This is a guest post by Kathryn Hemmann. Kathryn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University, where she teaches classes on Japanese literature, cinema, and popular culture. When she’s not reading comics, drawing comics, or writing about comics, she plays video games, thus enjoying a well-rounded lifestyle. Kathryn has a blog called Contemporary Japanese Literature, on which she posts feminist reviews of Japanese fiction in translation. Her favorite Sailor Scout is Sailor Mercury.
It was 2006, and I had recently moved to Philadelphia for a graduate program. A child of the South, to me the landscape of a large Northeastern city was both frightening and exciting. I was especially looking forward to my first trip to a comic book shop. The store I chose for my first outing was a block or two away from Philadelphia’s fashionable Rittenhouse Square district, the relative safety of which made me feel less anxious about venturing into the unknown. When I entered the store, I breathed in the perfume of old paper and glossy covers and felt at home – until I took a few more steps, at which point one of the clerks said something that shocked me enough to stop me in my tracks.
Fast forward to 2014. Now, as an early career academic, I travel all over the country for professional conferences and job interviews. In April I found myself in Seattle, a city known for its thriving independent comics culture and home to cutting-edge comics publishers such as Fantagraphics Books and Northwest Press. I decided to take advantage of my time in the Emerald City by visiting a comic store about a five minute walk away from the original Starbucks on Pike Place. I’ve been to comic book shops all around the world during the past eight years, and I was no longer nervous about entering a store I’d never visited before. I walked to the counter, eager to chat with the clerk about local microcomics – but then she said something that made me like a stupid kid all over again.
What could a clerk at a comic book store possibly say to a new female customer to make her feel as alien and unwelcome as possible? Would it be some sort of overtly sexist slur, or an inappropriate comment about her appearance? Or could it perhaps be something as presumably innocuous as:
“I’m going to need to take your bag before you go any further.”
The idea behind this policy, which I have encountered in comic book stores all across the United States, is presumably that store management has either personally witnessed or heard secondhand accounts of enough incidences of theft to employ a safeguard measure involving neither expensive surveillance technology nor paper-damaging anti-theft strips and stickers. Still, I can’t help but think that the stereotype of comic book theft at play here – little kids with grubby fingers sneaking a comic book out of a neighborhood corner store – is out of touch with contemporary cultures of online piracy and the collector’s market for pristine first editions.
When I’ve pressed clerks about this policy, most memorably at a store on a trendy street in New York’s East Village that wanted to confiscate a clutch purse not much bigger than my forearm, they’ve almost unanimously responded that they enforce it with everyone, and that it can’t possibly be sexist, as men have to surrender their bags as well.
Costumer Emily Finke’s essay Slut Shaming and Concern Trolling in Geek Culture, posted on i09 roughly a year ago, acted as a catalyst for online debates on the topic of sexist attitudes women encounter in geek cultures centered around comic books in the United States. Heated discussions referencing the mythical “fake geek girl” have been popping up on various internet forums since the meme slithered out of 4chan in 2010, but the past year has seen numerous testimonies, confessions, and rants on relatively mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr.
To give an example, this past February Noelle Stevenson, creator of Lumberjanes and the webcomic Nimona, posted a comic on her personal Tumblr explaining why she had stopped going into comic books stores. Her post received over eighty thousand notes, generating responses both on her blog and on other Tumblr blogs. Some of these responses openly denounced her, while others encouraged women to visit comic book stores even if they shared Stevenson’s misgivings. In response to continued discussion of how best to reform misogynistic attitudes prevalent in U.S. comic book culture, The Mary Sue website recently launched a new column titled Pull It Together, which offers recommendations on feminist-friendly titles for conscientious comic buyers to add to personal pull lists at comic book stores. An entire Tumblr is devoted to Safe Spaces for Comics Fans, and male comics professionals such as journalist Sean Kleefeld are sharing stories of the subtle harassment women experience at comics conventions and inside comic book stores.
I’ve been following all this talk of gender, clothing, costuming, and sexist attitudes, waiting for someone to bring up the obvious, namely, the bag confiscation policy enforced by comic book stores in the United States. Claiming that this policy is not sexist because it applies to both male and female customers (and presumably people who identify as neither or somewhere in between) is a textbook illustration in false equivalence. Not only is it ridiculous and outdated, but it’s also insulting and contributes to the discomfort many female bloggers and social media users have reported feeling in comic book stores.
Of course, not all women carry purses. Still, mainstream women’s fashion makes it difficult for someone dressed in women’s clothing to keep the necessary accoutrements of daily life (such as wallets, cell phones, keys, glasses, bus tokens, subway pass cards, and so on) on her person without the aid of some sort of purse or briefcase. It’s one thing for a man to surrender a backpack or laptop case; he’s more than likely got his keys and wallet and cell phone in the pockets of his pants or jacket. It’s another thing entirely for a woman to give up her purse or shoulder bag, which – to add insult to injury – generally isn’t even large to put a comic book in without folding it, which would defeat the purpose of going through the trouble of stealing it in the first place. There are only three other situations I can think of in which an individual is asked to surrender her wallet and cell phone to a complete stranger: airport security checkpoints, courthouse security checkpoints, and prison. The last time I checked, no one perceived any of these situations as particularly pleasant.
Aside from the false equivalence between the purses (and other personal articles) carried by women and those carried by men, another troubling aspect of bag confiscation policies has to do with the extreme discomfort they can engender. As the recent Daily Show segment The Fault in Our Schools aptly illustrates, many young women learn to go about “their whole day navigating an obstacle course of sexual menace” and other threats, especially in spaces they perceive to be occupied primarily by men. One of the best self-defense tactics is being able to make a quick exit, and it’s always good to be able to call (or pretend to call) someone or to brandish pepper spray if that doesn’t work. I would like to assume that comic book stores are not prime locations for assault, sexual or otherwise, but it’s still nice to be able to leave an uncomfortable environment without having to ask for your bag, often from the people who have made you feel uncomfortable in the first place by pointedly ignoring you or making snide and judgmental comments about your presence.
By taking a woman’s bag, a comic book store is essentially taking away her freedom to escape from harassment, as well as her sense of security. On top of this, she has just given her wallet and cell phone – and her sense of identity and agency along with them – to someone who has demonstrated distrust and antagonism by asking for them. How could she possibly feel completely comfortable browsing or engaging with the staff and other patrons?
Not every comic book shop in the United States maintains a bag confiscation policy, but enough do that I have collected a fair amount of experiences of being hurt and upset upon entering a previously unvisited store in a previously unvisited part of the country. After spending the past month in Tokyo, where women (and men!) carry not just purses and shoulder bags but rolling suitcases into comic shops without the staff batting an eye, I have decided that I am done with comic book stories in the U.S. If the staff of the offending stores think that I don’t need to my purse on me to feel comfortable buying comics, they’re absolutely correct – I don’t need a purse to buy comics online.