(This essay is reprinted exactly as it orignally appeared in
"Look! Up on the screen! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's... Devin Grayson's essay!!!"
You'd be amazed at how long it took me to come up with that tagline.
Devin Grayson wrote the following essay for a comics con in New Zealand, afterwhich it was picked up by the Comics Buyer's Guide for intended publication but then mysteriously never saw print. Graciously, Devin's given the article to Ginchy! The Comics Zine (e-mail JoeLunday@aol.com to subscribe) and to Voice and Vision (that's us), for online publication. Just in case you're in the sad situation of not knowing Devin Grayson or her writing, Grayson writes DC's monthly CATWOMAN title and will soon write the upcoming TITANS ongoing series (starting in early '99) as well as a BLACK WIDOW limited series coming from Marvel Knights next spring. Her ARSENAL LS, which leads up to Titans, debuted last month, and some of you may've caught her work on the recent NIGHTWING/HUNTRESS mini-series. In my personal opinion she's one of the most talented "rising stars" in the industry (pick up Catwoman #62 for a wonderful example) and though I've run out of e-mail room and can't go into all the reasons I'm elated to include this essay in the newsletter, I will say, this is exactly the sort of writing that V&V is eager to publish and promote. Since there's no room for further ado... here we go.
Eve and I
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 were 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, nerdÖ. 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 too much with projects 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 children.
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."
Or maybe I'll just turn around and go back to my quiet little room and lock the door behind me.