On Brian Wood and Sexism in the Geek World

Because Anthony Weiner’s Name Wasn’t Punny Enough

Today, I’m going to talk about a topic that I’ve avoided discussing for quite a while. The main reason for my silence stems from my wish to focus on the more positive aspects of geek culture (with some exceptions), and this is one subject that shines a harsh light on an appalling and undesirable side of it. But this week’s developments drove home the fact that this particular problem’s best friend is silence—not just of the involved parties, but also of members of this culture who should be spreading awareness rather than sitting idly by and accepting the sad reality. The issue is sexism in the comic book industry. Of course, sexism—or at the very least female under-representation and objectification—is present in the world at large, and it is particularly rampant in the geek world as a whole, from movies to video games. But oh boy, would that make for one long post. Which is why, at least for the time being, I’m going to focus my attention mostly (though not necessarily exclusively) on the comic book business, considering the events of this past week, which I will get to in a bit.
Harley Quinn, before and after her ‘gritty reboot’.
Harley Quinn Reboot

It’s no secret that the comic book world, much like the video game world, is primarily male-driven and male-oriented. Everything from female characters’ outrageous outfits to their exaggerated proportions and impossible poses on posters and covers practically screams male pandering. Take the infamous Brokeback Pose, a popular spine-bending stance that allows female characters to display their butt and their breasts and their face all at the same time (kudos to The Hobbit for turning that around with one of its recent posters). For a humourous take on that issue, I recommend you look up the Hawkeye Initiative. A more specific demonstration of this problem is DC’s recent talent contest, which required applicants to submit a drawing of Harley Quinn looking sexy while committing suicide in a bathtub. Speaking of DC, the authors of the Batwoman series quit in September after they were told to alter several storylines, including a long-running arc that was to result in Batwoman’s lesbian marriage. On the surface, this seems to have more to do with gay rights than sexism, but look at it this way: it’s perfectly OK to have a lesbian couple—after all, men find lesbians hot, right?—but God forbid they actually explore the non-sexual aspects of a lesbian relationship, like actual love and all that icky, mushy stuff.

