Diamonds in the Rough: Our Problematic Faves, Who Coincidentally, Are Women
WOMEN. We hate’em. Well, a lot of people hate’em. Us. Hate us.
Okay, we don’t hate women. We are women. We love women! We love woman characters … whom other people hate. And we’ll defend them. Okay? Just listen.
Arcee has, frankly, had a long path to be worth defending in the IDW Transformers comics. Initially introduced by Simon Furman, who—based on his back catalog—hates writing transformers with gender (e.g. female ones), she was essentially force feminized by a Cybertronian scientist looking to experiment in their race’s CNA. Yes, these robots apparently have a DNA equivalent. No, it hasn’t been brought up in universe since.
Mercifully, we barely get references to that story and never the specifics, just that she tortured the guy who experimented on her and that female Transformers used to be a rarity ’til cooler heads prevailed in the writing department. No, Arcee wasn’t a great character until she was written in the Robots in Disguise/The Transformers ongoing, where she got to be an independent killer who did what she wanted, whose goals ostensibly lined up with the schemer Prowl. We rarely saw her agonizing about her morality, typically seeing her be extremely competent in combat and successful in her goals. Like, about as successful as male characters.
Frankly this was fun and refreshing for the people who did like her—hyperviolence is typically reserved for men, and women are usually sexualized when they’re allowed to partake. Arcee is extremely hard to sexualize in her blatantly robotic character design as illustrated by Andrew Griffith and company, so instead the few people who enjoyed Arcee got to appreciate her enjoying her work. Honestly, it seems like people disliked her more for being a cipher than for her being a successful female character, but her role is why I love her to death. She’s weird, she terrifies men (both readers and other characters), she does stuff because she feels like it, and God Damn does she do it well.
Oh Dawn, the much maligned Summers sister who suffers a chorus of “Shut up, Dawn!” every year at Dragon Con during performances of the Buffy Horror Picture Show. Why is that though?
Most people are quick to label Dawn as “annoying,” and yeah, for a lot of her initial appearances in season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she is. However, remember the fact that Dawn is also a fourteen-year-old girl at that point and isn’t even eighteen yet by the time the series is over. Let thee who was not obnoxious at that age cast the first stone.
However, have you really looked at all the things that happen to Dawn? In the space of a year, Dawn loses her mother, finds out she’s a construct that opens portals to alternate dimensions that was made into Buffy’s sister so she could be protected from a prissy Hell Goddess sharing a body with a med student, loses said sister, gains sister back only to have Buffy suffer from serious depression, gets kidnapped by a singing and dancing demon who wants to make her his child bride, has strained contact with the closest thing she has to a mother figure at this point in Tara because Willow can’t stop abusing dark magic, has to kill the first boy she ever kissed because he tries to turn her into a vampire, isn’t informed when her sister is shot by Warren, and is the first one besides Willow to find Tara’s dead body. Can you blame this girl for not wanting to be left alone and stealing things? Dawn Summers should be getting all the sympathy in the world and, frankly, better goddamn guardians, but instead, people still greet her with “Ugh. SO annoying. Shut up, Dawn!”
I wouldn’t blame Dawn for spiraling into her own depression or mental break after all of this, but she still comes out on top at the end. Dawn grows into her own person, becoming something of a watcher to all the potential slayers in season seven. She even reacts to the news of not being a potential slayer herself by giving her the weapons and encouragement she needs in that moment. The most badass moment of Dawn’s character arc though? When she looks her former friend Spike in the face and threatens to set him on fire while he’s sleeping after he attempted to rape Buffy. Forget fighting Ubervamps in the Last Battle of Sunnydale; THAT’S the moment Dawn really showed how far she’d come to me.
Yes, Dawn had her obnoxious little sister moments in her first season, but under all of that, she’s a character who suffered and survived so much and came out the other side with grace and strength. Dawn Summers survived figurative and literal Hells and deserves a better take than “Shut up, Dawn!”
