For the first time ever, I feel the need to put a trigger warning on one of my pieces. There’s some nasty stuff in here, guys. If you don’t want to read about child molestation, skip to the paragraph beginning, “All in all,” because wow. Or come back next week, when we’ll all have a good laugh at the terrible ads they used to put in comic books.
I mean, it’s not Wertham’s fault exactly that he was writing when we had a very different understanding of human sexuality. He briefly acknowledges that the Kinsey reports indicated that what had previously been believed about human sexuality was almost certainly wrong. He then doubles down, however, and that is his fault. And so chapter seven, “‘I Want to Be a Sex Maniac!’: Comic Books and the Psycho-Sexual Development of Children,” is just ridiculous in places.
It isn’t helped by the fact that he’s once again chosen an epigraph that he doesn’t seem to have internalized. In this chapter, he is quoting Shakespeare, though he doesn’t mention which play and Google won’t tell me.
Give me good proofs of what you have alleged;
‘Tis not enough to say—in such a bush
There lies a thief.
In short, show your evidence. And, um, he doesn’t. To the shock of surely no one by now. He assumes that fetishes are caused by reading erotic material of a specific nature. He assumes that people become homosexual because of exposure to the idea of homosexuality. He claims that child prostitution is on the increase. He claims that the treatment of women in comic books is totally worse than treatment of women in other media. And he’s just wrong a lot, basically.
Even worse, though, is that he doesn’t seem to have any real awareness of how sexual abuse of children works. I think we have a winner for Most Appalling Paragraph in This Book, here in this chapter, and it will take a lot to unseat it.
In very young children comic books set up confusion and create a sadistic interpretation of sex. Ronnie, a six-year-old comic-book addict attending the Clinic, often played with a boy a year or so older who lived downstairs in the same house. One day this playmate took a little girl and Ronnie into his room and proceeded to take off the girl’s clothes. Ronnie watched a bit, then ran upstairs excitedly, told his mother all about what he had seen and asked her, “What’s he going to do to her—choke her?”
I mean, let’s unpack, here. Because a seven- or eight-year-old boy has just stripped a young girl. Her age isn’t given, but it seems reasonable to assume that she’s about the same age as the other children. Ronnie “watched a bit.” Watched what? Watched another child being stripped? Watched what was being done to her after that? What was going on in that room? Why was Ronnie brought as an audience? What was the girl doing while she was having her clothes removed? Did anyone think to see if she was okay? These are hugely unsettling questions about an act that should not have taken place, but Wertham ends the story there.
Sure. A six-year-old shouldn’t be reading the kinds of comics where women are stripped and choked, and I think you’d find very few people, including comics publishers, who disagree with that statement. But there’s absolutely no way we can assume that his “comic-book addiction” is to blame for a warped view of sexuality if he’s watching a friend be molested in front of him by another child. Wertham expresses absolutely no concern for that little girl.
Indeed, there’s no suggestion anywhere that any of these children with aberrant responses to sexuality might have them because they have been molested. There’s no mention of ruling it out other than Wertham’s hackneyed “children from good families” line in a few cases, which is just painfully classist. He mentions a twelve-year-old boy who tried to rape his nine-year-old sister, but he doesn’t even show evidence that the kid read comics, just that it’s the sort of thing that appears in comics. He claims it never happened before, but even Wertham must know that isn’t true at all.
He tells us about a study of 355 children from “a parochial school.” He says, “Economically, they came from better than average homes.” And then he proceeds to express shock that the children use phrases like “impure dress” and “lead us into sin,” because apparently, Wertham isn’t Catholic and has no experience with Catholic teachings about sex? And these kids are in fifth through eighth grade, apparently, so that’s old enough to have started getting those lectures at home and at school.
