Why do we need “comics for women”? Why not “comics for everyone”?
Hello there! Welcome to the Sparkler Monthly Blog, a companion to the Sparkler Monthly Podcast. This is a space for the Sparkler editors to rant on various topics from time to time.
I felt like responding to a question I still run into sometimes, since Sparkler is explicitly designed to appeal to the Female Gaze. Here’s a 101 Primer on why we do what we do.
Why do we need “comics for women”? Why not “comics for everyone”?
First of all: there’s no such as thing as “comics for everyone,” because no comic is designed to appeal to literally every kind of comics reader, nor will it be enjoyed by every kind of comics reader. What we should be saying is comics for anyone. I know that sounds like a semantics argument, but bear with me. It’s an important part of my argument. So…
This is what I want–a comics industry where anyone, from any background, can find a comic that speaks to them. I want comics to cover such a broad spectrum of perspective and genre that people treat them like bigger fiction mediums (like novels, TV, and movies): just one more channel through which we consume stories in our culture.
But we’re not there yet.
There are a number of reasons the print-based Western comics industry doesn’t draw the same audience numbers as TV or prose novels, but here’s a big one: it doesn’t appeal to a broad enough audience yet. It’s not appealing to enough new and/or different people. And since the average creator and reader of comics has traditionally been male, white, and straight…
“Comics for women” is an essential step in attaining “comics for anyone.” It’s one section of “anyone” where we have a serious vacuum, and until we fix it, we don’t truly have comics for anyone. If anyone walks into a comics store today, they can choose between 80% of titles that were made by or designed to appeal to straight dudes, and then 20% of titles that are supposed to appeal to the rest of the spectrum of people who exist. If I’m not a straight white dude, will I find something that I like in there? It’s certainly possible! But the odds aren’t in my favor. And there’s the very real, very important feeling that this sort of thing conveys to me: This isn’t really for me. I’m not really welcome here. Even if the people (mostly men) who work in this store are incredibly nice to me, and the other customers (mostly men) are nothing but respectful and helpful, I still feel like an outsider.
It’s not their fault. It’s a result of the system.
It’s akin to you being a straight guy who really likes a good love story, so you go to the Romance Novel aisle of the bookstore. Do you stop and browse through all those books plastered with bare male chests, hoping to find something that really speaks to you? Probably not. Probably especially not if you’re Native American or Scottish, and your race is reduced to an exotic name and a costume for women to giggle about. (Note: I love romance novels, but that industry has a lot of crap to address, too.) It’s clear that this entire section isn’t really for you, so maybe you should get your fiction elsewhere.
This is how a lot of not-straight-white-guy people feel about comic stores, but comics aren’t a genre–they’re a medium. So now they think comics aren’t really made for them.
Look, no one is saying comic stores should become like the Romance Novel aisle. We just want them to be more like actual bookstores, where there are different aisles for different things–where anyone can walk through those doors and go to a section that appeals to them.
So why gender it?
It’s already gendered. We just don’t say it out loud. You know how Hollywood makes “movies for anyone,” yet they hire far fewer women and write far fewer stories about women and the women are usually talking about men or could be replaced with a piece of furniture? The print comics industry is like that, but it’s arguably worse.
It’s already designed to be mostly for and about men. We have to gender things or we’re ignoring reality, or, even worse, we’re assuming that the male experience is the human experience, and the female experience is “something else.” That means the female experience–half of the world–is pushed aside as “genre.”
If we don’t talk about gender, we’ll never fix this imbalance, because we’re being trained not to see it.
In Japan, a country with a MUCH bigger and more successful comics industry than ours, they use a more nuanced way of organizing their comics. For example:
-“This half of the comic store is for males.”
-“This half of the ‘male’ section is for teenage males.”
-“This aisle in the ‘teenage male’ section is full of action series.”
