On Body Typing in Comics:

What We’re Not Saying and Why It Matters

This is not an essay I wanted to write. Doing so, I’m conscious of wading into waters famous for their landmines.

This is at least the sixth full draft of this essay. Most of the others drafts were simply discarded. That’s not a common practice for me. It’s an indication of how hard this subject is to write about. And how much these matters mean to me.

These are things that desperately need saying, but it’s the wider culture that desperately needs to hear then, not only the comics community. That’s been a problem too, because it’s hard to keep things focused on the issue at hand, and I really don’t want to use Sequart for something that’s only a wider social critique, even if it’s applicable to an issue comics.

And this isn’t going to do me any favors. I’m palpably aware I’ll win no friends with what I’m saying here. This wasn’t written to please anyone, even me. Perhaps the truth rarely does. I can only comfort myself by saying that those who cannot tolerate what I say, nor recognize the good-natured intellectual honesty behind it, are in fact not true friends, nor really people with whom I ought to associate. But this is only the mildest of comforting thoughts.

What follows is the closest I have been able to come to putting these troubled, troubling thoughts into something resembling an article or an essay, rather than merely a series of digressive notes or observations. It is not in any way complete. At best, I hope it may be the beginning of a conversation. It’s an effort to advance the discourse, rather than end it. I humbly ask the reader’s pardon for any omissions or unjust generalizations along the way. They were necessary, that I could say anything.

The Situation: Kelly Thompson and Body Typing in Comics

Back in February, Kelly Thompson made an impressive demonstration of female body typing in mainstream super-hero comics. Because this inherently involves generalization, her essay includes plenty of examples. Thompson’s essay also focuses on anticipating a rather conventional objection: that men in comics are also unrealistic and idealized. She argues that these male idealizations are different from the way female bodies in comics are not only idealized but presented sexually, in ways that tend to render them objects of male desire — rather than representing their power, as is typically the case with male idealizations.

"brokeback" images

Just one of Kelly Thompson's many collages, demonstrating her point.

Her evidence, while necessarily anecdotal, is impressive, broad, and compelling. And it’s worth noting that, while she argues these female presentations represent objectification, she generously exempts characters whose sexual appearance might be justified by their narratives, and she avoids invective or condemnation of male fans. Her point is simply that this is happening, not that it’s evil.

That this is happening is not, I think, seriously disputed. Thompson’s essay is remarkable not only for its evenness but the way it dispels the equivocation between male idealization and female sexual depictions. But plenty of others have addressed the topic of female body typing and presentations in contemporary super-hero comics — a fact Thompson acknowledges by linking to several. Such discussion has been especially common in the last half year or so, especially in the response to the presentation of women in DC’s “new 52″ (a subject I’ve previously addressed).

Of course, we can quibble over Thompson’s terminology. For example, I personally don’t care for the term “sexualized.” We know that children masturbate in the womb; all of us sexual beings even before birth. The notion that sexuality somehow taints our “pure” and innocent nature has historically proven quite dangerous. But that’s not Thompson’s intent, and even if the term is flawed I know what she means by it. It’s hard to talk precisely about how these female figures are presented sexually, as submissive objects designed for the male gaze, and untangling that discourse isn’t Thompson’s aim. (It is, in part, mine.) I regard such terminological quibbles as footnotes to her work that don’t distract from her overall argument.

Nor should pointing out exceptions, which don’t on their own disprove a generalization — though this is a frequent enough tactic, and it’s often shocking to me how frequently people, of every level of intelligence and education, seem to confuse “most” with “all.”

But having established that this is occurring is only a first step. It doesn’t explain why this would be the case. Nor does it argue for a course of action to deal with the problem, if indeed we accept the trend presented as a problem.

These omissions are, of course, strengths of Thompson’s argument. They’re simply beyond the scope of her essay, and it’s likely that they would have distracted from her very measured argument. Like unpacking the term “sexualized,” these are whole and contentious essays in themselves, and Thompson’s wise to avoid them to focus on her argument. (I am either not so wise or simply concerned enough about the topic to wade further.)

And of course, we must accept something is happening before we can look seriously at either causation or remedy. Of course, we’d do best to look at causation first, since we remedy matters by addressing the underlying disease, not the symptoms.

This essay is an attempt to address that underlying causation. It is the next step in the process, or at least the beginnings thereof.

Confronting Causation

While Thompson’s wise to avoid addressing issues such as causation and remedy, so as to demonstrate what’s happening and rebut a common attempt to dismiss it, I can’t help but feel they are inevitably bound up with our discussion of the topic.

For example, some have pointed out that altering female depictions in super-hero comics wouldn’t necessarily reap tons of female readers. That’s not necessarily wrong, of course. I suspect such alternation is a necessary but insufficient precondition to this goal. But to even address that possibility oddly concedes the point, because one doesn’t talk about a remedy until a problem has been identified. Unless, of course, one takes the “problem” to be simply that one is receiving complaints, and their merit is irrelevant.

Here, one cannot help but be reminded of the current Republican party addressing its “woman problem” with slogans and more limelight for female Republicans, as if this were simply a PR problem and not rooted in Republican anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-breast-cancer-screening, anti-gender discrimination, and what can now only fairly be called pro-rape policies. What else to call a party that has pushed state-mandated vaginal invasion by doctors, or so consistently stood against rape victims? Please don’t mistake this for an unnecessary insertion of politics on my part. Rather, it’s a demonstration that this “just say something nice to shut the women up” approach to complaints about sexism seems to be deeply culturally ingrained.

Republican-Mandated Ultrasound

What Virginia's Republicans think doctors should be forced to do to women seeking an abortion, despite that it serves no medical purpose. The party of unobtrusive government indeed.

It’s also, not incidentally, far more transparently sexist than any one of the disgusting policies in question, because while those policies often carry the implication that, for example, women simply can’t be trusted to make ethical decisions – especially when it comes to their lady parts (so dangerous they must be controlled!) — treating such complaints as if they can be seriously addressed by distracting those hysterical women with some pretty flowers is tantamount to saying women are really silly, emotional creatures incapable of articulating rational arguments. Putting someone in chains is bad enough, but dismissing their complaints about this as silly and illegitimate is even worse.

But to focus on remedy, in the case of female body typing in comics, also displays a certain kind of fear. It’s as if even pointing out a problem exists will inevitably be treated as tantamount to saying, “Let’s create a new Comics Code Authority, staffed by castrating feminists, that makes sure no girl’s breasts are too big or her ass shown too much.” In the same way, some react to complaints about racism by presuming the only solution would be some unprecedented and draconian affirmative action program, or reparations for slavery, or some other program that’s only existed in the minds of conspiratorial reactionaries. Saying Muslims shouldn’t be subject to routine discrimination, in a nation that ought to be proud of having been organized around the notion of religious tolerance, is tantamount to instituting Sharia law only in the minds of the already paranoid.

It’s here that we return to causation. Because while fear of potential remedies does affect discussion even of the problem, even this fear is rooted in something deeply rooted in the psyche that has already infected the debate. It’s easy to point out that the xenophobic demagogues who scapegoat Mexicans and Muslims recognize the culture they were born into slipping away, as demographics and culture changes in the face of sweeping historical forces. It’s quite another thing to point out how this was always rooted in white, Christian, and patriarchal privilege, which helped produce the current problems to begin with. When we debate such matters, we’re always already engaged with our own histories, our own cultural legacies, and what we identify as our own natures — and these things feel like they’re implicitly being put on trial, when we identify problems that intersect them.

That, at least, is not paranoia. These things are on trial.

Consider the racism that has greeted Obama as president. Of course, this racism is rooted in apprehension about the fact that America is no longer the lily white, falsely-remembered utopia of 1950s propaganda. And that it’s going forward anyway. But on a deeper level, if Obama does well, it suggests that the only reason the 43 faces before him on every kid’s presidential civics project were uniformly white was because of exactly the systemic racism liberals always said.

Presidents of the United States through LBJ

A postcard from the 1960s, showing all the presidents through LBJ. Pictured: merit, and a place where anyone can succeed. Not pictured: any blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or women.

I know it seems tangential, but think about this for a second.

I’m not saying we have to sympathize with such a reaction. I don’t. But I do have empathy. I can feel the existential dread of having one’s fundamental understanding of one’s beloved nation cracking and finally collapsing beneath its own weight, revealing that it was a lie all along. That’s a terrible thing to go through. I don’t sympathize, because to experience this terrible thing requires a position of incredible privilege and no small amount of willful blindness.

As I understand these (admittedly closely related and often used interchangeably) terms, sympathy usually suggests some action or consideration should be made, whereas empathy is only the ability to put one’s self into another’s emotional position. To feel bad for someone is to sympathize. To feel that someone’s pain oneself is to empathize. And one doesn’t have to be a creative writer to realize that empathizing is actually part of understanding, in the same way that a writer can’t understand a character without being able to put himself or herself inside that character’s brain. As Martha Nussbaum (with whom, it should go without saying, I don’t agree about everything) has convincingly argued, emotional identification is a necessary component of intellectual understanding. The Fragility of Goodness, by Martha NussbaumFor example (and this is a radical simplification of an argument in The Fragility of Goodness), one cannot understand the tragedy of Oedipus without feeling his shock and pain.

But the vitriol, I suspect, isn’t motivated so much by the remedy side of the equation as the causation side. Put simply, this is an incredibly emotional subject, for both men and women, in different (and yes, unequal) ways.

