Warning: long article with serious overtones follows. Back out now if that's not your thing.
Earlier this week on Facebook, Wonderworld Comics retailer and Detroit Fanfare organizer Dennis Barger Jr. posted an image of an upcoming Powerpuff Girls variant cover by artist Mimi Yoon, which showed the kindergarten superheroines apparently as older girls, wearing latex dresses, and in general looking disturbingly sexualized for characters that both and are marketed to an audience of very young girls, complaining that the image was inappropriate for its audience and calling on publisher IDW to cancel it. IDW VP of Marketing Dirk Wood chimed in immediately, revealing that the cover was ordered by Cartoon Network. The next day, the story was picked up on Bleeding Cool, then The Outhouse. Yesterday, ICv2 announced that they had contacted Cartoon Network, and they had decided to pull the cover. Case closed, and story covered in one paragraph, right?
In fact, the story only blew up further after that, hitting Bleeding Cool a couple more times, The Outhouse again, Comics Alliance, THR, and even The Guardian, the paper that worked with Edward Snowden to leak information about the U.S. Government's spying on its own citizens, and a ton of other places. Pretty much everywhere. And though it seems like it should be an open and shut case of poor judgment on the part of Cartoon Network for commissioning an artist to create a cover that, while it might have been absolutely fine for another audience, turned out to be misguided. Cartoon Network and Mimi Yoon claimed that the image was meant to be empowering to the young girls who make up the Powerpuff Girls' target audience, but a lot of people saw it as one more image on top of what seems like a constant cultural bombardment of the subtle message that a woman's empowerment lies in her sex appeal. That this would be endorsed by Cartoon Network felt like a betrayal to many.
Speaking from my personal perspective as a parent of two daughters, it certainly didn't convey the message I expect the Powerpuff Girls to send my kids when I encourage them to watch it, but there are a number of other perspectives from which it's been criticized as well. And along with that criticism, and the subsequent pulling of the cover, came backlash as well. In fact, with all the attention the issue has received since the cover was pulled, the story is probably bigger now than it was before.
Kindergarteners Aren't Sexy
In case you haven't seen it, here's the cover in question:
As you can see, it's not the worst thing in the world. But again, on the cover of an all ages book, for a property considered at least somewhat feminist, with a young target audience, it's just not really appropriate. Leaving morality, which is subjective and different for everyone, it's not appropriate from a business sense because it clearly offends more of the people in the position of consuming products based on the Powerpuff Girls brand than it entices. Cartoon Network recognized this and corrected their mistake.
This apparently made some people angry. It seems that some people believe that the whole thing was a huge overreaction, and, following the universal axiom that two wrongs make a right, they're going to set things straight by having an even huger overreaction to the overreaction, setting off a series of increasingly larger overreactions that eventually threaten to destroy the universe. A chain overreaction, if you will.
Take, for instance, this comment on Robot6's article about the cover being pulled, from an eloquent gentleman calling himself "Johnny:"
Really? There’s not enough words that can express how completely and totally idiotic this is. Do we live in the 1930s or something? I don’t see any sexualization in this cover. So, you see them as teenagers and not as children, so what? Wearing skintight dresses and long stockings makes it seem like they are in porn all of a sudden? You will see sexualization if Buttercup was smooching Blossom’s nipple, while Bubbles stood above them with her legs open, or something. What a bunch of retards. It’s embarrassing to see how uptight today’s society is.
"Johnny" makes a good point. If Buttercup were indeed "smooching Blossom's nipple while Bubbles stood above them with her legs open," I think most people would probably see sexualization. However, I'm afraid I don't follow the logic that makes me or anyone else who thought this cover was in poor taste for a comic geared toward children and featuring characters that are not only geared toward children, but considered by many to be a safe choice as far as entertainment for kids, a "retard." In addition, I'm not sure its an indication that we live in an uptight society, either. But more on that later.
You see, to a lot of people involved in this discussion, this is a bigger issue than just one cover. If we were to draw a dividing line and sort everybody off onto one of two sides, you'd have, on one side, people that generally feel society places pressure on girls from a young age to act, look, and feel a certain way, emphasizing beauty sexiness as a primary aspiration. On the other, you'd have people who have had enough of the politically correct thought police telling grown adults what they're allowed to say and what they're supposed to believe. And while both of these positions can be valid, and I've found myself taking either depending on the situation, it can't be neatly applied to every one.
