IT LIKE TO BE A WOMAN WORKING IN A MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY?
(Written for the 1998 New
Zealand Comic Convention program)
Eve and I
By Devin Kalile Grayson
I write comics for a living, and I love
my job. It’s rewarding and it’s cool and, above all else, it’s challenging.
Every day I find myself working through a new problem, struggling to untangle
a new knot. About ninety percent of the time, the contest is quiet and
private; just me, alone in a room, with a word processor and a cup of coffee,
wrestling with the muses and the characters, and, every so often, the editors.
On the very best days, writing for a living is almost wholly devoid of
ego and self-consciousness -- you can slip, sometimes, just beneath your
training and your anxieties and your self-critical obsessing, into a state
I would not be alone in calling trance-like. Even if part of your writing
process includes checking every individual story element with fifteen of
your closest friends by phone, and even though every written work pulls
on everything you’ve ever learned, both professionally and personally,
still, at some point, if things are going well, you will find yourself
all alone with a story that will not completely reveal itself until you
simply and absolutely get out of its way.
If you’re good at writing though - or,
at least, if you can manage to make a career out if it - at some point
you will be taken out of your quiet little room and thrust into a highly
interactive situation: internet chats or signings, maybe a convention or
two, or interviews with the press. As difficult as I have sometimes found
it to dig up good answers to those never-ending story questions about structure
and character motivation and pacing, the question that has stumped me the
most thoroughly is hardly about the writing at all -
appallingly enough, it’s about me.
What I hate most about being a female writer
of comics is being asked what it’s like to be a female writer of comics.
The question comes up a lot, and although
I wish my response was something like, “hurray, here’s an opportunity to
speak intelligently about gender-bias,” what I’m usually thinking goes
more like, “damn, there goes my identity as a human being and a writer.”
I roll my eyes or sigh or blow my bangs
off of my forehead and try to come up with some witty rejoinder (“I think
I preferred being a male writer,” -- “it’s great except for the PMS,”
-- “fine until you asked THAT,”) and then as soon as I can, I call up one
of my friends and complain bitterly about the whole quagmire. “Someone
asked The Question again today,” I thunder. “Like I seriously write superheroes
differently than anyone else because I’d have to wear a BRA under my kevlar
-- please! Do they ask Chuck Dixon what it’s like to be a MAN writing comics?
When will people get it that gender doesn’t matter!?” I am at my most indignant
because, like most loudly indignant people, I know that I am, at least
in part, dead wrong.
It’s a really good question.
And it opens up issues that are terrifically
difficult to talk about. Most days, I don’t even know how I feel about
being a female, let alone a female comic writer. Most days, I’m no more
comfortable with being categorized as a pioneering role model for young
girls than I am to be written off as “some chick writer.” Most days,
I’m fighting so hard to avoid being pigeonholed into any one of a million
roles all humans play out in their day-to-day existences that I never even
make it to issues of gender-bias.
But today I thought I’d try to address
it, at least a little. And of course, I address it only as and only for
myself; every single woman I’ve spoken to about this has had an entirely
individual perspective on the issue. I want to refer to “gender-bias” rather
than “sexism,” because I think of them as two different phenomena. Sexism
is based on misogyny -- it’s genuinely nasty, usually tied to the politics
of sexuality, and rarely terribly subtle. Gender-bias, on the other hand,
is everywhere, all the time -- which is precisely why women often find
it so difficult to speak articulately or intelligently about working in
male-dominated fields. The question sort of starts from the assumption
that other than this one aberration in our lives -- this male-dominated
industry that we’ve “set out to conquer” -- we move through the world
unhindered by issues of sexuality.
But here’s the other problem. Even though
I can readily rattle off a list of events which were obviously influenced,
for better or for worse (and both can be true), by my gender -- at work
or in any aspect of life -- man, do I not want to. I run the risk, first
of all, of sounding as though I am trying to define myself in some way
as a victim, of someone working from a disadvantaged place. In many ways,
the place I work from is anything but. I have a lot to offer any industry
I come into contact with - both as a person, and, if only by virtue of
fresh or dissenting perspective, as a woman.
Caught between wanting to complain about
my gender and to crow about it, it becomes very appealing to just laugh
such matters off, to wave the implication of prejudicial factors
away with a little amused frown and say, “nah, doesn’t touch me, it doesn’t
have anything to do with me.” Gender-bias is a fact of life, and anyone
who’s doing all right anyway -- despite the complications -- well, why
would she want to suddenly draw attention to an issue that’s been more
or less neatly circumvented by virtue of success? Has being female hurt
my ability to generate work in this industry? Apparently not, so let’s
drop it. Let’s change the subject before, by agreeing to discuss issues
of sexual politics, I increase the already too-present risk of having my
work evaluated precisely on those terms -- and no others.
That is the final and inherent contradiction
of gender-bias for females, after all: to ignore it is to help it flourish,
but to acknowledge it is to empower the effect it has on how you and your
work are perceived by the world.
Before you dismiss that, ask yourself if
somewhere in this article you didn’t think to yourself, “oh, I didn’t know
she was a feminist writer.”
Maybe it wouldn’t be such a drag to be
pigeon-holed if the language of gender politics weren’t so saturated with
connotation. “Feminist,” when rolled off a critical tongue, has a decidedly
pejorative context these days. I think most of us are aware of how easy
it is to take the battle too far - to lose a sense of perspective and,
more debilitating yet, a sense of humor. God knows, if you don’t have a
sense of humor about gender issues, you’re an idiot, a victim, and a target.
