Friday, June 28, 2013

Atari Force Month: The Series' Excellent Approach to Gender

In this day of fierce examinations and condemnations of the lack of female characters and creators in mainstream comicbooks, I wanted to take one day out of Atari Force Month to point out that, way back in 1984, this book was exemplary in the way it handled gender. Well...not the creators so much, who if memory serves were literally all men. The female characters, though, are very much equal if not superor to the males, and there is a general avoidance of oversexualizing them (with a few obnoxious exceptions). Basically, any of the male characters could just as easily have been women and vice versa, which I see as the true mark of gender equality. When none of the characters' genders truly matter for the success of the narrative, you're doing something right.

The one member of the cast for whom this arguably does not apply is Taz. Her giving birth to the Tazlings is an absolutely essential plot point, and theoretically it requires her to be a woman. However, because we don't really know anything about Taz's species, and Taz herself can't communicate all that effectively, there's no definite way of know that she even is female. I refer to her as "her" because that's what they do in the series, and also for simplicity, but the bottom line is that there may not be a male/female divide amongst Taz's people. Maybe they all can give birth, maybe they're hermaphroditic, maybe their gender changes every day. The assumption at first was that Taz was a man because she was such a ruthless and talented warrior. Then, all of sudden, she became a mother, and that assumption was shattered. Because of this change in everyone else's viewpoint after the birth of the Tazlings, I think Taz fits perfectly into the general attitudes about gender in this book. To have a character be equally effective as a soldier and a mother is fairly rare, and definitely swerves around typical gender expectations.

A far stronger and more immediate example, though, is Dart. I've already mentioned several times how much I love her as a character, and the fact that she avoids most female stereotypes, and specifically female comicbook superhero stereotypes, is a big part of my adoration. She isn't ridiculously proportioned, she never strikes physically impossible poses so her butt and breasts can be seen at the same time, and her outfit wasn't designed to show off her body. On the contrary, it's actually built for combat, covering her in key areas like the chest and midriff because, you know, that's exactly where you don't want to get hit in a fight. Sadly, it is Dart who also breaks the rule, because in a couple of Ed Barreto's issues she either has her costume torn or needlessly changes into something more revealing. I bitched about it in my reviews of the issues in question, and I'll bitch about it again here, because not only did it fail to ever serve any narrative purpose, it was also jarring and distracting. I get so used to Dart looking the way she does, when she's suddenly and pointlessly transformed into eye candy, it pulls me out of the story. As aggravating as that is when it happens, it's also a reminder of what a good job the creators typically do of keeping Dart out of that role.

What really makes Dart stand out is her relationship with Blackjak. Right away when they're introduced in the first scene of the first issue, it's obvious that they function as equals and that, when push comes to shove, Blackjak trusts Dart to make decisions for both of them. Later on, after he has betrayed her, Blackjak confesses that he was never truly as brave or capable as he seemed, but that Dart's skill and confidence made him a better man. So where Dart is self-sufficient and self-assured, a talented fighter and strategian who knows what she wants out of life, Blackjak is an easy-manipulated coward who relies on his external relationships to define him. In the real world, of course, this dynamic of a strong woman with a weaker man exists all the time, but in fiction, and especially in superhero comics*, it is harder to find.

*I know that Atari Force is arguably a sci-fi as opposed to a superhero comic but, come on...code names and superhuman powers, battles to save the universe, a public that fears and misunderstands the good guys. It's a superhero book, deal with it.

The list goes on. Morphea, though she acts as mother to Babe, is also a total badass when needed. And it is her species far more than her gender that sets her apart from the rest of the cast. A male Canopean who had rejected the norms of his people's society would be just as effective in her role, and would have equal motivation to play the part of parent. The judge at Atari Force's trial, Justice Tovah, has quite a commanding presence, and puts more than one unruly man in his place, on both sides of the case. But not everyone bucks trends entirely. Professor Venture is a surrogate mother to Tempest, since his biological mother died in childbirth. That's not all she is, though, she's also an accomplished scientist and a loud voice for truth and righteousness throughout the series. Across the board, Atari Force shows the women of its world being as varied as the men, just like in real life.

Even Melissa, the most one-dimensional and archetypal woman in the book, ever the airheaded and spoiled daddy's girl, is matched pound for pound by her father. He is the epitome of greed and ignorance, possibly the most purely wicked opponent Atari Force ever has, because unlike the Dark Destroyer, he has no concrete reasons for hating the heroes. I don't know that there's always a one-to-one ratio like this, but the point is, there is a general sense of equality that pervades the title. There are good and bad, smart and stupid, deep and shallow, major and minor characters of both genders. It's balanced and realistic, both adjectives that make its more fantastical elements all the more believable and enjoyable.

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