Sunday, March 05, 2006

I'm not actually calling Brian K. Vaughan sexist, read to the end

I am almost caught up to the present issue of Y: The Last Man. Kalinara just wrote about how people assume she would like the series and she is not interested in it. I have been pondering my attitudes toward Y for some time; they are decidedly mixed, and braided with my feminist outlook on comics and media in general. Bear with me while I wax intellectual.

This is not a simple issue of good versus bad portrayals of women. It is possible to argue that a work like Y is problematically sexist despite having widely recognized "good" portrayals, whatever that means. Nobody can agree on how they want their group to be represented. It's a fact of the politics of representation: there's no consensus on the images that "should" be presented, nor is there agreement on who should get to make the representations in the first place. It is agreed, however, that peoples' privileges are inescapable and influence their work. Brian K. Vaughan is a man, and despite ideological and artistic intentions, his male privilege (the unspoken benefits of being male, invisible to people who grow up as men in our society but highly visible to those who do not have them) makes it inherently biased.

My intention is not to roundly condemn Vaughan as sexist; that would be counterproductive and he does not deserve the label, at least in the conventional sense. However the issue of representation and privilege really bothers me in the case Y and the "unmanned" scenario. The idea of a society without men has long been a staple of feminist philosophy as well as speculative fiction. I'm going to bet you can't name any work that deals with this. Yet most readers of this blog know about Y; it has gotten huge attention within the comics community and from the media at large. Vaughan is always posting in his blog about the latest plug for his ongoing series (Ex Machina and Runaways too...but that's another essay entirely) in magazines like Jane or Entertainment Weekly. He is an excellent writer. It is a well put together series. The apparatus works. I read it. But it still makes me furious. A man gets media attention and fame for writing about a world without men. I know Pia Guerra is the co-creator and artist. But she does not get nearly as much attention for her work on the series as Vaughan does; maybe if she drew tits a little bigger she could get some work on Witchblade, but I'm not holding my damn breath.

Vaughan uses an old trick to diffuse this situation within the series itself; Yorick Brown, the man, actually talks to another character about how ironic it is that a man is still the center of attention even after the world is now entirely run by women. By acknowledging that a narrative situation is weird or improbable, it feels less so to the reader or viewer. It's something I've heard many times as a screenwriting student, and it doesn't work on me.

And yet, as furious as the series and the hype surrounding it makes me, I have more than once cried with emotion from reading it. It tells a really engaging story about characters that resonate with me, Yorick most of all. Catholicism is actually a very prominent theme in Y, and as a nice Catholic girl with social justice sensibilities, I can relate to the story of a nice Catholic boy with social justice sensibilities who just happens to be the last man on earth. The subject is treated seriously and with respect; what do you do as a Catholic when there are no priests left? Does your God cease to exist? Has the tie been severed? I feel like Vaughan and I would have a lot to say to each other about the idea of someone keeping their faith close to them even when it seems ludicrous to do so.

Yorick Brown is obnoxious and wonderful. He makes obsessive pop culture references and dreams that he is a science fiction hero, yet he is deeply troubled by committing violence. In an inversion of the fantasy-journey narrative of strapping hero, frail wizard, and naive princess, he is definitely the princess, while female companions are strapping and arcane, respectively. He is a male survivor of sexual assault and he believes in true love. He used to write Knight Rider fan fiction and described himself as having a punctuation fetish. He has been dismissed by some as a typical "lovable loser" character; but what does it mean to be a loser? What is the difference between a "loser" and a "real man"? This is Yorick's dilemma.

Ultimately, Vaughan is using the unmanned scenario to explore manhood and masculinity through a character who is decidedly not the American ideal superdude, who is a composite of anxious shortcomings thrust from being a guy to not just being a man but the man. And ultimately, it serves feminist purposes to reevaluate and reflect on the meaning of masculinity. It has been a tenet of transfeminism and gender activism in the last decade that gender roles are not only oppressive to women. And Y will certainly get read more widely and taken closer to heart than many gender treatises I can think of.

