Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I Like Racist Things

Sexist, too.

All right, calm down everybody.

I don't mean that I like these things because they're racist/sexist/whatever. It's not that I go out looking for racist stuff to enjoy.  A better, less provocative way of putting it would be "Things I like are Racist".

But look, I read comic books and Medieval literature. I can't pretend that stuff is unproblematic. More, I don't think it is right to pretend it's unproblematic.  I think it's bad scholarship, and I think it's bad human-ship.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  What is the problem here, and what can we do about it?

I've posted a (slightly) different version of this on Medievalala too, because the issues I'm going to write about here really concern both medieval literature and comics--especially the kind of comics I usually focus on.

The Problem with Comics

Although my title references racism specifically, I'm concerned here with the whole rainbow of discrimination: racism, sexism, ablism, heteronormativism, classism, beautyism, sizeism you name it.  While arguably all literature and definitely all categories of literature contain some problematic stuff, mainstream superhero comics are especially bad.
In its simplest expression, the problem is this: superheroes are white.
Click to Enlarge. If I did it right.
That image is a splash page from the 2004 "Identity Crisis" storyline.  That story isn't important (yet) to this post, but what this page is convenient because the idea of this scene is that it's a funeral and all the major DC superheroes attend.  Take a look and see how many People of Colour you can pick out of that crowd.

I count four obvious and a few ambiguous.  And of those four only Cyborg could really be called an A-list character.  And while DC has made some (tiny) attempts at improving lately (by adding Cyborg to the Justice League, for example), this tiny progress does not do much to change the landscape.

The point is that this is a very white universe.  The superheroes are white and they fight mostly for the interests of White America.  DC's past attempts at addressing this have been well-intentioned but ... clumsy.
And even if DC undertook a massive about-face and made their universe truly inclusive, they still have decades of history that will still exists and that--frankly--is what I study.  So the problem here doesn't go away even if the comics industry changes.  Which doesn't mean that it shouldn't change, by the way.  But since superhero books are primarily aspirational, and since there are so few POC characters, that means that historically readers of colour were implicitly told by comics that what they should aspire to be is white.

The sexism of comics has been so well documented and so extensively commented upon that I'm not even going to rehash it except to say that the mainstream comics industry systematically objectifies, sexualizes, and marginalizes female characters, even to the detriment of both story and sales.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, just Google "Starfire new 52".

Why This is a Problem

Now I'm going to give you all the benefit of the doubt and assume that you don't actually want to marginalize, objectify, or dehumanize people.  But that's what the problem here is about.  Politics of representation is not just a matter of over-sensitive political-correctness.  I believe that books matter, and if I didn't believe that then I wouldn't spend all my time reading them.  The stories we tell and the stories we hear both shape and are shaped by our worldview.  Bigotry in fiction is a problem firstly because it reveals the bigoted assumptions behind the creation of that fiction.  So it should be no surprise that while the exact percentages change often and are disputed and disputable, but it is indisputable that there are, for example, far fewer women than men creating comics at DC or Marvel.

I'm not saying that these publishers need to hire women and minorities indiscriminately, or that the people creating comics are all racist and sexist as individuals, or even that the policies of DC and Marvel are sexist or racist.  They may be, but that's not really my point.  My point is simply that by far the bulk of comics that have ever been published by DC and Marvel were written by white men about white men the concerns of white men with a white male audience in mind.  And that should bother us as readers--whether scholarly readers or simply fans.  It should (and often does) bother women who read comics because they are so clearly and often aggressively the object rather than the subject of the narrative, so the narrative is alienating.  It should (and often does) bother minorities who read comics because they are so often absent from the idealized world being depicted and are do not have the same scope for identification that their white counterparts have.  And it should bother white male readers of comics, like me, firstly because we are being presented with an impoverished and limited world and that's boring, and secondly because (at the risk of repeating myself), we don't actually want to marginalize, objectify, or dehumanize people.

False Solutions

As a reader, whether a fan or a scholar, the solution to these problems can't be to ignore them.  It can't be to deny them, or to pretend that the problematic representations in comics don't matter.  The option to ignore harmful representations is the option of privilege, and exercising that option is being complicit in the racism and sexism behind those representations.

And it can't be to excuse these problematic representations on the grounds of special-circumstances: that the A-list characters are all legacies of a different time.  There are many problems with this excuse, but the simplest is that no matter when things were produced they are being read now.  Even if we accept the (frankly lame) excuse that writers of the past didn't know any better, readers of today do.

Possible Solutions

One possible solution, of course, is to choose something else to read.  Within the medium of comics, mainstream superhero comics are not all there is.  Plenty of independent comics are light-years better than DC or Marvel in terms of the politics of representation.

When you're reading for fun, this is easy.  Don't read things that you don't enjoy.  If the problematic elements are such that they overwhelm the pleasure of the reading then there really is no problem. 

When you're reading as a scholar, whether a student reading an assigned text or a higher-level academic reading for the edification of yourself or others, the option of just not reading problematic stuff is less viable.  In the first place, pretending that problematic texts don't exist is itself deeply problematic because it is an idealized and false representation of the world.  In the second place, sometimes texts are just plain worth reading from an academic standpoint--whether because of their historical significance or because of artistic value or as a counterpoint to another text. 

A possible solution here is to read with (faux) objectivity.  A scholarly study of art or literature as an object need not imply any kind of tacit approval.  There are plenty of historians who study Nazi Germany and that emphatically does not make those historians Nazis.  It is possible to study the racism and/or sexism of comics directly.

