Representations of Women in (Mostly Superhero) Comics
This is a thing that comes up periodically, like when io9 finds Disney princesses done up in sexy cartoon “Comic Book Style” by J. Scott Campbell or (just so Meredith doesn’t feel like I’m picking on her) when Chris Sims reviews Jeph Loeb’s Ultimatum. What happens is, someone says, “Jesus fuck, could there be one comic in which all the women don’t have their tits sticking out all the fucking time?” Inevitably, at least one person responds to these criticisms with the following argument (and occasionally a few supplemental ones):
“Comics have always been an exaggerated ideal, just like in movies and other forms of media, and besides, they exaggerate men and women equally, so it’s not sexist.”
Refuting this argument is a long and exhausting process, so, to save time, I’m just going to do it here and leave it up so I can link to it when someone (inevitably) says it again.
Okay. The problem with this argument isn’t just that it’s wrong. The problem is that it’s SO WRONG that it’s baffling to any but the most thorough refutation. Peculiarly, these particular ideas are all brought together with the idea that they support each other, despite the fact that the argument would fall apart if even one of these things not true. But! NOT ONLY is there one part that is false, ALL OF THE PARTS are actually false. And, not only that! Even if all of the parts were TRUE, the argument would still be false. You can see the problems I might have dealing with it. So, let’s break it down.
Comics Have Always Been Like That
Is it True?
No. Here is a picture of Star Sapphire from 1962.
Here is a picture of what Star Sapphire looks like now:
Notice any differences? (Hint: her neckline goes down to her vagina.) If you’d like, we can get some more examples, but I think the point is clear. Whether or not repressing women’s sexuality is good, the fact of the matter is that media, up until recently, often went out of its way to DE-sexualize both women and men. Especially the comics, which, under the Comics Code, were probably prevented from showing nipples and labias everywhere. The hyper-sexualization of women in comics is actually a relatively recent phenomenon; it’s concomitant with, though probably not caused by, the rise in superhero comics. More likely it’s a latent tendency which spandex and thongs permitted. New advancements in colorization, new lapses in restrictions on content, new changes in social mores have all permitted female characters to have bigger boobs, bendier spines, improbably long legs, and constantly shiny skin.
Would It Matter If It Were True?
Also no. We did a lot of stupid things in the old days. Even assuming that tits and ass were somehow some “traditional” part of the comic book style — like naked boobs everywhere were some kind of legacy handed down to us by our grandfathers that we were obligated to preserve — we would still not be obligated to preserve it. Just because guys did it in Olde Timey days doesn’t mean we have to do it now; I mean, have you seen the way our grandfathers portrayed black people in comics? Was that okay, just because they did it in the 50s?
All Other Media Does It, Too
Is It True?
Nope. It turns out that women can have parts in television shows, for example, without being all tarted up like porn stars. I think I’ve mentioned my affection for actresses like:
Are they attractive actresses? Yes, sure. But the argument — that media always expresses “the ideal”, and therefore every woman that appears should be as supremely sexy as possible — is grossly flawed. The media can, and does, present women in ways such that they matter for reasons besides their sexiness — that their physical attractiveness is substantially less important than the nature of their characters. Which is why Mary McCormack’s character always puts her hair up before the goes on a raid in In Plain Sight — just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she needs to have the sexiest possible hair at all times.
Would It Matter If It Were True?
What, the “everyone else is doing it” argument? Well, here’s a serious question: if everyone else was jumping off a bridge, would you do it? I don’t know if you learned this in school or what, but just because everyone else is doing it DOES NOT MEAN IT’S OKAY.
All Women In Comics Are Like That
Is It True?
Well, presumably this just means “All women in good comics” are like that. And, even if we discount the fact that Frank Quitely’s women are invariably not sexy AT ALL, due to pervasive use of the fish lips technique, it’s STILL not true.
It turns out, a female character doesn’t need her ass cheeks sticking out around her thong, or her boobs spilling out of some improbable spandex, to be a compelling character.
Would It Matter If It Were True?
Still no, largely for the reasons stated above. Especially look: if the socially responsible thing is eventually going to happen, SOMEONE has to start doing it. It might as well be you, right?
Comics Do The Same Thing With Men
Is It True?
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Generally in the comics all the men have broad shoulders and huge arms and square jaws and, yeah, they probably give young boys body dysmorphia, too. But there are some subtle differences, if you keep your eyes open. Look at my favorite character, Wolverine:
Notice how hairy and scruffy he is? He’s also usually short and kind of weird shaped. Now, who would you say was the female equivalent? The one who, say, doesn’t shave her armpits? Yeah, I can’t think of one, either. Definitely no one on the X-Men team. Hey, now that I think about it, isn’t it weird how almost all of the standard X-Women are exactly the same height?
Here’s another test: go through your favorite DC heroes. Now, think of your favorite DC heroes that don’t wear pants. How many of those pantsless heroes are women? Think about Superman for a second: what if he started going without pants? Would you think that was weird? Superman doesn’t need pants, after all, he’s invulnerable. You would think it was weird, obviously, and why? Because it would seem a little gay to you to look at a guy’s naked legs while you’re reading your comics. Because you sexualize naked legs.
