Making a Dirty Breast of the Matter

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.

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58 Comments

  1. If you honestly want to present these male forms as idealised sexual forms, on the same level as the female ones, you need to address the notable absence of major Male sexual features, which are usually required. 1: Complete absence of male crotch, 2: The absence of male ass shots and the like. The dead give-away should be that when male superheroes ARE presented in an overtly sexual manner to match the way women are usually shown in these comics (Schumacher’s Batman films for example, or that one Alex Ross pinup where Steel had a slight crotch bulge), the reaction from male fans is completely flabbergasted.

    Your excuse for using a comic from 30 years ago is honestly a disingenuous, considering that Thompson’s article features a whopping 55 case-subject images, ALL OF WHICH are from modern comics? The tropes of today’s comics may draw from the 1970s, but the state they are in today needs to be addressed on their own terms.

    Sorry to come across as combative, I genuinely enjoy your articles!

  2. Ben Marton says:

    Stand your ground, Mladen. You absolutely have a point. The fact that Thompson’s article should apparently merit such exacting criticism reveals just how far we haven’t come. The ‘nearly nude’ male form in superhero comics, I would argue, has less to do with ‘stimulating feminine desire’ than it has to do with upholding an idealized male form for the male gaze; this is an avatar of wish-fulfillment, not some opposite number.

  3. Colin S. S. says:

    You seem to be misconstruing Thompson’s argument entirely. Her argument is not “that the visual depiction of male bodies is inherently more realistic (re: the heroes’ aggressive occupation) than that of female bodies.” In her words: “[T]he larger issue is not the believability, but the connotation. An athletic male form suggests strength, power, and ability – all traits that make sense for superheroes. Porn star and model body types suggest beauty, sex, and frequently, submissiveness.* None of those qualities tie directly to superheroes.” Like you, she is looking at the bodies on a semiotic level; the difference is that she’s reading them more closely, and consequently finding more meaning. The male and female portrayals clearly indicate sexuality in markedly different manners and to significantly different degrees; and the question of whether Daredevil’s build should reflect his talent for jumping or his talent for punching isn’t terribly relevant.

    You are quite right about how female heroes are posed and angled in overtly sexual ways, and that this is a result of comics being aimed at a primarily straight male audience. But (and this could easily be me misreading your piece) you seem to be suggesting that given this demographic, such id-oriented pandering is inevitable. Doesn’t this hold both creators and straight males to a very low standard? I’d like to believe that as a straight male I’m capable of taking interest in a female character not primarily portrayed as eye candy.

    Also, if you feel that “it seems silly to pretend, as Thompson does, that male characters are less exposed because they show less skin,” then you need to rationalize not only Mladen’s missing bulges and nipples, but also why the female characters do show so much skin if skintight costumes actually are equivalent to nakedness anyway.

    On a more big-picture issue, having read a few of your other pieces, I’m curious: in your view does the “anti-pulpsters” camp include everyone who might think “Perhaps ‘Witchblade’, ‘Vampirella’, and ‘Punisher Max’ shouldn’t be the blueprint for today’s mainstream superhero comics”?

    *(I would also add fertility to that list.)

  4. Gene,

    I understand that Thompson did not explicitly set the terms for her discussion, but it seemed pretty clear to me based on the vast amount of visual support provided that she was working from a contemporary perspective. You seem to recognize this as well, so it seems (to me) that you undercut your argument to some extent through not, at least initially, addressing Thompson on the grounds she is arguing from. Now, I understand that you are positing this shift from realistic depiction of male and female bodies arises during the Silver Age, which is why you opt towards using these pictures to illustrate your point. But perhaps addressing Thompson’s argument from the same perspective would create a more “apples to apples” comparison before beginning your own?

    I also think you’ll find some stronger examples of your “boulder-shoulder” approach from Kirby, particularly his representation of The Incredible Hulk. Peter Coogan has a wonderful description of him in “Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre” where he describes this particular Marvel hero as the epitome of masculinity out of control: he goes from the soft and weak Banner who grows into the large, rock hard and powerful Hulk who acts on passions. If only Freud lived to read THAT origin issue!

    In any event, I think you’ve touched upon some interesting questions about where the cultural shift from real to hyper-real representations of the gendered body took place, and I’ll be looking forward to reading the next article!

  5. Gary Ancheta says:

    I always wondered if this comes from the beginning of cartooning itself, from the German anatomy books that were being used to 1) show how to draw the human form and 2) show how the Aryans had the best physiques. Most cartoonist learned how to draw from schools around New York that would use the German anatomy books as their basis for commercial illustration. And then when most of the early comic book creators grew up reading comic strips, they began to just adapt the truncated version of these forms from comic strips (and possibly from the designs schools that were still using the German texts for illustrating anatomy).

    I wonder if there is a clear line between those early texts and today’s portrayal of men and women in comics?

  6. Mladen said:

    “If you honestly want to present these male forms as idealised sexual forms, on the same level as the female ones, you need to address the notable absence of major Male sexual features, which are usually required. 1: Complete absence of male crotch, 2: The absence of male ass shots and the like.”

    I addressed this, making it clear that I’m not arguing the “equality of treatment” assertion Thompson brings up. I said:

    ‘ 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.’

    So I have not tried to argue that the “level” of sexualization is the same. I do argue that the process of sexual signification is exactly the same: that bulging muscles don’t denote any fuzzy “ideal” (I note Thompson never defines what her “idealism” references), but rather they make the hero attractive to not just a few women, but in theory all women.

    “when male superheroes ARE presented in an overtly sexual manner to match the way women are usually shown in these comics (Schumacher’s Batman films for example, or that one Alex Ross pinup where Steel had a slight crotch bulge), the reaction from male fans is completely flabbergasted.”

    I don’t recall the Alex Ross incident you describe, so I can’t speak to that. The Schumacher Batman films, however, invoke not images of Batman and Robin as posing a masculine attractiveness to females but as flaming gay-boys. That just might have something to do with certain fans feeling less than charitable toward Schumacher.

    “Your excuse for using a comic from 30 years ago is honestly a disingenuous, considering that Thompson’s article features a whopping 55 case-subject images, ALL OF WHICH are from modern comics”

    I used older images of superheroes because I felt Thompson had vaulted over the history of gender-depiction in earlier superhero (and other) comic books in order to attack only the current examples of superhero gender-depiction. I don’t think it would be at all hard to find current examples of male heroes depicted to signal their masculine attractiveness, though. The key is not simply looking for objective correlatives like crotch-bulge, but viewing how masculine power is made attractive in a narrative sense– even if it does not receive the same “level” of attention.

    • Its correct to point to those older examples as symbolic representations of ‘male-ness’ and ‘femaleness’, especially since the stories were mostly very simple, and the body-types were intended to be easily identifiable by children and teens. But you may have glossed over the fact that they were the idealised ‘adult’ form, and the ‘attractiveness’ is entirely sex-less. They may as well be action figures and barbie-dolls, a child’s perspective of what makes an attractive adult male and female (which is: broad strong shoulders for a man, slender graceful ballerinas for woman). Today’s comics may stem from a similar ‘process of sexual signification’, but since the intent of modern comics is CLEARLY to titillate (heterosexual males), and these 30 year old examples do not, the comparison is flawed.

