Comics are not for kids… or women

I thought I’d be writing about why I find this article a little problematic: It’s about a dad, Dave Phillips, who takes his kids to a comic store and has a road to Damascus moment, enlightened to the issues of women’s representation in comics and in general. His daughter can’t find a woman superhero wearing clothes and yet his son has little trouble choosing among 3,000 different fully-clothed Batmans/Batmen/Bat…people?

You’d think as someone who focuses on diversity and hating casual and outright sexism I’d be happy with it. But then some phrasing just… leapt out at me.

For example, Phillips writes:

to all of the women that I know, especially those in the tech scene, I kinda feel like I owe you an apology…because it wasn’t until I took my seven year old daughter to a comic book store this weekend that the universe slapped me upside the head and brought a really serious issue into focus for me.

I dislike the whole “I owe women an apology because of sexism” line. I don’t feel the need to apologise for sexism, as I’m not a sexist; I shouldn’t apologise for sexism until I do or say something sexist. I don’t presume to apologise on behalf of my gender because the whole point behind combatting sexism is to stop caricaturing gender, people are different. Etc.

He later writes:

I can’t wholly endorse the entire concept [I don’t know what Philips means here: women dressing revealingly? Or being attractive and being successful? Or being attractive superheroes? It’s really not clear. If you know, drop a comment. – TM], because no, I don’t really want my daughter to be one of those daughters as she continues to grow and mature.  If she starts dressing like Mystique, we’re going to have a problem, and the joke I made at her birth about locking her in her room until menopause will no longer be a joke.

I dislike him saying “those” daughters. What daughters? I’m not sure if he wants to avoid the word “slut” since he doesn’t say what “those” is (and, to reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with sluts or slutty behaviour – except when used deliberately to be a slur). And I don’t find locking daughters up particularly amusing – he himself says it “will no longer be a joke”. Of course he won’t do this – but even within the concept of that paragraph, it doesn’t look good.

Anyway, I’m glad he’s at least taking steps toward recognising the issue of diversity and women’s representation. This is good as he’s someone who runs a podcast and site about comics.

What I’m more annoyed with are some responses. A popular response has been this reddit comment in the comic subreddit, and that’s what I want to focus on. In order to appreciate it, please read Phillips’ original article.

Let’s see what “logrusmage” has to say that people are apparently nodding to.

Comic books are not for kids.

Yes they are. It’s a medium. That’s like saying books or film are not for kids.

I’m sorry, but the current Batman title is no more appropriate for little boys than anything with “boobies” is for a little girl.

Yeah, that’s not the issue. Batman, even if the violence is inappropriate, still embodies intelligence, strength, etc., that can make him worth admiring. That’s why there was an amazing Batman animated kids series, for example (which I’ve always preferred to the comics). The issue is that there’s basically no woman equivalent to Batman – even if there’s still inappropriate violence – that is also focused on power or intelligence: there’s plenty steeped in shitty sexism and boring caricature of women.

Again: the issue isn’t that there’s anything wrong with women wearing revealing clothing. That’ s a lazy view. The issue is that it’s clear which demographic these superhero comics are constantly targeting – the issue isn’t one of particular instances, but ubiquity to the point of definition: superhero women wear tight, revealing clothes, have ridiculous proportions, etc. No one should be ashamed at being attracted to this; no one should feel ashamed at wanting to dress like this. The issue is why that should be the only or accepted way women are portrayed – diversity doesn’t mean comics are never allowed to draw women in a sexy ways; it means that we shouldn’t let it be the first or only option. As, I think Rhianna Pratchett once said to me, these women should look like they dressed themselves for the job at hand – not dressed by dudes trying to please the straight man demographic.

Most of this article is ridiculous. He’s worried about his daughter seeing boobs, but he’s totally fine with his son reading about a man who taped his face back on?

Maybe Phillips phrased it badly. The issue isn’t of seeing boobs, but seeing only boobs. The issue is why can’t these superhero women be enthralling because of their intelligence, strength, superpowers, personality – not because of how they dress. And if you say, they are, then why do they continue to dress in ways many have said they find demeaning? We all agree we want them to be superheroes first; we also can agree there’s nothing wrong with wearing revealing clothes. And there’s nothing prudish about saying maybe more superhero women could be drawn with better suited attire to the job, not… this.

