Published on September 3rd, 2015 | by Lauren McPhee


Comics Cultures of Secrecy: Understanding the “Open Secret” of Sexism and Misogyny in the Comics Covert Sphere

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(Trigger warnings for abuse, sexual assault and harassment.)

The secret is that there is no secret.

Sexism and misogyny are well known throughout the comics industry, from the sexualised representation of female characters, to tropes of rape and violence against women used as motivation for male characters, to the false assumptions that women don’t read or can’t create comic books. What we don’t often see are explicit instances of sexism and misogyny: women being shut out of the industry, ignored, or dismissed creatively; sexual harassment or abuses; violence, insults, threats, intimidation, and harassment. Nonetheless, knowledge of these abuses filters out into the industry, in whispers, in statements, and in shouts. Of course, within the white/male-dominated industry, this doesn’t mean very much. Individuals speaking out against sexism in the industry, in both its explicit and implicit forms, are summarily dismissed, undermined, ignored and mocked. Victims who come forward with revelations are bullied into silence, accused of being overly sensitive or looking for attention, and subjected to further abuse. It can be equally frustrating and unfair when abusers and harassers face no consequences for their actions while the industry rallies behind them. Therefore, I want to take a moment and try to understand this climate and why it operates in this unbalanced way.

Veronica Mars played by Kristen Bell

Veronica Mars navigates a realm of secrets in Neptune, California

Secrecy, revelation and whistleblowing are a huge part of contemporary culture, as abuse allegations decades old are suddenly released to the press, or hacked data is leaked online, whether that’s WikiLeaks, Ashley Maddison or the celebrity photo hack. Secrecy is also a massive part of global security and surveillance, as you’ll notice from the posters in the underground that tell you ‘don’t look for plain clothes officers, they’ll find you’ sort of thing. One guy who looks into this relationship between military, cultural and governmental secrecy is literary and cultural theorist Timothy Melley who proposes the covert sphere as a result of the cultural environment created when the covert sector embroils itself in state government. He writes:

The covert sphere is a cultural imaginary shaped by both institutional secrecy and public fascination with the secret work of the state. […] It is an array of discursive forms and cultural institutions through which the public can “discuss” or, more exactly, fantasize the clandestine dimensions of the state.[1]

In the covert sphere, you can never really be sure what the covert sector is up to. Illegal wars? NSA hacking? Torture? Lies? Cover-ups? You might think you know what’s going on, but you can’t confirm it. And that’s kind of the point. The covert sector is able to avoid direct criticism of its actions because no one really knows what those actions are. Therefore, in the covert sphere, what cannot be fully known is explored through “official reports”, journalism, topical discussion, endless speculation, conspiracy theories, leaks, whistleblowing and narrative fictions. This entire realm is, nonetheless, imaginary because we can’t know exactly what we are talking about. We can only fantasise what it might be.

So, let’s imagine for a moment, a comics covert sphere. What would this include? The comics themselves. Comic book universes. Press releases. Conventions. But, also, fan discourses, including fan fiction, fan art and cosplay, as well as public discourses and discussions including social media, forums, comment threads, and articles like this one. But the comics covert sphere and the comics industry don’t exist in isolation from one another; they overlap and influence one another. Information leaks constantly from the institutions of the comics industry into the comics covert sphere, where it is reported by news sites, shared, commented on, and converted into fictions. Meanwhile, the agents of the comics covert sphere – the writers and artists and editors – forbidden from releasing trade or company secrets, are also mainly stuck in the comics covert sphere.

Thor by Jason Aaron and Jorge Molina

Thor references comments made about the series online

So, calling out abuses or injustices occurs in the comics covert sphere. Criticising an oversexualised character in a comic book is also part of the comics covert sphere. But so too are Women of Marvel panels. Thor as a woman. “Batgirling” comics. All of these examples occur within the comics covert sphere. So, the comics covert sphere isn’t all bad. Positive, reparative, intersectional, and feminist discourses circulate there too. But the thing about discourses is, they tend to lead back to power. The individuals and institutions with the most power tend to throw around the most weight. And they tend to garner pretty good support. Which brings us back to sexism and misogyny in the industry.

This is the public secret of the comics industry and the comics covert sphere: that which is known but cannot be fully expressed, because those speaking out are denied their experiences, accused of lying, and forced back into silence. Sexism and misogyny in the comics industry is known but denied; revealed and then obscured again; illegitimated and turned into lies, stories, fantasies, and fictions, and forced back into the realms of secrecy, unknowability, and silence. What this does is forestall any open discussion of the issues at hand, often in attempts to discredit those speaking out as looking for attention or trying to push an agenda. A public secret, then, has the effect of disavowing claims to true knowledge; it is half-knowledge, illegitimate knowledge, protecting those who benefit from its half-knowledge status.

