A frequent complaint that’s heard in broader discussions of comics surrounds gender bias. Both behind the art boards and in the art itself. The comics industry is dominated by men, and female characters are often portrayed in a stilted manner. By not having layers of already-empowered men in to circumvent, however, webcomics have been more inviting to both female creators as well as positive female role models.
But here’s the thing. Comics aren’t the only issue. We live in a society in which we are constantly bombarded by images, designed mostly by men, which chip away at women’s confidence and self-esteem. Belittling them bit by bit as they’re told to live up to impossible standards that are largely thanks to various digital manipulations. So that when a girl enters adulthood, she’s already wrapped in a constant struggle with herself about how beautiful, smart, and talented she really is.
I emailed my girlfriend the following Bob the Squirrel when it came out a couple weeks ago.
She told me to stop making her cry at work. Because I tell her every day that she’s a wonderful, beautiful person and, even though I’ve convinced her that I believe that, she doesn’t yet believe it about herself. Because she’s had decades of media telling her that was wrong to think that. That she wasn’t as beautiful as Pam Grier, as powerful as Grace Jones, as coveted as Halle Berry. Me? I’ve only had a few years to play catch-up.
The independent voice that’s inherent in webcomics, though, can help to correct that. Not entirely, and not for everyone certainly, but it’s a lot more than we’re really seeing anywhere else. They often do it by sharing their own personal experiences. They use their comics to say to other women, “Hey, you’re not alone! I have the same issues!” There’s comfort in knowing that you’re not isolated in your insecurities, and that other people have been, and are continuing to deal with the same concerns.
Weight is, not surprisingly, a central theme when it comes to body issues. Compared to many of the wafer-thin super-models out there, most women do weigh more and compare themselves negatively to what they see in magazines and catalogs and comics. Not that those icons are actually ideal, but since they’re presented as such in such pervasive manner, it’s difficult not to buy into that thinking. So it should come as no surprise that a lot of women are self-conscious about their weight. Sarah Becan has lately taken her strip towards cooking and food-related issues, but she still periodically returns to I Think You’re Sauceome’s origins dealing with her concerns about her weight.
With small waists also tend to come small breasts. And so women also find themselves comparing their larger chests to the much smaller ones most super-models have. Paige Halsey Warren looks at this issue specifically, again with a sympathetic approach, in her Busty Girl Comics.
In both cases, the artists don’t pretend to solve others’ internal issues, but they use their own experiences to share some of the frustrations they run into regarding body issues. Women can see what others with similar problems actually think and feel when confronted with seemingly trivial concerns, and learn that their experiences are more common than mass media would have you believe.
Rebecca Cohen has a more explicitly feminist message/agenda with The Adventures of Gyno-Star. She generally focuses on broader issues around women’s roles in society and trying to break down gender stereotypes, but Cohen also uses that avenue to point out where some of the body (and other self-esteem) issues that women have come from. Though she doesn’t target specific companies or individuals, her stand-ins are so egregious in their messages and methods that the reader can’t help but see how absurd the root concepts are that often used with much more subtlety in real life.
There’s of course not a single webcomic that can completely turn around decades of the mass media barrage we live with every day. But chipping away here and there with comics like these and continued kind words from loved ones certainly can’t hurt.