It’s tough for me to narrow in and pick a character routinely vilified or dismissed as being problematic, because no matter how benign they are, there’s bound to be a vociferous lobby against them. You look at Sharon Carter, who is not a particularly exciting or toothsome character in the Marvel movies, but boy howdy does she get a nasty response from people. Why? Probably because there’s a lot of folks out there who refuse to compartmentalize their shipping goggles and take it out on any potential female love interest who gets in the way. There’s a panoply of absurd and harmful reasons that female characters draw the criticism that they do, so the dilemma boils down to what particular poisoned fruit you want to pick from the tree.
I kept coming back to Emma Frost of the X-Men while pondering this because more often than not, the bone of contention with any fictional woman is denying them the validity of their choices. What do we love to hate more than anything? A woman whose choices we don’t respect, and that extends to a “we” that encompasses all genders and perspectives. Folks love to tear the likes of Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter down under the guise of progressiveness in ways that are at least as shockingly violent and misogynistic as anything said by people with conservative views about other women. Emma Frost is a woman who is just bludgeoned beyond all belief, because she is fictional and embodies so many of the choices that are deemed fair game, and nowhere has that been put in a starker light than in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. Fresh off the Morrison run that saw her the only survivor of the genocide in Genosha and join the X-Men, Whedon began assailing her choices, as many of them as possible, with unrelenting fury.
Wolverine sat at the foot of her bed and lashed out at her for sleeping with Scott, using Jean Grey’s death as a wedge. Kitty Pryde heckled her repeatedly for how she dressed, for teaching ethics, for breathing probably. These weren’t opportunities for a discourse any more than Tina Fey’s litany of abuse towards Kim Kardashian for being “engineered by the Soviets to distract our athletes,” and it’s fundamentally the same logic in play, made worse by the undercurrent that she might just be a villainous infiltrator.
All the ways Emma Frost is attacked in these issues, and most anywhere really, are the most popular and accepted ways to attack women in the public eye. For dressing like that, posing like that, sleeping with that person, for getting work done, and wearing make up. Granted, Emma is fictional, and so being a woman written and drawn almost exclusively by men, she can only ever really be a pale reflection of the full complexity of women, like Kardashian or Amber Rose who live in the glare of the public eye.
[pullquote]The sum total was that from then on more than ever, Emma Frost reflected the widely held cultural view that normative femininity is an artifice at best and outright deceit at worst.[/pullquote]To wit, Emma Frost achieved a kind of apotheosis of self-determined femininity under Morrison when it was codified once and for all that she speaks in received pronunciation, affecting an English accent on top of bleaching her hair blonde, wearing contacts, and undergoing cosmetic surgery up to and including breast implants. Giving her the ability to turn her skin to diamond was perhaps gilding the lily, but X-Men comics are not known for their subtlety. The sum total was that from then on more than ever, Emma Frost reflected the widely held cultural view that normative femininity is an artifice at best and outright deceit at worst.
But if Emma Frost is a whipping girl continuously put in bad faith positions to tear down women who make similar choices, then why defend her? Why invest in her? Because I’m what’s seen as the next nearest equivalent, a trans woman. It was actress and model Hari Nef who put it into terms I understood for the first time, musing that, as trans women, we’re seen as being particularly misogynist, because we have the most choice in what kind of a woman to be. The long harbored fantasy about us is that we’re somehow tabula rasa, choosing how to be out of catalogues like mannequins, and so, being seen as having so much more choice, we’re subjected to that much more scrutiny for every choice we make. The truth is that, we have no more or less ability to conceive of or craft a self image than any cisgender woman, and we certainly have far less of an ability to affect how that image is interpreted. So when I see all the ways that Emma is scrutinized and attacked, I see every accusation and micro-aggression hurled my way refracted through her. I love Emma Frost because she’s every lie you tell about me.
Death Note‘s Misa is hopelessly devoted to Light Yagami, a cold-blooded teenaged murder god. Hopelessly. Absolutely. She opens her eyes up wide, gazes upon his impassive face, and walks right into a deal with a devil for her life—twice. Halving her lifespan to help her boyfriend not go down for magical murder, and then halving what she had left for the same reason again—Misa is Harley Quinn without the boisterousness, a manic pixie cast-off. Light doesn’t much care that she’s alive, but Misa’s such a romantic that she subjects herself to torture and the removal of her memories, all in the name of protecting her beau. She believes in him, and in his mission. She’s cute, small, blonde, compliant, a virgin-whore hybrid for the modern otaku patriarchy. And … I super love her.
