In “Pulp Friction” I addressed the logical problems inherent in the position of those fans I called “anti-pulpsters,” who oppose, in one way or another, the presence of extravagant sensationalism in superhero comic books. As a loose illustration of this position I alluded to a deleted forum-thread which opposed such sensationalism—particularly of the sex-related type—noting that the majority of posters took a “what about the children” attitude. However, that’s certainly not the only possible justification for opposing the proliferation of adult pulp.
On 2-21-12, Kelly Thompson posted, for her CBR column “She Has No Head,” a long examination of sexism in superhero comics. Thompson pointed to numerous logical problems with the hypothetical position that males and females received equal treatment in current manifestations of the genre. Some of her observations have merit, but others display just as many logical fallacies as the position she assails. Since these fallacies are not unique to Thompson’s essay—showing up pretty much whenever superhero fans, male and female alike, choose to debate sexism—all of the essays in this series will reference Thompson’s essay.
I’ll begin with what might appear to be one of Thompson’s strongest points: what she terms as the difference between “idealized representation” and “sexualized representation.”
“Both men and women are given crazy nearly unattainable idealized bodies in comics, we can all agree on this. But that is where the equality ends. Men are generally portrayed with idealized ATHLETE body types. While women are generally portrayed with idealized PORN STAR and SUPERMODEL body types. Which would make sense if the women were not actually superheroes. But they are, and so making them porn stars and supermodels doesn’t make a lot of sense. If women, like men, were rendered like gymnasts, swimmers, runners, boxers, tennis pros, and body builders, you’d see far fewer objections, because that would make things quite balanced. An idealized athletic form that few of us can achieve but many of us would admire or like to have, is imminently reasonable for a superhero form, but that’s not what we get, instead we get idealized (and wholly unrealistic) supermodel and porn star types.”
Now, despite the mention of idealization with respect to female superheroes, Thompson’s real objection is their sexualized representation, as seen a few sentences later:
“It’s important to remember that idealization of the form is not the same as sexualization of the form. Something can be idealized without being sexualized.”
Male superheroes, then, are given idealized bodies which Thompson seems to regard as essentially free from gratuitous sexualization, since they are in line with what is “imminently (sic} resomable for a superhero form.” Female superheroes receive “wholly unrealistic supermodel and porn star types,” in contrast to the type of bodies representative of real female athletes. This is a frequent complaint, not unrelated to complaints about comics-art in which women’s breasts are given preposterous proportions, often bigger than those heads that the male readers aren’t looking at anyway
A major problem arises, however, with Thompson’s implication that the visual depiction of male bodies is inherently more realistic (re: the heroes’ aggressive occupation) than that of female bodies. It is true, that real-life female athletes do not, as a general rule, sport breasts as large as those routinely given female superheroes, due to the physiological process of muscle-building, which cuts down the body’s surplus fat supply.
However, Thompson fails to observe that most male superheroes are not, by and large, drawn like any type of athlete but one: the competitive bodybuilder. And though no one of average build would want to provoke a fight with a bodybuilder, such hypermuscular bodies don’t lend themselves to any type of battle except those involving brute force. Thus, while a hypermuscular body correlates well with the rampages of the Incredible Hulk, it isn’t realistic for a more gymnastic type of hero.
For instance, here’s a random example of a real athlete capable of performing Daredevil-like feats, a French competitor named Cyril Tomassone:
And here’s a classic rendering of Daredevil:
To judge from the boulder-shouldered build, Daredevil, like many other athletic male superheroes—Batman, Captain America—is dominantly drawn like a bodybuilder, not a gymnast, as would befit his particular skill. Thus if one agrees that this depiction typifies most male superheroes in, say, the past twenty years—irrespective as to whether they fight using brute force or athletic skills—then Thompson’s assertion that the males are more realistically depicted does not hold water.
Similarly, I don’t agree with Thompson that all female superheroes are drawn as “porn stars.” In the sequence below, Gene Colan draws the Black Widow with the body of a graceful dancer. Possibly most dancers don’t have breasts the size of the Widow’s. Yet it’s not beyond all possibility.
Now, one might object to my use of superhero depictions from over thirty years ago, because Thompson is apparently concentrating on current superhero renditions. However, even if Thompson had clearly delineated her study to a well-defined period—which she did not—I would argue that the visual tropes of superheroes being followed by current practitioners were established roughly around the same time that Gene Colan drew them, the Silver Age. During this period comic-book artists like Kirby, Kane, and Colan largely set aside the more realistic body-models favored by many earlier (though not all) superhero artists. In due time even a Silver-Age hero like the Flash, initially depicted with the slim physique of a runner, took on a standard boulder-shouldered appearance.
I suggest that, on a semiotic level, outsized muscles have become a primary indicator of “maleness” as outsized breasts (and sometimes butts) have become of “femaleness.” Gender symbolism, not verisimilitude, governs both depictions, so neither is essentially more “realistic” than the other. Additionally, both do depict idealized bodies for the sake of connoting sexual attractiveness, so the male representation is not more “idealized” than the female.
I further suggest that the reason that Thompson argues that male heroic depictions are “idealized” is not because hypermuscularity has no sexual significance, but because the sexual identity of female superheroes receives greater attention. I would never deny that female superheroes are seen, far more often than males, in postures that emphasize their sexuality: stretching, twisting to show both breasts and butt, or the ever-popular “panty shot.” This is an undeniable consequence of any narrative work being aimed primarily at a heterosexual male readership. In a future essay I’ll deal more fully with the ethical aspects of aiming fiction at a particular circumscribed audience.
However, even while admitting that women get more “exposure” in the sense of visual posturing, it seems silly to pretend, as Thompson does, that male characters are less exposed because they show less skin. A significant number of male superheroes are just nearly nude men with brightly colored bodies: often only the capes and the trunks really look like clothing. Contrary to Frederic Wertham’s concerns about such displays inculcating homosexuality, the actual superhero texts emphasize the appeal of such displays to female characters. This would tend to indicate that the readership acknowledges a need to stimulate feminine desire, even if male desire inevitably takes primary place. In Part 2 I will deal, at least in part, with what such displays mean within the context of fictional narrative as a whole.