Not to reduce these matters to a couple of issues, but it’s easy to see that both male sexuality’s tendency toward objectification and the way body typing wounds women are both perceived to be on trial here.

Given how deeply these matters run, perhaps what’s shocking isn’t the emotive vitriol that characterizes the debate — though it’s important to say that, probably because comics are so male-dominated, this vitriol has disproportionately been employed by that dominant male population. Perhaps what’s really shocking is how rarely anyone addresses these underlying issues, despite that they’re obviously more at issue than the fairly indisputable reality of current comics presentations.

It sometimes feels like the parties involved dare not address these matters directly, hiding behind either the stone throwing of internet message boards or the dispassionate logic of supposedly civilized debate. Yet at least to me, these underlying emotional and psychological issues are immediately apparent, just under the surface.

These are issues that are not generally well-understood by the public at large. Partly, that’s no doubt due to the fact that both men and women find them hard to talk about. These matters involve hurt and vulnerability, and that’s neither comfortable for men nor for women holding their own in male-dominated arenas such as comics. This becomes a self-reinforcing pattern, because breaking the silence means broaching subjects that are intrinsically uncomfortable, yet more so because there’s little established discourse on which to build.

But partly, this lack of frank discussion, with its admission of psychological vulnerabilities, is also something of a social taboo. For too long, and with the best of intentions, we’ve encouraged gender equality by eliding gender difference. We’re fortunately coming out of that period now, but one of its legacies has been to prevent discussion of each of our respective hurts, out of fear that they will be derided because they’re not shared by roughly half the population — and thus too often precluded from debate.

What Male Readers Aren’t Saying

This cultural failing to address gender difference is part of what I hear, when a man says he faces body typing too and doesn’t whine about it. His statement translates roughly as, Hey, you wanted equality. How is it fair for you to complain about this but not me? But underneath even that is the deeper, underlying truth: I’m aroused by these pictures, and you’re saying they’re wrong.

In the case of Kelly Thompson’s essay, she went out of her way not to say that. But emotional realities are by definition not logical.

That’s not to excuse this stereotypical male reaction. Arguments may begin with emotional reactions, but emotional reactions don’t themselves constitute an argument.

And we now know from many neurological studies that male brains are visually aroused at much higher rates than women, and that this arousal alters other functions of the brain. This is neither shocking nor new.

This only makes it more shocking to realize that, in all of the words spent on this subject, I can’t recall a single man who’s dared to make the simple and obvious confession that these images make me horny.

Yet this is such a primal, central fact of the entire business.

True, men might say that a woman (or a representation thereof) is “hot,” or even that they’d “do her.” But that’s an evaluation of a body, or a statement of what one would be willing to do to it, not a statement about the internal experience of the male in question. Despite these words’ aggression, they are a defensive way of speaking about a primal experience so strong that it alters even the way our brains process information. “I’d fuck her” usually really means “I want to fuck her but know I can’t.”

That’s easy to mock, and its certainly pathetic in both senses of the word. But it’s actually an incredibly painful reality. It’s intimately tied to male aspiration and self-worth. The fact that the woman in question would decline sex is often experienced as an indicator that he’s less of a man. The logic, to the extent that there is any, is that if he were wealthier or more successful, of course she’d consent. That’s bunk, of course — it leaves no accounting for personal taste. It also reduces the woman to a sexual object with no will of her own, merely a response to some sort of male pecking order. But none of this makes the pain any less real. And at its core, her consent isn’t even the issue. It’s that he feels so bad about himself, so inadequate and like such a failure, that he wouldn’t dare approach her because her rejection would confirm all his worst fears about himself.

He was raised with images of highly-successful men, whom no woman could resist, and he knows he can’t measure up.

Of course, this is a series of terribly objectifying thoughts, from start to finish. Yes, it’s an ugly business. That’s part of why men don’t talk about it. But it’s no less painful, no less real.

And it’s intimately bound up with the way some men respond angrily to what they perceive as criticism of the fact that they like to look at female bodies — bodies which are every bit as unattainable for those male voyeurs as they are for the average woman.

No, that’s not equal. The male voyeur in that equation longs to possess, or at least to use. The female object of this male gaze longs to be — ironically, and whether consciously or not, to be a satisfactory object of this male gaze. But without equivocating between these two emotional reactions, either morally or in severity, both involve hurt stemming from a lack of self-worth.

Men Possessing Women, by Andrea Dworkin

Andrea Dworkin's 1981 "Men Possessing Women," a profoundly damaging book.

Like Thompson, I can anticipate the hostile reaction I’ll probably receive here. Rest assured, I’m only saying these things because, like her, I think they’re obvious and needed. In the above equation, one party’s the victimizer and the other the victim. But of course, gazing sexually at women isn’t rape — although gender feminists spent a couple decades claiming so. In fact, every responsible study has found an inverse correlation between, say, pornography and actual violence against women. And the men who do this gazing cannot change that these thoughts and desires are part of their sexuality, any more than a homosexual could change his.

This ought to be pretty basic stuff. It’s complicated and troubling, but it’s hardly rocket science. It’s a sign of how paralyzed our discussion of gender has been that it’s rarely, if ever, said.

Pornography Availability and Rape

One of many examples showing an inverse correlation (not a negative causation) between pornography and rape. This one looks at the number of hardcore porn titles (source).

Body Image and Female Hurt

This paralysis isn’t limited to the male side of the equation.

The way our discourse is limited by the way we elide gender difference and hide vulnerability isn’t, of course, limited to men. It’s also one component of the way women rarely discuss how body typing hurts them — and how when they do, they often do so in very mild ways.

Of course, there are lots of other reasons for this. Obviously, it’s partially due to the kind of male reaction quoted above.

And if you already feel fat or undesirable, the last thing you want to do is point this out to people. Because the first thing anyone’s going to do in response is appraise your body. And even then, because of the social taboo against saying such things to a woman (proof we’re all aware of this dynamic, despite rarely discussing it), you’re not going to get an honest appraisal. So what’s the point in voicing anything, except to feel worse about yourself? (Of course, it’s feeling undesirable that’s at issue here, not the reality, and the two are often quite divorced from one another.)

But while these might be the primary reasons why women censor themselves about this issue, it’s bound up with the fact that, by ignoring gender differences, we’ve taught women that, in order to be respected intellectually, she’s supposed to act tough like a man. And because talking about being hurt by body typing is gendered, it can seem like a failure to live up to the supposedly “tough” male standard that equality would seem to demand.

This isn’t so different from the dynamic often felt by women who are sexually harassed. First, they have to deal with the harassment itself, along with whatever power differential might be a part of that. But they also have to deal with the fact that complaining about this may be perceived as whining, or as a woman wanting special protection, exactly when she’s struggling to be taken seriously as an equal. This might even be more damaging than the harassment itself, because it imposes a kind of self-censorship that can be traumatic and can lead to feelings of guilt, or even that she’s participated in her own victimization.

AnorexiaAnd if men have shockingly failed to say they find these images arousing, it’s also shocking that there’s not more awareness that the hurt these images causes is demonstrably very real. We’re all aware, or should be, of the high rates of anorexia and bulimia, especially among girls. This isn’t whining or some vague emotional hurt. It accounts for health problems that are very real, including even death. We’re also aware, or should be, of how Western girls routinely wear far more provocative and revealing clothing than even a decade ago, how extreme diets and plastic surgery have become acceptable for underage girls, and how these same girls’ role models seem to be increasingly defined not only by their unattainable body types but their sexual activity. So while death from body image might be rare, it’s hard to understate the psychological damage done to young women who have learned to hate their own bodies.

In other words, we’re not just talking about women “whining” about being hurt by images — which can sound preposterous, when phrased like that. No, we’re talking about a profound and acknowledged psychological effect that’s especially pronounced in women and that’s responsible for more health problems and damaged psyches, with all the repercussions that entails, than we shall ever fully understand.

The damage might be hard to see, because it’s largely psychological, but it’s nonetheless very real.

It’s also very different for women, than it is for men. Remember that scene in Fight Club, when Tyler Durden casually brushes off advertisements that feature buff, airbrushed men? Ironically, he and the nameless protagonist go on to get pretty buff. But what’s important here is that men understand that these images are being offered as masculine ideals but they can brush them off. They can take solace in their jobs, or their degrees, or their intelligence, or their cars, or their mistresses, any other indicator of masculine success.

That’s much harder for women. Because while women have entered the workplace, they’re still defined sexually in a way that men aren’t. A man who’s a C.E.O. might still be ugly, but his success is seen as an effective compensation for his looks. That’s because male sexual desirability is determined largely by status, not by looks. A female C.E.O. is judged on two levels: as a C.E.O., at which she’s hopefully judged equally to a man, and for her physical desirability as a woman. That’s why female executives and other professionals still tend to dress in gender-specific clothing. And why people say women have to do the same job but while wearing heels.

GQ coverAnd because of this, it’s much easier for a man feel okay with the fact that he doesn’t look like a GQ cover. Whereas when a woman sees a young, half-naked, impossibly thin, big-breasted woman in an ad, she knows she’ll never escape being judged against that.

That’s impossibly sad, but it’s true nonetheless.

To pretend it isn’t — that men and women are the same, or that women should just shut up about this because men don’t feel the same way about GQ — might seem equal. It might even be equal. But it’s not exactly encouraging of the kind of honest discussion that’s desperately needed. In fact, it’s reinforcing the structures that already make women uncomfortable discussing the problem.

