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.