      “I used older images of superheroes because I felt Thompson had vaulted over the history of gender-depiction in earlier superhero (and other) comic books in order to attack only the current examples of superhero gender-depiction.”
      I would have to answer: So what? Do we need to examine the tradition of female characterisation in “The Towering Inferno” before we can talk about the problems of “Transformers 3″? Its a distraction from the problem at hand. The problem exists now, we need to deal with it in the now. Especially since your rebuttal of “I don’t agree with Thompson that all female superheroes are drawn as “porn stars” consists of bringing up one 30 year old example from a comic which was written and illustrated for a younger audience than comics are today.

      Here is the Citizen Steel image.
      http://www.4thletter.net/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/jsa7_cov_450.jpg

    • Colin S. S. says:

      “The Schumacher Batman films, however, invoke not images of Batman and Robin as posing a masculine attractiveness to females but as flaming gay-boys. That just might have something to do with certain fans feeling less than charitable toward Schumacher.”

      While it’s of course unfortunate that fans wouldn’t accept a gay Batman, the Schumacher films didn’t actually feature one. Both films portrayed Batman and Robin pursuing women exclusively. It’s just that they were dressed and photographed in ways that emphasized their masculine attractiveness to Joel Schumacher. Again, it’s the male gaze of lust, just aimed somewhere different. And if some straight guys were annoyed by seeing heroes they identify with turned into some dude’s object of desire that one time, imagine how female comic fans must feel every Wednesday.

  7. “Yikes, just read that again and I definitely came across ruder than I wanted to. My sincere apologies”

    No need for apologies. As long as I’m not flagrantly misquoted, I can abide most types of lively debate.

  8. Ben Marton wrote:

    “Stand your ground, Mladen. You absolutely have a point. The fact that Thompson’s article should apparently merit such exacting criticism reveals just how far we haven’t come. The ‘nearly nude’ male form in superhero comics, I would argue, has less to do with ‘stimulating feminine desire’ than it has to do with upholding an idealized male form for the male gaze; this is an avatar of wish-fulfillment, not some opposite number.”

    Remember that I’ve specified that the stimulus of feminine desire takes place diegetically, within the sphere of each narrative. It oversimplifies to say that the idealized male form is “for the male gaze,” for though the majority of readers are probably male, they are dominantly viewing the male form not as desireable to them or to males within the stories but to females within the stories. Thus, while Golden Age Captain America can’t be allowed to have on-panel sex with quasi-girlfriend Betty Ross, the artists can allude to the hero’s male charms by having Betty get all gooey about her hero after he’s saved her from peril for the 20th time.

    Real-life female readers may or may not get *as* gooey reading about Cap’s heroics as they do reading about Jacob and Edward’s charms. But I haven’t argued equality of appeal in any case.

  9. Colin,

    Your quote from Thompson that she’s concerned with “connotation” over “believability” is not borne out by her essay, for Thompson’s definitions of realism are poorly constructed.
    I quoted her saying:

    ‘Female superheroes receive “wholly unrealistic supermodel and porn star types,” in contrast to the type of bodies representative of real female athletes.’

    So despite the quote you provide, she is conceiving female bodies as not being realistically depicted in tune with the occupations of female superheroes. That’s clearly a desire for verisimilitude; why else would she assert this:

    ” 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.”

    To say, as Thompson does, that this image of an athletic body is an “ideal” is a mischaracterization. If it’s meant to seem “reasonable,” then it’s an appeal to a image of verisimilitude and thus to “realism,” not “idealism.”

    “the question of whether Daredevil’s build should reflect his talent for jumping or his talent for punching isn’t terribly relevant.”

    You’ve failed to address the reasons why I said that realistic discrepancy was semiotically significant, and are in essence just repeating Thompson on this score.

    “such id-oriented pandering is inevitable.”

    To the extent that males have different entertainment needs than females, I do find it inevitable for some audience members. But I don’t state it as a defining trait of all males.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      You’re standing by your claim that Thompson is interested in believability rather than connotation. While Thompson outright stating that her concern “is not the believability, but the connotation” ought to be sufficient to get her point across, I think I see where the confusion is coming from. When discussing athletic bodies, Thompson isn’t using “reasonable” in the sense of “plausible”, but in the sense of “fitting”. And in the next paragraph she explains that it’s fitting because athleticism “suggests strength, power, and ability” — i.e. superhero stuff. This is her key point in the Body Type section.

      It’s not for nothing that the only time the word “unrealistic” shows up in her piece it’s in parenthesis; a lack of verisimilitude is entirely a side issue for her. (And anyway, that one time she does so very briefly bring it up, I think she means “unrealistic” in the sense of “anatomically impossible” rather than “impractical for fighting people.” But like I said, side issue.)

  10. Continuing with Colin:

    “You are quite right about how female heroes are posed and angled in overtly sexual ways, and that this is a result of comics being aimed at a primarily straight male audience.”

    The thoroughness with which Thompson describes the prevalence of female display in superhero comics is the principal reason I paid her the compliment of saying that some of her observations had merit. To be sure, Thompson’s not saying anything radically new, and I do think she confuses her terms of “idealism” and “sexualization” so that her usages are, well, pretty useless except as empty rhetoric. But she did good research on the subject of her essay, though I think it’s still incomplete.

    Is it possible, for instance, that masculine sexual display does take different forms in popular culture as a whole, and that it’s wrong to assume that no sexual display takes place because few if any comic books depict superguys showing off their butts? That’s a more involved question than I can answer, at least in a reply-thread.

    ‘On a more big-picture issue, having read a few of your other pieces, I’m curious: in your view does the “anti-pulpsters” camp include everyone who might think “Perhaps ‘Witchblade’, ‘Vampirella’, and ‘Punisher Max’ shouldn’t be the blueprint for today’s mainstream superhero comics”?’

    No, an anti-pulpster is someone who takes the position that no one should ever indulge in sensationalistic comics, whether it’s because they contribute to the objectification of women or because they “keep readers from better things,” whatever they might be.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      “Is it possible, for instance, that masculine sexual display does take different forms in popular culture as a whole, and that it’s wrong to assume that no sexual display takes place because few if any comic books depict superguys showing off their butts?”

      But the fact that it takes different forms is completely consistent with Thompson’s argument that men’s and women’s visual portrayals in superhero comics are different. Is there a solid argument to be made that these different portrayals do not create the inequality that Thompson has described? You mention that you “don’t think it would be at all hard to find current examples of male heroes depicted to signal their masculine attractiveness.” This is a piece that seems to want writing. And if said piece will be “not simply looking for objective correlatives like crotch-bulge, but viewing how masculine power is made attractive in a narrative sense” it will require a good deal of analysis as to how these two versions of sexual portrayal compare in terms of informing attitudes toward each gender.