And since we noted how male visual arousal is demonstrably genetic, it’s only fair to note that all societies seem to have some sort of female body typing, strongly indicating that social function is genetic. But the form it takes is strongly socially determined. In Western history, it featured wide, child-bearing hips until recently, when modern science sent death during childbirth — which probably killed half of all women who ever lived — plunging. And if you live in a tribal society where stretched body parts (e.g. ears lobes or neck) is equated with female beauty, women may feel insecure about not having those features.

So the bad news is this will almost certainly be with us, but the good news is that we can — as a culture — change our ideal female body types, perhaps to be more varied or simply less restrictive.

Ethiopian Beauty

Towards a Real Conversation

So let’s begin here. With men acknowledging they’re aroused by these images and can feel like their sexuality is under attack, when those images are. And with everyone acknowledging that body typing is indeed damaging to women psychologically, in ways that are psychologically profound and even potentially deadly.

That doesn’t itself solve these problems.

In fact, addressing them may well lead us to an impasse, in which women tend to confess that they’re hurt by these unattainable images of female attractiveness, and men confess that they’re aroused by these same images. Worse, these men might well confess that, while they love their partners, they too have adopted these images as representing a female ideal — one that’s a marker of male status to possess, either as “trophy wife” or as mistress. And this gets us into all kinds of troubling, potentially irresolvable issues, such as differences between male and female sexuality, which might complicate any given relationship — especially in a culture that mythologizes monogamous sexual partnerships as the perfect mingling of two sets of interests, if not two souls.

Indeed, the fear that this is where the conversation would lead is another reason — along with all of those above — why we tend to talk around the matter.

Because we’re afraid of opening up our wounds, or those of each other’s.

Because we’re scared, lest we seem vulnerable or sexist or like we’re falling into some stereotype about our gender.

And maybe because we’re scared we’re not really so compatible, that the mingling of interests in a relationship is always going to have edges and be conflicting.

Sometimes, these fears make us lash out, like a wounded animal, whether it’s in snarky comments online or in our relationships. All the more reason to address these issues, because real and lasting pain tends to get displaced, one way or another.

Other times, we like to pretend we’re above it. It’s a different defense mechanism, one to which intellectuals are particularly prone.

And we’re so damned determined to sound distant and intellectual in their points, as if we were talking about the stock market, when the underlying issues aren’t distant or intellectual at all.

But that the more abstract our words, the more the wound is bleeding underneath.

As if through sheer intellect, we could conquer the matter. And ourselves.

But we can’t. And here we should be reminded that, as discussed above, we can’t understand such matters without also feeling them.

And that means empathizing with the other’s position, as well as our own.

It’s not a solution. It doesn’t get at why we feel this way, or what particular blend of social and evolutionary factors are at play. Nor does it offer a remedy to the particular case of body typing in comics.

But it is the beginning of an honest discourse on the matter. Without which nothing else is possible.

And without which no remedy would be meaningful.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics and his transgressive novel Nira/Sussa. He currently lives in Illinois.

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46 Comments

  1. Lots of good observations and ideas here, but for me, the greatest profundity actually comes in the conclusion:

    “And we’re so damned determined to sound distant and intellectual in their points, as if we were talking about the stock market, when the underlying issues aren’t distant or intellectual at all.

    But that the more abstract our words, the more the wound is bleeding underneath.”

    This says more about my dissatisfaction with much of what passes as academic writing than anything I’ve read. I know it’s not directly related to the topic at hand, but it’s central to the way we talk about not only this topic but most others. Clarity is central to good writing, and it is equally central to the process of sharing ideas. I’m sure others with greater insights than I will weigh into the “body typing” issue, but I hope that Julian’s concluding lines will serve as a model, pushing all of us to find honest, direct, and clear ways of expressing ourselves.

    • I’d like to chime in along the same lines as Greg. Julian, you clearly understood my dig at excessively abstract language with my reference to Spivak & Foucault. Brilliant minds, but absolutely inaccessible in their prose–and intentionally so (I would argue)! I believe that if we truly desire readers to understand what our ideas are, then we have an obligation to those same readers to express our ideas in as accessible a manner as possible. Otherwise, I tend to see it more as academic posturing to some extent. Clear and concise words help cut to the chase.

      While I have a handful of ideas running around in my head, I want to constrain them to the topic of comics. The idea of impasse is a very real one, and the difficulty does lie in how do we / the industry deal with it? I’m not so naive to completely believe we can simply make space for other sorts of comics so there is a wider variety of comic representation of gender, race, ethnicity (fill in the blank), and this will solve the problem. “Father Dollar Almighty” speaks loud and clear to the publishers. By and large, I think they will produce what is selling. They sell what the majority of buyers want. Walking the tightrope to avoid any logical fallacy, I think a significant portion of responsibility lies squarely on readers. And yet… how do readers *know* what they want? In part, I think word of mouth, reviews, and other external sources help inform readers in their decision-making process. This is where we, as comic critics, have a role to play.

      For many, many years, medieval literature was commonly held to be the domain of masculine literature. The fact is there were simply few to no sources by women, about women, for women. This lead many later scholars and academics to conclude the medieval period was a ‘dark age’ for women writers and this was a period of total impression. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. More recently, scholars have excavated and gone digging into the past only to discover there were women writers who wrote about a multitude of subject matter. At a recent conference, I overheard a very well respected scholar make a great point: “It’s not that the medieval period was a great time for women, but they did do things. After all, you don’t make laws if no one is behaving in an unacceptable way. Women were “behaving badly” and so a need for these laws came about.” It’s an interesting point. The laws came about because women were acting against social norms. But we didn’t have any of this background until we started shining our “flashlights” on this material and truly dedicated time, energies, and resources into researching this lost field of knowledge.

      I’d argue we have a responsibility then, if we are to be a part of the solution to these problems of representation, to unearth new and diverse comics. If the “Big Two” will not be a part of the change, then we need to turn our attentions to publishers–big and small–that WILL stand up against this very real problem. Like you, I’m not advocating for the “demise” of one form of representation over another (even if some are less appealing to my personal aesthetic interest); but I do believe we need to create space so we aren’t boxed into some sort of either-or choice when it comes to deciding which comics to read and identify with.

      • Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with you, Forrest. And I hope Sequart has a hand in doing that.

        And I think the current state of comics — not only in terms of gender, but also in terms of mainstream comics’ reliance on old narratives with new glitz, has turned off a lot of people. Sales might not reflect this, and maybe I’m just getting old or think too much or whatever. But I remember when I had to struggle to keep my comics’ budget in check. Now, I’m buying less and less, and I’m less excited about reading what I do buy. There are exceptions, and that’s just me. But I do feel that the stories I like in comics feel a lot more counter-cultural today, almost against the mainstream, whereas I used to feel they augmented or challenged the mainstream to do better.

        Totally subjective impression, but it’s one of the challenges we face. Or at least that I do.

    • What you’ve said here means a great deal, Greg. Thank you.

      And I share your concern about academic discourse.

  2. I think you are wrong in worrying this will offend people. I think this is exactly what needs to be said. Hell, I’ll bite. One of the charms of comic books for a pubescent, pre-internet male like me was the fact that you had what was basically a Sports Illustrated soft porn mag every month. In the 90′s Image actually made “swimsuit” issues. I will not pretend for a second I bought them because I thought the art was, well, art. No, it was sexual fluff to make all our peens hard and it SOLD.
    Now, as a married man of 34 I actually have the opposite reaction to the high amount of sexual images in comics. By sexual I mean any woman bent in an awkward position but still stimulating a sexual position. I am looking at Greg Land for this one.
    When I get near, lets say, Avatar Comics, I feel allergic to them. Because I know that the prime amount of effort that went into this comic is right there on the cover, showcasing the typical comic book woman in an awful position, primed and ready for the reader.
    For fuck’s sake they don’t all have to be this way. Look to Alan Moore’s Lost Girls. There is no salacious Wendy on the cover, bent over and looking back as if to invite us into herself. No, because not everything sexual has to be disturbing. To me, for my money, what passes as “sexuality” in comics is just scary.
    Thank you for writing this Dr. Darius. I think this is an amazing article and I hope we can all really discuss this.

    • Thank you, Kevin, for your reply and for your courage in getting personal and direct. Wow. You had me laughing out loud.

      Personally, in terms of arousal, I’m put off by anything that feels fake, the same way I am in narratives. We’ve probably all seen girls kissing each other in a way that’s transparently — sloppily — only for the male gaze. It’s there in the gestures and in the eyes, and it cannot be mistaken. Now, it’s one thing for a man or a woman to do something to please his or her partner — and that’s fine. Kudos, in fact. But there’s something so transparently phony and staged about a lot of this imagery. And it’s there in the brokeback poses Thompson’s underlined, or in the images you’re describing. It’s not only phony, but it personally makes me feel manipulated as a man — as if what’s being said is, “Come on, we know you’re stupid, we know you’re an animal, so here’s an image of a woman posed sexually in the most unnatural way and pretending to be enjoying herself like she got up in the morning and decided she’d love to lie prone on the floor and pour milk all over her face” — or whatever.

      It may be insulting to women, but it’s also insulting to men. Even men who, like me, are not particularly inclined to apologize for their sexuality, or for their ability to be aroused by images. Because that ability to be aroused visually is being manipulated in the most cynical of ways, and the underlying message is “you’re too stupid to notice or care.”