Sometimes, when people campaign against something, it's not because they want to stifle free speech. Sometimes, they're letting a company know that they, as the customers, don't like or want something, and the company acknowledges their complaints and takes action. Did Cartoon Network want to ditch the young girl market and pick up the "people who are turned on by sexy versions of the Powerpuff Girls" market in exchange? Clearly they didn't.
I'm not even saying that there shouldn't be content I would consider sexualized for parents who, for whatever reason, want their kids to watch that kind of thing or don't object to it. I don't think it's a good idea, but it's not my place to parent everyone's children. That being said, there are far more existing options for shows that subtly or overtly teach "traditional" gender values compared to very few that don't, like Powerpuff Girls, My Little Pony: Friendship Magic, or Avatar: Legend of Korra.
No one (or at least no one rational, for the most part) is saying that there's no place for cheesecake art or even sexy versions of kiddie characters, if that's your thing, and no one is saying that everything in the world has to be sanitized for children. I mean, there's always the internet, and Rule 34. But this comic actually is for children, and for what I'd wager is a large portion of its customer base, it's being purchased because the Powerpuff Girls are a brand from which people expect the exact opposite kind of thing than this.
Sexy or Empowering?
But understandably, the artist who drew the cover, Mimi Yoon, was not pleased that her work would not see print. She chimed in on her Facebook page with a dig at retailer Dennis Barger, saying:
one opinionated dog barks (i’m fine with that)… and the rest of the pack barks ‘pretending’ to know what they’re barking about (hate those idiots)… tsk tsk tsk.
Soon after, she posted a longer response:
i've been keeping quiet because of my respect to the other parties involved, but i feel it's about time i say something.
DO KNOW THAT I AM DAMM PROUD OF THIS WORK OF MINE.
my objective was to illustrate modern, pop cultured, SASSY (not sexy), and humanized Powerpuff Girls who have just beaten the crime lord and have him on the ground. yes, the girls are wearing latex costumes... SO?!?!?! don't all superpowered heroes wear latex?
unfortunately, the comic book will never make it to the stores... yes, i'm truely disappointed... because a perverted mind decided to see in this image what his dirty mind has conjured up, and barked loud enough. worse, he brought up kids and used protecting kids and kids' perspective in his reasoning/excuse. does he think kids are dumber than him?
huge apologies to those who have been waiting... there's nothing i can do.
also sorry to those who's been asking to buy prints of it... i'm not allowed to make prints of it. the characters belong to CN.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT!!
Again, we see the defense that there is nothing sexual about this drawing, and it's the people who are reading that into it who are the real perverts here. It's just three sassy (NOT SEXY) gals, having a modern and pop cultured time defeating the crime lord, in their latex mini-dresses and thigh-high boots. Yoon doesn't even bother to claim that it's a grown up version of the Powerpuff Girls, as others have suggested. Presumably, they're actually still little kids, just, you know, with boobs. And don't all superheroes have boobs? And aren't superhero comics widely known as an artform that treats women with respect, avoiding the pitfalls of objectification and... oh wait, comic books are constantly under fire for being terrible at that.
The fact is, the claim that this isn't meant to be sexy just doesn't hold water. Tight, latex clothing is meant to be sexy. That's exactly why superheroes and superheroines wear it. It's why the Black Widow wears a black, latex bodysuit that she always keeps unzipped halfway to her belly button. Can it be empowering to wear latex? I'm not going to say it isn't. I'm just going to say it isn't for six year olds. But saying that cover is meant to empower women is like saying my teeth are meant to open beer bottles. What's more likely is that Yoon is conflating sexiness with empowerment, which, while fine if you're a grown woman and that's what you want to do, is exactly the message I don't want my kids to get from the Powerpuff Girls.
A Place for Everything
Rebecca Pahle over at The Mary Sue had a rebuttal for Yoon's first comment, but it applies to both:
I’m going to go ahead and respectfully disagree that the people who objected to the cover are “idiots.” Look, if someone wants to draw fanart that takes young girls (or young ponies, not that I’m pointing fingers) and sexes them up, I think it’s gross (to use one word). But it’s not like the company that owns them is swooping in to shut individual fanartists down, barring extreme cases like the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Ask Princess Molestia blog. Whether they should… well, that’s a different debate. But the company itself putting out an image like the one above takes the ugh to a whole different level.
