Or why sexist portrayals of women are a disservice to everyone, even heterosexual males
|"Art" by Guillem March|
What the hell is this about?
No seriously, who is this for?
Who thinks this is sexy?
For that matter, who finds the absurdly sexualized ladies (say, emotionally-dead Starfire, juggalette Harley Quinn, etc…) in comics so arousing? Why do creators insist on jamming as many tits and asses on panel as they can in superhero adventure comics? Do they presume that heterosexual males just aren’t interested in consuming media unless its chock full of the sexiest of ladies?
Well, I’m a heterosexual dude, and I gotta say, I’d like comics to portray women as people instead of sex objects.
Why after the cut:
To sort of back up a bit, I think comic books have a problem with how they portray women.1 Female characters are disproportionately sexualized and have a tendency to be characterized as seductive femme fatales; tough capable ladies who have overcome sexual abuse; victims of rape, murder or rape/murder;2 or they don’t get characterized at all and just vogue in the background of teambooks for “diversity’s” sake.3 Female characters tend to have costumes designed to show off their sexual characteristics, improbably exaggerated sexual proportions, and bodies that overall conform to a porn director’s idea of marketable beauty. Panels featuring women have a tendency to be drawn in a way that highlights sexy lady parts, and female characters tend to make outlandish sexy poses instead of having natural postures. Female characters seldom get to be solo heroes and are most often portrayed as girlfriends, lovers, wives, sidekicks, or team mates of male characters. Slight hyperbole aside, I’d say female characters are not portrayed well in comics.
A lot of comic punditry focuses on how sexist portrayals of female characters is off-putting to ladies. As well it should, as the negative reactions of female comic readers, or potential comic readers is important. It’s important because not offending people is inherently a good thing, and striving to be inclusive to diverse audiences is always worth doing. It’s also important because ~50% of humanity is female, and from a purely mercenary perspective, that’s a sizable demographic of current and potential comic book readers to regularly piss off. As a side note, the idea that women “just aren’t into geeky things” is pretty wrong as the majority of the nerdiest people I know are female and the only person-from-real-life I know who reads mainstream comics is a woman. It seems pretty obvious that not being actively insulting to these nerdy women who do/could buy comics is probably a good business decision (and the right thing to do). I seriously do not understand how the business/editorial staff of Marvel and DC fail to get this.
But this blog post is not about how sexism in comics is bad for lady readers; there are way more qualified people to comment on that. Instead, this post is about the way less important problem of how sexism in comics is bad for heterosexual guys.4
As a heterosexual guy, I am pretty into women. Overall I think they are more enjoyable to look at than men and I find particular members of said group quite sexy. I really enjoy how my girlfriend of five years looks, she is quite pretty, but I love and am super attracted to how smart, kind, responsible and funny she is and how she is so assured in who she is. She is an amazing person, and this is why out of everyone I have met she is who I am most attracted to. A similar trend exists with my female friends: they are courageous, funny, and fiercely intelligent people who happen to be women. What’s more, I enjoy their company without lusting after them. I have important platonic relationships with relatives who are women. I also have lady scientist coworkers, who I have pleasant professional interactions with. I guess what I am trying to get at is that women are people and that heterosexual men can have fulfilling interactions with members of the opposite sex without, well, sex.5
As a heterosexual guy who interacts with women on a daily basis I know that women are individuals. I know women who are very smart and some who are pretty stupid. I’ve met women who are out-going and ladies who are shy. I am acquainted with women who dress modestly and women who like to dress provocatively and many women who do either depending on the situation. I know female people who have casual sex because it is fun and they enjoy it and I know females who only have sex with long term prospects. I know women who are messed up and sadly, women who have been victimized by sexual abuse. I have also met women with a diversity of shapes and sizes: tall, short, thin, fat, muscular, busty, not-busty. Women are as diverse a group of humanity as can be drawn and while being female is certainly an important characteristic (both socially and biologically), it is by no means a complete character.6
To read fiction that treats women as one dimensional and not diverse is to not reflect the world we all live in that is filled with diverse vibrant women. To portray women as one-dimensional sex objects is insulting. It insults women by implying they are all one-dimensional sex objects, but it also insults men by implying that all we want is one-dimensional sex objects. It is lazy, bad writing and just deplorable. It distracts from the events of a story because it is so weirdly different than how things are in real life.
It is also not sexy as I am attracted to women as people not as objects.