Let’s take a look at one more picture:
Ew, gross! But let’s notice some things, shall we? First of all, you’ll notice how, despite being cannibalized, the Wasp still manages to have her tits sticking directly out at the viewer. That’s pretty impressive, and a hallmark of the “tits-out” way that women are drawn in comics — but I’m sure you’ve noticed the same is not necessarily true with men. Every picture of Captain America doesn’t have his crotch thrust directly out to the viewer.
But notice something else: the Blob. The Blob is hideous, and fat, and covered with warts! And he’s not the only hideous and ugly villain — or even the only hideous and ugly character in comics at all. So, let’s do an imaginary tally: of all the ugly characters in Marvel comics (and this includes characters that, like the Beast, just don’t happen to look like people) how many are male? How many are female? They’re mostly male, aren’t they. Why do you suppose that is?
It is because, far from being a particular aesthetic imperative of comics that is devoid of relation to social norms, the style of comics reflects a social double standard — men, because they are relevant despite their physical attractiveness, can be ugly in media; women are so intricately associated with how attractive they are that they cannot be.
Would It Matter If It Were True?
No, not really. It’s only fair to treat things the same if they are actually the same. If two things are different, it’s actually UNFAIR to treat them as though they are the same. So, even if comics equally idealized and sexualized both men and women, the fact that women have a very different experience, and are subject to very different social norms, and are the recipients of very different historical expectations means it’s not necessarily appropriate. Pretending centuries of misogyny and oppression didn’t occur, and aren’t still a pervasive problem in our society, is not the same thing as “equality.”
The problem is that, to make this defense, you have to treat any given comic book or piece of comic book art as an isolated incident — independent of history and context. But there is, of course, no such thing as an isolated incident. Everything is the product of history and context.
Some Supplemental Arugments:
Who Cares, They’re Just Comics; Who Cares, People Like to See Tits; Who Cares, They Aren’t Supposed to Be Realistic; Who Cares As Long As It’s Successful?
These are all bullshit positions: It Isn’t Proust, I Just Wanted to See Some Tits, You’re Talking About Realism, and Everyone Shut Up and Let Buying Decide, respectively. I have answered them already, and they can be discarded out of hand.
If You Want to Complain About THIS You Have to Complain about Decades Worth of Misogyny
Okay, I’ll just do that, then. Consider that this current criticism also INCLUDES criticism of all previous instances of misogyny. Contrary to popular belief, I am not omniscient, and can’t immediately know when women are being misrepresented in any particular medium. The fact that I didn’t criticize Lady Death when the series ran SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO when I was TWELVE is not a tacit endorsement for Lady Death.
If It’s What People Are Buying, Marvel Has to Put Tits Everywhere
Shame on you for suggesting that the free market is a binary system; what, everything that’s successful is 100% precisely calibrated to the specific tastes of the maximum number of potential consumers? The free market is a complex and adaptive system, with flexibility and tolerances, capable of absorbing small and incremental changes, and permitting the recalibration of social norms through that. For fuck’s sake, where the hell did you study economics?
If There Are All These Examples of Good Portrayals of Women, Then There Must Not Really Be A Problem
Hahah, you almost had me there with your pedantic sophistry. But no, again we’re not talking about a binary situation: EITHER women are misrepresented in comics OR women aren’t. I’m talking about a general trend, and using specific examples from a small subset to show that the trend isn’t inevitable, and thus that we don’t need the fatalistic position of “Well, if they want tits, we’ve got to give them tits.”
People Know That Comics Aren’t Real/Girls Don’t Look to Comics for Body Image Perspectives
No (and that’s a problem that the major comic companies are struggling with, isn’t it?), but boys do. And boys grow up to be men (well, to be older boys, at least) who are then responsible for making decisions about comic books, television shows, movies. They have daughters. Their expectations about what is normal, what is acceptable, what is sexy, are absorbed into the aggregate collective of societal norms. Women being insecure about their breasts is a product of men wanting women with big boobs, and men wanting big boobs is a product of…what, precisely? Are you going to say their parents? You weren’t going to say that, were you, that PARENTS should be responsible for raising kids to think this is unacceptable?
Let me offer up a little thought experiment, for you: when YOU decided that you were going to be attracted to big boobs, was it because of a conversation that you had with your dad? Or was it…wait, whoah, did you learn to behave in society by absorbing images, ideas, and information from that society? Through the many MEDIA that society uses to convey that information? Did you pick up ideas from your peers, who ALSO picked up images from those same MEDIA?
I know, weird, right? If we couldn’t convey anything through art — and if we couldn’t affect people with it — why would we have it in the first place?
Finally: Credit Where It Is Due:
It’s probably an accident of self-interest and the need for young women readers, but whatever — good things, even if they come from selfish reasons, are still good. So, good job on DC for bringing Gail Simone back for Birds of Prey. Good job on Marvel for Girl Comics and Her-oes (despite their terrible names). Good job on Avatar Press for consistently publishing titles with strong female leads. Great work Faith Erin Hicks, and all of the other women who are struggling to work in an industry that has the deck stacked against them a bit, and to the women creators working outside the industry (Molly Crabapple, Carla Speed McNeil).
I will admit that I like to look at pictures of sexy women, I won’t lie about that. Hey, I don’t even dislike J. Scott Campbell; I found Gen 13 to be extremely titillating, especially when I was fifteen. But I recognize that the industry needs to change, that there are more important things in the world than my personal tastes, and that, perhaps most importantly, I’m also fully capable of enjoying things that aren’t just tits and ass sticking out all the time.