It's a reasonable statement. This cover is not inappropriate everywhere. It's just inappropriate here, in this specific situation. There are far worse problems out there related to the message society sends young girls. It's why they watch and love the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon, but they don't watch My Little Pony: Equestria Girls. It's why my kids don't watch Monster High, or play with Bratz dolls, or watch any show with "teen" in the title. Because they're not teenagers.
But reason doesn't come into play in the culture war. Cancelling a cover sounds a little bit too much like censorship, a little too much like restriction of free speech. And after all, everything must fit neatly inside two perfect, opposing buckets, must it not?
Believe it or not, there are times when I think companies should stand up for free speech. I don't believe Don Imus should have been fired from his CBS Radio show in 2007 for calling members of the Rutgers Woman's Basketball team "nappy headed hoes." His "joke" was both racist and sexist, and it was definitely offensive, and it wasn't really even funny, but Imus's job was to be offensive - he's a shock jock. He's moved on to a successful career at another station, so clearly his listeners weren't offended. Like it or not, people are entitled to enjoy things that are deplorable.
When the dude from Duck Dynasty made racist and homophobic statements, and A&E suspended him from the show, and then brought him back, I think they did right thing. The audience of the show spoke up and said they wanted him back, and the company listened.
In both of those situations, someone did or said something that I personally disagreed with. I was unhappy with the outcome in the first, and didn't personally care about the outcome of the other. The point is that I don't think free speech should be censored - no, not even speech that I strongly disagree with. I just think that that there's a time and a place for everything, and sometimes choosing not to say something, or to give someone a platform to say something, is not censorship. It's just business.
In business, the customer is always right. If they don't like the product, for whatever reason, they're not going to buy it. In this case, it gets complicated, because the customers are, in a lot of cases, parents, and they're making decisions not for themselves but for their kids. There isn't concrete evidence that seeing a single cover of the Powerpuff Girls in skimpy dresses is going to permanently affect the kids. There is a pretty sound theory, and even some scientific studies, that show the constant bombardment of these kinds of images does have an affect. How important is it to stop a single one? Well, you have to start somewhere.
Sexism is Complicated
But the situation becomes even more complicated because some of those parents, speaking on behalf of young girls, are men. What right do men have to speak of sexism and feminism? Aren't we to blame for it?
I think that's bullshit. Would this argument carry more weight coming from my wife? Because she agrees with it 100%, and it's something we talk about a lot, due to that whole parenting thing. Nevertheless, in the wake of Yoon's statement, and the revelation of her identity, which hadn't really come into the discussion before she spoke up, a lot of the response has centered around the fact that Yoon is a woman, and Barger is a man. Clearly, Barger must be the sexist here, and Yoon's cover can't exploit sexuality and damage children if Yoon herself is a woman. Right? Clearly, Barger is just looking for attention. We're all just jumping on a bandwagon. There must be an ulterior motive.
Just because the erotic art in question was made by a woman, it does not invalidate the argument that one more piece of erotic comic book art might in fact be one piece too many.
"Dude. You're so stupid. The artist is a GIRL." is the overall commentary lighting up forum boards right now.
Really guys? Really?
We can't even discuss the overall effect of what's going on in comics? We can't have a conversation that's intelligent with multiple sides? We have to have the age old "well if a woman's participating somehow at some level then we'll just ignore the army of men being sexist on multiple levels" argument?
This isn't about a single cover. This isn't about boycotting or outrage in the streets. This is a simple discussion about what's lacking in a medium that we love, and how to change it.
And Fowler even went so far as to sketch her own take on the cover:
Quick 10 minute sketch. I think so much can be done with them without going *there*. Sexualization in and of itself isn't bad in my opinion. I just think it's terribly uncreative.
We all remember the controversy that kicked off last year when Fowler went public with accusations of sexual misconduct against popular comics writer Brian Wood. There was no shortage of culture warriors jumping to defend Wood (who apologized and said that sexism in comics is a problem) and discredit Fowler. Fowler must have had an ulterior motive, they claimed. She's overly emotional. Overreacting. Looking for attention. Because her position falls on the wrong side of the imaginary dividing line of the culture war, and therefore she must be wrong. Not because she's wrong, but because one side is still butthurt from the time the other side "won," and they're going to get payback, goddamnit it.
