I’ve been itching to write some sort of commentary on the recent explosion of discussion about women in comics, but it seems like a subject that needs a careful approach, so this essay has been a long time in the imagining.
To talk about “women in comics” is to cover the experiences of every woman who has ever worked in comics, not something that can be done easily or quickly. Any concise opinion can’t possibly be adequate to the task of speaking for so many people at once. Experiences are unique to each individual and diverse by consequence, so when accusations of prejudice are made, there will always be people to disagree. The debate is often loud, and sometimes aggressive.
There’s also a tendency for people involved to see their own experience as more than just a single snapshot. Social events like conventions and social networks like twitter enhance this effect by providing a huge sense of connection. When combined with the compelling idea that the comics industry is a small one in which “everyone knows everyone”, it’s easy to imagine that your experience, plus everything you hear and everyone you know ads up to a very complete picture. The more connected you are (or feel you are), the stronger this feeling will be. You know what things are like.
Argument from experience is a common form of debate, and it can be a powerful and persuasive one. Unfortunately it’s also notoriously inaccurate because regardless of gender, we’re all subject to some human biases that are hard to escape. Behavioural studies have shown that the majority of people are far more likely to believe a story they hear if it supports their own beliefs – something known as the confirmation bias. We also have a tendency to make close connections with people who are in similar situations to ourselves, meaning that we’re more likely to encounter events and individuals that support our beliefs in the first place! This doesn’t just effect beliefs, it also acts on social movement, including your career. It’s the conservative force behind nepotism that if left unchecked tends to preserve any social divide it touches.
As with anything social, the whole picture can only be seen by stepping back, but how do we see the wood when the trees fight back? The thing to bear in mind is that no matter how loud and angry they are, experiences aren’t the same as evidence. When one person says they’ve encountered restrictions or barriers, and another says that they haven’t, it’s not the same as one person declaring that rocks fall upwards whilst the other insists that they fall downwards. The industry can comfortably contain both people who have, and people who haven’t experienced sexism.
So what are things really like? When one person says there are no women in comics, others leap in with a ready list and a reassuring word. We’re told that it’s not as bad as we think – DC, Marvel and other “mainstream publishers” (an odd phrase when you consider what’s mainstream outside of comics) may have a bit of a problem with female representation, but the rest of the industry doesn’t. Being honest, that’s what I tend to think as well – I imagine the gender balance on my own shelves, it seems about 50/50, and I’m reassured. However, a list or a mental tally isn’t enough for our purposes because there’s another human quirk involved here: most of us can’t handle statistics well at all! If we’re confronted by a list of 20 women in comics, we struggle to think of 20 men on the spot, and our limited data suggests an illusion of parity.
So, I decided to stop relying on rhetoric and actually count the creators on my shelves (which consist of my collection and Kate Brown’s combined), hoping they might offer a positive image of gender in comics. The results were 2% uncertain/ungendered, 26% female and 71% male! That’s a much bigger majority for men than I had expected from a collection that I’d imagined as gender neutral.
Not satisfied with the informal picture my shelves painted, I decided to collect some more numbers in town. We have two good comics collections in Oxford, one in Blackwells Art and Poster shop (that consists almost entirely of indie titles from across the board) and one in Waterstones (which has a large DC/Marvel shelf alongside a decent indie collection). The results from the indie section in Waterstones were 3% uncertain/ungendered, 9% female and 88% male. The results from Blackwells were 6% uncertain/ungendered, 16% female, 78% male. That’s an even less representative ratio than my personal collection! Not only are these percentages dominated by male creators, but I noticed while counting the Blackwells results that a large chunk of female representation came from SelfMadeHero’s Manga Shakespeare range (which they no longer commission) along with Nelson and Nobrow 6 (both of which are anthologies). If I discount those results the new percentages for Blackwells are 84% male, 11% female and 5% uncertain/ungendered!
This is not a good picture. I would have expected more diversity from publishers like SelfMadeHero, Top Shelf and Jonathan Cape that were very well represented in the stores I looked into. It’s also rather telling that I should find a higher percentage of women where the money and exposure involved were lower. SelfMadeHero especially surprised me in this respect. Their first titles, the manga Shakespeare range (one of which I drew) consisted of 6 female artists to 7 male, but since then their ratio has dropped to 20% women.
