Between her two major books on feminist art history, Old Mistresses (1981, co-authored by Rozsika Parker) and Vision and Difference (1987), Griselda Pollock published an article titled “Women, Art, and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians”¹. In part a summary of the former book, it outlines Pollock’s notion of a feminist art history (or should that rather be “feminism in art history”?). The problem with previous feminist art historians, according to Pollock’s essay, is that they only tried to amend the canon of art history by adding female artists that had been omitted before. Pollock calls this an “unthreatening and additive feminism”. Instead, she argues, “a central task for feminist art historians is […] to critique art history itself”, because art history (as well as its object of study, art) is a system that “actively constructs and secures the patriarchal definitions for the category Woman”.
How, then, is a feminist art history possible at all? “The important questions” need to be asked: “how and why an art object or text was made, for whom was it made, for what purpose was it made, within what constraints and possibilites was it produced and initially used?” The importance of such questions to any art historical analysis seems self-evident today, and in fact they were already being asked back then – Marxist art history and the social history of art were a big thing. But they didn’t satisfy Pollock, who says that Marxist thinking about art, which treats “art as a reflection of the society that produced it”, has some severe shortcomings: it “oversimplifies the processes whereby an art product […] represents social processes that are themselves enormously complicated, mobile, and opaque”; it “condemns women effectively to a homogenenous, gender-defined category” and “effaces the specificity and heterogeneity of women’s artistic production”; it places works of art in ideological categories when in fact “ideologies are often fractured and contradictory”, etc.
So the overall tendency of Pollock’s feminist art history is: specificity, particularity, complexity and heterogeneity instead of generalisation and categorisation. Clearly, such a kind of art history is a radical shift away from scholarship as it is traditionally understood. It is perhaps best summed up in Pollock’s demand that “the relations between women, art, and ideology have to be studied as a set of varying and unpredictable relationships.” However, when Pollock’s essay provides some examples of what such an analysis might look like (taken from Old Mistresses), they don’t seem quite so radical after all. Sofonisba Anguissola’s 1561 Self Portrait With Spinet and Attendant is interpreted as a display of the artist’s aristocratic class position which allowed her to become a professional painter, unlike women of lower classes. Johann Zoffany’s 1772 The Academicians of the Royal Academy, in which the only two female Academy members are not part of the group in the room but represented as portrait paintings on the wall, shows how the system of the art academy actively constructed “distinct identities for the artist who was a man – the artist, and the artist who was a woman – the woman artist.” The late 18th-century family portraits by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun show how the ideal of the woman at that time had changed to that of “the happy mother, the woman fulfilled by childbearing and childrearing.”
Thus, in contrast to ‘mainstream’ art history, Pollock’s vantage point is always the (female) artist’s biography. Let’s see where this approach takes us when applied to a random comic.
The last comic by a female author that I read was Moe Yukimaru’s Suisai (more on that manga in a later post) vol. 1. What can we find out about this mangaka? Born in 1986, Yukimaru worked as an assistant to Nana Haruta (on another shōjo manga, Love Berrish) before debuting as a mangaka in 2006. Most of her manga were published in the shōjo magazine Ribon. Suisai started in 2015, i.e. when Yukimaru was 28 or 29. According to e.g. her Japanese Wikipedia page, her dream for the future is to become a “mangaka and charismatic housewife at the same time”. However, we don’t know when and under which circumstances she said that.
Yukimaru also has a weblog, yukimarublog.jugem.jp. She hasn’t posted for a while and her latest blogposts are about her current manga, Hatsukoi Retake, and transitioning from print to digital-first publishing. But her earlier posts from around the time when she was working on Suisai are quite interesting. In one of them, from late 2014, she apologises for “not having a particularly stylish lifestyle to blog about” and not being one of those “bloggers who write about highly feminine content with fashionable images every day”. Apart from promoting her manga work, though, there is quite a lot of cat content, food pics, and even a post about Yukimaru doing her fingernails.