Fixing this aspect of comics shouldn’t even be that difficult; it’s just a matter of balance and treating female characters a little bit more like the male ones. Superhero comics are superhero comics, and the tradition is that conventionally attractive people in tight outfits who run around and fight crime. Making a greater proportion of female costumes slightly more functional and less provocative would help. Giving more of the female characters realistic proportions or at least less bizarrely sexually exaggerated bodies would also be good.7 Drawing female characters in natural poses, instead of sexy vogues, would be appreciated.8 Writing women as diverse individual people would be amazing and make them much more interesting and captivating to read about. And if this was all done there would still be conventionally attractive women in skin tight costumes but with the added benefit of making these characters interesting people to read about. Comics also wouldn’t be so blatantly exploitive. So yeah, just by treating women like male characters would make them better encompass the diversity of women that exist in the world and help fix comics better to read for me, a heterosexual male.
And hey, I don’t want sexy lady characters to go away completely, I don’t think anyone does: I’d just like to see balance and context. I mean, I like Catwoman as a sexy, dangerous lady who has a forbidden romance with Batman.9 I think Emma Frost, a dominatrix who can dominate your mind and desires with her psychic powers, is an interesting concept and a fun character when written properly. They just need to exist in worlds with rounder female characters like Captain Marvel or Oracle: strong, interesting women whose characterization isn’t centered on their sexuality. My argument is that by writing women with a diversity that reflects real life you can have sexy sexy lady characters, your femme fatales and your seductresses, without them seeming so exploitative.10
It would also probably help to have more female creators and especially, editors working at Marvel and DC. Women tend to understand that women are people too and such an understanding would improve the quality of the portrayal of women in comics.
It might also help to write some overtly sexualized males, some Sexy Namors or Gambits, to balance the party out more.11
Joe Ambercrombie, one of my favourite authors, recently reread his earliest works and wrote criticisms of them. Among his criticisms is this great and succinct discussion of his treatment of female characters, that sums up, I think, a great thesis on writing women if you are a straight man and a great place to end this essay on:
“I think there’s often a tendency to knee-jerk defence with this type of stuff. I’ve done it myself. That an accusation of sexist writing is like an accusation of witchcraft. But society is sexist. We all have our unconscious biases and they’re bound to be expressed in our writing. As a writer you’re brought face to face with that and it can conflict extremely uncomfortably with a self-image of being a modern, enlightened, progressive member of society. Plus epic fantasy carries an immense amount of sexist baggage which, if you self-consciously write epic fantasy, it’s hard not to echo to some degree. I think you’ve got to try and see it as, rather than a crime you’re hoping to prove yourself not guilty of, one of an infinite range of styles of bad writing which you need to be watchful for and hope to improve on. Take it on the chin and be analytical. I’m a man, and so the likelihood is I’m going to find men easier to write than women. Probably the focus will generally be more on the men. The Heroes, for example, is a very male book about war and male concepts of heroism, so I think it’s not unreasonable that the great majority of the cast are men. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be trying to include women wherever possible and to make them as deep, diverse and interesting as you can. That doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with sexism or progressiveness, it’s just presenting a world more like the real world, and that’s just good writing.”1
(Also, if the sexist portrayal of female characters is the comics industry trying to fill a need for secretive porn for heterosexual dudes living with their parents: it can stop, the internet has taken care of this. Comics can now focus on telling stories with interesting characters.)
1. If there isn’t a scantily clad woman somewhere in the background things seem gay, I guess? Seems to be the logic behind ultimate fighter…
2. The fridged woman problem.
3. …and problems with depictions of people of colour, gay characters, transgender characters and in the portrayal of many other kinds of characters.
4. I think stopping sexism to be decent to women is WAY more important than stopping it to improve the reading experience of men, but I have never encountered the sexism sucks for guys too argument in the context of comics and maybe voicing it will help? Sadly, part of fixing sexism is probably going to be demonstrating why it sucks for men too to really get them/us motivated in helping solve the problem.
5. Harry is a misogynist jerk, just sayin’.
6. Not to imply that gender and sex are female/male or men/women binaries. Gender is a social construct and people are whoever they are and deserve all the respect and dignity of anyone else. Sex is also somewhat fluid, with people born outside typical sex definitions and people who have opted to alter their biological sex to better match who they are existing. I also kind of think the distinctions between men and women or female and male are over-rated as the categories are so broad so as to be meaningless in anything other than a biological/medical context: I have way more in common with my female friends and coworkers than most guys. People are people y’all. But yeah, I’m focusing on the women trouble try and focus myself a bit.
7.It’s a good thing comic book universes operate have future technology available for heroes, because super ladies are going to need some space-aged sports bras.
8. Hint: if you are using porn as a photo reference (or tracing template) you are going to fail at this.
9: For the record: sexier WITH a spine than without one.
10: A little cheesecake with a meal is delicious, cheesecake AS A MEAL is nauseating.
11. Who doesn’t love a bit of Sexy Namor?
12. Source. Some scrolling and hunting is required as the quote is in the comments.
Bonus: Spatchcock is a cooking style that involves cutting the spines out of poultry for grilling.