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Princess Agile Girl and Mr. Strength Man

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?

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37 comments for “Princess Agile Girl and Mr. Strength Man

  1. avatar
    July 19, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    And bonus points if you get the image I chose for the post and why…

  2. avatar
    July 19, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    I was talking something along those lines with my kids today on the way to daycare.

  3. avatar
    July 19, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    Something along the lines of how great it was and the gray areas of good/ bad, hero /vilian.

    • avatar
      July 19, 2017 at 3:16 pm

      So your kids thought it was great or that there wasn’t enough? I’m not sure which way you’re saying.

    • avatar
      July 19, 2017 at 3:26 pm

      Sorry how great it was that there were lots of female superheroes and their arch nemisis.

    • avatar
      July 19, 2017 at 3:29 pm

      And weather or not Cheetah is in the new Wonder Woman movie. Also the gray area where I believe Poison Ivy, Penguin, Harley Quinn, and Phoenix fall just to name a few.

  4. avatar
    July 19, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    Glad I could help you work on your diss from a tangential angle 🙂

    The podcast sounds spiffy. But I hear you on the execution part – I’ve been kicking around podcast ideas for a while and not gotten to it yet. Though I did, in fact, purchase a mic for recording podcasts during amazon prime week. So maybe some day . . .

    • avatar
      July 19, 2017 at 3:15 pm

      If we ever get off our asses and do it, I’ll be sure to invite you one day. In effect, it would just be a podcast version of the same kinds of roundtables we’d do at PCA or any other academic setting. Just with academics and fans together and a little bit more of an agenda based on what the panelists wanted to do with that particular text.

  5. avatar
    July 20, 2017 at 5:59 am

    Jessica Q. Stark, you might be interested in this. I would also totally help with a podcast if you need assistance 🙂 I’ve been thinking about getting into one as well.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:01 am

      But of course! Seriously… I just need to actually do it. I really think it’s a good idea…. it’s just… you know… DOING STUFF…..

      Anyway, hello Jessica Q. Stark. Welcome.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:03 am

      Because we all know that you have soooo much free time on your hands. (Although my problem is usually a lack of brain power and not time. Heeelllloooo disaster chapter…)

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:04 am

      Chris Maverick great idea!! Maybe it would be easier to execute one day with more hands on deck!! ?

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:05 am

      I’m also wondering if you could test the concept through guest blog posts on your site? Ethos does a similar thing with multiple people responding to the same topic through a week and it might be a way of getting started that isn’t as labor intensive.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:07 am

      So when I first came up with it, my friend Wayne and I talked about it. And we both love it… except the idea of doing one every week just seems massively overwhelming. But also, the idea of having a Podcast that was only once a month seemed like no one would care and an audience would be impossible to build.

      BUT then i realized, that it might be more interesting if if wasn’t the same hosts everytime. That would actually kind of make it better because you’d get a lot of different perspectives. And besides, when we do the episode on … lets say Call of Duty… it certainly makes way more sense to have Katya host than me.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:09 am

      Except not Call of Duty, I find it super boring. Although I suppose I could be forced. I would be super into doing one on Everything though, I’d be curious to hear what people think about it (beyond mere reviews at any rate.)

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:09 am

      Also also… if you’re offering to write a guest blog for the site, I’m all up for it.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:10 am

      I’d totally be willing, I have a few ideas for some indie game posts that Ethos hasn’t snapped up yet.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:10 am

      Oh!!! Yeah, so you might have noticed that I’ve been going out of my way to watch and review movies this summer that I know I won’t like along with some that I will. That’s totally why. My theory was that if something like this were to work, there’d need to be a way to find something to say about things that aren’t my cup of tea.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:11 am

      Sweet!!! I’m all for it!

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:12 am

      I totally agree, I’m just hesitant to comment much on a huge series I haven’t played most of. (I’d be happy to facilitate discussion and be convinced to appreciate them though :D)

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:15 am

      fair enough…. it was just a random game that came to my mind that I knew that any random passerby who might see these comments would have heard about….

      But FINE, if you want to be that way…. ummm…. your topic is marxist class representations in Tetris! 😛

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:17 am

      I accept this challenge only if I can make it a parody and dress up as Marx for the post picture.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 6:18 am

      Heehee… I almost said pong. But really, if you wanted to write whatever you wanted to write on anything, I’d be happy to post it just to see what the interest would be.

      and yeah, when we did it for real there’d be some other site instead of “chrismaverick.com” my ego is not THAT big….

  6. avatar
    July 20, 2017 at 10:50 am

    In regards to naming, I would guess phonetics plays a role.

    “Character monikers follow a similar pattern to team names. Consider some of the most popular comic characters of all time: Batman, Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel and Spider-Man. Eight percent of both male and female characters have gendered names. However, not all gendered names are equal; some fit a “diminutive” category. These are titles that are the younger, or infantilized versions of another name. For example, “girl” is the diminutive version of woman.”

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 11:20 am

      I mean, in theory sure… sometimes… particularly with alliteration. It could be.

      But that’s not really the case here because most of the names aren’t alliterative or even simpler. In several situations (Superman/boy, Supergirl/woman, Spider-woman/girl, Batgirl/woman, Wonderwoman/girl), both versions exist.

