Gender in Comics Taught in 'Massively Open' Online Class

Christy Blanch and Stan Lee.

From the hypermasculine bodies of the typical male superhero to the bondage motifs in Wonder Woman's origins, mainstream comic books and gender have always had an interesting relationship, both for better and for worse.

It's a subject that continues to attract discussion and debate, and has inspired Ball State University's "Gender Through Comic Books" class, a six-week "Massively Open Online Course" starting on April 2. It's free to enroll, and open to absolutely anyone, though no credit is offered.

Christy Blanch, an adjunct professor and educational studies doctoral candidate at the Muncie, Indiana university, is teaching the course. She was a fan of comics since discovering Prince Valiant as a kid, but only recently considered bringing them to the classroom.

"I never really thought about using [comic books] as teaching tools until I was teaching an anthropology course," Blanch told Newsarama. "I was writing a lecture about culture change. At the time, I was reading Brian K. Vaughan's Y the Last Man — and if you want to talk about culture change, wow.


So Blanch made the Vertigo epic — where a plague kills every mammal with a Y chromosome, except for protagonist Yorkick and his monkey, Ampersand — part of her curriculum, though not without some initial skepticism.

"My department wasn't thrilled about it, but they figured out it worked," Blanch said. "They knew I was kind of crazy anyway because I used Star Trek: The Next Generation to teach language, and of course Indiana Jones for archaeology. And Futurama. They know I use a lot of pop culture, because it engages the students, and they seem to learn from it.

"You cannot deny the power that popular culture, comic books, movies, TV shows have over our views."

Y the Last Man led to incorporating other comics like The Walking Dead and Doctor Strange into her lectures, and she was eventually asked by Ball State to use comic books to teach a class on gender, which took place on campus last semester. That led to the upcoming "MOOC," which Blanch says currently has nearly 5,0000 students enrolled from six different continents.

"It just shows that people really do want education," Blanch said of the response. They want to learn. They're not getting credit for this, so this is something that they're doing on their own. I think it's amazing, and I am so proud of every single person that has registered for this class. I do not want to let any of them down."

Required reading for the class includes Action Comics #1, Action Comics #267, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, Superman: Birthright, the first arc of Secret Six, Strangers in Paradise, Saga and Y the Last Man, which Blanch considers "a gender textbook." Blanch has worked with Comixology to offer a special page for course material, and also secured the participation of high-profile creators and editors including Scott Snyder, Brian K.Vaughan, Mark Waid, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Terry Moore, Matt Fraction, Gail Simone, Stephen Wacker and Sana Amanat through either pre-recorded or interactive interviews. Stan Lee himself narrated a video promoting the course.

Waid in particular has been a vocal proponent of the course, writing on his site, "I think this could be a huge step forward for the medium, and the more students that enroll, the better the chance that other universities and educators will follow with more of these open online comics courses in the months and years to come."

Blanch also wants to make it clear that the course isn't just about the way females are portrayed in comics — it's about men and women, she says, and their similarities and differences.


"When I say 'gender,' people automatically jump to 'women' or 'feminism.' And that is not what gender is," Blanch said. "Gender is about males and females, and we're going to have an entire module about masculinity; because it's not only women who are portrayed a certain way in comics, it's also men. Think about that Captain America that Rob Liefeld did."

While Blanch gives credit to the advances in the portrayal of gender in American mainstream comics, she characterizes its overall history as "extremely bleak."

"I'm a huge Superman, and I'm a huge Lois Lane fan. She's been around as long as Superman," Blanch said. "To see her change from her inception in 1938 when she was a go-get-'em, no-nonsense reporter that didn't put up with anything, to the Mort Weisinger years, when she became this little simpering woman to where she did get powers in the midst of the feminist movement. However, she also became very sexualized at that point — there are all those covers of her spread eagle."

And it's not just Golden and Silver Age comics that have disappointed the professor.

"I had [my students] read Voodoo from The New 52, and they were appalled," Blanch said. "The females and the males alike. 'Not only is this story demeaning, but it doesn't even make sense. If her idea is that she wants to be close to the base so she can get information from the people that work there, why would she be a stripper? Why wouldn't she just morph into somebody who works there and walk in?' That's a really good question."

Blanch estimates that the course will be a three to five hour-a-week commitment for those enrolled, with discussion facilitated through message boards. If all goes well, she's hoping to teach it again, perhaps for credit and with an altered reading list.

Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!

Twitter activity