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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fridgefull of Data: Women, Comics, Sexism, and Sociology


This one will require some backstory. And quite a few links.

(Backstory that will be redundant to anyone on the Whitechapel forums. Feel free to skip these bits if you've tromped over here from over there.)

It started with a fascinating blog post by Paul Duffield, the brilliant artist of the webcomic Freakangels and all-around swell guy. He happened to post this article to the Whitechapel forums where--

Wait, no, that's not really the place to start, is it?

Arguably, the real beginning of this current saga is with DC comic's relaunch of their entire line of superhero comics earlier in the year. Although the often nasty (as Duffield's piece describes) battle between comics and feminism has raged on for quite a bit longer than that relaunch, it was this relaunch that, as far as I can see, essentially torched what white flags were flying with its laser eyes and signaled the renewal of hostilities. Why? Well, remember the article I wrote on body language and character design, and how fundamental those things are to the message of a work?

DC should have read that article:

Old Harley Quinn vs New Harley Quinn. Spot The Differences!

The comparison above is taken from the blog Zannidify (for god's sake, click the link so that I feel less guilty about stealing the image!), and I think it does a good job of expressing some of the myriad ways in which the relaunch has reportedly taken a sledgehammer to the knees of quite a few beloved female characters. (Well, and it restored Batwoman's ability to walk, which was also not particularly well received because you know what let's just move on for now, mnyes?) Issues such as the depiction of the sort-of-villain Catwoman and the hero Starfire rapidly set of a firestorm of criticism, accusations of sexism, counter accusations of a different kind of puritanical sexism, slut shaming, and so on and so forth. It quickly became apparent that the issues that had been so handily codified by DC went far beyond DC itself to the whole comics industry.

Or, well, it sort of became apparent.

If you've met People of The Internet (or, hell, People of The Just About Anywhere, honestly) you'll have noticed the tendency toward anecdotal evidence. Again, I point you to Paul Duffield's article for a more in depth explanation of the phenomenon. Suffice to say that Duffield decided, well, how can I get some actual quantifiable data on this subject?

So, what he did was, he looked through his own collection of comics and the comics collections at two stores in his area, and he recorded the gender distribution of the creators.

I'll let his graphs speak for us both:

Yikes. That is rather dramatic data, wouldn't you say?

Now, I'm going to take another swerve off of the main topic again to briefly go into lecture mode. Again, anyone not in the mood for sociology lectures can go ahead and skip to my own data section below. What Paul Duffield used, when presented with this information, was something called the Sociological Imagination. This is a core idea for the field of Sociology, and although it's not necessarily an easy concept to sum up, I think Duffield's analysis shows it in two ways:
  • He went beyond anecdotal evidence to actual data--in other words, he moved beyond personal experience and psychology to a broader picture of a culture as a whole
  • When presented with the data, he didn't just pass that data on but came to conclusions about what might be at work--he looked at the underlying mechanics of the information he saw.
From my perspective, this sort of methodology is dramatically important not just because it shows that he actually is arguing about real facts but because it also shows one of the ways in which science and the liberal arts can work together to arrive at a conclusion. The liberal arts says, "You know, I think there's a bias within this culture that favors men over women," and science says, "Well, let's see if we can't come up with some ways to qualify that." It really works quite well until the liberal arts decide that perhaps there might be some bias in science itself and everything goes to hell, but that's an entire other article.

If you haven't read his article yet, (and if not, why the devil haven't you? Get over there, knave, before I tell Lord Humongous to put you in a headlock again) you might be wondering about my second point about data, and about that pie chart for "self-published collection" up there in the graphs.

Well, part of the sociological imagination is the ability to see data and not simply come to a broad conclusion like "Boy, things sure look pretty bad, huh?" but to use data as a source of insight into the deeper mechanics behind things. Just looking at publishing distribution actually doesn't tell us much more than "there is a problem."

But what happens if we compare that data to self-publishing comickers?

That begins to suggest another possibility:
"Following up on a suspicion, I dived into my giant pile of self-published comics collected at conventions over the years to find percentages of 47% male, 49% female and 4% ungendered/uncertain – an almost perfectly representational proportion. Are we seeing a picture of equal representation at grass roots, but mostly-male where the money and jobs are? These statistics suggest that the answer is yes, and although the data is limited I made sure to use a sample that, if anything, should provide a more representative image than a true survey might."
This isn't a particularly long passage, but it's a great example of what I'm talking about: Duffield took the information he had, added more data, and explored what that suggested. His article goes into quite a bit more detail about what all of this might mean for the industry as a whole, and I won't attempt to summarize it here, but this should give you a taste of how the process works.

Which means that it's time to come to my side of things.


