doesn’t really want to talk to him and that he’s being creepy, but he really doesn’t seem to understand (or maybe he just doesn’t care) and he persists in talking to her. Here’s how I read the scene (Edward’s dialogue is unchanged):

Edward: I’m on a… special diet.

Buffy: Duh. Vampire. Now why the hell are you talking to me? You’re creepy and weird, even for a vampire. Go away. I’m letting you live, but only because you’re pathetic.

Edward: I feel… very… protective… of you.

Buffy: (Oh my god, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. This guy is even more pathetic than I thought. This isn’t even worth my time.) *gets up to leave*

Edward: Don’t leave. I…

Buffy: *walking away* (I can take care of myself and if you’re too stupid to figure that out, that’s really your problem, isn’t it?)

He later follows her at night and she tells him flat out that being stalked “isn’t really a big turn-on for girls”, but he just storms away. Clearly he’s not getting the message. Buffy confides in Willow, her friend, a couple of times and both of them decide that this guy is bad news.

The second major pivotal moment, however, is when Buffy wakes up and finds Edward sitting in her bedroom watching her sleep. She, understandably, reacts very strongly to this and tells him to get out or she will “drop [him] out head first”. He seems to think this moment is sweet and romantic (reading his facial expression, body language and tone of voice), even after the threat is made. Of course, he’s thrown out the window. Edward is clearly not used to a girl who can hold her own.

He tries once more, telling her she’s like his “own personal brand of heroin” and that he’s never wanted a human’s blood so much before. Buffy points out that this is childish, overblown and a little disgusting. She also expresses boredom at all the drama. At this point, since Edward has proven himself to be not as harmless as he seemed (he invaded her bedroom if nothing else), Buffy stakes him. It’s a nice, neat ending to a very creepy stalker story. I have to say, this version was much more satisfying for me than Twilight actually is. I found Edward’s insistent stalking more than a little creepy and disturbing, as Buffy obviously did too.

Women are not prey to be tracked and bagged, which is how Bella is treated by Edward. They are people in their own rights who deserve privacy and respect, as Buffy shows in this version. This remixed version of Twilight was excellent and I hope that it illustrates to more people some of the problems with the story Twilight tells.

Book: Girls Acting Catty

Girls Acting Catty
Leslie Margolis
2009 (Bloomsbury)

In this sequel to “Boys are Dogs” Annabelle has managed to figure out how to survive in a school with boys, but now realizes that girl politics can be a lot more complicated than she expected. She ends up caught in the middle between her group of friends from the first book and the popular girls, who are starting to invite her into their group. Neither group likes the other, but Annabelle doesn’t understand why and ends up caught in the middle by virtue of belonging to both groups. At the same time, her mother is getting married and she’s having to deal with some big changes of her own, like wearing a bra for the first time.

“Mean girls” and “clique behavior” are big buzzwords in the middle school world right now, and so it’s not too surprising that there have been quite a few fictional takes on these themes for girls in that age range recently (the “Clique” series and the movie “Mean Girls” are probably the most famous recent examples, but there have been lots more). The problem with fictionalizing these themes is that it’s hard to do without either making the catty behavior seem even more desirable or simplifying the situation so that there is one mean clique and a protagonist (perhaps with friends) who is totally innocent of any meanness. “Girls Acting Catty” manages to avoid these pitfalls and create both an engaging story and one where no one comes out looking entirely rosy.

The very fact that none of the girls are blameless in this story, not even Annabelle herself, is one of it’s biggest strengths. Annabelle comes to the realization about what is going on and how everyone is participating in making it worse on her own, no adult tells her what’s happening and none of the girls gives her any assistance free from heavy prejudices. Annabelle also realizes that they need to hold the right people accountable for their actions. For example, when a boy is pressured into breaking up with her friend, the friends at first blame the girl who encouraged him, but Annabelle realizes that it was the boy who did the breaking up and so at least some of the blame must be his.

This is a wonderfully engaging story with a lively and likable main character. Some of the themes and the fact that the kid characters are allowed to solve their problems without adult interference, even though there are loving adults all around, makes this book remind me of those by Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. I enjoyed reading this book a great deal, even though I have not read the first book about Annabelle. I think I may try to get ahold of it now, though, since I did enjoy this one so much! I would definitely recommend this book. It is well worth the read and a lot of fun.

- Publisher’s Description

- Leslie Margolis’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

What I’m Writing For

I feel like I haven’t made very clear on my blog why media portrayals are so important to me. I talk about avatar images from games and gender issues in books and sometimes movies, but I don’t talk a lot about why it’s important. I realized that it doesn’t mean much if I don’t explain why it matters, so starting now I’m going to talk about that more.

Regardless of how equal our culture may pass itself off as, we still live in a pretty unequal world (and I’m generally only talking about gender, but issues of race, sexuality, age, social standing and much more are still big factors as well). Some statistics:

- a white woman makes about 78 cents for every dollar made by her male counterpart, black women make about 69 cents and Latinas just 59 cents.

