A 3-Person Convo About Sexism In The Comic Book Community

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Last April, comics editor and writer Janelle Asselin wrote a review about a comic book cover, and made a point about how women are sometimes treated unfairly in comics. In an almost ironic misfiring, her review so angered some comics fans that they began calling her names, sending her hate mail, and even threatening to sexually assault her.

In response, Senior Editor of ComicsAlliance, Andy Khouri, wrote a piece titled “Fake Geek Guys: A Message to Men About Sexual Harassment.

“This isn’t their [women’s] problem, guys,” he wrote. “It’s ours. We have to solve it. Sexual harassment isn’t an occupational hazard. It’s not a glitch in the complex matrix of modern life. It’s not something that just ‘happens.’ It’s something men do. It’s a choice men make. It’s a problem men enable. It’s sometimes a crime men commit. And it is not in the power nor the responsibility of women to wage war on this crime. It’s on us.”

Most people in the comics field do not harass or attack women, but there’s enough of a minority that Andy and Janelle’s actions are needed. As both a female comics fan and a journalist who’s covered comics (for MTV, CNN, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, The A.V. Club, etc.), this was a story that affected me. I spoke to both Janelle and Andy about the issue.

ACT: Janelle, you wrote a review on a new comic cover for Comic Book Resources, and you took issue with how an underage girl is drawn with obvious implants and everything that entails. And then you got a backlash that just shocks us for its cruelty. Did you expect to get a backlash for this?

JANELLE: I started writing comics reviews in 2005 and even then, even when mostly I reviewed stuff I liked and thus had positive reviews, there was crap thrown my way. Just being a woman writing about comics is enough for a loud minority of comics fans online to deride you. And there’s an extra amount of vitriol reserved for women who dare to write about women in comics.

That being said, I’ve been very lucky so far in that the things I’ve written (like “Hire This Woman” for ComicsAlliance) tend to be overlooked by trolls as they don’t even seem to realize I’m advocating to push women forwards in comics. Or maybe it’s because I wasn’t bothering to point out the flaws in existing comics. Who knows? Either way, I didn’t expect the backlash I received, no.

I knew at a certain point I’d probably receive assault threats simply because I was a woman on the internet, but I didn’t expect it would be because I was talking about the marketing and business choices behind a comic’s cover.

ANDY: I expected it.

ACT: Why is that?

ANDY: There aren’t yet many safe spaces for women comics journalists and commentators to address topics that speak to their interests. There are many women in the readership but the comics media itself remains mainly populated by men speaking to men’s concerns.

However, I didn’t expect nor was I aware of the prevalence of actual rape threats that women have to endure online. That was shocking to me, although I soon learned it was practically routine for many of my women colleagues, readers and more.

ACT: As a female journalist who covers comics, I’ve had some hostility aimed toward me. I remember being on conference calls when a comics publisher was announcing news. All the other journalists on the line were men. When I announced myself, there was an obvious discomfort there and the man at the company treated me coldly. From what I hear, stuff like this isn’t unusual.

JANELLE: No, not at all.

ACT: When I’ve said I think there’s some sexism in the comics field, I’ve also been told I’m making it up for attention.

JANELLE: I’ve seen many people say that I made up the rape threats to get hits for the CBR article.

ANDY: What’s that adage about feminism? Every article about feminism will get a reaction that proves the article right?

ACT: Janelle, you created an online survey on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the American comic book industry. And people upset with your CBR review used it as a place to attack you (again, proving your point). Why did you want to start the survey?

JANELLE: I’ve dealt with sexual harassment in comics and so have many of the people I know. I started the survey not because I felt I needed to prove sexual harassment exists — that is a foregone conclusion. It exists. I had an idea for a project to show just how wide-ranging the problem is and I’ve gotten so many responses now (over 3,400) that I’ve actually had to change my plans for getting this information out there.

I feel like when I tell people I was sexually harassed or that I’ve filed a sexual harassment claim in the past, they assume that it’s because I have no sense of humor and took a harmless remark out of context. It’s not the case for me and it’s not the case for most of these respondents. I’m talking rapes, assaults, terribly offensive comments, offers of work in exchange for sex, harassment of minors by adult men, you name it.

ACT: So you’re doing all these things to help women in the business, and then you write this CBR review and you get harassed in really sexist ways by some comics fans. Andy, how did you learn this was going on, and why did you decide to write your ComicsAlliance article in response?

ANDY: It really started at Emerald City Comicon in Seattle last month, where Janelle was on a panel with our colleagues Laura Hudson and Rachel Edidin, talking about sexual harassment in our community.

I’d always known there was a big problem with sexual harassment in media and entertainment, specifically in the comic book business, but I didn’t have a conscious understanding of what to do about it. I hated it, and I hated men who perpetrated it, but in my mind it was this problem that would sort itself out as women gained more and more power in our society and men became more enlightened.

But what Janelle and our friends said on that panel was that it was never going to change until men put an end to it ourselves. Women are not doing anything to deserve it. That means it’s up to men to stop doing it. And the only way that happens is if men self-correct.

What happened to Janelle in the wake of that article was my first opportunity to put what I’d learned into practice. Pieces like mine are fine but it’s like cleaning one drop of water in an ocean filled with crude oil. Another dimension of this that might be worth mentioning is the code of silence.

JANELLE
: Yeah, women are certainly encouraged to not talk about their harassment, which is why so many men who would be allies don’t even know it’s happening.

ANDY: One thing I’d like to add is about the reaction I got to my piece. I expected there to be a lot of response from men, either agreement or extreme disagreement, hate, insults, etc.

The vast majority — like 90% — of the reaction I got was from women, which just speaks to how pervasive the problem is, because so many women related to what Janelle went through and men’s lack of action. I would also note that I did not receive a single rape threat or any other gender specific insults whatsoever.

ACT: We’re talking about this happening in the comics field, but this is something that happens everywhere, to different degrees. (And most people in the comics field, lest we scare people away with what we’re saying, are very nice and would never hurt anyone). What do you think we can do to tackle this sort of sexism?

ANDY: I believe the most effective way to attack sexism is through representation. More women in positions of authority, more women writers, more women artists, editors, readers, everything.

And of course men becoming aware of each other’s behavior towards women and correcting it when necessary.

Janelle and I work together on a site that features the work of many women writers, LGBT writers, writers of color. There’s a space carved out for diverse voices, and diverse voices elevate the discourse and enrich everything.

JANELLE: Many of my friends outside of comics are doing these incredibly intense jobs that involve basically saving the world, and sometimes I think, “What am I doing fighting so hard over representation and acceptance in comics?” One of these friends once said to me that representation in media both in the end product and in the making of the product shows the world how it should be done. People need to realize that the perceived lack of women creating comics is not because there are no women creating or reading comics. It’s because there’s a systematic sexism at work that isn’t even something most dudes know they’re doing. So they hire people like themselves and that excludes women and people of color. And then they make a product that features more people like themselves. Diverse media that reflects the diverse world we actually live in can change how people are treated. If we can change comics, I really believe we can change anything. I won’t stop trying.

Photo: (D.C. Comics)

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