Every few months my son has a new favorite. When he was three, anything having to do with trains or dinosaurs (books, stickers, toys, TV shows) were all the rage. At four he split his time between Legos, cars, pirates and princesses. Now that he's almost five, we've entered the Superhero zone.
Unlike previous loves, his newest fascination did not originate from home. Neither my husband nor I have ever gotten into comic books or superheros beyond a passing interest in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Instead, one day he came home with tales of Batman, Spiderman, and Superman—all planted in his head by a neighborhood friend.
At first I hardly gave this interest a passing thought, but the more my son started to talk about superheros, the more I really started to pay attention. Soon "kid-friendly" comic books exchanged hands and made their way into our home. I'd flip through them, fighting the urge not to roll my eyes at the awful (yet colorful!) patriarchal stereotypes that jumped off the page.
Lois Lane seemed to be in constant distress, always needing to be rescued. While the depiction of women was sexist enough, the men weren't treated any better. Hyper-masculinity was celebrated and treated as the ultimate in achievement/success. The amount of violence that was portrayed was a bit over the line, in my opinion.
Keep in mind, this was all in a "My First Reader" type book. While this is a watered down version of what's found in mainstream comics, it still promotes the same tropes found in real ones: the helpless, weak female; the overly-sexualized heroine in a skimpy outfit; and the villianess who used her feminine "wiles" to trap the good guy. I cringe in fear as to what will happen when my son decides to flip through some actual comic books. What images will he come across and how will he process them?
Now, maybe there's a bigger subtext that I'm missing. I'm coming at this as a mom and a feminist, not necessarily as a comic book reader, so perhaps I don't understand all the nuances of this world—I'll own up to that. But when my son is starting to find himself interested in all things "Super," then I feel my opinion counts for something. We're barely scratching the surface of superheroes—there is a whole lot more out there that is even more sexist, and racist—but just what we've seen so far has left this feminist mom clutching at her non-existent pearls.
And it's not just me. A few weeks ago, Ms. Magazine posted a blog co-written by Michelle Lee and her seven-year-old daughter. Her daughter is a huge comic book fan, and had some interesting insight into the new version of one of her favorite characters, Starfire. Lee recalls how uncomfortable her daughter gets when asked to describe the hyper-sexualized new version of Starfire. Her little girl laments that the new Starfire, "Well, she's not fighting anyone. And not talking to anyone really. She's just almost naked and posing." In her opinion, that doesn't make a good superhero.
So...if a seven-year-old understands this, how come comic book creators don't?
It's not that they don't—it's more that they don't care. Like most things, this again comes down to the bottom line. These companies are making a ton of profit, not actually off of the comic books themselves, but with the mass amounts of marketing tie-ins. And this is where I have the biggest problem.
A few comments on the Ms. article seemed annoyed with Lee's post. They said that seven-year-olds are not the intended audience for these comic books. And that may be the case...only you'd never know it. Walk into any big box store and head to the toy/kid's section. Not only will you see mainstream comic books for sale, but you will also see the toys, costumes, clothes, plates, cups, towels, bedsheets, etc... that come along with it. Comic books are no longer just graphic novels; they are now brands.
These companies aren't staffed by idiots. They know that if they hook readers in at a young age with mild, childlike versions of their mainstream comic book heroes, they will have a permanent audience for the character and universe relaunches as they get older. They may temper the sexist and unrealistic depictions of both women and men in their children-friendly versions, but once those kids grow up, then the maturity, excessive violence and, in this case, the blatant eroticism of the revamped Starfire, will be an auto-purchase rather than something they may think twice about reading.
Thankfully, not all creators of comic books go this route. There are other, more progressive comics that exist, and in fact there are groups whose sole focus is to create and market more positive comics. They take the less stereotypical route and leave the sexist, patriarchal tropes by the wayside. While these may not have the same reach as mainstream comics, they are steadily gaining in popularity.
Jill from The Nerdy Bird—a website talking comics from a female fan's perspective—pointed me in the direction a few helpful sites that I'm passing on to you all:
Kids Love Comics is a great resource for kid-friendly comics. They have a host of age-appropriate choices, and even though it hasn't been updated in a while, what they do have archived is excellent.
Kids Read Comics is a site devoted to promoting literacy in kids and teens via comics. They host a conference that brings together kids, parents, teachers, librarians and others to find appropriate comics for all ages.
Owly is a graphic novel about a little owl who knows what it means to be human.
I can't change the way comics are marketed overnight, and I can't tell my son not to like these characters, but what I can do is add in my own commentary here and there, offering alternatives as he continues with his love of comic book superheros. A great one that we've enjoyed as a family is Michael Chabon's The Astonishing Secret of Awesome ManI realize that alternatives won't always solve the problem, so I'll keep providing contrasts to what he finds in comic books, talking about why certain tropes are overly exaggerated and ill-conceived, and hopefully he'll get the message that not everything is always super in the land of comic books.
If you've come across awesome comics that would be considered "kid-friendly" (and have that superhero appeal) please leave a comment and let me know!
Related: "Young Justice" Offers Little Justice For Female Characters (Achilles Effect)
Previously: Mom & Pop Culture: Once Upon A Remake