So the image that we can perceive of Yukimaru is that of a ‘highly feminine’ artist who is firmly associated with the shōjo manga segment. Interestingly, Suisai doesn’t quite reflect this image. Although often labeled ‘romance’, this first volume at least is not so much of a girl-meets-boy story (there is something of that, too) but more of a ‘girl-meets-flute’ story of a high school student who enters her school’s brass band. It is a music manga first and foremost. Other music manga, e.g. Naoshi Arakawa’s Shigatsu wa kimi no uso / Your Lie in April, have been published in shо̄nen magazines. Granted, that one had both a male protagonist and a male author, but the point is that demographic categorisations such as shо̄jo or shо̄nen are often quite artificial, and that Suisai isn’t a particularly ‘girly’ manga.
Taking a closer look at Suisai, however, we find some interesting points being raised in terms of gender. Right at the beginning, we learn that the protagonist, Urara, had been a successful track-and-field athlete in middle school. But now in high school, she wants to “try something new” instead of a sports club – so that she can spend more time wearing the “cute” sailor uniform of her new school. “After quitting the [track-and-field] club, I have grown my hair long just for that”, she says, which prompts her classmate to say: “So there is an actual girl hidden in you after all.”
In the following course of the story, there are several scenes in which Urara’s energetic and bold nature is seen as undesirable and un-girly, and her lack of “cuteness” is pointed out. Thus we could read this coming-of-age story as the story of Urara moving on not only from middle to high school, but also from a sports to a music club, leaving her boyish childhood behind and becoming a woman. As Griselda Pollock would perhaps say, Urara succumbs to the allure of this artificially created category of Woman; a category created both by the fictional society in the manga and real society, including Moe Yukimaru, her publisher, and her readers.
¹ First published in Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1983), pp. 39–47, https://doi.org/10.2307/1358100; re-published in Women’s Studies Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 1/2, Teaching about Women and the Visual Arts (Spring – Summer, 1987), pp. 2–9, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40004832.
Though not quite as famous as her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, Linda Nochlin’s “Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman” from 1978 is still a classic text of feminist art history. At its core, this article is an interpretation of the unfinished painting Found, which Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) had been working on intermittently for decades. It shows a woman in a London street who “has sunk under her shame upon her knees” (Rossetti) as she has recognized a man from the countryside whom she, apparently, knows from a happier, rural past which she has left behind.
Nochlin identifies this female figure as a “fallen woman”, a popular trope in nineteenth-century art and literature. “Fallen” is defined as “any sort of sexual activity on the part of women out of wedlock, whether or not for gain”. Nochlin points out the following typical features of fallen-woman imagery:
- The moral fall often goes hand in hand with a literal fall.
- Sinful urbanity is contrasted with innocent rurality.
- The bleak present is opposed to a blissful past.
- Another contrast to the fallen woman (or her possible way of redemption) is the woman who fulfils her role within the family as daughter, wife and/or mother, the “angel in the house”.
- This contrast is also depicted as an outside-inside dichotomy (fallen woman in the street vs. family inside the home). However, this dichotomy may also be reversed, as Nochlin shows using the example of other pictures, to become the “contrast of inside and outside, the crowded, body-packed realm of sin opposed to the pure realm of nature outside the windows”.
In a move that seems a bit old-fashioned today, Nochlin then connects Rossetti’s artistic “obsession” towards this topic to his biography and personality in which, she presumes, “contradictory urges of chivalrous purity and sexual lust [were] burning”; he was a “man of strong sensuality who at the same time believed fervently in some kind of ideal of goodness but could rarely bring himself to act upon this belief.” Thus the fallen woman becomes a “symbol of his moral and erotic idealism” (as Nochlin says about another Rossetti painting).
So far, all of this might not seem relevant to you (unless you happen to be interested in Victorian art). But it will be if we take Nochlin’s observations as universal, i.e. applicable not just to Rossetti and Found but to anyone at almost any time and to a wide range of works of art. Bear in mind though that this may go beyond what Nochlin intended to say. Still, given the universality of the male gaze, it seems unlikely that Rossetti was exceptional in his attitude towards and depictions of fallen women. Of course, when moving to a different time period, the definition of falling as extramarital sexual activity might need to be extended to other forms of moral misconduct.
