Are Toxic Male Geeks Protecting Comic Book Culture or Preventing Its Progress?

In a world dominated by American superheroes, the CW network is quite popular among young viewers with its series based on DC characters. While CW’s originals are cherished by several pop culture geeks, these shows are also trolled heavily for they tend to get intensely melodramatic, falling prey to the oversaturated tropes of present-day comic adaptations.

However, when it comes to Supergirl, the hatred amongst comic book geeks goes beyond the melodrama; it’s regarding the very notion of a ‘Supergirl’ itself. It took me a simple search on Quora and Reddit to go down a rabbit hole of sexist comments, most of which are targeted at the lead actress Melissa Benoist. Some are bothered that the show has a transgender character “for no reason” (as if it’s a travesty to normalise transgender screen presence). Others are bothered by the character of Jimmy Olsen being black (the original character is white in the comics).

An anonymous Quora user asked the question:“Do you think Melissa Benoist is not pretty enough?” Some answers were quite amusing, the sum of which can be seen from a certain Ismael Alves’ answer:

“She’s not attractive enough. People simply do not understand that Supergirl is not a ‘cute’ or average girl. (She’s) 10/10. A goddess. The female perfection.”

This history of comic geeks subjecting a male gaze on female pop culture characters isn’t new. We’ve seen how Gal Gadot was shamed for being cast as Wonder Woman because the Amazonian warrior in the comics is supposed to be ‘bustier’. Stars Wars fans similarly got annoyed with a female Jedi and a black Stormtrooper in the latest trilogy of the franchise.

There’s a pattern in these cases. Male fans get concerned over any progressive representation as it seems to go against the source material aka comics or film series that originated from the 20th century. They then resort to hate speech and cyber bullying, trolling actresses’ physical features on platforms till someone breaks down.

This happened in the case of Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran, who is of Vietnamese descent. After being cast as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, she became the first woman of colour to feature in a main role in a Star Wars film. Instead of cheering for her, the actress was ‘othered’ and mocked with comments calling her ugly and saying that she needs to lose weight. The cyber bullying by so-called diehard Wookies (Star Wars fans) grew to the extent that Tran had to quit social media.

While a majority of cisgender heterosexual male fans get agitated with today’s pop culture as “it ruins the sanctity” of their comic book scriptures, we should also understand what legacy they are defending. It’s okay to obsess over franchises that were created in the last century as long as geeks also realise that pop culture needs to change with the times.

Also read: Inherent Toxic Culture Aside, It’s a Good Time to Be a Woman in Gaming

Wonder Woman might have surely been a feminist icon for many, but the character was ultimately created by William Marston, a man. And similarly, it’s men who created She-Hulk, Black Widow, and every other major superheroine in existence. The stories might have even been progressive, but a simple Google search would make it evident that these ‘feminist heroines’ were created to cater to the male gaze. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby might be iconic comic book creators, but that’s no excuse for ignoring the fact that they belonged to a time different than ours.

Just like several iconic animes and mangas in Japan, female characters in American comics have always been hypersexualised with skimpy outfits, typically large breasts, and conventionally acceptable facial features. There’s obviously nothing wrong in a half-naked Aquaman or Wonder Woman. But unfortunately, with female superheroes, the voluptuous semi-nude ladies created by male artists and writers became the norm and stereotype. Back then, most of the demographic for comics, video games, and action-adventure films too largely comprised of boys as such interests were always seen as ‘boyish’.

Now, even though franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe still have a long way to go, comic book-related media has found new consumer bases. Female comic book fans are rising although at a slow pace (nearly 24% of American women as of April, 2019). Such statistics are unavailable for the Indian geek community but it’s evident from the universal approach of comic-book media that it’s targeting fans who aren’t just cis-het males.

Even as queer communities and persons of colour are being slightly represented by Marvel, DC, and other competitors, the male gaze still persists. And even if there are genuine attempts for positive media representation like Black Panther or Regina King’s Sister Night in Watchmen, the hordes of online men still criticise it blindly as these characters go against their outdated world of a politically incorrect pop culture.

This toxic geek bullying shouldn’t be trivialised as a caricatured scenario from The Big Bang Theory but should instead be seen as a threat to the progress of the geek culture. India has a limited superhero genre with ventures in mostly Tamil and Hindi films, and independent publishers like Yali that are progressive but have mostly featured male-driven stories.

When a proper Indian superhero universe does get established, one can only hope that Indian geeks nurture a more tolerant mindset.

Shaurya Singh Thapa is a 21-year-old freelance writer and journalist.

Featured image credit: Shreya Arora