“So My Daughter Won’t Have To”: Why Kelly Sue DeConnick Fights to Make Women Welcome in Comics
The writer Kelly Sue DeConnick told me a story about a retailer who recommends the same book, Fables, to every woman who enters his store. “Because women love Fables.”
The story drove her crazy. “Women are going to like the books that appeal to them,” she said. “We are not a hive mind. A lot of well intentioned, genuinely nice people think like that. And it makes my brain explode.”
“Has a man in the history of men ever been asked if he was going to be pigeonholed because he wrote two consecutive books with male leads?”
It’s easy to see the temper in Kelly Sue DeConnick, ready to be unleashed. Last summer she told a panel on women in comics that she was “willing to make people uncomfortable so that my daughter doesn’t have to,” and it’s through that lens—discomforting others as a way to actively oppose the essentializing notions of “what women love”—that I think Kelly Sue takes on her rare, fiery, quality.
Raised in the 1970s on Air Force bases around the world, Kelly Sue became a comic book fan in part because the bases had loads of comics floating around. But she was also inched toward comics, and feminism, by her mother.
A self-portrait of Kelly Sue Deconnick.
“It was the 70s; there was a feminist movement,” she told the Air Force in an interview this past fall. “I think my mom had the notion that ‘Wonder Woman’ was a feminist to me.” In exchange for chores, Kelly Sue got Wonder Woman comics.
Now, she writes comic books of her own in Portland, Ore., where she lives with her husband and two children. An outspoken feminist, mother and storyteller, Kelly Sue occupies a cultural space that allows her plenty of opportunity to make others uncomfortable and disrupt stereotypical notions of “women’s interests”. Her book Pretty Deadly, and the forthcoming Bitch Planet are doing just that.
I spoke to her about creating a welcoming environment in comic book culture for women, simultaneously loving and hating her genres, and being a mom in the public sphere.
Finke: At Comic-Con last summer you commented about your willingness to make people uncomfortable so that your daughter won’t have to. Is making people uncomfortable a goal of yours?
DeConnick: I don’t think it’s a goal to make other people uncomfortable. It’s something I’m willing to do. I do purposefully try to push myself out of my comfort zone. Which is fairly cliché, but one of those clichés that got there for a reason.
Finke: Right now, it seems like we’re in a dynamic time in the comic book industry. I don’t think it’s hard to see that issues of diversity are really coming to the front right now, along with institutional racism and sexism.
DeConnick: I suspect that those of us who live in social media can have a skewed view of how widely this kind of shift is happening. I think calling it a revolution would be a little premature. This is a conversation that’s happened many times in our industry and in our culture. And I don’t know that I see it as being particularly seismic at this moment.
Finke: So you’d say that there is an amplification in social media that is not being mirrored in the broader culture?
“I think we’re seeing another wave of feminism today, a fourth wave characterized by intersectionality and the Internet.”
DeConnick: I think amplification is right. We’re in a bit of an echo chamber. We have this perception that there are all of these very engaged female fans. But if you talk to the stores or the publishers, it’s still a small portion of their audience and of the industry overall. Their largest concern is their business of course. They have bills to pay and they’re concerned about alienating their core reader. And their core reader is a dude in his 30s.
Finke: I get that. That’s who I am.
DeConnick: I’m married to a dude in his 30s. I love dudes in their 30s. It’s just, look, women are raised without much representation in the media. So we’re taught very early how to identify with a male protagonist.
But men are in fact actively discouraged from identifying with a female protagonist because “female” is less in our culture and we don’t want to power down, right? Anything you do that is in any way feminine is weak and small and not a good idea.
From a business perspective, if you publish something from a male point of view, women who read these things will probably buy it anyway. But if you do the same story with a female protagonist, you are going to alienate your core readership.
Finke: So, what propels you as a storyteller to say, “I know that these stories are not going to propel the business side but I’m going to do this anyway”?