I retain my righteous anger that women should be the ones to write about what women would do if left to their own purposes in an unmanned world. There's definitely a part of that anger epoxied to my own frustrations as an unpublished woman writer. Call me jealous; I am. Some part of me hopes that a series like this will open the doors for women to write brilliant transgressive gender fantasies, be published by a DC or Marvel imprint, and get loads of wonderful shiny press. Another part hopes that this will be written by me.

I'll spare you any more details or confessions. It's time to go to bed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said everything about why I don't want to read Y.

That, and I like happy-fun super heroy stuff.

But I would be very curious at your take on The Bulleteer of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers series.


4:31 PM, March 05, 2006  
Blogger Ginger Mayerson said...

I retain my righteous anger that women should be the ones to write about what women would do if left to their own purposes in an unmanned world.

Well, Joanna Russ did, and pretty well, too.

"When it Changed"

Link if Blogger allows, otherwise you'll have to cut and paste.

10:28 PM, March 05, 2006  
Blogger David Cutler said...

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2:19 AM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger David Cutler said...

This is one of the central problems in my life. This is what I worry about. My name is David, I'm a twenty-something male, and for many years now I've identified myself as a feminist. What's more, a feminist cartoonist. In university I was always active in the civil/women's rights movements (the uni I went to was unbelievably conservative... I'm not exaggerating whatsoever when I say it was like the 60s never happened) but I always stuck to the background. My philosophy was, I was/am an ally. I am there for support, and I'll speak out when needed but for the most part I don't see a need to try and be a hero or something ridiculous like that. Masses really should liberate themselves and they don't need some loudmouthed liberal white dude doing it for them.

But when it comes to my art and writing, my cartooning, I can't help it. And it makes me nervous, because I'm aware of your concerns. Half of me totally understands and empathizes and even feels I should find other things for my work to explore--and I do, such as crisises in masculinity, issues of racial identification, politics, and whatever else concerns me. But the other half says I'm a feminist, too, dammit. I've read Russ (The Female Man being my favorite book) and I've also obsessed over Buffy the vampire slayer. I've seen friends go through shit I never have to experience by virtue of a penis and it really pisses me off and I should be allowed to write about it.

But, I see where you're coming from. And yeah, it's true, if I have even a shred of talent and let's say we both put out feminist superhero comics around the same time, it's almost certain that I'd get all the media, which is a guilt trip in itself. So... do you see the dilemma of the so-called male feminist? I angst about this all the time.

I had a similar conversation about two years ago with my mentor and English professor Dr. Sherryl Vint, who felt pretty much the same about Y as you do. For me, Y's problem echoed my own (on a much larger scale). Clearly there's at least something Y could do to help out the women that populate the world, but should he? Wouldn't they be better off helping themselves?

And to let you know how far-reaching this problem is, I just now, reading your blog, learned Pia Guerra is a woman. I was unfamiliar with the name and assumed her a man. Canadian, I knew. Woman, I did not. I kind of feel like an ass.

That said, I understand it's the particulars of a manless world written by a man being discussed here and not a jab at male feminists in general. I'm hoping the industry will get better for female creators and characters--there's certainly a lot more discussion of feminism and comic books than there was a few years ago.

In the mean time I intend to keep doing comics populated with strong female characters that will likely never be published and angsting about my role in it all.

I'm bookmarking your blog, by the by. Good stuff.

(I re-posted because I've been using my real name online but this one went back to my old 'superhero' nickname for some reason... hopefully this will work)

2:26 AM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger jeff said...

I enjoyed reading your ups and downs with Y, The Last Man. I also feel ambivalent toward it, for similar reasons. But then, that is also one of the interesting things about it--it's got some elements that I love and that are hard to find anywhere else (whatever one thinks of the feminism in Y, at least it's some sort of feminism in a comic), but it has stuff that just doesn't ring true or worse, is sort of offensive.

But I think that's why I continue to read each graphic novel as it comes out--because it's an interesting mix.

12:00 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Ferrous Buller said...

An interesting post. Some random comments based on my experience with Y:

First, I've ignored whatever hype and media attention Y has received: partly because I have no interest in such things, partly because I don't want it to bias how I read Y; same reason I don't read what Vaughan has to say outside of the comic itself. I'm of the "art should stand on its own merits, regardless of outside factors, including the creators' stated intent" school when it comes to evaluating things. It's like sequestering a jury: I avoid reading things I think might unduly influence my opinion of a comic.

