Friday, October 30, 2009

Women in Spandex

Last Saturday I attended the Boston Comic Con and had the pleasure of introducing one of my friends to the world of comic books. She doesn't read comics, she doesn't like comics and she doesn't know anything about comics, but thanks to the kindness of the artists and writers in attendance and especially to the creative energy that filled Artists Alley, my friend ended up having a very good time. All in all, it was a very successful trip.

With one small exception. Passing by the prints and posters arrayed along the walls in front of Artists Alley, we were confronted with picture after picture of scantily clad, huge breasted and impossibly proportioned women arranged in painful and sexually charged poses. Walking past, my friend commented that as a woman, it was sometimes difficult for her to look at comics.

Here's a dirty secret, though: as a man, it's often difficult for me to look at those pictures as well, because they don't just demean women, they demean the audience too. They don't just pander to the lowest common denominator, they actually lower that denominator even further by creating a locker room mentality that alienates fully half of the potential readership of the form. If fans of comics sometimes complain that their medium isn't taken seriously, I say, look around at what we are presenting to the world, because we've earned it.

Of course, complaints about how women are portrayed in comics are nothing new. Current Wonder Woman writer Gail Simone helped bring the issue to the forefront when she was still a fan back in the 90's with her website Women in Refrigerators, which explored the many ways that female characters in comics were often abused, murdered or otherwise traumatized as plot points for their more popular male counterparts. But though the website gained a lot of attention, to the point where the term "women in refrigerators" is now comics shorthand for negative treatment of women in comics, the actual content of the comics in question hasn't changed significantly in the years since. In part this is likely due to the simple fact that, as refrigerator death scene author Ron Marz himself argued with some validity, women aren't the main characters in most of these titles, meaning that as supporting characters they exist primarily to move the plot forward for the main characters, who are usually male.

However, my concern is less with how the characters are written (which is a whole different topic) but more with how they are drawn. Comics is at heart an inherently visual medium, and how women are drawn -- how they are portrayed on the page in the literal sense of the word -- in some ways carries a more immediate and visceral message than the words and actions taken by the characters within the stories. Even on this front, of course, there are some who argue that the unrealistic depiction of female superheroes is part of the form; the male characters, after all, are also exaggerated physically, so it stands to reason that the women would also be given idealized figures as well.

But while this may be true as far as the design of the characters, it does not address the way those characters are depicted in terms of the situations, poses and contexts which they are portrayed in. There's nothing wrong with having beautiful, attractive and fit women in comics, nor in drawing them well; mainstream superhero comics have been doing this for decades. Yet in recent years, artists and editors have begun overtly emphasizing sexuality on covers and in interior shots, not just for characters whose sexuality has long been a central part of their identity (such as Vampirella or Emma Frost), but for any and all female characters regardless of their personality within the stories themselves.

This sort of blanket sexualization has several negative effects. Firstly, it damages the character's credibility with the readers, both within the story and in the larger fan consciousness. Mockingbird, for instance, was at the center of one of the most famous stories about sexual and emotional abuse in the history of comics, yet how seriously are modern readers supposed to take her when she is now best known for gratuitous ass shots? Covers like this send the message that the company itself doesn't necessarily respect their own character -- and often they don't. While the writers of Avengers: the Initiative are trying to rehabilitate the character, for the last several years Tigra has been written pretty much as a punchline, dismissed for her sexuality both by writers and fans alike. Even Mary Jane Watson, who is a well respected fan favorite, has spent more and more time in recent years lounging around in lingerie for no apparent reason, a new attitude towards the character that was perhaps best represented by Marvel's infamous "Mary Jane Bending Over" statue, complete with coquettish grin and visible thong.

This undermining of the characters is only exacerbated when the companies package their female characters together for the sole purpose of showing off their T & A (see: this review of Gotham Sirens) or throw them together into a nominal "women's" title like Marvel Divas, which appropriates the settings and characterizations of Sex & The City and then undermines whatever (debatable) appeal this might have for women by packaging it as puerile fantasy.

