Comics, Feminism, Sexism

Mighty Marvel Monday: A Paean to G. Willow Wilson

There is a flurry of speculation coming out about Captain America: Civil War, currently filming, and other upcoming projects, but today I want to take a step away from the MCU for a moment and focus on one of Marvel Comics’ superheroes: G. Willow Wilson.

A couple weeks ago this article by Jill Lepore was published on the New Yorker, and pretty much everyone I knew who knew anything about comics was annoyed by it, and after criticizing it, dismissed it and ignored it.

Last week, G. Willow Wilson responded on her blog, and by the time I finished reading I was suffering from a major case of heart eyes. It’s a brilliant, intelligent, thoughtfully crafted rebuke that has been reprinted in full on The Mary Sue and will, I hope, eventually make its way into more than one feminist comics scholar’s thesis.

In “Dr. Lepore’s Lament,” Wilson discusses how tropes function in a postmodern world where there are actually websites that exhaustively catalog their use across not only genres but media. (Who hasn’t lost hours on TV Tropes? Be honest.) Audiences have expectations due to the use (and overuse) of certain tropes, and at this point, creators have to be creative in order to surprise these well-trained trope-spotting audiences. They also create what, to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite literary theorists, can be thought of as “shorthand for situations.” That is to say, we, as an audience, have expectations for different tropes when they are presented to us in various genres (and across genres), and creators, when employing those tropes, have to anticipate those expectations in order to successfully subvert or unpack (Wilson’s phrasing) those tropes.

Both of those actions on the part of the creator (subverting and unpacking) are successful forms of genre, which Wilson says, in its ideal form, is (should be) “cliche turned on its head.” The really successful versions she lists, for all their differences in terms of genre and genre-expectation, successfully make their audiences think while also entertaining them: Gravity, The Walking Dead, and District 9. I would add Battlestar Galactica, In the Flesh, and Teen Wolf, for my part, since those shows, two of which are reboots from exceptionally cliched source material, teach us about human nature through their not-human protagonists. There are dissertations-worth of material in just this kind of analysis, and I’m not being hyperbolic. People have written dissertations about genre. It’s a big thing, in the world of literary and rhetorical theory.

And it’s due to my training in rhetoric and literary analysis that I noticed what made Wilson’s rebuttal to Lepore so effective. Argumentation has its own tropes, and what Wilson does so skillfully in her lament is what is known as “making the weaker argument the stronger.” This is a strategy that was popularized by the Sophists back in Ancient Greece and was criticized by people like Plato as a kind of party trick. The most famous example of this that you haven’t heard of is the “Encomium of Helen” by Gorgias, where Gorgias defends the seemingly indefensible Helen of Troy, who the Greeks didn’t particularly like because of that whole Trojan war thing. She-Hulk may seem an unlikely Helen of Troy, but the war being waged in (and over) comics sometimes feels as epic and pointless as the Trojan war, and our victories are similarly both huge and embarrassingly small.

Yes, Wilson says, my female superheroes may look like porn stars to you, an outsider (and pretty shitty historian, let’s be honest, since you couldn’t even be bothered to research comics beyond the level of gawker, but less the complex context that makes A-Force so significant), but allow me to tell you the ways in which these “porn stars” are, in fact, the result of hard-fought battles and feminist icons compared to their sisters, in ways that are both subversive and obvious (much like those tropes mentioned earlier).

The two points which, Wilson admits, are so minor that in most analyses they wouldn’t even be deemed worthy of notice. This helps her overall argument by showing her starting position to not only be weak, but the weakest of the weak.

The two criteria that Wilson singles out from the cover for analysis and unpacking, are as follows:

  1. their bodies are (mostly) covered (I counted three exceptions to the “fully” covered rule out of 25, four if you count the character whose entire “body” is apparently the cosmos)
  2. their bodies are posed in the style of male superheros (no candidates for Escher Girls or the Hawkeye Initiative here.)

That’s it.

But, if you know anything about comics and the way that women’s bodies are usually depicted in comics, that’s so much, and this is why this particular rhetorical move to make the “weaker” argument the stronger is so effective in this instance. It’s like the Bechdel Test in that it is stunning in its simplicity and yet so revealing about the portrayal of women in media, because it is reasonable to expect that any movie in which two women do not have a conversation about something other than a man has a particular attitude towards women.

If we were to apply these two criteria (1. Fully covered female bodies and 2. non-sexualized poses) to comic book covers, how many would pass? Not just historically–right now. That is not to say that all comics–including those that would fail the Wilson test–are bad comics or sexist in some way, but in actively working to pass the Wilson test, (and the Bechdel test, should a comics creator feel so inclined), one would hope that maybe some of the other issues (like fridging) would be addressed as well.

I titled this column “a paean on G. Willow Wilson,” which is another ancient lyrical form like lament, but one that is in thanks and praise. While Mighty Marvel Monday is a weekly news column and link round-up intended to serve the audience by sifting through plethora of “news” in this age of information inundation, it can also be more. It can, sometimes, when the news week is slow and Marvel is between movies, comic events, and other announcements, also take a moment to appreciate a single, shining, moment.

Thank you.

  1. Ginnis Tonik

    May 20, 2015 at 10:18 am

    sigh, Kate you are my academic soulmate 🙂

    1. Kate Tanski

      May 20, 2015 at 6:32 pm

      I love you too!

  2. Nyala

    May 20, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    I had a major case of heart-eyes after reading your piece! Thank you!

    1. Kate Tanski

      May 20, 2015 at 6:33 pm

      Heart-eyes for G. Willow Wilson, I presume!

      (As everyone should…)

      Thank you!

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