      For instance, your Captain America/Betty Ross example (which, while I’m not clear as to why we’re talking about the Golden Age, still serves its purpose) seems to confirm Thompson’s point. The hero is strong and heroic, and the lady desires him for his strength and heroism. Now presumably if the comic was about a superheroine, her love interest would desire her on account of her being seductive and insanely hot, thus undermining the value of her strength and heroism. (And of course her true romance would not be with the love interest character, but with the always faithful reader.) Sure both the male and female hero have a sexual dimension, but it’s demonstrably unequal. (Though not of course demonstrable when we’re only using hypothetical stories. We need to talk about actual books before we get much further.)

      “[A]n anti-pulpster is someone who takes the position that no one should ever indulge in sensationalistic comics, whether it’s because they contribute to the objectification of women or because they ‘keep readers from better things,’ whatever they might be.”

      By that definition, I don’t think it’s a label you could apply to a lot of people. Thompson, for example, doesn’t appear to be arguing anything of the kind.

  11. Forrest H said:

    “But perhaps addressing Thompson’s argument from the same perspective would create a more “apples to apples” comparison before beginning your own?”

    As I said above, I wanted to inject some historical sense of proportion to the question of gender typology with examples from an era yet informed by the notion of “comic books for adult readership.” I suggest that the typology is fairly consistent even when superhero comics are being aimed at a younger readership. Thompson, with her emphasis upon the “porn-ification” (my word) of comics since the 1990s, is guilty of oversimplifying that typology.

    But I agree that there’s some merit in an “apples to apples” approach, so that might become the subject of another piece.

    “In any event, I think you’ve touched upon some interesting questions about where the cultural shift from real to hyper-real representations of the gendered body took place, and I’ll be looking forward to reading the next article!”

    Thanks!

  12. Mladen said on 4-4:

    ‘Today’s comics may stem from a similar ‘process of sexual signification’, but since the intent of modern comics is CLEARLY to titillate (heterosexual males), and these 30 year old examples do not, the comparison is flawed.’

    First, it’s true that many modern comics strive to titillate, but one cannot say that all do. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Ed Brubaker CATWOMAN stories, but clearly that was an attempt to reject the earlier (albeit financially successful) T&A approach of Jim Balent. The current CATWOMAN arc has apparently tried to take from both approaches, whatever its success in so doing.

    While pre-DM comic books did have to keep up the appearance of being “all ages” because kids read them, I find that a lot of them play to the titillation angle as well, just not as overtly. Frederic Wertham made himself absurd by reacting to these mild-to-us moments of juvenile titillation (like PHANTOM LADY and assorted EC comics) as if they promised the doom of civilization. Nevertheless, he was not mistaken in perceiving sexual suggestiveness in some of the books he named.

    In the post-DM market it’s a helluva lot easier to market a comic book with “pornographic” qualities, particularly though not exclusively in the superhero genre (re: Eros, which for many moons saved Fantagraphics from bankruptcy). Nevertheless, there remain many middle-of-the-road comics alongside the extreme ones, and the former exist for the same reason: the producers know that there’s only so far one can push the erotic envelope without dire consequences from society.

    Now, if we can agree that there still exists a spectrum of mainstream books that vary in terms of how far their producers push that envelope, then we may be able to speak meaningfully as to whether post-DM comics have taken titillation to new heights (or new lows) compared to the all-ages stuff, and what if any value we should assign to that dubious accomplishment.

    • “First, it’s true that many modern comics strive to titillate, but one cannot say that all do.”

      Well, that seems a little bit obvious. Just because ‘all’ comics don’t have this problem doesn’t mean that its not a serious problem. It may be a trend which has been developing this way slowly for the past 30 years, but it feels like we’ve now reached a critical mass where reading a mainstream mass-audience title can feel like a dirty experience. And lets not be obscure with our title selections here, stick to the last dozen issues of the big flag-ship sellers: JLA, Batman, Detective Comics, Superman, Action Comics, Green Lantern. Discussing others leads us toward cherry-picking.

  13. Mladen 4-4:

    ‘The problem exists now, we need to deal with it in the now. Especially since your rebuttal of “I don’t agree with Thompson that all female superheroes are drawn as “porn stars” consists of bringing up one 30 year old example from a comic which was written and illustrated for a younger audience than comics are today.’

    I can cite counter-examples from today’s comics, but I wonder, will they be embraced as proof that some comics-workers are sincerely seeking to hew to a “non-porn-star” aesthetic, or will some rationalize that the editors are just trying to please a contingent of complaining fans?

    I frankly have no idea if one can post images to a reply-thread, but if I could, I’d cite the new “all covered up” costume of Supergirl as getting away from the alleged “porn aesthetic.” Yet it’s a tainted example in that it *may* have been influenced by vocal fans who didn’t like “Belly-Shirt Supergirl.”

    • Colin S. S. says:

      I’m not seeing the “tainted” angle here. Certainly a comics company responding to complaints with a conciliatory redesign would be evidence that things are changing, regardless of the company’s motives.

      Having said that, while the new Supergirl does a have something closer to an athlete’s build than most female heroes currently do, the long-sleeves-but-no-pants-look is something they would never try with a male character, and frankly looks a bit ridiculous. (Perhaps that’s why sincere motives would be best. It’s a lot easier to screw something up when one’s heart isn’t actually in it.)

  14. Colin on 4-5:

    “While it’s of course unfortunate that fans wouldn’t accept a gay Batman, the Schumacher films didn’t actually feature one. Both films portrayed Batman and Robin pursuing women exclusively. It’s just that they were dressed and photographed in ways that emphasized their masculine attractiveness to Joel Schumacher. Again, it’s the male gaze of lust, just aimed somewhere different. And if some straight guys were annoyed by seeing heroes they identify with turned into some dude’s object of desire that one time, imagine how female comic fans must feel every Wednesday.”

    The Schumacher Dynamic Duo had to pursue women in keeping with their established characters, but Schumacher undermines that diegesis with visual tics that make the characters objects of male lust rather than female lust. The Burton films succeeded with fandom because they suggested a strong masculine-feminine chemistry between the Bat and his respective leading ladies, which was a strong cinematic adaptation of the comics’ usual portrait of the hero’s charms– all of which are in keeping with what I’ve been saying about the modes of male sexual display.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      We seem to be in agreement regarding the sexual objectification of Batman and Robin undermining their personality attributes. You need to go into more detail as to how this isn’t analogous to how female heroes are treated in most contemporary superhero comics.

  15. Colin 4-5:

    ‘When discussing athletic bodies, Thompson isn’t using “reasonable” in the sense of “plausible”, but in the sense of “fitting”.’

    But I think her sense of “fitting” oversimplifies a complex set of semiotic signifiers with respect to both male and female characters, in essence overvaluing the “fittingness” of the male ones to suit her rhetorical purpose.

  16. Colin on 5-5:

    “This is a piece that seems to want writing.”
    I’m considering ways in which it might be approached with a sampling of modern comics, taking into consideration my own criticism of Thompson for not specifying a finite period for her samples.

