I spent the weekend dress as Jennifer Walters, or She-Hulk, at this weekend’s Awesome Con in Washington D.C. It was fun in the joyous ways all theater is fun–I had make-up, I sewed my costume, I had lines and did research and played with a cast of thousands.
But this weekend was also my first time cosplaying a female character. In the over-a-decade I’ve been attending cons and making costumes for them, I’ve always been some gender-bent version of a man. I was a Winchester from Supernatural, the lead vampire from the Priest comics, and variety of anime characters in high school. I let myself choose only men for my heroes.
That’s why I set myself a challenge, weeks ago when I was deciding what I would cosplay as. I would try to elevate female characters in fandom. As I fan, I can do this by playing them, writing them, talking about them, learning about them. By no longer being lazy in my fan spaces and focusing on the easier-to-find-because-they’re-everywhere male characters.
This isn’t a small task. If you believe as I do that women are the lead characters in their own stories, comics will nearly-always leave you high-and-dry. Exceptions like Captain Marvel and Jennifer Walters demonstrate the rule. Women engaging in media find ourselves the sidekicks, the love-interests, the body in the refrigerator.
Now, I have not met the 3.5 billion people on this planet who are women-shaped, but I doubt many of us think of ourselves as just being sidekicks, love-interests, or motivating deaths. And in refusing to portray us as we are, comic book creators are asking us to suspend disbelief in a harmful way. Men can fly and women can live for decades without aging and mutants can read minds: those are awesome things to believe for the space of a story. That women are slips of people, enough only to further male-leads’ stories? That is battery-acid on my tongue. That is an unproductive, unimaginative suspension of disbelief.
And it’s not just women. (See: intersectionality). As the excellent panel discussion today with Dominic Goodall, Ann Marie Brokmeier, Elizabeth Bass, Samuel Lee said, the unbelievable thing about The Human Torch shouldn’t be that he’s being played by Michael B. Jordan, an African American man–it’s that he will spend most of the movie on fire.
As fans, we’re well-practiced at imagining drastically different worlds and using those visions to help reshape the real one. Anyone who doesn’t think tri-corders influenced cell-phones, Snow Crash influenced Second Life, or holo-displays influenced Kinect, your missing the fun of turning the things you imagine into reality. All activism requires a productive suspension of disbelief–I tend to think that working to end human trafficking is an act of science fiction.
Therefore it is disappointing when comics choose to not represent the world in unproductive ways, erasing from the great narrative many women, people of color, and a whole host of others. Fans are vocal about these problems–this Has DC Done Something Stupid Today day-counter is both hilarious and an easy guide to the many ways comics are failing their fans.
What can a fan do then–only read cryogenically-preserved, Bechdel tested pieces of perfectly representative media? I for one wouldn’t want to. Problematic as they are, much mainstream media contains great stories. Shakespeare had his problems, as do many great modern-and-acclaimed novelists.
I live in the world and sequestering myself from these problematic but sometimes brilliant/meaningful/challenging/touching/exciting/fun stories mostly hurts me and my ability to engage in my culture. The values of Tony Stark or Captain America or Professor Xavier aren’t limited to their gender, and as a woman I can be a fan of their stories while being troubled by a lack of representation. For more on this, check out the Social Justice League’s great post: How to be a fan of problematic things.
While I can love the stories, I cannot allow myself to end up where I have been since I dove back into fandom post-undergrad: with most of my creative efforts going to telling the stories of men. I need to choose my heroes carefully, or the norm of women never being the lead will start to sink into my lizard-brain. As a woman, I can’t afford to lose this battle.
I need to know and believe and be sure that women are full participants in the stories of the world. One way to do this is to find the rare and shining examples of women being treated as full people within media. Another is to take stories where women are originally relegated women to side-kicks, love-interest and motivating deaths, and re-write those women back into being the full people they always were. That is the magic of fanfiction: we can fix problems of representation post-release.
All of this leads to why I spent an hour and a half painting myself green early Saturday morning. Because women have stories, and they’re important, and when I find them in the communities of which I am a part, I will make a special–perhaps even a superheroic–effort to find them and tell them.
“That’s all I need! A guy with the I.Q. of a Mack Truck telling us “gals” to stay out of trouble!”–Jennifer Walters (Earth-616)