      It is to real sexploitation like Michael Bay is to good action movies. We know you like explosions, so here, have a dozen. As for who’s behind it or why it matters, we can handle that in a single line of dialogue, because what you’re really here for is the explosions, right? It’s like someone’s taking the most superficial elements, put them on steroids, and reassembled the component without any of the original’s soul. And it reminds me of what was done to Watchmen, after which people copied its violence and not its intelligent, challenging portrayal of the same.

      So I’m glad to defend Lost Girls or Sin City, or even competent, artistic sexploitation like Little Annie Fanny or the brilliant Milo Manara. I’m also a big fan of some Avatar work, whether it’s Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis or Alan Moore. Hell, I’ll even rise to the defense of a lot of “outre” stuff, like Michael Manning’s work, or de Sade’s.

      But there’s a world of difference between all of this and Wonder Woman contorted into a freakish position so that her cartoonish breasts and ass can fit into the same shot.

      That’s not insulting to men and women equally, nor in the same way. It’s saying that even this super-heroine long used as a role model for women, who saves the freaking world, has got to look and dress in this absurd way. And it plays into all kinds of demonstrably destructive female fears, like how being smart or successful will never be enough if a woman doesn’t look — and act — like this. But it’s also insulting to me as a man, because it’s saying I’m a dumb animal with a hard-on who’s unbelievably easy to arouse and manipulate — and is either too stupid to notice or doesn’t even care if I am, because hey, boner! And that’s not something I, either as a man or as a humanist, wish to subsidize.

      Just some stray thoughts, which I’m sure are imprecise. I’m really not trying to make this a male issue, in any way that might obscure the more obvious ones. But since we talked about arousal, I thought it relevant.

      Again, thanks for your comment.

  3. But does anyone really get aroused by these pictures? Okay, I’m not 14 anymore, but I don’t get an erection when I read, let’s say, Avengers. I get erections reading other stuff.

    This is important because it’s always the excuse of censorship: “it doesn’t affect me, but it does affect the others, and they must be protected.” Who are the others?

    Women? Yeah, okay. Certainly many women suffer a lot. No question about it. But most girls don’t read superhero comics anyway.

    And even if they did, would it be so bad? Okay, let’s admit it, most superhero stuff out there is very weak. But, despite the quality of the stories, there are several reasonably strong female characters out there. Women who know what they’re doing, who can solve problems, who can kick ass. Should a discussion about comics limit itself to a few panels? Can we seriously talk about a comic character just by showing one single image, without context? Because the truth is that yes, her wardrobe may be silly and revealing, but on the other hand Thor listens to what she says.

    I don’t think that, in general, these characters are presented as weak or submissive. Lois Lane may be hot, but she’s also a Pulitzer-prize winner (at least nowadays). She isn’t dumb. The Avengers and the X-Men had female leaders. And that was seen as okay, as it should be! And they didn’t get the job by sleeping with someone. Yes, they’re hot, but when you read the stories you see why these characters are leaders. Female characters are no longer just victims. Yes, sometimes shit happens, but usually they manage to get back on their feet.

    Superheroes are presented as powerful. And this power is much bigger than their abilities. Harvey Bullock could very well be a Green Lantern. Just give him the damn ring. But no, the reader wants someone young and handsome and strong for a hero. You can’t take Harvey seriously. You don’t trust him to save the world. Like Caesar’s wife, it’s not enough to be powerful, you gotta seem powerful.

    It goes even beyond the body. Superheroes don’t have real jobs. You have a real job. And you can’t just vanish suddenly with no explanation. But that’s okay in comic world. They don’t have real responsibilities, they do whatever they want. They’re beautiful, and so beautiful women are always falling for them. They usually have, if not lots of money, at least enough money to live better than we do (Peter Parker is the exception, up to a certain point, but Thor, Captain America or Iron-Man don’t really listen to Spider-Man). It’s part of the fantasy. And that’s okay, because we’re all capable of telling the difference between fiction and reality.

    We even get this in Watchmen. Who’s the most powerful character? The one who walks around naked showing off his muscles and his cock. Who’s the second most powerful character? The rich, smartest man on Earth, who still makes exhibitions of his athletic abilities. Who’s the least powerful character? The overweight dude who wears glasses, of course!

    We want the whole package. Superpowers are not enough. And some very smart comics recognize that and play with it (The Invisibles, X-Statix, etc).

    And sex is power. Especially, in our western culture, female sexuality. She is desired by all and she can choose whoever she pleases. And she can hurt whoever she pleases. She can laugh at you and despise you, she can say that you didn’t make her come, she can cheat on you. You can’t get her. Now, that’s such an interesting concept when you’re against her (as superheroes often are)! She’s aggressive and she may take charge of sex. The current versions of those heroines seem, to us, more powerful and less fragile than when they were drawn by Kirby or (why not?) Colan. Is it exploitation or simply a clever use of our fears and desires?

    That said, yeah, okay, sometimes the artists shoot their own feet. They end up doing such crazy shots, such outrageous costumes, such bizarre bodies, that the character ends up looking silly, instead of powerful. For instance, Dark Avengers #1, by Mike Deodato. Ms. Marvel go meet Norman Osborn. Now, he’s the one with all the power here. She has to follow his orders, she can’t, so she’s out of work. Seeing her butt in this context annoys me a lot more than seeing it while she’s kicking some Skrull.

    Is it equal? No. Boys are afraid of stunning girls, just like we are afraid of very strong men. So there is a difference. But it’s not demeaning. They’re not being put down. They’re not just sex symbols.

    Representation in art is such a tricky thing. Yes, we all support diversity. But sometimes I think that we’re so worried with the idea that some people (again, “the others”) can’t see themselves in mainstream culture that we forget that the beauty of art is that, occasionally, we relate completely to some character or artist who, frankly, has nothing to do with our current life. Did anyone here want to read about boring middle-class teens when we were kids?

    Of course, if all (or most) representation is negative, we have a huge problem. But as long as we have a good offer of positive models for us to relate to, we’re fine. And there are lots of comics out there featuring “regular” women. They’re just not about superheroes, usually, but you know what? They’re often better than the superhero stuff.

    • Wow, good point about Watchmen. I’m not sure I’ve seen that made before.

      There’s a lot to chew on here, and I thank you for your comment.

      Personally, I think the whole “women kicking ass” trope is a lot more problematic than we realize. Yes, I understand that it’s seen as female-empowering. And it certainly can be, or was at one point. But I’m more inclined today to think “how is this 100-pound woman doing this?” Because of course, these figures still look like supermodels. They don’t look like female bodybuilders, the way the male action stars do. And yes, I know it’s not “supposed to be realistic,” but I’m not sure that it’s remotely as female-empowering as we often pretend it is. I think it can be looked at as parallel to the quandary of the female C.E.O. I described in the piece: yeah, these female characters are succeeding at the “male” world of “kicking ass,” but they’re still expected to look like Scarlett Johansson.

      Just some thoughts. And again, thanks for yours, Mario.

      • Thank you, Julian.

        If I may, however, I’d like to save the word “empowering” for female models aimed at girls/women. Not the case here. Mainstream superhero comics are aimed at boys. (Which is okay, and there’s nothing wrong with that.)

        About kicking ass, that’s just what superheroes do. . Like people fuck in porn and sing in musicals. It’s part of the genre, and that’s not much escape from it. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to subvert the rules, but one cannot reasonably expect the rules to be subverted all the time. If they do, the genre changes.

        The idea is to show boys that yes, women can do whatever they do. Which was not always the case. Invisible Girl’s power was to disappear (how convenient!) and the Wasp’s power was, well, basically to disappear too. Years later (and many years ago) Invisible Woman was arguably the most powerful member of the FF and Wasp was the leader of Avengers.

        It doesn’t solve everything, but it means something.

        About their bodies, well… Yeah, sure, sometimes it gets ridiculous. No question about it. And they’re certainly not bodybuilders. But usually they’re not unhealthy either. Putting the size of the breasts (and how high they are) aside for a second, superheroines have the bodies of tennis players. Fit bodies. And tennis players don’t work hard for it for the sole purpose of giving me a hard-on. No, tennis players are probably uncapable of knocking a thug out with one punch, but… the same goes for scientists like Hank Pym or Reed Richards.

        Yes, I would like to see more different body types in mainstream comics. More really strong women, when it fits, and more cute, but not stunning girls when it fits. And more normal, not-on-steroids guys, when it fits. But it is mainstream, it is repetitive, it follows certain rules.

      • Mario, I think there’s been a change in body typing, especially in the U.S. Both male and female body types have gotten younger, for example.

        The men have gotten more muscular — look at Superman in the ’60s versus today, or how action stars and male cinematic leads generally have gotten more muscular. For example, Thor and Captain America, in Marvel’s movies, would have been considered extreme outliers in 1980. Now, their physiques barely warrant a mention.

        But nowhere has this change been more pronounced than in female body types. Because while Thor and Captain America stand alongside the far less muscular Bruce Banner and Tony Stark, it often seems as if every female fits the supermodel build.

        And just as the male body type has changed, that “supermodel build” has changed. It’s hard to imagine Marilyn Monroe having a career today, for example. Even watching 1980s movies, it’s hard to imagine a lot of the female stars of that era succeeding today, due solely to their bodies.

        So while both male and female body types have grown younger and more exaggerated, female body typing is far more pervasive, I think. And of course affects women differently.