That being said, let us take a more-or-less random comic and see how much of the fallen woman concept we can find in there. Bonnouji (煩悩寺) by Aki Eda originally came out in 2010 already, but has only now been translated into German (and apparently not yet at all in English). It tells the love story between the young single man Oyamada and his female neighbour from three floors above, Ozawa. Both are in their twenties, and while Ozawa has an office job, Oyamada works from home. When one day Ozawa finds out that Oyamada’s apartment is full of trinkets, curiosities, and mysterious unopened parcels sent to him by his brother, she starts hanging out at this “temple of earthly desires” (bonnōji).
Is Ozawa a fallen woman? It’s not as if she was a prostitute or anything like that, but there is definitely a contrast built up between her and Oyamada in terms of morality. On the very first page, she comes to his place for the first time because she’s had too much to drink and wants to use his bathroom, then tells him that her long-term boyfriend has just left her. Ozawa also smokes and regularly gets drunk at Oyamada’s. He, on the other hand, lives like a hermit and rarely leaves his apartment. Sexually inexperienced and shy around Ozawa, there is something innocent and pure about him. (At least in the first volume; in the second, this dynamic is somehow reversed.)
As for Nochlin’s five typical features:
- There is sort of a literal fall right at the beginning of the manga. The table of contents before the first actual comic page is illustrated with a little scene in chibi style that doesn’t occur in the story. Ozawa, surrounded by cans and bottles of alcohol, has passed out on the floor, and Oyamada is smiling and holding a blanket, about to tuck her in.
- Unlike in many other manga, the urban-rural dichotomy does not play much of a role in Bonnouji. However, one could read a subtle critique of urbanity into it, e.g. into the anonymity of the apartment house in which no one really knows their neighbour and in which the inhabitants dwell in tiny flats, probably paying outrageously high rents.
- present vs. past: after having broken up with her boyfriend, Ozawa frequently hangs out at Oyamada’s place because she dislikes her present situation of living alone. She ultimately wants to restore her past of being in a relationship.
- angel in the house: even before they start dating, Ozawa secretly tidies up Oyamada’s apartment. This intrusion shows that she would like to be something more like a homemaker to him, even though presently she is not in the ‘official’ position to do so.
- outside vs. inside: in the second volume, the two realise that they’re spending too much time inside Oyamada’s flat, and that going outside more often would be the right thing to do.
We can even see something of Rossetti (as characterised by Nochlin) in the character of Oyamada who also has “contradictory urges of chivalrous purity and sexual lust”, which is epitomised in the scene in which Ozawa spends her first night as his girlfriend at his place: she sleeps in a coffin – another of Oyamada’s brother’s gifts – and he sleeps on the floor next to it.
So there we have it: we have identified Ozawa as a fallen woman, and it looks like once we start looking, we find fallen women everywhere; Nochlin’s concept is useful for attuning our attention to this topic, and we can leave it at that. Right?
Wrong. As ever so often in the Humanities, an interpretation can easily be turned into its opposite, which then appears to be at least equally as valid.
In Bonnouji, the case could be made that Ozawa is anything but a fallen woman. After all, she and her boyfriend broke up because she wanted to marry and he didn’t. Her readiness to become someone’s wife appears rather virtuous (in the fallen woman context) compared to Oyamada who doesn’t seem to have had any interest in women – and thus in eventually becoming someone’s husband – so far.
The aforementioned five typical features of the fallen woman trope can be reversed as well:
- literal fall: as mentioned before, the scene in which he is standing and she has passed out drunk on the floor doesn’t actually happen in the manga, but there is a reverse situation of sorts when she enters his apartment and finds him asleep, and then proceeds to tidy the place up without waking him up. Also note the moral implication there of her being busy (i.e. virtuous) while he is being idle (i.e. sinful).
- urban vs. rural: the absence of rurality in this manga can also be taken as a celebration of urbanity. The protagonists have everything they need in their urban surroundings and never need to leave them.
- present vs. past: Ozawa is actually glad that her ex-boyfriend has moved out. For her, falling in love with Oyamada feels like a completely new experience. They both live in the present and are not longing for their past lives.
- angel in the house: apart from that one tidying-up episode, the role of the housewife is neither acted out by Ozawa, nor by anyone else to represent a counterpoint to her.
- outside vs. inside: the name bonnōji says it all: Oyamada’s apartment is glorified as a magical place filled with endless wonder. Consequently, most of the action of the manga takes place inside, and the characters only go outside if they can’t avoid it.
