As I grew up, I did not consider myself a girly girl. I did not like dolls, nor ever have the desire to own a baby doll for playing house. For lack of a better term, I was a tomboy from my peers I learned girliness meant weakness and stupidity (usually a mask, but always worn), and I wanted to be strong, smart, and respected, like boys. My independence expressed itself through the rejection of all the trappings of girlishness, from batting eyelashes to frilly clothes to makeup.Of course, I grew up and discovered that girliness did not necessarily equal weakness. Ironically, once I began attending Bryn Mawr, a women’s college full of feminists who commonly went to classes in their pajamas, I began doing my nails (though always in unnatural colors), experimenting with hair ornamentation, and investigating the satisfaction of a swirly skirt.

Once I hit the workplace, the expressions of femininity multiplied – for better or worse, this is what is expected of me as a professional. Pajamas are not acceptable attire, and neither are jeans. I began to actually wear makeup. I pride myself on maintaining my own personal style — patterns are anathema to me, and no prim blouses with foofy collars are hiding in my closet — but I am definitely more comfortable with my stereotypically feminine side.

Now, all of this is leading up to comics (really!). I’m just going about it in a roundabout way.

Lately I’ve been pondering the stereotypes that surround men and women, and which are based in truth and which are just long-held notions in need of revision. One stereotype about girls is in how we play — we like a story, we like puzzles, and we like identifying with the story. In terms of computer games, I remember a flurry of discussion when Myst first arrived — it was a “girl’s” game, with no shooting, no violence — heck, there weren’t even people in the game except for cryptic recordings. The game was solving puzzles, not racking up points, and there was a story to be discovered along the way. I’d never understood why the computer guys I knew spent hours playing Doom, but I played Myst into the wee hours of the morning.

In terms of stories we get, in film, TV, books, and comics, there is the understanding that girls like character development, complicated plots, and a focus on emotions. Thus, we get great piles of “chick flicks” and romantic comedies that supposedly give us what we want.

A friend of mine recently expressed his disdain for romantic comedies, and asked what the appeal was. After considering it for a while, I responded that we ladies can’t help but want a few fairytales in our grown up lives. We know it’s all make believe, but we want to see the lady fair and the knight in shining armor get together in the end. We’re taught from an early age to want to be the princess, and even I, in all my protestations of discarding girlishness, succumb to that dream for a little while.

Then it occurred to me just why my friend might not see the story the same way — what boys are taught to want to be the prince? Not the boy’s version of a prince, fighting battles and slaying dragons, but the girl’s version, the elegant, pretty young man who kneels before his lady love and spouts poetry. Not too many.

There are typically “male” genres that I don’t particularly care for — gory, slasher horror and brainless action tales, to name a few. I find that I’m bored at action movies that are nothing but one long chase scene (see the Terminator movies.) At the same time, I am as entertained as the next guy by Indiana Jones, James Bond, or serial killer movies. Then there are those genres I’m not the main audience for, including most science fiction and smart action movies, which I adore. Give me Blade Runner or The Hunt for Red October any day.

So yes, I admit it, I like girly movies like Two Weeks Notice, but I also hate movies that ignore all common sense or character truth for the sake of romance (see Kate and Leopold). I want people to fall in love because they would and should, not because it’s convenient for the plot. In the same way, I hate action or sci-fi movies that have things explode just so they can squeeze in one more special effect rather than because the story needs a dramatic moment.

Story itself seems to be lost in so much of modern storytelling — now it’s too much about rote plot arcs and special effects. It’s also too much about what “we” (whether that’s women or men or teens or kids) are supposed to want according to these industries’ statistics and test audiences. I’m sure men feel just as trapped as women do, though, because of the trends in our history, men get a better deal as they’ve always been the storytellers while women are only just now breaking into the creators’ realm.

I get disappointed over and over again by comics that are supposedly something I want to read. I get bitter when I realize the few female characters I’ve really embraced over time are still written and drawn by men: Buffy from Joss Whedon’s universe, Tara Chace from Queen & Country, Oracle from the Batverse. I’d just like to see not only more female writers, but female artists who don’t have to stick to the pin-up code, and female editors who might bring a different spin to a series. I’d love to see more women designing those costumes. Where are the superhero titles that are actually what a girl wants to read? What she needs to read? Where are the role models who aren’t in skimpy outfits?

