Equal Opportunity Suffering, part two

Okay, so sometimes there is misogyny in comics.This rant is going to need some explanation, lest I look like a hypocrite.

Previously, I asserted that certain people are too sensitive to the treatment of women in comic books. I still believe that women or men receive more or less equal treatment in most comic books. I do acknowledge that there are exceptions among certain creators, though.

In browsing the Internet, I found a pretty well-written discussion about writer and artist John Byrne’s treatment of women in mainstream comics over the years. As Mr. Byrne is a very well-traveled individual in the industry, I’ve read quite a few issues of his work myself, and I can honestly say that the site linked above goes pretty easy on him. Byrne’s comics tend to be filled with women who are demeaned, battered, killed, and tortured. He seems to have a particular thing for pregnant women; they often get some of the worst treatment.

So, am I saying that John Byrne is a misogynist? No, I’m not. I don’t think he has any sort of distaste toward women. I think this argument is supported by the fact that he at least tries to write strong female characters. More often than not, they come off as bitches with super powers, but that’s a pretty common limitation of writers when they try to create strong women. Stephen King admitted that he had that very same problem for many years, and even a lot of the female writers I’ve read tend to fall into the trap of turning a woman into a bitch to make her seem more proactive. And while the opinion pieces I’ve read from Byrne lead me to believe that he is an egomaniac, I haven’t seen anything that makes me think he hates women.

So why put his female characters through such troubles while leaving male characters relatively unscathed? I think it boils down to a limitation in creativity. It’s something that many writers have trouble with, especially when they spend decades working in the same field and targeting the same audience. In most of the situations where Byrne has a woman tortured or battered, or when he puts pregnant women through the ringer, he seems to be trying to show how bad a villain or a situation really is. Bad guys do bad things; the most evil bad guys do the worst things. And what is more evil than torturing a woman, let alone a pregnant woman?

Personally, I argue that torturing a woman is no more evil than torturing a man. That is, hurting someone like that is a clearly evil act, be the victim woman or man. I personally don’t think that women need any sort of special status like that. However, as a society, we tend to view violence against women as something especially bad. If a woman slaps a man across the face, that’s almost acceptable. If a man slaps a woman, he’s seen as a criminal. A woman being raped is considered one of the worst crimes imaginable; many people don’t even realize that a man can be raped. So if someone wants to demonstrate how dire a situation is, he’s more likely to generate hatred toward a particular character by having him beat up on a woman than on a man. Women tend to be more sympathetic as victims, largely because we haven’t evolved to the point in society where we really see the two genders as equal. So if Byrne wants his bad guy to be viewed as truly bad, he has them hurt women. The really, really bad guys hurt pregnant women. That’s a double dose of evil right there, since it’s both harming a woman and a baby.

The problem isn’t so much that Byrne sometimes uses women as victims in his stories. The problem is that women are almost always the victims. It’s redundant, and it’s sloppy writing.

One of the most controversial events in mainstream comics came from Alan Moore’s Batman story The Killing Joke. The defining moment of that story for many was when the Joker shot Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl, in the spine, permanently paralyzing her. Why Barbara, instead of her father Jim Gordon? Largely to give a sense of the seriousness of the situation. While neither the Joker nor Commissioner Gordon knew Barbara’s identity as Batgirl, the reader did. Suddenly, a beloved heroine had been permanently removed from Gotham City, and the Joker was to blame. It wasn’t as big as killing Batman, but it was still huge. But the Joker isn’t just evil because of what he did to Batgirl. He’s done many, many other evil deeds. Immediately after paralyzing Barbara, he captured Jim Gordon, stripped him naked, and tortured him with the goal of driving him crazy. In another comic, he also killed Robin.

There are two things I’d like to highlight from the Joker’s most heinous crimes. First, they’re not always crimes against women. The Joker is someone who is evil because he has no care for human life at all, man or woman. Second, he doesn’t do the same thing twice. The problem with Byrne’s treatment of women is that he’s redundant. To show how evil someone is, he uses the same methods over and over and over again. It doesn’t show a vendetta against women (not without more evidence, anyway), but it does show a startling lack of creativity from a man who used to be considered one of comics’ greatest minds. When you see a pregnant woman get strapped to a table and tortured for the 1,899,673rd time, it loses its impact. And when it happens in virtually every book a specific author has ever written, it becomes a disturbing trend.

In short, violence against women is bad. In Byrne’s case, though, it’s not that he’s promoting violence against women. It’s that he’s lacking in creativity when it comes to his villains’ evil deeds. There are more ways to gain an audience’s sympathy or garner hatred for a character than hurting women. Since I’ve been through a very long abusive relationship where the woman was the abuser, I can give several examples of how violence against men can be just as bad.

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