Of Bad Retailer Apologists & Racists

By | Wednesday, June 23, 2010 6 comments
A couple weeks ago, I posted an ersatz review of a lousy comic book shop. Earlier today, Brigid Alverson posted a description of her "ideal woman-friendly comics store".

In my earlier post, I tried to be as honest as I could about my impressions of the shop I visited, and I tried to be very clear that I didn't harbor any bad feelings about the shop or anyone working there. Just speaking as someone who's been to more than a few different comic shops over the years, talked to a number of retailers personally, and has a Masters degree in business, I tried to list out what struck me as poor decisions (or possibly a lack of decisions at all) with regard to how they run their business. "These are things in the shop that could/should be improved."

Alverson's post, by it's very nature, is decidedly more positive in tone. She notes that she'd had enough bad experiences in comic shops to not go in them at all for two decades, but she focuses the piece on what she would love to see in a comic shop. It's her "ideal" -- meaning it doesn't actually exist that she knows of, but wouldn't it be fabulous if it did?

I was originally struck that my post generated any comments at all. I have a track record of not getting much feedback, so I was pleasantly surprised that I got a pair of responses. What surprised me even more, though not so pleasantly, was that both commenters apparently thought I was being wholly unreasonable, one calling me a "condescending prick." Because I held the opinion that a particular comic shop was run poorly. A shop which, by the way, I went out of my way to NOT name because I didn't want any chance of them losing business because of me.

This afternoon, I started reading the responses to Alverson's post. She had more comments (no surprise, given her and my relative statures in the blogosphere) and they were invariably more positive (also no surprise, given how much more positive her initial tone was). But she still got one commenter calling the post "offensive" and another suggesting that she had no real right to complain because some people don't have ANY comic shops that they can get to.

My first thought was, "How can anyone reasonably argue that some people have bad experiences in comic shops, and they think that shouldn't happen?" Because, first, you have to completely discount the other person's impressions or feelings. And then, you have to deny that anyone else feels the same way. And THEN, you have deny that anyone ever COULD feel that same way.

As I worked through my disbelief at the 'rationality' that has to be in place to make these types of arguments, it then struck me. "Wow -- that is the EXACT same thought process that people use to discount racism in comics!"

Granted, racism is clearly a more significant and important concern, and I am not calling anyone racist. But the reasons people are generating to excuse the continued existence of bad comic book shops follow the same logic as the reasons people are generating to excuse the continued emphasis on the "superiority" of Caucasians in comics. Don't believe me? Here are The Double Standard's "2010's Top 10 Excuses for Racism" with the language slightly tweaked to direct it towards how comic shops sometimes operate...
10. It's just good marketing. Their target audience is male, so what do you expect?
9. Anyway, spas, hair salons, etc. do it too! They don’t let men in and that’s reverse discrimination.
8. It’s always been like this. What’s the big deal?
7. I mean, I can’t think of any women who want to go in comic shops anyway.
6. Who cares? Anyone can walk into a comic shop.
5. We’re all human. So what if they only cater towards men?
4. It’s a private business. If you don’t like it, just don’t buy it. Go somewhere else.
3. It’s a free country. Comic shops should be able to say or show what they want even if it’s insulting to women.
2. It’s sexist to point out it’s sexist.
1. Stop being so politically correct. It’s annoying.

You might note that some of those I didn't change AT ALL.

Without getting into a long, storied history of comics, I think it should be suffice to say that it's been a boys' club for many years, and it scares the hell out of some guys to think that their clubhouse might be overrun with women. As if making a comic shop "female friendly" means turning it into something men despise. As if it's a 1950 sitcom and having a woman around meant there were nylons and panties hanging all over the place. That guys need a collective "man cave" (Oh, thank you ever so much for popularizing that notion, Mr. John Gray!) to the complete exclusion of women.

Not to mention that "female friendly" is the wrong phrase to use anyway. How about "customer friendly"? For as much as women don't all fit the stereotype of shopping all the time and talking about hair and shoes, men don't fit the stereotype of slouching around all the time scratching themselves amid a pile of empty beer cans and pizza boxes. I'm not a female; I'm not a neat freak; I don't have OCD. But that comic shop I mentioned earlier was JUST PLAIN UNCOMFORTABLE. Physically uncomfortable. It was poorly laid out and cramped; titles were hard to find; and it just made for a poor experience. Even though I wasn't female and even though I didn't have any lude, crude or otherwise offensive language directed towards me.

Where was I? Oh, right: scared guys.

So what these comic shops are -- these lousy ones that make women especially feel uncomfortable -- are essentially what these scared guys will tolerate for the sake of keeping women out of their club. Their in-group. They don't want to disrupt the group dynamic within their in-group too much, so they only allow one or two people in at a time, and then under close observation. If a comic book shop suddenly became "female friendly" over, say, a weekend, then they'd theoretically have a huge influx of people who previously were not part of their in-group. They wouldn't be able to teach all of these newcomers to conform to their in-groups norms and mores. It would change their group dynamic.

