Over at i09.com Rob Bricken presents a list of arguments that I suppose he hears often when the subject of sexism in comics books come up. I am the sort of guy who would make the occasional counter-argument to an article that puts the subject in view, so I was interested a great deal. i09 itself has made more than a few articles on this kind of thing, most recently a Spider-Woman cover, so I’m sure he’s versed enough in the opposing arguments for his list to be fairly comprehensive. Thing is, when you kick off your article with nuggets like, “They’re wrong on all counts. Here’s some helpful logic that proves why,” understand that he’s coming out arms swinging (flailing really). I say this to prepare you for the general tone of this reply. And I’m replying here instead of on the article itself because their current pending comment system is hit or miss. I’ll be rebutting his rebuttals. So go ahead, have a click.
I’ll be quoting both Rob’s argument examples as well as his replies to them. There will be some cases where I don’t quote his full replies and instead highlight the choice portions for space. I hope not to misrepresent him. Let’s get to it.
1) Male Superheroes Are Drawn In The Same Way
This is empirically untrue. The proof — and lots of it — is easily found at The Hawkeye Initiative, which takes art of female characters in comics, redraws them as men, and reveals exactly how men are virtually never drawn in the same position (and, as a bonus, often highlights how improbable the positions are in the first place). Sure, you can find some drawings of male comic characters where they seem similar to “sexy” drawings of female characters, but even a cursory examination will reveal this is not actually happening.
Well I don’t think you know what was meant by this argument. While I can’t speak for others, and I personally never used this argument, I think I can help you see what’s the idea.
I think we would both agree that in terms of presentation; both sexes exude physical perfection. So it comes down to how these impossibly sculpted bodies are presented. People tend to point out that males show power while females show sexiness. But when some say males are drawn the say way what’s really being pointed out is they are both presenting unreachable levels of what society expects of perfect bodies. You only highlight females because you feel being sexy is objectification, when really both sexes are being shilled to a demographic (which is mostly boys as far as ‘hero books’ go, but we’ll get to that in a bit). Superman above is being presented as strong and free, flying over Metropolis and stuff. Well what’s so special about being strong? You can’t beat viruses with punches. He didn’t even train or anything, it’s the sun that powers him up. That pic above presents qualities that are not only unattainable, but kinda bullshit. Consider Clark is actually an accomplished, educated journalists – but how many covers show that off? Male and females are drawn to show off what’s most interesting and eye catching for the target demo. Guys like the sexy, and also wouldn’t wanna see an Alex Ross variant of Clark Kent researching Benghazi.
For instance, let’s take the recently infamous Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover, and this J. Scott Campbell Spider-Man cover where Spider-Man seems to be roughly in the same position. Certainly there are some similarities between the Spidey and Spider-Woman, most notably in their vividly defined buttocks, but Spider-Man’s back is straight, meaning his ass is not positioned up in the air. Because the ass is at the top of the picture, it appears similar to the Spider-Woman cover, but Spider-Man is clearly curved over the ball of webbing, and his impossibly wide-apart legs confirm this.
This is the kind rationalizing that really frustrates my side of things. Is Peter arching his back like Jessica; no. Is it because Marvel went out of their way to objectify or because men aren’t really expected to arch their back even for especially erotic presentation? You seen that Spidey cover in the wake of the Spider-Woman article, so what you did was pinpoint the finest of differences to dismiss it. And on Spidey Woman’s posture:
In humans, it’s popularly known as “face down, ass up” and let’s just say if you do a Google image search for “lordosis” you’re more likely to find mostly-naked models and porn stars in the position than clothed women (and virtually no men at all).
Primarily because it’s visually mimicking a sex position that, normally, heterosexual men wouldn’t do during the course of sex. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say “virtually” since homosexual porn does have men in that position. I imagine you either don’t know this or dismissed it if you did. You may have to do more than a Google search for this kind of thing.
2) All Superheroes Wear Tights, So They’re All Supposed to Be Sexy
Not true. You can still find plenty of heroes and heroines who rock the full-body, every ab and body-contour defining tights look, but there’s been a definite move away from the painted-on look. DC’s New 52 gave most of its iconic characters armor, including Superman, the one superhero who needs it least of all. Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, the X-Men, even if they’re not actually pictured in armor, they’re pictured as wearing clothes — you can see the fabric bunch up, or seams, or even just rips that serve as a visual shorthand that the characters are not in fact wearing body paint.
There are a great many more male recipients of this change than female, and coupled with the abundance of sexualized poses mentioned above, they’re both part of a clear double standard, where female characters are often relegated to providing sex appeal for male readers.
Are you acknowledging that females are also moving away from the ‘body paint’ model, just not as wholesale as men? Change takes time, and it’s childish to want it instantaneously. There’s certain expectations with legacy characters to consider. There’s a new Power Girl coming out that, aside from updated attire, retains the cleavage window. I like the cleavage window, but not for sexual reasons (I don’t really find sexuality in any comic characters, that never clicked for me), I like it because it’s Power Girl’s thing. The publication history behind it was funny, and it’s whatever. So the black chick kept it, and I’m happy. I don’t even care that she’s black. Superheroes were always a symbolic thing for me, beyond race and creed. Anyway, yeah female heroes are presented sexy and many still still have body paint costumes to appeal to male readers. This isn’t a problem, it’s a sales thing.
