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Committed: Regarding Male Superheroes as Sex Objects

As someone who spent her entire youth having inappropriate thoughts about superheroes, I’ve always understood that women aren’t the only ones being physically objectified in comic books, and men are being depicted as basically naked and entirely perfect as well. Finally it seems that the rest of the female population is catching on.

Women were always sexually objectified in comic books, but so are men. They are physically perfect people in skin tight costumes, why is this sexist? It is certainly sexual, and perhaps a little unfortunate, in the sense that everyone is being equally objectified, but not sexist. Recently I’ve noticed a very interesting trend. Straight, relatively mainstream-looking women who have never read comic books before are asking me where to start in the superhero genre. These are young married or engaged women, with a long term comic book reading husband/fiance/boyfriend, who want to find a good place to start reading, usually with the Avengers. Initially, their partners seem very happy and excited to bring their wives into what was previously “their” world. With excitement, I have heard men gleefully explain that “for years my wife had no interest in superheroes, but since we saw Captain America [or Thor, or Iron Man], she’s been reading my comics!” They say this with some surprise and although they’re pleased, they seem a little confused, until their wives look at me with sparkling eyes ask “Did you see his muscles!? Captain America is gorgeous!”

Maybe it is because I am the bridge between their two worlds, but I have been privy to many instances of this strange moment when husbands realize that their wives are finally reading comic books with the same kind of prurient thoughts that they had as kids… Just as these boys grew up fantasizing about perfectly built, incredibly brave, dangerous, half-naked people, now girls are too. While sharing the superhero love is a beautiful thing, embracing the reality that women are capable of objectifying men can be a daunting revelation.

I first saw hints of this superheroic objectification as I walked out of 300 a couple of years ago, and overheard my friend saying to her husband “Why don’t you work out more?” They laughed about it, but he cringed and I happen to know that he did start taking martial arts classes soon afterwards and looks a lot healthier now. It is always tough to acknowledge that alongside the geeky escapism there is also a certain amount of sexual objectification going on in superhero comic books, but we have to be honest about the appeal. I know that I spent a very unhealthy amount of time obsessing over Alan Davis’ Batman when I was growing up, and although at the time I thought it was perfectly innocent, I know now that I was secretly a little thrilled by his broad shoulders and long legs.

When I recommend comic books, or explain that the earliest, strongest female role models I had were female superheroes, feminist friends often tell me that comic books objectify women and ask why I’m not uncomfortable with this. This shocks me, how can they be missing the half-dressed, overly muscular, totally unshakable men in these comic books? Surely no woman thinks that men are realistically portrayed in super hero comic books, at least no more than women super heroes are? I frequently explain to feminist friends that comic books have objectified men for longer than they have objectified women. While the early super hero comic books might have given men more action-oriented roles, those men were always physically perfect and wearing something skin tight. Who’s the sex object in Action Comics #1 (1936)? Is it fully-dressed Lois Lane or that big guy in the tight clothes?

It is a very curious phenomenon that this objectification of men via the popularization of superheroes has been so ignored by the feminist population. Perhaps it is because men are so aggressive in comic books, and therefore they’re perceived as less of an “object”, but realistically, portraying men as extremely aggressive, ridiculously brave and generally embodying unrealistically extreme versions of traditionally masculine traits has to be a kind of sexism. The fact that they’re wearing skin tight clothing and have impossibly perfect bodies just compounds the issue. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m still very clear that women are being similarly objectified in super hero comic books, but I’m saying that this is not a one way street.

Perhaps part of the lie has been that the bulk of the male comic book reading population just never assumed that they were being represented by these male super heroes. Unfortunately, women are just more accustomed to looking at media and seeing it as a reflection of some sort of female ideal they’re being asked to echo. But this isn’t true, neither male nor female superheroes are a criticism of regular humans. The other mystery to me, is why I grew up seeing these fabulously powerful female super heroes as role models, instead of sexual archetypes I could never hope to look like. And why is it only now that so many other women are embracing the super hero concept as good, clean fun?

It is possible that our society has reached this odd balance where the sexes are being equally objectified, we have achieved a kind of uneasy balance where women are now able to tread gingerly into the fanboy mentality and get off to their own Captain America fantasies. Simultaneously, comic book reading men are gradually noticing that although they are men, just like their favorite super heroes, they find their own bodies to be sadly dissimilar to those ideals. It is a weird kind of equality and certainly not the kind our feminist foremothers dreamed of, but it is what we’ve got, for now.

85 Comments

Love your take on this. I think the somewhat recent proliferation of comic book adaptation movies starring hollywood heartthrobs is probably drawing more attention to the hotness of male heroes, but I don’t think it’s actually that new.

Anyway, you should also take a look at some of the work by gay artist Joe Phillips who recently did an exhibit on male superheroes:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/25/superheroes-come-out-of-the-closet_n_906716.html#

Click the link when you’re safely away from prying eyes, btw ;)

That image of Cap straining to take a dump is so sexy.

Also there is nothing sexier than Batman with a gun.

Sonia, I agree with you a lot. People always focus on whether or not female characters are objectified in comics, but men are objectified, perhaps moreso. There are more male characters in comic books than there are women, which means there are more tight, muscular male bodies running around than bouncy female ones. Yet people almost gloss over that aspect.

That image of Cap straining to take a dump is so sexy.

A diet of too much moral fiber?

Sorry, not buying it. If you like the kind of bodies superhero guys have, good on you, but they’re not treated the way superhero women are: the guys might be presented as good-looking, but only the women are presented as titillating. Female characters are portrayed posing and pouting, their costumes show lots of skin and/or are cut like lingerie, the artists and editors are willing to completely brush aside the “strong and competent heroes” aspect of the characters to bring on the “buxom sex kittens” angle. (Not in every book, of course, but often enough to be a staple of superheroine depictions.)