    “The hero is strong and heroic, and the lady desires him for his strength and heroism. Now presumably if the comic was about a superheroine, her love interest would desire her on account of her being seductive and insanely hot, thus undermining the value of her strength and heroism. (And of course her true romance would not be with the love interest character, but with the always faithful reader.)”

    But my point is that the hero’s physical agency is not just in the service of kicking the asses of crooks and Nazis, but also in the service of impressing female onlookers; otherwise, why include female onlookers in the diegesis at all?

    Your representation of the possible permutations of heroine-comics is not borne out by any Golden Age examples, where characters like Wonder Woman and Sheena consistently outshine their male love-interests physically. I don’t think it applies across the board to all modern comics even, but I’ll allow that there have been some heroine comics, particularly from early Image, that exist to let the heroine strut and pose more than to fight.

    “Thompson, for example, doesn’t appear to be arguing anything of the kind.”

    But I think she’s getting into territory that logically leads to such a position.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      “But my point is that the hero’s physical agency is not just in the service of kicking the asses of crooks and Nazis, but also in the service of impressing female onlookers; otherwise, why include female onlookers in the diegesis at all?”

      But he’s being portrayed as attractive because he’s heroic; it’s all of a single piece. The typical heroine is being portrayed as attractive and also heroic; the two qualities are depicted as being separate, and as Thompson points out, to at least some degree incompatible. These are not equivalent portrayals.

      “Your representation of the possible permutations of heroine-comics is not borne out by any Golden Age examples, where characters like Wonder Woman and Sheena consistently outshine their male love-interests physically. I don’t think it applies across the board to all modern comics even, but I’ll allow that there have been some heroine comics, particularly from early Image, that exist to let the heroine strut and pose more than to fight.”

      Yeah, I wasn’t clear on why we were even talking about the Golden Age to begin with. As to the modern comics, the massive predominance of strutting and posing heroines is pretty well established in Thompson’s piece.

      “But I think she’s getting into territory that logically leads to such a position.”

      She isn’t, though. She isn’t arguing that no one should ever read sensationalistic comics. And she isn’t arguing that no one should ever read comics that portray male and female sexuality unequally. She isn’t even arguing that people shouldn’t routinely read comics that portray male and female sexuality unequally. She’s just arguing that most current mainstream superhero comics do portray male and female sexuality unequally, and that pretending otherwise is a waste of everyone’s time. It’s a quite specifically focused argument.

      Ultimately I think this may be central to the problem with your piece. You seem to be arguing that gender equality in portrayals of superhero sexuality isn’t desirable or even realistic. This is certainly a view that can be defended, but framing the argument in terms of a critique of Thompson’s piece doesn’t make a lot of sense. Because Thompson explicitly sets that issue to the side before even starting her argument, allowing that “you can personally decide that you LIKE seeing objectification of women in your comic books, and you can decide that you are quite content with the status quo, or that you don’t think it’s detrimental to women and it doesn’t bother you”. Setting up her argument as a direct contrast to yours requires a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of her article.

  17. Colin 4-5 said:

    “We seem to be in agreement regarding the sexual objectification of Batman and Robin undermining their personality attributes. You need to go into more detail as to how this isn’t analogous to how female heroes are treated in most contemporary superhero comics.”

    My main disagreement with much of the rhetoric about sexual objectification is the assumption that it always or even dominantly nullifies the idea of the s.o. subject losing both internality and agency. My earlier example of certain Image titles– for some reason one called “Ballistic” sticks in my mind– would be one in which that process does take place. But I object very much to Thompson’s assumption that, say, the Black Widow becomes a “porn-star” because some artists draw her more soft-bodied than others or because she occasionally lets some cleavage show.

    The same process, therefore, can also take place with male objectification, irrespective of whether they’re being regarded through a male or female gaze.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      Black Widow looks like a porn star in the same sense that the Schumacher Batman & Robin look like “flaming gay-boys”. You definitely seem to have been arguing that their portrayal interfered with their internality and agency in terms of getting romantic with Nicole Kidman, Elle Macpherson, Uma Thurman, and Alicia Silverstone.

  18. “’I’m not certain that I take your meaning. Could you explain that in more detail?”

    I think the semiotic signification thing is spelled out in the above essay.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      So we’re still comparing “on a semiotic level, outsized muscles have become a primary indicator of ‘maleness’ as outsized breasts (and sometimes butts) have become of ‘femaleness’” on the one hand to “An athletic male form suggests strength, power, and ability… Porn star and model body types suggest beauty, sex, and frequently, submissiveness” on the other.

      I honestly can’t see how you can argue that Thompson’s version “oversimplifies a complex set of semiotic signifiers” based on that comparison. Your version is either ignoring the attributes that she addresses, or is folding those attributes into your definition of “maleness” and “femaleness” and assuming this narrow conception of gender difference to be taken as self-evident. Either way, this seems like oversimplification.

  19. Colin on 4-9:

    “But he’s being portrayed as attractive because he’s heroic; it’s all of a single piece. The typical heroine is being portrayed as attractive and also heroic; the two qualities are depicted as being separate, and as Thompson points out, to at least some degree incompatible. These are not equivalent portrayals. ”

    Both male and female heroes are constructed to be attractive in terms of both “theory” and “practice”– that is, they’re hot when they’re just standing around, and they’re hot when they’re doing heroic things.

    The only very dubious counter-proof Thompson offered to this general truth was her observation– which I haven’t yet assailed but which I find oversimple– that on occasion some male heroes are unattractive monsters, like the Thing and the Hulk, while unattractive heroines are extremely rare (though they do exist, like FANTASTIC FOUR’s “She-Thing” and Harpis of the OMEGA MEN.)

    Are there more “ugly” male heroes? Sure, and probably for the reason I’ve consistently put forth earlier: the features are directed at male readers, so they don’t care as much about seeing the male heroes look gorgeous. HOWEVER, even though there are more ugly male heroes than ugly female heroes, that still does not nullify– as Thompson thinks it does– that the number of handsome male heroes still dwarfs the number of ugly guys by a titanic majority.

    Why? Because although ugly heroes are good for a little pity-party, the male reader would rather be the handsome guy who has a much better chance of getting the girl.

    I completely reject the notion that male heroes’ handsomeness is rendered nugatory by either the presence of “uggos” or the old Mulveyan saw about how “men do, women display.”

    “She’s just arguing that most current mainstream superhero comics do portray male and female sexuality unequally, and that pretending otherwise is a waste of everyone’s time.”

    I haven’t argued that there is no inequality. But the conclusions Thompson draws are flat-out wrong, and her opposition of “idealization” and “sexualization” is painfully naive.

    That’s why it’s entirely appropriate for me to contrast my essay with hers: not because I oppose the notion of inequality but because I oppose her interpretation of it.

  20. ‘Black Widow looks like a porn star in the same sense that the Schumacher Batman & Robin look like “flaming gay-boys”. You definitely seem to have been arguing that their portrayal interfered with their internality and agency in terms of getting romantic with Nicole Kidman, Elle Macpherson, Uma Thurman, and Alicia Silverstone.’

