The Male Gaze and the Female Superhero

I’ve always had a fondness for comics, although I think my interest has been piqued mostly as an adult, heh, not as a child. But scanning the rows of comic books almost always left me cold. The way the female characters were drawn was always so aggravating. Now I certainly understand that the superhero genre is particularly known for its exaggerated human forms, but the women were always so flagrantly hypersexualized that it would just turn me off. So I thought it be good to take another look at the male gaze in comic art (click on that link! Not only will you find a good description of what the term means, the author has conveniently included a panel from a Batman comic as an example). For some of you, this is old hat – for some others, this might be a new ground. In any event, it’s always good to go back and remind ourselves.

A couple of years ago I remember coming across a series of websites that were discussing just this subject. There is, of course, the wonderfully titled Girls Read Comics And They’re Pissed (which is great for general discussions of sexism in comics and games). But there was also this little gem! Bringing us to the heart of the matter with photoshopped examples of what it would be like to draw male superheroes the way female superheroes are drawn. As you can see, it looks ridiculous, and dehumanizing. It looks a bit odd, on a man, eh? We are used to seeing women as bits and pieces of bodies, as Disembodied Things, where their personality is subsumed by the hypersexualization of various body parts. But not men. Even when there is a sexy picture of a man, he stands straight and strong, staring right at the camera. Whereas women’s bodies are tilted, and she usually looks coyishly away, or it’s just her breasts, or just her mouth (always open. always.), or her legs, or her ass. You get the picture.

Comic book artists, also being products of our sexist male-gaze-centric society, tend to draw a cool superhero like Power Girl like this. Or like this. And if they want to be “funny,” they draw her like this. Maybe they will try to draw her looking somewhat tough, but as is common with the male gaze we see her sexualized too. The message of this particular print is “you can pretend you’re tough but I can still ogle your nipple. YOU ARE STILL A THING FOR ME TO CONSUME.” As you might be able to tell, these sorts of pictures drive me up the fucking wall. They’re like a visual grope coupled with a pat on the head. BAH. Conversely, however, you can take the same character, with the same frakking outfit even, and draw her in such a way that she looks like the superhero she is. She looks like she would kick ass and take names. She looks like someone that would be cool to hang out with, would be cool to be.

Like I said, I understand that the superhero genre uses exaggerated human forms, but the male bodies at least follow the human form! WOMEN’S BREASTS DON’T LOOK LIKE THIS. Not even remotely. Even large chested women don’t have breasts that look like two gigantic balloons that point up! They do not follow the human form, but exaggerated. Every time I see female characters drawn this way I want to grab the artist and shake him “stop fantasizing jackass and draw me some awesome comics!” I feel like I’ve just been unwillingly brought into his porn fantasy. I mean, ew! Dude! Put it back in your pants! We don’t want to see that, or know it! But, alas, this is how the male gaze works. The artist makes the assumption, consciously or no, that everyone looking at the image is a het man, a het man who objectifies women just like him.

*Addendum: Since this post is still getting a lot of hits I wanted to include one of the links I was originally looking when writing this. Karen Healy of Girls Read Comics And They’re Pissed has a great post discussing the discrepancy between the ways in which male and female superheroes are drawn (or in her examples, sculpted). I highly recommend clicking through and reading the whole thing. She brings up one of the most salient points (for those proto-feminists, not-feminists, anti-feminists, I-don’t-get-it-why-is-she-mad types):

But when that’s all that’s offered – when superhero women are nearly always posed as sexy, and superhero men nearly always posed as strong – then there’s a clear indication of gender imbalance, and a clear message that these are the respective functions of women and men in superhero narratives.

Or, in other words: It ain’t the sex, it’s the sexism.

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8 Responses to The Male Gaze and the Female Superhero

  1. Lore says:

    I have nothing more relevant to say than THANK YOU and HELL YES. I just found your blog through Strawberry Comics and will definitely be coming back to read more.

  2. Heavy Armor says:

    Here via WFA.

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    It is also through this gaze that gives us a constrained range of body types and visual (sexual?) attractiveness for women in comics, TV, and movies that has no equivalency for male hero characters. Male heroes can look like Bruce Willis, Tobey Maguire, Harrison Ford (even today), Matt Damon, Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwartzeneggar; in essence ordinary, scrawny, tall, imposing, nerdy, muscular, or downright attractive OR ugly. The style of dress ranges from as large as any department store can offer.

    Women in the same genres have to look like Megan Fox, Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johannsen, or Hayden Panettiere. In other words: thin, considered to be the “hot girl of the moment” (through photo spreads – more gaze), look good for the boys in tight leather or short shorts and a midriff-baring (almost wet) T-shirt. Or, all forbid, a “sexy” version of a uniform (because it shows much more skin than the male version of the same uniform for no other reason but for the gaze).

