Tuesday, August 28, 2012

It's Read Comics in Public Day!

Back in 2010, a couple of comic book fans decided to start a world-wide event to celebrate the medium.

And thus, Read Comics in Public Day was born.

Aside from just being a lot of fun and a great excuse to be a geek in public, this event is an interesting opportunity for comic book fans. We're a group of people that are painted with a certain brush--movies and television portray comic book readers, especially adult readers, as socially inept, smelly types that live in their parents' basement.

I mean, think about nerds from television, and you'll get a good idea what people expect fans of this medium to be like.

 Read Comics in Public Day gives us a chance to prove that anyone can enjoy comic books.

It's been a weird year for comic book fans--especially fans of DC comics characters. Read Comics in Public Day this year is as much a chance to make a statement about the changes that we're for and against as readers as it is to just go out and read for fun.

A big (huge, enormous) part of the day is sharing. You're totally welcome to share cool stories here in the comments or to shoot an email over to thepoptartculture@gmail.com (maybe if there are some responses, we'll do a follow-up post). But I'd encourage you all to share in other ways.

If you keep up with DC Women Kicking Ass--and if you're not, you should be--you already know about the female-specific part of this day: Women Read Comics in Public. This site offers a place for anyone who identifies as a woman to share their Read Comics in Public photos and stories in an effort to disprove the idea that men are the only ones that read comic books. This is the third year of this, and this year the folks running the site suggest that those making submissions to include a note saying how much per month they spend on comics.

And guys, if you want to show the comics industry that men want to read female-led stories and books with female creators and not just interchangeable female characters with outrageous costumes and anatomy that were written, draw, and controlled by men, you should head on over to Men Reading Women in Comics to share the love. Aside from taking photo submissions, this group is organizing a campaign on Twitter, encouraging guys to tweet about their favorite female characters and creators using the hashtag #MRWIC.

I've already picked my date for the day.

So go, comic fans. Head to the coffee shop or the park with some comics and see what happens. Maybe you'll change someone's idea of a what a comic book fan is, or maybe you'll introduce someone new to the medium.

I'll see you guys out there and--I hope--in here.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

It's Cool if You Have A Beginner Skill Tree, Just Don't Call it "Girlfriend Mode"

   Video games aren't often my first choice when it comes to recreational activity. I play sometimes, passingly, but I'm not a gamer. If I'm playing a video game, it's because I want to play that game specifically.

  Which explains why I'm not that great at video games in general. I love easy mode, and I appreciate it when a game gives some options for the less-skilled player to figure out the workings of the game so that it's easier for people like me to ease their way into the more difficult settings.

  But I'm a rarity among my female friends. For a lot of them, video games are how they relax. They follow games series; they go to midnight releases. They play to the end (multiple times, in many cases--alternate endings, and all), do all the side quests, and rack up achievement after achievement.

  They're good at them, is what I'm saying.

  Maybe it's because of this that I was so shocked to see comments from John Hemingway regarding a beginners' skill tree Borderlands 2 called "Best Friends Forever."

If you missed it, here's part of the story (linked above) from Eurogamer.
The skill tree is called Best Friends Forever, what lead designer John Hemingway dubbed the "girlfriend mode".
"The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we've ever had. I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree. This is, I love Borderlands and I want to share it with someone, but they suck at first-person shooters. Can we make a skill tree that actually allows them to understand the game and to play the game? That's what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is."
One of the first skills available in the BFF tree is called Close Enough. This means your bullets that hit walls or other objects, that is, miss their target, have a chance to ricochet off towards the enemy.
Let's get this out of the way: there are plenty of "better terms" that Hemingway could have used. Beginner Mode. Newbie Mode. First-Timers mode. This was not a case of "that was the clearest way to make his point."

Let's also get this out of the way: Hemingway, for all we know, could be a really nice guy who generally likes and respects ladies.

Basically, Hemingway may not be a sexist. But his statement here definitely is.

