Posts Tagged ‘gender’

Gender issues don’t play well in comics. The most notorious example is Dave Sims’ Cerebus series, which, as soon the topic was raised, degenerated from a hilarious and inventive series into self-indulgent, misogynistic rants that quickly became unreadable. By contrast, though, Garth Ennis has not only been discussing gender issues repeatedly in his series, but doing so in with an artistry that makes what he has to say intelligent even if – as I do – you have reservations about his opinions.

This suggestion, I realize, requires some defense. Garth Ennis? The hard-swearing, raunchy, ultra-violent, hilarious Garth Ennis, who had to start his own publishing company to write the sort of things he wanted? And there is no denying that Ennis is fascinated by machismo and war, so much so that his treatment of super heroes almost always involves men trained in violence overcoming those with super powers.

Remember, though, that this is the same writer whose best-known work, Preacher, ends with the hero literally riding into the sunset with the love of his life – the same writer who gave loner John Constantine a major love interest in Kit Ryan, a tough, cynical woman from Belfast, and even managed to make their breakup poetic and sentimental.

If you focus on the scripts and ignore the often gratuitously sexist artwork, he is also the writer who manages believable portraits of strong women like Deborah Tiegel and Bloody Mary. Yes, there is a large degree of male wish-fulfillment in female characters like Tulip O’Hare or Annie January, but there is also an effort to give them their own inner lives and concerns in a way that few male writers of graphic novels have even attempted.

I have read much of Ennis’ work, but far from all of it. To say the least, he is prolific, and some of his work, such as his war stories, would only interest me because they were done by him. However, three of works stand out as places where gender roles play a major role.

Pride and Joy

The first is Pride and Joy, a relatively little-known series that fits into a single trade paperback. Pride and Joy tells the story of Jimmy Kavanagh, a petty criminal who goes straight because of his love for his wife. His wife dies, to Kavanagh’s frustration as much as his despair – cancer being something he cannot fight – leaving him to raise their daughter and son on stories of his own father’s exploits as a tailgunner in World War Two. These stories cause endless conflicts with his son, a quiet, more intellectual type than Kavanagh.

One of the most interesting scenes in the series shows him with his wife in the hospital. She asks if he remembers her reply when he assumed that he would be making the decisions in the marriage. With a wistful grin, he quotes from memory, “Like hell.” She replies:

That amazed look on your face . . . It was priceless. You were such a little boy. I gave you such a hard time about that stuff, that Being a man thing. I used to really hate it. My Mom and her Mom, they both lost their men to wars. Men off being men, chasing some ideal they’re meant to live up to. My Mom used to say, ‘All men can do is die and leave the women and children to suffer.’

Now, she is doing the same to him. Yet even in the stress of the moment, Kavanagh needs her reassurance that this is a case where he can cry.

Another key scene is his discussion with his son. While his son asserts that “we’ve got nothing in common,” Kavanagh expresses concern that his son needs to toughen up in order to survive. He remembers his father’s war stories, which Kavanagh’s wife condemned as “macho bullshit,” and for a moment father and son bond. “I guess that’s why she made sure you . . . . You saw a different side to things, maybe. But I still think your Grandad had a point.”

However, as they flee a killer from Kavanagh’s past, any fragile understanding is broken by Kavanagh’s admission that his accidental killing of a child has poisoned his life. His son considers the admission proof of the underlying hypocrisy of Kavanagh’s machismo.

The story ends with the issues unresolved. The son stands up to the killer long enough for Kavanagh to kill him, but as Kavanagh lies dying, it is him, not the son, who cries. As the authorities close in and ask whom he is kneeling over, his son fights to keep from crying – apparently remembering his father’s advice about how not to cry — and replies simply, “He’s my Dad.” Belatedly, the son has found some truth in his father’s philosophy, although there is no reason to believe he accepts it whole-heartedly.

The Boys

The Boys is a twelve volume series about an off-the-books CIA team whose job is to keep super heroes in line. The series cynically assumes that super powers lead to corruption, and is full of thinly-veiled parodies of mainstream comics – for instance, the creator of the G-Men, and most of his original team, turn out to be child molesters. However, beyond the obvious critique of the traditional morality of comics, in many ways the story centers on Billy Butcher, the leader of The Boys, and Hugh “Wee Hughie” Campbell, the newest recruit.

Butcher and Wee Hughie each see the woman they love murdered by self-indulgent super heroes. However, as the son of an abusive father and as an ex-Marine who saw action in the Falklands War, Butcher’s response is to launch a decades-long campaign for revenge that ultimately leads to the attempted genocide of everyone with super powers in the world.

