We were out and about and had 20 minutes to kill before I could drop Anna off at a friend’s birthday party. Carlo was in tow and wanted to go to the comic book shop. That’s not a hard sell for me, so we went.
As I looked through some things I liked and Carlo looked through some things he liked, Anna — not really a big comics fan — idly thumbed through a random Batman. She knows who Batman is at least. After reading for a bit she held up a page with this on it and said “who’s that?”
She asked rather absently, as if she weren’t terribly interested, and I was distracted so I answered rather absently, as if it didn’t really matter.
"Um, that’s Harley Quinn. She’s The Joker’s girlfriend," I said, and got back to what I was reading.
Just then a woman’s voice came from behind us.
"Well, that’s one way to put it, I suppose,” she said. She seemed somewhat amused at our conversation but was clearly trying to make a point about reductionist explanations of complex characters. Specifically, a complex female character who I should damn well know better than to explain as merely some male character’s girlfriend.
"I think there’s a little more to her than being hung up on The Joker,” she added.
As soon as she said it I realized just how careless and dumb my response was. Yes, it’s just a comic book character, but (a) reinforcing stupid-ass gender stereotypes happens in the most banal places; (b) if anything, it’s more stupid and dangerous when it’s done so casually; and (c) I know the world of comic books and related pop culture is worse about that crap than almost anywhere, so I should know better than to default to that mode here, of all places.
I offered a stumbling corrective:
"Well, Anna, she’s one of the villains in ‘Batman,’ and she’s a doctor, well, er, a psychiatrist and, um, while she loves the Joker, he treats her really badly and eventually, um, I think, she takes revenge on him and teams up with some other …" I trailed off, realizing I’d reached the end of my Harley Quinn knowledge. The woman — who I realized works at the store — laughed and told me I made "a good effort." By this point Anna had wandered off, not really caring about any of it, frankly.
The woman and I talked a bit and I think she eventually bought that I’m a pretty enlightened guy who is trying to raise my daughter right and that I was absolutely mortified that I found myself casually spouting off patriarchal garbage.
She also bought as genuine — I think anyway — my question about what sorts of comics she’d recommend for a ten-year-old girl of above average intelligence, the strong conviction that girls kick ass and a father who wants her to be everything a good feminist should be, even if he’s sometimes a doof about it.
She got Anna to follow her over to a shelf and pulled this off:
That’s issue #1. She got me issue #2 as well. Issue #3 comes out soon. It’s about five friends — April, Molly, Mal, Ripley and Jo — who are at a summer camp which teaches survival skills. Something mysterious and supernatural is going on out in the woods and the friends investigate/kick its ass/generally do what comic book characters do when weird stuff is afoot.
It’s written by women and all of the characters are girls or women. But it’s feminist in practice not in some overtly self-conscious “THIS IS BY WOMEN FOR WOMEN” statement-y kind of way. It has a great story and has great characters. As any good comic book should. That story and those characters do things that cool, strong female characters do. They don’t do things in service of some abstract idea that having cool, strong female characters would be a useful thing to present and market and blah, blah, blah, thinkpiece, thinkpiece, thinkpiece.
I’m not sure if Anna will ever truly get into comics. She wants Issue #3, but she’s more into novels, really, so I could see her not keeping up with it. But I am at least glad that, if she does, there’s cool stuff out there for her that is neither sexist nor condescending nor calculating that will both hold her interest and subvert some lame norms along the way.
And most of all I’m glad that she found something that shows her not to pay much attention to dumb old men who try to explain stuff to her. Even when that dumb old man is her dad. Maybe especially when.