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.
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.
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.
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.
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. For 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.
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.
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.
And 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.
And 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.
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.