It’s the separation of situation from evocation—I don’t love that Misa is eternally the peaches’n’whipped cream in a story about power struggles between boys and men. I do love her attitude and her devotion to her passions. She is determined to be cute because it’s fun; I dig that. She is in LOVE and that MATTERS and TO HELL WITH THE WORLD ANYWAY, and I dig that too. She’s misguided, yeah, and that’s essentially hidden and validated by the narrative of Death Note and the masculine narratives we call history and tradition; she’s a plot device and eye candy more importantly than she’s a person in this story. But Misa has feelings and motivations and a value system even if they’re framed as pretty silly instead of as comparably monstrous, intellectual, or productive as Light, L, or almost anyone else’s, and most importantly of all I can relate to her. I’m not going to be like, “Hey, this character was used so well, she’s a great showing for women in comics!” I am going to say that I would be her friend, I like her style, and I kind of wish she’d been the main character. It’d be a different manga, yah, but Death Note wasn’t really Death Note, after not too long, anyway.
Gundam Wing’s Relena Peacecraft had the bad luck to be written into a series practically designed for slash shipping and has gotten unjust hate ever since she stood near the ocean and screamed out, “HEEERO!” And perhaps what you remember most about Relena is her undeniable attraction to Heero Yuy, culminating in her daring him to kill her. But there’s so much more to this student-turned-Queen-turned-politico, and Liam and Kat are going to explain why you should learn to love her.
Kat: Toonami’s run of Gundam Wing wasn’t my first introduction to anime, but it was the first time I was compelled to dip my toe into online fandom. I was hooked, and as a baby queer, I immediately embraced the yaoi side of the shipping wars. Unfortunately, that meant also being exposed to an intensely misogynist view of Relena, the show’s canonical love interest for Heero Yuy, Gundam pilot 01. She was whiny, useless, standing in the way of Duo and Heero’s true love, etc. I don’t know that I was ever a full-on Relena-basher, but I didn’t spend a lot of time analysing it. (How’d you first meet Relena?)
Liam: Toonami was also my way into Relena and the Gundam metaverse. I was a teen who knew they liked daring action with colorful characters mainly thanks to Batman: The Animated Series, but I didn’t know how much I loved Those Giant Robots. And New Mobile Report Gundam Wing had A LOT of them. Heero stole my heart with his spandex short-shorts, his promise to kill everyone, and of course “The Wings of a Boy That Killed Adolescence.” Conversely, Relena was the anti-Giant Robot. Whenever she was onscreen, it meant less explosions and fighting and dramatic lever pulls. “Why did she keep inserting herself between Heero’s gangly, genetically-modified body and his true, beautiful, Gundanium-alloy one?” I asked myself. Consideration of her character was an afterthought: I was a hater.
Kat: In college, I got my hands on a DVD set of Gundam Wing, my one true Gundam show, and set-up a rewatch with other nostalgic friends. And I realized that Relena Peacecraft is actually kind of a badass—her whole world and her understanding of it is upended multiple times, she loses her father, she’s kidnapped and used as a political pawn. But she doesn’t let that erode her ideals. While Heero treats her as being a naive child initially, she’s one of the few characters on the show that has political philosophies that make sense; she knows the war the pilots are fighting will be ultimately futile. Plus, she risks it all to shoot Lady Une after being unwittingly used in a plot to blow up some guys, which is heroic in a way that gets underappreciated in a series with giant robots. I think Liam’s right about Relena being the anti-Giant Robot, but the show uses that to its advantage. I just didn’t quite get it at the time.
