Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The representation of women at the British Comic Awards

I have been thinking a lot about women, comics and sexism in the past few months, working out thoughts, ideas and gearing up to write something. This was not how I intended my first piece on the issue to be. Earlier in the week, the Forbidden Planet International blog (to which I contribute), carried a short interview with comics creator and artist Phillipa Rice discussing her experience of the ThoughtBubble convention. This year at ThoughtBubble, the first ever British Comic Awards took place, celebrating the best of British talent in the comics industry over the past year. Here's what she had to say about the awards:

'I just wish more mind was paid to showing more of a range of diversity in creators.'

'I noticed it when they first released the nominations but it wasn’t until they tweeted a picture of the stack of books they were sending out to the judges it really hit properly: eleven books and literally just one by a woman. If you’re going to make a point out of having only four awards, have as many different people as possible – don’t duplicate. They’ve nominated three women in total and one across two different categories. I can’t believe they had that list and didn’t think it looks unfair – especially where some people had been nominated twice. It’s not like there aren’t woman who have had books out. Karrie Fransman, Mary Talbot, Simone Lia have all had very good, very popular, very acclaimed books this year.'

You can read the full piece here. And the ensuing twitter discussion here. I advise you to read both before continuing in order to familiarise yourself with some of the points addressed below.

I should clarify that this is not intended as an attack on Phillipa in any way. However, I think there are pertinent issues that have arisen from her comments that encourage further discussion. The first is that one line statement at the top: 'I just wish more mind was paid to showing more of a range of diversity in creators.' I don't know if this has simply been unfortunately phrased, but it suggests when a board/committee is considering works for nomination, they should do so according to a criteria of who the works are by. Rice went on to say (on Twitter) that it was important to have a diverse and impartial committee to judge the awards as 'merit essentially comes down to opinion.' The first part I agree with wholeheartedly, the second leaves me rather confused Yes, merit is a matter of opinion, but the objective of such awards is to collate a diverse group of people who are well-educated/versed in the matter being judged and to then arrive at a consensus of opinion in choosing which works to put forward. Are not all awards merely a consensus of opinion, be it expert or popular? Merit, and merit alone, is what comics and all other work should be judged upon- who produced it, their gender, ethnicity, race, age, religion, is absolutely irrelevant. Throwing in a few more women creators for the sake of representation or tokenism is not the way forward. Women, like everyone else, would like their work recognised for being good, for being brilliant and brave and innovative, not because it's moderately good, and they happen to possess the right anatomy.

As to the point of not having creators and people associated with publishing houses etc, due to the potential bias they would bring to the table, this appears to be a very naive outlook. Ideally that would be the situation, but it would be difficult indeed to produce sufficiently qualified people who existed in some kind of vacuum, free of all influence and connections. We place trust in committees, board members and judges in their integrity and their ability to set aside their preferences and affiliations to best select the material most suitable. I admit that this in itself is perhaps a naive ideal.

Now there is no denying that women were under-represented in the awards. Women are under-represented in all of comics and this is simply because comics, as a traditionally all-male field, is institutionally sexist. By extension, this means that many comic awards -including the BCA- are also sexist, as they are at the behest of a flawed system, and a byproduct of the industry being sexist. For example, let's say the industry has a split of 70% male creators, 30% female. From this you have to select the best  work to put up for nomination. Immediately, it's highly likely that women are going to be poorly represented in nominations as there is a much smaller pool of work created by women to choose from. As much as we wish this wasn't the case, it currently is. However, poor representation isn't the fault of the board. It could easily be pointed out, for example, that the presence of BME creators, committe members and judges is also sorely lacking. I don't think anybody would make such a statement though, as it's clear to all that BME creators and representation is a gaping scarcity in comics. This doesn't mean the argument is not valid, it's just less significant and valid when applied here.

Eliminating sexism is a process: one that needs to begin at a grassroots level, at the cause- enabling, assisting and highlighting the work  and entry of female creators into the industry. It's an issue that needs sorting from the ground up. Inclusion for the sake of diversity and representation veers into the areas of tokenism and positive stereotyping, which are most certainly not the solution. Awards should ALWAYS be selected on merit alone. If there were more women in comics, there would be more nominations and more awards, it's that simple. I also do not think it's helpful to imply that by having more women on the committee, the nominations would perhaps have had a different outcome: it belittles our gender. It saddens and frustrates me in instances like these to see this knee-jerk like response of 'Sexism!' levelled at those undeserving of it. Often symptomatic of a larger affliction, it really weakens the argument and effectiveness of feminism and sexism on a truer, larger scale due to it being diluted in use.

Whilst I welcome that these issues can be talked about in an open manner and the subsequent thought they provoke, I do feel that the choice of forum in which to discuss all these matters could have been more carefully considered. The British Comic Awards is the first event of its kind in the UK, a positive and important step worthy of celebration, into which much hard work, time and effort has been mined. As an inaugural ceremony, teething problems and niggles are par for the course and it would have been ideal if any concerns and suggestions were taken up with the organisers in a manner both constructive and positive. Instead, I feel the tone has been sullied somewhat by negative connotations which is a real shame for something which is so obviously intended to be an affirmative action, as something all comic creators can look to as an appreciation and recognition of their craft no matter who they are.

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