Sunday, April 14, 2013

Course Update: Week 2 of Gender Through Comics Books

Update on 09/30/2021 - It's been 8 years since this post, and I do not know why it's getting traction now.  For some reason, this post is getting a lot of hits all of a sudden. 

I will say the following - in re-reading my comments I made at the time, I don't necessarily agree with these points exactly the same way now as I saw the issues then.  I think I'm now much more able to just let a question hang, or a problem exist without a specific answer.  Sometimes the challenge is the thing.  I don't think I demand a different model now the way I did then, and am able to better just handle an open question.

Maybe it's growth or my eyes being slightly more open, or I'm older and have had the past 8 years to ponder these same questions a whole lot more as the world has allowed more voices.  

Academia and criticism are hard.  There's a reason not everyone gets to do it.  And the topics in the class were challenging in a very positive way.  I believe internalizing some of this course was very good for me, indeed.  The methods and whatnot are up for discussion or critique, and they should be.  But just know that it was a good experience and I'm glad I was asked to review my own thinking in many ways by the course.

Original Post:

With the navigation issues resolved, Week 2 of the course Gender Through Comic Books, was a lot easier to deal with (the navigation is still awful, but at least I've basically sorted it out).   Of the promised 3-5 hours, I probably spent 3-4 hours, including an hour of guest lecture by comics maestro Mark Waid.  I did bypass a lot of the reading as I've read Superman: Birthright numerous times in the past, and was able to focus mostly on course materials - so that saved a good hour.

As has often been my experience with a lot of course reading in theory classes, the full articles are going to start feeling repetitive.  We've been presented the premise, and everything else is going to be supporting evidence - and this is why I was not a good student as an undergrad or, especially, during my glorious short, flamed-out career of not finishing grad school.

In this course, the basic concept is that "sex" is a biological designation and "gender" is a construct of personal and cultural choices.  I believe this makes sense in context, and  the readings made the concept pretty clear in Week 1.  In Week 2, the one article we were asked to check out gave some more evidence.  That's cool.  But by the time we get to Week 3...

This week was a mix of reading Superman and putting some coin in Mark Waid's pocket by selling a lot of copies of Superman: Birthright.  The task was to consider the construction of gender as it's played out less by instinct and more as part of a perception of roles of male, female and otherwise and how that's demonstrated by reading Birthright as well as Action Comics #1, an issue of Superman from 1960, and consider the ways gender is portrayed across 75 years.

As I like to drop every time I have a chance, I do have a film degree, and that wasn't ALL sitting around in my beret, framing shots of sad mimes for a b&w, silent opus.  We did a lot of reading and criticizing of films, and then a lot of discussion.

The most puzzling bit of film theory was the firm adherence to the notion that the creator's intention has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING.  If you say "the orange cone was in the scene because they filmed on a street where there was an orange cone", the critic can say "YOU ARE WRONG.  The cone stands for the oppression of the peoples of Coffeyville, Kansas and the great corn husk incident of 1933!"  And, well, that's now an interpretation.*

It is also why I couldn't ever take the application of other social criticism and applying it to media as a life's calling.

While it's always worth throwing an idea up against the wall to see if it sticks, has legs, etc..., it's also an invitation for anyone with a bug-a-boo to bring their particular lens to media and do a lot of handwaving.  Doing so from an academic standpoint makes sense - it creates critical thinking.  However, in my experience, the chain of discussion seems to begin and end with the viewpoint of the critic/ writer/ academic and asking for the critic to support the validity of their argument can wind up in the same loop you enter with conspiracy theorists.  Suggesting maybe this isn't actually true makes you part of the conspiracy or, worse, someone who needs to wake up, America!

In many ways, I think this is why folks outside of academia, or who only passed through college en route to getting a job, can't take this shit seriously.

Christine Blanch, the course instructor, has invited some really, really big names in comics to come and talk to her class and discuss gender, gendering, and "doing gender".  Of absolutely no surprise to me is the fact that Mark Waid and Terry Moore, two of the most open minded guys who make comics and manage to sell them enough that it's their actual job, have let a little of the helium of this particularly party balloon by suggesting that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  They do think about gender, but they aren't thinking about it in the prescribed terms of the scholars on the topic.