Having an easy mode on a game for beginning players is totally great. It's a fantastic stepping stone for people who are new to that game in particular or to video games on the whole.

Calling the easy mode "girlfriend mode," though, is bad.

From a female perspective, this title implies that women a) have no interest in video games beyond pleasing their male significant other or b) are way too bad at video games to play for no other reason than because they're girls (I don't know, because boobs make it hard to use a controller or something ), and they will be unable to play the harder modes of the game. To be fair, there are some women for whom this is true. But a quick search of the numbers will show you that female gamers make up from nearly half to the majority of the gaming community. You'll find articles about how female gamers are "more hardcore" or log more hours of playtime than their male counterparts.

Also, it's worth noting that the character that this skill tree is for is a female character, described mainly as "cute" (a patronizing term that, I, personally, hate with a flaming passion), again perpetuating the idea that easy modes are "for girls"and more challenging modes are "for boys." It's no wonder that female gamers aren't taking kindly to this.

But what about the guys? No one's really talked about it, but this whole "girlfriend mode" thing isn't good for them, either. It makes a very clear and potentially damaging statement to guys: if you're bad at video games, you might as well be a girl. And, as all boys in our heteronormative society know, it's bad for boys to be like girls.

While this whole debacle is an offensive mess, it's not terribly surprising-- video games have always seemed like something of a boys' club. Though, if  you ask me, the two main sources of this problem are pretty simple.

Back in 1975, Laura Mulvey developed a theory called "Male Gaze." This is that thing that happens in movies, television, and video games when the viewer see the events unfolding from the perspective of a heterosexual male. Generally, this is thought to happen because most creators in these media are male, so their vision is from a male perspective. Guys make most video games, so guys decide what stories get told and how. Which explains why the women in video games look and act the way they do (and that's a post for another day). The easy mode's designed for girls because that's who these guys believe will need and want to play it.

In addition to Male Gaze, there's another problem: men, in general, don't notice sexism in the same way that women do. There are exceptions, of course, but on the whole, men don't share women's view of sexism because men don't experience sexism in the same way. Perpetuating a stereotype by calling the easy skill tree "girlfriend mode" might not strike a guy as being sexist, because he's not on the receiving end of a lot of the negative implications. This doesn't make sexism okay, but it is something that needs to be kept in mind before vilifying a guy for accepting terms like this without a fuss.

Hemingway's comments weren't the first instance of sexism in the gaming community, and they certainly won't be the last. There will always be some people that think that video games are for guys. Women are gaining a voice in the industry, but they're a long way from being on equal footing as far as representation and respect goes.  Until women reach the same level in the larger video game community, there's an easy way to avoid raising the ire of the girl gamers around you: stop and think. By trying to put oneself in the shoes of a female gamer (or, really, anyone to whom one is talking), controversies like this can be avoided. A little perspective can fix a lot of these problems.

In the meantime, just don't call it "girlfriend mode."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Guys to Ogle, Come On Down!

There was an entertainment news item last week that, from what I can tell, didn’t get nearly the attention that it should have.

For forty years, old people and people stuck at home during sick days have stared with glazed eyes at what might be the longest-running game show ever: The Price is Right.

You know the format. A few members of a crowd full of cheering people are told to, “Come on Down!” so that they can guess the prices of things like boxes of cereal or living room furniture or sports cars all presented by ladies smiling mega-watt smiles and gesturing sweepingly at the prizes behind them.

And it’s always ladies. Forty years’ worth of shows, two full-time hosts, a switch from half-hour to hour-long format, and not a single male model has had the opportunity to don his best formalwear, load up his hair with product, and sharpen up his presentational gestures to be a “Showcase Model.”

But, as Bob Dylan once said, “The Times, They Are A-Changin’.”

CBS announced last week plans to begin the search for The Price is Right’s first male Showcase Model and to broadcast said search on the web via the game show’s website and YouTube, with the finalists to be announced during the game show itself in late September and the winner of the contest beginning their gig on the show in October.