- the 2000 census showed that just over 50% of the US population is female, but our representation does not reflect that
* there are currently only 17 female Senators (out of a total of 100)
* and 74 female members of the House of Representatives (out of a total of 435)
* and this more female members of Congress than there have ever been before
* there have only ever been 2 female Supreme Court Justices (hopefully there will be a third very soon)
* as yet there has never been a woman elected to the executive branch of the U.S. Government

- it is estimated that 1 in 3 women is sexually assaulted some time in her life
* 60% of rapes are never reported and the percentage is even lower when you look at other types of sexual assault
* only 6% of rapists ever spend even a day in jail

It’s the twenty-first century and we’re still fighting some of the same fights that women have been fighting for generations. Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for the presidency of the United States of America – it was 1872 and women couldn’t even vote yet. She knew she didn’t even have a fighting chance, but you have to think that she imagined her granddaughters would. We’re two generations or so beyond even that and still no woman has won the office. We have come a great distance. The world I grew up in is not the world my grandmothers grew up in and for that I am eternally grateful to all the women and men who fought to make it so. Still, I see far more than I’d like that is still all too painfully familiar in Matilda Joslyn Gage’s marvelous speech from the National Women’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, NY in 1982.

And why hasn’t more changed? Well, like most things in history and sociology, it’s very complicated and I couldn’t begin to explain it adequately because I don’t have a complete understanding of it myself (I’m not sure anyone could really claim to). One of the things I do know, though, is that cultural images and stereotypes matter. Cultural images are very powerful. They get into our subconscious and affect our attitudes and beliefs in ways that we may not even consciously realize. That is generally understood when it comes to things like race (there are certain words and stereotypes that are just not permissible in general media anymore), but for some reason it is not understood at all when it comes to gender. There would be a huge outcry if someone published a videogame called “Nigger” where the player controls a white character beating up a black one who is portrayed as a dangerous predator. The game Cunt where the player controls a penis shooting a vagina that keeps spitting out STDs and pubic lice does exist, however, and was vociferously defended by many when the offensive nature of it was pointed out.

I believe strongly that this kind of imagery hurts our culture and materially damages attempts at moving towards a more equal society. Do I think that a man who plays that game is going to go out and rape a woman as a result? No. But I do think that the game combined with the many, many other portrayals of women as sex objects, dirty and generally there for the benefit of men adds up to a fundamental shift in the way our culture thinks about sex as a commodity sold by bad women. Do I think that a little girl watching Aladdin is going to start believing she’ll only be pretty if her waist is smaller around than her neck, like Jasmine’s is? No. But I do think that the constant proliferation of imagery of super thin women and the constant advertising aimed at women for diet programs and low-fat or fat-free food adds up to a fundamental shift in our cultural idea of female beauty.

And it’s frustrating. This isn’t the world I want to live in. So I’m calling it on it. I write and talk to these companies as well. I try to let them know when I like something as well as when I don’t. I also write about it here because I want other people to think about it. This affects more than just me. If I’m the only one complaining, I’m the crazy feminist. If other people are noticing and pointing it out too, then they stop to think about it. Nothing will change if it’s just me complaining and it isn’t – there are lots of other people pointing these things out as well, but there need to be more voices. And the more people notice, the more they will think about their own ways of thinking, even the subconscious ones. So that’s what I’m writing about and for. Thank you.

The Realistic Women of Water Baby

Water Baby
Ross Campbell
2008 (Minx/DC Comics)

A common criticism of comic art is that the women are all exactly the same person, just with different hair and clothes (and sometimes skin tone). They are like Barbie and her friends who can all trade outfits at will. The first Marvel Divas cover is a great example of this problem – four women, all with pretty much the exact same body. In real life, however, everyone is incredibly different. Even women who wear the same size clothing will often look totally different. One woman might have leaner arms and legs, one might be muscular and have a scar on her elbow, another might have short, chubby fingers. And it’s really not that common to find a group of women all the same size anyway, people come in all different sizes. People aren’t Barbie dolls.

One of the most striking things about Water Baby by Ross Campbell is that it actually understands this truth (and, yes, I realize how sad it is that this is such a big deal). Every single character in this book looks totally unique, and not just because of their hair or clothing or the lack of a limb. Each character is distinct – her body is different from every other character’s body, her hands are different, her face is different, everything is unique. Even if you could only see the torso of a character, you could identify who it is because each person is unlike every other one in the book.

Each character looks real. Chrissie is skinny, but there is room for organs in her body (unlike some versions of Supergirl). Louisa’s breasts look different depending on if she’s wearing a bikini top or a t-shirt. All three main female characters look like they could be real people, like the artist has actually seen multiple teenage girls and knows how they are built, even though the drawings aren’t photorealistic at all. This brings them to life in a way that the Barbie doll superheroines of other comics just can’t really achieve (I may not know anyone with a giant tattoo up their arm or ever lose a limb in a shark attack, but the very fact that Brody’s breasts sag a little when she wears a tank top without a bra like a real person’s do makes her feel real in a way that Wonder Woman is going to have trouble matching).