But eagle-eyed readers will notice the bracketed (faux) I placed before the word "objectivity" in that last paragraph.  I like Superman comics.  If I read them from a position of objectivity, that is a false position and I am being disingenuous.  I suspect that most academic readers of comics share this position with me.  I suspect that most scholars like what they read, at least on some level.  And if they don't, I think that is ... well ... sad.  And they should think about changing specializations.  Even historians who study atrocities often look for good in the responses to those atrocities, and it is usually not so much so that they redeem the historical period as so that they redeem the process of studying the historical period.

But academic readings do need a certain degree of, or a certain kind of objectivity.  A critical analysis is not a review, and within an academic context nobody cares very much whether I like Superman better than Batman.  But they might care what I think is happening within a given Superman comic, or how the character evolves or resists evolution over time.  There are multitudes of angles from which to approach comics that have little to do with race or gender, and they're valid.  So without arguing that the problems of representation don't matter, I can legitimately argue that they're not my point.

Which brings me back to readings for pleasure.  If the problematic elements aren't enough to keep you from enjoying a text--if you do enjoy reading problematic stuff--then I think what you need to do is acknowledge the problems, and articulate the positive.  This post over on the Social Justice League blog has a few good suggestions for how to approach fandom of problematic material.  The author suggests that fans must acknowledge the problematic elements without attempting to defend, excuse, or gloss-over those problems.  What I think is missing in her article, though, perhaps because she thought it went without saying, is that narratives are complex and the best ones are the most complex.  Which, if we rephrase it in subjective terms, means that the comics you think are the best are the ones you find complexity in.  Like a racist family member, you confront the text about its flaws but continue to love it despite them, maybe because of its virtues, and maybe just because of its familiarity.  When I say "articulate the positive" I don't mean argue that the positive outweighs the negative, so that you can argue someone else into liking what you like.  But I do mean learn to articulate what it is you like and why, even if the only one you're articulating that to is yourself.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Myth of Superman (no, not THAT "Myth of Superman")

The title of this post is a reference to an essay by Umberto Eco entitled "The Myth of Superman".  I write about Eco's essay here.

Like a psychoanalytic reading, a mythological or archetypal reading of a text is content-based.  And like psychoanalytic readings, mythological/archetypal readings are typically preoccupied with symbolism.  Rather than being concerned with psychology--with the workings of a mind--however, mythological readings are concerned with mass-psychology--with the collective imaginings of all people.  And though mythological/archetypal readings have in the past made a claim to account for all people, many critics now argue that archetypes are culturally bound, so when archetypal critics talk about "all people" they often really mean "all people who share our culture".  On the other hand, given the effects of globalization and the ease with which cultural/mythological/archetypal ideas spread,  there's a good case to be made that all cultures have interacted with all others to at least some degree.

In any case.  Mythological/archetypal readings are also reminiscent of some kinds of structuralist criticism, because both often appeal to archetypal narrative elements like "the hero".  In these terms, Superman seems particularly easy to read.  Superman is the hero.  He is an archetypal representative of masculine strength.
Clark Kent is both an archetypal representative of the hero's weakness and also of the Jungian "persona", emphasizing that the face we show to the world is not the same as our "self".
Definitely two different selves.

This, by the way, is the answer to the commenter on the Marxist post who pointed out that Superman's boss is only a cover, that Clark is not really allied with the proletariat because his "boss" has no real authority over him. That's definitely true.

On the other hand, part of the point of Superman is that the self is divided. Debates about whether Clark or Superman (or Bruce or Batman) is the "real" identity miss the mythological resonance that makes the secret identity such a compelling narrative archetype.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Like Marxist readings, psychoanalytic, or Freudian, readings are focused on interpreting and understanding the content of a story.  There are a number of different approaches to a psychoanalytic reading of a text, and I'm just going to begin one, but I'll also suggest a possible approach to some others.

We should begin by noting that in psychoanalytic readings we differentiate between the manifest content and the latent content.  In Freud's own terms, the mind is like an iceberg.  What we see is the manifest 10% -- the tip of the iceberg.  Everything that lies beneath the surface -- the 90% -- is latent.  So a psychoanalytic reading of literature takes for granted that the apparent meaning of a text is only the tip of the iceberg, and that literature contains much more content beneath the surface.

Nope. No latent psychological meaning here.
This approach, by the way, is one that frustrates students, because it implies that there is a "secret meaning" hidden in the text.  We shouldn't let that impression persist.  Even within psychoanalytic readings, the latent meaning is not a "coded" or "secret" meaning that the author and the critic both understand but have hidden from the reader.  Rather, it is subtext that comes from how the mind is understood to function.  The author is likely no more aware of it than the reader is, and the critic is not assumed to be correctly deciphering the real meaning of the text, but to be suggesting one possible interpretation.

The three clear ways to approach a psychoanalytic reading of a text are to 1) read to psychoanalyze the characters, 2) read to psychoanalyze the author, or 3) read to discover the latent meaning of the text and describe it in the language of psychoanalysis.

Forcing the Governor to Act Morally
In the case of Superman there are, as I said, a few good approaches.  Freud suggested that the mind was divided into the id, which operates on the pleasure principle, is basically pure desire, and seeks to achieve pleasure and avoid pain; the ego which is operates on the reality principle, is basically pure reason, and seeks to rationalize action; and the superego, which is basically the seat of morals, and seeks to make the person socially acceptable and therefore "good".  According to this model we can see that Superman is virtually always a manifestation of the superego, acting as a moral authority to impose good.  Superman's villains, who are usually criminals against property, are manifestations of the id's desire.  The Superman-superego stops the criminal-ids from acting on their desire because acting on that desire would be detrimental to society.

I'll put my cards on the table here and say that I usually don't put much stock in psychoanalytic theory myself, but plenty of people do and it's worth knowing what it is and how people approach it.