    I’m not clear if you’re expressing the opinion that you think Black Widow looks like a porn star or if you think that I have said something to that effect.

    I think you’ll find that both my posts on the flaming gay-boy look of the Schumacher Bat-duo are interpretations of how I believed fan-audiences reacted to those visuals rather than expressing my personal opinion of whether those visuals undermined internality/agency.

    I did say: “The same process, therefore, can also take place with male objectification, irrespective of whether they’re being regarded through a male or female gaze.” But I didn’t specify.

    Let us see if we can be clear on the context of the earlier remarks, and then I’ll hold forth on my personal opinion on the matter.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      You took issue with “Thompson’s assumption that, say, the Black Widow becomes a “porn-star” because some artists draw her more soft-bodied than others or because she occasionally lets some cleavage show”, and I compared that to the assumption that Batman & Robin became gay because a director gave their costumes more prominent genitals. In my view, both are instances of characters given attributes that carry connotations. You seemed to be arguing that Thompson responding to those connotations is to some degree misguided, while the anti-Schumacher crowd responding to similar connotations is understandable. If you think that both are reading too much into the material, then fair enough. I just disagree entirely.

  21. Colin on 4-9:

    ‘I honestly can’t see how you can argue that Thompson’s version “oversimplifies a complex set of semiotic signifiers” based on that comparison. Your version is either ignoring the attributes that she addresses, or is folding those attributes into your definition of “maleness” and “femaleness” and assuming this narrow conception of gender difference to be taken as self-evident. Either way, this seems like oversimplification.’

    Because, as I’ve already said, she’s reading male sexual signification as if it was an “ideal,” the better to make it seem as if there can be nothing “ideal” in female sexual signification.

    At one point in her essay, Thompson admits that as a female reader she likes the aspect of imagining oneself as a hot heroine– though presumably not one who has been “hyper-sexualized.” But she doesn’t extend this parallel to male readers as well, and as I noted in my earlier post today she uses bad logic to dismiss the clear majority of heroes who are typically handsome just so that male readers can identify them.

    I also think she’s extremely oversimple on her “submissiveness” point, and I disagree that this is signified by several of her pictured examples.

  22. Colin S. S. says:

    Dammit, the comment input system just ate a profound comment I just slaved over, and I’m late for the movies. I’ll have to see if I can piece it together tomorrow.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      We seem to be arguing across each other to some degree, and both relying upon several of our own unstated premises. Still, we are in agreement regarding the depictions of male and female superhero sexuality being unequal. And I would also agree that both male and female characters in superhero comics are generally meant to be physically attractive, provided that we followed “attractive” with “from the perspective of a number of straight males” (since, as you say, these comics are being aimed at a male audience). There is a good deal of common ground here.

      Having said that, I’m still puzzled at how you can consider Thompson’s conclusions to be “flat-out wrong” when her conclusion is that female characters are being portrayed in an unequal manner in terms of sexuality. Isn’t that something all three of us agree on?

      And this assertion that Thompson is trying to put forward a dichotomy of “idealization” vs “sexualization”; it’s at best based on a severe misreading of her piece. She is quite explicitly not setting up the two qualities as being mutually exclusive; you can see this in the quotes from her that you included in your piece. More to the point, she is not claiming that the idealized male form in superhero comics is sexless, she is arguing that the idealized female form in the comics is sexualized to a significantly more pronounced degree. To make this clearer, yes of course an idealized big strong square-jawed hero has a sexual dimension, but for instance an idealized big strong bare-chested hero with a huge package and butt cleavage is far more overtly sexual. Both sexual, but not equally so.

      And the reason that the BSSJ male ideal shows up in comics rather than the BSBCHPBC male ideal is that these male characters are there to serve as aspirational figures for the straight male audience to identify with. Whereas the females are there primarily as objects of desire for that straight male audience, with any capacity for serving as identification characters for female readers being a secondary concern at best. “Men want to be those powerful men and they want to have those beautiful sexy submissive women on their arm.” Which is why your claim that “Thompson admits that as a female reader she likes the aspect of imagining oneself as a hot heroine… But she doesn’t extend this parallel to male readers as well” is so weird, as she quite obviously has extended that. Even the passage you cite regarding her “wanting to be these heroines because they were powerful and beautiful” begins with “we all want to lose ourselves to a degree in fantasy” – “all” as in both genders. Thompson is being entirely evenhanded, and I still don’t see how her piece has implications that threaten the Sensationalistic Comics Agenda.

  23. Colin on 4-21:

    “You took issue with “Thompson’s assumption that, say, the Black Widow becomes a “porn-star” because some artists draw her more soft-bodied than others or because she occasionally lets some cleavage show”, and I compared that to the assumption that Batman & Robin became gay because a director gave their costumes more prominent genitals. In my view, both are instances of characters given attributes that carry connotations.”

    The salient difference is that while one can make whatever conclusions one pleases about an individual creator like Schumacher, Thompson is overgeneralizing about a host of mostly unidentified artists. In a forthcoming piece, I examine Scott Hampton’s BLACK WIDOW series, in which at no time is the main character “regularly unzipped.” Such overgeneralization is a dangerous precedent for a critic in any venue.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      So when you said “I object very much to Thompson’s assumption that, say, the Black Widow becomes a ‘porn-star’ because some artists draw her more soft-bodied than others or because she occasionally lets some cleavage show,” the part that you were actually objecting to was that it’s only “some artists” and “occasionally”? Because unless you can cite somewhere that she claims that the instances when characters are drawn this way somehow taints the instances when they are not, then you are arguing with a shadow. And anyway, it’s a bit odd to be throwing around terms like “some artists” and “occasionally” when her whole point is that this type of portrayal is currently the genre’s default position, when she’s shown a considerable amount of persuasive evidence to support that, and when you haven’t really brought in any evidence to undercut her claim yet. (And Scott Hampton’s Black Widow… we’re talking about the three-issue series from 11 years ago, right? If so, I’m once again not exactly seeing the relevance.)

      “Such overgeneralization is a dangerous precedent for a critic in any venue.”

      …Okay, I’m not touching that. ;)

      • I actually think the use of the term “porn star” applies more to the come-hither poses of the characters than a body type, for which it’s imprecise. Woman on all fours, back arched in a way that cannot be used to jump or do anything but appeal to a certain strain of male lust — that’s a “porn star” pose. But I don’t know the “porn star” body type — and as you’ve said, Colin, there may well be more variety in real-world porn star bodies than in mainstream comics. Almost certainly, there more ethnic diversity.

  24. Colin,
    You may be able to find some reference I missed in Thompson’s essay where she equates idealization and sexuality for male characters, but there is nothing in the two quotes I printed here that comes close to that, as you erroneously state.

    In essence I believe you’re giving Thompson credit she hasn’t earned. Take this clumsy statement from KT:

    “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.”

    KT may not have seriously thought out all the consequences of this theme statement, but in no way does it merit this defense from you:

    “More to the point, she is not claiming that the idealized male form in superhero comics is sexless, she is arguing that the idealized female form in the comics is sexualized to a significantly more pronounced degree.”