Again, I can’t emphasise enough: Women wanting to dress like that isn’t the issue. It’s that when you put Powergirl next to Batman, I struggle to take Powergirl’s creators and designers seriously in their intent. It just screams so clearly who she is meant to appeal to that I find it difficult to see her as a fleshed out character, who people cared about creating beyond appealing to that straight dude demographic.

There are plenty of comics that target girls. The fact that that store chose not to carry them is not a moral problem. You don’t get to choose what stores make money selling.

Ah, the old “blogposts are now law”, “writers are CEOs” line. No one is calling for a ban or overhaul of what a store stocks. This is someone writing on their blog. He never claimed to be choosing what stores stock – but, as a customer, blogger and podcaster, he can change minds and therefore purchasing decisions that people can make for themselves.

Also, when you say “target girls” doesn’t that contradict your first statement above? And if by “girls” you mean “women”, stop saying that and say “women”.

And if you mean there are comics that target women, I want you to imagine anyone saying that today about “films” and not being side-eyed. Because, what, all women like romance, eh? And all men like shooty-shooty bang bang? That’s a rather sexist view. People of all genders like different things.

Comics is a medium. They’re not automatically designed to appeal to a specific gender: they’re books with pictures, for Cthulhu’s sake! People and corporations decide what the contents are. We’re saying that these entities appealing to one demographic are foolish and insulting.

“The fact that that store chose not to carry them is not a moral problem”

First, assuming there are “lady comics”, it is a moral problem.

Second, the issue isn’t that they decided to not stock magical lady comics, it’s that superhero comics and the medium in general appears to favour a particular demographic and that should change. It’s that, even if they wanted to order women superhero comics with women who wear clothes, they couldn’t (or they’d struggle to find them).

Yes, Harley Quinn isn’t the same character in the comics that she is in cartoons. Neither is Starfire. These are not crimes, nor are they even remotely morally questionable creative descisions [sic].

Every creative “descision” is morally questionable: Our conclusion to questioning could be acceptance or agreement, but it’s still always questionable. No one is calling this a “crime” – though I see this person likes hyperbole to the point where apparently someone’s entered the Hall of Congress to change the law to outlaw comic boobies.

Not being catered to by a genre is not sexism.

You mean medium, not genre presumably – one is a category within the other. Because… er, yes it is sexism. A medium is merely the way we tell stories. That’s it: there’s no writ that says all books, all film, all comics must cater to men. We can and do change that. And not being catered to is an example of erasing such people, who do care about the medium.

They also, er, create the medium and genre – say hello to Gail Simone or Kelly Sue DeConnick.

This boring Appeal to Nature fallacy appears everywhere: because guys buy games, comics, etc., these mediums must be made for them. Notice there’s two different lines of thought there.

The first is descriptive: Yes, men will and do buy those things that cater to them.

The second is normative: Because more men buy of this medium, we should, must and only make such things in the medium for them.

People conflate the two, as is being done here.

Notice: even if “logrusmage” does mean the superhero genre, the argument remains. Why should it be only for men just because it’s always been that way?

I don’t get mad when I walk into Macy’s and they have a hundred times the variety in clothes for women than they do for men. And that’s actually a gender divided industry, as opposed to comics where girls are socially free to read comics that target boys as an audience.

I don’t understand this comparison at all. Women can wear men’s clothes and men can wear women’s clothes if they wish. We’ve just decided to call them “men” and “women’s” clothes. The better comparison would be to say “clothes” are mostly designed for women, or something like that. Again, we’re talking about the whole medium or genre.

But notice that people make all kinds of clothes for all manner of people. We cannot say the same about a notoriously sexist industry.

I’m sorry, but I don’t see any of this as a symptom of sexism. This is a father who hasn’t realized that the super hero genre of comic books no longer targets children, and taking a lack of a store’s catering to a minority audience as an insult to half the population.

From an article last year, in ComicsBeat: Market Research Says 46.67% of Comic Fans are Female. And if you don’t like that, what about The Mary Sue reporting: “While many stores report that their children’s comics sections continue to grow, the demographic that seems to be growing the fastest is young women, aged 17–33.” Some of the most successful comics are being written by women, featuring women and having a fanbase primarily consisting of women – for example, G. Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel or Simone’s Birds of Prey.