3) But There Are Women Who Like Sexy Women Too!
True! And there are also women who like sexy women who don’t like being sexually objectified!
Yes, we call them hypocrites.
4) If You Don’t Like It, You Don’t Have to Buy It
This is technically true but completely irrelevant. Sure, you don’t have to buy it, but it still exists. A comic company still released it, giving it tacit approval. If Marvel released an X-Men cover of naked Emma Frost scissoring Jean Grey, choosing not to buy it wouldn’t somehow make it okay. You don’t have to purchase the cover to find its content problematic. Period.
So… when guys like me say your views are an attack on creative freedom, and you say it isn’t, the bolded portion of your reply kinda puts that on blast right? You have issue with women in comics being presented as sexy existing. You don’t wanna see it at all, and any production of such material is a “tacit approval”. First of all, don’t dismiss the consumer choice so bluntly. Comics are a business not a social service. The fact that you don’t have to buy it is a powerful trait of commerce itself. Not buying something is you making the statement that it’s not okay, and if enough of like-minded people make that boycott – change can occur. But that boycott would be against the target demo buying these comics in droves, and I think that bothers you.
A major concern I have with your approach to this very potent argument is how you really reveal your endgame on the matter. You don’t wanna see it at all, but that’s isn’t your call to make. It bothers you, fine. You see a trend, sure. When you say not buying it won’t help, that its existence is a problem, and any further production is approval of sexism – you’re on some heavy Nanny State shit, dude. ‘Period’.
5) 47% of Comics Readers Are Female, So They Clearly Don’t Have Any Real Problems With This Stuff
This just makes no sense whatsoever…
You like saying conclusive things like, “Not true,” “This is irrelevant,” “Here’s some logic,” “Period” and such. Your article has this pompous air of authority and finality that I find audacious. Stop doing that.
…Unless you assume that by reading comics female fans have absolutely no issues or qualms with anything in the industry. These female comic readers might be purchasing the comics that don’t objectify women, but even if they aren’t, purchasing one or more comics hardly proves a blanket approval of the entire industry. For instance, I would assume that gay Batman fans are not big fucking fans of DC’s decision to not let Batwoman marry — even if they keep buying the comics.
They could… not… buy the comics. What is it about the power of consumers you don’t get? I wasn’t a fan of that call either, but you can bet if it bothered me that much – I guess I’m not gonna support DC Comics until they course correct or at least explain themselves in a better fashion. You say more further sexualized female art are a tacit approval of sexism; I would say further purchases from the company is a tacit approval of their apparent sexism.
In fact, we can assume that the increased female audience is why when comics pull shit like the Milo Manara cover it gets more attention than it used to. The more female readers the comics industry has, the more it should be sensitive to them — if not just because it’s run by decent human beings, then in order to maximize their sales. It’s just good business to try to prevent these readers from feeling uncomfortable, objectified or gross, or give them reasons for not wanting to purchase their products.
Oh so you do understand the power of the sale? You know that maximizing profits is the goal here. I’m glad you’re on my page now. Because for a second there, I believed you didn’t care for market facts like demographics and consumer power; that you were on this moral roller coaster of justice or whatever.
When I think ‘maximizing sales’ what comes to mind is the videogame industry’s AAA model. In this they attempt to appeal to as many people as possible, which really comes down to appeasing the lowest common denominator, by checking off requirement features and systems. This has led to AAA games becoming largely homogenized, creatively stagnant, and lacking true personality. Things really reached a peak throughout the HD Era of gaming (360/PS3) and it’s only recently people are getting tired of shiny bullshit that lacks character. This lead to major drop-offs in the multiplayer communities stuffed into nearly every AAA game, so to protect income we saw more and more cash grab initiatives – anything but a push to make better games that weren’t afraid of not appealing to everybody.
I give this brief videogame perspective of mine to explain how appealing to as many people as possible is eventually a weaker model than teaching people to support what’s naturally reaching out to them. i09 highlights smaller and indy comics that present women just the way you want. How about your push that and be the place people like you can really dive into new characters and stories rather than write a massively strawman article about how you’re essentially pissed that sex sells and continues to do so.
6) It’s Stupid to Be Upset About Anything in Comics. They’re About People with Superpowers!
Yes, superhero comics are fiction, and fantastic fiction at that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t hold them accountable for their problems. If nothing in comics matter, then why did fans lose their minds over Spider-Man’s Clone Saga? Surely if fans are allowed to be upset about an (exceedingly) awkward storyline with no negative social ramifications, then people are also allowed to be upset by sexual objectification in the comics as well.
The Clone Saga was a badly written utterly 90’s example of Spider-Man’s ‘tragedy porn’ history. Our gripes with that storyline were purely narrative in nature, and totally not about blowing certain trends out of the water. So no, there would be very little social ramifications for calling out a bad storyline – as comics tend to be about stories.
