I’m reading Shulamith Firestone’s 1970 manifesto, “The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution” currently. When Firestone says, “feminist revolution,” she’s not just whistling Dixie. She advocates, among other things, the abolition of childbirth (“pregnancy is barbaric”), the destruction of the nuclear family, the end of childhood and its supporting institutions (like schools); and, ultimately, the end of sex-role distinctions of every kind. What’s startling about her argument is that, despite what you may think, it’s actually not based on the assumption that gender differences are ad hoc or easily dismissable. On the contrary, she argues that the separation of male and female spheres, and the concomitant oppression of woman, are the most basic truths of our society. So at one moment she’s suggesting the most radical ideas (end of childhood, end of pregnancy, etc.) and the next she’s nodding approvingly in the direction of traditional gender stereotypes (“men can’t love”; men are much more interested in sex than women, etc.) The whiplash is a bit intense, but she’s smart and thoughtful, and I’m willing to at least provisionally sign on to her bottom line: Men and women are, and have always been different; to change that would be to change society utterly, which is why feminist revolution is an exciting idea.
Anyway, I was surprised (but I guess I shouldn’t have been) to find that Firestone’s argument for gender difference rests in part on a discussion of comics. She says:
That men and women are tuned to a different cultural waelength, that in fact there exists a wholly different reality for men and women, is apparent in our crudest cultural form — comic books. From my own experience: When I was littl emy brother had literally a room-size collection of comic books. But though I was a greedy reader, this vast comic book library interested me not in the least. My literary taste was completely different from his. He preferred “heavies” like War Comics (Aak-Aak-Aak!) and Superman; and for relief, “funnies” like Bugs Bunny, Tweetie and Sylvester, Tom and Jerry, and all the stuttering pigs who took forever to get a rather obvious message out. Though these “funnies” grated on my more aesthetic sensibilities, I would read them in a pinch. But had I had an allowance as big, and little parental supervision, I might have indulged ina “heavy” library of Love Comics (LARGE TEAR. Oh, Tod, don’t tell Sue about us, she’d die), an occasional True Confessions, and for “light” relief, Archie and Veronica. Or the occasional more imaginative variations of boys’ comics, like Plasticman [sic] (Superman with a rubber arm that could reach around blocks) or Uncle Scrooge McDuck editions of Donal Duck (I loved his selfish extravagance. Other [selfless] women have confessed the same girlhood passion). Even more likely, I would not have invested in comic books at all. Fairy tales, much less realistic, were a better trip.
My brother thought girls’ taste was “drippy,” and I thought he was a crude slob. Who was right? We both were; but he won (he owned the library.)
Firestone goes on to say that the gender split continues at “higher cultural levels,” saying that Mailer, Heller and Donleavy (who?) “seemed only complex versions of (respectively) Superman, Aak-Aak-Aak, and the Adventures of Bugs Bunny.”
This is pretty entertaining on a number of levels, from the assertion that comics are “our crudest cultural form” to the fact that Firestone, presumably without any knowledge or interest in the comics canon, has unerringly singled out for (limited) praise the work of Jack Cole and Carl Barks.
It also emphasizes the extent to which American comics have historically, and in many ways continue to be, an icon, or cultural signifier, of maleness. Its also interesting that, way back in 1970, Shulamith was making a link between male-oriented comics and male-oriented literary fiction — not just the fiction of “tough guys” like Norman Mailer and Hemingway, but also to SNAG writers like Bellow, Updike, Roth, and so forth. In fact, as I’ve argued here before, comics may have become more high-brow, but they’ve nevertheless remained essentially male genre literature — most notably in the extended father/son anecdote that is Maus. And, from the other end, as this article points out, comics have been recuperated by literary fiction itself as a signifier of lost youth and wounded geekdom; a way for male nerds to mourn their feminization in an endless masculine ritual.
On another, vaguely related topic, has anyone heard Kiss’ “Flaming Youth”? Is there any gayer song in the history of the world? Sung in Gene Simmons usual slight lisp: “My parents think I’m crazy/they hate the things I do…man, if they only knew/how flaming youth/will set the world on fire/flaming youth/our flag is flying higher/ My uniform is leather….I’m getting it together/to break out of my cage.” With this song and “Mr. Speed,” Simmons proves that, despite his endless boasting, his knowledge of the basic mechanics of sex remains that of a 13-year old sci-fi geek. Why didn’t Teri Gross interrogate him in depth about this song, I wonder? (Answer: Because she is, alas, even stupider than he is.)