Art Can Make a Difference: Responding to the "Just Don't Read It" Defense

A column article, Kate Or Die by: Kate Leth



Let me take you on a journey.

At the beginning of the DC relaunch, I - along with many others - wrote about the Starfire controversy as well as the startling misogyny present in some of DC's new titles. It was one of the most popular things I've written to date, and I was proud of being a voice in an important conversation. You see, it bothered me, as did DC's dismissive response. Despite that, I felt like we were being heard. Thousands of comments on articles addressing the same topic gave me hope. Outrage at the ridiculous depiction of women's sexuality felt, for a time, like it outweighed those who were telling us to calm down and wait 'til we were off our periods. We had made a stand.

Then, two months later, Harley Quinn basically called her vagina a clown car.

Yes, gentlemen who've made it this far, this is another article about equality. If you've taken to rolling your eyes and gearing up a seething comment, hit that backspace button now. Because it isn't just about comics. Harley Quinn was a favourite of mine, the standout character from Batman: The Animated Series. I loved her as a girl, loved her maniacal fervour and acrobatic abilities. I was (and remain) a Cirque du Soleil fanatic and she seemed like a villain straight out of that ethereal world. As I got older, I became fascinated with her abusive relationship with the Joker and loved writers who delved into the pathos behind loving a madman. Was she brilliant? Was she a master manipulator? Was she just a hopeless sap for a man in pancake makeup?

What I never saw her as, even in her darkest hours, was a prop. Harley was a fascinating character, different from so many others in that she didn't fall neatly into either half of the Virgin/Slut divide. She was loyal to a fault, desperate and in love, but crafty and viscious. Her friendship with Poison Ivy made both villains more interesting and multidimensional. Was I reading too much into a cartoon? Of course! I was twelve! That's what kids do.

So, you can tell a tween girl that if she doesn't like Harley the Juggalo, she doesn't have to read the comic. That's fine, if you think that's the solution. But the thing is, kids are inundated with media. As with the 7-year-old girl who was upset by Starfire's reincarnation, so would be a teenager excited to see her favourite Clown Princess in a new comic book, only to find her morphed into just another sex object. One less star to wish on. One less interesting woman. Just another music video starlet in heavy kohl and tiny shorts. It's more than just updating a character for an edgier world, it's telling another subsection of girls that being clever isn't enough.

Boobs- How Do They Work?

See, when you're a girl and you think for yourself, you start looking for whatever strong role models you can find. Superheroes, TV stars, politicians, what-have-you; women in positions of power who command respect. They become your hope. Case in point: When I was 9, Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted and it defined my adolescence. I wanted to be both Buffy and Willow. I took Karate. I read about witchcraft and the occult. I wanted to be strong, in charge, on my own terms. Fierce. I was that kind of kid. I saw Mulan a dozen times more than Beauty and the Beast. I obsessed over Sailor Moon, although their outfits never really made sense to me. I loved kickass women who didn't need tube tops to beat the bad guy.

Let me get real here for a minute. I've always had problems with my body. Like most girls today, I have a hard time remembering my self-worth when my jeans don't look good. When I was fifteen, it was worse. I had moved halfway across the country with my parents and stopped doing Karate. Buffy was ending, I had grown out of the Spice Girls and Batman and Cardcaptor Sakura, my friends were gone and I was pretty sure I was at least a little bit gay. Nothing made sense. Then, my parents took me to Weight Watchers.

Between the ages of 14 and 15, I lost 40 lbs. More than a quarter of my body weight. That's a lot when you're still growing. My baby fat was gone, I suddenly had stomach muscles I could touch and boys were taking notice. I still had black hair and fishnets, but I looked thin. I stopped caring about strong women. I was skinny. I felt like nothing else mattered. I got a goth boyfriend who, even though he was boring and cared more about World of Warcraft than me, I let sleep with me in his black-curtained bedroom listening to Tenacious D. I wasn't ready, but he thought I was pretty, and isn't that what girls are supposed to do?