There's definitely a friction between the creators and the participants in the class as the creators state their intended purpose, to create believable and relatable characters, whereas the desired outcome of the concept of gender and gendering in comic books seems to be a utopian vision wherein stories seem to be about people of all sexes and genders who behave well with others and treat one another with collegiality.  I'm exaggerating, maybe (I don't think so), but I always feel like I'm missing something here.

One of the questions I had in film school was trying to figure out what, exactly, films would look like if they were made by the people who were teaching our classes.**  It's worth talking about the gender issues, but it always seems to boil down to some wildly bland vision of the world in which nobody acts like a human being so much as a neutered, non-threatening avatar for "how things should be".

Still, I think Blanch is a good mix of realist and idealist, and I don't find myself frustrated with her "lecture" portions, her reading selections (after the first one - which almost made me drop the course if the outmoded, insular logic was what I as in for), or her interview style.  She's managed to line-up the equivalent of The Actor's Studio for comics for her class, and so she's got to balance asking the creators challenging questions and not grilling them lest whatever interview she's doing now be her last.***

At the end of the day, we're really using comics to look at the institutionalized ideas of gender that permeate culture - that the comics are simply a reflection of that culture.  What I find frustrating, I suppose, is the outrage on the discussion boards when it comes to fairly standard gender interpretations in media - not that we can't see varying ideas of gender, sex, sexuality, etc...  but the notion that what writers put down to reflect a world that's recognizable - if that's the intent of the story - is somehow offensive.  I can't imagine the outrage these commenters must feel each and every day in every single social interaction that doesn't live up to some trumped up expectations.

< /rant>

I am enjoying feeling the pistons fire up, and even when I don't agree with the methodology, some of the assertions, my fellow learners, etc...  I am aware that I am being challenged and that I am firing up neurons that need to get a kickstart every once in a while.  I'm being given, for free, the opportunity to think about topics that it's easy to take for granted either in everyday interactions or in comics.

Heck, as we're taking this class, there's a documentary showing Monday on Independent Lens about the historical significance of Wonder Woman on PBS (I suggest you look for local listings) and Gail Simone is bringing a trans-gendered character to Batgirl, I guess (I don't read the title).

As per the technology...  Again, it's pretty clunky sorting through the course, and I imagine the template for Canvas will change a few times in the next year as they work out how people actually use the internet.  Right now it has the feel of a series of requirements fulfilled by engineers who are going by a spec sheet rather than considering their customer.

I am impressed by how much Blanch works in the discussion boards, but it's still terribly unwieldy with so many folks in there, and so little feeling that it's worth the time to post your thoughts and feelings.  Because this week's topic was Superman - something I have a few opinions on - I posted to the discussion board a few places, and sort of got responses to my comments from other learners.  Sort of a "yeah, I agree" perfunctory thing that didn't feel like a "discussion" so much as the drive-by commenting natural to that size community.

There is an assignment to draw a comic based on an experience I had with "gender", but I'm not doing it.  It sort of has the feel of doing a lot of work for no pay-off, just on the face of it.  Just finding a scanner to use or find time with the scanner at work sounds like more trouble than it's worth for 1 or 2 people to look at something I'd spend time on and go "huh", and move on.

So, that's that.

*This, by the way, is EXACTLY why I can't wait to see Room 237.

**yes, I will always refer to the Dead Poet Society incident of 1994 wherein, after hearing my instructor rail against the false rebellion of the students for a full lecture, I asked "so, what were they supposed to do?" and the instructor said "that's not our problem", and I didn't let it go and I was asked to come talk about this during office hours, but knew better.

***I think I mentioned this last time, but I'm pretty sure that Blanch is somehow romantically involved with Mark Waid, who was this week's interviewee.  I'm pretty sure that I met her at a Mark Waid signing at Austin Books and Comics, and her rapport with goons like me at the table makes sense if she's an educator.  If that was her, and I think it was.


picky said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying these posts, but I'd say regarding - what would that film look like? - that's kind of the point. What would a comic without institutionalized ideas of gender look like? I think that's a valuable conversation, no mater how you get there.

In my studies, lit tends to go the opposite way in feminist texts - no men anywhere. Or men that don't retain their power and privilege, which isn't really the idea. These are experimental as many texts are, and that experiment leaves the reader cold.

Thanks for sharing. I'm signing up to take a class in the fall (nothing as interesting as this), so I'm liking the look into the classroom from the other side.