    Feel free to quote a section from her essay that denotes the sexual appeal of male heroes within the diegesis. But in advance I’ll note that minor mentions– like her comparison of sexy and unsexy male heroes– don’t dispel the inadequacy of her concept of “idealization”– particularly since, as I showed above, she doesn’t take into account the narrative function connoted by the far more numerous Johnny Handsome superdudes.

    I entirely disagree with the definition of hot-bod male heroes as being merely “aspirational.” I regard that as almost as vague as KT’s “idealization.”

    • Colin S. S. says:

      I didn’t claim that you’d cited her saying anything that indicates “she equates idealization and sexuality for male characters.” What I said could be demonstrated from the quotes you used was “She is quite explicitly not setting up the two qualities as being mutually exclusive,” i.e. that she is saying they are not mutually exclusive on a conceptual level, that they are not inherently opposed to each other. And “women are generally portrayed with idealized PORN STAR and SUPERMODEL body types” pretty clearly sets up an instance of them not being mutually exclusive.

      But it seems what you’re really concerned with is a perception that Thompson is refusing to acknowledge that the male characters have their own sexuality. I take it that by rejecting “minor mentions” you mean that “Is there anything wrong with superheroes being beautiful sexual beings?” isn’t sufficient for you. And that athletes not being an inherently nonsexual group does not strike you as self-evident and/or relevant. So let me put it this way: Thompson never says that the male characters aren’t being sexualized; she just talks about the ways that female characters are being sexualized, and says that the males aren’t being sexualized in those same particular fashions. Would it have made the piece a little bit tidier if Thompson had stated, “Of course male characters are sexualized too, but to a lesser degree and in a different manner”? Probably. But representing the absence of such a sentence as proof that she believes these male characters have no sexual component is a wholly unjustified leap in reasoning.

      If I’m reading this correctly, you’re also trying to use “Idealization of the form is not the same as sexualization of the form. Something can be idealized without being sexualized” to bolster this She Views Male Characters As Sex-Free theory. But her point is that they are distinct concepts, that the degree to which something is sexualized not necessarily tied to the degree to which it is idealized, that some ideal figures are more overtly sexual than others. You can argue that she’s stated this in a way that is slightly imprecise, but twisting it into a denial of male characters’ sexual nature is unconvincing at best.

      “I entirely disagree with the definition of hot-bod male heroes as being merely ‘aspirational.’ I regard that as almost as vague as KT’s ‘idealization.’”

      How so? In what specific ways do you disagree?

    • Correct me if I’m wrong, Gene, but isn’t Thompson saying (1) there is a difference between idealization and sexualization. For example, the Hulk might be “idealized” a muscle-bound green giant. But he’s obviously not sexualized, at least in most depictions. (I fully admit some fetish website would disagree.)

      I don’t personally see how that’s “clumsy”: it’s a classic “warning: X is not Y” statement. If it’s clumsy at all, it’s only in that the second sentence there is structured like a “Y is a subset of X” statement, and it’s not clear (at least to me) whether she means all sexualized portrayals are idealized or whether they are simply sets that often overlap (think Venn diagrams).

      Following this, Thompson claims that (2) male super-heroes tend to be idealized, but they are not sexualized — or at least aren’t so in the same way as female characters. And (3) female characters in mainstream comics tend to be not only idealized but also sexualized. Two examples of this Thompson discusses are (A) revealing, sexual clothing, without plot justification and (B) submissive, unrealistic postures and positions.

      Thus, Superman might have big muscles. He’s obviously (1) an idealized form. But (2) he’s not especially sexualized, at least normally — he’s just graceful and powerful. And while we might get a shirtless Clark Kent now and then, but (3) he’s definitely not depicted like this all the time, (A) despite that he’s invulnerable and doesn’t need a shirt even in outer space. Moreover, (B) he’s rarely shown with an arched, orgasmic back, a come-hither expression, on all fours, or rubbing running water over his chest while doing some or all of the above.

      Catwoman, on the hand, (1) obviously has an idealized form too — maybe 1% of women could look like that, and less without surgery. But there’s no argument that (2) unlike male characters, (3) she’s frequently sexualized. This includes (A) revealing clothing, including cleavage and high heels, that makes no sense, and (B) being frequently depicted in submissive and sexual positions… including, in her case, some that are obviously intended to convey images from pornography.

      This seems pretty straight-forward to me.

      Gene, your point about a gymnast’s body versus a bodybuilder’s is a quite fine one. It’s useful to remember. I just don’t see how it punctures Thompson’s argument, because she employs the criterion of realism in (A) her points about female costumes, which is only important because it could otherwise excuse a sexual outfit — as she quite kindly does for a couple super-females, letting them off the hook. It’s true that the lack of “realism” you point out could also apply to (1) idealization, but that’s not a problem for Thompson’s argument, because she argues both (2) male and (3) female characters are idealized.

      I do think that what’s sexual is not always clear. Skimpy male super-heroes with bulging crotches might qualify. I personally don’t like the term “sexualized,” because it implies that anything’s asexual before having this process applied to it.

      It’s also true that what’s “sexual” for males isn’t necessarily even body type. (For example, it would be easy to argue that power itself is part of the sexually ideal male, and that would have profound implications.) , That would be a fascinating argument, but it’s not one I remember seeing here.

      Maybe idealization is the same as sexualization — you could certainly argue that, which would indeed topple Thompson’s case, if true.

      But of course, there’s no escaping that even if male super-heroes were sexualized, both they and female super-hero characters are read predominantly by heterosexual men, and so it would be quite surprising if, say, male characters were sexualized in the same way. Why would one expect that to be the case? Given the reality of readership, one would expect an imbalance in favor of sexualized women. What’s surprising isn’t this, but how far it seems to go.

      Of course, while it goes far, it’s not universal. You’re of course right, Gene, that Thompson generalizes. That’s why Thompson gives several illustrations to paint an overall picture, rather than only using a couple examples. But even a female character’s who’s covered up only addresses (A) the costume point, not (B) the postures point. Nor should this by itself exclude (C) other ways characters might be sexualized that Thompson doesn’t get into. For example, we might imagine a covered-up female character who’ve not given a single arched back but talks about her sex addiction and flirts constantly.

      But really, I don’t see why anything Thompson’s said is a big deal. It’s not surprising. It’s not new, except in the care she takes to point out (1) that difference between idealization and sexualization, because it’s so often asserted in response to charges of sexism.

      What impresses me most, though, is that she doesn’t say these portrayals are evil, nor that male comics readers should be ashamed of themselves, nor that super-heroes are only about sex, nor that female characters in these stories are only there for male titillation and nothing else, nor that super-heroes are a closeted sexist community that probably would be ridiculed publicly were exposed to the light of a wider audience. I just don’t get that sense of moral self-righteousness from her article. I’ve got a pretty solid “man-hating” radar, and I’m not sensing it here. And she’s pretty generous along the way, cutting characters slack where she doesn’t have to. She just says this is going on, cites the evidence, and dispels an anticipated objection.