The few examples I can think of come from independent presses — I know whole crowds of girls and women who have embraced the Hopeless-Savage family from Oni Press’ Hopeless-Savages books, particularly daughters Zero and Arsenal, as beloved new female characters with smarts and sass. Oni can also claim Courtney Crumrin, and Tara Chace. Joss Whedon’s Fray featured an amazing heroine who was instructed by her writer not to be busty — thus, she looked almost normal — and I loved her both for that and her fierce strength. I know there are more women creators out there, but where are they in the mainstream comic world? Is there any awareness of the female audience? It sure doesn’t seem like it from where I sit.

Of course, the buzz and the news lately has been all about how manga has become the hot item for female comics readers. It’s getting girls into comics (of course, we’ve been around for years and years, but the industry didn’t seem to really notice us before.)

Girls have become a market to pursue. Except that no one’s pursuing us here in the States.

My favorite superhero world is Gotham, full of seething emotions and darkness that no one wants to dig to deeply into — and believe me, I enjoy Birds of Prey. I do, however, get angry when I pick up a Birds of Prey title and am faced with good characters, plot, and dialogue, but artwork and pinup poses that make it clear the intended audience is still teenage boys and men, not girls or women. I get angrier when I realize I’m not supposed to make a fuss.

In a conversation with a fellow manga fan, I showed him the first few pages of a new Revolutionary Girl Utena book that featured an essentially naked pretty boy (with convenient drapery). He looked and yelped out, “Ah! I don’t want to see that!” I chuckled and agreed that’s how you can tell it’s a girl’s comic, or shojo manga.

Later that night I found myself mulling over his reaction — he’s a swell guy, and cannot be targeted for his reaction — but it made me realize one important fact — we women are treated with scenes of scantily clad, sensually posed women all the time in comics aimed at boys, and we are expected to want to see it. At least, we’re expected to put up with it. And we do.

But boys, oh no, boys are not supposed to have to see male characters like that. Except in Japanese manga. Even then, I know Western boys and men are unlikely to admit if they read Utena. I also hear a lot of jokes that dismiss the traditional “girl” manga — snickers about schoolgirls and magic — which in and of itself shows just what the men in the business, and in the fanbase, think traditional shojo manga is worth.

The thing about manga, I finally realized, is that the Japanese output in general still seems to concentrate on those stereotypically girly plot elements: emotion, character development, and complicated plots. Also, news flash: many of the shojo comics are actually written by women. So, yes, these comics are for girls. Women and girls are embracing these titles en masse. On top of that, we’re buying up manga in droves — making that industry a good pile of money. Just recently, the few yaoi manga titles (romances about two men falling in love written by women and for women) available rocketed up into the top 10 manga sellers on Amazon.com.

Even when the title is a boys’ comic, or shonen manga, like Naruto, there’s a concentration on emotional consequences. It’s difficult to find such worry over everyone’s feelings in Western action comics.

And that’s a great pity. If the Western industry would wake up now, please, and realize that the female market is worth creating for I would first, faint away in shock, and second, be very very happy. I love superhero stories. I love the artwork that the West creates. I love the ideas we play with. I want it to have more character development, more plot, and more women who are not so obviously for the boys. Is that too much to ask?

Otherwise, I will keep in the pattern I’m falling into now — reading more manga than anything else, and being sad that I’m apparently not important enough to listen to in the comics industry.

  • Robin B.

    | She/Her Teen Librarian, Public Library of Brookline

    Editor in Chief

    Robin E. Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. She has chaired the American Library Association Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection List Committee, the Margaret A. Edwards Award Committee, and served on the Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She is currently the President of the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table for ALA. She was a judge for the 2007 Eisner awards, helped judge the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards in 2011, and contributes to the Good Comics for Kids blog at School Library Journal. She regularly gives lectures and workshops on graphic novels, manga, and anime at comics conventions including New York and San Diego Comic-Con and at the American Library Association’s conferences. Her guide, Understanding Manga and Anime (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), was nominated for a 2008 Eisner Award.

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