Chelsea Cain's Man-Eaters sparked controversy within the comic fandom. However, the negative reaction to the series is much different than that surrounding her other works, such as Mockingbird. Instead, the controversy around Man-Eaters is about how people offered justified critique, and Cain made a series of terrible decisions in response, which culminated in her deleting her Twitter account.
Here's what went wrong with Man-Eaters.
Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda
Long before writing comics, Cain was a New York Times best-selling author. Her Gretchen Lowell series received critical accolades upon release, giving her quite a bit of clout very early on in her writing career. It seemed like a no-brainer for Marvel to bring her on to write Mockingbird in 2015 and 2016.
However, Cain joined Marvel at a time when some comic readers had begun to resent the publisher for its diverse body of creators, believing they were hired to fill a quota rather than because of talent. To them, an award-winning, best-selling writer had no right working on comics because she hadn't yet proven herself.
Cain dismissed that criticism, and Mockingbird #8 featured the now-famous cover by Joelle Jones; a shot of the titular character wearing a shirt that reads "Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda," a stab at her critics. This drew even fiercer backlash that resulted in the author exiting Twitter for the first time.
In contrast to Mockingbird, Man-Eaters is a feminist satire addressing the way society enforces how women deal with their bodies. In this world, there is a mutation that turns women into giant, man-eating cat monsters when they menstruate. The government enforces a program to suppress female menstruation to prevent the transformation, and women are segregated from society, forced to drink hormone laced water that will suppress their periods.
The satire is pretty overt; to keep women from becoming untamable, the government manipulates them. It's social satire in the same style of Kelly Sue DeConnick's Bitch Planet, which is also published by Image Comics. And, like DeConnick, Cain is very familiar with sexism, as evidenced the harassment she experienced due to Mockingbird.
However, the controversies surrounding Mockingbird and Man-Eaters are very different.
Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism
Man-Eaters defines women by their biological functions. This mindset is very controversial, especially among LGBTQIA+ and third-wave feminist communities, because it implies that trans women -- who were not assigned female at birth -- are not really women. Third-wave-feminism generally deconstructs the gender binary, differentiating gender from sex and saying they should be regarded as separate.
Man-Eaters uses more of a second-wave feminist framework, which means the comic was using beliefs from the '60s in a modern satire. This choice was interpreted by trans readers as saying, "You're not really a woman unless you menstruate." As such, many trans readers (and cis readers sympathetic to trans issues) criticized Man-Eaters for its portrayal of womanhood as purely biological.
To Cain's credit, several months prior, in an interview with Women Write About Comics, she did address critics of her work, saying, "I think it’s really important to tell stories from a lot of different points of view. This is a story about what it’s like to be a cis gendered female coming of age in a culture that consistently reinforces the messaging that periods are shameful, that our bodies are shameful, and that womanhood -- and the biology that goes along with it -- is something gross and not for polite company. It’s about rejecting that narrative and making something powerful from it. You don’t have to have a uterus to be a woman. Anyone who thinks that hasn’t been paying attention.
"But let’s not get lost or distracted here," she continued. "This is a specific story, about a specific experience — the way that all good stories are. And if I’m doing my job well, I think that anyone can relate to it. I think that someone who is trans knows full well what it feels like to struggle with being defined by biology and by the social messaging that makes us all, at one point or another, feel like monsters."
And in Issue #6, she did make a reference to non cis men and women with a message from Powell Middle School's nurse.
Critics of the comic pointed out that, despite the comic being a personal story, Man-Eaters still made many readers uncomfortable to the point they didn't want to read it. Cain then took tweets critical of her comic -- without permission or warning -- and put them in Man-Eaters #9 as posters in an anti-menstruation concentration camp. When taken in context of what these billboards represent in Man-Eaters, Cain implied that her critics, no matter how well-meaning, are just as bad as a patriarchal government manipulating women's bodies.
Cain provided her reason for the choice, saying, "I just wanted to acknowledge the really painful criticisms of the work and that sense I have that no matter how hard we try we are made to feel worthless and small. It was meant to echo a voice. The one that tells me I am a failure. Or as I call it, Twitter."
When the "Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda" cover hit store shelves, it was clever satire, because she was attacking the sexist status quo holding diverse creators back. She was attacked the mainstream. But with Man-Eaters #9, she attacked an already oppressed minority group asking for her to be sensitive to their issues. Her qualifications as a writer weren't being questioned, and she didn't have a hate mob attacking her. She had constructive criticism levied toward her.
People got angry. Numerous feminist and LGBTQIA+ readers -- Man-Eaters' target audience -- felt betrayed by Cain doing something so petty.
After hours of controversy, Cain tried to appease her critics by asking for a sensitivity reader to go through the last few scripts of Man-Eaters to avoid any problematic elements.
Essentially freelance editors who offer suggestions on how to improve a written text in terms of its representation and way of talking about marginalized groups. Sensitivity readers are becoming more common in publishing, and they deserve to get paid for their work. They're providing a service, like an editor or script doctor. Asking a sensitivity reader to work without pay insults that person's work and the demographic she's claiming to want to be more sensitive to. People were understandably angry at Cain.
In her last few tweets before deleting Twitter, Cain apologized for being, as she put it, an idiot. But as far as we know, she has yet to apologize directly to her critics for the abuse she flung their way. Had Cain listened to feedback in the first place, this debacle might have been avoided. However, if she wants to move on, she needs to learn how to listen to the marginalized voices attempting to communicate their frustration with her actions and her work.