By contrast, Wee Hughie is “an ordinary bloke.” In that respect, he resembles Butcher’s deceased young brother. He learns to fight and kill, but, unlike Butcher, not to enjoy it. Hughie also resembles Butcher’s maternal grandfather, who lost an arm in World War Two, but refuses to dwell on those aspects of his life. Butcher is constantly trying to get Wee Hughie to accept the need for violence, but he also views him as someone who, like his younger brother, can potentially keep him from becoming a complete sociopath.

Wee Hughie’s back story is given in the eighth trade paperback of the series. Despite being an orphan, he turns out to have had an idyllic childhood, complete with adventures straight out of popular children’s literature – in fact, as the cover art makes clear, he has a childhood straight out of the British children’s annuals. However, a return to his childhood home ends in the death of one of his childhood friends. Innocence, clearly, is no option for him; violence can still affect him.

Butcher’s back story is given in the tenth trade paperback in the series. Like Kavanagh in Pride and Joy, Butcher was raised by a tough father. But where Kavanagh’s was simply macho and ultimately fell short of his own ideals, Butcher’s was outright abusive.

Uncomfortable in his growing resemblance to his father, Butcher is saved from becoming his clone by the love of his wife Becky. Trying to be worthy of her, he quits drinking, and learns to control his temper. Thanks to Becky, he also manages to get his mother to leave his father and free herself from abuse, a move that he considers the best thing he has ever done in his life.

Becky sets the limits in the relationship the first time they are in bed. She notices a scar, and as he launches into what is obviously an often-told tale, silences him with, “I don’t wanna hear war stories.” Later, as she runs a finger down his body, she muses, “All this strength. All this power. It has to be tempered. Men without women, Billy. It ain’t a good idea.”

As he lies dying at the end of the series, Butcher expands on her viewpoint: “All that macho shit, that gunfighter, Dirty Harry bollocks – it looks tasty, but in the end it’s fuckin’ self-defeatin’. It just leaves you with bodies in ditches an’ blokes with headfuls of broken glass. Men are only so much use, Hughie. Men are boys.”

Ennis does not spell out the message, but, considering the behavior of the super heroes in The Boys, it seems that men’s physical strength and social positions are just other forms of power that lead to corruption. The dying Butcher’s last advice to Wee Hughie is to return to his estranged lover. “Grab hold of her, Hughie,” Butcher advises. “Feel her strength inside yer own. An never, ever, ever let her go.”

In the closing pages, Wee Hughie takes this advice, and the series ends with a classic romantic happy ending at the end of all the destruction and political upheavals.


Preacher is generally considered Ennis’ major work to date. The main plot concerns Jesse Custer, a young Southern minister who becomes possessed by Genesis, a creature whose power causes God to flee from heaven. Angered by this literal abdication of responsibility, Jesse sets off with his girlfriend Tulip and a hard-living vampire named Cassidy to hold God to account.

However, the story is as much about Jesse’s self-discovery, in which gender roles play a major part. The dialog even includes references to feminist theory that are used as humor for those in the know – for instance, Jesse mentions that he much prefers reading Germaine Greer to “the Dworkin woman.”

Jesse is the ideal of a Southern Gentleman: Good-looking, polite, and slow to fight but more than able to hold his own once he does. In fact, he is so much the epitome of traditional male roles that he channels the spirit of John Wayne. Early in the series, he witnesses Tulip being killed. When she is resurrected by God in an effort to placate Jesse, he remains haunted by the fear of her dying again.

After a firefight in which Tulip’s shooting skills help them to survive, this discussion takes place:

TULIP: If I was another guy, you wouldn’t have given it a second’s thought. You’d just think, “He can handle himself. Cool.” but you can’t accept the fact that I can deal with this stuff, can you?

JESSE: Honey … What I been trynna tell you is, it ain’t what’s happened at one time or other that worries me. It’s the thought of what could happen to you. It scares the livin’ shit clean out of me.

TULIP: So no matter what you see me do, you’ll never believe I can take care of myself? Jesse, that just doesn’t make any sense.”

What makes this discussion work is the fact that both views have some validity. Tulip is proud of her competence, so her anger at the thought that it might be ignored is understandable. At the same time, while Jesse’s attitude is part machismo, it is also the natural concern for someone he loves.

Unable to overcome his fears, Jesse abandons her to rescue Cassidy. When he rejoins Tulip, she leaves him handcuffed to a bed for several hours in revenge. Later, they discuss what happens:

TULIP: You know what the worst thing about it was . . .? It reminded me of when I was eight and the boys wouldn’t let me play soldiers . . . . And when you dumped me in that motel and ran off on your big guy’s adventure, I felt just as dumb and useless and stupid as they made me feel all those years ago.