Indeed, another place where Wertham shows himself completely unfamiliar with the real issues is when he brushes past the idea of whether sex education should occur in the home or in the school. It doesn’t matter, he tells us, because kids will get that sort of thing everywhere, and you can’t stop it. Which is certainly true but misses the fact that the discussion is about who should ensure that children have accurate, healthy information—or if they should get it at all. I don’t want my kids learning about sex from crime comics, but that means it’s my responsibility to make sure they learn the facts somewhere. Wertham seems to subscribe to the “don’t tell ’em anything” camp, but he also admits that it’s impossible and a bad idea, so who even knows?
“Childhood prostitution is always due to neglect by the family (which often cannot help itself) and by social agencies,” he claims. But no. Really, really no. The causes are considerably more complicated than that and have been for a very long time. And, of course, a child could never see a comic in her life and still be exploited as a prostitute if there are people willing to so exploit her. And if no one is willing to exploit her, any desire at all to become a prostitute is irrelevant. Blaming comic books is such a stupid, heedless response to a very real, very serious problem.
All in all, it was an incredible relief to move on to Wertham being ignorant about gay people. People are still being seriously harmed by the kind of nonsense he’s spewing, but he’s calling Wonder Woman a lesbian, not describing a child’s sexual abuse. That’s a lot easier to take.
So yeah, Wonder Woman is apparently a lesbian who makes little girls lesbians. Now, I don’t dispute the BDSM thing, though once again, Wertham has causation backwards. She didn’t cause BDSM to become a thing; she was created in part because of William Moulton Marston’s bondage fetish. Which kind of indicates that BDSM was a thing before comic books? But yeah, no, children will read about all those women being tied up and get into the idea of being tied up. You know, like all those kids who are into dressing up as grandmothers and eating other kids, I guess?
His accusations of Batman and Robin are equally weird. I don’t deny that it’s really, really easy to read gay subtext into the comics; I fought with myself before just admitting that, yeah, I had to go with one of the “boner” panels for today’s image. (Since the comic was published in 1951, Wertham could have seen it, though I have no reason to believe he knew the slang term, which the Online Etymology Dictionary traces to the fifties.) On the other hand . . . .
They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown . . . For instance, Bruce and Dick go out one evening in dinner clothes, dressed exactly alike.
You know, because of the wild variations in appearance in men’s dinner clothes of the fifties.
Okay, yeah. Women don’t tend to last very long in Bruce’s life, it’s true. (Though would Wertham approve of Dick’s later relationship with cheerful nudist Starfire?) Except for Catwoman, who’s mentioned as the antithesis to the “decent, attractive, successful women” who should appear in the stories. (But apparently, Wonder Woman isn’t one of those three?) But I don’t think the issue there is Robin; I think the issue is Bruce’s complicated psychology, which was downplayed but not gone in this era.
What makes me sad here is his description of young gay men who found something to connect to in Batman and Robin. I know that this is because Wertham was who he was, living when he was, but I think he’s missing quite a lot of the reality of these stories, which is that it doesn’t matter if the subtext was intentional or not. These were young men who were desperate to find something to connect to in a society that at best treated them as diseased. If these men hadn’t been daydreaming about Batman and Robin, perhaps it would have been Laurel and Hardy.
And I mean, I think we can all pretty much agree that Star Trek never deliberately put gay subtext between Kirk and Spock, but that hasn’t stopped generations of slash fic writers—mostly, it’s worth noting, women. Are the stories these young men invented about Batman and Robin based on things the writers and artists deliberately put in the story? It doesn’t matter. What Wertham never understood, probably never could understand, is how much the comic book came to mean to all kinds of outsiders.
It’s not just Batman and Robin. It’s not just Wonder Woman. The X-Men, not yet invented at the time, were explicitly intended to symbolize other minorities. Ben Grimm is now canonically Jewish, and of course Magneto is a Holocaust survivor, admittedly an identity that’s getting harder to keep up as time passes. Wertham never understood the children he wrote about, and he never understood the comic books they were reading.
He was really good at seeing sexual imagery in random lines, though. You have to give him that.