Popova Comic Will Inspire Feminist Discourse But Not The Way It Intended
In a world where violent extremists are labelled devout feminists and the heroine Scarlet Rose is apparently an equal opportunist, the Popova comic is on shaky ground…
Popova is a “revenge fantasy comic” described by writers Dre Torres and Alex Valdes as a “timely story with the potential to inspire important discourse regarding gender roles and stereotypes in our society” by “depicting women in the role of the aggressor.” Issue 1 of Popova definitely inspired discourse, but possibly not how Torres and Valdes expected it to.
Issue 1 opens with a voiceover from our protagonist, Scarlet Rose. An assassin for hire, and previously an assassin for an anti-male terrorist group, he explains that hey, she might be out of the political game but a lady’s got to pay the bills somehow. In this case, that means poisoning a woman in front of that woman’s girlfriend.
So, the very first scene in the story and we’ve already got Dead Lesbian Syndrome – how’s that for shaking up stereotyped representations of queer women in our society?
This cosy restaurant scene on page 5 doesn’t end well.
Dead Lesbian Syndrome on page 6.
The narrative follows Scarlet Rose home, where Scarlet is shocked to find a woman from her past – Sadie Mars. Mars has broken into Scarlet’s home and is now holding Mark, her fiancé, at gunpoint. (Because, of course, successful rehabilitation into society requires the acquisition of a partner of the opposite gender.) Mars laments that Scarlet faked her death and left their terrorist group, but agrees to let the fiance go free if Scarlet returns with Mars to meet with “The Madame” – the leader of Mars’ organization.
Desperate to help his kidnapped fiancé, Mark meets up with his cop buddy, Chuck – or rather, former cop buddy. Chuck has been temporarily suspended from the force due to his wife’s false accusations that Chuck has physically assaulted her. The narrative makes it pretty clear that we’re supposed to believe Chuck is innocent.
This subplot exemplifies Popova’s weakness: attempting to subvert expectations about aggression and gender without creating an environment – a world – in which that can be fully effected. An axiom readers of SFF may be familiar with states that, unless told otherwise, readers will always assume that things in a fictional world work the same as they do in the real world. For Popova, that means readers are left to assume that the patriarchal and misogynistic structures which enable men to oppress women are fully functioning in the world of Scarlet Rose, Mark, and Chuck. Women may be shown as committing individual acts of aggression in Popova, but that doesn’t change their apparent material reality as members of an oppressed social class.
The lack of an oppressive matriarchal system in the world of Popova is reinforced by the fact that the police chief putting Chuck on suspension is a male-coded character. The failure to either show how the social structures in Popova differ from reality, or to acknowledge structural violence that enables police departments, in the United States as well as around the world, to fail to adequately respond or respond at all to domestic violence crimes committed by cops, results in a tone-deaf subplot that stretches the suspension of disbelief and reduces a potentially interesting character to a flat stereotype – the good guy done in by his scheming wife.
Meanwhile, Scarlet – captured and imprisoned – expositions to Mars her reasons for leaving the organization. Scarlet is so caught up in her monologue, she doesn’t notice when The Madame and her entourage of gun-toting gals show up. The story concludes with The Madame gloating over Scarlet and the text, of course, “To Be Continued.”
Issue 1 itself actually concludes with convenient illustrations of the main characters and snappy descriptions. Sadie Mars, the brainwashed extremist, is labelled “a devout feminist”, while our heroine Scarlet Rose is “an equal opportunist.” That shouldn’t surprise you at this point, but feel free to be as pissed off as you like.
Equal opportunist hero? Devout feminist foil? Guilty until proven innocent male cop? Hmm.
A plot that reinforces oppressive gender norms aside, Popova is… well, still nothing to write home about. The pacing of the story, and transitions between the different character narratives is never confusing. Yet, the structure and art of the story also never go beyond simply showing what’s happening; the form of the comic fails to add narrative value to the story. Probably the greatest success in Popova is the diversity of the cast; Scarlet Rose is a woman of color, and the background scenes do reflect the kind of ethnic diversity one would expect to see in New York City.
The revenge fantasy of Popova is not my revenge fantasy. My revenge fantasy against the patriarchy mostly involves making men participate in group therapy sessions until they fully realize the extent of harm done by their careless actions, egoistic worldviews and arbitrary, unnatural definitions of self-worth. (Also, I have two beautiful and loyal greyhounds who follow me everywhere, but that’s just part of all my fantasies.) The revenge fantasy enacted by the women in Popova is simply a recreation of masculine violence; this is telling of the fundamental misunderstanding of gender-based oppression which underpins Popova.
Given the fact that only the first issue of Popova is out right now, I feel it’s only fair to acknowledge that it is possible Popova will improve as the story progresses. But I won’t be waiting around to find out.