        I do agree, though, that “kicking ass” is part of the genre. I’m just saying that, while that might be a good fit for a musclebound male body type, it’s spectacularly ill-suited to the supermodel one.

        I don’t know about tennis players. But you might be ignoring the fact that physique is more than musculature or toning. Women do have bones. And most women’s hip bones simply are not ever going to be as skinny as Catwoman’s (to pick an arbitrary example).

        This has a profound effect. Because while the culturally “ideal” female body type is always by definition rare, it wasn’t quite so unattainable in the 1960s. A much greater percentage of women could feel that they could dress up and look really sexy, by this dominant cultural standard. Today, even ignoring breasts and muscles, by virtue of bone structure alone, the culturally “ideal” female body type — used for scientists and action stars and almost every job — is unattainable on its face to vastly more women. And that has profoundly damaging effects.

        And I’d argue, as others have, that mainstream super-hero comics have not only been a part of this trend but that they are, if anything, even more exaggerated in their female body typing. To the point that some of these images barely represent humans, as I know them. They can sometimes look like mythological creatures, less like women and more like genetically-bred creatures with skinny hips, round butts, huge breasts, twisty backs, and long legs. (Does Doctor Doom have a bioengineering plant that’s secretly replaced half of Earth’s women with his concoctions? Is this part of a Skrull invasion plan?)

        Now, of course, we can guess why this would be the case: (1) comics are drawn, so you don’t even have to find an actress who looks like these images, which would in many cases be very difficult indeed, (2) comics have a tradition of exaggerated physiques and artistic styles, and (3) comics are sold overwhelmingly to men. But these explanations don’t change that this is happening, nor necessarily does this context make these images any less psychologically affecting.

        But please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this is some misogynist conspiracy. I’m not saying comics should be made to bear the weight of wider cultural trends, nor make addressing this issue the entire medium’s #1 objective. I don’t think there are any simple answers, like barring a single punch from knocking people out. I’m just saying that all of this is happening, and pointing it out or discussing it shouldn’t be dismissed or preempted by saying “eh, that’s super-hero comics.” It’s legitimate and important to discuss, if we’re going to understand this medium, as it currently stands.

        Your comments have been a part of that discussion, and I thank you for them.

      • Okay, some damage control may be necessary.

        The tennis player thing was just a reminder that a pretty body is not necessarily an unhealthy body. And that making men drool is not the only reason for a woman to be fit. And that not every fit body is a bodybuilder’s body.

        Of course, there is a big difference between a tennis player and the most extreme bodies that one can find in comics. I don’t deny that.

      • Good points, Mario, and thank you for saying them.

      • Mario,

        Just a few points. You state: “Mainstream superhero comics are aimed at boys.” I don’t want to misrepresent you, but do you mean that *most* mainstream comics aimed at boys or *all* mainstream comics are focused on this demographic? Perhaps I’m parsing a bit here, but there is a significant difference between the two; I’d agree with the former but not the latter (not that it’s right).

        You also stated in your second paragraph: “About kicking ass, that’s just what superheroes do. . Like people fuck in porn and sing in musicals. It’s part of the genre, and that’s not much escape from it. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to subvert the rules, but one cannot reasonably expect the rules to be subverted all the time. If they do, the genre changes.”

        In my article on Habibi: (http://sequart.org/magazine/10081/habibi-open-dialogues-with-difficult-literature/), I brought up an interview creator Craig Thompson gave where he discusses his use of the problematic field of Orientalism: “I wanted to play with Orientalism as a genre” just as one might play Cowboys and Indians (a genre fraught with stereotypes and offensive tropes). While I still enjoyed the novel, there is no overlooking his problematic depictions of others. Even if it doesn’t offend me, I can step outside of my own perspective and see that it could very easily offend or reinforce hurtful stereotypes. Maybe I am Thompson’s focus group reader, but I’m not the only person who could get his or her hands on this book. Some greater awareness, I think, is called for. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t create books like this—there are some truly magnificent things going on this the book—but I do believe an increased sense of awareness of how the book may be impact other readers outside of his ideal group of readers when responding to others about his work is fairly reasonable to expect.

        Now, don’t get me wrong: I love the superhero genre. Hell, I’m writing my doctoral dissertation on the subject! I’m also a proud vintage comic collector who loves to read the REALLY old books (Golden Age Superman and Batman titles are my favorite). Yet, I also look at these same books and realize how important it was for products of the genre to progress. I believe that if the superhero works remained stagnate and behaved today the way they did in the 1930s-40s, the genre itself would either die out or at the least, find itself significantly reduced to a remote niche field of interest. Quite frankly, many of the elements of the superhero genre aren’t even truly fundamental to the core of what constitutes the superhero genre. I’m kind of having an academic crush right now on Peter Coogan and his work, so I apologize for bringing him up again. If you can actually FIND a copy of his work, “Superheroes: The Secret Origins of a Genre,” I highly recommend it. He posits there are three key elements to the superhero: Mission, Identity, and Power. I won’t unpack this as most of us can figure out how they work. But the point is that nowhere does submissiveness, gender typing, or any of the problems we’re discussing factor into the make up of the superhero in an essential, fundamental, non-negotiable way. Instead, they are tacked on after the fact to reflect the cultural mores of the time. And they shift with time…

        This need for yet another shift in the cultural images and mores tacked on to comics is the argument, I believe, many of us arguing for. Or at the least, we are arguing that one set of cultural ideas should dominate over the rest. We can still have our superheroes, but they don’t have to kowtow to outdated modes of thinking and representation. I love the genre. I believe it has the power to inspire people in ways traditional texts and even other genres of comics can’t do. That’s why I think it’s important the genre moves out of this sort of arrested development and continues to expand its horizons and avoid limiting those of readers who fall within more marginalized groups.

      • I love what you say, Forrest, about “step[ping] out of [your] own perspective.” That is indeed part of what we do when we try to understand, not only as critics or cultural observers, but also just as people trying to understand difference, whether that’s cultural or gendered. I hope what I wrote in this article encourages that, and it’s something I prize very highly.

        I also love how you’re able to say something is a powerful and vital work but still problematic. Of course, that’s true for many powerful and vital works. The goal here isn’t to shut down problematic depictions. It’s to raise consciousness about them.

        Put another way, I could completely defend a work that plays with the “cowboys and Indians” genre, even if it included stereotypical depictions! But I’d hope that was done consciously, with awareness of the history of the Western genre and discussion of these stereotypes, just as any artistic work is placed within a larger historical and literary context. And discussion of those stereotypical depictions, even if they’re conscious, is fair game — in fact, the best such work would invoke those stereotypes in ways that spur, rather than close off, this discussion. And the best writers would welcome such discussion, as long as it was made respectfully.

        Think here of Tarantino, and his problematic depiction of blacks, which have roots in the black cinema he enjoyed growing up. But he’s aware of this, and it’s treated as a legitimate subject of discussion. And he doesn’t seem to pretend that these depictions aren’t problematic or interesting or worth exploring.

        The problem in comics, vis-a-vis portrayal of women, isn’t that these portrayals are unrealistic or problematic. Nor even is the most major problem that they’re so dominant. It’s that comics often seem completely oblivious of these facts. And as a community, resistant to even discussing it. That’s very different from what goes on in cinema or literature, and it sometimes feels like American comics is a strange kind of echo chamber, unaware of its own history, let alone its participation in wider art and literary histories.

        Finally, Forrest, consider what you say about loving the super-hero genre seconded.

        Great comment.

      • Forrest,

        About the first point, at least the great majority of them. And I don’t think there’s much doubt about that. As a golden age fan, you know that Marston hoped to get girl readers with Wonder Woman, and indeed he got some, but most of the readers were still boys.

        There’s nothing wrong with that. And yes, many women do read superhero comics. I’m just saying that the basic mentality behind them is focused on the male reader.

        The second point is trickier, and I’m not sure if I understand. My original point was only about violence. Superheroes will fight someone. Period. Occasionally, yes, the fight will be without physical violence, but there’s always some kind of combat (and I am using the word combat instead of conflict). It may be missing in an issue or two, but that doesn’t matter. Eventually the superhero will fight someone again. And, in most cases, s/he will win. I was just explaining the “kicking ass” part, there was nothing about gender typing (except meaning that superheroines do what superheroes do). I have yet to read Coogan, but I think it’s hard to disagree with that. At least about how mainstream superhero comics are in the last decades.

        But I’m glad you mentioned Habibi and Thompson. And you fell in the question I raised at the beginning of my original comment. You wrote: “Even if it doesn’t offend me, I can step outside of my own perspective and see that it could very easily offend or reinforce hurtful stereotypes.”

        That’s a damn tricky thing and I hope you believe me when I tell you that I’m not as radical or as crazy as I may seem. I’m not even that sure about it, I’m still trying to figure it out. But I find a thought like yours very dangerous. I understand it. But it scares me.

        Because that’s how censorship starts. Always. With some bright mind protecting the people, the idiots, the children, the unborn, whatever.

        But then, we live in a society, and we have to have some empathy for the others’ suffering. Yeah, sure, I hate when I see racist images in comics/ movies/ books from the thirties-forties. Sometimes it actually ruins the experience.

        And anyway don’t we have a responsibility towards others?

        But it’s a very dangerous line between understanding, protecting and controlling.

