Last Tuesday, in what was perhaps the most impassioned and content-driven conversations of our class thus far, we discussed the implications of a feminist reading of Watchmen and its characters. Our discussion was civil and lively, with many students engaging the text critically in way that had been somewhat lacking up to that point. It was a fruitful discussion that seemed to open the door for further discussion by breaking away from the perception of the novel as some untouchable masterpiece, instead revealing it to be a work with flaws just like any piece of human creation.
But just as our discussion brought more of our class into conversation with the comic, similar discussions across the medium and across other mediums traditionally associated with “nerd culture” have been met with hostility and derision from certain corners of the established fan-bases for these forms. It is undeniable that these subcultures, formerly dominated by white males, have received an influx of women, people of color, and sexual minorities over last several years as the internet, Hollywood movies, and big video games have exposed more and more people to these formerly cult interests. More and more people have come to understand the appeal of comics, gaming, midnight movies, and other geek-pleasures. But as these new participants learned as they experienced this new world, most of these genres took little to no interest in realistic and positive portrayals of their lives and experiences, often reducing them to functions of plot, sexual objects, token members of the group, or any number of other roles, some empty and generally innocuous, but some actively disparaging and sexist/racist/homophobic etc.
And so many of these new members of the culture set out to try to improve their depictions, some by writing or otherwise creating their own art, and others by engaging in conversations about the works much like we did. To most, this is an obvious and constructive process for any medium hoping to improve and become a part of more people’s lives. But the backlash to this movement has often been swift and vicious. Just recently, (presumably) male video game fans instigated a large scale assault over the internet towards female game developer Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian in #Gamergate, which exposed a huge undercurrent of violent sexism in certain online circles. In addition, there have been a series of public outcries over the announcements of a new Hispanic Spiderman and a female Thor, among countless smaller examples on the internet which show how deep these issues run.
I should be careful here to indicate that I of course do not mean to insinuate that any male fan of comics or gaming is sexist or racist, as that is obviously untrue. But it is fairly undeniable that these issues exist and are persistent in the community. Ultimately, if the culture surrounding these mediums is to evolve, we need more conversations like the one our class held, and we need to make clear that a feminist critique is not meant to disqualify an entire work. People who want to see more stories about female characters don’t think we shouldn’t have stories about males. A person can admit that Laurie’s portrayal in Watchmen is deeply flawed and that the text has issues with women while also loving it and being dazzled by its artistry and floored by its complexities. If we all allow for more discussion, and the validation of more viewpoints, comics will be all the richer for it.