JESSE: Well . . . um . . . I ain’t trynna get off the subject her or anything like that, but I really got to ask . . . How come you wanted to play soldiers, instead like with dolls an’ stuffed toys an’ shit like that?

TULIP: Remind me why I have sex with you again?

. . . .

JESSE: I know, I know. I’m constantly reexaminin’ my approach to gender issues. But sometimes I slip up . . .

Despite the humor and Jesse’s best efforts to act differently, the problem remains. In the sixth trade paperback, they discuss it again:

TULIP: Nothing but demeaning, patronizing, sexist, macho crap

JESSE: Or badly phrased love.

TULIP: Can you think of a single reason why I shouldn’t kill you for trying a line like that?

Yet, as they start to make love, and, she murmurs, “Don’t ever change,” suggesting that, at some level, she responds to the machismo that she verbally condemns. While the limits of Jesse’s ethics anger her, his code of behavior is part of what makes him deeply attractive to her.

In the end, Jesse is unable to overcome his fears, and abandons her again as he goes into action. Waking after being drugged by Jesse, Tulip arms herself while muttering, “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to save his stupid fucking life for him – and then I’m going to kill him.”

For Tulip, this is the last betrayal. At the end of the series, when Jesse catches up with her at the bus depot, she asks him, “Do you think breaking your word doesn’t matter when it’s to a woman? Do you think honor is something that only counts between men?” Jesse starts to give his usual rationales, but even he is aware that he has gone too far. He breaks off with, “I ain’t got no defense.”

Chasing after her, he finally admits that their love is what matters most to him, and that “I do know that I have to change a little, if this macho bullshit you talked about is gonna keep getting’ in the way.” Unable to shed a tear ever since he watched his father’s murder, faced with losing Tulip, he finally manages to cry. “I guess I must be learnin’,” he says, and this sign of humanity gives Tulip and Jesse their last minute happy ending.

Yet as though to show that Ennis is not willing to completely abandon machismo, the last pages of the series show Cassidy waking, newly human again. He starts to put on his sunglasses, the symbol of his irresponsible lifestyle, then throws them away. “I think I’ll try actin’ like a man,” he tells himself. The macho code may be flawed, but it is still better than the amorality with which Cassidy lived as a vampire – if for no other reason than because it prohibits abusing women.

The Power of Ambiguity

I am not claiming that gender issues are all that Ennis’ work is about. But I do suggest that their importance have been overshadowed by more obvious aspects of his work, such as the critique of the comics tradition. No one who is not deeply interested in a subject would return to it as often as Ennis does gender issues.

Nor am I agreeing with Ennis’ positions. If nothing else, I can imagine few women who want to think that their role is as the redeemers and moral compasses for their lovers and spouses. Yet, despite everything, Ennis’ discussion of gender roles works in a way that Dave Sims’ does not, and is far less offensive.

The reason, I think, is that Ennis seems genuinely divided on the subject. On the one hand, he is obsessed with machismo, and of how manly men interact with each other. On the other hand, he also views machismo as ultimately childish, and needing to give way to a less violent maturity that can only be won through the love of wife and family. The places where machismo operates may be the places where he finds stories, but he also considers those who remain there too long as immature.

This unresolved dichotomy, I suspect, is what keeps Ennis from descending into polemic. Genuinely fascinated by all perspectives on gender – including women’s – he weaves his interest into the sub-plots rather than interrupting the action to lecture. You don’t have to agree with his perspectives to see that the result is the complexity of true art.

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So-called men’s rights advocates make me impatient. Yes, men’s roles are changing, and modern men need to think more about the changes. But men’s rights advocates are so vicious, so full of a sense of entitlement that I find sympathizing with them impossible. Instead, I am simply astonished that anybody could be so wrong in so many different ways at the same time.