        It’s like the ‘n’ word in rap music. The would-be-offended part has spoken, but that doesn’t stop white people to cry about it. (And no, not every black person is fine with the word being used, I know, but a great majority of those who do listen to rap music are, and they also have a right.) And no, it’s not hypocrisy, and no, it’s not hard to understand: rappers can say it, I can’t, and I’m fine with that.

        When we start talking for the others, we start having these great ideas like: “we need more diversity in superhero comics!” So Marvel decides it’s time to come up with a couple of superlipstick lesbians and… nothing happens! No decent number of new readers from the queer community. And then Marvel comes and asks: “but we just gave you what you wanted!” And the queer community will answer: “what are you talking about?” And we’ll start shouting: “Oh, Marvel screwed up again!”

        (For the record, I did like the new lesbian Batwoman, although I’m not so crazy about the new Maggie Sawyer. I also liked Habibi.)

        Who are we to decide what the others want to read, should read or can read? The best we can do is to make sure that everybody has a voice and can be heard.

      • Mario,

        Thanks for clarifying your first point. I suspected that’s what you meant, but I didn’t want to inaccurately represent you. In that regard, I think we’re probably on similar wavelengths.

        On to the second point!-) Coogan is great, and his scholarship in attempting to define superheroes as its own genre is fascinating (and compelling!) stuff. Can I make a suggestion that the superhero genre necessitates conflict, instead of “kicking ass”? It’s not that I blush at swearing (I’m a combat vet—believe me, I’ve heard it all!-), but I think it’s more encompassing. After all, superheroes can also outwit their opponents and achieve the same result. But perhaps on this account, we’re parsing a bit. Not a big issue within the context of the current discussion.

        Regarding censorship, I fully understand your concern. If you reread my concluding point, you’ll see I’ve pretty explicitly stated we need to “expand its [superhero genre] horizons and avoid limiting those of readers who fall within more marginalized groups.” I’m hardly advocating or even opening the door to censorship. It is very similar to some of the very same points you conclude your last set of comments with. IN FACT, I’d strongly suggest (that’s about as emphatic as I usually get!-) that I’m concerned that this domineering bias in mainstream comics is essentially censoring other “voices” (aka, other forms of representation) from gaining any sort of substantive foothold in the genre. At the end of the day, I also suggest we’re not really dealing with too substantially different points of view here as your final thought: “The best we can do is to make sure that everybody has a voice and can be heard” is nearly the same as my final point. But again, reread what I wrote. I know Julian’s position on censorship from his past readings, and I rather suspect if there was a *whiff* of pro-censorship, he would be on me like a hobbit on second-breakfast!

      • Forrest,

        (It’s been a little hard to track this thread. Sorry, everybody.)

        Don’t worry, I know you and Julian are against censorship. And if it looked like I might think otherwise, sorry to both.

        It’s just something that we, as a society, must pay lots and lots of attention. The loss of freedom should be a constant worry. And, of course, sometimes those who are controlling art and language really believe that they’re doing good. But yeah, we agree on a number of things.

        About combat vs. conflict, I used combat because it is necessarily against something or someone external and identifiable. Conflict can be too open for the usual mainstream superhero comics.

      • Julian,

        You know what? I agree with almost everything you say. Really. About culture in general, about “ideal” bodies, about its effects.

        My point is solely about comics. My question is: “who’s affected by comics?” Boys are! Look, I feel sorry for the, what, hundreds of girls who read mainstream superhero comics (I should just start calling them MSC!), but they’re not statistically significant. Since the great majority of readers of these comics are boys, I’m more interested on seeing how these comics affect them.

        And so we have Bobby. Bobby is Mario, Julian, Forrest, all of us. Bobby is 13. He loves his comics. Bobby meets Jane, a girl his age.

        And Jane is obviously not Catwoman. She’s not Jean Grey (is she still alive?), Wonder Woman or the Scarlet Witch. She can’t have those bodies, she’s 13!

        And you know what Bobby does? He carries on kissing!

        Now, when Jane starts speaking, Bobby doesn’t and say: “Quiet, girl!” He doesn’t have to agree with or even like what she has to say, but he knows that Jane is a human being. That’s why I defend that the way you write those characters is more important than the way you draw them.

        My biggest problem when I see some of those oversexy images in comics is that I roll my eyes and it takes me out of the story. It’s just not the same after I think with myself: “nope, people, breasts are not between the shoulders!”

        Sorry for making such a mess. I liked the article too.

      • Thanks, Mario. I really didn’t presume any ill will, and we’re cool in my book.

        I think what you’re saying is legitimate, and it’s true that people can separate reality from fiction.

        But I think you’re ignoring a few things.

        First, most comics aren’t read by 13 year-olds anymore. They average comics reader — non-manga — is certainly now in his 20s or even early 30s.

        Second, while women don’t read super-hero comics that much (though you’re exaggerating, I presume for effect, to say only “hundreds” of female readers exist), that doesn’t mean we don’t want them to become readers, nor to be put off or offended or excluded or hurt by what these comics are doing, when they do encounter them.

        Third, you don’t have to read comics to be affected by them. And I keep coming back to this haunting image (this was jettisoned from earlier drafts of the article) of a young woman, say a teenager or early 20s, who’s got body issues and a boyfriend who reads these comics. What does she think, seeing him read this stuff? She’s already upset over her body, and she doesn’t have to read these comics to guess that, on some level, this is maybe what he wants her to look like.

        And I see this dynamic at conventions sometimes, in the girlfriends you can tell came in order to share this thing their boyfriend likes. Of course, that’s not all girls at conventions, and I don’t mean to generalize. But this is an effect I’ve seen, in the discomfort on a girl’s face as she looks at these female images on booth after booth, while her boyfriend’s smiling and totally into all of this.

        Just some thoughts.

      • Hm, okay, Julian, I admit, Point 3 is a good one. I still think comics are just a tiny part of the whole problem, but yes, it is more important than I initially thought, you are right.

        Point 1, really? Wow. Avengers vs. X-Men? It sounds like the kind of thing I’d love to read when I was 13.

        (Actually, wasn’t there such a thing when I was a kid? Drawn by Marc Silvestri, maybe?)

        Point 2… Yeah, that’s a hard one for me. I would say that there are several female-friendly comics out there. I just don’t see how many young women would be interested in the Big Two (main universes) as they are right now.

        And I’m okay with it pleasing just us fanboys, because I see it as just a part of “comics”. A big, flashy part, maybe, but… It’s okay to have some little boy clubs out there (as long as we have girl clubs, gay clubs, black clubs, etc).

      • Yeah, a lot of the mainstream super-hero stuff doesn’t interest me at the moment either. But I’m 35, I’ve seen these most of these stories before, and I’m looking for a lot more than glitzy slugfests. Not that that’s all there is… I wrote (six months ago) about how good the early Miles Morales Ultimate Spider-Man was. But a lot of times, I read these stories, and I marvel at the glitz, but the content gets me thinking only “yeah, this has already been done better or completely deconstructed by X.” It’s like, after you’ve been shown how snagging someone out of the air at super-speed is going to break their neck, it’s hard to accept it as glorious when pulling Gs isn’t addressed. Pile a dozen or so of these aspects together, and I check out. It’s not even fun anymore. But I’m willing to concede that I’m only speaking for myself here.

        Thanks for your thoughts on point #3, BTW. I agree completely that comics are a tiny part of the problem, of course. Conceding a point, even as part of a larger discussion, only wins respect in my book.

        Speaking of which, on point #2, you’re totally right, and there’s some data that suggests indy comics have something closer to gender parity in terms of readers, which is not the case for the Big Two.

        And I’m also okay with fanboy stuff. I agree about boys’ clubs, girls’ clubs, gay clubs (in more ways than one), black clubs, etc. I do think it’s fair to point out what those clubs are up to, of course. And I think that, if mainstream super-hero comics want to be a boys’ club, it should at least make that choice consciously and own up to it. That means one can’t complain that women don’t read these comics, because a pretty clear “Girls Keep Out” sign is hanging on the door. If that’s the way the Big Two want to go, it wouldn’t be my choice, and I think it’s kind of disgusting given what a huge percentage of an entire artistic medium the Big Two represent. It would be disastrous for comics’ wider acceptance. But hey, at least own it, know what I’m saying?

      • Oh, Julian, for me it’s not even just about mainstream superhero comics anymore. I often have the impression that I’m technically dead and nothing being made now (music, films, literature, comics…) is for me anymore. Music and films are the worst offenders, because it’s harder to escape from them (even if I don’t listen to the radio and don’t go to the movies anymore).

        There are still a few exceptions, and it’s great to find them. But they are rare.

      • That’s not too far from my own sentiment.

    • Like Julian, I hadn’t looked at the male breakdown of “Watchmen” like that. I always appreciated Moore’s use of Nite Owl–the “frumpy hero”–as an attempt to break some of our stereotypical expectations, but you raise a valid argument when looked at from the context of all male characters.

  4. Due to being at work my response is a bit limited, but I do want to take a moment to say thank you. You have no need to worry about offending people, because I think most would agree with you that anyone who can’t handle this brutally honest but heartfelt examination of such a sensitive subject is simply someone they would rather not associate themselves with.

    As a female and a comic fan, I am very grateful that you took the time to write (and re-write) this article. I’m sure the previous drafts were very well written, but the fact that you chose to continuously edit until you felt satisfied with the results speaks volumes to me. I feel that people on both sides of the spectrum tend to simply rant and throw it up on the internet instead of expressing a concern along with honest answers to questions such as “Why is this happening?” and “How can we ‘fix’ the problem?”.