Male superheroes don’t get that kind of treatment, and male readers would pitch an absolute fit if they did. Male superheroes get to be strong, tough, and intimidating; their facial and body language is more likely than not to be aggressive and hostile (like your last two images). They don’t do challenging-inviting sexy smirks. They don’t put their hand on their hip and shove their ass in your face. They don’t look out at the reader from covers and splash pages with that “come over here and f**k me” expression. Male superheroes look out and say “come over here and I’ll f**k you up“, which is a completely different message and pretty much the direct opposite of a sexual invitation.

This is a superhero. This is a superheroine. Call me back when DC puts out a cover of Superman lying back and orgiastically pouring white stuff over his naked chest.

While I agree with you, the image choices are amusing. Batman with a gun – swoon!

It seems to me that you’re arguing that men and women are equally idealized, or maybe even fetishized, and not that they’re equally objectified. I think most of us would agree with the former, but the latter is a little trickier.
First, objectification isn’t just about the way superheroes look, it’s about how they act. You allude to this when you note that the male superheroes are stereotypically male, but in so doing, you undercut your argument. Basically, these men aren’t objects acted upon, they’re aggressors acting on objects. And even if that plays to outmoded notions of masculinity, (which I kind of doubt given that culture’s obsessions with sports, guns, muscles, etc.), that doesn’t change the fact that women are all to often portrayed as objects in these stories.
And even if I accept that men are objectified in comics, just as women are, the stakes for objectification are different for both groups. Not to get all NPR liberal on you, but the objectification of women is a problem across media that perpetuates a long history of systematic discrimination that still manifests in lower wages, disproportionate vulnerabilities to violent crime, etc. Cap’s pecs and Batman’s thighs don’t change this.

^BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

Good post. I know I’ve thought before now that the male leads in superhero movies are helping to get more women to take an interest in the genre, but not actually considered that hey, the comics objectify men too.

I swear, though, first time I saw X-Men and Wolverine appeared with his shirt off, I thought, “Oh, God, another guy women’ll be going gooey over…” And that’s as a straight guy. Never thought about it when Evans got his shirt of in Fantastic 4 or RDJ in Iron Man. When Hemsworth appeared in Thor sans shirt and they blatantly drew attention to it in the trailer, I found it amusing. I bet I wouldn’t have been laughing if it’d been Sif…

the bwahahaha was at buttler…

@ JRB. Well Superman always got to cry all the time.

I think it’s awesome that women are getting more and more into male super heroes because they objectify them. I don’t see why men should have all the fun. As it is, gay men that are geeks and into comics and super heroes have been doing it for years. Now they just need to stop making every picture of a male super hero where he’s in some kind of position where his bulge is hidden or obscured by something. For example, every picture of Spider-Man swinging on a web line or jumping etc (at least pictures done by “the professionals” not fan slash) shows him at an angle where his arms or leg or there’s a shadow or something that hides or blocks his crotch. YET, they have characters like The Black Cat and Witchblade where their breasts are almost entirely visible except for their nipples and that’s acceptable. Also, I have to say, there are way more sexier pictures of super heroes than the ones in this article. Not that these characters aren’t sexy, but the pictures themselves are pretty meh. Probably one of the sexiest male comic book characters (not necessarily a super hero mind you) is Jackie Estecado from “The Darkness”. Aside from him I love Spidey :).

Well, yes and no. It is true that male characters are also shown often in skin tight costumes (though I guess women do still show more skin), muscles have been exaggerated and all that.
However, there are differences in what the characters are doing on panel, how they pose etc. Those cheesiest cake pics, splash pages where the character is contorted in a way that they manage to show both tits and ass are still almost wholly female exclusive. The difference does become evident when every now and then there is a panel or a cover which does the same for male characters, those are still rare (beside gay artists doing occasional fan service, presumably straight male artists do these every now and then too…and Wolverine seems to be one of the favorite characters for this, go figure).

But it is true that superhero comics do objectify male physique more than most other cultural forms and it is odd that so little attention has been drawn to it.

As a gay man, I could have told you this a long time ago. Looking at all those muscled men was half the fun in reading comics.

Really, really no. I just… no. God, no.

Look, I see what you’re saying, but there’s a difference between the eternally plunging cleavage of the Star Sapphires and every single male you see pictured here (save Thor, who’s taking a shower or something, I don’t know): the guys you’re (rightly) lusting over are _fully clothed_.

Yes, the men featured in these comics are an impossible ideal, but for the most part there’s little if anything sexual in their presentation. Sure, occasionally a hero or two will show skin in their costume design, but women? Get boob windows and impractical heels and to talk literally _out of their ass_: http://tinyurl.com/allstarbr

That isn’t equality. Mary Jane Watson washing Spiderman’s laundry in a cropped, busty top _while wearing a visible thong_ is not the same as the fact Superman has an amazing bod.

I read comics. I like comics. But don’t pretend there isn’t a problem.