So Ozawa may or may not be a fallen woman after all. But is Nochlin’s concept applicable to 21st century comics in the first place? Or, more generally: is sexual morality (in a wider sense, i.e. including the ethics of gender roles) still relevant enough nowadays to provide a meaningful lens through which we can read comics?
At least in the case of romance manga, it would be absurd not to assume any connection to the sexual ethics of Japanese society. There is an unbroken preoccupation – or fascination? – in the West with Japanese sexuality and its purportedly vast differentness (or even perceived moral inferiority, as I have argued elsewhere). Therefore, when reading any comic featuring a female character, one can ask: what are the rules that govern her behaviour within her specific society? What would need to happen for her to become a fallen woman? How would that change her role in society? What would her options for redemption be? And how is all of that expressed in the comics medium? That being said, we need to be aware that comics need not accurately represent the society in which they are made and read, but rather tell us something about the conscious or unconscious desires and fears of that society.
Judith Butler’s article “Performative Acts of Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” from 1988 (Theatre Journal 40.4, pp. 519-531) is, of course, a classic. But when it gets reduced to the buzzword of ‘gender performativity’, there’s a danger of missing all the implications of this concept, so it’s still worth reading the original article. Building primarily on Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Butler’s basis in this essay is the sex/gender distinction: a gender isn’t something one is born with – it is constituted during one’s lifetime. Furthermore, Butler says, the gender binary (the idea that there are exactly two genders, male and female) is likewise artificial. As is the prevalent “system of compulsory heterosexuality” in which “‘attraction’ to the opposing sex/gender” is seen as “natural”. (The term ‘heteronormativity’ isn’t used by Butler yet.)
Butler’s groundbreaking idea is that, as the title already says, gender is consituted through acts of performance. What is a performative act? Butler doesn’t explicitly define that, but hints at a wide range of possibilities: “acts, gestures, the visual body, the clothed body, the various physical attributes usually associated with gender”. Her only example is a “transvestite” who is not further described. This transvestite challenges the binary male/female distinction by combining traditionally female clothes with physical features usually seen as male, or vice versa.
This seems to be a crucial point that often gets overlooked: performative acts aren’t only ways of speaking, dressing and moving, but “the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space”. While these corporeal restrictions can be overcome to some extent through clothes, make-up and surgery, it’s important to always consider physical attributes as potential acts of gender constitution. Comics might be interesting objects to analyse from this perspective because they’re good at rendering visual performance acts but not so great at depicting movement or sound (e.g. the tone of one’s voice – though this can be used for humorous effect, as I’ve noted here).
Frank Miller’s comics have frequently been accused of misogyny and sexism, but his Rōnin (DC, 1983-84, colours by Lynn Varley) has been lauded for a strong female main character, Casey McKenna. Casey isn’t exactly a feminist role model either, but that’s not the point here – let’s look at how her gender is performed.
As head of security of a futuristic corporation, Casey wears a gender-neutral uniform that isn’t much different from those of her male subordinates. (At least for most of the first half of the comic – things get weird after that, including her clothes.) It isn’t so tight as to reveal much of her physical features as female either. Only when she stands next to them, the shape of her body appears female, with a waist-to-hip ratio usually associated with women, and the subtle curve of her chest. The pose she strikes, hip slightly thrust, might also be read as female. Her face is a combination of traditionally male (bushy eyebrows) and female (long eyelashes) features; others such as the angular jaw and full lips are more of a stylistic peculiarity of Miller’s applied to male and female characters alike. Thus Casey’s gender is indeed somewhat complex. It needs to be, if 1980s superhero comic readers were to accept her as both tough (a traditionally male trait) and sexy (traditionally female).
The gender of two other characters in Rōnin is interesting because they are not human (three if we count the rōnin himself, but… it’s complicated; if you’ve read the comic you’ll have noticed I’m trying to avoid spoilers this time): the demon Agat, and the Artificial Intelligence Virgo. Agat’s ‘natural’ form is roughly human, but without genitals. His (Agat is referred to with male pronouns) overly muscular, broad-shouldered body can be read as male though, and consequently he later assumes the form and identity of male human character.
