Editorial: On Millar’s and McFarlane’s Sexist Words

Mark MillarIf you are unaware of what comic book legends Mark Millar and Todd McFarlane said that has pissed off legions of fans, hold onto your butts. In an article in The New Republic, Millar went on record defending the brutal rape of women as a plot device.

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”

Even the writer of the article could not let that slide:

Millar has spoken out against the under-representation of female characters in comics, but his depictions of rape have alienated some readers. In Wanted, the sadistic protagonist gleefully commits rape over and over again, at one time bragging that he “raped an A-list celebrity and it didn’t even make the news.” In The Authority, a Captain America analog rapes two unconscious women. In issue four of Kick-Ass 2, a group of bad guys finds the young hero’s love interest, a teenaged girl named Katie, and brutally gang-rapes her. “You’re done banging superheroes, baby,” the ringleader says, punching her and unzipping his fly, “it’s time to see what evil dick tastes like.”

McFarland-panelAt the same time, at a panel promoting a documentary about comic books, Todd McFarlane had this little “gem” to say on the objectifying of women often seen in comics:

As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys. The guys are all good-looking, not too many ugly superheroes. They’ve all got their hair gelled back. They have got perfect pecs on them. They have no hair on their chest. I mean, they are Ryan Gosling on steroids. Right? They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype and do it to both sexes. We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies.”

To make matters worse, Punisher creator Gerry Conway doubled down on this by saying “The comics follow society. They don’t lead society.”

In a medium that once infamously made Green Lantern face his own racism, and made society  examine it as well, this is a fall from grace. It is also some of the most sexist clap trap this young man has ever heard! With a few soundbites, these legends who we should be looking up to were adding to a long inherent problem in comic book culture: the mistreatment of women.

Let us face facts, this is an industry that has very few women writers or artists at the Big Two. With the exception of Gail Simone and Ann Nocenti, no woman has been as Gail Simone DC Publicity photowidely recognized by the industry. Not to mention there is a growing number of female fans now reading comics, or working in the former boys club known as your local comic book store. There is a market for books catering to women, by women. But alas, the predominantly male circle of comic book talent seems to ignore that, as well as the fact women love superheroes. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in her article on Think Progress:

“And, now, this is not to say you’re confusing superheroes with the industry, because there are a lot of comic books,” Conway told me. “My daughter — the only actual comic books she will read is by a girl named Faith Erin Hicks, who writes stories that speak to her. So she’s not interested in the guy stories. She’s interested in this woman’s stories. And I think it’s a mistake to sort of, like, pigeonhole superheroes, or to add so much to superheroes that you’re missing the fact it’s a genre within itself. It’s like saying, ‘Why are there no medieval stories about female knights?’ Because there was only one, you know, Joan of Arc. It’s not it’s an inherent limitation of that particular genre, superheroes.” (It’s odd that Conway suggests that Hicks’ comics, which include The Adventures of Superhero Girl, are somehow separate from superhero comics.)

And McFarlane suggested that he’d steer his own daughters in a different direction to empower them — not because superhero comics promote damaging images of women, but because they are the natural preserve of men.

“It might not be the right platform,” he said. “I’ve got two daughters, and if I wanted to do something that I thought was emboldened to a female, I probably wouldn’t choose superhero comic books to get that message across. I would do it in either a TV show, a movie, a novel, or a book. It wouldn’t be superheroes because I know that’s heavily testosterone-driven, and it’s a certain kind of group of people. That’s not where I would go get this kind of message, so it might not be the right platform for some of this.”

It’s remarks like these that harm the industry we all love (or love to hate). Superheroes, in many ways, are universal. Regardless of gender, we all have our favorites. There have been plenty of great women in comics written by both men and women; and they are all accessible to both genders. Yet, these men want to pigeonhole female readers into wanting something like “Pretty Pink Pony Princess”. Thankfully, the growing female leadership can appreciate the comics once considered to be catering solely to guys.

Woman in FridgesWhat they, and many men including myself, certainly don’t appreciate is the overuse of rape in the most callous way to move a story along. Gail Simone has an excellent term for this trope: Women in Refrigerators. Named after the panel to your left, where Kyle Rayner finds his girlfriend murdered and stuffed into a fridge by villain Major Force, it’s the idea that a woman has to be harmed, raped, or killed to give the male hero motivation to grow up and step up his game. While men have  been raped (Nighwing #93 being an infamous one), it’s usually done to women in the most horrific manner. Its secondary purpose is to show how bad the villains are and how good the hero is. And 99.9% of the time, it is done in the most heinous manner. Very few are the times (if they even exist) where the ramifications of said rape are touched upon. I must agree with an article on io9 (which alerted me to these now infamous comments) that Millar is wrong: rape is not the equivalent of decapitation, it’s worse. Especially in this day and age where teenage girls are the victims of rape and are then blamed for the crime instead of the attacker (the most widely known example would be the events in Steubenville, Ohio). We are now a culture that blames women for their own rape; how nuts is that?!