    Again, I say well done.

  3. eloriane says:

    Welcome!

    You’re totally right about the constraints placed on women’s appearances. It’s always infuriated me, because I know we’re missing out on better female actors who aren’t as conventionally pretty, and I want to see them! Sure, some male actors get by on their looks, but plenty of completely ugly men who are better actors have no trouble finding employment, whereas the same would be impossible for a woman.

    And you’ve totally hit upon my least favourite thing in the (film) world with the sexified uniforms. They’re uniforms! They’re supposed to be uniform!!

    Which reminds me, are you familiar with the sexy stormtrooper phenomenon? Women pour their time and money into hand-crafting… sexy stormtrooper costumes. Somehow, they make me even angrier than the Leia bikini costumes. All I can do is sputter incoherently with rage.

    But hey, I’m a feminist, so that’s how I spend most of my time anyway! 😀

    • Crowfoot says:

      hey thanks Heavy Armor 🙂 and you bring up a good point. Not only are female characters hyper-sexualized they are drastically limited in scope. Another reason I was tempted to move to England to try acting there. Have you noticed how many regular looking actors are on British tv? But in Hollywood? I’d have to lose a ton of weight and show a lot of flesh to get much of anything (and spout/act in a lot sexist garbage like romantic “comedies” bleargh)

      oh and sexy stormtrooper?? what the fuck? I guess it really is SUPER IMPORTANT that everyone knows she’s female (here obviously female=exposing flesh unnecessarily/hypersexy – oh! and having really well formed breasts on her armour! cuz every engineer who designs body armour is going to make sure we can all see exactly how her breasts are shaped). Maybe the breasts aren’t too bad, but really, what would we have seen if she didn’t show her abs? A soldier? Ready for battle? The “sexy” just completely trivializes the whole thing. BAH.

  4. Satsuma says:

    Have you also noticed the conformity in women’s voices on radio and on TV and in movies? This kind of breathless, for lack of a better word, Gen X hipster style, that somehow sounds kind of fake and male constructed to me.

    Women are forced to speak in a conformist male approved was as well. This is very creepy to me, literally stealing the voice of women.

    The reversal of the male super hero cartoons made to look like how men draw women cartoon characters was amazing. I always find male art depicting women inherently offensive and unrealistic if not eternally pornified these days… wonder how men would feel if that was ALL they saw of themselves everywhere for 100 years! That and they had to get operations on their vocal chords to sound like women in order to get any job in the media at all… very risky operation by the way… you could lose your voice completely. Hmmm.

  5. klio says:

    Wandering over a little late via When Fangirls Attack. But this article synchs right up with some discussion on my webcomic blog.

    One answer to how some men feel when they see themselves in a sexualised (but in some ways similar to how female characters are depicted) pose is, freakout and fear. PWBeat posted an image from a Frazetta piece, and I thought it would be fun to depict my webcomic’s hero in a similar pose.

    Most female commenters liked the sketch well enough, with some tweaks, but some male and female readers were startled that it seemed so overtly sexual. The gaze was too “come hither,” the pose (pretty common on the NYC subway, minus the sword and the tunic) suggested too much focus on sexuality. Compared to how women are routinely depicted, I thought it was pretty lame–I mean, tame. He’s completely dressed, after all. Okay, so I may have been intentionally provoking with the sword.

    I’m tempted to do a similar pose with a female character to see if anyone is perturbed by it. I’m pretty sure we, as comics readers, as part of the larger society, are trained not to be. If I recall correctly, on PWBeat there was approval from commenters for how Frazetta paid lavish attention to every curve, ripple, and nipple on his lush and twisting female character and her spray-painted-on jeans. Myself, I was a little alarmed, and worried she would twist herself in half at the waist.

    • Crowfoot says:

      Hi Klio, and welcome!

      Yeah that sword placement (along with his hands and eyes) was rather, um, suggestive! lol. I liked the sketch a great deal. And turning stuff around to illustrate the underlying dynamics can be a really useful strategy. Sometimes things are so normalized one only sees it out of its usual context. And I agree – it’s very tame! I wish I could have found a particular thread about the Male Gaze in comics – it had used many examples of published works to illustrate the problems. One of the things the blog writer mentioned was the twisting way that the female characters’ bodies were usually drawn. Also the extreme detail, as you mentioned – something that just doesn’t show through real jeans for example. Why not just draw her standing like a normal person? This is part of what I meant by “pornulated.” It’s not drawing someone who is beautiful, and it’s not drawing people with exaggerated forms (I love comic book art, yes even superhero art), it’s the hypersexualization of the female form and how it usually drawn in this weird twisted way.

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