I do agree that men’s bodies are idealized in the comics but I am not sure that really is the same thing as objectification. Pretty darned sure that it isn’t to the extent that women are. As a gay man, I definitely am looking to objectify the superheroes but, unfortunately, they are mostly presented as people first. It is somewhat specific to my tastes, but when I am objectifying a guy, it’s not primarily the pecs and abs I am looking at but the lower regions (ok, that picture of thor is admittedly appealing). However, I don’t see very many artists stage their shots with anatomically correct crotch shots for guys or stances that put those particular assets on display. But, then again, maybe gay men objectify differently than straight women? Dunno. But, I do admit I have seen some objectifying images in mainstream comics (strangely, the two images that immediate come to mind happen to involve Nightcrawler),

@ JRB, I mostly agree with you, however I have to say those two pictures you linked to, Superman and Catwoman, were bad examples. There are, albiet rarely, times when male characters do that sexy smirk (it may not be meant to be, but when Wolverine does that sly “Come and get some” look it doesn’t always look like he’s talking about a beatdown. I mean come on, you can’t tell me this picture: “http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_qzAdxdQsc5Y/Sbw5aIfv_EI/AAAAAAAAAM8/wq3LasdUV28/s400/WolverineSmile.jpg isn’t just the slightest bit sexual.) Also, here’s two more examples: http://images.wikia.com/imagecomics/images/c/cb/DkJackie.jpg and http://gaygamer.net/images/DarknessCoverB.jpg. In my opinion both of those pictures are pretty sexy and sexual and in the first one he’s kind of got this “You want to play?” look going on, while in the second picture he is more vulnerable and sensitive looking which women love.

The other thing is, Catwoman is always like that. She’s catwoman. Have you ever just watched a cat saunter around and play and relax? That’s how they act. If a cat were to turn into a human (and be a theif and have a diamond fetish) that’s probably what they would do. I mean, take away the diamonds she’s pouring on herself and she’s basically looking like a human jaguar lounging around. I’ll also give you a few examples of female superheroes that aren’t like how you described. Just look at Susan Storm (Invisible Woman), the original She Hulk, Rogue, and Wonder Woman (although she is often put in sexual and “weak” positions her costume itself isn’t too revealing).

So, while I mostly agree, especially about how male readers would have a fit if male characters were to be all “sex kitten-y”, I don’t think that all male and female characters are the way you described. Male superheroes can be sexy and sexual, just in a different way. Plus, if Batman were sprawled out on a batbed with nothing but his cape, cowl, and a batarang covering his junk, how weird would that look?

ps. Sorry about the long links, I don’t remember how to make a link…

GENERALLY SPEAKING, Male objectification of women is to view them as attractive objects primed for sex who need to be taken care of. Female objectification of men is to view them as strong, handsome, powerful providers who take care of those around them. Certainly that matches their representations in comics.

I have always tried to draw a distinction between sexism, objectification and sexualization.

Sexism would be the showing systematically that men are some how superior to women, objectification would be the reducing female characters to only objects, with no personalities, skills or part in the story themselves. and Sexualization being the overall sexualizing of people. Maybe the girls have long legs and large breasts, the men are all 6 foot 6 ripping with muscles. Maybe there is lots of between the sheets stuff between the pages.

Is Batgirl having a busty rack sexism? I do not believe so, is it objectification? Only if she had no part in the storys other then to be a transport device for her breasts, Is it sexualization? yeah sure. But we humans are pretty sexual beings. We will and do sexualize just about anything. I can be sexually attracted to a girl (or indeed a man) with out taking anything away from them.

Is it disrespectful to find Batgirl attractive as she kicks large amounts of ass? no, not in the slightest. Is it disrespectful to to have her only part of the story be skin tight T&A that needs to be bailed out of trouble every issue by the competent men heroes? Hell yes.

Luckily that second one rarely happens these days. Batgirl could of course be replaced by any hero, male or female in this example.

But hey, I am just a guy with an opinion.

It really is cute to see crusaders on either side of a topic trying to inform the world of the vast injustices of this based upon what THEIR vision or interpretation. Show me a mainstream comic within the last couple of decades that depicts a very popular super heroine (think in the scope of Superman) that was in prose on a cover pouring cream all over her body. While the visual is cute only a handful of women and men would take time to objectify Supes in women’s lingerie covered in honey.
Telling us what YOU think it “titillating” is will not change my definition of the word nor what tickles my peach. Now if you want a conversation about women’s shoes and clown makeup perhaps I could be more enthralled than you thinking a woman with a back that looks broken in pose is “titillating”.
My point is people will see what people will see. Don’t come off holier than thou because you don’t like and/or agree with someone else’s interpenetration. Crusaders will continue to crusade and see evils everywhere and will find no common ground. For example we have the definition and redefinition of objectifying and who is or is not the object.
You undercut your argument when you give your twist on topic. I can easily say that you generalize men as solely aggressors, mean, muscular, terrifying creatures who only pursue. Are not heroes objects of their respective villains? Just as I can also say that just as pointed out that women have a long history of systematic discrimination. Men today have similar issues that no one fights over. Here in the states the judicial system is extremely bias against men when it comes to allegations, custody and even general child rearing.
These are just examples, but I think my point is clear. No one is wrong because they disagree with how you see things. They just disagree. And there is no need to lash out or put them up on a cross. Relax. You’ll live longer.
And I leave you with: Hugs not drugs, Just say no, You booze you lose, Stay in school…

Oh, there have been a LOT of (very hot) male poses and scenes in the comics over the years, but I think many of them are more homoerotic — lots of “villain has captured hero and put him in exotic restraining devices” moments. I do agree that the proportion of female to male is, sadly, still not equal, but I’m frankly very pleased about the objectification aspect myself and don’t consider it “a little unfortunate” at all.

Some of this seems to vary by era and context, too. For example, I’m a recent convert to the whole pulp hero adventure comics genre — partly attracted by the male eye-candy (lots of skimpy loincloths, etc.), though I also enjoy the stories. But even in some of, say, the Western series in the late 1960s, there are a surprising number of these images — between July-August 1968 and May-June 1970, six out of twelve covers feature (usually shirtless) male bondage with nary a woman (objectified or otherwise) in sight. And of course let us not forget pretty much the whole run of DC’s Warlord, in which he’s wearing less than Sub-Mariner for just about the whole series…

“This is a superhero.”