And THAT is really scary.

See, this in-group that frequents comic shops? They probably had a significant say in what their in-group at their local comic shop feels like. They contributed to that shop's vibe. But if they suddenly represent a much smaller proportion of that in-group, they have less of a say in what the group likes overall. They're liable to lose control over that vibe. And people who are likely to be less secure and more afraid in general. And who wants that?

(Side note to tie things together. Racism generally stems from that same insecurity and fear.)

Now, a lot of this falls back on the shop owner. It's their store, after all, and they're the one who does a lot to set the mood of the place. The layout, the colors, the music (if any) that's playing. And a lot of these guys opened shop not because they thought it was a good business move, but because they just thought it would cool to be surrounded by comics all day. So, instead of applying some business common sense to the store -- like, say, making it comfortable for the customers -- they simply make it a reflection of themselves. The colors they like, the music they listen to, etc. Whether or not the customers like/respond to it is immaterial, as far as they're concerned.

So when I criticize a comic shop or when Brigid Alverson lists things she'd love to see comic shops do, that will likely scare people. It scares people who don't want to give up whatever control they have over their little neck of the woods. We learned in what I refer to as "The Tao of Grover" that fear leads to anger (pop culture kudos to those who get the double-reference) hence the negative responses.

Which suggests that the only way we're going to get good comic shops across the board is to drag all of these scared individuals kicking and screaming into good comic shops to show them how much better it can be. Or just leave them by the side of the curb; I'm okay with that too.
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Jack Tango said...

But she still got one commenter calling the post "offensive" and another suggesting that she had no real right to complain because some people don't have ANY comic shops that they can get to.

To be fair, you're paraphrasing, and taking these statements out of context.

One individual took offense to the term "sweaty man-cave," as he didn't like the implication that men, by their nature, are all gross, sweaty things, devoid of hygiene. The other didn't like the perpetrating of the female shopper stereotype. The former appreciated the suggestions entirely, and the latter found at least "some" of them good.

And the individual who said people should be happy to have a comic shop at all preceded that statement by saying he hasn't had "any kind of comic shop within 150 miles...for over 10 years..." and couldn't empathize with the desire for a pretty shop since there's "probably thousands of folks" (the implication being himself included) happy to have any comic shop at all.

I wouldn't consider any of those people "bad retailer apologists," personally. Seems like a bit of a stretch to get to your ultimately incredibly valid point at the end.

Brigid's commenters weren't too egregious, I suppose, but in light of the comments I received on this blog, I took them to have a bit more subtext. You make a fair point, though, and I'll concede that I might be a bit overly harsh in lumping Brigid's commenters in with mine.

I appreciate your keeping me in check on that, and that you were still able to find validity in my overall point despite some over-broad examples on my part.

Thanks for your kind words, Sean!

Your comments about denial really rang true to me, because my then-boyfriend used to go with me to that awful comics shop and his experience was totally different. We would come out and I would be fuming and he would be like, "What???" It's hard to understand racism, sexism, or any other form of discrimination if you haven't experienced it yourself—but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make the attempt.

I sometimes think that what's going on in comics shops is more of an in-group/out-group thing than pure sexism, that if a woman knew as much about the comics, and cared about them, she would be accepted. But from what I read on the internet, that's generally not the case.

Interesting you mention that, Brigid. In my book, I reference a story from Johanna Draper-Carlson where she talks about how she was once derided for liking Kyle Rayner more than Hal Jordan. She was told that she clearly hadn't read any good Jordan stories to make a reasonable analysis. So she spent a lot of time reading up on Jordan and decided that she still liked Rayner more. Her opinions continued to be dismissed and she was repeatedly insulted. It boiled down to her being part of that community's out-group, although it was a little unclear how much of that stemmed from her gender and how much stemmed from industry connections she had that others didn't.

DanielBT said...

This feeling of entitlement of being a "Boys only" club might explain some of the uncomfortable decisions that DC's recently taken, such as the dissolution of the CMX line, killing off their 3rd-tier minority characters and wanting to reach new customers through the comic shops.

(That last statement might not ring a bell due to the announcement of entering the realm of digital comics, but something along those lines were said. I can't recall where it was mentioned, but I'm sure it was said somewhere)

The above increasingly points out the disturbing trend of just how out of touch the Legacy comic companies are with the majority of the public who AREN'T S-hero fans.

Sadly, this same mentality also applies to Newspaper comics who, conversely are AFRAID to take any risks with something possibly controversial or new. No wonder most of the most promising talents are showing up on the web - it's the only place to avoid any discrimination from the start.

Emburii said...

I objected to her article because it's just as gender-essentialist and icky-feeling as any 'how to get your girlfriend into comics' article. Lines like 'we females like our comfort'...how about people in general like comfort? Or the implication that chocolate near the register will magically override every female's self-control or taste and that it'd be a sale every time? I am a girl, and the article's assumptions and phrasing still made me uncomfortable.