The Male Gaze and the Female Superhero

February 17, 2009

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.


The Comics Curmudgeon

January 22, 2009

This is a quickie, but hopefully you’ll forgive me because the Comics Curmudgeon is so funny that you can read the archives for days of near-constant giggles. I’ve been reading for a long time, but especially lately it’s been my go-to source for good laughs.

It used to be that the Daily Show could always guarantee a smile, but during the primaries I had to stop watching, as something about the coverage of Hillary Clinton combined with the severe underrepresentation of women on the staff (on-screen as well as writing backstage) made it much more hit-or-miss. That’s kind of a post for another day, though.

What I really want to tell you is that Josh Fruhlinger is funny, and in a consistently feminist-friendly way. He reads all the most terrible newspaper comics, and mocks them mercilessly (the title of the blog used to be “Josh Reads the Comics So You Won’t Have To), and he’s not at all shy about pointing out (in hilarious ways!) the misogyny that shows up in comics, though he doesn’t really use those words.

Today, for example, he brings us this strip:


It’s from Marvin, a (terrible!) comic strip about bizarrely-intelligent babies, and poop jokes. Josh has a number of choice things to say about this strip, but he concludes with the following:

And as a human being with a shred of decency, I am disgusted by the idea of a baby making her profile sexy, what the hell, this is monstrous beyond description.

It makes me giggle, and it’s a strong feminist statement on a topic that flies under the radar for most people!

He doesn’t identify as a feminist, as far as I know, but that doesn’t always matter; as smadin recently articulated, getting caught up in whether or not someone is A Feminist (or A Racist) tends to just distract from whether their words or actions are feminist (or racist). So, I don’t care if Josh is A Feminist– the Comics Curmudgeon has been a pretty feminist-friendly place, and if you enjoy laughing at things that are so bad they’re good, you might want to check it out.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, horror stories, women, and appearances.

September 24, 2008

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman through the library for a while ago, and I have to say, I have no idea what to make of it. I just finished the collection called “Dream Country,” meaning I’m still very early on in the story (no spoilers, please!) but I’ve read enough to start trying to figure out what this story is.

I’ve basically figured out that they’re intended to be horror stories, and indeed, many are unspeakably horrific. It’s an odd experience, in the sense that books and movies that are even remotely scary will give me nightmares for months, but these don’t tend to creep me out at all. I would’ve expected such a visual medium to have more staying power.

Even more interesting, to me, is that some of the images have stuck with me– but they’re not of the scary stuff. “Dream Country” includes two storylines about very unhappy, desperate women– Calliope, a muse who has been captured and imprisoned by an author, and Urania Blackwell, a former something-operative who has been given the ability to transform herself into anything at all.

First, Urania– hers is a sad story, as they all are. While investigating something in Egypt, Ra granted her the power to transmute her own body, but it’s more of a curse than a gift.

“You’d think, if you can turn yourself into anything, the easiest thing in the world would be to transmute yourself into flesh. Right? No. I tried it once. Never again. I couldn’t get rid of the smell for weeks. Rotten meat. Silicate faces are easier to manage. Okay, it hardens eventually, and falls off after a day or so. But at least it doesn’t rot. And you can use the empty faces for useful things. Things normal people have. Faking real hair is easier. Mostly I use metals. It looks fine as long as nobody touche it. Nobody ever does.”

Gaiman and his artist do a great job of conveying the depth of her loneliness and despair. Her only contact with the outside world is her weekly phone call with Mr. Mulligan, a man in the Company who is in charge of her veteran’s benefits. That is, until she goes out to meet an old friend whom she hasn’t seen in years, but when a group of disabled children goes by, the friend starts in on how much freaks creep her out. Urania’s face falls off into her pasta, and she runs back to her lonely apartment. She tries to call Mulligan, but he’s been transferred to another department. She cries, an tried to figure out how in the world she can kill her invincible body, until Death lets herself in.

I like Death. She’s a cute, pale little goth girl, and she just sits on the bed next to Urania and asks, “Do you want to talk about it?” Rainie lets out her story, and Death gives her some advice: talk to Ra about it. And then, in one of those triumphant moments that always leave me with mixed feelings, Ra reveals his face to her and she dissolves. The phone rings. Standing next to Rainie’s disintegrating body, Death answers cheerfully. It’s Mr. Mulligan, asking for Rainie– “She’s gone away, I’m afraid.”

Death lets herself out, and looking at the final frames, of the dust that was once Urania, and her silicone faces, and the telephone, I am torn.

On the one hand, this is a fantastic story that features nothing but women, as complete, interesting people. It’s moving and well-done and doesn’t center on sterotypical female concerns.

On the other hand, doesn’t it center on extremely stereotypical female concerns? I can’t help thinking that Urania was in a perfect position to become a superhero, and a man in her position wouldn’t have been so worried about his appearance, and would have put on a mask and gone out to fight crime. This is a universe in which superheroes exist, after all, and there are quite a lot of male superheroes who are very funny-looking– the Thing, Iceman, Colossus, and I’m sure I’d know others if I actually read comic books.

But I don’t think it’s Rainie’s fault for being too scared to go into public. I can’t think of a single female superhero who’s made of anything but perky, young flesh. Women are raised with the idea that their appearance is one of their main sources of value– to suddenly become inhumanly ugly would do a lot to crush a woman’s willingness to be seen. It’s no wonder that she clings to the facade of silicate faces and metal hair– it’s not so different from ordinary women putting on make-up and dying their hair.

I suppose my real question is, is this a horror story for women, or a horror story for everyone that just happens to star a woman? Are we meant to think that her gender matters to her fate?

Ultimately, I think this story deserves the benefit of the doubt. Poorly executed, it could have come across as if her unhappiness was a function of female vanity, but that’s not how it felt. Rainie didn’t find a superhero happy ending because this isn’t a collection of stories that has much room for superhero happy endings. Everyone sufferes varying degrees of misery and insanity, and Rainie’s misery is different simply because “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” A man in her position wouldn’t have been a hero either– he would have died miserable and alone, just minutes before receiving a hopeful phone call from the person he loved. In which case, I’m back to being pleased to find a story in which no man appears on-panel and which is, nevertheless, a fantastic story in the collection, just as worthy of consideration as all the other unhappy stories.