Virgo, on the other hand – referred to with female pronouns and even jokingly called a “lady” (and, later, a “bitch”) – is “the sentient computer who commands every function of [the corporate complex,] Aquarius”. She interacts with people both through voice alone and through an audiovisual screen signal on which a blurred, ‘scanlined’ head of a maybe elderly, perhaps female person is visible, possibly wearing earrings. This character is reminiscent of the AI “Mother” in the film Alien (released only four years before Rōnin), but it’s unclear whether Virgo was programmed by humans to look that way – as a powerful and wilful AI, she might have chosen her screen persona herself.
All that being said, we haven’t even talked about the characters’ words and actions as performative acts yet. A scene highly relevant to this matter, for example, is at the end of the comic when Casey accuses the rōnin of unmanly behaviour. But I’ll leave this analysis to others.
Butler’s concept of gender performativity doesn’t explain everything about gender and sexuality, but reading comics with her theory in mind helps us to ask important questions in this context: which characters can be identified as male, female, or something else? (And which can’t?) On which criteria (i.e. performative acts) are these identifications based? Do these acts conform to a traditional gender attribution in a character or are they conflicting? Is the gender attribution of a character stable or does it change in the course of a story? Is all this likely to be the creators’ intention, or a product of their subconscious, or a reading “against the grain”? If the gender configuration in a comic is presumably intentional, what is its function in the story? And is Frank Miller really a sexist?
Authors: Chelsea Cain (writer), Kate Niemczyk (artist), Rachelle Rosenberg (colourist)
Publication Date: October 2016
Price: $ 3.99
I don’t usually review single comic book issues, but Mockingbird #8 merits an exception for two reasons:
- This eighth issue is already the last one of this series, and when it came out, writer Chelsea Cain tweeted: “Please buy Mockingbird #8 this Wed. Send a message to @marvel that there’s room in comics for super hero stories about grown-up women.”
Furthermore, there was some scandal about Cain being harassed on twitter, leading to more pleas for solidarity with Cain. So far, this campaign hasn’t had any effect on the sales of Mockingbird #8, but sales figures are based on retailers’ purchase decisions made months ago, so who knows, maybe this solidarity campaign will make an impact after all. Plus, many people seem to buy the first trade paperback instead.
- And then there’s the cover. Comic book covers are always made to be eye-catchers, but this one stands out as one of the most iconic covers of at least this year. In contrast to many other covers, it even reflects the contents of the comic, as Mockingbird is shown wearing this t-shirt on 5 panels on the penultimate page.
“ASK ME ABOUT MY FEMINIST AGENDA”? That’s just what we’re going to do now: does Bobbi Morse a.k.a. Mockingbird have a feminist agenda? The short answer is, there would be no reason to wear that t-shirt if she didn’t. For the long answer, there are four key scenes with regard to feminism that merit a closer look:
- p. 5: “I’m the law on this boat, Slade”, Mockingbird says to the Phantom Rider when he comes to haunt her on a boat cruise. Superheroes often take the law into their own hands and act as ad hoc commanders of civilian groups (as in this case, the cruise passengers). Here, a woman assumes leadership over a group of both women and men. The fundamental possibility to do so is a classic feminist claim. On the other hand, this gender perspective is not made explicit.
- p. 16: “He divorced me because I cheated on him. He told himself that you had drugged me, taken advantage of me, but he never truly believed it. It’s too ridiculous. He knows that I’ve always made my own decisions. And that I’ll live with the consequences.” Divorce is a traditional feminist device for sexual self-determination, but here it’s Bobbi’s husband who divorced her, not the other way round. However, there is also a discussion (at least from what I gather online – not sure about serious feminist theory) whether cheating can be considered a feminist practice to achieve sexual self-determination. In this case, though, it looks as if Mockingbird regrets her extramarital affair. (For more information on this piece of backstory, see e.g. this review on xmenxpert.)
- p. 19: “This doesn’t count as a rescue”, Bobbi says to Hunter when he comes in a helicopter to rescue her from some beach to which she was swept after she had gone overboard the cruise ship. What could have easily turned into a ‘damsel in distress’ scene is put into perspective by Bobbi’s lines of dialogue and the beach resort setting: she clearly didn’t suffer hardship alone on that beach. Then again, the action in this scene remains the same: when the man comes to take her away from the lonely island / family resort, she lets him. Or is this just an instance of the controversial opinion that feminism and male ‘chivalry’ are reconcilable?
