December 10, 2010

Native women = whores in SCALPED

Author Richard Van Camp finally gives SCALPED a piece of his mind:

This week in comics and my rant on Jason Aaron's "Scalped"I've been collecting Jason Aaron's Scalped from the first issue because it was his take on Native American country right now. I loved the grit at first, but I've noticed something in the past few issues that others have been warning me about for a long time now: Jason Aaron loves to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Native American women.

Last night as I was reading issue 43 I was saddened to see yet another Native American woman sexualized and used without any power at all by two men in the same night.

In issue 41, we open with a pregnant Native American woman smoking and then throwing herself off of a set of stairs to kill her unborn baby. Then she uses a coat hanger to try and give herself an abortion.

I have yet to see a single strong, self empowered Native American woman in Scalped and I think this is just so sad because Jason Aaron is a great writer, a fantastic storyteller, but he's made up his mind so far to use his comic book series to be hurtful towards Native American women.

As a writer and editor of Aboriginal comic books, I've been watching Jason Aaron for years now so I do not do what he does. I can't be the only person out there who's being vocal about this. I know Blue Corn Comics publisher Rob Schmidt has never been happy with Scalped, and I've been wishing for over a year now that Jason would use Scalped to show how it is Native American women now who are usually running the schools, health departments, curriculum development, libraries, band offices, etc. etc. I could go on and on.

Jason Aaron could say (and probably will say) that he continues to show how Native American women have no voice or power in modern day society, and this is why he continues to write like this. To this I say: bullshit.

To Vertigo Comics, I say shame on you for publishing such hurtful literature.

To editor, Will Dennis, and Associate Editor, Mark Doyle, I say shame on you, as well.

At what point was it okay for three men to get together and agree it was okay to brutalize Native American women by continually portraying them as whores, sluts and junkies?

Way to go, guys. I'd like you all to respond to what I'm saying here. Scalped is hate literature, in my opinion. I'm now cancelling my subscription. I can't stomach or support this anymore.

The Native American women I know are self empowered, strong, leaders, matriarchs.

Yes, there are Native American women who hurting, but show the leaders. Show the strength. Show the dignity.

I can't imagine how heartbeaking reading "Scalped" must be for a young Native American woman or girl.
Comment:  I'm glad Van Camp came around. He realized what I realized after reading the first issue, and confirmed after reading #2-6. Namely, that SCALPED is stereotypical.

Moreover, he's read every issue, which I haven't. He's confirmed that SCALPED has made zero progress toward presenting a more complex view--at least of Native women. They were whores, sluts, and junkies in #1 and they're still whores, sluts, and junkies in #43, almost four years later.

In Mile Post 398 vs. SCALPED, I wrote:The ratio of good to bad in Mile Post 398 is something like 60/40. Being troubled half the time may seem grim to people like me, who have lived a charmed life, but it's not hopeless. It's the kind of situation you might find in any impoverished small town, where times are tough but people still care.

In SCALPED, the good/bad ratio is more like 10/90. This is relentlessly, unalterably bad. It's far worse than the rez life depicted in Mile Post 398 or in any real or fictional reservation I've seen. Hence my dismissal of SCALPED's stereotypical vision.
I think Dashiell Bad Horse's mother may have had a few good moments, so I'll stick with estimate that SCALPED characters are 90% bad. An excellent estimate if I do say so myself.

Where's the reality?

Over the last year or so, violence against Native women has received a lot of press. Women forced into prostitution and sex slavery, women gone missing or murdered, etc. The problem is still acute, but people are becoming aware of it. They're organizing protests, holding hearings, and passing laws to address the situation.

Is any of this evident in SCALPED? According to Van Camp, no. The series is missing the leaders and matriarchs who are fighting for Native women. It's missing anything other than its nightmarish (noirish) view of reservation life.

Would anyone accept a comic book or TV series about blacks that featured only gangsters, pimps, and "hos"? No, which is why there's never been such a thing, basically. The cries of racism would be instantaneous and overwhelming. But the same approach goes unremarked or gets praised in SCALPED. People really think Indians are degenerates and reservations are hellholes, so they tout SCALPED for its "realism."

For more on the subject, see Media Ignores Victimized Native Women, Irene Bedard Abused, and 500 Red Dresses for Victimized Women.

Growing disenchanted

Another interesting point is the evolution of Van Camp's views. He initially seemed gung ho about SCALPED, sharing the prevailing "finally, a hard-hitting series about modern-day Indians" attitude. But he's a smart and sensitive guy, so eventually his views changed. After 40-some issues, it became obvious that SCALPED wasn't setting the stage for a more complex, less stereotypical view of Indians. This was pretty much it: Indian men as criminals, thugs, and lowlifes and Indian women as whores, sluts, and junkies. In other words, a clever rehash of the standard Native stereotypes: Indians as savages, drunks, and squaws.