This kind of ill-conceived fan-service is the second major negative effect that this kind of objectification has, because by pandering to the type of reader who enjoy this kind of thing, the publishers end up alienating those who do not. This becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, because when the only fans left are those who buy these kinds of comics, these kind of comics are the only ones that will sell. If you've devalued your female characters to the point where the only interest that remains in them is sexual, than that is the only kind of viable use left for those female characters.

This also means that in essence you are training new comic readers to expect their female characters to be sexualized. Leaving aside the impact that this may have on younger readers by normalizing these kinds of depictions of women, this has the predictable corollary of training young female readers what not to expect from comics: strong characters, reasonable representation or inclusive role models that they can become invested in as readers. And this is the third, and perhaps most important effect this kind of art has: it drives away potential female readers and creators.

This cannot be overstated. The medium of comics is inherently gender neutral. When I was growing up, I knew any number of girls who read comic strips -- collections of comics like Calvin & Hobbes or Bloom County. Yet none of them ended up making the jump to comic books. Why? Because of the reputation comics have as a boys only club.

Now, part of this no doubt is do the dominant and admittedly violent superhero genre. But much of it can also be attributed to the roles that female characters play within that genre -- not just as plot points or dead girlfriends in refrigerators, but as eye candy utilized by artists (and in some cases writers) for fan-service. Now why would any woman or young girl want to try any of these comics out? And what's true for readers seems even more true for creators. While Simone, who I mentioned earlier, has had success in the field, she is the exception rather than the rule. Historically and presently, mainstream comics have had very few women. Yet, efforts by women publishing in underground or independent comics have proven that there are plenty of women with the talent and skill to succeed in the medium. So why aren't there more female pros working in mainstream comics? Maybe because they don't want to. And why would they want to?

All this is not to suggest that there is no place for sexuality in comics, even in mainstream superhero comics. Of course there is. There are many female -- and male --characters who are sexual by nature and there's no reason to eliminate or downplay this. But by the same token, there are plenty of characters who aren't particularly sexual. There are plenty of female characters who are simply strong, or smart, or brave, or dumb, or cowardly, or weak, or beautiful, or ugly, or kind or evil or just simply boring. And that's the whole point: female characters should be given the same benefits as their male counterparts and be written -- and drawn -- as individual characters, rather than just as props in a sexual fantasy.

Because I think that's all any real comic reader wants: to read about compelling, unique and interesting characters. And once comics start giving us women who fit that description, maybe we'll start seeing more girls picking up comics, more women writing comics and more female fans able to attend comic conventions without being uncomfortable or embarrassed at they way the industry looks at them.


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9 comments:

Hey, love the Vault, but I don't understand your problem with "women in spandex".

While I was reading comic books as a youth, my sister collected Barbra Carrtland "romance novels". The fact that comic books were/are more appealing to the likes/sexuality of males is only reflective of the allure of "romance novels" toward females. Is it unfair that romance novels do not cater to boys??, i don't think so. If a boy likes that sort of thing, fine, just as a girl can look past the violence, or "boobs" that are prevalent in comic books, and still enjoy them for what they ARE.

My favorite comic artist, George Perez, has a background in depicting voluptuous female forms, which he brings to his comic book art. His drawing of Starfire from the New Teen Titans definitely were a highlight, even for my young eyes. I feel if Perez had been censored from drawing his females so "sexy", ALL comic book readers would be missing out on one aspect I consider integral to my appreciation and love for the comic book medium.

And, as always, if the images offend you, you have the option NOT TO BUY/READ IT.

Thanks for all the interesting blogs, BTW.

starfoxxx

Thanks for the comment, starfoxxx.

I have no problem with artists drawing sexy women. There's a difference, however, between being sexy and being sexualized. Jean Grey is sexy, for instance. Jean Grey bending over the hood of a car, looking over her shoulder with a come hither smile and a saucy wink is sexualization, however.