The League said...

That's the challenge for me, I think. And I do want to be challenged, and sometimes that's difficult to reconcile with the fact that I work in a world where you don't come to me with a problem unless you've got 2-3 solutions for how this can be resolved.

In many ways, it seems easy to say "this is wrong", but that's only as useful to me as saying "this is right". And I often wonder if the "this is right" examples are as easily criticized.

What I am trying to get out of the class - aside from understanding the pedagogical model - is: perspective. What do I take for granted in a text that maybe I shouldn't? What is an acceptable social shortcut, what is not, what does it mean or not mean to use those shortcuts (and sometimes, it really DOESN'T mean anything).

I feel like I am getting that out of the course. But I've never been okay with just kicking around a theory. I want to see if its got legs. I can't tell you how much more seriously I would have wound up taking my media theory classes if that one instructor had been able to answer my question about "Dead Poet Society" in 1994 or 5. And been willing to deal with what it would mean to put their opinions out there when they knew it was leading into chaos.

raveylu said...

Yes! And yes, the "this is right" examples are easily criticized because often, they go the other extreme. But it's the awareness and perspective you mention that I think are so important. I love reading fiction, but I also like being aware of the assumptions or norms the author takes for granted and why they can be problematic in the context of a society that largely takes those same things for granted.

I'm curious about your DPS experience, as that's one thing I really try to do with my classes - be transparent. Explain when and why I don't know something but explore why I find it interesting nonetheless. It's a shame the conversation ended because I find those moments are when true teaching/learning can happen.

The League said...

Yeah, the instructor was young, a PhD candidate, and she was very much about teaching from the "Marxist" point of view, and so she was very much about challenging anything and everything, and did not like a movie about a bunch of rich kids who stood up on a table and said "O Captain! My Captain!" and it was seen as an act of rebellion. She was very keen to point out that these privileged kids weren't risking anything, really, etc... She also somehow had plotted out futures in her head about how all of these guys would just end up as accountants, anyway.

I didn't have a problem with that. What I asked her was "So, what would have been an act of rebellion that would have met your criteria?"

And she sort of dodged the question, and I remember asking "So, overthrowing the school? Heads on pikes?" Just to throw something against the wall, and she suggested I wasn't taking this seriously. And I rejected that, and she said "well, it's not our job to say what they should have done." And that struck me as wrong.

It strikes me that it means the critic can't commit, but it also runs headlong into the problem for writers and the actual creators that when someone offers specific ideas for how something should work, that's a completely different story and not actually constructive feedback.

I've balanced it in my mind as thinking of media/ stories as both a reflection of cultural norms, as well as something that passes on ideas, and in that way, its worth thinking about. What I was reacting to with my instructor was that they were willing to guffaw and challenge the story (and, by extension, the audience for the movie), and state "this is a falsehood, this is wrong" without being able to state "this is right" - and which would be a completely different story.

Does that make sense.

suits said...

I'm taking this Gender Through Comics class as well, and I am extremely thankful for your posts. You have touched upon many of the issues and frustrations I have with the class.

For instance I find it not only daunting but rather infuriating to read or even post on the discussion boards. As a quick cursory analysis for those who are not taking the class but following these posts, there seem to be roughly 6 discussions for each week, but each one is roughly 20 pages of comments. Many of which as you noted are comments like "Good point!" "That's very succinct." "I agree." which is not useful in terms of a discussion. It feels like they are just congratulating themsleves on being right.

I am understanding the issues of gender, gender roles, etc. better because of this class. But I'm also finding myself more confused, as I keep noting contradictory statements among the readings/lectures/discussion boards.

But I took this class purely to learn. So if I'm learning I'll keep going.

I don't see saying "this is wrong"/"this is right" as being nearly productive as asking "why this might be wrong/right". Surely the analytical process from "this is whay they did" to "it is wrong" would lead to critical observations of their motivations, their choices as well as the alternatives.
It sounds like, although I could be wrong, this professor found something grating about Dead Poets Society, rationalized her distate, and then ranted about it, instead of examining why she had a problem with it. It sounds like her main issues revolved around a classist issue, so was she taking her classist hang-ups and applying them to this film? OR was there something inherently flowed about the rationale of the students' rebellion?

I find, when analyzing creations, it is important to examine all influences of your perception, including internal ones.