Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Aren't Women Supposed to Be...The Same Species? (Blacksad)

There are a lot of things I could say about Blacksad, the phenomenal French noir comic by Juan Díaz Canales (writer) and Juanjo Guarnido (artist), where animals take the place of humans, and our hero is a black cat in a trenchcoat solving crimes. Honestly, I really enjoyed reading this, and I powered through two whole hardcover volumes in an afternoon, with the only breaks being ones that I really couldn't avoid, because I do have a job, you know.

There are a lot of things I could say here, about how beautiful the comic is, how interesting I find the storytelling, how neat the concept of film noir with animals is, and all that, but there's only one thing I am going to say, and that's this: What the hell is going on with the female characters in these books? No, seriously. What the hell? They don't even look like they're the same species as the male characters. And in the cases where they aren't an identifiable species, a lot of the time they don't look like animals at all. Just pinup girls that are vaguely furry and have ears.

It's kind of messed up.

This is me, so obviously this was actually the first thing I noticed in the book. Well, the first first thing I noticed was that the murder in the story was, of course, a beautiful woman, and, of course, she was a femme fatale ex-girlfriend of the lead detective. Because of course she was. But immediately after noticing that, I noticed something else: namely that she really didn't look like an animal. I quickly flipped through the book to see if I was just nuts, or if she was a weird exception. She wasn't.

Throughout the whole book, while some female characters looked more similar to the species they were probably supposed to represent, those were the characters that clearly were there for their integrity for the plot. Or, to put it more broadly, those were the characters who weren't supposed to be attractive. So the elderly deer schoolteacher? Looks like a deer. Mouse housekeeper in like four panels? Looks like a mouse. 

The femme fatale who's been murdered and appears only in flashbacks? I have no idea what animal she is supposed to be, merely that it's a mammal and she doesn't look like it. The single mother in the second story who works as a waitress at the drive-in? No clue. I mean, there's even this thing where there's a polar bear married to what I think is supposed to be another polar bear, except she doesn't look anything like a polar bear, and maybe she isn't, but then what the hell is she supposed to be?

The problem is partially that every time I see one of these female characters I get confused and totally taken out of the story while I try to figure out why they look so out of place, and partially the reason why none of the female characters look even a little bit like the male characters: so they can look sexy. This whole world-breaking thing is so that the female characters in this story can look attractive to a human audience. Because if they didn't look significantly more humanoid than their male counterparts, then it would be weird for us to sexually objectify them.

I want you to think about that long and hard for a minute, because it is freaking gross. I really like this comic. But it's still gross.

You see, if the women looked like animals in this story, then it would be weird to constantly see the female characters all half naked and being sexy and stuff. Or rather, it wouldn't be attractive, would it? It would be a cat in a bra, which is more funny than sexy, and if you do think it's sexy, well then there's something very wrong with you.

But the basis of this book is that the female characters have to be sexy. If they're not sexy, then the story doesn't work. If the characters aren't sexy, then we don't understand why Blacksad is doing so many ridiculous things to solve their cases. If they aren't sexy, visibly sexy to us, then why would we care?

What it means that we apparently need characters more identified by their sex appeal than species in a book like this, is that the writers have so little confidence in the merits of their story outside of a narrow, gendered framework, that they're willing to bend the rules of this world in order to keep that gendered framework in place. If the victim isn't sexy, if there isn't a down-on-her-luck beautiful dame behind this, if there isn't an ice queen, if the story doesn't include a sexy beatnik, then apparently it all falls apart.

Honestly, I find it a little terrifying that the artists here decided that if they had nothing else, they needed to have identifiable breasts in their comic about animals.

Why do the animals have boobs? Why? And why do only the "sexy" animals, usually mammals, have breasts? If you're going to give any female animal breasts, you should give all of them breasts, right?

But they didn't. And it bothers me.

So while I did enjoy reading Blacksad, and I'll probably read more of it as it gets translated into English, I can't say that I enjoyed it unreservedly. I'm always looking around at how women are shown in our media, and this popped out at me. A lot. And it scared me, and made me uncomfortable, and just hammered home how incredibly women are sexualized by the media. So much so that they become literally unrecognizable.

One last thing before I go: I had rather mixed feelings about a second representation issue in this comic. The comic shows the animals discussing race, and being incredibly incensed about racial issues, and even goes so far as to have an entire story arc about white supremacists kidnapping a little black girl. What's weird about it isn't that there's racism - the world in these stories is pretty well-rounded, so it fit - but rather that the story arc about racism is about fur color and not, oh, what kind of animal you are.

Like, the Black Claws gang is made up of crows and panthers and horses and vultures, and pretty much any white animal. And the white supremacists consist of a tern, a walrus (I think), a polar bear, an arctic fox, etc. I just don't really get why the animals are discriminating by color, especially when, in the first story, it seems like they're segregating along different lines (cold blooded versus warm blooded). And that seems a better distinction to me.

All that having been said, however, I did actually like the idea that the race question was made all the more silly by its frivolousness. Like, okay, all the white animals are chilling together, even though they are really, really different. But they hate the black animals. Hey, it's like real racism, where we make distinctions that don't mean anything in real life! Clever!

Or not. Like I said, I had mixed feelings, and I'm still not sure where I wound up. I am still confused about what and how these animals eat (are there other, less sentient animals farmed for food, or what?), and I don't really get why they all walk on two legs even though four would be more efficient, but whatever. It's fantasy, so I guess I can let it go.

The sexiness thing, though? Not letting that go. Not a chance.

Makes no sense.


  1. Racism not making sense? Whaaaaaaaat

    1. I know right? Normally it's so concise and logical.

  2. I wondered if you read Lackadaisy? It's a webcomic set in 1920s New Orleans, except everyone is a bipedal feline. Even the women. I think by making the women clearly feline helped make the writing better, personally - it's very easy to draw Mitzi being sexy by giving her humanoid features we find attractive, but it's much better to show that she's sexy through the way the world interacts with her. Also, we get to see Lacy the secretary with ACTUAL windswept hair.

  3. anonymousNovember 5, 2016 at 1:07 PM
    while i absolutely agree with the critics about the oversexualization of women, it DOES make sense that the discrimination would happen because of color rather than biological factors, because race is a majorly social issue, colorism being a perfect example of that. (like: my white latino friends did never suffer the same discrimination i did as a black latina, even though they never had the same privileges as white gringos)

    besides, because i really like your blog, i'm sorry for asking, but this feels important to and i'm honestly wondering: did you talk about any actual brown/black people about what you considered to be "not making sense" when it came to the representation of race issues? because honestly, as a white woman, you see the world through the lens of a white person. it's important to make sure you're not analyzing a storyline that isn't really about you by your lens.

    the sexism is still gross though.