- p. 20: “We’re here because I need a foot rub.” The comic ends with a scene that Chelsea Cain describes in the epilogue as an “alpine threesome”. A male-male-female threesome in which the woman is clearly dominant? That surely is a feminist sexual practice if there ever was one.
In that same epilogue text, Cain describes Bobbi as “separate from the male gaze, but still not afraid to bask in it” – and there is indeed some basking going on in this comic, though not as much as in others. All things considered, while Bobbi may not have an explicit, discernible feminist agenda in Mockingbird #8, there are much more subtle and not-so-subtle feminist undertones in this comic than in most other mainstream superhero comics.
That alone makes Mockingbird #8 an outstanding comic book, but it’s also beautifully drawn (and coloured), has some genuinely funny moments, and many fresh and wacky ideas. Ultimately Mockingbird proved too over-the-top for either the readers or the editorial management of Marvel, but I hope this won’t be the last we get to see of Cain and Niemczyk.
The other day I learned through the Comix-Scholars mailing list of the “Mako Mori test”. Devised as an alternative to the Bechdel test and named after a Pacific Rim character, it works like this (quoted from The Daily Dot):
The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has:
a) at least one female character;
b) who gets her own narrative arc;
c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.
If the Bechdel test isn’t always easy to put into practice, the Mako Mori test is almost unusable. How do we define a narrative arc? How do we define “supporting a man’s story”?
Let’s say a narrative arc in a film is similar to a dramatic arc in drama theory, in that the story builds up to a conflict involving the protagonist (which must be female to pass the Mako Mori test) and then this conflict is resolved. This is already a much simpler definition of an arc than e.g. Gustav Freytag’s five-part model, so it should be easy to find stories – maybe even in comics – that match the Mako Mori test criteria, right?
While a comic may pass the Bechdel test in its first panel, it takes a lot more panels until one can say whether the Mako Mori test is passed. This makes it difficult to apply the Mako Mori test to ongoing serialised comics such as most webcomics, newspaper strips, and monthly comic books. Then again, nowadays comic book writers usually “write for the trade”, so that 6 (give or take 1-2) consecutive issues can be collected in a trade paperback that stands well on its own, in the sense that it contains a complete, self-contained story arc.
There are two ongoing comic book series I’m currently reading that have just reached their sixth issue, so let’s see how they fare in the Mako Mori test.
In the recently re-launched Archie by Mark Waid there are two candidates for female characters with their own narrative arc, Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge. It’s difficult to place Betty in a narrative structure because of Waid’s unusual storytelling: the big crisis – Archie’s and Betty’s breakup – has already happened in the past, and the comic is about how everyone deals with the aftermath. From the beginning, Betty doesn’t want to get back together with Archie, but still has feelings for him and doesn’t approve of his new relationship with Veronica. Throughout the six issues, nothing happens that changes Betty’s attitude, so I don’t see a narrative arc here. I’m not saying a character needs to undergo drastic changes to constitute a narrative arc, but there’s simply no turning point or climax that the events involving Betty build up to.
Likewise, there’s no arc structure around Veronica: she faces some challenges when she comes to Riverdale, but a new status quo (dating Archie and more or less fitting in with her other schoolmates) is quickly established. At the end of the sixth issue, a conflict involving her father is set up, but we’ll have to wait and see if this conflict qualifies as a climax of her narrative arc.
Even if Betty and/or Veronica got their own narrative arcs, one would be hard-pressed to argue that these arcs do not support a man’s story and thus fulfil the third Mako Mori criterion. Archie is first and foremost the story of its title character (who even sometimes acts as first-person narrator) and everything that happens is related to him.
JLA by Bryan Hitch is technically already at issue #7, but #5 was a filler issue completely unrelated to the actual story. In the beginning, the Justice League of America fights a supervillain called Parasite, only to be scattered across place/time/dimensions. Then the main plot begins with the Kryptonian god Rao coming to Earth. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman – the eternal token woman in the Justice League, if you will – finds herself on Olympus, which lies in ruins and has been abandoned by the other gods. Somehow Aquaman ends up on Olympus too, and the two fight off an attack by Rao’s prophets. Wonder Woman then rebuilds Olympus and arms Aquaman and herself with the weapons of the gods.
