Judith Butler’s gender performativity – in comics?

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?

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog

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What about that feminist agenda? Review of Mockingbird #8

Mockingbird #8
Language: English
Authors: Chelsea Cain (writer), Kate Niemczyk (artist), Rachelle Rosenberg (colourist)
Publisher: Marvel
Publication Date: October 2016
Pages: 20
Price: $ 3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/21245/mockingbird_2016_-_present

I don’t usually review single comic book issues, but Mockingbird #8 merits an exception for two reasons:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.page 5 of Mockingbird #8 by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk
  • 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.)page 16 of Mockingbird #8 by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk
  • 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?page 19 of Mockingbird #8 by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk
  • 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.page 20 of Mockingbird #8 by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk

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.

No rating today because the reviewed item is so short, but here are two other reviews I found interesting: Major Spoilers Podcast #702 and The Marvel Report.


Mako-Mori-testing Archie and JLA

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.

Betty's situation summed up in two panels. Art by Fiona Staples

Betty’s situation summed up in two panels. Art by Fiona Staples

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.

Soon she will be joined by a male companion, though.

Soon she will be joined by a male companion, though.

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…


Craig Owens’s Discourse of Others – in comics?

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?

panel from The Multiversity #1 from Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis

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.

panel detail from The Multiversity #1 by Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis

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.

panel from The Multiversity #1 by Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis

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.