Questioning Chelsea Cain’s Feminist Agenda

Questioning Chelsea Cain’s Feminist Agenda

It’s not breaking news that Chelsea Cain, author of Marvel’s Mockingbird, has seen her share of criticism lately for her new comic, Man-Eaters, published by Image Comics. Hailed by some as feminist critique, numerous aspects of Man-Eaters have also been slammed by critics for being insensitive to various groups of people. Cain has acknowledged these

It’s not breaking news that Chelsea Cain, author of Marvel’s Mockingbird, has seen her share of criticism lately for her new comic, Man-Eaters, published by Image Comics. Hailed by some as feminist critique, numerous aspects of Man-Eaters have also been slammed by critics for being insensitive to various groups of people. Cain has acknowledged these critics in the past, going so far as to publicly pledge to do better.

"I pledge to you, to all of you, to make this the best, most inclusive and empowering story that I can possibly make. I know it’s a hell of a responsibility. And i don’t take it lightly. No one should."

The very premise of the book — a mutation causes menstruating women to turn into dangerous were-felines — has been criticized for being gender essentialist and ignoring the existence of trans people, despite Cain’s claims otherwise. (It also features a plot point where estrogen is added to the water, which is uncomfortably reminiscent of real life fear-mongering about the trans community.) Additionally, more recent issues of the comic have featured (white) women in concentration camps and being forced to drink out of different water fountains than men, garnering criticism that she’s being hypothetically alarmist about things that have actually happened (and are, in fact, still happening) to people of color.

A scene from Man-Eaters where a girl is told to use a girl's only water fountain

It’s worth noting that while Cain has responded to some of these criticisms, it doesn’t appear that she fully understands them. “I’m devastated that our comic has been attacked for excluding trans women bc our plot involves periods,” she said in a tweet, going into the fact that she, having gone through menopause, doesn’t menstruate and isn’t any less of a woman. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that much of the criticism focuses around AFAB trans folks — people who do have periods but aren’t women. (It wasn’t until issue 6 that Man-Eaters even acknowledged the existence of trans men in passing. There has been no discussion of non-binary people.)

Insisting that her book is not trying to imply that all women menstruate is one thing, but the implication that all people who menstruate are women is something else entirely — and plays into a societal habit to assume all trans issues are trans women issues. Compounding that issue is Mags Visaggio, a prominent trans woman in comics who came to Cain’s defense on twitter, insisting the book wasn’t offensive and that Cain should be able to write about “her experience as a cis woman” — again, missing the point that transmasculine people were primarily the ones being harmed.

Specifically, Cain has been back under scrutiny this week after the release of issue #9 of Man-Eaters on June 5th. The controversy? Imagery of propaganda posters in concentration camps featuring the text from fan tweets that had been critical of Cain’s work on the book.

An uncredited tweet used in Man-Eaters #9 (Images Comics, June 5, 2019)

An uncredited tweet used in Man-Eaters #9 (Images Comics, June 5, 2019)

Cain claims that her intention was to “acknowledge the really painful criticisms” that made her feel “worthless and small.”

However, she clearly hasn’t given a lot of thought to the implications of sharing criticism in this way. While the tweets were unattributed in the comic, she has claimed that she “didn’t know” people could still find the original tweets by searching for the text — which feels like a dubious claim, not only because it’s a basic function of Twitter, but also because (as pointed out by CK Stewart) it seems difficult to believe that someone who has experienced so much online harassment is so naive about how online harassment can happen. It’s possible she didn’t consider the nuance of using these words on the walls of a concentration camp, but worth noting that “being more nuanced” was something she explicitly promised to the very writer of the tweets used here. The potential implication that trans folks and their allies are the oppressors and women are the victims is subtext, but it’s hard not to read into it, especially while Cain continues to complain about how the criticisms of her book are mean and hurting her feelings.

“No, I did not give permission,” twitter user @ameliameman confirmed to me, regarding the usage of their words in the comic. On the topic of the original tweet, they continued, “I liked the idea of Man-Eaters—it was cute, and punchy—but I obviously also felt that some of the punches were clumsily dealt [with]… I am friends with and work with a lot of trans and NB folks, and the comic felt like it denied the existence of these super important and too often erased people… Given that it’s a feminist comic, I believed that if I were to do a “call in” rather than a “call out,” maybe that would start a good discussion on the ol’ Twitter. I was surprised Cain tweeted back, and I was also a little jarred by her defensiveness, but that’s natural when faced with feedback.“ Cain’s “defensiveness,” in this case, was casually accusing Amelia of “hating” her and the 14-year-olds who also contributed to the project:

It’s indicative of a larger problem with Cain and the comic industry as a whole, where the line between critics and fans has become increasingly blurred. Even calling out critics in this way would have been poor form, but authors term searching themselves and responding with hostility to regular fans is a huge problem. How can nuanced discourse exist when people feel like they can’t have an opinion on a piece of media without the actual creator showing up and taking them to task? There’s also an obvious power differential at play when creators with thousands of followers put fans with hundreds of followers on blast, opening them up to harassment from other fans. “It feels weird, I’m GLAD they’re not attributed to me, and I don’t really know what the point of that was,” Amelia told me. “I feel like I’m being framed as a troll?? Which feels very weird, but luckily most people have been really supportive and validating.”

Cain has since apologized, although notably not directly to Amelia, and her apologies have alternated between guilt tripping people for “attacking” her (something she did during our interview with her last September) with their legitimate critique and performatively disparaging herself — a manipulation tactic that is a time honored tradition for white feminists.

She also put out a call for an unpaid trans sensitivity reader. a move that didn’t quiet down her critics. (She quickly walked that back with assurances she wanted to pay people for their work, but it came with a dubious claim that she didn’t know sensitivity readers were “a thing.”) Even if she were to pay, sensitivity reading should have been a basic consideration from issue #1, not something notable or praiseworthy, especially after already doing substantial harm.

 

So what does the future of Man-Eaters look like? Well, there are only three issues still scheduled, and despite Cain’s performative claims that “maybe they should just cancel it,” as of right now it seems likely that it will complete the run. But after so many promises of inclusivity and nuance with nothing to show for them, I don’t have high hopes for any of this damage being turned around in those last three issues, especially given that Cain has now deleted her twitter account after this final tweet, in which she appears to walk back all of her earlier apologies in favor of “it’s not for you.”

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Jameson Hampton
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