If you found a picture where Superman wasn’t showing off his six-pack abs while directing the viewers attention to his crotch, you might’ve made your point a little stronger.

[…] in comics very seriously. I thought this Comic Book Resources column by Sonia Harris called “Regarding Male Superheroes as Sex Objects” was both well written and a good point. She doesn’t excuse objectification or sexism […]

I think the problem isn’t comics but society as a whole.

Men are shown as strong.
Women are shown as sexy.

Now strong can be sexy and sexy can be strong, but the focus is not the same… but this is NOT exclusive to comic books.

I think you can get away with more if your talent level is high. Adam Hughes draws sexy very well. It works. Something like the old Heroes for Hire book, on the other hand…

About male poses and objectification, here’s one I’d consider an example:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:X-Men_Here_Comes_Tomorrow.jpg
That picture is all about Logan’s ass. Now, if he were wearing a G-string, that would be the same level of objectification many female characters are put in, but that’s already something.

Respectfully Sonia I have to say that someone being idealized (as most male and female characters in comics are) and someone being sexualized or objectified are very different things.

I can absolutely go along with you that male and female characters are pretty equally idealized in comics, but I cannot come along with you on the idea that that means they are equally sexualized or objectified.

You’re hitting on the feminist theory of the male gaze. The theory goes that men look, women are looked at. A simple example of this is to say that a picture of a naked woman is “erotic art” while the picture of a naked man is “homoerotic art.” Those categories are true only if you assume that it is a man looking.

This is changing. Handsome men have always been popular for women to look at, but only in recent decades have women been allowed to speak openly about it. I think that will account for some of the change in attitudes toward superhero comics. Women are more likely to feel free to look at men in tights as sexual objects.

At the same time, I will side with The Ronin above: There is some difference between people who are nice to look at and people who are sexualized for titillation. You can find superheroines reclining in ways similar to what is seen in “men’s magazines.” I don’t think superheroes lounge about the same way that men in Playgirl lounge. This is the real difference. Batman’s legs may be sexy, but he’s seldom drawn posed in such a way so as to draw our eye primarily to his leg. Wonder Woman’s legs may be sexy, and artists will often pose her in a way to accentuate her legs.

And that’s the real difference.

i’m not seeing the problem here, at least as far as the artwork goes. the women look hot, the men look hot (trust me, they do, and i can think of tons of sexy hero pics that aren’t drawn to blatantly titillate, but still do), everybody is happy. right? as a woman, i am no more concerned about having to live up to an unrealistic ideal than your average male reader. while comics definitely has more value than mere wish-fulfillment and escapism, those elements remain. i can appreciate the beauty of both male and female bodies in the images, and it is certainly more fun to imagine myself with a flawless superwoman physique than what i currently face in the mirror every day.

i have heard the criticism, otoh, that comics are generally sexist because women serve the story primarily as fodder for villains, in order to motivate the men. i am relatively new to comics, but i don’t necessarily think that is the case, although it may have been in decades past. revenge is a very old motivation in story and in reality, and i am not surprised when a hero’s past includes a dead damsel or some such, especially when the archetypal male is generally viewed as a protector of his loved ones.

i think it is intellectually and emotionally exciting to see strong, powerful women. for those who say that female characters undergo a disproportionately large amount of suffering, i would say a) i see plenty of males tortured, bound and beaten and b) another reality of life is that suffering gives us something to overcome, and makes us stronger. suffering and loss are a part of the journey.

I agree w/ you Sonia, and to the folks who are pointing out the obvious difference in the way male characters are posed/act in comics I’d argue that the cliché is rapidly changing.

More important but less subtle though, are the differentness between men & women when creating a fetish object. Even in their idealized forms–especially in those idealized forms–male & female bodies look different and the eroticism is highlighted through different … modalities (visual tools and mis en scene).
By comparison/illustration, if you look through an issue of “Sports Illustrated” every photo of an athlete is “hot” but, you don’t light and frame a boxer the same way you do a swimmer; their bodies are both idealized, but their ‘built’ for different strengths.
If you look at a character like Hulk, he comes across like a Mike Tyson type: powerful (but scary).
Captain America is maybe more like a quarterback or Olympic wrestler.

On the woman’s side, you have characters build more like professional swimmers, or gymnasts, such as Batgirl or Black Canary.
That doesn’t mean you don’t see male character similar to those types though, such as The Flash who at his best is drawn like a well balancer sprinter or track runner.
Again back to the woman’s side, although admittedly more rare, you see characters like Big Barda who looks like a WWE-style brawler, or Valkyrie who has the body of a weight lifter.
Very often female villains have more heavily developed musculature design which could be take for a male type. Of course, there will always be a place for the White Queen-style bodies who look like they’ve just stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret Catalogue.

The industry is not at parity yet I admit, and even the best artists suffer from a tendency to just pose their character instead of working to show real action, form and style-of-movement that differentiates one body from another. In the right hands though, the cliché qualities do take a backseat to the finer nuances of illustrating person/personality instead of just type.

I agree w/ you Sonia, and to the folks who are pointing out the obvious difference in the way male characters are posed/act in comics I’d argue that the cliché is rapidly changing.

More important but less subtle though, are the differentness between men & women when creating a fetish object. Even in their idealized forms–especially in those idealized forms–male & female bodies look different and the eroticism is highlighted through different … modalities (visual tools and mis en scene).
By comparison/illustration, if you look through an issue of “Sports Illustrated” every photo of an athlete is “hot” but, you don’t light and frame a boxer the same way you do a swimmer; their bodies are both idealized, but their ‘built’ for different strengths.
If you look at a character like Hulk, he comes across like a Mike Tyson type: powerful (but scary).
Captain America is maybe more like a quarterback or Olympic wrestler.