That’s obviously not exact (Male Gaze is still a bigger section than Female Gaze), but you get the idea. You will absolutely see grown women with baby strollers in the “action series for teen boys” section sometimes, because she knows what she’s getting and maybe that’s exactly what she wants! She has that freedom, because she’s not being pushed into a section labeled “comics for anyone” and seeing that, whoops, she’s staring at a lot of half-covered breasts and tough men with girls draped over them, so “anyone” is shorthand for “we’re almost never actually thinking about you, so you probably feel unwelcome here.” She’s being seen as a person and a valued consumer, and given her choice.
She is, as a default, welcome. And if she wants to gravitate toward the aisle where a lot of other women pushing baby strollers might be hanging out, she can! She might especially go there first if this is her first time in the store.
Just because a comic was “made for women” doesn’t mean it’s only for women. It’s for anyone who likes it. According to the basic theory behind Male Gaze and shonen, James Bond is for men, Death Note is for men, any series where men are expected to relate to it more than women can (it’s about Guy Stuff, it takes shortcuts that it assumes men in the audience will understand–like the camera panning up a woman’s body because the audience is supposed to desire her) is a story “for men.” Does that mean anyone who’s not a man (a woman, someone not on the gender binary) can never enjoy or relate to a story like that? Non-men read/watch/relate to stories like that all the time, regardless if it has anything to do with their lives or desires! A good story is a good story, and can be enjoyed by anyone. (Even a bad story can be enjoyed by anyone, but that’s a rant for another time.)
Also, the nebulous concept of Guy Stuff doesn’t just appeal to The Typical Guy. (Which in the case of the Western market, is arguably a straight, healthy, cis white guy between the ages of 18 and 45.) Does a gay guy relate to the camera panning up a woman’s body? A gay woman might appreciate that more than he does. How about a story about a high school football team comprised of mostly white dudes? Maybe a Hispanic, attracted-to-men jock would get a lot more out of that than a straight white guy who was in a punk band in high school.
My point is, anyone can potentially relate to any story, we’re just trying to put more Female Gaze/shojo/Lady Stuff into the market. For anyone. And like explained above, we want more people within the monolith of “anyone” to be acknowledged and catered to.
Then how would you even define “Female Gaze,” if it’s not just for women?
Just like the traditional Male Gaze–which, remember, is the majority of Hollywood and comics–this concept is extremely broad.
In my opinion, you need to start with something that doesn’t actively alienate women or treat them as The Other. So treating women as fully realized human beings–both in the story and in real life, both on the creator end and consumer end–is the absolute baseline.
Female Gaze also skews (but is not limited to): created by ladies, about interesting female characters, sexualizing something outside of “sexy and/or objectified women,” about topics/within genres that traditionally do well with female readers, and, since Female Gaze is often reactionary, a whole host of other stuff boxed out of the traditional Male Gaze.
At Sparkler, the majority of our staff and creators are female, and not just because more of them apply to us and we value insight from people who are not Straight White Guy–women are also not as comfortable in the mainstream print comics sphere. Sometimes it’s a result of “valuing dude stuff” to the point where women don’t feel welcome (like in the comic store examples), sometimes it’s the fact that they don’t write Male Gaze and that’s most of what’s being published, and sometimes it’s outright discrimination. But there’s this giant pool of female creators, especially ones who want to write outside of the Male Gaze, and they don’t have that many publishers to go to. It’s such a waste. We wanted a place where they were considered the default and not the “exception” or a “novelty,” because it’s exhausting to be constantly trying to prove yourself in a system that wasn’t built for you.
Still, we also hire dudes and people not on the gender binary, because you don’t need to be a woman to create Female Gaze. (In fact, some women are terrible at writing Female Gaze, and some men/non-binary writers are fantastic at it.) Some of our stories are mostly about dudes. Some are about being attracted to sexy women. We only publish Female Gaze stuff that we think is really, really good, in any genre, tackling any subject.
We don’t limit ourselves, because that would be falling into the exact same trap that’s plagued Hollywood and comic stores. We want to publish Female Gaze stories that make women feel welcome, but can appeal to anyone. To broaden the definition of “anyone.”
Everyone needs to work at this if we want comics for anyone.
(Note: Like in 2014, there will be some excellent people on the TCAF panel “What Do Women Want?” this year. I’m sure you’ll hear some great opinions there.)