    I would get into what it was like growing up as a female surrounded by reminders that there is always someone out there who is far better than you are, but the past is a minor detail at this point. I feel very lucky to have developed my own views and opinions on subjects such as body image and the “ideal” woman that reflect both realistic thinking and personal growth/self confidence.

    Well, I’m going to have to cut myself off here since my plan to “keep it short” seems to have failed. I’m less than an hour away from leaving work and my pile of papers doesn’t reflect that at all haha

    So, once again thank you for taking the time to write and post this. As a comic book fan, female, and a friend I was very impressed and honestly moved by your dedication and willingness to speak honestly on the subject.

    I really look forward to sharing this with others.

    • Thanks, Kristin. Your comments really mean a great deal to me. They’re touching, truly.

      I hope you do talk sometime about growing up as a female surrounded by these images. And I’m glad this is something you’ve been able to come to terms with.

      Many thanks for the comment. And for sharing.

  5. I can’t really think of an intelligent reply to this article without getting more personal than I’d feel comfortable with a bunch of internet strangers, so I’ll just give a hearty “Hear! Hear!” and make my way out.

  6. Jon Cormier says:

    Thanks for this essay Julian. I find that what occurs on a very core level is that the basis for superhero comics tends to be at odds with themselves when presenting women superheros. The words and the images just don’t support one another and work together to create a consistent message and presentation. The captions and dialogue tell us about how character X is a genius level scientist who revolutionized her field or character Y is a street-smart petty thug and yet both are presented to the audience in the same poses and state of undress. It simply doesn’t happen to the men – their presentation is a lot more consistent to the character they represent. The jocks tend to act and dress as jocks in and out of their superhero get up. The thinkers and scientists are allowed a similar consistent presentation. Pick your defining characteristic and a man is given a consistent presentation for his character.

    I’ve been recently thinking about how this came about and it seems to be that efforts are made to counteract accusations of being sexist by making the woman a genius, or having her be forward. And that is fine. It suits a lot of the characters who act that way. But when this same exact combination (smart, scientist, forward) is found across multiple titles in the same universe it kind of becomes obvious that this is being put up as a potential barrier to fight accusations of sexist portrayals. It becomes almost a suit that the women characters wear – we want her to be okay with being sexy so let’s make her a genius so if anyone asks why she’s always “presenting” to the reader we can counter with “what, you saying scientists can’t be sexy?”

    At the same time though, I don’t think it’s a conscious effort to be limiting. I think there is a genuine effort to try and make some of the women more diverse. But when the same patterns arise in the “words” but the “images” are all the same, we’re left with this weirdly nebulous problem that you and Kelly Thompson have rightfully identified. Yes, these heroes can be sexy, yes, these geniuses can be sexy, but when every single one of them looks exactly the same that’s sending a much clearer message.

    • I agree with what you’re saying, Jon. And it can be tough to criticize, because hey, female scientist. Yeah, she still looks like a 20-year-old supermodel, but when she’s the only female scientist, it can be hard to say “this is a negative portrayal of women.” I usually don’t say it, but I think it. It’s kind of offensive on multiple levels, in fact, because in addition to expecting women to meet this body type, even when they’re Ph.D.s in astrophysics or whatever, it also pretends that being a world-genius brain at a given subject doesn’t take years and years of hard work, and the way intelligence is presented in fiction is increasingly something I’m troubled by.

      You’re really getting at something in your conclusion, in that I often find it hard to condemn an individual work, because hey, maybe one female genius is also a supermodel, just as maybe one girlfriend winds up in a refrigerator. It’s in the aggregate that these things become trends that are really disturbing.

      One little thing: I really don’t want to take credit for identifying this problem. That’s something many have done before me, and Thompson deserves the credit for it a lot more than I do. I’m just piggybacking on this identification and trying to get into why this happens, why the reaction to this identification takes this shape, and what it all means. That can’t happen without cogent identifications of the issue, and I want to make sure that Thompson — and others — get their appropriate credit.

      Thank you for your thoughts, Jon. They are much appreciated.

      • Jon Cormier says:

        Thanks Julian – how about “contributing to the discussion” instead of “identifying”?

        It’s sort of how 90% of communication isn’t vocal. In comics it can be said that 90% of the information being presented to the audience is the images. When a huge amount of the images of women are essentially the same it tends to trump whatever is written.

        You will likely see more from me on this subject soon, in a more “formal” presentation (via Cody).

      • I certainly didn’t take offense, Jon. I just wanted Thompson to get more credit than I did!

  7. Ben Marton says:

    Thank you for this, Mr. Darius. Thank you.

    And Mario? Go back and look again. And think about it. I’m sorry to sound rude, because I don’t know you, but you seem to have it in you to be better than just an apologist for such blatant wrong-headedness.

    • Oh, Ben, I’m an apologist for all kinds of blatant wrong-headedness!

      • Ben Marton says:

        Hey, Mario, sorry. Upon re-reading, I do come off a little arrogant there. No offense intended. You were very careful to exhaustively lay out your (well-considered) opinion, and I responded with a snootier-than-thou riposte.

        I’m not sure I see your point with the ‘Watchmen’ contention, though; I suppose it would depend upon whether or not one agrees that is the kind of ‘power’ relevant to this debate.

      • Oh, don’t worry, Ben.

        About Watchmen, frankly I don’t even remember what I wrote anymore.

        Basically, the point is that the way you show a character indicates how powerful he/she is. This works in character design, how you draw him/her in the panel (full body passes the idea of being more powerful), and even how the character is written in his/her secret identity. The ability is just a part of the overall power of superheroes.

        For most readers, muscle indicate more power in a male character (so everybody is strong, even if there’s no need for him to actually punch anyone, for instance Green Lantern), and “hotness” indicate more power in a female character. So Phoenix not only is much more powerful than Marvel Girl, she also looks more powerful (tighter clothes, long hair, hotter body, even in 1980). There are exceptions, yes, and you can argue that it’s not fair, or even particularly bright, but I didn’t make the rules. You can disagree.

      • Sorry, Ben, I realized I didn’t answer about Watchmen.

        It was a just thought that you can argue that the power of male characters. You can draw a line Dr. Manhattan-Ozymandias-Comedian-Rorschach-Nite Owl. And the way they’re presented reflects their importance in the overall plot. To fully develop it I would have to think more about it. It was just a thought.

        But, for instance, if memory serves the first time we see Doc Manhattan he’s a giant. And of course full body. That’s not by accident. If I’m not wrong, he only appears as giant in two other occasions: the Vietnam war and the climax. It’s not an accident.

        It’s white hat vs. black hat, you see? Using visual signs to pass extra information. Some people dislike that approach, and it can be very dumb, but there is something to be said about the economy of such a method. The reader knows exactly where he is.

  8. Sam Keeper says:

    Forgive me if this is less than coherent. I woke up this morning with a ghastly cold, so I’m not sure how effectively I’ll be able to articulate my ideas, but this is important stuff, and I want to at least make an attempt to say something.

    First, since we’re doing the whole honesty thing, I want to kind of piggyback off of what Kevin Thurman and Julian said earlier in the comments. I think part of the reason some of us, despite being men, react so strongly against these sorts of portrayals of women. Simply put, we know when we’re being talked down to, and for geeks that potentially pride themselves on intelligence above all else, that’s absolutely intolerable. If I examine my own motives, I have to admit that part of my resistance to the status quo here comes from the impression I get from comics that I’m not intellectually capable of viewing female characters as something other than sex objects. The corollary to that, of course, is that I read defenses of these depictions as defenses of bad, lazy art.

    So, here’s my confession: my defense here is probably partly motivated morally, and partly motivated by my own wounded pride. I mention this mainly because there is some value, I think, in recognizing that wounded pride affects men on the less common side of this issue as well.

    Or… possibly just me. I don’t know. I might be totally alone here. That would actually kinda suck, having said all this. Hm.

    The other, far more confused and inarticulate, point I want to make is about the queer side of this issue. This is an area where costuming and body typing does, I think, affect both genders (and sexes–wow, look how this is already becoming totally tangled!) in similarly negative ways, simply because it puts particular limits on how you’re supposed to perform femininity and masculinity, and really divides those performances in two, without a whole lot of room for ambiguity. For anyone that is less inclined towards gender norms, this can be kind of frustrating (meaning, for trans and genderqueer folks). It’s frustrating, too, for queer folk (here meaning, gays, lesbians, bi- and pansexuals, &c.) that aren’t particularly interested in the stereotypical Man and Woman as seen in a lot of these character designs. Hell, I suspect–although it’s probably obvious by now that I can’t speak with as much authority in this area–straight guys that actually *gasp* prefer women with different body types get a bit bored with the same physical forms appearing over and over.

    Of course, to some extent this just leads us back to the problem of sexual desire, but it’s another angle on this that I think is worth at least talking about, even if I can’t string two sentences together right now to save my life. At least on this subject.

    Honestly, I thought I would at least bring it up because, well, these conversations tend to be about straight readers, but this stuff affects queer readers, too. [waves rainbow flag, passes out]

    • Thanks for your thoughtful and brave comment, Sam. And kudos for following the honesty track! We’re not going to get anywhere in these discussions, either in comics or in the wider society, if we can’t do that, and it is to be commended.

