Last week, Heidi MacDonald wrote a lengthy post discussing the lack of women in The Comics Journal (especially the print version). R.Fiore, long-time Comics Journal writer, responded as follows:

The question I have is this. Suppose the Comics Journal website finds that it is getting enough content from a predominantly male pool of writers to satisfy its needs. What is the problem with that? I pose this strictly as a question. Commentators here seem to be assuming that the problem is self-evident, but it doesn’t seem quite so obvious to me.

I posted this in reply:

There are a number of reasons to try to get more women contributors, it seems like. First, and again, TCJ is still (as Heidi suggests) an important touchstone for comics criticism and for canon formation. When TCJ prints a massive article about Crumb’s lawyers rather than having anything at all about female cartoonists, it sends a message about what’s important. That message can matter (see Annie Murphy’s piece about how discouraging as a cartoonist she found tcj’s approach to female cartoonists.)

Perhaps more importantly, TCJ’s mission is to cover art comics. Failing to engage with female critics and female cartoonists is a failure of that mission. TCJ should do better in this regard (especially the print edition) because otherwise they are failing by their own standards.

Finally, the world remaining what it is, men and women are not treated equally, which means that women have experiences and perspectives which are different from men. Those perspectives are valuable in lots of ways. Paying attention to women can involve being more thoughtful about the role of gender in the work of all cartoonists; it can mean seeing women creators as more central and so having a different canon (say, focusing on the history of children’s book cartooning rather than on EC; or thinking about shoujo rather than superhero comics). Not that all women share common interests or anything, anymore than all men do (Qiana Whitted who writes for HU is very interested in EC as just one example.) But, gender and genre share a common root and have a certain amount to do with each other, and so including women will tend to have an effect on content, and help make tcj (esp. the print version) feel less like a guy’s locker room filled with aging hippies who can’t talk about anything other than Crumb.

In some ways the fact that you have to ask the question is symptomatic of the problem, maybe? This is feminism 101 stuff. Discussions of canon and inclusion are really old hat in literature and visual art. The fact that comics doesn’t get it makes comics look really backwards and staid and a more than a little ridiculous. If you care about comics being taken seriously as an art form (which is TCJ’s mission) then including women as writers and pieces about women is a no-brainer. Are comics art, or are they a nostalgic pastime for male hobbyists? If you want the answer to be the first of those, you need to include women. (And just to be clear, I take this as what Frank is saying in this piece, which is very much to his credit.)

Maybe just to expand a little bit…first, I should note that both Tim Hodler (tcj.com’s co-editor) and Frank Santoro (who writes the post where R. Fiore commented) are on the same page as me here in terms of thinking that more women contributors are important. Fiore’s arguments are Fiore’s and not (thankfully) the position of tcj.com.

Second, when I say that engaging with women as writers, cartoonists and readers is central to TCJ’s mission of seeing comics as art, what I mean is that, both academically and popularly, gender is, and has been for years, an important lens through which people judge and think about art. For an increasing number of audiences in an increasing number of venues, having something intelligent to say to half the population matters in terms of evaluating aesthetics. So when TCJ seems unable or unwilling to include women in the conversation, that suggests it, and comics, is an unserious, irrelevant backwater, rather than an art form that matters.It makes comics look more like video games than like visual art or literature.

To talk about HU, one of the things I’ve focused on consistently and deliberately is getting women to write here. I wouldn’t say this is altruistic, exactly; after all, HU doesn’t pay, and there are plenty of other places women comics critics can write if they’d like to, whether on tumblr or their own blogs or group sites like Manga Bookshelf. So when women (or men) write at HU, I’m pretty clear that they’re doing me a favor, not the other way around.

So the reason to get women to write on HU is not to promote women. Rather, the reason to get women on the site is, first of all, because there are lots of women who have interesting things to say about comics and art, and so it benefits the site to have them here. And, second of all, because I want a website and a community which includes different perspectives, including the perspectives of that half of the population which isn’t male.