DeConnick: I’m filled with piss and vinegar? I don’t know. It makes me angry. I was asked in an interview once: “You’re writing another book with a female lead, aren’t you afraid you’re going to be pigeonholed?”
Has a man in the history of men ever been asked if he was going to be pigeonholed because he wrote two consecutive books with male leads? Half of the population is women. I lose my temper here. And it’s certainly not at you. It’s just this pervasive notion that “white male” is the default and you have to justify any variation from it.
Finke: Your success has directly led to new opportunities for other women. There seems to be movement in that direction…I mean, Marvel is big, Disney owns Marvel, it’s a gigantic corporate entity. So maybe it’s just a small, independent portion of the company that’s seeing these changes, but they seem to be noteworthy changes at least.
DeConnick: Comics are reflective of what’s going on in larger culture. Wonder Woman came to be in her position when women were first entering the workplace during the war [Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941]. Then Wonder Woman had another rise in the 70s when Gloria Steinem latched on to her as an icon for the [feminist] movement.
I think we’re seeing another wave of feminism today, a fourth wave characterized by intersectionality [the notion that different movements are deeply related and can’t be addressed one-at-a-time] and the Internet. And I think it falls right in line that we would see another wave of superheroines coming to the fore. You know, girls used to read comics in huge numbers. And were driven out, I would argue, by stories that actively excluded them.
Finke: So it’s about being welcoming and creating an environment that girls actually want to be a part of…
“My identity as a mother is very much a part of my feminism.”
DeConnick: A place that’s not being actively hostile. Women don’t have to read exclusively female protagonists. That’s a shift we’re accustomed to. Women are going to like the books that appeal to them. We are not a hive mind. If you don’t actively insult us… Actually, even if you do actively insult us there’s probably a woman who will like it anyway. But not in numbers that are going to mean anything.
Finke: In Pretty Deadly you’re working in a world that borrows from westerns, horror, and fairy tales. And it sounds like Bitch Planet is inspired by old exploitation films, specifically the ‘women in prison’ subgenre built around the literal imprisonment and objectification of women. What draws you to writing stories in these relatively niche genres, which haven’t been historically the friendliest environment for female characters and creators?
DeConnick: There’s a Fitzgerald quote about being able to hold two opposing opinions at the same time. [“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”]. I love and I hate these exploitation films. I hate that they set up these exploitative situations so we can bite our fingernails while we judge them . And I hate that they are largely framed on the consumption of female bodies in a way that is dehumanizing. But I love that women always get the revenge. I find that very cathartic.
I wanted to examine that. And the more I read about the making of these films at the time the more I’m learning that there were a lot of women in the making of these films. Some of them were made by women.
Finke: There are frequent references to your children in your use of social media and in interviews. This goes for both yourself and your husband [writer Matt Fraction]. Do you as a family think about that? Or is that a subconscious element of your public life?
DeConnick: It’s something we think about a lot and re-evaluate frequently. My identity as a mother is very much a part of my feminism. There’s still a stigma attached to motherhood. If we’re serious about our work, we’re trained to hide our familial obligations and identity as a mother. As though that might take our attention away from our work. As though that wouldn’t for a father. It’s a cultural stigma.
It’s the same way I use my middle name on purpose so that people identify me as a woman. I want young women to see my name on Avengers Assembled and to know that there are women who write mainstream superhero comics and if it is something that interests them it can be done.
I don’t want anything to be ambiguous about my gender. In the same way, I’m vocal about the fact that I’m a mother. I want other mothers to know they don’t have to choose between motherhood and a creative life.
It’s a struggle. It’s a balancing act. But I don’t think it should be—any more so than for a man. There’s certainly biological components that make mothering and fathering different. But you’re not a bad person if you don’t turn over your entire being to the caring of your child. I want to model for my daughter that I love her and my first job in the world is to protect her and keep her safe. To bring her into womanhood in a positive way. But one of the ways I do that is staying active and healthy myself. For me that means being a creative person.