Second, I've always seen Y as having a satirical / social commentary streak: as such, some of the characters & groups are painted in broad, sometimes caricatured strokes (e.g., the Amazons). Thus, I don't see such things as strictly literal, but rather symbolic exaggerations of particular ideologies. So his representations of certain groups are deliberately distorted and as such they bother me less than they would in a more "realistic" series.

[Though I'm also of the school of thought which says you shouldn't let your literary pretensions get in the way of telling a good story. If a character rings false, saying that you intended him or her to be "symbolic" is just a cop-out.]

Part of what makes Y so intriguing to me is it combines the quintessential male sex fantasy - namely being the only male available to every woman in sight - with a post-apocalyptic scenario: i.e., that humanity will die out without him. Within that framework, Vaughan plays with gender roles. Thus, Yorrick is both the central figure of the narrative and the "damsel in distress" in need of protection. He is the alpha male on the planet by virtue of being the only male on the planet, yet his importance comes from his phallus being reduced to its most basic biological role: reproduction.

In short, his real importance comes solely from his ability to make babies. Sound familiar? :-)

In many regards, Y is as much about exploring what it means to be a man, what makes one masculine, as it does with exploring a world populated only with women. As you say, Yorrick is not a conventional hero: I doubt he meets anybody's concept of "macho." "Lovable loser" is one way of putting it; "feckless, aimless, and unmotivated" is how he came across to me in the beginning. He starts as something of a directionless slacker, who is suddenly thrust into this bizarre scenario. If you'll pardon the metaphor, a large part of the story is about him growing a set of balls and taking charge of his own life, rather than just being swept along.

Yorrick's a nice guy - or at least he tries to be. He doesn't like hurting people or seeing them get hurt. He's trying to remain faithful to his fiance, even though he doesn't know if she's still alive, much less if he'll ever find her. And yes, he sometimes succumbs to his lusts and commits violence, but this does not make him an inherently violent or lustful person, IMHO. It's what makes him human.

"I retain my righteous anger that women should be the ones to write about what women would do if left to their own purposes in an unmanned world."

Isn't that needlessly limiting? Doesn't what male writers have to say on that contribute to the discussion of gender issues, by presenting their take on the premise? If you don't hear what men have to say, how can you correct us when we're wrong? :-) Likewise, I would want to hear what both male and female writers would say about a world with no women.

[Many many moons ago, I once attempted a short story with exactly that premise as a counterpoint to a short story we read about a world with no men. As I recall, my story sucked, but I was at least thinking about the concept. :-]

A part of me says that the author's gender is irrelevant - as is ethnicity and age and any other aspect of the author. All that matters is the content of the text itself. But another part of me realizes that, when discussing gender issues, the author's gender is relevant, because it shapes his or her life experiences and therefore his or her perspective on the matter.

But that can also bias the reader: e.g., a female reader may presume a male writer is less capable of depicting such a scenario than a female writer, and thus approach it with her own prejudices; likewise, a male reader may presume a female writer "just doesn't understand" men, and thus read her work with a different bias than he would a male writer. In both cases, these readers have already let their own presumptions influence how they read a work.

But that's enough random blathering for now. :-)

1:40 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Ken S. said...

Just as Schindler's List is not so much about Jews as it is about sympathetic gentiles, so to is Y more about being a feminist man than about women.

I do like it, but I think your criticism is fair.

4:25 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger JP said...

It's not an identical situation, but I do often feel there's something vaguely transgressive about the way white SF authors will throw an 'Indian' character into their novels to reflect some sort of multi-ethnicity, and maybe pave the way for discussions between the dance of Vishnu and quantum mechanics or some such stuff (examples: Contact by Carl Sagan, The Chrnonoliths by Robert Charles Wilson). Being Indian isn't a shortcut to exoticism and vedic philosophy - it's an entire lifelong identity you grapple with, to differing degrees much like gender.

