22 January 2012

Sitting with the Tiny Titans

DC Comics is bringing Tiny Titans to a close soon at issue #50. I’ve read only occasional issues and pages of this magazine, mostly those with an especially high Robin quotient. A put-upon version of Robin is at the center of its cast, who are school-age versions of the second generation of DC superheroes.

The third and fourth generations, each with their own Robins, appear as babies and toddlers. That leaves plenty of opportunity for the older kids to babysit. But not really all the kids, at least equally.

I think the babysitting theme started in issue #4, which DC marketed with this line:
Meet the Little Tiny Titans as they show Wonder Girl just how tough babysitting can be!
Inside, Wonder Girl and another heroine named Bumblebee babysit four teeny-Tiny Titans while Robin, Speedy, and Cyborg go play baseball.

The copy for #15:
And it’s Rose's turn to babysit the Terror Titans when a group activity yields fiery results.
In #23, Robin visits Batgirl and meets two of his little fans.

In #27:
When Raven has to watch Kid Devil for the weekend,…
Have you noticed a pattern?

The cover at top is #29, which came with this copy:
It's Supergirl's turn to toddler-sit the tiny Tiny Titans! Can she handle this crisis of infinite toddlers – or will she burst into tears?
But I don’t recall seeing Robin take on that job. Sometimes he hangs around Batgirl as she does the job because he has a crush on that little red-haired girl. In the “All-Robins Issue” he volunteers to pick up her charges from a daycare center (run by a woman), but he doesn’t actually look after them.

The story in issue #26 has Beast Boy watching over Miss Martian, but the word “babysit” wasn’t part of its marketing copy, and Beast Boy actually insists it’s not his turn. Even if we agree that he really is babysitting here, he’s the only example of male parity I could find. (Did I miss an important panel?)

Most recently, Tiny Titans, #47:
It’s Mrs. Atom’s turn to babysit the Baby Titans – Damien [sic], Arthur Jr., Smidgen, Kid Devil and Jason Toddler. Can she do it alone? Maybe Miss Martian can help!
And Bumblebee is back to babysitting as well. Even when a Tiny Titans story involves multiple baby-sitters, all three are female. Furthermore, Mrs. Atom is a character with no equivalent in the regular DC Universe. [Trust me, Ray Palmer’s love interest Jean Loring is not the same.] She seems to have been created to care for her children and others.
Overall, Tiny Titans appears to perpetuate the idea that child care is naturally a job for girls rather than boys. Ironically, some of Tiny Titans’s biggest fans include readers vocal about pressing DC to expand the exposure and range of female superheroes.


Richard said...

I wish I could say this was more of a surprise, but it isn't -- not in light of the other well-publicized gender issues at DC. I certainly don't think any of the people involved in this comic are bad people, but I do expect they're the kind of people who think the only form of sexism is active deliberate sexism.

Icon_UK said...

This does reflect reality though (and I say that as guy who is a former babysitter) and is perhaps at least partially balanced by Alfred's presence, as he appears to have overall responsibility for the Titans in this comic.

P. Hos said...

Perhaps instead of being a raging sexist, attempting to use kiddy comics to keep women in the house, the creators are simply reflecting their own observations of society, in that the large majority of babysitters are female.

Personally, I've always thought it was kind of sexist how (real) parents trust young boys with their kids less than young girls.

J. L. Bell said...

Tiny Titans may indeed reflect a trend in larger society, but it also seems to be reinforcing that trend in that: (a) the disparity appears so pronounced; (b) except for Supergirl, the girls all act eager to be babysitters, not questioning the responsibility; and (c) there’s talk of taking turns but the turns don’t seem to fall equally.

Furthermore, we don’t read superhero comics (or parodies thereof) for realistic reflection of society. We read them for stories of exemplary heroism. Only in that context does it make sense for kids of elementary-school age to have primary responsibility for babies and toddlers. Wouldn’t boys who are real heroes participate equally? After all, looking after weaker folks is what superheroes like Robin and Kid Flash and Cyborg do.

But, with notable exceptions, superhero comics have kept away from society’s deepest divisions and tensions in their chase for the widest possible readership. I don’t think this pattern in Tiny Titans was a deliberate attempt to portray proper roles for girls and boys. I think the magazine just missed an opportunity.

I agree that Alfred is the person most in charge in the Tiny Titans world. And perhaps in the DC Universe.

wordballoon said...

I think reading so much into this simple innocent book shows more of you're own intent to find suspicious behavior than any actual mis-step by the creators.

This reminds me of when 70-80's children activists demanded that saturday cartoons needed to stress life lessons in their scripts as opposed to just being funny.

I'm really glad you're not the editor of Tiny Titans.

J. L. Bell said...

That's a very defensive comment, John Siuntres, as well as a somewhat offensive one. You're a friend and booster of the Tiny Titans creators, as any listener to the Word Balloon podcast can tell.

Obviously you hadn't noticed the same trend in the magazine that I did. You don't offer evidence to refute that trend, so I have to assume you agree that the pattern exists, and you don't argue against my conclusion about what that trend implies for boys and girls.