Did you cringe? I still do, thinking about it. But that was my whole life. People constantly told me how much better I looked, even my family, how they couldn't remember how I'd been before. You're so thin now! I hardly recognize you! I lapped it up. You see, when you're a pretty girl, people feel like they have a right to you. They can compliment and objectify you and society accepts this with open arms. Men whistle at you on the street, even when you're too young to drive. It's fine if a teacher calls you "the incredible shrinking woman" and remarks on how breathtaking your eyes are. It's okay if he emails you and sends drunken messages of affection. It's no problem if, when you figure out how very wrong that is and tell the school board, he faces no legal consequence because you were probably "egging him on."


The thing is, if you think about it, you're probably not even really surprised. I was, then, but I was young. A year after the school system let me down, I started to gain the weight back. Nobody said anything this time. No words of encouragement. Everyone recognized me with a subtle flash of disappointment. I stopped wearing short sleeves and started carving reminders into myself of what being pretty meant. It was a dark time, and my heroes were gone. All I could see around me were gaunt women in lingerie and superheroes in even less. Movies geared toward my age group were filled to the brim with vacuous pin-ups and sex-starved manchildren. What was I supposed to be? If skinny meant giving up the right to my body and chubby meant being teased and depressed, was there really a lesser evil?

This, to get right to the point, is why I'm pissed about Harley Quinn. It's why I'm upset about Starfire, Catwoman, and the difference between the way Cliff Chiang draws Wonder Woman (strong, muscular and with a costume that shields her chest) and the way she looks in Justice League (cleavage, cleavage and butt shots). Why I hate the redesign of Amanda Waller and love that Batwoman was wearing a sports bra under her costume in the last issue. Why I hate the Catwoman movie and don't understand why they haven't adapted Batgirl: Year One for animation despite the dozen-odd successful movies in the Bat-franchise. It's why I draw comics at all, and it's the most important thing that nobody cares about.

If you take a cellphone pic right now, I will kick your ass...

Girls need heroes. Not just sparkly princesses and trembling vampire devotees, but powerful and likeable heroes. I got my confidence back when I got into comics, though slice of life stories and adventuresses like Selina Kyle and Barbara Gordon. This was two years ago. Comics got me through a breakup, my parents' divorce, job loss and more. I found within these fictional worlds characters that were more than costumes. I got the confidence to start drawing and found a whole world of other female artists online to learn from and share with. Comics became my whole life. They mean so much to me now, and to so many others.

So when the new Doctor Quinzel showed up, grinding her short shorts into a guy who tells her to shut up before somehow penetrating her through two layers of clothing, I felt defeated. I shouldn't care, I thought, about some character in a comic book. So what if she's some dumb male fantasy with a bad dye job? But... she's not. She's more than that. She was the crazed counterpart to my favourite villain with a deliciously twisted sense of humour. It's when I think about that, when I really get down to it, that I can't accept the "read something else" response. It wouldn't fly to have a protagonist changed into a blatant homophobe or to put forth an extreme racial stereotype, so why are we told to sit down and stop making a fuss when these characters we care about are warped for a sexist male gaze? Wouldn't it cause an uproar to have Superman show up in fishnets and thigh highs? I mean, he's an all-American hero! A role model for young boys nationwide!

It's an argument that's been made a thousand times before, but for some reason it still needs to be made. I'll just say this: The comic industry is growing. Reading graphic novels doesn't have the stigma it used to. Girls and women of every age are picking up Blankets, Walking Dead, Batwoman, Kick-Ass. Schools carry copies of Essex County and Infinite Kung-Fu. Everyone is looking for heroes to love the way generations before loved Batman and Spider-Man. We don't have to accept the things that offend us. We can speak out, we can hold artists accountable. Most of all, we can create newer and better comics. Our characters can be as diverse as we want. We can make real women with strength, integrity, faults and wicked-sweet costumes so that girls all over the world have something to hold on to when everything else is uncertain.

Art can make a difference. It can change lives.

So why make the same old, stupid shit?

When she's not working at Strange Adventures, Kate Leth can be found at the original kateordie as well as in the backpages of Locke & Key, with the just released one-shot Locke & Key: The Guide to the Known Keys being her debut. She is also featured in the upcoming Womanthology and is hard at work on an anthology devoted to coming out stories.

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Sex and the DC: Differing Takes on DC's Gender Issues

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What's Love Got to Do with It? Starfire in the New DC

Likes Boobs, Reads Comics

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