Equal Opportunity Suffering, part one
Every once in a while I stretch my virtual legs and take a stroll down a random path in cyberspace, just browsing through various Internet sites and seeing where I end up. Most times, this results in me trying to gouge my eyes out with chopsticks because I’ve stumbled across some ungodly porn site. One day, I happened across a site called Women in Refrigerators. The site presents a list and reactions of the various women who have been killed, brutalized, or otherwise made to suffer in comic books. The title of the site comes from an issue of the Green Lantern comic in which Kyle Rayner comes home to find his girlfriend killed and stuffed into a refrigerator by a villain. Now the site itself doesn’t seem to have too much of a particular agenda, but it makes the same mistake that a lot of people do when they try to show discrimination against one particular group: they don’t compare and contrast to other groups.
Okay, yeah women tend to get killed off or otherwise tormented in comics. But guess what, so do men. As an example, let’s look at Spider-Man. Female members of Spidey’s supporting cast that have been killed off, driven insane, or the like include Aunt may (killed once but later resurrected), Gwen Stacy (killed off, resurrected or cloned several times but only to remain dead each time), Betty Brant (I believe she was driven insane…not completely sure, though), and Mary Jane (stalked by a supervaillain, supposedly killed, but ultimately returned unharmed). That’s just off the top of my head. Comparatively, let’s look at the male supporting cast, also off the top of my head. For men, we’ve got Norman Osborn (went crazy, turned into a supervillain, killed, now alive again but still a crazed supervillain), Harry Osborn (Peter Parker’s best friend who went crazy, became a supervillain, and was killed), Ned Leeds (went crazy, became a supervillain, and…you guessed it…was killed), and let’s not forget Uncle Ben (killed by a robber). As you see, there are a lot of terrible things that happen to the men around Spider-Man as well. Same thing for Batman. Yeah, Commissioner Gordon’s wife was killed, Batgirl was paralyzed, but we’ve also seen Jason Todd (the second Robin) killed, Harvey Dent permanently scarred and driven insane, and most recently the lovable cripple Harold (the man responsible for creating all of the Dark Knight’s wonderful toys) gunned down by one of Bruce Wayne’s best friends. Going to my familiar territory of the Hulk, Katherine Waynesboro was turned into a supervillain, Betty Ross has been killed, and Bruce’s cousin has been turned into the She-Hulk. Comparatively, General Thunderbolt Ross has had a nervous breakdown and died twice, Glen Talbot was killed, Glen’s son was killed, and the Hulk’s long-time sidekick Rick Jones was crippled by the Jade Giant. When Rick was able to walk again, he was molecularly bonded to the hero Captain Marvel, and has more recently been transformed into a Hulk-like monster (along with Betty Ross, who has been brought back as well).
Ron Marz, the writer who inspired Women in Refrigerators by having a psychopath kill off the Green Lantern’s girlfriend, seems to share my thoughts in a recent interview:
You know, everybody’s up in arms talking about ‘violence toward women’ in comics, as if somehow violence toward men is perfectly fine. The point with Alex was that Major Force was a sadistic son of a bitch, and that was the first time Kyle was confronted with real evil, not to mention personal loss.
That last piece of the sentence, personal loss, is of particular importance. The fact is that comics, especially ongoing titles done by either DC or Marvel, often need some sort of shock to generate new sales. The two easiest ways to get this shock are either to do something to the main character or to do something to the supporting cast. If you do something to the main character, then that character needs to ultimately recover somehow in order to keep sales going. Superman died but came back to life, Batman got his back broken but was healed, and so on. The supporting cast, however, is fair game. They sometimes come back, but more often than not their suffering can generate sales and forever change a hero’s life, pushing the character into a new direction. That means that when a writer takes on Superman, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson are both fair game. For the Hulk, everyone around him is bound to suffer because of the nature of the beast inside of Bruce Banner. In short, suffering knows no bounds when it comes to gender. If a character is near a superhero, that character is going to end up in trouble and possibly dead at some point because of the nature of comic books.