But when someone gets it largely right, like Ian MacDonald in River Of Gods, I suppose my real issue is that if someone of another ethnicity must deal with Indians, they need to do their homework. WHen they do, I'm more flattered than anything else by the attention as it were. Although that in itself may be a pathetic reaction to the cliched way in which my ethnic group is usually depicted in western lit.

These are different issues from your own, but I thought they were releated enough that they may contribute to the thought process in some way, cheers.

6:02 AM, March 22, 2006  
Blogger Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

Some of these comments run close to the old arguments about whether William Styron had the right to tell the story of Nat Turner, or Charles Dickens the French Revolution, or...
I enjoy "Y" as a suspense/survivalist SF story without the gun fetishism or zombies. Myself, I feel caupachin monkies are underrepresented in fiction. I'm most involved with the story when Ampersand is in danger.
Writing is difficult enough. How about whoever has a nifty idea for a story gives it a try, and then we can argue about whether the artistic goal was achieved. When a writer fails -- Dashiell Hammett said that Hemingway never wrote an authentic female character, "just put them in his stories to admire him"-- is it because of the author's race, gender and socioeconomic status, or was it a failure of the artist's empathy and imagination?
Whatever the motivation, telling artists and writers they can only play in their own back yard strikes me as an attempt to censor the imagination...

7:58 PM, May 04, 2006  
Blogger Pia Guerra said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:23 AM, October 29, 2006  
Blogger Pia Guerra said...

Pia Guerra said...
I was directed to this blog a bit late and though it may not be noticed, here's my comment.

You say that it seems unfair that Brian gets more attention in the press than I do yet I've always seen the role of the artist in any comic is to make the writer look good. The fact that Brian is such a superstar right now only tells me that I've done my job well, heck better than well. I kicked ass as an artist on this book *beams proudly*. And that's not to take away from Tony and all the amazing artists who've also contributed to Brian's recognition for his fabulous writing.

Sure I wouldn't mind a little more spotlight now and then (and goodness knows I've gotten a lot already so I guess that makes me an egomaniac) but you have to remember too that writers can do more in a month than an artist can. I've only been able to work on this one book for the length of its run. Brian's done like a dozen titles! When Y is done there will be opportunities waiting that will only get me more notice. It's not as meteoric a rise, but going in the same direction really and I'm happy with it.

Also, I'm not just the artist on this book, I'm also the co-creator. Primarily I design everything, I make it look right but I also contribute to the storytelling from time to time. I make suggestions (like 'maybe 355 should have a baton', yes that baton), I offer research material, weird anecdotes and what ifs and whatever strange crap pops into my head at three in the morning. I'm going to take a guess that one of the issues you cried over was 'Safeword' right? Well guess which story arc wasn't in the original bible? Guess who came up with the idea? And now guess which writer was generous and open-minded enough to listen to those suggestions and use them just as he listens to all the other women (and men) in his life during the making of Y?

I take issue with the idea that men can't write women just as I would take issue with anyone saying women can't write men. When I got into this business I set out to be a 'comic book artist' and that's it, not a 'female comic book artist', I have no agenda save telling stories about people, and Brian has the same mandate. I wouldn't work with him if he didn't and believe me I would jump on him if anything he wrote came across as inauthentic.

This story was always about a guy trying to get to his girl, that's what hooked me first and foremost. And Brian didn't know I was a chick when he first saw my samples, he didn't even flinch when he learned I was a chick, he just wanted me to tell his story. For that I respect him immensely and would hope that others too (men and women) would leave their stereotypes about gender in storytelling in the past where it belongs.


4:27 AM, October 29, 2006  
Blogger TrĂªs said...

"women should be the ones to write about what women would do if left to their own purposes in an unmanned world."

you may have an awesomely articulate reasoning on everything else but this is just ridiculous.

So my fiction looses relevance if it's written from a fictional perspective? please.

In all these gender discussions of who should say what about whom people often forget that sometimes we're only writing about lost and misguided human beings. And in a world without men everyone would be liberated: men, women and everything in between. Men are not people in it's oppressive form, men are an entity. And when you free yourself from that, all that's left is a person. a boy, a girl, a whatever beating heart broken thing.

Y is awesome. Y is beautiful. Y is feminist.

11:43 PM, May 17, 2012  

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