It doesn’t help that there is still that misogynistic undercurrent within our fellow nerdy brethren. Not a con goes by without some sexist, lewd schmuck with a camera harasses a cosplayer and says “Well, she was asking for it with that outfit.” Except she wasn’t; as a new saying goes “Cosplay is not consent”. A more infamous version is the “fake” nerd girl, who claims to be a nerd but is really a clueless airhead. Let me tell you this, that is probably one of the most incorrect stereotypes on the planet. Many of the nerd girls I’ve met in my life have been some of the most real, down to earth, and knowledgeable fans of nerd culture out there.

In the end, this might boil down to a culture that is somewhat resistant to change. Sadly, this blinds them to several truths about using rape as a plot device, it’s lazy. At Comics Alliance, Joseph Hughes said:

“To pretend depictions of rape and sexual assault in popular fiction play absolutely no role in further informing a culture that seems largely hellbent on not dealing with these statistics is, at best, willfully ignorant, a position adopted by a writer more concerned about the money he’s making than actually improving as a creator.”

Power Girl coverAnd that’s the cold truth these legends need to hear. We, as a culture, need to step it up. My fellow-men need to step up against this rampant sexism alongside our fellow nerds who just happen to be an XX chromosome pair instead of XY.

Now, on a personal note– in my anger over this, I wrote a script where a certain teen hero (not saying which) deals with one of his classmates being raped. She is also being blamed for what happened to her by her peers and her principal, while her attackers are protected. I wrote it because I felt it was about time SOMEONE wrote something dealing with the ramifications of rape culture AND victim blaming. I’m happy to say that it has had some measure of acclaim. Some did say I did make things slightly unrealistic and I should have made the victim much more heroic towards the end than I did. And I will admit that is true. But what I’m happy to say is that many thanked me for just writing it, for dealing with a subject that is long overdue.

And it IS overdue. Messrs. Millar and McFarlane are of the past where comics were a predominantly male culture. They are out of touch with how the culture, and the audience, has changed since their glory days. Last I checked, McFarlane has not done a comic in a long time. The film version of Millar’s Kick Ass 2 was just beaten in its first weekend by the historical drama Lee Daniel’s The Butler. Whether his words are to blame for a lack of sales is yet to be seen. It should be noted that the makers of the film refused to do the book’s infamous rape; and for the most part movie viewers are a bit squeamish about it. Like in comics, the ramifications of rape need to be discussed in movies, and in culture altogether. When there have been several high-profile cases where the defense was “She was asking for it,” we as a society need to move on. And people like Millar and McFarlane, and to a lesser extent Dan Didio with his now infamous gaffe about children’s comics (I’m more willing to forgive that than comments promoting rape-as-plot-device) need to realize that their audience is diversifying and are moving on. McFarlane may claim that comic follow society. But they should be leading, as an article at CBR has pointed out. Maybe it’s time for Millar and McFarlane to realize that they aren’t part of the culture now; instead of being part of the zeitgeist, they’re on the outside, looking in.


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About the author

Daniel Kalban

Daniel is the writer of The Eagle webcomic and aspires to one day join his favorite writers at the Big 2. Until then, he keeps plugging away at various projects, as well as serving as a reporter for Word of the Nerd on various subjects, especially the DC Comics "beat".

Contact him at danielk@wordofthenerdonline.com


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  • I think it’s important to differentiate here that “rape” as subject matter in any media format (books, comics, movies, etc) does not automatically equal “lazy plot device”. I totally agree that it is something we need to be able to talk about… about the ramifications of it… about the rape-culture and the victim blaming. It shouldn’t be something that is glossed over quickly, or worse, glorified, but it is a serious subject matter that should be explored in terms of its societal implications, where it stems from, how it affects both aggressor and victim (most sexual offenders have been sexually abused in their past).

    • True; but I’m referring to the times its used as such or in such a callous manner.

      One could argue that one of the stories that simultaneously succeeded and failed in dealing with rape as a plot point was Identity Crisis. In one way, the rape did have MAJOR ramifications (for both the victim and those around her), but it also cheaply set up the main plot.

      We as a society REALLY need to have a discussion about this; Steubenville turned my stomach. Even the news sympathized with the rapists more than the victim.

      I hope someone soon writes a story in a mainstream book dealing with this subject.

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