On the woman’s side, you have characters build more like professional swimmers, or gymnasts, such as Batgirl or Black Canary.
That doesn’t mean you don’t see male character similar to those types though, such as The Flash who at his best is drawn like a well balancer sprinter or track runner.
Again back to the woman’s side, although admittedly more rare, you see characters like Big Barda who looks like a WWE-style brawler, or Valkyrie who has the body of a weight lifter.
Very often female villains have more heavily developed musculature design which could be take for a male type. Of course, there will always be a place for the White Queen-style bodies who look like they’ve just stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret Catalogue.

The industry is not at parity yet I admit, and even the best artists suffer from a tendency to just pose their character instead of working to show real action, form and style-of-movement that differentiates one body from another. In the right hands though, the cliché qualities do take a backseat to the finer nuances of illustrating person/personality instead of just type

A good way to equalize out some of the imbalance between males and females as they are portrayed in comics is to get more women (straight and gay), and more gay men DRAWING the comics…as I am pretty sure the majority of comic artists today are straight men. An artist is going to draw based on their own particular preferences. Some more so than others. A straight man is more likely going to try and avoid drawing Spider-man’s package but accentuate Mary Jane’s butt/boobs…because he likes looking at butts/boobs and not at some guys crotch. The more artists from all walks of life and all mindsets we can get drawing comics the better.

Great article, I have from personal experience felt this having recently been sexually harassed at work by a woman boss. What I found was how shocking it was/is, when my female boss grabbed my behind and during a security check insisted I lift up my shirt – some actually said she was ‘being friendly’ because women are perceived not to act that way. Thankfully the area manager did not subscribe to this myth and she was fired.

The “objectification” comments definitely have legs, but I just wanted to chime in and say it was still kind of fun to see a woman’s (and, in the comments, a gay male’s) perspective on male heroes. I never actually thought about which guys were sexy (aside from the context of the movie actors who’ve portrayed them).

As for the Catwoman #1 cover, I know as a man I personally lay on my back with my legs in the air rubbing white stuff on my chest all of the time (Hey man, skin cancer is no joke), now if only I had the physique to pull it off.

seriously though, that is a silly cover, but it seems more like a problem for that book and creative team then something that regularly effects comics as a whole. I am holding Batgirl #1 in my hands right now and it has what is in my opinion a much more average and regular cover.

there will always be a market for comics, magazines, movies etc that show women in sexy poses. But I don’t see covers like the Catwoman #1 being even close to the norm.

Though I will grant you, it probably happens to female characters more then male characters.

The Ronin has summed it up perfectly. A lot of characters are sexualised but that does not mean they can’t have a personality or a part to play in a story.

Of course there are some comics that seem to exist purely to titillate and that’s another issue but hey what’s wrong with a little sexual fantasy in your life eh?

I was referring to The Ronin’s original post by the way :-)

Historically, comic books have been produced to target adolescent male fantasy, thus the stereotypes of both men and women (and both are grossly stereotyped) often fit that mindset. Similarly, romance novels (from Harlequin to Twilight), have, historically, been produced to target adolescent female fantasies and are equally filled with stereotypes and objectification. Granted, the form of objectification is often different. Just as the patriarchal tradition of western culture teaches men to look to women for sexual gratification and ego fulfillment, women are taught to look at men for guidance and security (physical, financial, social). Hence, the stereotypical man fantasizes about the “temptress” and the stereotypical female fantasizes about the “prince.” Both tendencies are part of the patriarchal sub-architecture of our cultural inheritance and both men and women are influenced by this gender-assigned expectations.

If women find some degree of fantasy fulfillment in super-hero comics or movies, it shouldn’t be too surprising as some men find fantasy fulfillment in romance novels or movies. Despite prevailing social pressures, gender categories are rarely as absolute as they are socially constructed. And, as more women read and create comics, and as more men try to write comics that appeal to women, the form of the fantasy comics portray will likely change to reflect the new audience.

Ross Perot wrote”
“Don’t come off holier than thou because you don’t like and/or agree with someone else’s interpenetration.”
Wow.

I disagree that women and men are equally objectified by comics. I’m a guy and I’ve never been embarrassed reading a comic with Spider-Man or Batman on the cover in public, but the female heroes almost always look ridiculous. The men may be muscular, but their costumes are practical and not revealing. Most of the costumes that female superheroes wear would result in “wardrobe malfunctions” during fights.

Also, as others have mentioned men are not drawn in overtly sexual poses. Comic book art does not emphasize men’s crotches the way it accentuates women’s “assets.” Basically, the men look heroic, and the women look like sex objects.

This double standard doesn’t only exist in comics though, you’ll find the same thing with video game characters as well.

I agree with Ms. Harris that superhero comics have always objectified BOTH men and women. After all, they are (usually) idealized versions of ourselves. However it is also true that women got more sexualized over time. I think it was around the 90’s that female heroes started getting costumes that couldn’t possibly be justified as anything other than fanservice. Oh sure there were some before, like Vampirella, but they were the exception. Wonder Woman’s costume always used to be sexy but suddenly she seemed to be wearing a TONG for no practical reason. And don’t get me started on Witchblade, whose very power is supposed to be her armor but not only it barely covers her body, it strips her naked every time it’s used!! Meanwhile the male characters became hunks of flesh that were repellent to look at, with throbbing veins all over and such. Today we still get the occasional what-were-they-thinking example (like with the Catwoman cover) but I’d say they are trying not to be as blatant about it anymore (no more than the standard that is.)