(EDIT: I originally reported the SelfMadeHero statistic to have plummeted to less than 10%, which turned out to be a figure skewed by limited data. Doug Wallace pointed out on twitter that “across the 67 titles published between Feb 2007 and July 2012, 30 involve a female author or illustrator”. This prompted me to do a full count of their website, which showed (discounting Manga Shakespeare and their gift book range) a ratio of 85% men to 15% women, but with translators and foreign creators removed to keep the results representative of English speaking comics creators, that count went to 80% men and 20% women. It’s interesting to note that the first count I did of titles actually on the shelf should be so much lower, although that may be a fluke.)
Following up on a suspicion, I dived into my giant pile of self-published comics collected at conventions over the years to find percentages of 47% male, 49% female and 4% ungendered/uncertain – an almost perfectly representational proportion. Are we seeing a picture of equal representation at grass roots, but mostly-male where the money and jobs are? These statistics suggest that the answer is yes, and although the data is limited I made sure to use a sample that, if anything, should provide a more representative image than a true survey might. Remember also that these figures ignore DC and marvel, who if included could have easily taken non-male representation to percentages lower than 10%. I encourage everyone to count their own shelves, along with the shelves of their local shops in order to improve this data!
(EDIT: It’s worth noting that in order to make sure that the data reflects the market for western creators and the companies that employ them, I skipped over any translated manga in my count, and would encourage you to do the same if you count yours! The manga industry is a very different beast with its own quirks worthy of a post this long dedicated to its own gender issues and balances!)
So what does this mean? A quick tally makes it seem like there’s an imbalance in almost every sector of the industry except the amateur one. Are we knee-deep in a business that harbours terrible sexism?
As befits the recurring theme of this essay, I have a feeling that the first thing that someone might think of when they contemplate sexism is personal behaviour. We’ve seen a glass ceiling and we’re all wondering who holds it in place. Perhaps it’s a man in a position of power refusing a woman a promotion. Perhaps it’s male to female sexual harassment, or derogatory jokes about women. In most cases, it’s very hard to think about a social phenomenon happening without thinking of an agent (a person or group of people) acting deliberately (with agency) against another person or group.
I believe this to be the reason that gender discussions can blow up so easily. It’s very hard to suggest sexism without being seen as making personal accusations. If you say that the comics industry is sexist as a whole, you’re seen as saying that creators and fans across the board are individually sexist. If you say that DC or Marvel are sexist companies, you’re seen as saying that their owners, editors and staff are all individually sexist. It’s no wonder that people get up in arms about it, because it’s a gender issue, and no one can escape being personally implicated in some way. “Sexist” has become a vicious insult and unfortunately it seems impossible to use it without wounding prides and egos.
I’m sure some people would say at this point, “let them be wounded!”, but I’d argue that there are larger issues and bigger truths being obscured by debates that quickly go ad-hominem.
Whilst personal examples of sexism in action are by no means insignificant, they’re very much like symptoms of a larger social problem with a much greater reach. It’s possible for an industry at large to be “sexist” (in the sense that it restricts access to women) without a single individual being deliberately aggressive or inconsiderate towards women.
In order to understand how this happens, it’s important to first establish that when you study large groups of people in the modern, English speaking world, trends appear that separate women from men in occupation, behaviour, income, tastes and appearance. Just like the observation that flipping a coin produces 50% heads and 50% tails is no basis on which to say for sure what the next result will be, these statistical differences between men and women are by no means a sure method with which to predict the behaviour of an individual. There’s nothing to stop a woman possessing “masculine” traits or vice versa. Instead, they’re observations that form an unfortunate but unavoidable long-distance snapshot of modern life.
The argument as to whether behavioural gender differences are social in origin, genetic or both is fascinating and highly politically charged, but thankfully for the purposes of this blog entry, it’s also academic. What matters for this discussion is that regardless of what we’d love to be the case, right here and now, the products you buy, the stories you enjoy and the stories you write are most likely (if not always) influenced by your gender.
