Where is Superwoman? [#32]

Khoi Vinh recently linked out to an article by Amanda Shendruk looking at the data behind female inclusion in comic books. As both Khoi and Amanda state, it should come as no surprise that the overall trend is that women are under represented in mainstream comics (DC and Marvel being the focus here), but the analysis takes a more interesting approach and dives deeper into the roles, powers and names that female superheroes share disproportionately.

Again, there are clear biases and tropes, most of which are definitely problematic but also not unexpected. Female heroes are more likely to rely on agility than strength, more likely to have emotional or mental manipulation powers and are more likely to be a minority character on teams. It does highlight some factors which are slightly surprising (though again, not when you really think about them) and definitely worrying, like the trend for all-female teams to be defined by their femininity rather than their powers, goal or shared history. For example, DC’s Birds of Prey is a fantastic team name: evocative, clever and iconic; on the other hand, DC’s Female Furies is a terrible team name: dull, boring and telling you nothing about who is involved or why the team exists. All-male teams, on the other hand, are rarely named along gender lines. That’s something I feel comics writers can, and should, address right now.

However, I do feel the article points the finger a little too strongly at female hero names. To be clear, I’m not saying that female characters aren’t disproportionately named along gender lines – they clearly are and the data supports that. But the following conclusion, I feel, isn’t supported as well:

Females are more than twice as likely to be given a name that may make her seem weak, less dangerous, less aggressive and not on equal footing with male characters.

The data shows female heroes are twice as likely to have gender-specific names. But it’s a bit of a leap to state that means those names have been chosen to reduce their standing amongst the other heroes; at least, not because of their gender. There’s clearly a problem here, but I don’t think Amanda has correctly identified the root cause.

The issue, as stated in the article, is when gender-specific names use diminutive forms. In other words, when Superwoman becomes Supergirl. By using “girl” rather than “woman”, the character automatically appears weaker and more immature, which seems to match Amanda’s quote above. However, Supergirl is more immature. Her whole character and respective arc is about here being a young Kryptonian developing her powers. Her name hasn’t been picked because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s a teenager. The exact same logic is the reason we have Superboy within the DC universe as well.

Possibly a clearer example would be to look at two women in the Batman comics with gendered names: Batgirl and Catwoman. Both play the role of supporting heroes to Batman himself, but the gender forms used directly convey their comparative standing to the titular hero. Batgirl is a trainee, an apprentice; she’s young and immature. Catwoman is a seasoned criminal before we ever meet her, at the top of her game, not just for Gotham but for the world. Hence, one is girl, the other is woman.

Now, to be clear, there are definitely instances where diminutive forms are used to take female heroes down a peg. I’ve already mentioned Supergirl, so it would be wrong of me not to address Powergirl, the name she takes when she steps out from Superman’s shadow and becomes an independent hero. The argument can be made that a total name change would have been more confusing, but lets face it: Powergirl is a pretty terrible name, so why not just drop the gender specificity entirely. The issue of these immature names sticking does become problematic. When Superboy eventually take on the mantle of the red cape, he goes by Superman. When Batgirl dons the cloak in Bruce Wayne’s absence… she doesn’t become Batman (or Batwoman).

I’m not arguing that female naming conventions in comics are perfectly acceptable. They aren’t. All I’m saying is that I don’t think these characters having diminutive forms are necessarily writers trying to keep them trapped beneath a superhero glass ceiling. I think they’re chosen for different narrative reasons, most of the time, and whilst biases likely play a role the intent isn’t as clear-cut. I also don’t think it’s necessarily problematic.

What is problematic is the issue of female protégés never managing to take on the mantle of their mentors. Superboy can become, literally, Superman but Supergirl never has. I accept there are issues with gender naming in general if you’re trying to do this, as it never really makes sense for Kara Starr to be called Superman, but the issue persists even for non-gendered names. Artemis, Green Arrow’s teen titan, never becomes Green Arrow. She-Hulk is never simply the Hulk. There are some instances, such as Zatanna, but they tend to be retconned; the female character having been known first before the ‘original’ is introduced. Really, the only big-name swap I can think of is Captain Marvel, who spent years as Ms. Marvel before finally accepting her proper mantle.