Looking at the information Paul Duffield had uncovered, I wondered to myself just what the gender distribution was in comics theory and criticism. This struck me as important, as theorists do have some sway over how people interact with comics. It might take a while for their attitudes to really seep into culture, but, well, the way literature is taught now essentially consists of New Criticism with a little bit of things like structuralism and deconstruction for flavor, even though generally the methods aren't often taught under those names. Critical theory that emerges now has the potential to shape discourse for the next half century.

If that discourse contains heavy gender bias, we could see the emerging field of academic comics study strongly affected by these ideas, even if the industry and culture make efforts toward gender parity.

To explore the gender distribution, I decided to look at two peer-reviewed journals I was less familiar with (the fascinating ImageTexT and the relatively recent Studies in Comics, which I can't access in full text but which seems similarly intriguing) and the online journal Sequart, which I'm significantly more familiar with. My impression, like Duffield's, was that there were quite a few female authors. I was sure I remembered some on Sequart, in particular! But, memory is faulty, and I wanted to rigorously check my memory against the facts.

To do that, I went through the articles in the journals and recorded several pieces of information about each of them. This information was:
  1. Volume Number.Issue Number
  2. Number of the article within the issue
  3. Whether the author was (m)ale, (f)emale, or a (c)ollaboration between people of both genders
  4. Whether the piece was a theory (a)rticle, a (r)eview, and, in some cases, an (i)ntroduction or an (o)p ed piece (the latter only showed up in Studies in Comics, the former only in ImageTexT.)
  5. Whether the issue was on a particular topic or not
For Sequart I knew from the outset I would not be collecting the issue numbers and volume numbers, because Sequart isn't divided up that way. And then, much to my disappointment, I decided not to bother collecting any of the other information, either. It was pointless. You'll see why in a moment. I'm including the data in spreadsheets at the end of this article, but I'll do a quick runthrough here.

ImageTexT surprised me. Even as I collected data, I got the impression that the writing contained within the journal was fairly equal between genders. The numbers painted a different picture, however. Only 30% of the total pieces were written by women, and of them only about half were theory articles as opposed to reviews, whereas a full 70% of the pieces by men were articles. I'm honestly not sure how important that review/article distinction is, but to me it suggests that not only are women less involved in the journal's writing, they are also less involved in the creation of deeper theory.

This didn't quite satisfy me, though. My impression of equality had to come from somewhere, I thought. (Actually, not a reasonable thought, it turns out, but one that held true for ImageTexT, at least.)

With that thought in mind, I took down the gender distribution within each issue. What I found was quite surprising. The most recent issues have complete, or fairly even, distribution between male and female authors. The earliest issues, on the other hand, are sometimes dominated almost exclusively by men. The one dramatic exception to this trend is the issue on Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, which was dominated almost exclusively by women! The impression I get from this is that ImageTexT is striving for gender parity now, which is, of course, great. But, I have to question their methods somewhat. It worries me a little that the gender and sexuality issue is so strongly tilted in the other direction; it is reminiscent of the tendency toward consulting women on only women's issues, people of color on only racial issues, queer folk on only LGBTQ issues, and so on.

Still, one of the mantras I try to repeat to myself is DO NOT EAT YOUR ALLIES. There's no sense in tearing into them for not being perfect. I think it's clear, from the distribution of the last issues, and from the fact that the editorial board is strikingly inclusive, that ImageTexT is making an effort. I applaud them for it.

The Studies in Comics journal similarly started out abysmally, with only two articles of their first issue being written by women. Overall the journal only has a 27% showing of women, partly because of the low turnout in that first issue and partly because, well, they've only ever gotten to about 35%, so it's not like there's a lot to counterbalance things. I can't speak to the content because I don't have access to the journal, but it generally does not seem to be doing as well as ImageTexT. This is a relatively new journal, though, so we might give it some time to catch up. Interestingly, again women had less theory articles than reviews, but the difference between them was a bit smaller, and both men and women wrote more theory articles overall. I'm honestly not sure what that means about the field as a whole or Studies in Comics in particular.

Which brings us to Sequart.


I mentioned earlier that I was absolutely sure, totally convinced, that there were a few female writers on staff there, or at least sending in articles to contribute.

Turns out there are two.

Two articles, that is, by two different women. Out of 414 articles. For all time, ever. That's a 00.5% female authorship for this site that is, according to its slogan, dedicated to promoting comics as a form of art. There's no point in even collecting data on that--there is only a sample size of two for women's articles, after all.

That's just inexcusable.

Now, feeling a bit shaken by this, I decided to look a bit more closely at the actual content of the archives. It turns out that all of the earliest pieces are written by one Julian Darius, who seems to have built the site up from his own initial blogging. Not too shabby. But it did get me thinking about the editorial board there and how it might influence the parity of the site in the opposite direction of ImageTexT and Studies in Comics, both of which have more diverse (if not equal) editorial boards.

