Comic Book Gender Studies Course Goes Global

Professor Christy Blanch of Ball State University in the US is launching an online course, open to the public and free of charge, in gender studies and comic books.

The course description involves an examination of “how comic books can be used to explore questions of gender identity, stereotypes, and roles”.

I, sadly, may not have an opportunity to take part in this: I have a full-time job, another time consuming writing gig, plus various other projects – and live lectures may not fit the buttoned down timeframe in which I now live if they’re coming from Indiana.

What I can say, however, is that this was drawn to my attention through Mark Waid (read his pitch at one of the leading lights in redefining comics for access to the public and trying to open the doors of an increasingly insular medium. He’s also going to be lectured for this thing along with Gail Simone, Brian K. Vaughan, Scott Snyder, Terry Moore and others.

If you know comics, I don’t need to describe to you these people and their work. They’re the very best. Additionally, thanks to the 21st Century (re,re,re,re,re,re) and the magic of social media I’ve had the opportunity to interact in a minor way with some of them and can tell you they’re as informed, articulate and warm as their work is brilliant. One of the first things I ever did in taking a more active role in social media was ask Gail Simone a question that I had been wondering about for years (in addition to Jen Van Meter and others) involving their use, as women writing superhero comics, of feminist theories of conflict resolution.

I didn’t notice it until I could draw the parallels, but ethic of care rather than ethic of justice principles seemed to guide Gail’s heroes in a close reading. They seemed to operate on a relational axis, motivated by understanding and individual moral choices. I think, often, that superheroes generally expound moral values by (literally) beating down those who hold opposing values. Adversarial system, all the way, making your arguments by defeating and beating down the other arguments. Whereas Gail’s heroes seem to concentrate less on the destruction of evil, and more on the promotion of individual personal good.

It’s certainly valid to say on paper that say, Superman inspires individual reformation, but in terms of show not tell we mainly see him taking down bad folks, or inspiring people secondhand (e.g. by his example), rather than by an active application of ethic of care principles.

Some casual examples:

  • Ryan Choi, the Atom, for example, aids a semi-supervillain with Alzheimers, lets Alien Invaders live in his apartment, despite frequent cries of “Death or Submission”; and, most importantly, defends Giganta, continues to date her, and gets her to skew towards going straight.
  • Wonder Woman comforts a weeping Captain Nazi, names her nameless traitorous enemy on their epic quest, redeems assailant gorillas into her closest allies, and well, in a hundred other ways demonstrates ethic of care principles. Indeed, Wonder Woman often articulates them.
  • Batgirl encounters a teenage car thief named Ricky, and after he’s severely injured in an arrest becomes a mentor/confidante/friend/possible romantic link. There’s none of Batman’s harsh remonstrances with Catwoman for engaging in a life of crime, but instead a tender study in relational ethics.

In noting this pattern, I couldn’t help but realise how neatly it mapped to Carol Gilligan’s “In A Different Voice” and the dispute resolution work of Carrie Menkel-Meadow. The meat of that theory is that women have a fundamentally different approach to conflict resolution than men, based not on a hierarchy of values, but on relational ethics.

Once I’d thought about that, I wanted to find out whether or not Gail had considered it, and whether or not other female comic book writers I knew were consciously or subconsciously operating in accordance with it’s terms. So I asked, and they answered me.

The ideas, which deal with gender essentialism, are pretty divisive. Given that the internet is “tone neutral”, it can often give rise to misunderstandings, particularly when you’re being digitally solicited by some random stranger. But not only did they take the time to answer me fully in a medium not really designed for long form responses, I could genuinely sense they cared about the question. (FYI, for those who did answer me, the answer appeared to be yes, it was both a conscious choice, and a reflection of subconscious inclinations in that direction anyway).

These were short conversations, but I still felt like I gained a real insight. I can’t imagine the value of a proper live-interview course to that effect. I urge you, if you’ve got any interest in this area, at least consider signing up. I still might try and find the time to do it, and if I don’t, I’ll be very envious of those who did.

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