Let's use Scarlett Johannson as an example. She's a sexy woman. In some of the roles she plays, this is highlighted do to the nature of the character. In others, it isn't as important so it isn't a focal point. Now, imagine if every time she signed on to a film, the director said, "well, since Scarlett Johannson is in the movie, now the character is going to dress in a bikini and try to seduce the male lead". That's pretty much what seems to be happening in a lot of comics -- regardless of the character's personality history or concept, if it's a female character, what's highlighted is the sexual component.

I'm all for sexy characters, and if the character happens to be sexual in addition, than fine. Kory's depiction seemed in keeping with her personality. But it doesn't fit, say, Firestar, and I don't really appreciate that kind of forced cheesecake.

Lastly, I personally don't buy those comics. But that's part of my point. Many women also choose not to buy these books, yet if they want to read comics, what alternatives do they have? Increasingly, none. And that, I think, is a real shame.

"I have no problem with artists drawing sexy women. There's a difference, however, between being sexy and being sexualized. Jean Grey is sexy, for instance. Jean Grey bending over the hood of a car, looking over her shoulder with a come hither smile and a saucy wink is sexualization, however."
But what is wrong with that then?
What makes you think a women would not see the pic and see a powerful women aggressively using her sexuality.

Do you really think women are so scared of sexuality?

Go compare covers of maxim to Cosmo sometime, or look at the covers of books and adds directed at women.
It might not be morally right to objectify women but it would seam women as a generalization have little problem doing it themselves.

What makes you think a women would not see the pic and see a powerful women aggressively using her sexuality.

Do you really think women are so scared of sexuality?

I'm guessing you're a guy. As a women, I would not see that, because I'm not a idiot. I know that that's NOT a women agressively using her sexuality that's a woman showing off her gams so men can fap to it and think of her as a piece of meat, and I'm not interested.

I's not about being "afraid" (ha!) It's about being disgusted at how clearly comics aren't interested in courting anyone outside their straight white male demographic and how they don't respect their characters. I read the superhero genre for superheroes, not to see softcore porn.

And you're using a strawman argument by diverting the argument with a vague example of "ads directed at women"... what ads? And why should we ignore one problem because another exists?

"I'm guessing you're a guy. As a women, I would not see that, because I'm not a idiot."
Are you really saying I have to be a guy because a women would not be such a idiot? Kinda feels like misandry to me. If I do happen to be a women am I a traitor to my gender or something?

"I's not about being "afraid" (ha!) It's about being disgusted at how clearly comics aren't interested in courting anyone outside their straight white male demographic and how they don't respect their characters."
What makes you think that the majority of women feel that way?
Are comic books porny? Yes but the evidence would seem that this fact might not be such the villain that some make it out to be.

"And you're using a strawman argument by diverting the argument with a vague example of "ads directed at women"... what ads?"
what adds? Help yourself.
http://www.kon.org/urc/v5/blaha.html
and
http://www.redorbit.com/news/health/126702/advertising_images_of_females_in_seventeen_positions_of_power_or/
"And why should we ignore one problem because another exists?"
Because right now right and wrong are not what I am concerned with, I am wondering how it effect women.

To Anon,
We know you're a guy, because you do not understand how women think.

Seeing female characters in comics sexualized in both art and plot isn't about it being the wrong thing to do (although I think it is) it's about it not being interesting to women.

Sexualization may be an appealing part of comics for men, but it's just empty filler for women. And while a little might be palatable for a while, when every storyline is full of passive, objectified women, we lose interest.

Comics objectify women, in that they are treated as objects, with no internal motivations for themselves. In the example of Jean Grey bending over a hood of a car, this is not her agressively using her sexuality. A sexually agressive woman will go for the guy. It takes two to tango. Washing a car scantily clad is not fufilling for a woman, she just ends up at the end cold and wet.