      But the primary reason is historic. The convention was set in a time where the diminutive female form (girl) was far less controversial than it is today. There are lots of versions where the diminutive was replaced by the mature version later to comply with cultural norms (Invisible Woman, Hawkwoman — though this has sense reverted in most instances). And the point is the percentage difference with male diminutives is statistically significant even with assumptions of phonetic preference. That’s why her regression analysis is important.

      In any case, it’s entirely intentional Batgirl is probably the best example. Batwoman actually predates the character. Followed by a different character of Bat-girl that is unrelated to the character most people think of. THEN both of these characters were retired… Then they brought in the Barbara Gordon Batgirl character and specifically made sure she was girl and not woman so as not to upstage Batman. She similarly had other limitations, like expressly being a brown belt rather than a black belt, specifically so the readers knew he or Robin could beat her up in a fight if it ever came to it.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 11:28 am

      It is just a common theme in the naming of comic characters. To make it something phonetically pleasing. Often using alliteration as you mentioned above.

      I would be curious to see an analysis of three vs four syllable names.

      Also side vs main characters.

      Interesting article and analysis nonetheless.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 11:30 am

      Except it’s not. There’s a specific historic reason why it was done and it has nothing to do with phonetics. It was cultural.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 11:34 am

      There’s like totally documentation where these decisions are discussed. Not just theory. But like actual design decisions and rationales from the creators. The intent was specifically to make sure the female characters didn’t upstage the male characters for the presumed teen male audience.

      it’s the same reason the traditional 4/5 character superteam only has one female character on it, and she is typically positioned as the romantic interest of the leader and triangle with the rogue/lancer.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 11:45 am

      Peter Parker, Dr. Doom, Bruce Banner etc. The list is pretty much endless. So yeah, it is common to make the names phonetically pleasing.

      In regards to female characters, of course it was cultural, I was not debating that. They were trying to sell comics, so I am pretty sure they would generally do things that fit with cultural norms.

      As I said, I would be curious as to the differences in the names of subordinate characters, both male and female, as opposed to their front line counterparts. Recognizing that historically there are far fewer female characters that took center stage.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 11:49 am

      I’m aware of alliterative names. That’s not what I or the article is talking about. You’re finding some side issue to link to the study that doesn’t really affect it one way or the other. Yes, what you’re asking might be interesting. But regardless of the findings it doesn’t affect the actual point of this study at all.

      You’re trying to force an equivalence where one doesn’t exist.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 11:57 am

      So, Vic, if I understand you right, you are saying that Saturn Girl is more phonetically pleasing than Saturn Woman? Or maybe that Batgirl is more pleasing than Batwoman? Or even that Supergirl is more pleasing than Superwoman?

      If that is so, then why isn’t Batboy or Superboy more pleasing? Heck, Batboy (Bat Boy?) even follows the alliteration point you were trying to inject.

      And before you respond with an age claim, let me point out that in the original X-Men, Jean Grey was Marvel Girl, while Bobby was Iceman (and I think he was actually younger than she was).

      The alliteration claim is pretty much a non-starter since the number of male heroes that have names that start with a “M” and the number of female heroes that have names that start with a “G” are comparatively trivial. Any other claim you might consider making has to challenge a thesis worth of evidence.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 12:04 pm

      Michael Strauss is correct on the X-men, both with their ages and the reasons for the decisions. Again, it’s not even disputable. Stan will straight up tell you that’s why he did it. And Vic is correct, that’s also why Stan chose so many alliterative names (in this case, Scott Summers and Warren Worthington, specifically) but it’s an unrelated point.

      This is like if we were discussing a paper on the statistics of how many Jews died in the holocaust and someone’s counter argument was about how many Japanese were killed in the Hiroshima bombing… It’s irrelevant. I mean other than “yes, these are two things that happened… in roughly the same time period… but one has no real bearing on the other.”

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 12:11 pm

      Chris: So what is the point? Analyzing a predominately male dominated medium by gender will show a greater instance of male dominance as portrayed in the medium? That seems kind of obvious.

      Michael: What I am saying is that the reasoning behind naming characters is not simply about gender, even when gender was used to make the female characters more subordinate. Did it happen? Of course. To subjugate the female characters? Of course. My curiosity, not really an argument, was simply in regards to the other factors that lead to the difference in powers and names.

      So yes, Ice Boy, does not have the same ring as Ice Man. And, regardless of age, he was part of the team, not a side kick. Hence my earlier question.

      To say that how a name sounds is not relevant in regards to the reasoning behind the naming of characters is silly. Gender bias aside, if you are going to do an analysis of naming conventions in comics, it seems kind of misguided to ignore one of the most common aspects of naming characters.

      The difference in powers is another story, but my curiosity was not really in regards to that aspect of the study.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 12:16 pm

      Now I am actually curious as to the characters specifically created as subordinate so as to not diminish their counterparts. If nothing else, thank you for something to think about and look into.

    • avatar
      July 20, 2017 at 12:33 pm

      The point is to show statistical significance. Yes it was (and mostly remains) a male dominated medium targeting a male demographic. The question is how much does this affect the content produced. She’s found a quantifiable way of illustrating that. It’s actually not as obvious as you think it is. Which is why her article is interesting.

      The name phonetics are a separate issue. Sure maybe interesting but unrelated.

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