Comic Book Anatomies: A Response to Whedon on Real Women
Twitter fandom approached Joss Whedon today with this enquiry:
“Any advice on writing strong female leads in a comic?”
A laudable question. But why ask Joss Whedon? Why not, say Gail Simone, Vera Brogsol, Alison Bechdel, or Ôshima Yumiko — to name only a few women authors in the chronically female underpopulated medium of this genre?
Why ask Joss Whedon — however you perceive his literary merits: he’s male — for a prescription for what constitutes strong womanhood? I’ll leave that question hanging in the air for a moment.
That aside — he had this by way of response, a pithy rejoinder:
First: Strength? That’s a bit tautological, n’est-ce pas? “A strong woman has strength”? A rather penetrating insight into the obvious. Second: “Community”. Presumably not the deteriorated situation comedy of primetime television. Friends? Family? Support network? Equivocally advocated so far, Mr Whedon. What’re you really trying to tell us?
And so the punchline:
“. . . not have peeny/balls.”
(Pause for audience laughter.)
In an episode of The Office (S6E23), Michael — he who is the chronically nebbish — undertakes the learning of Spanish. Struggling with the mechanics of gender and declension in a Romance language, he solicits the help of Oscar Martinez, a Latino accountant. Oscar advises, as a mnemonic device, to affix sticky notes to “everything with the international symbol for gender” as a method for remembering the arbitrary ascription of M and F to objects.
So Michael goes and wallpapers his office with yellow posties of cartoon penises and boobs. To him, the universal signs of gender.
Man, woman — he maketh thee (and marketh thee) with a biro. And a rather shallow rendering they be.
In one quick comedy sketch, The Office did a remarkable send-up of how cissexist thinking operates unchallenged, autonomic, and rooted in the heterosexual male’s obsession with sex and the power of definition and labels. You don’t need to be a Irigarayian psychoanalyst to unpack how, for Michael, “body language” is about the metonymic substitution of fragmented body parts as replacements for, and supersedings of, male and female, man and woman. Have problematic complexity? Provide penile proxies.
Denotation, connotation — forget it — just jot down a blank ink penis on a yellow note. Paste as required. And so the stand-in gains imposed precedence in its imaginative ordering of the world.
Not even a Venus or Mars in the John Gray school of archetypal separation, but something more mundane and makeshift. In a demonstrable example of symmetry between assumption, worldview, and imposed labels — Michael has reduced the semiotics of his environment to little penciled boobies and Bad Grandpa doodled testicles. He tags his office with cartoons of tits and dicks.
Whedon accomplished the same, but in 140 characters.
Predictably, there was a good deal of tweet rebuttal to Whedon’s shorthand lesson on morphological substitutes — of saying the definition of a strong female character is “strength” and that’s what lies between her legs. The sexism of this observation shouldn’t surprise anyone: you did ask a heterosexual male to define womanhood, didn’t you?
And while I do not believe that our vampire slayer was deliberately transphobic, nor malicious in this shorthand anatomy lesson, his one tweet exposed so much entrenched thinking that demonstrates heterosexual male narcissism. Its prejudices place the status of identity as predicated on sexual differences that speak in place of actual persons.
While inevitably we’ll be told to lighten up, let me at least try to break down a bit as to why the cissexism of Whedon’s afternoon wit fails in an all-too predictable way.
Interpretive claims to how our bodies, and how we inhabit our bodies, become known and labelled are dependent upon language. The price we all must pay in our membership in arbitrary semantical usages is to give-over to the linguistic wrangling of our biologies, sexual differences, identity politics, and personal experiences.
Language can be reductively enforced, as both Whedon and Michael Scott demonstrate in their simplistic markdowns. In Whedon’s case, the de facto metonymy of ‘peeny’ — the substitute for “male” with “peeny” — clearly situates the ‘real woman’ as understood by a sticky-note ascription of what’s between her legs.
Cisgender, transgender — do we want our strength, our will to be, dare and do — affixed by post-it notes or Edenic leaves that cover our crotches? Substitutes that subtract and divide through reduction and overlaid representation?
We make such assumptions continuously, however: birth certificate sexes, symbolic ordering of sexual identity, legal claims to selfhood — all continuously reified to base fragment components of our overall somatic configuration. What’s under the skirt or trousers trumps any and all other communicative potential we have to be gendered subjects in the linguistic world of signs, symbols, and imaginations. The determinable limits of these most complex, in-flux categories of male or female rendered in cheap, contemporary heiroglyphics of peenies and boobies.
