Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Response to Jill Lepore

A few days ago, Jill Lepore, a staff writer on the New Yorker and professor at Harvard University, wrote an editorial entitled “Why Marvel’s Female Superheroes Look Like Porn Stars” talking about the forthcoming series A-Force, the first all female Avengers team in Marvel’s more than fifty year history. The writer of the series, G. Willow Wilson (also writer of the acclaimed Ms Marvel comic, the graphic novel Cairo, and the young adult novel Alif the Unseen) wrote a response on her blog, but I would like to chime in from a different point of view: that of the female comic book fan.

For her article, Jill Lepore consulted “the experts” – a group of ten year old boys. However, there is another group of “experts” who have become increasingly vocal in the world of comics over the last few years – comic book fans like me, 22-years-old, female, proudly feminist. Reading Lepore’s article, I found myself profoundly alienated at every turn. At one point, identifying “a character who looks exactly like Iron Man, except she’s got these pointy iron, uh, mammary glands”, (Pepper Potts in her superhero identity as Rescue) Lepore compares the Rescue suit to a boyfriend shirt. Later on, she describes the A-Force team as composed of “pervy characters and costumes” and that “their power is their allure, which, looked at another way, is the absence of power. Even their bodies are not their own. They are without force.”

I finished the article feeling a little as though I’d been punched in the face by, as Lepore signs off her article, Captain Why.

When A-Force was announced, I was delighted. An all-female team of superheroes is rare – the last one, in the book Fearless Defenders, was canceled after less than a year – and one written by two women is even rarer. (The number of regular series written by female writers in Marvel and DC has grown recently, but it’s still pretty small.) These might sound like low standards, but in the world of comics it’s a pretty big deal.

Predictably, not all the response has been positive. A quick perusal of comments on any article about A-Force will bring out a number of commenters who mock the bodies of the women on the cover just as Lepore does. Just glancing at the comments section of one Newsarama article, I found people (mostly male, based on their profiles and pictures) asking “What is the purpose of having an female Avengers team?” (What, I might ask, is the purpose of an all male Avengers team?) Another comments that “for one week of the month, this team is going to be particularly dangerous…. Shut up you were thinking it too.” There is a certain set of comic books fans that sees the move toward diversification in the types of stories being told as a threat, and responds appropriately. It is the people responsible for the Fake Geek Girl idea, where women are only interested in “nerdy” things for attention; the people who send rape and death threats to Anita Sarkeesian for pointing out sexist tropes in video games. The artist/writer Noelle Stevenson, who works on the comic Lumberjanes (nominated for the 2015 Eisner Awards), wrote a comic about her experience feeling unwelcome in comic book stores that currently has over 84,000 notes on Tumblr – clearly her story is resonating with someone.

In many ways, being a female comic book fan means feeling unwelcome in many comic book circles. People will try to push you out from within the community, to invalidate your opinions and silence your voice. Women have begun to carve out circles within this community, very, very slowly – but for me, keeping myself safe and sane on the internet means carefully curating which sites I read, avoiding literally any comments sections on articles about women in comics, and avoiding publicizing my opinions too widely. In this environment, a series like A-Force feels like a breath of fresh air, like something that might, maybe, be meant for me.

But then there is the other end of things. The message I hear from Dr. Lepore is the same as the one I hear from commenters who write that there’s no good reason for an all-female Avengers team. You don’t belong here, it says – in this case, however, I don’t belong because this comic offends Lepore’s critical eye, because the costumes are “pervy” and the characters have breasts. Comics, according to Lepore’s article, are for the boys: “maybe it’s not possible to create reasonable female comic-book superheroes, since their origins are so tangled up with magazines for men.” Comics, according to the comments section, are for the boys: “this is simply an attempt to interject more pc bs into a comic for the sake of being pc [sic].”

Same song, different verse.

Further Reading: An open letter that addresses the way in which Jill Lepore participates in the sexualization of female characters in her article.

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