I wonder if any other Native supporters of SCALPED have changed their views. It would be interesting to see the trend lines on that. How many Natives have gone from thinking SCALPED = good to SCALPED = stereotypical like Van Camp? How many started off praising SCALPED for its honesty and ended up criticizing it for its dishonesty?

And how many have gone in the other direction? How many have read 40-something issues and said, "You know, I thought SCALPED was stereotypical at first, but now I've changed my mind. It's presenting a three-dimensional view of Indians totally unlike the thousands of racist portrayals of the past"? I'd love to see the numbers on that.


Anyway, kudos to Van Camp for taking a stand against Jason Aaron, SCALPED, and Vertigo. Van Camp is trying to tell the truth about Natives in his books and comic books. He's doing that here, too.

For more on Van Camp's views, see Van Camp's New Comic Books and Van Camp on Aboriginal Comics. For more on SCALPED, see Native Noir Comic Books and Okay to Stereotype in Noir Comics?

Below:  A slutty woman on a SCALPED cover. Because the vast majority of Native women are like that, you know. They're big breasted, flat-bellied sex objects just like in SCALPED. (For my less intelligent readers, note the heavy sarcasm.)


John Lees said...

I actually found Richard Van Camp's piece to be really insightful, and raised some valid points. I spent the best part of an hour writing a lengthy response to him on the subject, only for the post to be swallowed in a blogger error. I'll try writing up a shorter version of my reply here.

I think that the portrayal of women in "Scalped" has long been its Achilles heel. I don't think, as Van Camp asserts, that it's specifically Jason Aaron commenting on Native American women in particular in their portrayal here. I'd say it's a mix of two things:

1. That the behaviour of the women he brings up is in consistent with all the characters in this story, of any color and either gender. Such relentless grimness and nihilism could be a criticism in itself, but I'd hardly say it's "hate literature" against Native Americans.

2. More alarmingly, it's consistent with the subjugation and objectification of women in many comics by male writers, even good comics. Even "Sweet Tooth", which in his article Van Camp rightly hails as one of the most brilliant comics on the market, doesn't have any female characters that aren't victims or whores, and they are even less developed than the women in "Scalped". But is that more acceptable because the women are white/black rather than Indian?

But Van Camp is unfortunately on-point with a lot of what he says about the portrayal of women in "Scalped". Carol Ellroy was long one of my least favorite characters in the series, because long after the male characters became more nuanced and developed, even tragic, Carol continued to seemingly do nothing but sleep around and take drugs.

But Jason Aaron himself has said in interviews he felt this was one of the series' greatest shortcomings. That in its entire run Carol seemingly had never had a story where she wasn't defined by how she related to a male character, how he had yet to really get into her as an independent character in her own right. And he talked about how the latest arc, "Unwanted", was an attempt to fix that error.

It's not perfect, but I think the arc largely succeeded. Carol is, for the first time, the main character in "Unwanted". We see her struggles to veer off her self-destructive path, and unlike her male counterparts, she actually succeeds. "Unwanted" could be the first genuinely redemptive arc in the sea of misery that has been "Scalped".

I also think Van Camp should have given more consideration to Granny Poor Bear, one of the most moral and decent characters in the series. She comes into prominent focus in "Unwanted" as well, where we discover that she found out at a young age she could never have children of her own, and that her large extended "family" are in fact all troubled children that Granny has taken under her wing and steered onto a moral path, giving them a sense of community and togetherness in the process. I think she's an example of a "good" female character, and within the realms of the story she is highly respected by the other characters - male and female alike. Even Red Crow won't cross her.

But still, though I don't agree with all of his points, or condemn Aaron, Will Dennis and Vertigo to the extend he does, he does make good points about the portrayal of women in comics - and, one could argue, fiction in general - and how it's a problem that needs to be addressed.

I for one hope Richard gets a reply from Vertigo. It was a very well-written, eloquent post, and I think it merits a response.

Anonymous said...

For some reason, Indians are more fanservice-y. I don't know why.

Sadly, the portrayal of Indians as whores is EDGY! DARK! And that's what sells comics.

John Lees said...

Rob, if Vertigo do reply to Richard and he posts a follow-up, would you cover it in the blog? I'd be interested to read it.

Richard Van Camp said...

Thanks for posting this, Rob, and thank you for your comments, John.

I've been trying to find out who the president of Vertigo Comics is and their contact information.

If you have this information, please let me know.

Mahsi cho.