This may not be history-making news, but it is kinda a big deal. We're talking about forty years of men being excluded here, and now it's ending in a very 2012 way--with a reality show happening online.

The most shocking thing, though, is that it's taken this long for someone to realize what a good idea male models on this show would be. 

Think about it for a minute. The Price is Right is the number one program on Daytime television, as far as numbers of viewers goes. It stands to reason that a chunk of those viewers are going to be female who'd like someone to ogle. It's certainly not news to the entertainment industry that there's money to be made from putting a camera on handsome men, and there's not a woman in the world who can deny that she likes to look at a pretty face.

We could certainly try to, but....

Yeah, we'd be lying.

And what about Magic Mike? Sure, Seth MacFarlane's movie,Ted was the top-earning movie on their shared opening weekend, but not by much. Not trying to appeal to female viewers, even in something as simple as this is as good as leaving money on the table.

Not to mention that former host Bob Barker might've had a harder time sexually harassing male models.

Whatever the reason CBS has for finally putting male models on the show, it's a pretty interesting step, and it'll be exciting to see how it's received by the show's Daytime audience and how the webseries preliminaries are handled.

More information on the model search, including eligibility requirements and casting applications can be found here.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

I Ain't Sayin' She's a Gold Digger, But She Might Be "Allergic to Algebra"

Even the sports-ambivalent like myself know that the Olympics are a Big Deal with capital letters, not to mention a serious moneymaker for television networks, sporting goods companies and even fast food chains (I know that Gabby Douglas admitted to it, but I have a hard time believing that Olympians stop to pick up McDonald's on their way home after competing).
   It’s not surprising, then, that a company like Nike would want to cash in on the hype and profit from the national pride that swept even the generally lethargic following the closing ceremonies last week. And, with the U.S. ladies taking home 29 of the 46 gold medals the U.S. earned, and, in fact, winning more medals than all but four other countries, making and marketing products specifically to women makes a lot of sense.
   So someone or a group of someones at Nike put their heads together and came up with this.

   According to the description: We aren’t saying they’re gold diggers – we’re just saying they’re out for the gold! What’s wrong with that?

   This caused a bit of a stink, ending with Nike pulling the shirt from Nike.com.

   There are a lot of ways to look at this. Nike's said the shirt is ironic, taking a term that's generally recognized as a put down and tying it to something positive in sort of a nod-and-a-wink way; others are saying that the design reeks of sexism, saying that even the best of women, which is what female Olympians are meant to represent, are just out for bling.

  Both parties have a point. "Gold digger" implies a dependence on a sugar daddy (or some equivalent), when our Olympian ladies did all their own work and earned their gold themselves, so the shirt is ironic. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine any woman being totally okay with being called a gold digger, even in jest.  And the shirt was only available in women's sizes--because men are never gold diggers, I guess? or maybe because men don't care as much that women won a bunch of Olympic medals--and that is sexist, when you come right down to it.
 It's pretty easy to see both sides of the argument, but I'll be perfectly honest: I'm not wild about this design (in part because no one could come up with something more clever than "gold digger" when there's a world of gold-related puns out there--c'mon, people), but this shirt design in particular doesn't offend me, at least, not in the way that other t-shirt designs have.

  Maybe you remember similar outcries about sexist t-shirts that didn't have the justification--or excuse, depending on your personal opinion--of being ironic?

  Around this time last year, both Forever 21 and JCPenney's were on the receiving end of a sizable amount of consumer outrage when they both began selling t-shirts saying that the young girls to whom the shirts were marketed were "Allergic to Algebra" (as the Forever 21 shirt says) or "Too Pretty To Do Homework" (according to the JCPenney's tee). These shirts were, for lack of a better phrase, totally terrible ideas.

  Both companies took a lot of flack from customers and news sources, and, in the end, both shirts were pulled from the stores' shelves and websites due to the negative reactions from both male and female shoppers.