      My two cents.

  25. Colin sez:

    “So when you said “I object very much to Thompson’s assumption that, say, the Black Widow becomes a ‘porn-star’ because some artists draw her more soft-bodied than others or because she occasionally lets some cleavage show,” the part that you were actually objecting to was that it’s only “some artists” and “occasionally”? Because unless you can cite somewhere that she claims that the instances when characters are drawn this way somehow taints the instances when they are not, then you are arguing with a shadow. And anyway, it’s a bit odd to be throwing around terms like “some artists” and “occasionally” when her whole point is that this type of portrayal is currently the genre’s default position, when she’s shown a considerable amount of persuasive evidence to support that, and when you haven’t really brought in any evidence to undercut her claim yet. (And Scott Hampton’s Black Widow… we’re talking about the three-issue series from 11 years ago, right? If so, I’m once again not exactly seeing the relevance.)”

    I seem to remember that Thompson uses a cover from NEW X-MEN 116 (2001) in her screed, so if that’s the case, why would you object to citing a full series of equal age? That’s a key reason I fault KT for not having established a time-parameter for her observations: because she wants to present hyper-sexualization as what you call a “default position,” she refuses to examine it in terms of specific times. If you nail down a supposed phenomenon to a specific period, you lay yourself open to objections about counter-examples omitted– one of which is the BLACK WIDOW series.

    It’s precisely because I feel that many artists are not guilty of following the “default position” that I consider KT’s essay unjust and oversimple. And although I don’t follow current Marvel comics enough to know how often Black Widow is depicted in line with KT’s claims, I did get some interesting responses with this CBR thread. See if you think KT was accurate after you’ve read it.

    http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?408848-Question-BLACK-WIDOW-regularly-unzipped-sometimes-heels

    • Colin S. S. says:

      “I seem to remember that Thompson uses a cover from NEW X-MEN 116 (2001) in her screed, so if that’s the case, why would you object to citing a full series of equal age? That’s a key reason I fault KT for not having established a time-parameter for her observations: because she wants to present hyper-sexualization as what you call a “default position,” she refuses to examine it in terms of specific times. If you nail down a supposed phenomenon to a specific period, you lay yourself open to objections about counter-examples omitted– one of which is the BLACK WIDOW series.”

      “Screed”? Really? …Anyway, look, if you’re going to accuse Thompson of using too wide and imprecise a timeframe for discussing contemporary comics, you don’t get to use one too. Particularly when your list of counterexamples is three issues of Black Widow and a bare-legged Supergirl. (And somewhat ironically, Thompson was using the Quitely Emma Frost pic as an example of a justified and reasonable hyper-sexual portrayal.)

      “It’s precisely because I feel that many artists are not guilty of following the ‘default position’ that I consider KT’s essay unjust and oversimple. And although I don’t follow current Marvel comics enough to know how often Black Widow is depicted in line with KT’s claims, I did get some interesting responses with this CBR thread.”

      If you don’t actually read current Marvel comics, then why do you have an opinion on Black Widow’s current zipper status? Going by the six Widow-featuring recent issues closest to my hand: four feature the uniform zipped down, one features the uniform mostly zipped up except for the scenes where she’s naked, and one features her in low-cut plain clothes (the plain clothes do serve an actual story purpose). And I’m a guy who avoids buying comics that feel exploitative. Still though, that’s just six comics, and one character. If you think there’re enough counterexamples out there to nullify the trend Thompson demonstrated, by all means research them up.

      • Colin SS said:

        ‘“Screed”? Really? …Anyway, look, if you’re going to accuse Thompson of using too wide and imprecise a timeframe for discussing contemporary comics, you don’t get to use one too. Particularly when your list of counterexamples is three issues of Black Widow and a bare-legged Supergirl. (And somewhat ironically, Thompson was using the Quitely Emma Frost pic as an example of a justified and reasonable hyper-sexual portrayal.)’

        What you fail to realize is that I’m not attempting to do the same thing in my two essays that Thompson’s trying to do in hers, so yes, different rules do apply. She’s providing an overview of visual motifs that she’s claiming are dominant within contemporary times, though as I say her survey would’ve been stronger if she even said outright, “nothing older than 2000.”

        In part 1 I’m analyzing the terms she uses, specifically “idealization” and “sexualization,” which aren’t terms that apply only to the supposed hyper-sexualization era, whatever you may deem that to be. I’ve established in these response-threads that it became easier to market such works to the DM, so if one wanted you could see the motifs dating back to AMERICAN FLAGG. But if the terms mean anything, they don’t apply just to comic books marketed in the last ten years (if indeed that’s what KT’s dealing with).

        I’ve never based the crux of my argument upon the question of how many exceptions there are to KT’s examples. I touched on an example of an artist who drew the Black Widow with grace rather than “submissiveness” in order to illustrate that I don’t think KT established her aesthetic prerogatives well enough to account for artists like Colan. When you claimed that was too “old,” I mentioned Hampton’s Black Widow as another such exception, and that too was too “old.” Clearly you won’t be pleased with anything not “hot off the presses,” but though I could probably find something by Amanda Connor etc, my argument doesn’t stand or fall on the lack of citing counter-examples, but in exposing KT’s lack of rigorous defintions of her terms.

        Sorry, the fact that KT was using the White Queen as a quasi-positive example doesn’t matter in this consideration. You critiqued me for using a comic from 2001, but you’ve tacitly accepted any and all uses KT made in her essay, so your position’s untenable in that one of KT’s examples is also from 2001.

      • Colin said:

        “If you don’t actually read current Marvel comics, then why do you have an opinion on Black Widow’s current zipper status? Going by the six Widow-featuring recent issues closest to my hand: four feature the uniform zipped down, one features the uniform mostly zipped up except for the scenes where she’s naked, and one features her in low-cut plain clothes (the plain clothes do serve an actual story purpose). And I’m a guy who avoids buying comics that feel exploitative. Still though, that’s just six comics, and one character. If you think there’re enough counterexamples out there to nullify the trend Thompson demonstrated, by all means research them up.”

        See my remarks about the primary purpose of the essay, with one addition:

        I don’t have an opinion as to the precise depiction of the Black Widow in the last 10 years, but again, that’s not the main point anyway. Some of KT’s representations sounded dubious to me, so I started a CBR thread to see what others had to say on the subject. You may come to your own conclusions as to whether they confirm or deny KT’s findings, but again, my central argument is still *not* whether or not her statistics are right; that’s a side-issue to me. The important concerns of Part 1 are (1) that she does not successfully demonstrate that male depiction is “imminently” reasonable, and (2) that she does not judge the depiction of female characters by any standard but whether or not it’s “equal” with respect to the depiction of male characters. But since she errs so greatly in terms of judging the reasonable portrayal of male characters, I consider that this problem taints her argument for the female ones *even if* someone backed up her suppositions with a full-fledged, accurate statistical study.

        It may be that you, Colin, will accept nothing but statistically superior counter-examples as a rebuttal of KT. But that’s not my problem.