So, where we might imagine sinister businessmen in board rooms enjoying a sexist joke whilst they reject perfectly good material coming from talented women, the reality is most likely well-meaning people trying to do their best whilst running companies with pre-established audiences. This is evidenced strongly by the comment that might well have been a major catalyst in this debate: Dan DiDio saying “We’re just trying to hire the best people-”, after a panel in which he received a question about female representation in DC titles.
This is in a way the perfect response with which to illustrate what’s going on here. DC have an audience that they’ve built up over decades who have come to expect specific output from them. This audience has been attracted by material produced almost exclusively by male creators with particular ideas and a particular audience in mind. Consequently, this audience are also mostly male, and naturally expect more stories and art of the type that made them fans in the first place. The fact that DC’s output consists largely of franchises that have used the same characters and universes for decades only enhances this effect: a vicious cycle of creation, audience, and demand. Steering DC is analogous to steering a cruise-liner through financial icebergs: it would take consistently applied, unhesitating and risky pressure to change the make-up of a large audience on whom you rely, especially when you’re fighting against the public perception of comics as superhero stories for adolescent boys! And the statistics I gathered earlier show that this isn’t just happening at DC and the superhero brigade, it’s happening across the board.
So when powerful people in the comics industry look for “the best”, they really do. Only it’s not “the best” in an objective sense, it’s the best for their personal tastes, and the best for their company, and for the reasons above they’re unlikely to find that from women at the moment.
THIS is how a glass ceiling works – invisible and inescapable. This is sexism at its most powerful, not in the hands of an individual or group to whom it’s easy to point a finger, but perpetuated by social momentum, financial conservatism, and that social impulse we all have to gather in groups of similar people. Everyone who buys, reads and creates comics unwittingly colludes in it, regardless of their gender or their predilections. From the editor who goes with that style they’ve always loved, to the man who decides to work for the company who pays them best, to the woman who decides that another career might be more lucrative. I’d wager that only a small fraction of the people involved in maintaining a male majority behave in a sexist manner on a personal level.
Unfortunately this means that pointing the finger has a slippery effect. When you examine individual events, most people seem to be polite and well meaning, or at the very worst speak before they think too hard.
Perhaps because of this it seems that many people, both women and men, wish they could make the women in comics debate disappear. It raises the hackles of men who feel accused, it makes women upon whom the spotlight is turned by merit of their sex instead of their work feel patronised, and it makes many people who dislike conflict uncomfortable. However, I believe that despite the raised voices and capslocked comments it tends to cause, the debate is absolutely central to the continued health and diversity of comics. We’re talking about the involvement of half the world’s population here after all! When we consider that almost every publisher in comics seem to have built themselves businesses that unwittingly exclude female creators, it’s no wonder that comics struggle to attract a wider audience and gain recognition as a “worthy” storytelling medium!
In most industries, large companies have the most clout, but are the least mobile. This is obviously true for comics, but we’re beginning to catch glimpses of an industry augmented by the increased availability of cheap printing, digital distribution and a direct creator-to-audience link facilitated by the internet. All of these things make for much more lucrative and mobile small business models, and hopefully as comics continue to expand their audience, there will be more consumers to support new publishers and creators. I think this is where we need to look in order to address gender parity in the future! DC and Marvel are in a way a statistical fluke – huge companies catering to every last scrap of a tiny niche – and clumsy to steer as they are, I don’t think they can be relied upon to redress the gender balance.
There’s no limit to what comics might create, to the stories that they might tell, but until we reach gender parity in both creators and audience, half that potential will remain unexplored. I call upon smaller publishers with more mobility, and new creators with their careers ahead of them to give all this serious consideration. If comics are to continue to grow, you’re the publishers and creators who will make that happen. You’re the people with the power for change.
This issue needs to be hammered hard, and hammered consistently, but with a hopeful message. One of the things that consistently makes change hard is the feeling that it’s futile. If creators walk away from the debate feeling hopeless, it only perpetuates the imbalance. Thankfully, the subtle mechanics of sexism work in our favour here. We’re not dealing with an industry of bigots who will only publish men. We’re not dealing with an industry in which there is an imbalance in the genders of new and hopeful creators. We can say “there is a problem” and “it doesn’t have to be a problem” in the same breath.