Rat Queens is written and illustrated by men–Kurtis Wiebe and Stjepan Sejic. For this reason, it perhaps shouldn’t be a feminist tentpole for contemporary comics. But the simple fact is its foursome of female leads, and the handful of ancillary female and gender-bending characters, make writing a fun, kick ass, but also feminist comic look easy. What seems to make the difference here is numbers.
In the bruhaha that spun up around the developments in Black Widow’s character in Avengers: Age of Ultron, there was wide discussion of whether making her a love interest to Hulk or giving her a tragic backstory involving forced infertility strengthened or weakened her character. It ended up being a kind of stalemate. On the one hand, the romance with Bruce Banner illuminated deep truths about her character. And certainly women world over deal with the psychological trauma that can come with the loss of fertility. To deny her either the character insight that she too identifies with being a monster or the authentic experience of many women dealing with barrenness also seems to be at a cost. But by making her a love interest or a woman deeply traumatized by her infertility, Black Widow took on the cliches of women in film.
The wise Mark Ruffalo pointed out in an interview on the topic:
I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to.
And this is where I get back to talking about Rat Queens. Because each of the Rat Queens is both flawed and wonderful in her own ways. There is diversity in their body types, sexualities, gender-expressions, motivations, fears, weaknesses, and strengths. And because there are four of them (plus the side characters who are being developed as well through Wiebe’s writing), none of them becomes a Widow, holding the depiction of all womankind on their shoulders, playing to or subverting cliches alone.
I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but there is a big reveal about one of the characters’s choice of hairstyle late in Rat Queens Vol. 2 trade paperback collection. If this reveal had been given to a Widow, a sole woman bearing the load of having to be awesome, it would have played pretty directly and damningly into a female stereotype. But because the character involved is surrounded by other dynamic and round female characters, her story doesn’t get flattened by the load it carries. Consider this gem of a thought from Linda Holmes on the difference with Black Widow:
To be honest, I can’t think of another Avenger whose story Natasha could have swapped with who wouldn’t, in some way, raise questions of whether the story was influenced by gender stereotypes. If she had Tony’s story, she’d be the one who messed up and wouldn’t listen, who created the need for a rescue. If she had Cap’s story, she’d be the one who tries to keep everyone from being vulgar – the behavior cop. If she had the Hulk’s story, she’d be the one whose superpower is being carried away by her uncontrollable emotions. If she had Thor’s story, she’d be the one who doesn’t have very much to do and is omitted from a large stretch of the movie. If she had Hawkeye’s story, she’d be the one who just wanted to go home and be with the kids.
So ultimately, doing right by women on screen and in comics comes down to multiple portrayals of heft and depth. This is true of nearly every underrepresented group–consider the mixed responses to Dong on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Dong’s character has plenty of stereotypes attached to him, but he’s also full of heart and sincerity. He’s easily one of the most likable of the characters on the show. But because there are so few depictions of Asians on television, the show’s reputation of race depiction rests in large part on his shoulders. Then consider Jacqueline Voorhees, Kimmy’s rich boss. She’s likewise a mess of stereotypes (with a couple of curveballs thrown in), but she’s also only one of multiple women who are developed on the show. She’s more offensive as a character but less responsible for being anything else.
But lets not pretend that Kurtis Wiebe doesn’t also have a gift for writing whip-smart, audacious, funny, and strong as hell female characters. Because that is also true. He just didn’t see a reason to stop with one. And that’s what makes Rat Queens an absolute joy to read and a game-changing comic for diversity of representation.