Part of why spider-man is so popular is because he's so relatable. People (both men and women) identify with his personality and struggles. When a woman in comics is portrayed as empty, no-one relates to her, she's jsut filler. And when a character you love is portrayed like that, it's hella irritating.

What about the influence of MANGA art-style on comic book art?

I count myself as one of the minority that are NOT manga fans.
Hey, if you like it, fine, but I prefer comic book art BEFORE the 90's style, with Liefeld being an example. The huge "boobs and booties" but in grotesque, and unappealling fashion. I like a sexy, Perez or Greg Horn or Land-drawn lady, but the 90's style is just plain UGLY.

But the manga-influence also depicts males as overly muscular, to a grotesque point. Are these artists now objectifying men, also????

starfoxxx

“What makes you think that the majority of women feel that way?”

I'm a woman who works in a comic store. Based on anecdotal evidence (specifically the women I’ve talked to both while working and outside of my job), YES, women are most emphatically driven away from super-hero comics due to the sexual objectification of female characters. The ones I talk to outside of my job think that they are all T&A and explosions. The ones that do buy comics are deeply wary of getting into the super-hero stream; many have been burned by casually sexist attitudes and images within their pages. Hell, I definitely have!

“Are comic books porny? Yes but the evidence would seem that this fact might not be such the villain that some make it out to be.”

What evidence? Was there some kind of finding on how being objectified helps women better cope the stresses of day to day life? Improves our chances at surviving cancer? Makes us better cooks?

I’m all for everyone getting their pencil porn; I’m just saying that when comic companies claim comics don’t appeal to woman, they are wrong. Being treated like an accessory doesn’t appeal to women and they are voting with their dollars, which is why ‘Women don’t read comic books’.

“But the manga-influence also depicts males as overly muscular, to a grotesque point. Are these artists now objectifying men, also????”

I assume you mean certain shonen titles in which the men are depicted as very strong and the women as very busty. This is similar to super-hero comics, actually. Is it objectification of men? No. The men are not OBJECTS in these stories, they are the SUBJECTS. Men do things; women have things done to them. That is the difference.

"To Anon,
We know you're a guy, because you do not understand how women think."
So if I am a woman do I have to turn in my hive vagina card?
Would it make you feel better if a known women was saying something like this? It is about video games but for the most part it fits perfectly.
http://www.strangehorizons.com/2006/20061023/gathman-c.shtml

"Sexualization may be an appealing part of comics for men, but it's just empty filler for women. And while a little might be palatable for a while, when every storyline is full of passive, objectified women, we lose interest."
Of that I am sure we can agree to a point. If you don't have a plot and it is just about the boobs anyone not interested in boobs is going to be put off by the book.

"Comics objectify women, in that they are treated as objects, with no internal motivations for themselves."
I am sure sometimes this is true and I don't read very many comics myself to conform but what I have seem makes me doubt this is even the norm.

"But the manga-influence also depicts males as overly muscular, to a grotesque point. Are these artists now objectifying men, also????"
:shrug: What is more interesting to me is how the sexualization of the women in the mangas has not seem to stop them from having a larger female fanbase.

"I'm a woman who works in a comic store. Based on anecdotal evidence"
based on non-anecdotal evidence we have known for some time that attractiveness will effect how someone feels about a product.
We also know that male nudity will increase brand name recognition and sells to men.
http://www.springerlink.com/content/r315t78668451426/fulltext.pdf
Here is some more fr you.
"Young women view sexualized images as role models and their own sexuality as their primary tool for self-efficacy (Baldwin, 1999)"
more?
"Recent trends in both feminism and pop culture have encouraged young women to equate beauty and sexuality with power (Drake, 2002; Kilbourne, 1999; Wolf, 1992)."

"The ones I talk to outside of my job think that they are all T&A and explosions."
I wonder where they got that idea.

"What evidence? Was there some kind of finding on how being objectified helps women better cope the stresses of day to day life? Improves our chances at surviving cancer? Makes us better cooks?"
See above and thank you for that straw man argument.