Please. We’re not six year-olds playing doctor.
It’s difficult not to read in Whedon’s characterisation a ridiculous, needless giggle grabber that alludes to the chick-w-a-d*ck trope. I remember a video promoting GeekGirlCon where a standup comedian begins — like, three seconds into her routine — “What is a geek girl? It’s not a girl with a penis calling herself a geek.” (I can’t remember the exact quote: GeekGirlCon responded to my criticisms with great sympathy and removed the video along with a reflectively appropriate apology in response to my concerns.) They recognized that the joke was a fatuous appeal to locker room humour that was offensive to both cis and trans women. Why? Because who wants to have their membership categorized by a philosophy of anatomy pushed to the limit of inflexible metaphor?
“Thousand vaginas.” “Peenie/balls” The prurient downsizing of identities to bits of flesh and the words we make up for them — this isn’t helpful to anyone. And so many pointless acts of oppression and suppression perpetuate themselves through a cheap biologic of essentialized sexuality — one that readily reveals its aspirations to male power and linguistic privilege. This isn’t theory: Whedon’s tweet demonstrates the process more immediately than any academic essay ever could. The quip has an Ace Ventura approach to ascribing and labeling gender, and to whom gender is owned, by the childish term “peeny”.
We have some growing up to do.
Cisgender people were, and should be, also offended by this kind of red-pencil proofreading of female sexuality. As a friend of mine, a pro-choice advocate, told me in response to the “thousand vaginas” slogan, “My abortion wasn’t about my vagina.” Such reductio ad absurdum of genitalia stand-ins necessarily produces flimsy “universal symbols” that, through metonymic imposition, turn complexity into cuneiform trivialities. This does no one a favor, to locate a woman’s strength as a tired allusion to sexual reproduction. This benefits no one. Not cis people to be sure. But especially not trans, for those of us who must constantly negotiate the lived experience of gender against the regimented obsession with what we have, or have not done, in terms of parts, pieces, bits, but never wholes. We’re constantly rendered in the discourse of division and fraction.
I call this the Courician approach to bioethics: rude questions, shallow definitions, and an insouciant need-to-know basis in which now is always.
Famous Dude is asked, “What makes a great woman character?” He replies, “It’s the genitalz!” Really? Is this how Whedon defines strong narrative presences for women — a male figure, sans penis? Joke or not, was this really the best answer, of all the things to tell his 100k+ followers, when asked for advice on how writers can portray meaningful female characters? who want somthing more than the hip pretty nerd girl, which is the only anima avatar of the “Feminine” that male geek culture can deal with?
The interstices of words, bodies, and persons would require far more breaking down than I was prepared to do in this post. Whedon’s 140 char curtailment — of the politics of external organs as sine qua non signification — promotes a common, careless presumption that is guileless and glib. To define women by what they have, or do not have, between their legs is the ultimate pronouncement of heretosexual male authority and cissexist impositions through the law of signs. A man, speaking of women’s bodies, turns the virtue of “strength” into the final indication of a highlighter to the crotch.
Simone de Beauvoir demanded that we realise the constrictive emphasis placed on isolated segmentations that only have a minor role in the overall development of a human being. As she wrote, “her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman . . .” But retrograde biologies take the worldliness of our enbodied experiences by minimising women, cis and trans, to anatomical abbreviations: abridged, scaled down, truncated, and therefore representationally apropos of no one.
To reprise Whedon’s term “valuing”, his demarcation of woman’s personhood values pasted-on surfaces of post-it notes for delimiting sex and gender. In the form of pet names for private parts.
… Just as when Oscar visits his pupil to see how his language studies have progressed, he exclaims in shock to Michael, seeing the stickers everywhere, “you have an office full of genitalia.”
That’s not a plausible mimesis. Rather, it’s a diorama of stick figurines … — it’s a room full of adhesive notes featuring peenies and boobies in lieu of people and identities, reflecting only Michael Scott’s sexist attributions as office manager.
However you construe Whedon’s intent, he missed a chance to give really compelling direction, to aspiring authors, as to what constitutes more than a hashtagged précis of human potential. This is a serious omission, in my view, given the colossal dearth of powerful women in comics and speculative fiction — as readers, writers, and lead characters. Perhaps his answer may have done better by addressing this sad state of the industry — and the “community” that is its common purpose.