Liam: That’s exactly it! I rewatched the entire Gundam pantheon during college, as a Real Adult capable of Real Thoughts, and Relena was undeniably rad. I shared her frustrations viscerally. Wing’s scenario is actually rock-solid? Earth and the space colonies war endlessly, but rogue engineers create the omnipotent Gundams to intervene and say “FUCK YOU” to the entire conflict. This is taken advantage of by OZ upstart Treize as he tricks Heero into inciting a unified war against the superior threat posed by the Gundams. You get it all laid out in the snappiest first episode of any Gundam series … but the execution isn’t really there for the rest. The crux of Wing’s plot is everyone acting like naive children in war. The one outlier? Relena. She constantly berates Heero and Zechs for their whiny “destined” battles, even going so far as to fly her space shuttle between Zechs’ beam saber during the pilots’ first clash. Different Gundam series invoke pseudo philosophical arguments to justify battles, sure, but the mileage varies! In Wing, all of it is garbage. When Treize says shit like “the human race would’ve died out years ago if we didn’t have wars” (?????), Relena fearlessly throws herself in harm’s way to prove how pointless and stupid the conflict is.
Kat: Relena is actually the voice of reason for the series, and she manages to set herself up to continue to do good works as a politician even after the giant robot fighting appears to be over. She has a sense of purpose that isn’t entirely centered around war.
Liam: Kat’s right. Even if Relena stops the robots from punching each other, let’s be honest, 90% of it is just recycled animation. She’s a Boss Bitch. I love her because her ideals are the lens through which I judge whether each Gundam series actually condemns war. While Wing barely elevates itself above soap opera, Relena puts the real back in Real Robot.
—Kat Overland and Liam Conlon
Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch
I didn’t realize how many people hated the Scarlet Witch until I first cosplayed her a few years ago when I was greeted all day by shouts of “killed any mutants today?” and “don’t go crazy.” I started to realize that many people only knew Wanda Maximoff as she’s existed in Avengers (mostly) comics for the past decade or so. Her characterization was spotty before then—John Byrne particularly put Wanda through the ringer many times—but she wasn’t so defined by her darker side.
Brian Michael Bendis wrote two stories back-to-back that built on early portrayals (by Byrne and others) that portrayed Wanda as unstable and dangerous to her teammates. The goal was to dismantle the Avengers and reduce the mutant population, and rather than come up with a villain or other problem the heroes could fight together, both groups were pitted against the Scarlet Witch. Wanda had a complicated relationship with both Avengers and X-Men, and these stories put her on the path that many women (she included) had trod before: she “went crazy” and brought down both teams. And then she disappeared and didn’t return to the Marvel landscape for almost a decade. After causing so much destruction, it’s easy to see why people dislike her, even if within both stories it was clear that she was let down or manipulated by the people closest to her.
Things didn’t get much better when she came back, particularly in Rick Remender’s Uncanny Avengers where she was often pitted against Rogue and came off as unapologetic and haughty. That haughtiness has often been part of her personality, but it can be difficult to get a read on her character since she has been written inconsistently over the years. Varying writer interpretations have made her harder to glom onto than more clearly-defined lady characters, like She-Hulk or Wasp (or, more recently, America Chavez and Kamala Khan). Her unclear power set doesn’t help either; writers often turned her into a conduit for evil magic (even Busiek, who generally wrote her well, fell into that trap), and it can feel like she’s evil as frequently as she’s good.
But with writers who care about her, she is amazing. Even in the old Avengers comics, Stan Lee (not the most empowering writer for ladies, to say the least) wrote her as someone with incredible power, although she had to learn to control it. There are common threads you can see through most of her depictions: she always cares deeply for her family (although her parentage has been changing constantly since her inception). She’s been through so much at the hands of male writers who didn’t know what to do with her, but she’s still trying to be a hero. The Scarlet Witch is compassionate, resilient, a bit hot-headed when someone she loves is challenged, initially unsure and later more confident in her abilities. Wanda Maximoff loves with her whole heart and fights with all her strength..
I hope that the movie and her new solo series have sparked some interest in her, but not too many comics have perfectly captured the Wanda that I know and love after combing through years and years of continuity. She is much, much more than “no more mutants.”
