If you pay attention to me at all, you might have picked up that I have kind of a preoccupation with sex and gender in comic books and superhero movies. Did you miss that? It’s kind of subtle maybe? Oh it’s not? I talk about it all the fucking time? Huh….
Anyway, here’s something weird about doing a dissertation. The way you get into a PhD program is that you become such a huge geek on a single specific topic that you not only want to make it your life’s work, but when you take “breaks” from working on it, for fun, you literally do the exact same shit. Not on purpose or anything… you’re just a huge fucking nerd and you don’t know any better.
Anyway, I’ve been working on my dissertation today… and after banging out a few pages of stuff that I’m sure I’ll rewrite a dozen more times and the actual words that I’ve typed will not be even remotely recognizable from their current draft, I decided to take a break and see what was interesting on Facebook. One of the things that really caught my eye was an article my friend and colleague Nicole Freim found and shared. The title was interesting and I decided to save it for later. I even made a comment to Nicole that I would read it later because it seemed cool but I had to get back to… “dissertationing… ”
Who the fuck was I trying to kid?
So yeah, I failed my saving throw vs. internet and immediately got engaged by the article, “Analyzing the Gender Representation of 34,476 Comic Book Characters” by Amanda Shendruk. I often get really annoyed with both academic articles and popular articles on the intersection of feminist or racial criticism and popular culture. Mostly because they often ignore each other. A lot of internet blogs just sort of spout what is essentially memes rather than valid cultural theory and while well intentioned sort of misses little nuances that makes what they’re saying invalid. At the same time, a lot academic types just discount everything in the popular sphere because “those people don’t have letters after their name. So what can they know?” Both of these things are wrong. Good ideas come from everywhere and to really understand something you have to look everywhere.
So I’m glad I read it… because Amanda Shendruk clearly fucking rocks!
So in her article she analyzes the phenomenon of gendering powers and names in superhero comics. This sort of relates to some research I posted about doing a year ago, when I was reading up on gendering of powers in Mike Madrid’s book, The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. Shendruk has taken it even farther though. She related the powers to the diminutizing of female superhero names… the fact that female heroes are less likely to be called “woman” and more likely to be called “girl” than males are with “man” and “boy.” But even better than just saying it, she did a study. She actually went and counted and tabulated her data by using Comic Vine (a website that coincidentally I cited in my dissertation like an hour before I read it) and she even explained her methodology. She did statistical analysis and everything. It’s an honest to goodness academic study, done in a non-academic setting. And it’s a good one!
She even has charts! Fucking charts!!! I love charts! Almost no one doing academic research on comics ever does data tabulation and it’s super rare to visualize it on a chart. Hell, I went through all the trouble of tabulated data, doing statistical analysis and making a chart last year and I never even used it in the paper. And hers are better because she went all digital humanities and make them interactive and stuff! Amanda Shendruk is my fucking hero!
Seriously, I even bookmarked her article because I may end up referring to it in the dissertation.
Anyway, on the specifics of what she’s saying, I think its fascinating. She figures out the exact percentage of gendering names overall in the Comic Vine database and then discovers the percentage difference between certain gendered terms: 5.7% of female-gendered-named characters have “woman” in their name compared to 30% of male-gendered-names characters with “man.” 12.6% of female-gendered-named characters have “girl” in the name compared to 5.1% of male-gendered-named characters with “boy.”
She even has some random anecdotal data that surprises me. Like, in DC and Marvel, 62.4% of male characters and 62.8% of female characters have powers. Somehow I expected it to be less. It might be skewed slightly by supporting and non-superpowered characters being less likely to be represented in the fan-contributed database. For instance, there are pages for characters like Lois Lane and Mary Jane, but most of the characters from Patsy Walker don’t have pages, unless they also appeared later in Hellcat and all four issues of the original Night Nurse list only one character “Night Nurse” as being in the book, despite the fact that there were actually three protagonists and a wealth of other supporting characters. Still, the fact that these characters are ignored by the contributing fans, probably says as much about the points Shendruk is making as anything else and it’s probably worth continued study. I’m also interested in what the overall percentages are from her data (how likely is a female character to be gender-named at all, vs. a male character) and I’m interested in the regression of likelihood of gendered powers and naming to intermix. Seriously, how is this woman not doing a PhD right now? She should at least be at PCA next year.
All of this makes me really want to get on the podcast idea I had a while back and that I keep discussing with Wayne Wise. I want there to be a show that has a rotating panel consisting of both pop culture scholars and opinionated fans. Every week there would be a different topic of something in popular media (say the Wonder Woman movie, or the Game of Thrones TV show, or any number of new books, comics, music, or video games… or even just something like say the Super Bowl). Then two academic types and two fans would each write four short critical articles about the media/text and post them to the podcasts blog for each other to read over, as well as solicit audience opinions. This wouldn’t necessarily be just “this is good” or “this is bad” critiques, thought those are ok. I’m actually more interested in analytical articles like I often do with my reviews, or even as in-depth as what Shendruk has here. And at the end of the week, there’d be a show with a roundtable discussion by those four panelists where they address each others thoughts and maybe even audience comments.
Also, I’d probably be drinking during it.
If we ever did that, Shendruk is exactly the kind of person I’d want to invite to be a panelist for a week. The problem is that both Wayne and I are entirely too lazy to have gotten this together. Maybe someday.
Anyway, I’m interested in both people’s thoughts on her article and whether or not you think the podcast idea would be good. Thoughts?