My Superpower: Tansy Rayner Roberts

5 Aug

My Superpower is a regular guest column on the Skiffy and Fanty blog where authors and creators tell us about one weird skill, neat trick, highly specialized cybernetic upgrade, or other superpower they have, and how it helped (or hindered!) their creative process as they built their project. Today we welcome Tansy Rayner Roberts to talk about how the power of Feminist Snark relates to Kaleidoscope.


My name is Tansy Rayner Roberts, and my superpower is Feminist Snark.

Being a feminist with everyday access to the internet and a deep interest in superhero comics is pretty hard work at times. If it wasn’t for snark, I’d have set fire to my web browser long ago. But a sense of humour, sarcasm and an ability to communicate righteous fury through blogging can save the day.

Luckily, I’m not the only one who harnesses my feminist snark for good rather than evil. When Starfire was turned into a personality-free sexbot in the New 52, David Willis of Shortpacked was there to make a point with a well-timed comic strip. When the idea of a female Thor rocketed through fandom (causing misogynist waves of disapproval in amongst the ‘hell yeahs’) Joss Whedon used the snarky hammer of sarcasm to cut through the nonsense. Gail Simone’s tweet stream, DC Women Kicking Ass on Tumblr, and the Mary Sue are all part of my support network. They are, in the words of Gail Simone, my She-vengers. The thing they all have in common? Feminist Snark as a superpower.

Of the many online discussions around the problematic way that so many female characters are drawn in superhero comics, the loudest and most effective in recent years have been the snarky ones—humour and sarcasm paints a more effective picture than logic and reason. Maybe that’s a sad truth about humanity, but hey, as long as the message is getting read. So we had The Hawkeye Initiative, a group of amazing artists who drew their frustration onto the page, and cosplayers who said it with spandex, repurposing the most infuriating poses to show how obvious the problem is when you make a MALE superhero do those exact same things. When a superhero movie poster comes out that demonstrates those same tired sexist poses that Hollywood loves to push on us—boobs and butt pointing the same direction being a favourite—sometimes not even an hour will go past before we get fan art mocking the technique, either through gender swapping or some other artistic choice.

Feminist Snark To The Rescue..

I’m not an artist. But when I was asked to write a story for Kaleidoscope, the YA anthology of diverse teenage characters, by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, I thought really hard about what story I wanted to tell—what I was most passionate about. Because it’s easier to write a story when you really care about it. So what did I care about when I was a teenager?KaleidoscopeCover

And I realised I hadn’t yet written a story about teenage girl superheroes. Not really. I’d skirted some of the tropes and ideas in my fantasy fiction, but I hadn’t written my Girl Superhero Story, the one that took all the ideas I’ve been muttering about since I was first hazed into the world of DC Comics back in my early teens.

I’d never written about the unwritten rules of comics, about the One Girl in a team of boys, something that Justice League did right from the start, and then didn’t do for years, and then suddenly did AGAIN in the mid-nineties, ripping up everything I loved about that comic and that super team.  I’d never written about the Girl Syndrome, where so many female characters are given a superhero identity borrowed from a male superhero, and are never allowed to eclipse him in power or age or anything else, even if they’re patently more interesting.

I’d never written about how comics were getting worse, how the mid 80’s Crisis took Batgirl’s PhD away from her, and how Supergirl had been wrecked for decades because comic creators were worried her story took away from Superman’s specialness, or how Catwoman got turned into a hooker and everyone just went along with it, or how third string male heroes often get a new chance and a new book over and over again, while so many female characters disappear. I’d never written about how women readers don’t count to the higher ups, and how boobs are so often drawn the same size as heads, and why we are still fighting to get comics in which female superheroes talk to each other.

Or rather, I had written all those things. I’d spent years writing essays on the topic Where The Wonder Women Are, and I had written thousands and thousands of words on exactly these issues. But I hadn’t put it into fiction, because part of me had always thought that if I was going to tell that story, it was damn well going to be in a comic book.

For Kaleidoscope, I changed my mind, and I poured all my constructive Feminist Snark into a single story about a Chosen Girl, on the threshold of life changing forever. It’s about her disability and her relationship with her body, and it’s about how everyone has opinions on the right way to be a teenage girl in the spotlight. It’s about celebrity, and power, and sexual harassment, and spandex costumes.

But mostly it’s about superheroes, and feminist snark, because you can’t always tell a story like that full of rage and anger and kicking comic book artists in the knees until they learn that spines shouldn’t be bent that way, and expect readers to enjoy it.

Sometimes, you have to bring the snark, and let the serious issues ripple away beneath the surface, where anyone can see them if they look closely enough.


Tansy Rayner Roberts writes cranky sarcastic things on the internet. Things like Historically Authenticated Sexism: Let’s Unpack That, and the Where the Wonder Women Are essays. She won the Hugo for Best Fan Writer in 2013. Her previous attempts at superhero narratives can be found in Love and Romanpunk, a collection of stories about Ancient Roman monsters and monster-hunters, and the Creature Court, an angsty epic fantasy trilogy about how magic screws you up. You can follow her gender-swapped space opera retelling of The Three Musketeers as a web serial at Musketeer Space.


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