Feminism for all?

I need to stop discussing the Heroes For Hire #14 cover. I know! However, I wanted to mention that when I saw the cover, I quickly thought of the following two images:

So, what do those images have in common? They were likely designed to appeal to the libidos of straight male comic fans. What else do they have in common? Without knowing the identities of the characters depicted, one would not assume that the characters featured were black. During the rare times when black female characters in mainstream comics and science fiction are in a position where they are supposed to appeal to fans physically, their features are often whitewashed. Honestly, I’m a little reluctant to shine a spotlight on the phenomenon, because there actually is a benefit to it. I rarely have to see characters that share my features depicted as sex objects.

While white, Asian, Latina, and biracial female characters are forced to fulfill duties as the resident eye candy, black female characters are usually quietly solving problems and taking charge in the background or behind the scenes. When no one sees you as a sex object, you actually get to be a real person—a capable person. That’s the good news.

The bad news? When you aren’t considered to be a sex object, the men that are hired to draw the characters that share your features generally do not care whether those features are rendered correctly. After all, those features don’t appeal to a majority of readers. Why waste time? And the men that are hired to write about characters that share your features will pay minimal attention to the romantic entanglements and familial ties of those characters and will instead focus on fleshing out the characters they find alluring. However, as previously stated, I’m wary of shining a spotlight on the phenomenon. When you do demand equal billing and attention or you do finally reach a widespread audience? The whitewashing begins. And you go from this to this. But Frank can explain it better than I can.

Sin City's EstherI find that scene amusing given that I am certain the actress portraying Esther Sin City 3 will in no way physically resemble the character in the series. Trust me.

However, the situation certainly isn’t cut and dried. After all, don’t black women come in a variety of shapes and sizes? Don’t their skin tones range from quite dark to quite fair? Isn’t it a problem that a majority of the black female characters in mainstream comic books draw from one certain physical type? Don’t fair-skinned black girls deserve characters they can see themselves in too?

Yes, those girls do deserve that. And yes, it is a problem. And I’ll be honest, it’s one I’m once again reluctant to address. One, because the shady part of me (no pun intended) thinks that fair-skinned girls certainly aren’t hurting for attention or representation. Two, because I honestly believe that the addition of black female characters with a wider variety of features will not result in greater diversity. It will simply result in dark-skinned women being eliminated from the scene completely. After all, we’re not what turns the fanboys on, right? And if we’re no longer needed for token diversity, why keep us around?

And where would we go? To manga companies? To “female friendly” comic companies and imprints? Black women are ignored to an even greater extent in those arenas. We’re shunned by the very companies that are heralded as alternatives for women and girls tired of the sexism found in the mainstream. And those companies are so busy patting themselves on the back that they cannot even see how they’ve turned their backs on us.

I suppose that’s where the title comes in. Because while I am thoroughly impressed by the burgeoning feminist movement in the comics industry and I hope that feminist fans and creators achieve all of their wonderful goals, I don’t feel like I am a part of it. I don’t feel like my goals are the same as theirs. Is a womanist comics movement is needed? Meh, who knows?

I’m tired of fighting. Perhaps it’s because I finally understand the situation. I know now that mainstream companies (and many indie and manga companies as well) have no interest in black women as consumers. I know now that mainstream companies (and many indie and manga companies as well) have no desire to hire black women as creators. However, they have every right to cater to fans of a particular demographic. They have every right to groom a certain selection of creators for their ranks. And even though it disturbs me, they have every right to choose not to address the concerns of black women who have brought up the fact that artists are not depicting the features of black female characters correctly. There’s no point in fighting those choices. When black musicians couldn’t get their videos played on MTV they simply took their videos to Video Music Box. They found a place where they were respected and desired. I simply have to find the comic-industry equivalent.

I know I’m likely to get accusations that I’m giving up or endorsing segregation, but black women are already being shut out. It’s not as if Marvel and DC (or dozens of other companies, for that matter) are welcoming us with open arms. What’s wrong with walking away from companies that are actively ignoring black women as creators and insulting them as consumers? What’s wrong with walking away when established black female authors with fan followings are not even considered to pen the rare mainstream comics that actually star black women?

When I had the chance to speak with a few well-respected individuals in the industry—some of them working at the “big two”—about breaking in, I was very sweetly and politely told to self-publish because I had no chance of ever being hired. The men and women telling me this weren’t trying to be malicious. They were very gently trying to explain to me what I should have been able to deduce from the beginning: my work would not be considered. However, it is highly possible that they were merely too kind to tell me that my work wasn’t good enough to be considered, but also wanted to spare me a great deal of heartache and time.

“But, let me also add, that just because there is a lack of female writers doesn’t mean that we’re going to hand out a charity gig to a female just because of her gender. That to me defeats the purpose. As a father of an only female child I would want all doors open within whatever field my daughter decides to one day choose. But I would also want her to walk through those doors on her own merits, not on the charity of others or to fill some quota, and I suspect that when she’s old enough to understand that, she’ll feel the same.”

Joe Quesada

The quote from Marvel EIC Joe Quesada makes sense. But what of award winners such as Abouet or famous authors such as Banks? They aren’t qualified to pen a mainstream comic? They aren’t as talented as any of the writers currently working at mainstream comic companies? And if they are as qualified, then why haven’t they been approached to write books as creators from other industries have? Why haven’t they been hired? I’d love to get a response to these questions from someone in a position to hire artists and writers at a mainstream comic company. But the other shoe will not drop. The response will be the same as it has always been. Silence. What message does that silence convey? We don’t want you here.

I have one response to that. We hear you.