But something's bothering you so much that you toss accusations that I sought "suspicious behavior" as opposed to simply pointing out a trend and what it implies. Similarly, P. Hos falsely characterizes my posting as saying the creators are "a raging sexist" when I carefully chose not to personalize the issue by naming the creators at all. Again, that's so defensive as to be offensive.

J. L. Bell said...

Let's do some counterfactual thinking here.

Let's imagine that some of the Tiny Titans scripts about babysitting showed boy characters participating as much as girls. Would they be any less funny?

Let's imagine that Tiny Titans showed the Atom shopping for his children and helping Bumblebee learn diapering skills instead of the newly created Mrs. Atom. Would that change the story in a big way? Would that offer opportunities for in-jokes for aging readers of the mid-1990s Teen Titans (who wer supervised by the Atom)?

Let's imagine that a Tiny Titans script showed Cyborg as wary of babysitting, but then discovering that looking after little kids was fun and helped him feel better about himself. Would that be too much of a valuable lesson about life? Maybe so, but nobody told Wolfman and Pérez back in the early 1980s.

LC Douglass said...

While I noticed the pattern of the girls babysitting in this title, I have to say that Tiny Titans was the one bright spot when it came to DC's recent publishing Titans-wise. I take the blogger's point, certainly, but Tiny Titans also had its hands full doing low key commentary and corrections on a mountain of injustices and mis-characterizations done with these characters over the past 25 odd years, and especially the past 10 years.

Most of the gags played off how DC has horribly mishandled these characters (and the whole franchise) and tried to gently and humourously to point out what the characters are at their heart.

For example, Tiny Titans revived a whole truckload of characters that have been maimed, turned evil, tortured or killed off in the past 10 years and seamlessly treated them as part of the little gang of sidekicks. Because the intended audience was children, and presumably their parents who read the New Teen Titans, this could be done in a light, friendly fashion. Just using that tone of cameraderie is a huge step.

One running gag featured the original Robin, Dick Grayson, troubled by the constant proliferation of other Robins.

TT also played off Crisis on Infinite Earths. It dealt with the overuse of Trigon (while presenting jokes about him, the in-jokes with the character were a fairly canny commentary that something between Raven and Trigon is deeply unhealthy, which was the original core of the story, not that Raven was half evil or all evil).

There was a running gag at Wayne Manor that Cassandra Cain as Batgirl kept losing the portait of Dan Didio that Alfred hung in the front hall.

Tiny Titans also focussed on certain main characters that have had extremely poor treatment lately in the real DC universe - Kid Flash and Aqualad, Bumblebee spring to mind. Interestingly, TT did not include Lilith. TT played up the connection between Terra and Beast Boy, which maintained Terra as a troubled character, but didn't make her toxic. One issue hinted that part of what was wrong was non innate, but stemmed from how the characters looked at her. Just that point is a huge lesson for younger readers - one that the writers for the mainstream DCU did not have the imagination to consider. Speaking of sexism, the Terra storyline is incredibly sexist in the mainstream comic, and that was sort of remedied in TT.

Thus, while the babysitting problem is indeed something, there were and are so many things wrong with how DC dealt with the Titans that the Tiny Titans series was overburdened with trying to give a very young readership a picture of this franchise and its characters that was open, pleasant and accessible, without the terrible violent, dysfunctional and ugly baggage imposed on it by mainstream editors.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that nostalgia for New Teen Titans or our other first or favorite superhero comics is a major part of the appeal of Tiny Titans for adult readers. Indeed, I suspect that’s a stronger fuel than the magazine’s appeal for kids. After all, adults are making the buying decisions, whether they say the issues are for kids or not.

I also wonder if the feel-good nostalgia of the book lets fans overlook or excuse the old-fashioned assumptions about gender roles that appear to underlie the babysitting pattern.

Pixie said...

Those whose response is "they're not big evil sexists out to get women," probably they aren't. But, for the most part, it isn't big evil sexists that perpetuate gender issues. It's well-meaning people who fail to see that their behavior is sexist and then fail to accept that it is once someone points it out because they feel they could not possibly be sexist. Doing something sexist is not tantamount to murder. In a society in which sexism is still entrenched, it's inevitable. What's problematic is responding to a critique of sexist behavior as if you have been called a murderer and then rejecting that critique on the basis that you couldn't possibly be someone so horrible.

Reflecting society, too, is a poor excuse. This is a society still in the grip of sexist gender roles. Why do girls babysit more than boys? It's not innate babysitting ability and interest so much as it is being told from the time they were little that they are the caretakers, they must caretake, while boys are not. Tiny Titans is yet another piece of media that does reinforce this. And if the medium were realistic, realism might have greater sway, but this is a comic in which bunches of tiny mutants, aliens, and so forth run around doing silly things.

So, a series in which women are constantly babysitting whereas men are never babysitting, even though both should have a share in doing so, really should raise red flags, especially when it's intended for children. Nobody's asking for cheesy PSAs. We're just asking for developed female characters who are allowed to do things besides What Female Characters Do, or rather who can only fulfill the caretaker/love interest/damsel in distress role. We're just asking for narratives constructed in a fashion which doesn't shirk male characters of every responsibility placed on female characters. We're asking people to think a bit before they do the same ol', same ol'.

J. L. Bell said...

Well said, Pixie.