  So, what can be gathered from these three episodes? Well, for one thing, that women, and a number of men, don't like designers (or advertisers, or anyone, really) profiting from the idea that women aren't smart, dislike learning, or aren't willing to work for themselves to get what they want. 

  But the bigger takeaway, I think, is that sexism--even implied or ironic sexism--doesn't sell. Literally.

  So, if you want to make fun of or point out sexism in your product designs or your advertising, be sure it's clear what you're trying to do. And even then, be prepared for the backlash.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Waffles For Stephanie (REPOST) (Also a few days late)

Not too long ago, David Willis over at Shortpacked! drew a particularly powerful and popular comic featuring Bruce Wayne and his multiple adopted sons. In this comic, Bruce Wayne calls all of his “tiny clones” to him; his Robins approach him one by one and they are scrutinized by their mentor. Dick, Jason, Tim, and Damian are all approved, with Bruce applauding each boy’s black hair and blue eyes—even pointing out that he approves of Jason altering his appearance to look the same as his fellows.

 And then Stephanie Brown shows up. The lone female Robin in the former main DC Universe. She’s bright and smiling when she meets Bruce; he frowns as he surveys her—she doesn’t have black hair and blue eyes. Her eyes are green. Her hair’s blonde. And she is not a man.

Willis doesn’t write any dialogue. He just draws Bruce pointing Stephanie towards the door.

 In a few panels, Willis illustrated DC’s treatment of Stephanie Brown, a female character with no shortage of fan support and a loyal following. But, more than that—and this may not have been Willis’s intent—it illustrates DC’s treatment of their female readers.

 The saga of Stephanie Brown, particularly the recent issues with the New 52, really is an excellent parallel for the struggles of female comic book fans.

 Stephanie was Robin. It was a brief tenure, but she wore the suit. She worked with Batman. She trained with the other members of the Batfamily. The mantle was taken away from her—which doesn’t erase the face that she once held it. She died, came back, and kept fighting as an ally of the Bat. And through all this, she received no respect from her fellow heroes.

 And then she became Batgirl. There was an outcry of rage from Cassandra Cain fans, and rightfully so—Cass is another great female character that’s been horribly treated by DC. But the book went on, and it introduced new readers to Stephanie Brown and convinced skeptics that a character introduced mainly as a tool for incorporating after school special-type teen issues and a character that had been sloppily handled for years could lead a successful and delightful Batgirl book.

 In spite of this success, the coming of the New 52 ended her book and, it seems, removed her entirely from the DC Universe so that she could be replaced by Barbara Gordon, a fine character in her own right, but that’s neither here nor there.

 The point is Stephanie was something different. Different and good, and her book, thanks in no small part to Bryan Q. Miller’s spot on writing, could have done a great deal for broadening DC’s readership.

 But DC didn’t want her. They wanted to return to the classic Batgirl, the classic Batman, so on, so forth.

There’s no way to guess what DC’s true motivations were for the New 52. Theories abound on the whys, and there are plenty of official reasons. But one thing is clear: things that are new, things that are not what is expected, are not cherished or nourished at DC.

 And, it certainly seems, female readers are among those things that are not welcomed. We’re shouted down on the internet. We’re openly mocked at panels. We’re berated and pushed aside and told that, because of our sex, we shouldn’t even like comic books to begin with.

 We’re different from the expected male readers, so they don’t want us.

 Change is scary; no one can argue that. But for an industry that claims it wants to adapt to new technologies, branch into other media, and reach more readers, it’s necessary.

 When DC embraced Stephanie Brown, they had a trade paperback that made it onto a USA Today list of Essential Reading in Graphic Novels. They had an on ramp for new readers. Good things came from it.

 This is not to say that there hasn’t been success with the New 52, or that there haven’t been some books or issues of books that have been both appealing to female readers and successful in that demographic. But there’s definitely some food for thought here.

 DC embraced something different, and there were positive results. Maybe, then, they should try to embrace different readers.

 Maybe good things could come from that as well.