Water Baby is an interesting book and well worth the read, but make sure to stop and take some time looking at the art if you read it. The book is strong in many ways, but the art is really what made it stand out for me. I was so impressed that I actually want to check out some of the artist’s other work. The Minx imprint has been discontinued, but as far as I know this book is still readily available. It may not have gotten the press that some of the other Minx titles got, but it’s well worth the read just the same!

- Publisher’s Description

- Ross Campbell’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: The Vermeer Interviews

The Vermeer Interviews: Conversations with Seven Works of Art
Bob Raczka
2009 (Millbrook/Lerner)

I’ve always loved visiting museums and walking through the rooms, reading the stories hanging on the walls. I always wonder about the people in the paintings. What are they thinking? What just happened? Why are they doing whatever they are doing? Every painting is a story, a mystery. It’s a big part of what makes paintings so much fun to look at. A painting is a frozen moment, a piece of a bigger story. And why the painter chose that moment from the story and posed everything exactly as he or she did is a whole story in and of itself.

Bob Raczka knows all that and his book The Vermeer Interviews has the best format for inviting kids to look for those stories. In the book Razcka speaks directly to the subjects of seven of Vermeer’s paintings. He asks them about what they are doing and thinking as well as about details in the painting. What’s really interesting is that the subjects of the paintings in this book are aware that they are in paintings, so they can speak not only about their stories and about the historical details around them, but also about the artwork itself. They point out the painter’s techniques and discuss his life. They even talk about the galleries they hang in.

I’m impressed by how much history and how many facts about the artist and his style Raczka managed to pack into seven three or four page interviews. The book is dynamic and full of intriguing stories that really do make the paintings come alive. The interviews encourage the reader to not only think about each piece as a whole, how everything works together, but also to closely examine the details. The book manages to make you wonder if the subject in the painting might be humming to herself on the same page that it brings an easily overlooked cracked windowpane to your attention. The flow is consistent and the format is perfect for both storytelling and conveying facts. This is a perfect book for sharing art. I wish very much that there were more books in this format looking at even more paintings, artists and art styles. This would be a great book to share with kids in a classroom setting or just for fun and I highly recommend it.

- Publisher’s Description

- Bob Raczka’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Magickeepers: The Eternal Hourglass

Magickeepers: The Eternal Hourglass
Erica Kirov
2009 (Sourcebooks)

Nick Rostov has grown up in Las Vegas, living in hotels where his dad performs as a stage magician. On his thirteenth birthday his grandfather gives him something that belonged to his mother, who died when he was just a baby. Then Nick unexpectedly moves in with a whole branch of his family that he didn’t even know existed. They are Russian and own the most fabulous hotel in Las Vegas, The Winter Palace, where it snows all the time! He learns that the magician who performs there, the most famous act in the city, is actually a cousin of his and wants Nick to perform in the show with him. He also learns that unlike his dad’s show, this one uses real magic. And that while the family is fantastic and powerful, there is a branch of it that is equally powerful, but also evil and searching for something. Something Nick might be able to get.

The Eternal Hourglass is the first in the Magickeeper series and so a lot of the story sets up the history and setting, things that won’t need as much establishing later on. A great deal of the tale is centered on the rich Russian history that makes up the family’s past so that while learning that history is definitely giving us a good picture of the family itself, it’s also moving forward the story. This is a big plus for this book because it could very easily have gotten bogged down by that same history, like many first-in-series books do. The setting, the show and Las Vegas itself, serve to keep things grounded in the present when the main character is often getting visions of the past. The two things, the history and the very modern setting, make a surprisingly good pairing.

Kirov is an excellent writer. Her biggest strength is her ability to describe lavish settings without lavish descriptions. This sounds odd, but it actually is a great thing for a book like this. If the descriptions get too detailed and intense they can bog down this type of story, one that is so reliant on different ways of moving forward (from visions in crystal balls to terrifying fight scenes). The settings are very important here, though, and it’s crucial that they don’t get lost or glossed over. Kirov does a great job of balancing these needs and gives us a wonderful idea of what the places described (from the two very different hotels to even the desert itself) look and feel like without ever spending too much time on those descriptions.

I really enjoyed reading this book and I’m very much looking forward to more from this series. It is a creative and unusual story in the incredibly prolific genre that children’s fantasy has become recently. Nick is a fun character and his fantastic family are interesting and full of potential for more amazing stories (especially with all the empty cases in their magic vault). This series has a great magical feel, but is nicely different from much of what is already available. The fantastic setting, creative use of the rich history and skillful writing make this a stand-out title in children’s fantasy.

- Publisher’s Description
- The Official Magickeepers Website

- Erica Kirov’s Blog

- Buy it from Amazon