      • Colin S. S. says:

        4/23:
        “Thompson is overgeneralizing about a host of mostly unidentified artists. In a forthcoming piece, I examine Scott Hampton’s BLACK WIDOW series, in which at no time is the main character ‘regularly unzipped.’ Such overgeneralization is a dangerous precedent for a critic in any venue.”

        4/30:
        “my argument doesn’t stand or fall on the lack of citing counter-examples, but in exposing KT’s lack of rigorous defintions of her terms.”

        Either you are unable to perceive the disconnect here, or you simply don’t care about being consistent.

        “You critiqued me for using a comic from 2001, but you’ve tacitly accepted any and all uses KT made in her essay, so your position’s untenable in that one of KT’s examples is also from 2001.”

        I’ve been wasting my time from the beginning, haven’t I?

      • Ho hum Colin,

        No, there’s no disconnect between my saying that the argument of MAKING Part 1 doesn’t stand or fall on the quantity of counter-examples, and mentioning that an entirely SEPARATE essay will touch on counter-examples from an entirely different angle, refuting Thompson’s inadequate concept of “objectification.” By popular demand I’ll be printing that on my own blog. I’m sure I can count on you to check it out since I can tell how much you like a challenge.

        Before you judge my alleged disconnects you need to get that beam out of your eye re: the 2001 date.

      • Colin S. S. says:

        Read the quote back: “Thompson is overgeneralizing about a host of mostly unidentified artists. In a forthcoming piece, I examine Scott Hampton’s BLACK WIDOW series, in which at no time is the main character ‘regularly unzipped.’ Such overgeneralization is a dangerous precedent for a critic in any venue.”

        Either that is you attempting to cite Hampton’s Black Widow as evidence that Thompson is overgeneralizing, or that is you lapsing in concentration mid-thought and adding an entirely irrelevant sentence about your future plans into the middle. Whichever it is, it’s symptomatic of your increasingly obvious inability and/or unwillingness to address any point in a logical and coherent fashion.

        And this is why I doubt I’ll be discussing the topic with you further, either here or on future essays. I may like a challenge more than is good for me, but it’s become clear that there are far better ways I could be using my time. I hope with all kind wishes that you may also see that there are better ways you could be using yours.

  26. Julius sez:

    “I actually think the use of the term “porn star” applies more to the come-hither poses of the characters than a body type, for which it’s imprecise. Woman on all fours, back arched in a way that cannot be used to jump or do anything but appeal to a certain strain of male lust — that’s a “porn star” pose. But I don’t know the “porn star” body type — and as you’ve said, Colin, there may well be more variety in real-world porn star bodies than in mainstream comics. Almost certainly, there more ethnic diversity.”

    Thompson isn’t confining the “porn star” tag to matters of posture alone, though. For one example, even the question of the amount of skin shown is subsumed under her version of this category.

  27. Colin sez:

    “And “women are generally portrayed with idealized PORN STAR and SUPERMODEL body types” pretty clearly sets up an instance of them not being mutually exclusive.”

    I don’t think her use of “idealization” in that sentence iss an indicator that she’s aware of the intersection. I think it’s an indicator of her failings in terms of consistency and thoroughness.

    “But representing the absence of such a sentence as proof that she believes these male characters have no sexual component is a wholly unjustified leap in reasoning.”

    She may not believe it, but where you regard the lack of an outright statement of male sexuality as a trifle, I believe it speaks to the clumsiness of her terminology, which thus problematizes her entire theme.

    “But her point is that they are distinct concepts, that the degree to which something is sexualized not necessarily tied to the degree to which it is idealized, that some ideal figures are more overtly sexual than others.”

    She can say that they are distinct concepts, but she offered zero proof for it. I’m pointing out that the imprecise definitions she’s offered can be disproven by extending them to their logical extrapolations, and you’re taking it as if I had accused her of making outright statements like, “Male heroes ain’t got no sexuality.” That’s an egregious misreading on your part.

    Maybe I’ll touch on the inadequacy of “the aspirational” in a separate essay.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      “I don’t think her use of ‘idealization’ in that sentence is an indicator that she’s aware of the intersection. I think it’s an indicator of her failings in terms of consistency and thoroughness.”

      Um, I guess we just think really differently, then? One of those half-full/hall-empty glass things? Or something?

      “She can say that they are distinct concepts, but she offered zero proof for it.”

      So your argument now is that “idealize” and “sexualize” are the same thing? We are apparently working with different dictionaries.

      “I’m pointing out that the imprecise definitions she’s offered can be disproven by extending them to their logical extrapolations, and you’re taking it as if I had accused her of making outright statements like, ‘Male heroes ain’t got no sexuality.’ That’s an egregious misreading on your part.”

      Look, you’re the one who responded to “she is not claiming that the idealized male form in superhero comics is sexless” with “Feel free to quote a section from her essay that denotes the sexual appeal of male heroes within the diegesis.” And you are continuing to harp on her “lack of an outright statement of male sexuality.” That’s nothing to do with flawed definitions being taken to a logical conclusion. That’s either you saying I’m wrong for claiming Thompson isn’t all “Male heroes ain’t got no sexuality,” or it’s a quite poorly-constructed argument for some other point.

      This particular section of the discussion is increasingly feeling like we’ve abandoned the ideas in question, and are just arguing over words and whether they’re in the right order.

  28. Julius said:

    ‘Thus, Superman might have big muscles. He’s obviously (1) an idealized form. But (2) he’s not especially sexualized, at least normally — he’s just graceful and powerful.’

    Actually, I chose Superman as an example of male sexualization in the essay mentioned above, which has just entered the pipeline. Stay tuned.

  29. ‘So your argument now is that “idealize” and “sexualize” are the same thing? We are apparently working with different dictionaries.’

    Nope, didn’t say that.

    • Colin S. S. says:

      So you agree that they are different, and yet you fault Thompson for having “offered zero proof” that they are. It’s as though you are flailing in the dark, hoping to connect with anything solid.

  30. No, Colin, I’m just bored with your murky-minded intransigence.

    Obviously, if I’m finding fault with Thompson’s definitions of the difference, I have my own thoughts as to how one might make a meaningful distinction between the two terms, while taking into account those ways in which they overlap.

    I’m not going to summarize my definition on a response-thread. Anyone genuinely interested in assessing the content of what I’ve said, rather than trying to score points (which is supposedly something you’re against, according NOT THE WAY WE GOOF UP THE GAME), can find the essay on my blog. It’s the same one I mention above, which examines Superman in terms of both “the ideal” and “the real,” and also finds fault with Colin’s offhand remarks about “aspiration.”

    http://arche-arc.blogspot.com/2012/05/proof-of-embodiment.html

  31. Though I don’t expect regular readers to look at this thread again, on the chance that some newbies may come in, I want to establish that I have answered Colin SS’s objections with my own survey, though I’m sure it wouldn’t satisfy the objections he voiced here.

    http://arche-arc.blogspot.com/2012/05/take-comic-book-sexual-embodiment-test.html

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