Just because these things are about people who can fly and have crazy powers doesn’t somehow excuse or justify any crap you want to write or draw. Writing a comic about Captain America going on a Mel Gibson-style anti-Semitic rant would not somehow be excused by the premise that he was injected with the Super-Soldier Serum during World War II. Nor does the fact that Spider-Woman has spider-powers somehow mean that Milo Manara cover is not sexist.
Captain America making a racists rant would never make press, seeing as how A) it’s way against character and B) blatant racism from a mainstream hero is PR suicide. I’m amused that you compared Spider-Woman’s cover to a racists Steve Rogers. That’s not the rationality you advertised at the top of your article.
7) What’s Wrong with Female Characters Being Sexy?
Nothing’s wrong with having a sexy character. There is something wrong about relegating female characters to plot devices and/or sex objects. History is important here: we’re talking about comic books, a medium that has historically neglected female audiences (straight, bi and lesbian!). Comics need to offer a wide range of roles for female characters, and so far they haven’t done a good job offering many roles beyond sidekick, “lady version” of a male hero, sexpot, girlfriend, or background decoration.
I’m gonna quote one Johanna Draper Carlson of Comics Worth Reading:
“Superhero comics aren’t for girls” is true the same way “romance novels aren’t for boys” or “action movies aren’t for girls” are. They’re gender-identified genres. The people who make them and the majority of the people who consume them know who their audience tends to be. Recognizing that doesn’t make you sexist or invalidate anyone’s tastes; it’s just realism. “Chick lit” and fashion mags are aimed at women; Mack Bolan books and gun and car mags are aimed at men.
This historical neglect you’re talking about? That’s called targeting a demographic. It’s no more neglecting a group than dolls neglecting boys, or dog houses neglecting cats. The market splinters into things for specific demographics. Gaming was like that for a time, before the AAA model dictated ‘everything for everyone’. You are not satisfied with exploring the options available, so you instead attack the mainstream comic industry rather than promote more alternative comics.
8) Comics Aren’t Any Worse Than Magazines Like Cosmopolitan or Elle. They Show Sexy Undressed Women Everywhere!
I’ve never said anything like this and if anybody really did even I wouldn’t consider that a good argument. I’d only mention Cosmo and such as an example of gender centric products, or at least gender leading products. I enjoy the View on occasion, and I would call for an addition of a male host because I understand that the View is targeted to females. But anyway, yeah, this argument is something I can’t really sympathize with.
9) You’re Just Trying to Make People Feel Ashamed About Sex!
Being opposed to sexual objectification in the comics industry does not equate to hating sex. You can love sex but still hate the idea of limiting women’s roles in pop culture to sex objects. Treating women as objects absolutely takes away their humanity, and then they are valued less. Sexualize objects all you want — go fuck your car or whatever — but the fact remains that reducing one class of people to sex objects is objectively bad.
Just wanna make clear we’re talking about cartoon characters on paper; ink and color. They have no humanity. We can write them to be as realistic or goofy as we want. They have no personable rights or civil liberties. That bolded line reminds me of Anita Sarkeesian’s concept of calling EMT’s and other emergency services when people die in Watch Dogs. It’s wild. Seriously, women in comics will only ever be as valuable the damn cover price. They are comic book characters, not a class of people.
10) IT’S A DOUBLE STANDARD
I’ll just go and agree with you that this is incorrect-ish. It is most females that are sexualized, and very few instances of men being presented that way. When Lobo got redesigned for the New 52, people had all sorts of gripes unrelated to him being much more appealing to women. However:
Male readers are not being ignored…
Of course not, they’re the principle buyers of hero books.
…Female readers are not being pandered to at the cost of men’s dignity.
A whole sub-genre of manga laughs at this.
You can pretend that pictures of male characters and female characters are drawn in the same way, but they’re not; you can argue that male characters are sexed up to sell comic like female characters are, but that’s wrong; and hell, you can even pretend that there’s some big conspiracy that is trying to somehow elevate women over men through the medium of comics. But that’s fucking absurd.
I know you’re summarizing your piece here but it kinda reads like you’re arguing with your evil clone.
We bring up problems with sexism in comics, and will continue to bring them up, because the comics industry has been treating fictional and non-fictional women with a double standard for decades. And now we’re trying to muddle our way to actual equality. Because comics have been traditionally made for an almost exclusively male audience, and the entire industry built itself around it; because female readers almost equal male readers now and they deserve to be acknowledged and treated with respect. Because like so many things, practices that were once considered acceptable are no longer. Because we recognize things need to change, even if requires holding companies to a higher standard regarding female characters and audiences.
It’s not a double standard, it’s the right thing to do.
You can begin by supporting comics that speak your language, boycotting comics that disgust you, and making a footprint in the marketplace for products you deem worthy. Everything else is fluffy nonsense. And the next time you decide to make a piece like this, tone down the audacious rhetoric. All us bloggers tend to have an air of egotism, sure, but you can stand to approach this with a bit more respect to your opposition.
Good day, Rob.