I’m surprised that we didn’t see that Alex Ross JSA cover with Citizen Steel. You all know the one. :)

I think a lot of people are assuming the male gaze and the female gaze find the same things “sexy” and I don’t think that’s accurate. JRB compared a picture of a buff Superman lifting some object to Catwoman reclining and covered in diamonds as an example of unfair portrayal, but even women would likely find a reclining Superman covered in diamonds ridiculous. Just ask Anthony Wiener if men and women really want to see the same things from prospective sex partners.

The question really should be are the male and female gaze both served in comics? Well if romance novel covers reflect the female gaze as much as comic covers reflect the male gaze, compare:

http://www.publishersweekly.com/articles/blog/880000288/20080626/n91643.jpg

to

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_FPAetrvLhD4/S9SQJD7ZJxI/AAAAAAAAAGw/583_hyc8tkE/s1600/jean-grey-kissing-wolverine-posters.jpg

or

http://thecupcakerogues.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/XENDMX001_cov_col.jpg

or

http://www.comicsbulletin.com/reviews/images/0805/kissing.jpg

The difference between the portrayal of men and women in most super-hero comics was outlined neatly in one of Mark Millar’ & Frank Quitely’s Authority stories (apologies for not having the issue number or a scanned image). In one issue, the Doctor’s powers were usurped by a villain. The Authority is evacuating the Earth’s population to different realities. In one of those realities, women are dominant. There are some posters or magazine covers of scantily clad men thrusting their asses out. Seeing men presented in that manner was jarring, and not-so-subtle commentary on how women are presented in super-hero comics.

(Yes, I know, just seeing Mark Millar’s name gets some people riled up. I’d say he was actually on-point in that issue, problematic writing notwithstanding.)

Ronin and Spidermaniac are right on the money. So I really have nothing to add. Though I will say that even though I don’t agree 100% with Sonya I applaud her talking about this.

I think she raises a good point. And I think that O’Neil ‘Batman/Talia kiss’ is a perfect example of serving the female gaze. I’d also add the infamous ‘Nightwing butt shot.’

We need more art in comics that ladies can enjoy.

Enlightening article, Sonia. I agree 100%, though I hope you knew going in that most people would disagree.

While I’m at it, I should say–if people would stop trying to make these apples to oranges comparisons…

See, it seems like a direct comparison works best, so everyone wants to say what is Batman were wearing Wonder Woman’s outfit–but that’s not what women find attractive. (Most of them at least.) Sure, they enjoy shirtless shots and whatnot, but male superheroes are already showing off six-packs, and wearing skin tight clothing–it doesn’t get more sexual than that unless there’s actual nudity involved, so just having them pose in a feminine manner likely will not attract more attention.

On the flip side, the blame is on the Big Two when they make their female characters wear wildly impractical costumes. (Star Sapphire’s outfit, any one piece outfit in which the female hero can’t ZIP UP HER SHIRT….)

Spidermaniac has pretty much made the point I was going to hours ago before I got distracted.

If you take the essence of what is considered desirable about both sexes they are different things. Sure they are both sexual in nature but for women I’d say it’s largely based on their ability to be glamorous and tempting – but with men it’s about appearing strong and virile.

Look at the way pornography is marketed – say Playboy vs. Playgirl. Those interested in objectifying women tend to find packaging that is sultry – lots of big hair and lace and satin sheets. Very come hither. Those wanting to get an eyeful of beefcake often see depictions of men in uniform or men “doing” things like being a farmhand or mechanic. Frankly, I find it all laughable but that’s often how human brains work.

I’m sure the desire to level the playing field leads to beliefs that if Catwoman can be seen sauntering around a city in heels flashing cheesecake poses – then dammit so can Nightwing. But it doesn’t work that way because most guys do not exhibit their sensuality in “that” manner. In short, men don’t meow. Trust me – there’s plenty of comic book art out there featuring men in “drop it like it’s hot” poses (Patrick Fillion comes to mind) just be careful what you ask for…

spidermaniac! i was just going to say the same thing! (about what appeals to each sex). okay, i will finish reading your post now.

Yeah, I have to agree with Spidermaniac and Sugardeluxe.

People who blame comics for showing women in a less dignified way than men are missing the point.

Use google to look for pictures of a classic female sex symbol like Marilyn Monroe. And then do the same with a classic male sex symbol like Marlon Brando. They’re not in the same poses, they’re not wearing the same kind of outfits.

Monroe looks like a sex kitten in impratical clothing. Brando looks like a tough guy bad boy in T-shirt and jeans.

spidermaniac, great comparisons.

sugardeluxe also makes a great point in mentioning patrick fillion, i was unfamiliar with this gentleman’s work until i googled it just a moment ago. as a woman, i found the results incredibly amusing, and only one of the dozens of pics appealed to me. without reading about fillion, my guess is that his target audience consists primarily of gay men.

i don’t find crotch- and butt-focused images of male heros terribly interesting. those images that indicate highly developed and refined movement and power, or even those static, alpha type poses or woman-in-arms scenes are much more interesting to me than citizen steel’s prominent crotch.

most men, however, seem to appreciate overtly sexual poses, from what i can gather. again, i don’t find this offensive. the stylized body, male or female, can be beautiful, and humans certainly are sexual animals. comics and video games (to respond to sandwich eater) both have imagery that appeals to the various sexes/orientations of consumers.

[…] …. is often put in sexual and weak positions her costume itself isn't too revealing). Full news story This entry was posted in Top Adult News and tagged chat cruisingfordick free gay, dad gay mature, […]

Very timely article! My mom is a huge Sprigsteen fan and I sent her the interview from a month or so ago where Morrison described his new Superman as more of a “Springsteen Superman” and so she asked to read it when it came out. She read it today and one of her first comments was “Wow, this is a good looking Superman!”