At any rate, the article does make note that the winds, they are a-changing. Female character creation is increasing at all publishers and more female heroes are getting their own on-going titles. I think an easy next step would be to have some gendered-names becoming genderless, especially when it comes to teams, but at least we’re moving in the right direction. Still, Amanda’s research clearly shows that there remains a long way to go before female representation can actually be called representative.

That Anti-Diversity Googler & Self Introspection [#31]

Standard workday, standard work lunch catching up on RSS feeds. Of course, quite a few of them are discussing the leaked “Anti-Diversity” manifesto from the, now infamous, ex-Google employee (name forgotten and ultimately unimportant). It’s been an interesting view into a very specific bubble of the tech sphere, but one which has helped elucidate the issue, if only a little.

Of particular note is the response from Adactio, which is easily understood by the title of the piece: “Intolerable“. I will hold my hand up right now and say that I find the whole issue a lot more complex than Jeremy Keith outlines, but I cannot argue with his conclusion. Nor can I argue with the incredibly diverse and well-written sources he links to, each of which is definitely worth a read.

That becomes particularly true if you’re anything like me: someone whose gut instinct was “this is utterly wrong”, but who found themselves wondering if, beneath the anger, fear and sexism, a valid point was lurking. Having now read through the links (linked below) I feel a little more confident in my gut reaction, which is a nice feeling.

Just to clarify my use of the phrase “valid point”, it is not valid that one gender is in any way better or worse at being involved in the tech sector (or any sector, for that matter). Instead, it’s more of an issue of how we go about addressing the very real disparities between both job prospects and job uptake by any dissuaded minority group (and yes, women are not a literal minority, but they are in tech due to centuries of discrimination, so I feel it a valid term within context). I have a personal distaste for anything that borders on “positive discrimination”. All it creates, long term, is embitterment and injustice, in my opinion. However, having read the links below I feel a lot more at ease that the diversity programmes at Google and similar companies are not going down this route, instead focusing on making the workplace a more attractive environment for everybody. That’s something I can get behind.

If there is one element of Keith’s article that I will find fault with, it’s the blanket tone of dismissal. I understand where he’s coming from and it’s a tricky thing to call out, because it’s an opinion I find myself feeling towards other subjects. I simply don’t feel the world is ever black and white enough to make a statement like:

I refuse to debate this. Does that make me inflexible? Yep, sure does.

But, hypocritically, I also find myself agreeing with the directly following statement:

But, y’know, not everything is worthy of debate. When the very premise of the discussion is harmful, all appeals to impartiality ring hollow.

As an example, earlier this week the BBC came under fire for featuring Lord Lawson on a program about climate science. The argument for his presence is that it provides “the other side of the debate” and that the BBC have a mandate to be as impartial as possible. The issue with their reasoning is that it implies there is a debate to be had. In terms of scientific consensus, the degree to which man-made climate change is refuted is utterly negligible. The debate has been settled for decades and continuing to present it in any other way is directly harmful. It is akin, though less instantly vitriolic, to claiming that the BBC needs to include a Holocaust denier in documentaries on WWII. Yes, there are some people out there who believe that the vast majority of historians are wrong, but no organisation in their right-mind would claim that there is an actual debate soliciting both sides being heard.

Perhaps, then, it is I who is wrong on the Anti-Diversity Manifesto. Perhaps Keith is right and any discussion of non-diversity is, by its nature, only destructive and harmful because that debate, too, has been settled. Still, I can’t help but feel that claiming so and shouting it so loudly only serves to reinforce the opinions of dissenters. It’s hypocritical of me, but I don’t feel that shutting down people with these opinions is the right course of action. Perhaps, in time, that will change. For now, I’m just happy to see that the discussion being had is largely positive.

Reading List:

A Brief History of Women in Computing – Faruk Ates

So About This Googlers Manifesto – Yonatan Zunger

Dissecting the Google Employees Anti-Diversity Manifesto – Ether Alali

Untapped Market [#30]

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time researching, and ultimately buying, a new camera. From an outsider perspective it might seem a little odd, as I already have a very good DSLR that, whilst by no means top of the line, still serves me very well. I love that camera and actively enjoy using it, but it does have a couple of issues.

