Thu, Feb 14, 2019 - Page 14 News List

Boom, zap, pow: Tsai Ing-wen saves the day

As a comic book character, the president personifies the nation’s attitudes toward women in power

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

A graphic by The Dolltator, pen name of 3D animator and filmmaker Lincoln Li, pits ‘Sledgehammer Diao’ against ‘Shotgun Dsai.’ The graphic was published on Jan. 2, the same day as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech on the question of unification with Taiwan.

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Li

Political manga perfectly combines two distinguishing features of life in Taiwan — irreverence toward politicians and a Japan-influenced love of manga and anime stylings.

And since President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) unprecedented rise to Taiwan’s highest office in 2016, she has become a compelling character for local comic book artists. This is no coincidence, for the medium excels at portraying exceptional and exaggerated personalities. And their playful depictions of Tsai reveal complex and evolving attitudes toward female political leadership.

TAIWAN’S SUPERWOMAN

In Conquerer of the Seas Emperor Ing (霸海皇英), published in August 2016 by Wei Tsung-cheng (韋宗成), a young girl named Ing (瑛) grows up on a patriarchal island-nation caught in the shadow of a dictator surnamed Chiang (蔣). At her birth, she radiates a feminine glow that literally tames wild animals. She grows up to overthrow the oppressive forces that terrorize her people.

The work is a thinly veiled recasting of Tsai’s life and 2016 election victory in the genre of superhero comics, meaning black-and-white morality, characters with superhuman abilities, epic battle scenes, dramatic narration and stylized dialogue.

“Since politicians are always mocking and manipulating (惡搞) the people, I thought of creating a book that did the same to them in the form of a Taiwanese martial arts fantasy,” Wei told the Taipei Times.

Emperor Ying was his sophomore effort and a natural sequel to 2009’s Emperor Ma Arrives (馬皇降臨), about then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

Emperor Ma Arrives describes the rise of Huang (騜), an analog of Ma, under the tutelage of the family of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). Huang trains to meet the Bian Emperor (扁皇) in a pugilistic showdown, where he finally claims his rightful place on the throne. Like Ing, Huang’s sex appeal is emphasized and he often appears shirtless with bulging muscles. Yet unlike Ing, Huang does not have any feminine energy to set him apart in a world run by powerful men. Instead, Wei has Huang’s power come from being the human incarnation of a dragon.

Unlike editorial cartoons satirizing topical political issues and figures, Taiwan’s political manga is a grassroots medium. Artists usually test the waters by posting works on social media first, with only the most popular making the leap to print publishing.

With few exceptions, the depiction of women in comic books has long been a lightning rod for controversy. The medium is often criticized for flattening female characters into gendered stereotypes with limited agency, whose main preoccupation is to compete with each other for a man’s affections. Think of the girl-next-door and femme fatale archetypes popularized by Betty and Veronica as they chase after the eponymous Archie.

Female characters are also framed by what British film theorist Laura Mulvey has called the “male gaze,” in which women appear as sexual objects for men’s viewing pleasure. The practice is so ubiquitous in manga and anime that it has spawned its own terminology — “fan service,” which describes the gratuitous cleavage or panty shots that have no apparent relation to the story.

Given the spotty record of female representation in comic books, stories centered on Tsai contain an intriguing tension as they pit conventions of the medium against the reality of a female president who has shattered glass ceilings.

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