Empowering vs. protecting the children

by  in Comic News Comment
Empowering vs. protecting the children

Where is the line? When is an image empowering, and when is it too risque? While the case of the contested variant cover of The Powerpuff Girls #6 has a lot of silly aspects, its core speaks to larger issues the comic book industry has been wrestling with of late, and may find itself wrestling with even more. The questions it raises aren’t always easy to answer — as is so often the case, the devil is in the details.

All-ages comics have a larger presence now than they have in decades. Every month, tie-ins to popular kids’ shows and original books suitable for readers are released in high enough numbers that you could open a comic book store that’s just for kids. Many stores have increased their kids sections, and with events like Free Comic Book Day, it’s easier for those shops to prove themselves to parents as a safe place. Meanwhile, awareness of the industry’s female readership has never been higher; in October, digital comics platform comiXology released some startlingly specific data: Its average female reader is “17-26 years old, college-educated, lives in the suburbs, and is new to comics. She prefers Tumblr to Reddit. She may have never even picked up a print comic.” In six years, female readership on comiXology increased from less than 5 percent to 20 percent.

That’s a cosmic shift in demographics for an industry that for decades was fairly accurately characterized as having a readership composed of predominantly of white men, ages 30 to 50. It’s a shift that many have been advocating for a long time because it makes for a healthier industry: Any business major will tell you that to succeed, a business or industry shouldn’t rely on one source of income; diversify, diversify, diversify. But that means the way the industry functions must shift as well. And that’s not always comfortable. However, working through these growing pains is good for comics.

Ten or 20 years ago, it’s unlikely Mimi Yoon’s cover would’ve bothered anyone; it wouldn’t have registered as a blip on the “unfortunate” or “uncomfortable” scales (and, heck, there are plenty of far more “sexualized” covers out there). The unease, though, comes from its target demographic, young girls. But is that the audience? As the comics industry becomes more and more segmented, it’s no longer quite as clear cut.

The Powerpuff Girls is a 20-year-old franchise. Similar to the success of My Little Pony, The Powerpuff Girls shares at least two generations of fans: nostalgic adults and kids discovering the animated property for the first time. It’s also not so easily dismissed as strictly “for girls.” While it may not have a Bronies-level reputation, Powerpuff Girls always had wide appeal across both genders because of its sharp writing, visual references and action. As one cross-section, take a look at the IMDb reviews of the original TV series: Some were already in their 20s when they discovered the show, some were kids. Some male, some female. There’s even debate among the reviewers whether it’s intended for kids. What’s clear is that the show, and by extension the franchise, is truly “all ages” — meaning for kids and adults.

Cartoon Network has always been aware of its older demographic; that’s most classically exemplified by its Adult Swim programming. So it probably shouldn’t be too surprising that the network would want to experiment and target the older Powerpuff Girls. The cover is clearly imagining the trio older — a classic “what if my favorite characters grew up?” It seems like a fun image to offer to older fans, but is the cover of a typically all-ages comic the place to do it? None of the other covers or variant covers of IDW Publishing’s Powerpuff Girls miniseries have taken such liberties with the characters’ traditional designs. Is it asking too much of retailers to monitor the age-appropriateness of variant covers of all-ages comics? I’m not a retailer, despite my brief experience working at a really terrible shop, so it’s hard for me to know. Maybe if all of the subscription variants had a slightly older feel to them, it would make sense to put those covers in with all of the other general comics, and put the clearly on-model covers in the kids section.

The final piece of this comes down to whether it’s really all that damaging an image to young girls. There are plenty of studies that support the belief that media have contributed to poor body images in girls, which later lead to eating disorders and other problems as women. Obviously, this is a cumulative effect. One Powerpuff Girls comic in isolation doesn’t do much, but in the larger tapestry of twerking Miley Cyrus, Photoshopped super-models and everything else pop culture pretends is normal, maybe it’s adding to that.

Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s empowering, which IDW’s Dirk Wood explained was likely Cartoon Network’s intent when it commissioned the illustration. Maybe it’s like Brave, maybe it’s like Black Widow in The Avengers. Maybe it’s just three young women being kick-ass, just like they were when they were little kids. I have no doubt that for a significant number of girls, that’s exactly how it would resonate, and that makes it a very worthwhile image. Because instead of doing harm or doing nothing, it’s actually doing good. It’s actually contributing to cancelling out some of that subconscious messaging that women supposedly can’t be tough, independent, capable and use teamwork with other women.

So which is it? The skirts are maybe a tad short, but I think it’s fine. But the truth is that I am among that dreaded white-male demographic still very prevalent within the industry. I can never know what it’s like to grow up with the constant visual cues saying I’m not enough and that I’m supposed to act a certain way. I can a little, because I’m not built like Chris Hemsworth, but it’s not on the same scale. So I don’t think it’s my place to say whether Yoon’s cover is inappropriate or damaging to young girls. I can have an opinion about it, but I can’t really know if society at large should be restricted from seeing it or owning a copy.

The truth is, everyone is going to gauge it differently. The majority of stores didn’t have a red flag for this cover. If any did, they probably just didn’t order any copies. But the way our industry is expanding, this kind of tug of war between protection and empowering will continue. All we can do is keep talking about it with a level head (or for some, start talking about it with a level head) and keep learning. Our industry is getting better, but hat doesn’t mean it’s going to be easier.