Women in Refrigerators does deal briefly with the fact that there are many men who suffer in comics as well, but the site brushes them aside with this explanation:
The fundamental difference I have seen is that the majority of male heroes, and especially our Dead Men Defrosting, are introduced to the reader with a situation or condition they must overcome. Female heroes, too, go through this; we meet them in the beginning of their tale with something about them that will play a role in their formation as heroes. But later, those same women heroes are altered again and never allowed, as male heroes usually are, the chance to return to their original heroic states.
In other words, men will return to the status quo, while women will be dead or changed forever. A nice argument, except that it’s not true. To say that anyone in comic books stays dead or stays forever changed is naive to say the least. Comics are always bringing people back to life, again to generate sales. A character’s death will bump sales, but eventually things will slump again and the writers will bring that character back to boost them. WiR mentions that when a male superhero does truly die, such as Robin, the Green Lantern, and the Flash, then someone else picks up their mantle; we’ve had three or four Robins, numerous Green Lanterns, and three different Flashes. Except once again, they seem to be ignoring the other half of the equation. Female characters have similarly had someone else to replace them. There have been several Wonder Women and at least three different Batgirls, for instance. Basically, if a character is popular enough, then someone else will pick up the mantle.
Similarly, women tend to bounce back as good as new often enough in comics, just like their male counterparts. Hal Jordan’s girlfriend Carol Ferris was possessed for a time by a demon and turned into a villainess. But she is now beyond that and has actually become a superhero in her own right, leading the Violet Lantern Corps. By comparison, Hal went through quite the major transformation himself. First he went crazy and killed the rest of the Green Lantern Corps. Then he became an all-powerful villain named Parallax, destroying and recreating the universe. Then he died reigniting the son and saving the world. Then he became bound to the spirit of God’s vengeance, and only a decade later did he returning to the status quo. Bouncing back to the Hulk, Betty Ross has been resurrected and transformed into the Red She-Hulk, giving her an obstacle of her own to overcome – and odds are quite good that she’ll eventually be able to overcome her challenge while her male counterpart, the Hulk, will not. The original She-Hulk was trapped in her monstrous form for a while, but is now able to transform back into her human form at will (as a side note, Bruce Banner has also been trapped for long periods of time as the Hulk, and currently cannot control his transformations…and, unlike the She-Hulk, he does not like his superpowered form). Wonder Woman has died and come back to life, as has Elektra and even Aunt May. So women are not left out of the miraculous return category, either.
Then there’s the question of Batman and Batgirl. Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl, was shot in the spine by the Joker and permanently paralyzed. Batman, on the other hand, had his back broken by the villain Bane and eventually returned to Gotham as good as new. So that’s an example of misogyny, right? I mean, these two characters suffered the same wound, but only the man came back. There are two things to point out here, though. First, when Batgirl was paralyzed, she didn’t have her own series, let alone one that had been running since the late 1930s. Secondly, the paralysis actually turned Batgirl into her own character. Rather than running around as a female knockoff of Batman, she became Oracle, a character in her own right – and one of the only representatives of the handicap community in comics. Sure, she’s not as flashy as most superheroes, what with being in a wheelchair and all, and she is still part of the Batman family, but she has an identity and character that is now separate from the mantle of the Dark Knight. And, by the way, two other women have since taken up the mantle as Batgirl, something that supposedly only happens with male characters.
(As a side note, Barbara Gordon currently has a home in Birds of Prey, written by none other than Gail Simone, the woman who created the Women in Refrigerators site. I find Ms. Simone’s argument with Women in Refrigerators to be reductive, but she is still a very good writer. Aside from Birds of Prey, she also did an excellent job with Wonder Woman and is currently writing one of my favorite team books, Secret Six.)
My main point here is not to bash the Women in Refrigerators site, but to argue against anyone who presents only half of an argument. Many people choose to argue race, gender, sexual orientation, and what have you by just looking at what happens to the one group. They don’t look to see if other groups get similar treatment, nor do they stop and look at those within the group who are treated well. We live in a society where people are too quick to point fingers and scream about bigotry without checking all of the facts. There is a lot of prejudice and bigotry within our society, but it doesn’t help when people wave accusations about areas that are either improving or not a problem. If you’re going to argue that someone or some institution is biased against a certain group, make sure that you take a good long look at your own argument first. If you are being exclusivist in your own arguments, you’re hurting more than you’re helping.