Laurel Lance and Iris West
Both Flash television characters are vilified by fandoms that claim to support and love strong women. Also, both are dismissed as viable love interests for the protagonist. Fandom hatred of these characters has ugly sexist and racist implications.
Given how popular Harley Quinn seems, you’d think it’s a little unbelievable that people actively hate on this character, but they do. Just look at any announcement involving the character and you’ll find comments like “overrated,” “Deadpool knockoff,” and “sexy Tim Burton clown girl.” Harley Quinn was intended to be a one-off character for Batman: The Animated Series who was only supposed to appear in one episode, but has since become one of the most bankable characters in comic books.
While there are valid criticisms of how the character has been used, the disdain some fans have for her is unfair. Harley Quinn has been in an abusive relationship, and she’s been victimized, but since when has that made you actively dislike someone? That’s harmful in so many ways, and I don’t have space to go into it here. As someone who spent years in a toxic, co-dependent relationship, watching her come out of the shadow of The Joker in the last couple of years in the pages of her own series has been everything I’ve ever wanted.
It’s this wildly successful series that has really brought out some of the more harsh comments (particularly from men), because she no longer is a sidekick there to be knocked down for your gross daydreams. I believe that some of the resentment from fans over her popularity is because she doesn’t fit in the role model box that so many heroines are “supposed” to fit in. Harley Quinn is not Wonder Woman, so she’s not going to teach you about being good to your fellow man and quite frankly, she doesn’t have to. Harley Quinn is rebellious, because she’s become the opposite of what people want her to be.
Harley Quinn’s reinvention has made her the fully formed character she always had the potential to be. Harley has become a woman who fully embraces her own sexuality and that’s allowed for some funky fashion choices that she owns, but it’s more importantly allowed for her romance with Poison Ivy to blossom. None of this is to say that she’s a “perfect” person, but perfect is boring. Is Harley too quick to jump to violence? Sure. Does she put others over herself a little too much? Definitely, but I don’t relate to perfection. Harley Quinn is my girl, because she’s been to the lowest of lows and came out of it stronger than before. She’s not ashamed of her flaws or her past, and while I don’t want to be her, I certainly have learned from her. Now excuse me while I go buy up her consistently top selling comic book and merch from Hot Topic.
There are many reasons why people might not like a female character, and a big reason comes down to whether or not that female character fits into their idea of what a woman should be. Teen Titan Rose Wilson does not fit those ideas. Rose is a fascinating character who started out as a young girl whose story was defined by the love of her mother, Lillian Worth. When she lost her mother to a man who was trying to get revenge on her father—yes, Slade Wilson is her father—readers actually got to see a female character mourn the loss of another. That was rare.
And then Rose started doing things that readers didn’t like. God forbid she wasn’t into Bart Allen, otherwise known as the likeable, and ultra fun Impulse—frankly, she didn’t have to be, first of all, and secondly, she was still reeling from her mother’s death. She cut out her own eye to please Daddy, an act for which she’s been called the “psycho bitch you’d never want to date.” Rose ain’t exactly nice to her fellow teammates, either. She’s called Cassie Sandsmark, otherwise known as Wonder Girl, rude names and she’s chided the new Robin, Damian Wayne, to not “wet the bed.” In fact, she’s even gotten into outright brawls with her teammates: many a time, she fought Wonder Girl, because she perceived her beliefs as the right ones.
Rose is what you would call an unlikable female character. She does things that we think are vain, cruel, or characteristics of a vindictive woman. She hits on a girl’s boyfriend or ex-boyfriend. She’s done drugs. And worst of all, she flaunts her sexuality like it was going out of style. But hers is a story that we don’t often get to read about: the female anti-hero. Maybe because we are conditioned to like anti-heroic traits in our protagonist male characters. And the same kind of behavior she displays would be more acceptable in an anti-heroic male character (Jason Todd, anyone? Reggie Mantle?!). And it’s one of self-acceptance: Rose doesn’t give a shit about what anyone thinks of her. She says what’s on her mind. She knows damn well who she is, and who she is fabulous. She’s badass as hell, she’s adorably grouchy, and she’s just about the coolest character I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
I’m a lifelong comics nerd, but it wasn’t until I got into Marvel’s Runaways as a burgeoning teen in 2004 that I felt like part of the conversation. Living in a small town, I either had to settle for spotty selection at the Safeway or order comics through a subscription service. My aunt gave me a subscription to Amazing Spider-Man on my tenth birthday, and I’d been renewing it ever since, occasionally checking out other Marvel titles for yearlong stints. These were exploratory comics, and one year, I decided to try Runaways. Runaways was the first series I had a chance to get into while its issue count was still in the single digits. Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s comic was a landmark for me, a stylish and clever book, dripping with the teen angst I craved and maybe the only cast of characters with more girls than boys.