It's why it's so difficult to have that conversation Fowler kept asking for. Conversation involves give and take, and there can be no give and take when there are only two accepted positions, each one the polar opposite of the other. So even though the cover was pulled, it's not going to end there. You see, to the people who are mad about this cover being pulled, it's a matter of principle. We'll have to pry the kiddie character porn from their cold dead hands! And anyway, it's not sexy. It's empowering. We're the sexists.
As long as people can't accept that, sometimes, their side can be wrong, or at least not entirely right, we're going to end up with ridiculous arguments where no one can make headway, such as one in which people will argue, straight-faced, that the cover above isn't meant to be sexy. It clearly is. Google "sexy latex dress" and you'll get six million hits. Google "empowering latex dress" and you'll get ninety thousand, eighty-seven thousand of which also return for "sexy empowering latex dress." Latex dresses are sexy.
I'm aware "googling" isn't a scientific method, but the ration here is 1 in 1000 for empowering vs. sexy. It shows a massive difference in perception for the primary characteristic of latex dresses. And anyway, I think Yoon might even have latex and spandex mixed up, as Outhousers Strict31 and Chessack point out:
Maybe she's referring to what superhero(ine) cosplayers wear. Lotta latex at those shows. Maybe Yoon thought that's what the characters were wearing in the comics too. Or maybe she was just making a joke. But her answer seems to be a rationalization, and it doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
Perhaps she made a typo or simply got the concepts confused in her mind, but superheroes are usually said to wear spandex, not latex. They aren't the same material and they tend to have different markets and sets of consumers in the real world. One tends to be involved more with sexual connotations than the other... and that's the one she happened to pick.
Now... perhaps this was a genuine mistake -- maybe she really got latex and spandex mixed up long ago, and has honestly genuinely believed for years that superheroes wear latex. But as you say, it doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
And it's not 100% her fault either. Where was the editor who should have called her up and said, "Why do you have the PPGs wearing latex? What? No no.... SPANDEX. Please re-do it."
But, contrary to what the sexy Powerpuff Girls apologists will tell you, recognizing that the cover is sexy doesn't make you a pervert. Denying it is does, because then, the tables are turned, and it's you who has the "ulterior motive."
A Modest Proposal
I know what this is really about. It's about the liberal media and the PC police taking away your wank material. It's like founding father and legendary pervert Benjamin Franklin said:
They who would give up essential wank material based on a children's cartoon show, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve to go get their fucking shinebox.
It's a legitimate fear, that but we think that maybe people are looking at this the wrong way. In fact, I think I have a solution. A compromise. In fact, the solution has been there all the time, right under our noses.
You want sexy versions of children's characters to whack off to? I give you: Zenescope. Zenescope reimagines fairy tale characters and characters from classic childrens stories as adults in skimpy fetishwear as drawn by J. Scott Campbell, but they market it TO ADULTS, not to kids. You can't even view some of the covers on their website without passing an age check. And they've even employed Tess Fowler in the past.
You see, sexualization and sexual imagery aren't bad on their own. No one is saying that. They're bad when they're aimed at six year old children and depicting six year old children. That's not really too difficult of a concept to wrap your mind around, in my humble opinion. But if it's for adults and by adults - hey, more power to you. It's just the little kids demographic and the "people who want to whack off to cartoons made for little kids" demographic are, in my opinion, demographics in which you will find little synergy by bringing them together.
We can have it both ways. You can have your cake, and jerk off on it too. Thanks to the heroism of brave companies like Zenescope, we can keep damaging imagery out of our impressionable young children's entertainment, AND you can still crank one out to an upskirt shot of Alice in Wonderland, or Little Red Riding Hood, who, by the way, is extremely sassy, modern, pop cultured, and humanized. Empowered, even.
So settle down, "Johnny" and other internet contrarians who are offended that some people are uncomfortable sexualizing preschool characters popular with little kids in the format of a book being sold to little kids. I'm extending the olive branch. And by olive branch, I mean some sweet Zenescope covers for you to jerk off to.
Enjoy the next three minutes. I hope this squares things up between us.
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