Now, this is a realm I'm nervous about entering primarily because of Duffield's points earlier about the accusatory nature of much of this discourse, but I have to wonder a little bit about the tenor of some of Darius's articles. I find it interesting, for example, that he did not include gender parity as a possible reason that comics have failed to gain respect in his lengthy (and, honestly, quite good) article on the subject. In fairness to Darius, he's actually done a numerical analysis of DC's relaunch not unlike what I've been doing here, but besides offering the tallies he gives little commentary (remember what I said about sociological imagination?), and he somewhat downplays gender disparity as a problem, what with target audiences and so on.

And, of course, there was that article early in the archives where Darius defends the rape of a female character in DC's big, multi-character crossover event Identity Crisis. The article is pretty problematic. And by problematic I mean that it actually disturbed me quite a bit. There's a certain dismissive flippancy to the article that really is not in any way appropriate to the subject matter. I'm hesitant to mention this, of course, because I'm not sure it's reasonable to use this article, written many years ago, as an indicator of Darius's editorial strategy, but I also can't ignore the fact that since that article was written only two women have ever written for the site. It just seems like an indicator of the basic lack of interest Darius has in gender studies, which would be less problematic if he wasn't the driving force behind an entire comics theory journal.

Even more troubling is the fact that a little less than 5% of the articles on the site deal with sexuality as a primary focus. This isn't gender, even--just the idea of sex, and often the idea of sex in superhero comics. One of the (by my very rough and subjective estimation) 19 articles is Darius's article on the infamous Infinite Crisis rape scene; another is the sole article by one of the two female writers. So, we've got the opposite problem ImageTexT had: women are almost completely absent from the conversation on gender and sexuality in comics.

On the bright side, that one exception is actually a pretty awesome article. It's an excellent piece of analysis on gender normative behavior in comics and the resistance deviation gets from fans whose brains are apparently too ossified to comprehend a woman acting in a "masculine" way, but are still flexible enough to accept people with lazer eyes. It's especially interesting as a four year old analysis from back before the brouhaha surrounding DC's relaunch and its rather -hrm- striking depictions of female characters. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find any other articles by her elsewhere, which again doesn't strike me as a signal of hope. Not that I think she's been stuffed into a refrigerator somewhere, of course, but if women who write about comics tend to write one or two articles and then vanish, well... when you compare that to how prolific Darius and many of the other Sequart writers are, you begin to see how the conversation could become totally dominated by men.

I think what it shows most dramatically, though, is that memories are horribly flawwed things. I was totally convinced that somewhere, sometime I had read a Sequart article by a woman. It was only when I actually checked the hard data that I discovered my error.

This is the revolutionary power of an approach to the liberal arts that blends in scientific ways of looking at information. It can totally overturn your perceptions.

And I think the results show that things are potentially significantly worse than we may have suspected, even if they are getting better over time.

Now, this isn't the end of the discussion, of course. There are a number of other journals which I do not have access to, or which I don't know how to mine for data. I have no idea how to begin syphoning data from The Comics Journal, for example, but it looks fairly promising at a glance (I wasn't familiar with the journal until my lovely assistant Sara found it for me). If anyone has a method for sorting through the data, please let me know. At any rate, I think it's a good sign that one of the first columns I happened upon on the site was this intriguing article about male superhero costumes and homophobia. It's seldom these days that I run across an article on comics and gender that prompts more than a few seconds of analysis--I've seen most of it before, typically. But this article manages to go beyond basic feminism into the only now emerging feminist analysis of masculinity. That's pretty cool. But, again, I don't really have a way of sorting through the site for data.

I also don't know if my numbers are strictly significant, as defined by psychology, sociology, and statistics. You would have to ask someone who actually knows statistics for that. In fact... do any of you know statistics? Are my findings significant?

In fact, let's make this a little bit interactive, shall we? I want to hear from you, my fair readers. What do you think we can do with this information? Is there something I've missed that we should throw onto the spreadsheet? Another journal you have access to? Share it in the comments and, if you have the time, put together some data for yourself. I'll do a follow up article when I think I've accumulated enough interesting information to warrant a return to the ideas we're discussing here.

I've put together two spreadsheets that include my data. One is a base copy that only I can edit (marked STATIC) but the other can be edited by anyone on The Internet. So, although I have a backup in case something goes horrifically wrong or some troglodyte deletes all the information, anyone that wants to add their own information or their own interpretation of the data can easily do so. Wikidiscourse? Perhaps.

The Static Google Doc
The Editable Google Doc

Like I said, this isn't the end of the discussion. But with the standard of sociology in hand we can perhaps enter a new phase of the discussion that breaks information down not by anecdotes but real, tangible facts. From that, all we need is to embrace the sociological imagination and explore what might be going on and, potentially, how we might solve these social problems.

Heaven help me, I really went overboard on this one. If you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave me some kind words in the comments below.