First and foremost is the size. I can’t take a DSLR to a music concert, or on a night out, or even around to a friend’s house for a dinner party (well, I could take it to all of those occasions, but it would always be impractical or obnoxious or both). They aren’t the most practical cameras and they’re definitely conspicuous, so I also struggle to take photographs of people. That means we return from holidays to various locations with some pretty great shots of our food, the scenery we visited and any wildlife that stuck around long enough, but rarely anything of the culture or people we met. A large part of that is just me and what I feel comfortable with, but there’s also a practical side to having to carry so much gear.

There are a couple of other issues, too. Whilst my DSLR can be great in low light, it will never be able to get truly sharp, fast low light images without investing in some seriously expensive lenses. It’s also not the best camera in the world for shooting video. The 600D can shoot 1080p well enough, but has no image stabilisation and only manages a maximum 50fps. Whilst it can shoot in 24fps, making it perfect for fixed camera filming, as a travel video camera it isn’t ideal.

So that’s why I’ve bought a new camera. In the end I’ve stuck with Canon and plumped for the G7x Mark II. It’s an impressive camera, with some clever features, but it certainly isn’t cheap. Still, it solves several of my issues: it’s small enough to go everywhere, robust enough to travel well, has enough zoom range to be flexible, shoots well in low light and has in-built multi-axis image stabilisation. It also has a couple of other nice video features, such as an internal ND filter and a time lapse mode. So far, I’m very impressed by the image quality and happy enough with the video (though haven’t given this a huge amount of testing). It has a couple of issues, such as lacking a viewfinder (which I’m struggling to get used to), a poorly designed battery release, partial incompatibilty with my Joby tripod and an insanely stiff mode wheel. Still, so far it hasn’t done anything awfully.

And yet, I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Not with my camera, not exactly at least, but with the market in general. With the rise and rise of Youtube, Snapchat, Instagram and similar platforms, it baffles me that there remains no decent all rounder compact system for film and photography. Every major player has a couple of models seemingly aimed at that market, but none of them quite manage to tick all the boxes. The Canon lacks a viewfinder (ignoring the G5, which desperately needs an upgrade to match the specs of the G7x) and only has basic video modes; there’s no slow motion filming, no 4K and you still lose have to crop the sensor to achieve 1080p. The main rival from Panasonic, the LX15, appears to be a clear market leader on paper, boasting 4K, 100fps slow motion, time lapse videos, a larger maximum aperture, smaller crop factor and 5-axis stabilisation. Unfortunately, it performs far worse. Despite having a wider max aperture, the low light performance is better on the Canon and it may have a more advanced stabilisation system, but the Canon routinely out performs in tests. Plus, that crop factor is still not insignificant, the zoom range is only just sufficient and there’s no inbuilt ND or ability to add an external one (clever third party solutions aside). Nikon barely factored in my research, despite their Coolpix line being one of the longest running on the market. They achieve some of the features, such as 4K, but rarely manage to get the right sets of specs together to make much sense. Then there are the Sony rx100 series cameras. These have certainly dominated the market for several years, but they each have two major down sides: the price and the overheating. Sure, they can shoot 4K, ultra slow motion and have great glass which works well at low light (though not as well as the Canon), but they also cost twice as much and can only film in those settings for a seriously limited amount of time. These same problems persist even when jumping to 4/3 sensor mirrorless cameras.

So I’m left baffled. I want a good point and shoot that gives me the best specs across the board and is aimed at the Youtube generation. That means full RAW control, in both photo and video modes, so that I can tweak my output as much as needed. That means the basic level of video features that the likes of Casey Niestat and Peter McKinnon have made the entry level for Youtube, such as 100fps @ 1080p, 24fps all of the time and a decent wide angle crop. It means good image stabilisation, the ability to hook up tripods and external mics, a decent battery life and no overheating issues. It means a viewfinder, touchscreen, selfie rotation and NFC connectivity. But, for some reason, that camera doesn’t exist. I guarantee it would sell insanely well, but for some reason no one is making it. Perhaps, as the LX10 has shown, the tech just isn’t quite there yet? Or perhaps the big manufacturers are scared that making a camera too good will mean less people taking up the 4/3, APS-C or full frame alternatives? Whatever the reason, I really hope at some point in the future they manage to move past it and release the camera I want. Just not too soon – I just spent a whole lot of money and something that isn’t perfect. I don’t want to have to do that again any time soon.