Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Wisdom Of Isaac

Over the weekend, I bought Gold, the final science fiction collection of Isaac Asimov's. Like the companion fantasy volume, Magic, it contains his last stories, as well as several essays that were never published in book form before his death. One of these essays interested me greatly. It's entitled "Women and Science Fiction," but it applies just as easily to women in comics.

As Asimov explains, throughout much of science fiction's history, women got treated less fairly than men. He speaks not in terms of employment (there were women editors even when he was crafting some of his first stories, in the late thirties and early forties, and writers as well, although the first prominent ones did not appear until the sixties), but of how women were treated in stories. The earliest women were little more than window dressing, MacGuffins for the heroes and villains to fight over. Even when women characters slowly developed personalities (such as Asimov's own Susan Calvin), they lacked the full characterization of the men. Asimov himself admits this is partly because authors, for whatever reason, could not treat the women as sexual beings. He extends this to readers as well, who, in those early days, fit the stereotype so well. He says himself, "It stands to reason these youngsters knew nothing about girls. By and large, I imagine they didn't dare approach them, and if they did, were rejected by them scornfully, and if they weren't, didn't know what to do next. So why on Earth should they want this strange sub-species in the stories they read? They had not yet gotten out of the 'I hate (translation: "I'm scared of") girls' stage."

Sound familiar?

Of course, things changed; Asimov himself developed from one of these pillars of sumhumanity to a self-described "Lovable Lecher." But SF, for the most part, didn't. Until an event that changed everything. Can you guess what it was?

*Jeopardy music*

Here's Asimov's answer: "In my opinion, it was not chiefly social evolution; it was not the daring new writers; not the Russes and LeGuins.

"It was the coming of women into science fiction readership!"

Thence came the mainstreaming of SF. Now, nearly forty years later (Asimov credits the first major influx of femal SF readers with the rise in popularity of Star Trek, and particularly the character of Spock, among women), it's a respectable genre, and the seterotype is reserved only for those who go "too far" in their fandom.

Comics, as has been mentioned, is not at this point. It's making progress in that direction, but in the slow and unlearning manner of a dog realizing that the ball he believes was thrown may, in fact, still be in his master's hand. Superhero comics, a worthwhile genre no matter what Gary Groth says, are even further, somewhere along the lines of the redcoats marching in single file through a field in broad daylight, wondering why so many of them were getting picked off by Indians. And the reason, I think, can be traced back to Asimov's dictum: No female readers.

Gail Simone can (and does) make as many great comics as she wants. Ditto Lea Hernandez, Jessica Abel, Colleen Doran, Trina Robbins, Andi Watson, and Jill Thompson. But it's not a real victory for women in comics unless women are buying and reading them. Now, in many of these cases, women are. But not enough of them. Check the message boards, the cons, and the stores if you don't belive me; it's still very much a sausage party in this industry.

And until we change that, as SF did, all the debates in the world about genres, distribution, and "manga style" are so much pissing in the wind.

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