April 25, 2006

the ever-lovin' brown-eyed Dichroic on a swingin' comix tear

I've been reading a collection of Fantastic Four comics from about 1961. I have no idea why I like the old Marvel comics but I do; they're oddly compelling. They're also dated and repetitive and isn't trying to be anything else. A new device with a name like "the magna-sonic transducer" shows up roughly once per page, and there are regular visits from aliens and from other races who have been hiding out on Earth all along, jaunts into the "negative zone", people with superpowers like changing parts of their body into sand and no attempt to come up with a scientific explanation for any of it. Anyone who describes himself (always himself) as a "scientist" seems to acquire the ability to instantly understand any device and figure out how to use it from a quick inspection, no matter how complicated or alien the device might be. Everyone speaks as if he or she is being recorded for posterity except the Thing, who keeps complaining about it. ("Sheesh. Can't we ever fight a villain who doesn't lecture all day?") Actually, he's never just the Thing, he's the "ever-lovin blue-eyed Thing", and his "Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew"; Johnny Storm is "the blazing boy" and "Hothead", and Mr. Fantastic is "that egg-headed square lunk" if the Thing is speaking, "Leaderman" from the Torch, super-scientist Reed Richards from Stan Lee in authorial voice, and "Reed, my darling" if it's Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl. It's cheerfully hokey and mostly great fun.

I also give them some credit for the low level of racial prejudice. The "noble Indian" language used about and by Wyatt Wingfoot gets a little old ("I should be able to train Lockjaw [the Inhumans' dog] if anyone can, for have I not the blood of my Comanche forebears, who trained the wild mustang?") but on the other hand, he mixes freely with people of all colors, drives an extremely hot sports car (thanks to a "with-it" oil-baron grandfather) and gets the same education Johnny does. When the FF and Wyatt meet the Black Panther, again, he's rich and cultured (despite living in the middle of an African jungle) and courteous, and there's no implication of any status tied to skin color.

What does bother me is the blindingly blatant level of sexism in the books. Sue Storm apparently gets to wash dishes and do all the cooking, in addition to fighting bad guys alongside the boys. She is a bending reed, clinging to Reed for protection, but only before and after the battles. The word "feminine" is never used alone; it's always "weak and feminine", as in, "I apologize for being so weak and feminine as to burst into tears after we finished kicking bad-guy butt together." other female characters, like Medusa and the Enchantress, want to stand on their own, but tend to be ignored or viewed as second-rate despite their formidable powers by their male associates. (After Medusa wiped the room with the Trapster - this was before she reunited with the other Inhumans and became a good guy - he informed her, "I like a dame who's feisty!")

I think this probably bugs me so much because, like racism, sexism has retreated and gone underground but not vanished. I read regularly on blogs and elsewhere complaints from modern-day Sue Storms who are expected to kick bad-guy butt or at least satisfy the requirements of a demanding career and then go home and make the dinner every night. It's good to see the progress we've made, but it's sad not to see more of it.

Posted by dichroic at April 25, 2006 12:35 PM

Anti-feminism is still around, though often masked. When I interviewed for the best job I ever had, the boss I talked with suggested I discuss it with my husband before I made a decision. One of the other bosses got bent out of shape because we were putting women through our classes as well as men. (He didn't care if we marketed the classes, but he didn't want us wasting time taking them.) I've probably encountered as much anti-feminism as anti-semitism over the years. And didn't Isaac Asimov, who decried the blatant racism in early science fiction, treat women terribly?

Posted by: l'empress at April 25, 2006 04:03 PM
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