I always wanted to discover Electro’s seductive aspect…

I always took heart in the fact Peter Parker was a bit of a geek but still landed the very hot MJ..

It was fantastic when Watchmen finally acknowledged superheroes personal lives fully.. even slightly past it jaded folks can have a go..

The original Catwoman was always hot to me as a kid.. now my son ‘likes’ Poison Ivy… heh..

This is all natural human behavior.. I think its great woman get in on the action… bout time!

Oh, and yeah.. I train martial arts too… but more cos of Bruce Lee and Ip Man than Luke cage and Iron Fist…

Nice article..

Zz.

While I am a heterosexual woman who does swoon over superheroes, I’m also fully aware that male characters are not portrayed as sex objects.

That’s what I get out of it, but it’s a *subversive* thing. Male characters are idealized, but they are not idealized sexually. I am not meant to look at Hawkeye or Batman and say, “Oh, he’s hot.” But we *are* meant to look at the Black Widow or Black Canary and say, “Oh, she’s hot.”

That’s the difference between, oh, a comic book and the television show “The Vampire Diaries.” The female characters are beautiful and, thus idealized, but they are not sexualized. They are not presented as sexual objects. But every episode has at least one of the Salvatore brothers shirtless — we are meant to see these men and lust after them.

Does that mean that a heterosexual guy can’t watch the show and lust after the female characters? Of course not — they’re all lovely. But that’s not what’s being presented.

I can’t but remember Crimson Fox and her/their interaction with Captain Atom

Put me in the category of gay men who have always looked adoringly at the men in comics.

However, I think it’s also worth point out that, while this is changing in recent years, comics creators have been traditionally massively dominated by (straight) men. Part of why many people find women more objectified in comics is because male superheroes are effectively what men want to be, and women are what men want women to be.

I think people are fooling themselves if they think that males in comics are drawn differently than women because they’re based on what women find sexy. A few creators in the last decade or so (and even fewer the years before that) have done so, but by and large the men are idealized versions of the artists’ physiques. And that’s were the objectification comes in. It’s the difference between “here’s how I want to look” and “here’s how I want YOU to look.”

That said, I certainly like my sexy male characters, so I don’t really feel justified in telling straight men that they can’t have their sexy women. I don’t actively advocate for different art standards, I just throw in occasional thoughts in the philosophical discussions.

Rene,
Are you suggesting that objectification in comics is OK because we objectify men and women in society generally? And if so, is Bogart really objectified in the same way as Monroe? I kind of doubt it. The problem with objectification in comics is that (as with other media) it either perpetuates, reinforces, or simply reflects injustices in society writ general. Even if the last is the case, don’t you think comics, movies, video games, etc. could do better?

Everybody’s half-naked in the comics, but their poses are very different. The women aren’t posed as if they have any power, while men are posed as if they have all the power. Bleeding Cool has had a series of articles about this, showing pictures of men in poses used for superheroines. It’s been quite revealing.

I find it unhelpful to compare the ratios of objectification by looking simply at whether males are drawn with sexy looks or less clothing, etc. than women. Keep in mind that men and women are different and have different ways of being turned on. Men tend to be more visual and so drawings of women will emphasize the visual. Whereas women tend to be attracted at a biological level to alpha males who are visibly strong and confident. if you look at drawings of men, they are generally shown as ridiculously muscled and in aggressive poses. In another example, there was a study done recently that found that men are much more attracted to pictures of smiling women than women are attracted to pictures of smiling men. Comic covers are far more likely to show men grimacing or having menacing looks while women are shown smiling. Coincidence? My take is that the objectification of the genders in comics is not done the same way as between genders, but it has been equally tailored to what the genders want. On the other hand, my fiance was very excited about a shirtless Thor in the movie. I tried my best not to be oppressed or outraged by the sexism she displayed that night. ;)

I guess I just don’t find the existence of a little ‘cheesecake’ in comic books all that offensive no matter who it is aimed at.

That was a great read :)

Here’s the main problem with your argument, though: it’s only sexist if it’s a woman who’s being objectified. If it’s a man then it’s not sexist.

This is nothing new to me.
If you go back a bit (especially in the ’90s), you’d find tons of pics of male superheroes in only boxer or even just steam or shade or the like covering their bits.
I always noticed this most in Spider-man and Wolverine comics.
I don’t care much for the reason behind it (fanservice for the women and us gay men) or as an aspiration for men. I’m just glad it’s there. :D

Nate,

I think comics could and should do better.

But it is unfair to pick on comics as some haven of sexism. It’s not comics that are sexist, it’s society in general. Comics reflect society.

The meme of comics as supposedly more sexist than other kinds of entertainment carries its own load of prejudice and unfortunate assumptions. That comics are run by and for geeky males that secretly hate all the bitches that rejected them, or it’s because the geeks are all perpetually emotional 13-year olds, etc.

But “grown-up” entertainment, that is supposed to be produced and disgested my non-geeks, like cinema and sports, also has a LOT of sexism. That’s what I was pointing out. Shouldn’t we be campaigning for women’s football with cheerleading males?

Society as a whole has cast the male as the strong, aggressive competitor. While women are the eye candy that exist to encourage and support the male. Comics are just one area that is affected by this sexism. It sucks. I don’t like it. But the problem is far larger than just the comics.

Being a woman, I’ve read comic books from an early age in the company of my brothers.

been thinking about this (obviously). i’m not really sure how perceiving or portraying the sexuality of women (or men) is particularly sexist. to me, sexually-stylized characters would be supporting a sexist worldview if that was all we saw of them, and it was implied that they had value only as sexual objects. i think the classic superhero comics over the last several years have given us a good deal more to know and understand about our favorite characters than what they look like in tight pants.

rene, i would have to disagree with you that women in comics (at least now) are only eye candy and supporters to the story. i’m a big fan of x-women, who certainly are not hard on the eyes, and who demonstrate independence and strength in mind and action on a regular basis.