To be able to focus on language and issues that truly debase women as human
beings, you have to be willing to let the silly stuff go. You’re not doing
anyone any good by refusing to admit that there is sometimes levity, and
even implied flattery, in a questionably phrased compliment or an inappropriate
pass. Sometimes, your absolute best defense is to laugh.
On the other hand though, and I think this
is the part I’m trying to explore here, it’s equally easy to laugh too
hard - to try to get away from the jokes by standing outside of them; not
as a liberated woman, but, essentially, as a man. I don’t think I’m ever
more at ease than when I’ve been temporarily accepted as “one of the guys,”
when I’ve somehow managed to be cool and brave and nonchalant enough to
encourage my own inclusion in male camaraderie. For a little while, and
I’m sure men experience this to some degree too, I’m in a conversation
that at least pretends to be beyond the boundary of labels. For men these
might be boss, husband, father, jock, nerd…. For me, as a woman, most of
the roles I’ve momentarily side-stepped are sexual in nature, and it’s
indescribably wonderful to be able to joke and share and “hang” without
fear of becoming invisible behind limiting, projected stereotypes.
Recently DC did a month-long “stunt” titled
“Girl Frenzy.” It was, as I understood it, a showcase of some of DC’s best-loved
female characters. I was asked to write a script for one and declined.
I actually was over-committed at the time, but even if I hadn’t been, I
think I would have had a hard time agreeing to participate. Not because
I’m opposed, at all, to books showcasing female characters. I would have
declined because as a female, I can’t afford to associate myself professionally
with any project that could potentially typecast me as a “girl writer.”
I would have declined for the same reason that I wince when fans suggest
that I write any one in a long list of exclusively female characters. I
would have declined because there’s no way that I can write a story about
a female character as anything other than a female writer, public perception-wise.
My gender immediately becomes the focus of my work. What will I, as a female,
bring to the character? This is not a sexist response, nor even necessarily
an unreasonable question. But it traps me in a limited role. It’s not that
I have nothing to say about gender-bias or womankind, it’s that I’d like,
sometimes, to be able to discuss writing as, well, a writer.
I think about Catwoman now and then (okay,
that’s no surprise, but I mean the character rather than the book) and
the more I ponder it, the more I understand the method in her madness.
You can call it a costume, but essentially, Selina Kyle never goes out
at night without her role on. All humans are strengthened and limited by
the roles we play in the course of interacting with one another, but traditionally,
women are allowed to move through such roles with less fluidity than men.
It’s the element of “femaleness” that I personally find the most
egregiously unsafe; the degree to which people attempt to understand me
in the context of a role. Whether they decide that I’m a good girl or a
bad girl, a feminist or a slut or a nurturer or a flirt, someone’s girlfriend
or a maternal figure or a ball-buster, I rarely feel that I’ve been left
enough room in which to be myself. Maybe Selina Kyle has had the same problem.
Catwoman, as a role, is as pure as it gets - the archetypal feminine feline;
it’s all dark power and sexuality. The purity makes it narrow, but let
me put it this way - she’s completely in control of it, of how she’s perceived.
Lots of stuff races through your mind when you look at her, but you’re
probably NOT thinking that she looks like a good wife or mother for your
And if you are, you’ll get what you deserve.
Frequently, I use similar armor. Whether
I’ve decided to deliberately disappear behind lipstick and innuendo, at
least momentarily in control of the role I’m projecting, or whether I’m
standing with my hands shoved in my pockets, shrugging off questions about
female reality as though someone were asking me what life was like on Pluto,
I succumb, sometimes, to the temptation of “spin.” How do I explain
how infuriating it was when after only two published comics, a rejected
suitor got on to the net to spread rumors that I had slept my way
into the business? How do I make sense of his nastiness while still keeping
in mind that being female probably was initially advantageous in getting
the attention of editors? How do I direct people’s attention to the
quality of my work without sounding defensive or unduly aggravated? How
do I start a conversation about a female character’s motivation without
letting my gender become a focal point of inquiry? How can I celebrate
my ability to bring original points of view to stories without limiting
the ways in which my work is evaluated and perceived?
It’s so much easier to pretend that none
of it affects me at all, and on some days, I suppose that’s as true as
anything else. Hopefully, when a reader enjoys something I’ve written,
they’ll dismiss “female intuition” as the primary factor of story success
in favor of the skill and hard work on which any male writer would have
been assumed to rely. I grew up in a pretty enlightened part of the world
and work now with mostly fair-minded individuals who care about nothing
so much as whether or not a story is any good. I’m very lucky in that I
can ignore gender-bias for long stretches of time, and concentrate instead
on my craft and on my existence as a citizen of Planet Earth.
But The Question is always waiting, ready
to spring up again and shake me out of my complacency. Someday soon, someone
will once again ask me what it’s like to be a female writer of comics.
And as theoretically accurate an answer as “what the hell did you have
to bring THAT up for?” may be, perhaps next time I’ll have a better one.
Something more like, “well, as much as I wish it weren’t an issue, I do
feel honored to be able to advance the perception people have of the kind
of work that women can do,” or, “as long as readers focus on the quality
of my work in and of itself, it feels great.” Or, at very least, “I’m not
really sure, I have no basis for comparison.”