Pop culture’s got 99 problems but Kevin Wada’s X-Men cover ain’t one

Feminist Media Criticism Problems

While was perusing the web mindlessly due to the weird vampire hours my journalism job sometimes requires, I came across the art of Alyssa Korea. She’s an art student who does a comic strip for The Daily Texan in Austin, TX. As I was admiring the work on her blog work I came across a post that really captured my caffeine fueled interest:

Tumbling over the past year and a half has made me see the problems of gender roles that exist in media, but sometimes it gets to the point where I over analyze every single piece of television or film that I come across. (However this in no way means that I think feminist media criticism is wrong, or should be avoided!) Mostly I just over think everything.

I feel like that’s a problem that thoughtful consumers of media of both genders run into. It reminded me of this one time I held the door open for a women while I was still in college. She refused to walk through the open door and told me the act of holding the door open for her was insulting because I was projecting a male sense of entitlement and superiority over her. I looked at her quizzically and told her I would have opened the door for her regardless of age, race, gender or species. It’s just the polite thing to do. In hindsight the issue wasn’t one of gender inequality but of a lack of communication. We were approaching the situation from completely different world views and personal histories.

Maybe some guy did open the door for her in a really patronizing way once, twice, or all her life. Maybe she was just having a crummy day at work. Maybe she gets her kicks inciting door related standoffs in public buildings with strangers. I don’t pretend to know her story. For her part, she couldn’t have known that my mom would yell at me while growing up for not holding doors for people because I was a rude little kid.

I feel like if we had taken the time to talk it over and not be so curt with one another she would have walked through the door I was holding open for her. Instead we stood silently while I held the door open, each one of us waiting for the other to go in first. The stalemate ended when I got tired of waiting for her to enter the room and crossed the threshold first without holding the door open behind me, lest I incite her further.

I feel like that’s why I spend so much time reading reviews on media I enjoy and having critical discussions about pop culture with friends with different points of view. Over analyzing media with other writers, collaborators and friends keeps that line of communication open and often helps me appreciate a creative work I thought I had all figured out from an interesting new perspective.

X-Men #1 | Kevin Wada

For example, artist Kevin Wada has made headlines for the past few weeks with the his varient cover for Marvel’s relaunch of X-Men.

“I had to put Storm front and center. Her, Psylocke and Rogue as older members of the crew, were put in more cusp late 1910s/early 1920s looks while the younger kiddies were put in more explicitly 20s dresses,” wrote Wada on his blog after the cover when live.

His varient cover for the first issue and the story in the guts of the book by Brian Wood, have gotten so much praise because it features the first and only all female X-Men team.

For instance, the A.V. Club’s Oliver Sava applauded Wood for not trying to create a contrived reason for an all female team of X-Men.

“They’re all X-Men at all times, and it just so happens that there are a lot of women on the Jean Grey Institute campus,” writes Sava in his review of the issue.

Both Wood and Wada have made a name for themselves by breaking out of the long-established, and frankly quite embarrassing, comic book tropes endemic to Marvel and DC titles that sites like The Hawkeye Initiative satire.

Now off the top of my head I can think of only one other current mainstream superhero title that has an all female cast: DC’s Birds of Prey. The fact that the industry’s two major publishers really only have two flagship books with an all female roster is kind of ridiculous when you think about it. And yes while there are solo titles focused on individual female characters, they often are still plagued by this.

I feel that some of the praise for Wada and Wood’s X-Men comes from people who think a comic with strong female leads that isn’t sexist and popular with readers is as elusive as capturing lightning in a bottle while blindfolded. In reality it isn’t. Readers who go off the beaten path just a little bit will find comics that consistently nail telling stories about strong female characters that haven’t gotten the same kind media coverage that Marvel & DC enjoy.

One example is the creator owned web comic Delilah Dirk & the Turkish Lieutenant. It’s an adventure comic reminiscent of the penny dreadful and adventure serials of the late 19th century. Another is the Amelia Cole series released by indie publisher Monkey Brain comics. Amelia Cole is one of my favorite current titles right now because it is the spiritual successor to both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Harry Potter novels.

These two titles move past what the major publishers think readers want and commits to their stories without trying to pander to their audience. Both titles feature strong, interesting characters that coincidentally are women. Moreover they look, act and sound like women whom you might encounter in the real world. A welcome change from the portrayal of female comic characters that are hypersexualized, Escher like objects to be leered at.

This is part of a larger problem in mainstream video games, movies, comic books, television shows, etc. Many creators have become incredibly averse to producing something that might scare away their perceived audience. That’s one of the reasons generic summer tentpole films, unoriginal first person shooters and Chuck Lorresque television shows have over-saturated their respective markets. That logic is why I think both DC and Marvel are taking so long to evolve past the fanboy pleasing habit of objectifying women.

But the creators putting out this derivative work and the publishers, studios and networks funding their visions are just a symptom. This work exists because it sells. The disease that needs treating is with the audience.

Or put more eloquently, “The fault…is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

That’s why I think taking part in critical discussions about media and fostering an open discussion about topics like sexism in comics among my peers is the best way to move past this collective creative rut. We should all be over thinking pop culture because those conversations and the decisions that come out of them lead to great creative work that’s both innovative and progressive. Ω

Notes from the peanut gallery.

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