Even from a business perspective, it makes sense to, you know, expand your customer base. From a moral perspective, being a minority of the audience is the result of a sexist cycle of not being catered to in the first place. This is part of a decision people (i.e. rich dudes and corporations) acted on; not some rule of nature, like fucking gravity.

Again: the conflation of fact (women are a minority) with behaviour decision (therefore comics shouldn’t cater to them).

Final thought: Comic book stores not carrying more lady-friendly comics is no more sexist than lacross stores carrying mostly male sport clothing, or a ballet store carrying mostly female shoes and tights.

Again: you’re asserting comics are a “boys only” zone and we’re saying, while that’s true, that sucks. You can get your sport clothing almost anywhere you want – but let me know when Wonder Woman isn’t treated like an Men’s Rights caricature of women and Powergirl gets pants.


  1. says

    I don’t think he’s apologizing for sexism or on behalf of men, he’s just apologizing for not getting it.

    And then, yet again, here’s another man who requires having a daughter before he can have enough empathy to see the blatant sexism in the world around him.

  2. drken says

    1. I’m not sure what Macy’s that guy goes to, but the ones around here (including the flagship) have a pretty good selection of men’s clothing. Not as much as the women’s, but definitely enough to make a decent store in it’s own right. The point being is that as a man, I’ve never walked into Macy’s and thought “I guess clothes aren’t really for me”.

    2. If you’re a male (or the parent of a young one) and you can’t find a decent selection of ballet stuff, you have every right to complain. You also have the right to complain to “big ballet” about how that sort of thing is why you don’t see more male dancers go into ballet.

    3. As for the Lacrosse comparison. Imagine going into a Lacrosse store and the few women’s Lacrosse outfits look like they were designed for a version of Lacrosse played in a strip-club on Wed. nights. That’s a much more fair comparison.

    Actually, as some of the comments pointed out, that sounds like a pretty terrible comic book store. There are comics (even superheroes) that would be appropriate for 7 year old girls besides Hello Kitty. Also, his daughter has a point. if you’re going to put out (pretty successful) shows with a desexualized Harley Quinn and Wonder Woman, why not put out a comic of that version? DC has so many potentially great female characters; Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, etc. it’s a shame they get reduced to eye candy.

  3. AMM says

    Comic books are not for kids.

    When I read this, all I could think of was, WTF??? Did I suddenly get transported to a different planet?

    Back when I was a kid, comic books were only for kids. They were printed on newsprint to get the price down to where an average kid’s weekly allowance would cover one or two, down at the drugstore. Adults universally condemned them as trash that corrupted kids’ minds and morals. There may have been adults who read them, but if there were, they kept real quiet about it.

    I haven’t even looked at a comic in 40 years, but my son (age 21) informs me that (a) they tailor the stories and pictures to appeal (only) to the proverbial “guy with arrested development living in his mother’s basement” demographic (a.k.a. “fan service”), and (b) they are priced way beyond what any but the most affluent kid can afford (which BTW means that the proverbial “guy in his mom’s basement” would need to have a pretty big income to actually buy them.) We predict that the comics industry will collapse once the current generation of fans grows old and dies, because they are explicitly refusing to produce stuff that would appeal to a new generation of readers.

    • Onamission5 says

      Back when I was a kid, comic books were only for kids.

      Right? My sister and I had a paper grocery bag of comics given to us in the late 70’s by.. someone, I can’t remember who. Everything from Hulk to Ghost Rider to frikkin’ Archie. We must have read them a few dozen times each, carefully tucking them back into their hiding spot in my sister’s closet lest our precious stash of comics meet the same Jesus fueled bonfire fate as my parents’ rock and roll albums.

      The first time I went into a comic shop, as an adult way back in the early 90’s, I was floored by the selections, not just of comics and graphic novels, but of feminist magazines like Bust and progressive erotica like Yellow Silk and On Our Backs. Definitely not just products for kids, also stuff for just adults, but still most of the shop was basic serial comics. So when did this magical transition occur, that comics suddenly aren’t for girls or women but also not for boys, that they are suddenly the sole propriety of adult (probably straight, cis) men?