Braxy, I didn’t mean to say that is the way comics portray women, rather that it is the way the more sexist elements of our patriarchal society see women. I don’t think it’s fair that comics be considered as more sexist than many other elements in society.

But Nellie makes a pretty good point about how many superhero comics follow the male gaze, while stuff like Vampire Diaries and Twilight follows the female gaze. But I think the Marvel movies are less sexist than the comics. Perhaps even too sexist in the other direction. We had Thor and Captain America shirtless for long stretches of time in the movies, very much being ogled by female characters, while the female characters were very much clothed.

Is it sexist for women to look at men lustfully?

Or is it just sexual?

Ronald Jay Kearschner

September 8, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Sonia wrote a smart and funny post but the replies prove her thesis wrong: apparently NO ONE gets to admire anyone’s sexuality. I guess it’s burkas for everybody.

Nah, not burkas. I’d rather have equal opportunity ogling.

I know a few women who MIGHT be interested in seeing a film or tv series because of a hot actor playing a superhero role, but none who would actually sit down and check out comics due to attractive drawings. I know very few men who would read comics for the same reason (in regards to women).

I thought that it was an adolescent thing that fades over time? Maybe that’s just my experience.

[…] criticized for objectifying women but, according to Sonia Harris in her recent article for CBR (“Committed: Regarding Male Superheroes as Sex Objects”), we’ve overlooked the fact that men are sexually objectified too. Sonia points out that men […]

From another Tumblog wrestling with similar gender depiction issues in illustration, here’s a neat summary matrix for artistic reference.

[…] Check it out and see what you think. […]

what the fucks is objectification? someone depicted in a sexually charged way for the viewers enjoyment?
Here is a off the wall thought! No one with internet connection is reading comics for boobs and ass. I can literally find a video of women or men or a god damn pony doing anything I want with less effort then it takes me to type this up. Why the fuck would I spend good money on lame ass drawn soft core porn?
I have an answer.
because it is not just tits and ass they are looking for. It’s a person. A personality, someone with hopes and fears. in many cases it falls into dark water. you can’t dominate a blowup doll… it has to have some semblance of life even if it is artificial. In other words. an object has little to no sexual worth outside of a fleeting novelty. This is why men don’t really use blow up dolls and women don’t think of vibrators as sexual partners.

Objectification is a outdated term imo.

I have to say, much as I agree that men and women are both idealized sexually and physically in comics, that does not mean they are objectified. When someone is objectified, they are considered an object. The complaint that a lot of women have is that women are shown as objects to be desired and obtained. Sure, men in comics are shown as perfect, sexually or otherwise. But the problem is that they are often shown that way through a male lens, for a male audience, which means that they are shown as something the reader aspires to be. In other words, the theoretical male reader would long to be the physically perfect subject. The subject experiences the world. He can obtain the object. Sexualizing a character does not objectify them. It is a real problem if we conflate the two.

“But the problem is that they are often shown that way through a male lens, for a male audience, which means that they are shown as something the reader aspires to be.”

Well, don’t forget the whole homoerotic subtext in that case. :)

“Well, don’t forget the whole homoerotic subtext in that case.”

Part of the issue here is that it’s only homoerotic if it’s an attractive man. And so we’re back to the feminist theory of the male gaze. The sexualized women are erotic. The sexualized men are homoerotic. But only if we presume it’s only men looking . . .

And of course, that all comes down to a question of desire. The “object” is only erotic if it is desired . . .

Ah, but who defines attractive? Myself, I’m more attracted to the Logan/Vartox types (Aquaman and Thor with beards = sexy, but without beards = OK, I guess — and so on) than the presumed pretty-boy types. Yaoi does little for me, but bara, especially kuma bara, is much more my thing. :)

…. oh, I see what you mean! (Wow, I’m slow.) Sorry, what I meant there was that that which is “shown that way through a male lens, for a male audience” does not at all have to mainly mean something the reader aspires to be — male lens and male audience can indeed also be homoerotic.

And I typed quickly, making for not entirely cohesive response. But I think we’re more or less on the same page. I think straight men draw women more sexualized because they’re attracted to them while they draw men to be handsome, muscular, all that, but not necessarily sexualized in the same way. Look at how gay artists like Steven Sandowski or Phil Jimenez draw men—there are fuller crotches and better butts than the way some straight artists draw men. Whereas someone like Jim Aparo or Neal Adams drew handsome men, you’d never know they had genitals in those tights. If either of them turned out to be gay, I’d be quite surprised. There are exceptions in both directions—I think Curt Swan drew some very sexy men and so far as I know, he never showed any signs of being gay—but generally, attraction creates certain ideals. Jim Lee may know how to draw a good looking Bruce Wayne, but he’s not nearly as sexualized as Sandowski’s Wildcat.

All in my opinion, anyway.

Indeed — though some artists who I think just have a good perception of anatomy have drawn extremely hot men over the years, too, with just the basic beauty of the muscular male form to work with. (With some of the more stylized art, I think some of that is occasionally lost.) I’m thinking Swan (especially with Murphy Anderson inking), Kubert’s Tarzan, and others. There’s been a kind of classical anatomical approach with many of them which is appealing regardless of their orientation. (And, thinking about it, none of them have the over-exaggerated female forms either.)

oh yeah! ive been trying my best to get my husband to dress up as Thor for me ever since i saw the movie!
what a BEAST!!! The fact that he refuses may mean a divorce is possibly on the cards! we ladies love a good perve xxxx

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