A small furor erupted recently when a variant cover for the IDW tie-in to the Cartoon Network series The Powerpuff Girls was withdrawn from circulation after criticism that it was too sexualized. Michigan comic book retailer Dennis Barger posted a vehemently negative reaction to seeing the variant cover on Facebook, asking rhetorically “Are we seriously sexualizing pre-teen girls?” and stating that he was “DISGUSTED” (caps in the original). For the record, here’s a standard image for the Powerpuff Girls:
And here is the variant cover that IDW pulled:
The artist who drew the variant cover, Mimi Yoon, countered Barger’s criticisms by stating on Facebook that she will “continue to create art embracing the beauty of women and femininity.” Barger, for his part, wrote an open letter stating that he considered Yoon to be an “extremely talented artist” and claiming that his main point was that Cartoon Network was interfering with the comic book industry, dictating variant covers and manipulating the medium to suit their ends.
This is a thorny issue, to say the least, and a very old one in the world of comics. There is no getting around the fact that young people to a large extent are a major audience for our favourite medium. Of course, comics are bought and read by people of all ages, and since at least the 1980s have had a significant readership amongst adults. But a title such as Powerpuff Girls is clearly aimed at children, just as obviously as a title such as Sex Criminals is clearly not aimed at children. It’s one thing to argue that children consume comics, therefore no comic can be permitted to contain material inappropriate for children. (This, as we all know, leads us down a dangerous path trodden by the Comics Code.) It’s quite another to explicitly produce a piece of entertainment for children that contains obviously sexualized imagery.
How much of this is a generation gap? Let’s look at another iconic cultural image aimed at young girls, Strawberry Shortcake. Here’s how Strawberry looked when I was a lad, finding it amongst my female cousins’ toys:
And here’s how she looks today:
The eyes are bigger, with dilated pupils (an indication of sexual arousal), the face is much more realistic, and the hair – rather than shorter and wiry (which is how “ginger” hair often is in real life) – is long and luxurious. The hair is also a bright, obviously artificial shade of red in the modern doll, whereas the original is fairly realistic, as these things go. Never mind the fact that her outfit is much less “dowdy” and much more of the sort of thing a precocious, flirty pre-teen might wear. I don’t see any way around the conclusion that modern Strawberry Shortcake is much more sexualized than her counterpart from years ago.
A short burst of internet research can confirm this hypothesis: girls’ toys in general are much more sexualized now than in the past. So there is clearly a generational difference, but like the metaphor of the frog in the boiling water, this probably happened so gradually that the public at large didn’t notice it. After all, an exhausted parent is probably just looking through the doll aisle for “Strawberry Shortcake” because that’s what their child wants. I doubt most parents in that situation would have the energy or the inclination to contemplate sexualized images or have a discussion with their children about it. (If that parent exists: huzzah to you.)
There may also be a cultural difference, as most toys seem to carry much more of the anime / manga influence then they once did. This manga influence is obvious in Powerpuff Girls in both cases shown above, which have the “big eyes, thin bodies” style of adult manga, whereas the younger versions have an even more conventional anime look. So part of what Barger may be responding to is a result of his age, and part of it might be the cultural surroundings. In my very limited experience (but I’ve spoken with others who make similar observations), there is a very clear generational divide in fans of comics and popular culture, with younger people clearly a lot more interested in anime / manga, and older fans more interested in the western-style comics. Once you accept certain features of the manga style, Yoon’s choices on the variant cover become more understandable.
In fact, Yoon seems to have been simply doing the job she was hired to do: produce an eye-catching comic book cover in her style, which – if you examine some of Yoon’s other work – is usually a good deal more sexualized than her Powerpuff Girls art. So there is a lot of context that has to be given to this image, and I’m not certain Barger was allowing for that context.
What seems to have made Barger angry in this particular case is that, as he sees it, this sort of image caters to adults with a fetish for young girls. That may indeed be true, but the obvious response is that those people exist and pulling a cover for one book is not going to decrease their numbers or enthusiasm for their fetish one iota.
For the record, I agree with the decision to pull this cover. It appears to be a case of “miscasting” an artist for a particular assignment. Yoon’s work is great, but it does make me feel a bit uneasy to see it on a comic book for young girls. It doesn’t need to be like that, and I think the path of wisdom in this case is to pull the cover. Barger’s points about how Cartoon Network is manipulating IDW are well taken, but we also have to see comics in 2014 as increasingly parts of larger media conglomerates, and those companies will work to protect their image and their interests. That’s simply a fact, and the industry is certainly going to have to deal with those challenges.
The more substantial and potent argument to be made for the pulling of the cover, however, is one of sexualization of women in the world. This has been a much-discussed topic lately, at least on my Facebook feed. I have two nieces, and I sometimes wonder how they will develop a healthy, positive sense of their own sexuality when the time comes, surrounded by this sort of empty, hyper-sexualized imagery. The Barger response – essentially to rip up all the images and keep them out of the hands of children and, by extension, to tell pre-teens that sex is bad and wrong and something they should be ashamed of – seems particularly wrong-headed. That puritanical response tends to do more damage than it prevents. But, as comedian Natasha Leggero recently pointed out on Jay Mohr’s podcast, young girls in the Miley Cyrus army are posting “selfies”, posing with dildos, and presenting themselves in this pumped-up sexual way, but they probably have very little real idea of their sexuality, their sexual responses, or how to navigate the sometimes difficult emotional contours of sexual life. There doesn’t seem to be any useful role model for them, no moderate voice that can tell them “yes, sex is great and natural and normal and healthy, but it’s about you, not how to make yourself attractive to someone else.” I don’t know where these role models can come from or how they can be incorporated in the lives of young people, but that seems to be the only permanent solution.
These are difficult issues that won’t be resolved here. But it is interesting to see them coming up in this context. I hope, as Barger does and I think Yoon would agree, that this doesn’t stop any young girl from becoming a comic book reader at the earliest possible age. There are great images for girls to cleave to in comics, and there are more female creators than ever, with more coming up every year. Comics can be part of the solution to this problem of gender and sexuality in our culture. I don’t think this particular cover is helpful, but I believe in, and have faith in, comics.