True, comic books were always traditionally viewed as a medium for young males, but the times are changing, especially now that geeks are no longer ostracized. Yet even with the recent influx of female readers, the industry has not changed its methods from the days when comic books were targeted at a niche male audience. This crippling failure to adapt has led to a lot of problems. We all knew that. Problems as serious as sexual harassment, though? That’s new. And not just your run-of-the-mill convention floor pestering of cosplayers, mind you (but isn’t it tragic that those are considered run-of-the-mill?). I’m talking about actual, respected professionals within the comic book industry harassing women—both within and outside the business—and using their standing in the publishing hierarchy as both a means to enable this behaviour and a shell to protect them from consequences.
Brian WoodEnter Brian Wood. He is an established and respected comic book creator currently writing a Star Wars comic book series for Dark Horse, as well as the new X-Men series for Marvel—notable for having an all-female X-Men lineup. This is actually one of the reasons he was perceived as a feminist, a notion seemingly enforced by his public and online behaviour. Which makes the hypocrisy of what happened next all the more distressing. The long and short of it is that illustrator Tess Fowler, apparently prompted by a separate Twitter discussion that accused Brian Wood of faux-feminism, brought to light an incident that took place at San Diego Comic Con in 2007. She claimed that Wood (who she notes was married with a pregnant wife at the time) feigned interest in her work as an artist and asked her to his hotel room under the pretense of discussing her art. She did not acquiesce, and the next day, he allegedly loudly accused her of standing him up in front of convention attendees, as well as privately mocking both her art and the fact that she was in costume. Fowler also said that she had been silent about it for a long time, but that she’d heard far too many accounts about Wood’s inappropriate behaviour from other distressed women to keep quiet any longer. As the accusation went public, Wood released a minimum-accountability statement in which he admitted making a pass at Fowler but did not mention the rest of the accusations (a non-apology if there ever was one).
What followed next was a slew of opinion pieces, blog posts, and most importantly, anecdotes from other women who also experienced harassment or at the very least objectification in the comic book world, at the hands of Wood (yes, apparently Fowler was not his first or last victim) as well as others, both professionals and fans alike. It was really a you-had-to-have-been-there sort of thing, witnessing the story develop from a single tweet to a bunch of testimonials, some of which had been fearfully kept private for years. For an excellent resource on how this story developed and snowballed, I encourage you to check out this awesome, very comprehensive, and regularly updated post, at least to better understand why I’m so worked up about it.
Not Batman’s finest hour. Yet attitudes have barely changed in over 70 years.
Batman Spank
It was not the story itself that prompted me to write this post, but the fact that it is symptomatic of a larger problem that has gone on for far too long in the comic book industry, as evidenced by the dozens of other similar stories that followed Fowler breaking the dam, so to speak. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of problems such as this before, but it’s not stopping, and I’m way past my tipping point. The stories themselves are disheartening enough; the response from a sizable chunk of the male fanbase was so much worse. The comments varied from apathetic (“Thing is I/we don’t care and this just sounds like whining.”) to ignorant (“Well, first get women interested in comics and the rest will come. Don’t blame men for what women don’t want.”) to downright offensive (“The whole point of low-level things is they ought to be ignored […] Men should not spend their lives obsessing over how to please the most fragile and insecure women in the world […] and they also need to stop running to defend every women who finds a man to complain about […] the feminists run in to ruin one industry after another with women whining about sexism […] My advice is for her to GET OVER IT!”). This comic, though not made for this actual occasion, succinctly sums up that reaction, and at the same time offers great insight into the state of things and why they got so bad. This whole debacle, both the actions of the perpetrators and the reaction of the onlookers, has left me disillusioned with this culture that I otherwise cherish with all my heart.
Geek Girl MemeIt’s very sad that in the geek realm, women are still seen as the intruders. When men see a woman at a convention, a lot of them will immediately assume she’s there to accompany her boyfriend or husband, and not of her own volition (Amy Ratcliffe briefly shares a similar story as part of this early episode of the Full of Sith podcast, for example). The ‘fake geek girl’ accusation gets thrown around a lot, and girls need to somehow ‘prove themselves’ in ways guys do not—a situation that, when you turn it around, looks absolutely ridiculous. Even Felicia Day, who has more geek cred than most people I know of, was once called “a glorified booth babe”. What’s funny about it is that women nowadays take up a large part of the geek world, and they are arguably more passionate than most of us. Think of how much box office revenue Thor: The Dark World owes to Loki fangirls! Would the new Doctor Who series have taken off so well without its vast female audience? Would Sherlock ever have gained mainstream popularity? And it’s not just fangirls—for instance, more than half of my personal Twitter list of geek personalities, bloggers, and journalists comprises female members. Quickly skimming the list I can name Felicia Day, Ashley Eckstein, Bonnie Burton, Melissa Anelli, Amy Ratcliffe, Dunc, Tricia Barr… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Not to mention my real-life friends,  not all of whom are geeks, but the majority of those who are are female. And yet, mysteriously, none of that seems to matter.
Reed Richards: biggest douche in comics, actually represents some mentalities in the industry.
Douchebag Reed
I had hoped that these problems did not extend to the professional side of things, but let’s face it, comics are written for geeks by geeks. Any woman who wants to enter that world must ‘learn to play with the big boys’, a phrase I saw in the majority of the aforementioned anecdotes. Sadly, ‘playing with the big boys’ includes things like politely going along with creepy flirtatious jokes (“If I seemed shocked or uncomfortable with “good-natured joking”, I would be seen as boring, someone with no sense of fun that couldn’t hang with the cool kids.”), not complaining when inappropriately groped by a big name creator (“He’s known for that”), and even feeling as though they’d done something wrong when refusing the advances of a married man. Needless to say, some lose patience and quit the business. Others lose faith and don’t even bother trying to enter it. And the ones who make it are sidelined as collaborators waiting forever for their big break, which rarely ever comes. For reference, take this list of writers of DC’s New 52 and notice that only two out of the sixty-five writers listed are female—one of whom is big name Gail Simone, who’s been at this for many years. Think of all the talent that was stifled because of this attitude, and of all the great stories we could have gotten in a better world.
What’s the solution? Well, first off, I do not advocate boycotting Brian Wood’s work, because these things often backfire. If Marvel notices a drop in sales of their current X-Men title, with the way the industry works, they will most likely not see the Brian Wood connection, and instead attribute the loss of readership to lack of interest in an all-female superhero team, which is the opposite of the message we should be pushing. Remember when Elektra under-performed at the box office? Studios assumed it’s because of it having a female lead (instead of, you know, it being a bad movie), and now, a decade and a half into the current superhero movie era, nobody has yet dared to greenlight a Wonder Woman movie, or any superheroine film for that matter.
Reed Richards strikes again!
(See what I did there?)
Shut Up Sue
What makes it even worse is that women can’t even talk about it. Literally every woman who’s come forth in the past week has noted that her story took place years earlier but has been kept private due to a mixture of embarrassment and fear. And even after speaking up, they are met with skepticism, and even offensive comments. Heck, when Anita Sarkeesian published her very sensible and obviously truthful Tropes vs Women in Video Games video series, she was met with intense vitriol, including aggression—someone even made a ‘Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian’ Flash game—and she naturally disabled her comments section. Even her recent remark about the lack of female protagonists in next-gen games was not without disgusting backlash. So much for intelligent discourse. This is bad, because the real solution to the issue is making noise. Women with these stories should speak up. Men should stand firmly—and audibly—behind them. Staying silent in the face of these issues, or, as much as I’d like to, pretending they don’t exist, is only making it worse, so long as offences go unpunished. Most importantly, comic book companies, especially big houses like Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse, should not let it slide and hope it blows over, because it will pop up again. Failure to have any sort of consequence will only ensure that this behaviour thrives. Sadly, the perpetrators themselves have dominance over the status quo. They are the ‘big boys’ and they call the shots, if not always directly.
Enough is enough. I want to take back my fandom. I want the geek culture to be an open and welcoming one, like I always envisioned it. Geeks have been described as kids who couldn’t grow up. I always took that as a compliment, taking pride in my reticence of the wide-eyed innocence of youth and enchantment by all things spectacular. Unfortunately, while some of us are enjoying an extended stay in harmless childhood, others are eternally trapped in their immature, juvenile, and hormonal teenage years (with “ew, cooties” being the only leftover from prepubescence). And to those people, I say the thing that I myself hate being told: grow up. I don’t want to live in a world where my favourite things are made by disrespectful bullies and lust-driven man-children. It’s so wonderful that being a geek is more popular now than it has ever been, with all sorts of diverse people flocking to us, so please, let’s clean up the house and leave the front doors wide open.
PS: You may have noticed that this post has many outgoing links. I urge you to check them out, because I am certainly not alone in the way I feel about these issues. Much has been said by all sorts of people, especially in the past year, and it’s definitely a topic that’s worth reading up on.