So, how do we get out of this realm of half-knowledge? Surely, with enough evidence and backing, we can force abusers, harassers, sexists and misogynists for face up to the reality of their attitudes and behaviours. Maybe. Hopefully. But the public secret of sexism and misogyny in the comics industry exists as part of the comics covert sphere: the comics covert sphere is a realm of fictions, just like comic books themselves. Our truths can be retconned by someone else’s story, and this is what is happening.

So, what are the ways around this? I don’t know. How do you make Western governments take responsibility for their criminal actions when they can hide those actions behind a state secrets act, for example? Yeah, it’s not easy when you’re dealing with an institutionalised and cultural power structure. Even close to power, information is so compartmentalised that anyone, even those at the top of the chain, can be cut off and cast out. However, there might be ways by which we can engage with the comics covert sphere, or at least understand it.

Captain Marvel by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Dexter Soy

Just Captain Marvel because Captain Marvel

First of all, we can counter its narratives of illegitimacy. We can do this by accepting that it doesn’t really matter how much proof or objective truth you have, the foundations of knowledge (how do you know that?) are endlessly unsubstantial. There is no such thing as knowledge. But actually, this kind of helps. Because, then, all knowledge is illegitimate. Ours and theirs. And, if all knowledge is illegitimate then even once revealed, secrets cannot be fully known. We can call this the unconditional secret and it haunts everything. But that’s also okay. Because the unconditional secret makes no claims to its own legitimacy. So, rather than become embroiled in debates of legitimacy – who’s lying and who’s telling the truth – we can engage with narratives of secrecy and revelation in new ways.

One way to do this is to use the fictions of the comics industry and the comics covert sphere to engage with the open secret, recognising the limitations of “legitimate” knowledge in a climate of fictions. Popular culture is a great site of struggle and contradiction. For example, Agent Carter says a lot about the comics covert sphere by engaging with the open secret of sexism in the comics industry. So, too, does Furiosa, and Captain Marvel, as well as the writers who produce these stories and the fans who follow them. Through these narratives – comics, articles, discussions, tweets, fanworks – we can focus awareness and attention on the open secret of sexism and misogyny in the comics industry. In contributing to the imaginary of the comics covert sphere, we acknowledge the “illegitimacy” of our knowledge, but what does that matter, in a realm of fictions.

Agent Carter played by Hayley Atwell

Agent Carter acts as a mirror to the comics industry

Another way is to anticipate and disrupt narratives of secrecy, knowledge and legitimacy. This is important for those coming forward, in order to help deflect the inevitable backlash that accusations amass. It might be enough to turn the tables on abusers and say, hey, ‘we’re the plain clothes officers, and we’ll come and get you as soon as we’re ready’. It definitely means challenging abuse when and where you see it, even if that means a quiet word in private. Mostly, it’s about not perpetuating a cycle of abuse, revelation, disavowal and then continuing on like nothing’s wrong. As Clare Birchall in ‘Cultural Studies and the Secret’ argues:

We should, if our oppositional politics is still to have force, want to operate in a significantly different way to those who simplify secrecy, knowledge and legitimacy. We should be interested in thinking through the undecidability in a way that those in power can’t afford to. [2]

Following on from this, we need to recognise how institutional power backed by patriarchal ideology utilises the comics covert sphere to undermine revelations, accusations, truths, stories, realities and overwrite it with its own. Therefore, if we stick to the old formulas – secrecy vs revelation, fiction vs truth, and legitimate knowledge vs illegitimate knowledge – without understanding the complexities and complications involved in these relationships, we risk perpetrating the failures of the public secret to enact change. We should try to understand secrecy, knowledge, and legitimacy better than those who simplify it for their own ends. Of course, this isn’t to say stop speaking out, or to tell lies, or make false accusations. Revelation and accusation will always have their place. But if the secret is that there is no secret, we have to find new ways to talk about the public secret within a realm of public imaginary.

[1] Timothy Melley, The Postmodern Public Sphere, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2012), p.5.

[2] Clare Birchall, ‘Cultural Studies and the Secret’ in New Cultural Studies, ed. by Clare Birchall and Gary Hall, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p. 303.

Lauren McPhee
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