For the print TCJ editor Gary Groth, this isn’t something to worry about. Gary (quoted by Heidi) says that he is “gender-blind when it comes to good writing. And to subject matter.” For Gary, there are, or should be, no consequential differences between men and women. This is a fairly popular position (and not just among men.) Equality is a worthy goal,and it’s easy (not necessary or even always logical, but easy) to go from an argument of equality to an argument of sameness. It’s tempting to say, well, we want men and women to be treated equally; therefore, the way to do that is to assume that they are in fact the same in every way that matters.

I don’t find this convincing, though. In her recent book Excluded, Julia Serano, who is a trans woman, and a biologist, argues that gender is a complex trait. What she means by this is that how people experience gender and sexuality — the things that make me a heterosexual white guy who doesn’t watch sports — are determined not by nature (the fact that I have a penis) or by nurture (the fact that my dad was our main caregiver) but by a combination of factors which aren’t easily predictable or reproducible.

Seeing gender as a complex trait is a way to avoid gender essentialism; since everyone’s experience of gender is individual, there’s no one trait that you can point to and say, women are (or should be) like that, or men are (or should be) like that. But it’s also a way to avoid what might be called an essentialism of absence; the insistence that gender makes (or should make) no difference at all. It’s true that neither biology nor culture are determinative. But it’s also true that both biology and culture matter. Individuality is a sign of complexity, not a sign that our bodies and our social milieu have no effect on us. And if, say, you’re mainstream comics, and 90% of your audience is male, or if you’re the print TCJ and Heidi has to go through with a magnifying glass to find evidence that women exist, that’s not a fluke or an accident. It’s not a result of being gender blind. On the contrary, it’s a gendered fact which has something important to do with the way you interact with people who are, for a complex of social and biological reasons, women.

Along those lines, I would say that the fact that it has been somewhat difficult to get women contributors here is an important indication that the effort to recruit them is actually important and worthwhile. As I said before, there are no lack of women critics writing all over the web. Yet, despite an active effort on my part, HU still skews quite male.

I don’t think it’s a mystery as to why that is. I’m a guy, and I got into comics criticism through writing at TCJ, so much of my initial audience and much of my social network for writing comics criticism skewed male. In addition, my interests and background are focused on male genre product. I grew up with superhero comics, and while I don’t exactly follow them anymore, coverage on this site still I think points in that direction to some degree. In addition, I have a quite confrontational and polemical writing style, and so does a fair amount of writing on the site. There are many women who are perfectly comfortable with that approach to blogging — certainly more than have any interest in superhero comics, if the demographic data are correct. But, still, I think my particular pugnacity is coded male in a lot of ways.

So the site has more male writers than female ones for a lot of reasons, and if I wanted I could just go with that and we’d have a boy’s club with, presumably, even more writing on Watchmen than we have already. And I like Watchmen (that’s why we have so much writing on it!) But over the long haul (or even over the short haul) I think that would get pretty boring. I want to have folks contribute who are interested in things I”m not, as well as in things I am. I want to have different perspectives, not people telling me all the time what I want to hear. I want, in short, to have people on the site write about race in cosplay even though — or rather especially because — I don’t know a ton about and certainly don’t participate in cosplay. I want to hear Caro talk about why Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s take on female authenticity and the body is important, even though I have little interest in Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and never thought at all about the relation of the body to authenticity. I want to have folks write about the history of yaoi and bishonen in Japan, even if I don’t read a ton of yaoi. And obviously, men could write about all those things. But the fact is that they’re all gendered topics, that they’re all presented from a specifically female perspective, and that they all appeared on the site because women wrote about them.

To put it another way, deliberately reaching out to women writers is not in opposition to, in Gary’s words, “good writing”. Rather, having women writers, in my view, is central to making the site worthwhile, challenging, and relevant — and when I fail to do that, the site is less worthwhile, challenging and relevant than it should be. I don’t want my own limited relationship to biology and culture to be the be all and end all of what the site can be about, because that’s stifling. It’s not a matter of saying, well, I’m a feminist, so HU needs to represent women. Rather, it’s a matter of believing in the feminist proposition that women have valuable things to say.
 

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Erica Friedman had this comic inside her high school locker because the woman on the front reminded her of a fan-fic character she wrote. Erica’s essay about it is here.

 
 

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