I may not be an expert on identity, but I have been around long enough that I’m no stranger to the issues, either. From my own ups and down and self-questioning, I can say with some assurance that no one can build a healthy sense of identity based upon:

  • A negative identity based upon what you are not. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a negative identity in the short-run; for instance, most boys and girls go through a period in which they claim to dislike everything to do with each other. But in the long run, a negative identity requires constant reinforcement. In the case of men’s right advocates, that means a constant and tiresome denunciation of women and supposedly feminine traits.
  • Bullying or abuse. Not only are both socially unacceptable, but neither creates a stable personality.
  • An assumption that you have the right to every woman’s time and space. Believe it or not, most women have their own priorities, which do not include listening to a man’s passing attraction to them, dealing with a man sitting too close to them, or putting their own concerns on hold for a man. Even a man in a permanent relationship can’t assume that; if he does, the relationship is unlikely to last long.
  • A sense of privilege. While many people unconsciously think of themselves as the stars of their own movies, most people learn that other people are not extras in that movie. The learning process is called growing up, and it involves a reining-in of the ego.
  • Considering yourself a victim of women (or anyone else). You can’t assert your own rights to self-realization by complaining when other people do the same. Ironically, the traditional gender roles whose loss men’s rights advocates frequently bemoan would find this attitude shameful.
  • Equating the difficulties faced by modern women and men. With the changes in modern society, men feel uncertain. But women are also likely to face abuse and discrimination. The two are not even remotely comparable, no matter how much anyone quibbles and rationalizes.
  • Trying to continue old narratives. Personally, I suspect that the old gender roles were never as simple as the nostalgia of men’s rights advocates would make them. At the most, people – mostly women – simply suffered in isolation. But, whether that’s true or not is irrelevant. Whatever value the old roles might or might not have had, they’re gone, and for strong social and economic reasons. They’re not coming back.
  • Creating an imaginary opposition. In the case of men’s right’s advocates, this opposition is generally “all women” or “all feminists.” Either way, everyone lumped into the category is assumed to act or think the same way. This is a map so different from the territory as to be useless for anything.
  • Not listening. Much of the rhetoric of the men’s right movement seems dedicated to denying the truths of women’s lives – claims that women really don’t face discrimination, that gender differences in pay are reasonable, that rape doesn’t happen as often as the statistics suggest, and isn’t so bad as women claim. The trouble is, these things are not only too well-documented, but – more importantly – too well-witnessed that anyone can do more than nitpick about the details. Not only is that a waste of time, but believing such things mean that you are acting on faulty intel. Act on faulty intel, and you end up doing things like invading Iraq.
  • Anything so fragile as gender. Gender may be all-important to adolescents or to transsexuals trying to figure where they fit. However, for the rest of us, it’s not the only source of self-identity, or necessarily the most important. You need much more to build any sense of identity.

I could go on and on, but my point is clear enough: The men’s rights movement is based on half-truths and psychologically unhealthy. Its complaints are a form of mourning for a social order that never existed the way its members imagine, and the only reason not to dismiss it completely is that even an out-of-touch group can still be dangerous.

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Whenever someone claims they can tell if a piece of writing was written by a man or a woman, I have to suppress a knowing smile. They have only a fifty percent chance of being right, and a near certainty of embarrassing themselves with rationalizations if they are wrong. Writing, apparently, is a skill that has very little to do with gender.

I first became aware of this basic fact through the reactions to James Tiptree, Jr. As a young teen, I remember critics praising Tiptree for a supposedly masculine prose style. When rumors emerged that Tiptree might be a woman, many explained at great length why that could not possibly be so. Then it was revealed that Tiptree was actually a woman named Alice Sheldon – and in a perfect demonstration of double-think, many of the same critics began explaining how they knew that all along, and pointing out aspects of her prose as evidence for what was suddenly an obvious fact.

Something of the reversal happened a few years later with F. M. Busby, a writer of intelligent space opera. Because Rissa Kerguelen, one of Busby’s greatest successes, featured a female protagonist, dozens of people assumed that Busby was a woman. A man, they argued, couldn’t possibly write such a sympathetic female character. But Busby was a man – although one fond of saying that “An intelligent man who isn’t a feminist isn’t.” The reasons that he went by his initials were that he disliked his given names of Francis Marion, and that his publisher considered his nickname “Buz” too informal for a book cover.

Having these two counter-examples, I have always been skeptical about efforts to identify gender through writing samples. Like too much alleged social science, such efforts always assume that certain subject matter and stylistic choices are somehow innately masculine or feminine (gay, lesbian, transgendered, or queer are always left out). A male writer, for instance, might be supposed to use “I” and to write short, unqualified statements. By contrast, a woman might be said to be more tentative in offering an opinion, and write about emotions or domestic subjects. Needless to say, such divisions say more about the devisers of such studies than any actual differences.

In fact, I’ve always found such studies rather dismissive of writer’s abilities. Most writers I know would have no trouble imitating the so-called masculine or feminine prose styles of such studies. Once they knew the required mannerisms, all that would be needed is a few hundred words of practice.