      I think you’re on to something about male pride. And it’s tricky, because that stereotypical (yes, straight) male reaction is both (1) a reaction against being talked down to, as you point out, and (2) a defense of the fact that, despite being talked down to, the male in question enjoys, if not is aroused by, these same images that talk down to him! So it’s hard to discuss. This is a really bad metaphor, but it can be a little like someone saying “you’re right, I’m being fed sugar syrup, and it’s stupid and manipulative, but I also want that sugar syrup I know is stupid and manipulative!” We’re all tangled in knots, and it’s complex, and it’s psychologically raw.

      The queer perspective is actually something that really troubled me, in writing this article. Because to even get at the issues I wanted to discuss, I had to kind of ignore it. The issue was complicated enough — and hard to write about — as it was. But I was palpably aware of the fact that I had to elide the difference between sex and gender — which is a complicated issue I’m certainly aware of. That hurt me, writing it, honestly, but I was getting into all these subtle distinctions, and I didn’t know how to do that while adding a whole separate dimension, or axis, to the discussion.

      So yes — yes, yes, yes! — that’s absolutely legitimate. And important to point out. And I’m glad you did.

      To which I can only add (without, I hope, sounding patronizing) that personally, my own sexuality is intensely informed by the struggle for gay rights. I happen to be straight, though my brain seems to be a lot more pansexual than my dick seems to be. (I really don’t know how else to put that, but it’s as accurate as I can come in a few words to my experience.) But as a (more or less?) straight man struggling to understand his own sexuality in turbulent sexual times, nothing’s been more inspiring than the gay movement and its (at its best) unapologetic embrace of the spectrum of gay sexuality, edges and all. I’m quite sure that it is because of this influence that I’ve been able to come to terms with my own sexuality, including its edges and even its objectifying elements. And to discuss this honestly — although I think the internal battle with self-loathing, even when mostly won, may be lifelong. In turn, this has helped me to understand others’ points of view and how they might be trapped and conflicted as I once was (not that I’ve attained sexual nirvana or anything). This has made me a better person and a better scholar.

      In brief, what I want more than anything on this issue is a blunt and honest discussion of the full range of sexuality, which I think Western society has largely failed to have (despite its supposed sexual liberation). And in that vitally needed discussion, we are all liberated as others become more liberated. Honesty breeds honesty. The battle must not be between men and women, gays and straights, but with the forces of repression and sexual norms. (Even as, paradoxically, we acknowledge that those sexual norms are not quite as arbitrary as we once might have thought!)

      I’m waving the rainbow flag with you! And while that’s just and right in its own regard, I’ll be busy telling the haters that this is a flag that empowers all of us to accept our varied individual sexualities. Because who knows? That guy protesting against gay rights might go home and look at furry porn or ponygirls or whatever. Statistically, he’s likely up to something. And while no, his repression about that isn’t the same (I’ve yet to hear of a furry drug behind a car or left to die on a barbed-wire fence), this flag is his too.

      You’re also right, Sam, in pointing out that straight sexuality is itself far more diverse than we pretend — or that this article could get into. Time and time again, studies show that many — sometimes the majority — of both men and women don’t actually prefer the body types our society holds up as “ideal,” even when they’ll concur that an image fitting this “ideal” is “hotter.” That’s mind-boggling, but I see this effect all the time, to such a point that I take someone saying someone else is “hot” with more than a little salt, because it may actually not be saying anything about the speaker’s actual sexual attraction!

      These are things that haunted me in writing this article. Because I needed to generalize to say anything. But they’re of course right and brave and should be part of the discussion.

      Thank you.

  9. Ben Marton says:

    Sam and Julian, just picking up on your calls for acknowledgement of the broader range of sexual stakes in all this (ouch. Freudians, go nuts. Oh. I mean…um…), I think superhero comics, much like WWF wrestling culture, would benefit from a little more cards-on-the-table frankness about the pervasiveness of fetish iconography (as well as just straight out fetishism) across the board. While we’re in True Confession mode, I’d say that known commentators like Grant Morrison have certainly made it easier over the past couple of decades for readers like me to negotiate their own visual and conceptual trigger-points for their interest to be found in the world of performative, spandex-clad power exchanges. This aspect, it should be said, is just one of the many in my case, but hey, it’s out there (I find Big Barda the most arousing character in the DC stable. Shocking, I know).

  10. regarding presentation and the notion of equal objectification, i had considered that perhaps it was not strictly apt to state or even infer, that women were unevenly objectified without considering free market forces.However, i’m not speaking strictly in the arena of comic art. Note also, i’m no manner of professional in any field, hold no phd’s and may be out of my depth, so your welcome to ignore me entirely.

    Let me explain.

    I believe that if any comic artist, ad-exec, or whatever manner of media savvy mogul, if they could find the equivalent “sexy pose” with universal appeal to women of men, they would utilize it in a heartbeat. Perhaps the usage of women in such a gratuitous way transcends gender notions and emotionality to consider strictly marketability and it’s forces.

    “Sexy pose?”
    While the notion of a woman bending over to pick up an object, or shrugging shoulders together to accentuate the bussom is, i would argue universally identifiable in virtually ALL FORMS OF MEDIA, is there truly any male equivalent “poses”?
    Perhaps this futility was best illustrated via reductio ad absurdum in some of the various meme online that showcases male superheros attempts the poses of some female heroes…but i’m just not certain women are as straight forward in their biological desires as men seem to be. To drool over a pair of seductively placed breasts or thighs suggests genetic imperative to me, and nothing more. If media was to find that secret formula to provoke the same response in women, it would certainly end the debates about uneven objectification. But in said formula’s absence, into the breech is stuffed the formula they know works (at least on men) rather then bumbling imprecise attempts to capitalize on a female audience that they do not know (for certain) how to communicate with.

    Citing due diligence, i did look a bit in an effort to find anything i could to answer this question, to find a “universal male sexy pose” and what i found was largely nothing. Other then overwhelming evidence that male models (as found here among many places)
    http://www.modelmayhem.com/list/123951
    seem just as bound up by tropes of unrealistic models of attractiveness as women. While looking over these photos, (note a great many of on the website are self censored with the label NSFW) one should notice the physique on display is largely the bodybuilder model, the one that has been cited as the superhero standard. Another thing to consider.

    If for the male model, bodybuilder is the standard, and for the superhero, bodybuilder is the standard, perhaps there is at least a little bit less unevenness then previously considered.

    Great topic, very interesting to think about, and i read the whole gamut from ms. Thompson’s article to Gene Phillips, to Colin S’s utterly scathing over the top refutation to now your decidedly level headed approach. It has been engaging, although i always become disinterested in the presence of the emerging “Personal” nature of some such debates. Love the science, love the presentations, but i’d like to believe everyone involved could have a drink together afterwards.

    -Erik M

  11. Julian, you say:

    “And we’re so damned determined to sound distant and intellectual in their points, as if we were talking about the stock market, when the underlying issues aren’t distant or intellectual at all.”

    And you finish by saying:

    “we can’t understand such matters without also feeling them.

    And that means empathizing with the other’s position, as well as our own.”

    This empathy, plus an avoidance of abstract intellectual posturing, will then make possible an “honest discourse.”

    I suppose that this is within the bounds of possibility. Nevertheless, when the problem is defined by a “zero sum game” situation– in which Party A wants something and Party B doesn’t want A to have that thing– the only function of “honest discourse” usually comes down to converting enough persons to Party B’s side that Party A’s wishes are negated.

    There is, to take an example more manifestly harmful than Body Typing,the evolution of American consciousness of the Dangers of Smoking. In the 1950s warnings against the practice– stemming from whatever incarnation of “Party B” you may prefer– were few and far between. Party A was numerically superior in insisting upon its right to smoke in public at all times, with no regard for one’s own health or that of others.

    Sixty years later, the discourse has reversed that position, and Party A essentially has no say in the matter any more. The objective proof of smoking’s dangers have converted most people to Party B. Both in America and in many other parts of the world, people who want to smoke can only do so under the most rarefied situations.

    Am I arguing against the specific marginalization of the practice of smoking? Not at all.

    But I am saying that it’s a perfect example of the “zero sum game” in action, even if there are minimal concessions to Party A in the form of “smoking areas” in restaurants.

    So for me the question becomes, though the “Party B” that dislikes Body Typing in comic books is in the minority now, will we see “honest discourse” between A and B? Or will it just be a situation where B insists on having its way until A is reduced to whatever B will concede?

    • Gender is a lot more complex and subtle than a zero-sum game could ever be.

      Also, we’re not talking about rules prohibiting skimpy costumes. That’s unthinkable. I’d oppose anyone who’d call for that. So… not like the cigarette debate, because we’re not fighting over a regulation or something, which could lead to zero-sum scenarios.

      We’re simply talking. The worst thing we can be is wrong… and not admit it. The best thing we can achieve is understanding. So why not admit our emotional biases and try a dialogue? I’m not afraid of it, personally. Not in comics. Not in 2012.

  12. I wouldn’t say that there’s no one out there stumping for the prohibition of skimpy costumes. There are any number of fan-writers who don’t like the state of affairs re: female representation, but don’t offer a clear program for what should or should not be represented.

    The purpose of intellectual argument, whatever one thinks of any individual’s use of it, should be to suss out those who actually have an idea for a better approach from those who have none. It’s the latter type whose complaints are extreme enough that they excite a reactionary response from many readers.

    This July 9 essay covers the sort of arguments and counter-arguments of which I’m speaking.

    http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2012/07/09/she-has-no-head-is-it-worth-it/

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