It seems most of the staff here at SpiderFan didn't enjoy the early-summer-2012 Spider-Man epic "Ends of the Earth" (EotE). I'm noting this for posterity because the record here at SpiderFan may suggest otherwise. I reviewed most of the arc, specifically the middle part, and my reviews reflected my (minority) opinion, that EotE was a fun Spider-Man adventure that hit almost all the right notes.
One sour note it hit was the valourization of torture in ASM #685. Unfortunately, that seems to be part of the company line at Marvel these days. That's a subject for another time.
What I want to complain about here is the other sour note EotE hits: the story's latent sexism.
For once, I'm not talking about sexist art, though the story has a fair bit of that, though thankfully it doesn't proceed past the level of cheesecake. See the cover to ASM #684 for evidence. Thankfully this sort of thing is largely confined to the covers, not to Humberto Ramos' interior work, where the zipper on Black Widow's catsuit remains at a reasonable height. No, the problem instead is sexist writing, which insists that sex is antithetical both to 'purity' and to 'power'.
On the purity side, we have, also in issue #685, Silver Sable - a confident woman who owns her own sexuality - making advances on Spidey, who, lest we forget, is a single guy in his twenties. Spidey stands strong against this 'temptation' and shuts Sable down. Later on he and the Black Widow survive their adventure, but Sable is apparently killed. The fact that Peter would turn down casual intimacy with Sable, a beautiful woman who is interested in him, seems implausible, but it fits the way Peter Parker has been stably characterized over the last few years. This Peter avoids casual intimacy: he resisted getting it on with Carlie for quite some time, much to her chagrin (and my bewilderment, as per my review of ASM #658). Peter also always regarded his one-night stand with Michele Gonzales in ASM #601 as a mistake.
Contra this characterization, Peter did have a 'friends with benefits' relationship with the Black Cat for a while in the Brand New Day era, starting around ASM #607. And in Ms. Marvel (Vol. 2) #47, in which Peter Parker and Carol Danvers went out on a date, writer Brian Reed seemed to subtly imply that the two heroes enjoyed a sexual encounter at the end of their evening out, though Reed has since explicitly disowned this interpretation as one the work was not intended to support.
These last two rebut the assumption some might make, that Marvel is uncomfortable with its all-ages hero having a sex life, as this would make his adventures unsuitable to younger readers. The Ms. Marvel issue is pertinent in this regard, because the issue, on one reading, implied the consummation of the date rather than showing it. The story ends with the two enjoying a hot dog, but textual clues earlier in the issue let those readers who chose to do so infer what is about to happen, even if Reed is clear he doesn't think such an inference is warranted. Alternatively, younger or more fastidious members of the audience can reject or ignore that implication, and the story holds up perfectly well.
I think EotE would have been more interesting if writer Dan Slott had taken that approach. But as per Slott, Peter turns Sable down. Okay, fine. But it would be much easier to accept this turn of events if Sable didn't apparently die at the end of the storyline. This smacks of the old 1970s and '80s slasher-film trope that casual sex is bad and those that indulge in it receive cosmic punishment. Sable indulges in sex, or wants to; ergo Sable is impure; and accordingly Sable dies. Ugh.
I don't want to read the story as punishing women who own their own sex lives, but it's hard for me to evade that reading... especially in the context of the epilogue, which appears in Avenging Spider-Man #8. In that story, Lenka, princess of Symkaria, is menaced by Dr. Doom, who covets her mystical potential. There's only one escape for Lenka, which is to give up her virginity, which must be done in the context of legal marriage. That's the crux of the story, which is driven by the question of whom she will surrender to: Doom? Spider-Man? or her old Symkarian boyfriend? Ultimately, it's the latter.
So EotE concludes with a story of a girl giving up her power so that she can be safe, and she gives it up by tying herself legally and sexually to one man in preference to another. There's no room in 'Ends of the Earth' for sexually confident and independent women. They end up either married or dead.
The icing on the cake is Sable's treatment in that epilogue. Historically she's been a Black-Widowesque superspy: highly skilled, tough as nails, thoroughly mercenary. And she sacrifices her life to enable Spider-Man to save the world. Leaving aside any feminist reading of that act - women don't save the world, they only support the boys who are doing that, and by self-sacrifice, no less - there's the fact that the epilogue thinks that Sable is "special", as Spider-Man puts it, because of this thing she did in the past, where she revealed that she's not a ruthless mercenary, but in fact is a soft romantic at heart.
So a woman who saved Spider-Man, knocked out Doc Ock's satellites, and gave her own life to defeat the Rhino isn't praiseworthy for those acts. She's praiseworthy because she's not tough as nails; because she was secretly a romantic old softy who adored young love. As per this story, power is something women are supposed to give up; and Sable, whose willingness to engage in sex made her impure, is later redeemed because of her private endorsement of that surrender.
Come on. Comics have enough sex-and-gender issues with the artwork. They don't need this old sexism-masked-as-chivalry stuff too. And as much as I enjoyed EotE, I have to say that its latent sexism makes it less enjoyable overall.