I want to focus on one remark made by Kelly Thompson in the essay “No, It’s Not Equal,” regarding the inequitable objectification of male and female characters in superhero comics:
“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.”
I believe Ms. Thompson is entirely truthful insofar as she speaks for herself, saying that she herself would not complain if athletic heroines became the new standard. However, I don’t believe she can speak for the entirety of female fans, either those who are current comics-fans or those who hypothetically might check out superhero comics if they weren’t so sexist. At least I think that’s the self-interest rationale being given for why superhero-creators—or at least the more debauched ones– should clean up their act. By the terms of the argument presented by Thompson, there would seem to be no self-interest in those creators cleaning up their superheroes unless they thought they were going to sell superheroes to the “much wider audience” Thompson mentions at the conclusion of the essay.
However, as far as the remark applies to the entire hypothetical female audience for superheroes, it reminds me of an old Peanuts Sunday strip. The perpetually dirty Pigpen looks on longingly as Violet hugs Snoopy. “I wish someone would hug me like that,” he laments. “Maybe someone would, Pig Pen,” rejoins Violet, “if you cleaned up and on clean clothes.” Pig Pen runs home, showers, and dresses in his best suit-clothes. He rushes back and presents himself to Violet. Violet’s reply is classic Schultz:
“I said ‘MAYBE.’”
Pig Pen, after a brief chagrined look at the audience, goes back to slopping his way through the nearest dirty puddle.
To put the matter more bluntly, it’s possible a few other fans, real or potential, might be impressed by the proliferation of Athletic Female Body-Types, as opposed to those of “porn stars” (Thompson’s phrase). But I believe that the proliferation of AFBT, if it happened, would be no less condemned than the “porn star” type by most female readers.
I can’t prove my prediction any more than Thompson can, of course. But it’s long been my observation that many women resent any icon of feminine desirability, “porn star” body or not. I’ve witnessed a couple of women cavil at the charms of 1960s icon Emma Peel, and if any feminine icon had a less “porn star” body than Diana Rigg, I don’t know who it would be.
Further, although movies remain American culture’s most celebrated entertainment, I’ve yet to see much evidence that a significant female audience embraces female icons who are particularly “athletic” looking. In the last ten years one of the few profitable action-heroine franchises was the reinvented Charlie’s Angels, which presented its female stars with a full-fledged “porn star” aesthetic, but in a jokey enough tone that female audiences could tolerate it.
Television proves a somewhat different matter, as icons like Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have garnered a healthy female audience, in large part because the serial nature of their programs allows for a great deal of characterization. Both characters migrated to comics, but the Xena comic, drawn emulating the relatively athletic build of Lucy Lawless, died. The Buffy comic, whose central character is neither especially athletic nor salacious in the “porn-star” manner, continues to this day.
All of these diverse facts indicate that no generalization, be it Thompson’s or mine, seems adequate to predict how some elusive “big female audience” might hypothetically embrace superhero comic books. I’ve noted in this essay that I believe superhero comics, like many other adventure-oriented genres, are likely to always have a dominant appeal for male audiences. That doesn’t mean that no creators should ever seek to improve the representation of women in the superhero genre in keeping with their own ethical lights. However, no one should pretend that this in itself is going to either (1) reduce the amount of protest over perceived objectification, or (2) result in superhero people garnering a greater readership and therefore making more money. If said reformers want to make such attempts, they should do it because they feel it’s right, not because it makes them more money or smooths troubled waters.
Though this essay is not the place for a sustained examination of male and female dynamics in their chosen modes of entertainment, I will suggest that it’s a constant that the majority of males will always want to see females on display, while the majority of females will always condemn said display, no matter how “athletically” a given female is portrayed. This is not to say that females are more inherently insecure than males. It should go without saying that men have their own catalogue of insecurities, and some writers critical of superheroes have been known to consider the very idea of the superhero as a “negative compensation.” Yet the fact remains that “masculinism” makes fewer inroads in popular entertainment than feminism. Thus few men begrudge the display of “himbos” like Jacob and Edward in the female-directed Twilight series, but a lot of women begrudge the display of women who supposedly have “porn-star” bodies—even when, as I showed in Part 1, they’re closer to Emma Peel than to Jenna Jameson.