Escher Girls. The Hawkeye Initiative. Women in Refrigerators. Right now is a time where, more than at any other time in comics history, the depiction of gender has become a front page issue in comic books. The dynamic of comics is changing, with titles like Captain Marvel, Glory and others being created with the specific purpose of not only drawing in female readership, but of redefining what it means to be a female comic book character. It is in this environment that Canvas.net and Ball State University's Christina Blanch came together to offer a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) examining the roles of gender in comics. Titled Gender Through Comics (#SuperMOOC), the goal of the course is to "examine how comic books can be used to explore questions of gender identity, stereotypes, and roles."
The first week of this MOOC introduced over 4,000 students to definitions of Gender, and the required readings for the class were the first two volumes of Terry Moore's "Strangers In Paradise", a comic about the lives and relationships of two women. This book was chosen due to its close examination of gender roles, both as they are traditionally portrayed and turned on their heads. Moore's work portrays a set of characters far from the traditional comic book stereotypes of impossibly perfect bodies, with gruff, powerful men and women who take on supporting roles for the male leads. "Strangers in Paradise" instead presents the class with the vulnerable, the emotional, the strong and the weak, across both sexes, with the women taking center stage and the men as supporting characters.
It is through this nontraditional depiction of the sexes that Blanch frames gender as not biologically defined, but socially. According to the course, the idea of the weak-willed, timid female, or even the man hating feminist, are social constructs rather than biological ones. The expectations of society define gender roles, not reproductive organs. Stoicism, competitiveness and a confrontational attitude are not relegated only to the male sex, but have been culturally accepted as traditionally male traits, while the emotional, easily broken woman has become not simply a stereotype, but an expectation.
Every Thursday Blanch live interviews the creators of that weeks readings. The interview with Terry Moore about "Strangers in Paradise" was a rare opportunity to see a creator discuss their work specifically through the lens of gender. Thousands of students tweeted in their questions for the writer/artist, and he spent an hour discussing his work.
"I write a human being first, and then the gender comes second. And I learned that the way that I was able to start making stories was when I stopped thinking about characters and started thinking about people. If you think about characters, you might – you might get into plagiarism and redundant character themes and Campbell hero-journey tropes and things like that. If you just think about people, then the
world opens up and everything’s a little more – the characters who you’re dealing with become a little more realistic in your mind." Moore said of one student's question about whether he considered gender when writing characters.
The MOOC has just finished the first week of six. Next week's reading will be "Superman: Birthright" by Mark Waid, who will be interviewed on Thursday..