2 thoughts on “On Brian Wood and Sexism in the Geek World

  1. Agreed on all accounts, there are a few things that I could discuss, but they aren’t relevant to the broader topic you’ve put up here, can only be considered tangential at best, and certainly don’t contradict or devalue your point. There is one additional thing I would suggest. A dangerous thing because of how easily it can spiral out of control, but an effective one nonetheless. Despite the danger of turning into Barty Crouch Sr. I would call for fighting fire with fire.

    These “victimised” misogynists who can’t deal with the concept of a woman who isn’t a glorified sex-slave should be assaulted on their own ground with their own weapons. It is the sad way of the bully that they often adhere to the Law of Force and one should therefore show oneself capable of besting them on their own terms. Be cruel. Be brutal. Target their innermost insecritues and crush their souls.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen “300: Rise of an Empire” yet, but there is a one-liner delivered by Eva Green right at the very end which seems to be directed more to the expected audience (the intended one isn’t as clear cut) than the character its spoken to. Something alone those lines would be a good way of getting the message across. Civilisation is all well and good when the battle is one, but if you’re looking to change the ideologies of the Brian Wood types you need to verbally kick them in the balls. Repeatedly. Until they are more obviously eunuchs than Lord Varys (and just as aware of the ways of the world).

    For proof that this kind of thing works, look no further than the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle. The constant bitching and complaints from all sides forced them to come out with a better ending (one in which you actually saw the consequences of some of your actions). It was lazy, slapdash and almost completely unsatisfactory, but it was something. And, as things stand, we could do with “something”, because “something” is the first step towards “everything”.

    • While I definitely understand the sentiment behind that, I’m not in favour of fighting fire with fire, purely because it’s an act of retribution that contributes only to personal satisfaction, but not to the improvement of the issue as a whole. Plus, as you said, it could spiral out of control, and it often does, and I can point to several examples of this. The Internet Outrage Machine has gotten so big that it’s actually detracting from the issues rather than shedding light on them.

      Here’s an example: http://www.themarysue.com/martin-freeman-rape-joke/

      Notice Freeman’s reaction, and specifically this part: “Some will get offended by that now. Cause they’ll call it *insert actual air quotes, eye roll* ‘rape’ or whatever.” The technique of trying to rid the world of anything from major injustices to offensive statements using “bully it out of them” technique is ineffective, because it’s teaching them fear of retribution rather than remorse.

      In other words, I’d rather we live in a world where people are taught to avoid doing bad because they understand what’s bad about them, rather than avoid doing bad things just to avoid an outcry, while still not realizing what they did wrong.

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