Moreover, whenever I have tried any online versions of such studies, the results have been random. For example, this morning I ran samples of my writing through Gender Genie, an online adaptation of one such study. My journalistic articles registered consistently as male, and my personal blog entries as female. My fiction registered as both male or female, although neither very strongly. Similarly, two women writers of my acquaintance registered as male, and a male friend as female. I would have tried more samples, but at this point, it was obvious that the results had such a large margin of error as to be unreliable in any given case.

And apparently, my personal observations were correct. Recently, fantasy writer Teresa Frohock invited readers of her blog to identify the gender of the writers of ten different writing samples. Of 1,045 guesses, only 535 were correct – a number slightly above random chance, but well within statistical variation. As Frohock noted, despite all the elaborate rationalizations and the stereotyped ideas that men were more likely to write epic stories and women emotional-driven ones, people were unable to tell men from women based on how and what they wrote.

In other words, exactly what my experience would predict.  Excuse me while I cackle, “Told you so!”

But this subject goes far beyond a mildly diverting observation. The obvious conclusion is that, if writing samples don’t reveal who is male or female, then why are most people so quick to assume that supposed differences in male and female brains are significant? If the products of those brains are indistinguishable from one another, then the brain differences can’t matter much, either. As often happens when gender is discussed, too many people tell themselves comforting stories, then look for reason to believe the stories instead of examining the evidence.

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When I was twelve, I thought J. R. R. Tolkien the greatest writer in the world. By the time I was 15, I was appreciating Shakespeare, and reading systematically through the collected poems of Byron and Shelley. But it wasn’t until after my bachelor’s degree in English that I could read Dickens for pleasure, and I was doing my master’s before I became a fan of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and the other Victorian novelists. These experiences, I believe, indicate something that is often overlooked in high schools and universities – namely, that you can only read a writer in your own time, and when that time occurs is partly dependent on gender.

The question is not just one of age, although those who try to classify young adult fiction would have you believe everything is that simple. Admittedly, my own trail shows a progression in subtlety, from Tolkien’s action-packed adventures to the verbal cleverness of Shakespeare and the iconoclasm and revolutionary spirit of the Romantic poets (so suitable to a boy who believed in social causes), and becomes increasingly nuanced after that. But it is also a matter of increased experience and perception as well.

Just as few great novels are written by anyone under twenty-five, so few great novels are likely appreciated by men under twenty-five. The majority of teenage boys (and I was no exception) simply don’t have the experience to have developed the taste for demanding works when they’re young. The insights that underlie a novel, let alone the rhythms of a strong prose stylist, represent a kind of aesthetic puberty that teenage boys and young men haven’t reached yet. Few of them can appreciate such things any more than a pre-pubescent child can appreciate the intricacies of sex and love.

By contrast, plot-driven stories such as Tolkien’s seem accessible to males at a relatively young age. You only have to see the selection of blockbuster movies aimed at the taste of young males to see the truth of this fact. In much the same way, as a dramatist, Shakespeare externalizes experience, with introspection served up in the breaks in the action represented by the soliloquy. The shift to perception and point of view that is characterized by the novel is subtler than either – and also a relatively recent literary development, and one that wouldn’t have been possible without adventure tales and plays having been developed first.

The trouble is, the average male adolescent, no matter how full of social causes and good intentions, isn’t socially conditioned to want to seek out a female point of view like Austen’s. The definitions of male sexuality in the culture don’t encourage them to be aware that a female point of view even exists. If they do discover it, they are likely to be too egocentric to care much about it. If they approach it at all, they usually do so with reservations.

With the best will in the world, the female perspective is too foreign to them – and the novel, whoever writes it, has always been more about female perspectives than any other structural genre in English (which is why terms such as “chick lit” are nonsense). The average male in modern industrial culture needs five to ten years of relationships and even marriage to appreciate a socially-centered or psychological novel.

By contrast, the female experience seems quite different. Women start off with an advantage because, if they are interested in adventure at all, they have to learn early how to read around the male dominance in such stories. Probably, too, they are ready for the novel earlier, because its territory is more familiar to them – when I was teaching university English, I couldn’t help but notice that in the novel courses I taught, three quarters of the young students were women, while poetry and drama courses tended to have a slight majority of men.

Middle-age is a great equalizer, and I am glad to have arrived at an age where I can view both Tolkien and Hardy as great writers, each in their own way. But when I think of the gender-influenced delays and detours I took, I wish that I could have more daring or imagination and expanded my horizons more quickly. If I had, I could have had another decade or more to enjoy George Elliot! But, considering the odds, maybe I should just be glad that I managed to reach my current perspective at all.

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