In trying to separate out the western trades that I have accumulated, I have reached the last one from my most recent perusing and purchasing binge. I have been holding on to Pretty Deadly because I had really high hopes for it, but it is with great disappointment that I must admit that this hope dissolved the further I got into the first volume of the series.
Pretty Deadly has a lot going for it. The artwork is intricate and beautiful. The main myth of the first volume blends concepts from Greek mythology and fables into a western folk tale in an El Topo-like world. The series also places women at the forefront in a genre which historically leaves women in the background or in the silk sheets of a boudoir of a brothel. Pretty Deadly had great potential, but it veers severely off course with its approach to the feminization of the western.
Don’t get me wrong, I am always thrilled to see a female protagonist triumph over dire conditions and unfathomable obstacles. With Pretty Deadly, this had to be done in an intelligent and nuanced way because by taking on a genre that has been so historically male-centric, there will nevertheless be an interpretation of feminist motivations. In Pretty Deadly, the main female protagonists all take actions to control or to accept their fate. In her thirst for vengeance, Ginny defies her father and leaves her home to kill the man who caused the death of her mother. In trying to understand her fate, Sissy defies her guardian and demands to understand her past and her future from him, despite an oncoming raging storm. In her vigor for life and thus her inability to remained isolated from the world, Beauty kills herself, releasing her from life and also from her husband who has become her captor. There are certainly narrative decisions that were placed to convey a message of female empowerment, but on the other hand, there were also decisions made that negate these same empowerment messages.
In Pretty Deadly, the men are very flawed. The men are all portrayed as arrogant and self-motivating, with their selfish actions often leading to unfortunate consequences for the women in their lives, and in a specific case, the entire fate of the world. And given the actions of the men, the women are left to pick up the pieces, save the day, or suffer. While the women manage to triumph or at least bravely try to get out of the situations that the men in their lives have placed them in, there is a destructive mindset of victimization that is put in place in Pretty Deadly, and this concept of woman as victim suffocates all of the female empowerment messages that the narrative is trying to build. In trying to establish a narrative that encourages women to rise above, the women in Pretty Deadly take the same approach that lead to the faltering of 70s radical feminism: myopic blame, violent rebellion, and belief in gender superiority.
There are tantrums and outbursts against the men; there are attempts to make women look stronger and tougher with fight scenes and confrontations with weapons, but underlying all of these actions is an overwhelming malevolence towards men. This is fundamentally problematic in a gender equality framework because in order for true equality to exist, there must be a bidirectional sense of understanding of not only each other’s privileges but also each other’s burdens. With women as victims and men as enemies, Pretty Deadly has the same weak political effects of female empowerment as 70s female exploitation films and 90s girl power films and incorrectly encourages women to believe that men are solely to blame when we meet a bad fate.
What is also damaging about the feminist messages underlying Pretty Deadly is the concept of female superiority tied to empowerment. The women in Pretty Deadly are portrayed as more merciful, more compassionate, and more heroic than men. Ginny returns home and confronts her father in a valiant battle. Sissy ends up as the merciful ruler of the underworld and the protector of the world’s soul. Beauty destroys the Devil and sees her husband in the underworld, forgiving him prior to her final resting. There is always a cathartic moment in westerns where the protagonist triumphs above evil, but by making the men evil and the women as the force of good, there is an overt message of female superiority that fully halts any progress towards gender equality.
Beyond the gender politics of Pretty Deadly, there is also another frustrating major component to the series: inconsistency of tone. While I commend the dourness of the tone of the majority of the series, I cannot comprehend why each chapter must open with an emcee-like recap of what happened in the last chapter. With the same oafishness of an emcee of a bad variety show, animals announce a part of their own trivial stories and give introductions to the oncoming chapter. The tone of these openings is far too cute, destroying the intensity and the sorrow in the tone of the full narrative. Furthermore, these openings inject stereotypical femininity and delicacy into the series, corroding more of its gender equality politic.
In trying to make the women the main protagonists of a western, Pretty Deadly is not inventive or deft in its narrative or effective in its gender politic. In fact, it is irresponsible because in its misguided messages of female empowerment, it makes gender equality more difficult to achieve. In order for gender equality to exist, men and women cannot point and blame each other for various problems. They cannot believe that one is better than the other. They cannot believe that one has more burdens than the other. They must understand all benefits and all flaws of each other. They must try to distill their differences to get to their similarities. They must empathize with each other. Otherwise, we end up with further divides between genders, making reconciliation much harder and much less feasible to attain.
Pretty Deadly is written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrated by Emma Ríos and available now via Image Comics.