It’s too early to say how the final conflict will be resolved and who Wonder Woman is actually up against. Wonder Woman thinks it’s not Rao but “something else”, “something that terrified [the other gods]” (#7). But I still wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Rao and Superman are going to be at the center of this conflict, and if Wonder Woman should merely come to Superman’s aid, her narrative arc would be supporting a man’s story.
However, even though (or precisely because) Wonder Woman doesn’t get much on-panel time in this comic, her portion of the story runs parallel to the others and thus forms something like an independent narrative arc. If we had to pick a “winner”, the “Mako Mori award” would surprisingly go to JLA rather than Archie. Another outcome of this little exercise might be that the Mako Mori test isn’t that great a sexism detector.
Just for the record: Archie passes the Bechdel test in issue #2 or #3, whereas JLA doesn’t pass it at all…
After lumping Craig Owens and Hal Foster together in a blogpost on postmodernism and then writing an entire post on Foster alone, it seems only fair to return to Owens, too. Apart from “The Allegorical Impulse”, one of Owens’s texts stands out as particularly influential: “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism”, published in the collected volume The Anti-Aesthetic edited by Foster in 1983. In this essay, a connection between postmodernism and feminism is made on the basis of their critique of (visual) representation. Postmodernism questions the authority on which the modernist consensus of what can be represented and in which form has been reached: “postmodernists […] expose the tyranny of the signifier“.
Feminism, on the other hand, criticises visual perception altogether as patriarchal. This identification stands on somewhat shaky ground, at least as far as it is presented by Owens: not only is vision linked to the Freudian “discovery of castration”, i.e. the “sight of phallic absence in the mother”, but also to objectification and domination, which in a patriarchal society have become male privileges. (Interestingly, Owens doesn’t mention Laura Mulvey and her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, as far as I can see.)
Considering these points, is postmodernist and/or feminist visual art conceivable at all? Yes, says Owens, and points out some examples of postmodernist/feminist artistic strategies:
- refusal of mastery (e.g. Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems)
- denial of visual pleasure (e.g. Louise Lawler’s “movie without picture”)
- reflecting back at the (male) viewer his own desire (e.g. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills)
- demonstrating that masculine and feminine are not stable identities (e.g. Barbara Kruger’s Your gaze hits the side of my face)
However, Owens also points out the possibility of adopting contrary contemporary artistic practices that attempt to “recover some sense of mastery via the resurrection of heroic large-scale easel painting and monumental cast-bronze sculpture”. In other words, it’s up to the artist whether or not to use the previously mentioned postmodernist/feminist strategies.
30 years later, where do comics stand? Let’s look at The Multiversity #1 once more. Which strategies do Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis employ?
Mastery is not refused, but downright celebrated in this comic book. Ivan Reis’s art (not to forget Joe Prado’s inking and Nei Ruffino’s colouring) isn’t just “good” in the sense that he depicts characters in an anatomically correct way – he goes out of his way to show them in a vast variety of poses and perspectives. It truly takes a master draughtsman to produce this kind of artwork. Likewise, Grant Morrison’s writing – plot, dialogue, breakdown (cf. Morrison’s script in The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 – Director’s Cut) – is impeccable.
There’s plenty of visual pleasure here, if by visual pleasure we mean “good girl art”. Particularly the appearances of Earth-8 Ladybug, Earth-11 Aquawoman, and Earth-23 Wonder Woman have no other purpose. (An exception to this rule is Harbinger, the artificial intelligence with a female holographic appearance, whose body is not shown here.) Thus the male viewer’s desire is never reflected.
Masculine and feminine identities are firmly in place: as I have said in my previous Multiversity blogpost, this is a story in which men act and women don’t have much to say (except for Harbinger, the femininity of which is a matter of debate). The plot is driven by the triumvirate of Nix Uotan, Thunderer and Earth-23 Superman. The brief appearance of a gay superhero couple does little to change this overall tone.
If we look at The Multiversity #1 from this perspective, it appears to be a far cry from a postmodernist and/or feminist comic.