My favorite Runaway was Gertrude Yorkes. She dressed like a maximalist Enid Coleslaw, had sass to spare, and no time for heroics. Survival was the name of her game, and she was usually the Runaway most ready to run away. And she was a little fat, a rare sight in comics to this day. And her fashion. Oh god, her fashion, let’s reiterate that point. Gert had patchwork punk ensembles sought by all thrift-store fiends but rarely attained. She could pull off neckties, sweater vests, steel-toed boots, camo, knee-high socks, whatever. She had enough style to make me rethink my stance on studded bracelets. She had a badass look I was too afraid to try. Of course, she pulled it off so well because she was drawn to do so. Adrian Alphona cared and continues to care about fashion in a manner that few superhero artists do, and he deserves all the credit he can get for outfitting The Runaways.
I had no one in town with whom to talk Runaways, so I ventured online to see what the other lonely nerds had to say about my favorite delinquent teens. The general reaction was shocking. Beloved Gertrude was NOT the fan-favorite I once suspected. The others felt Gert was a thorn in the team’s side. Always scared. Always cautious. Always holding them back from committing acts of super-violence. And they didn’t even care about the outfits! I didn’t get it. Wasn’t the pensiveness what made her great? Wasn’t this part of the series DNA? Here was a girl, freshly homeless, still trying to figure things out, and trying to survive! The homelessness never felt that dire in Runaways, but the book needed a character like Gert to keep it prevalent. If no runaways whine about being hungry, how do we know the Runaways are hungry? You gotta keep things in perspective. Gert was lukewarm on the idea of superheroics, but she cared about their genuine well-being while it felt like some of the others were still playing dress-up.
In one of the strongest scenes of the series, fellow runaway Chase Stein is suffocated by a rock monster holding him underwater. Team sorceress Nico stops the monster with a spell, but Chase isn’t breathing, and they all start to panic. As the Runaways quibble over how to save him, Gert takes action, attempting resuscitation and shouting down anyone who isn’t helping the situation. It’s one of the few moments we really see her get serious, and it’s powerful. Gert withdrew from most of the violent scenes, hiding regularly, but here was a tragedy she could manage. I’ve read a lot of comics where the hero saved a life by punching somebody really hard, but guess what? A properly executed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation can be even more thrilling.
Re-reading the series over the weekend, I got worried. It had been almost a decade since I’d read some of these comics, and for a second, I thought I’d deceived myself. What if the haters were right? These kids weren’t hip or clever. They were obnoxious, and Gert, the girl I clung to the most, was one of the worst ones! Here was a girl tone-deaf enough to tell a black kid that Gertrude was her “slave name” and she was going to go by Arsenic from now on. She claimed allegiance to Apple computers. She acted smarter than everyone else and masked emotion with a layer of irony. She was detached and unhelpful, but the more I read, the more I fell in love with her all over again.
Those flaws were there, all the groan inducing pop culture references, endless angst and her weird teenage conception of rebellion, but those flaws made the character real in a way comic book heroes rarely are. And I still liked her fashion. She wasn’t perfect, and that was fine. Maybe she couldn’t be my idol anymore, and that was fine too. I’m no longer fifteen. I have enough distance that I can call Gertrude on her shit like her friends do in the comic. They’re helping each other grow. Comics have enough infallible and unaccountable heroes. We’ve seen too many characters hammered through the heroic cycle, it’s nice to have someone just trying to be a better human.