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She Has No Head! – Revisiting ‘No, It’s Not Equal’

acuna cover - rogue

A bizarrely unzipped Rogue kicked us off last time, so only fitting that a zipped up version should kick us off this time.

Back in early 2012 I wrote a piece that became easily my most talked about and commented on, in both good and bad ways. It was called “No it’s Not Equal” and it was all about breaking down the ways that visually, women are not presented equally to men in comics. The piece was born of getting very tired of hearing people say ridiculous things related to female representation in superhero comics – stuff like “all superheroes wear skintight clothes, not just women!” and “it’s comics! nobody has realistic bodies!” I wanted to break down why those arguments are so flawed and how the representation is/has been unbalanced when it comes to men and women. It’s been about 28 months since I posted that piece and I started wondering if anything significant had changed when it comes to mainstream superhero comics.

For me the answer is both yes and no, specifically if we look to the big two, who still do lead the pack when it comes to sales and content as well as spreading their IP to larger markets. And as the leaders who SHOULD be leading us, setting a great example and changing the face of comics.

As far as I’m concerned Marvel has all but stamped these issues out as significant problems in the last two years, which is pretty impressive. Ms. Marvel became Captain Marvel and graduated to an incredible costume that doesn’t look anything like a swimsuit and I haven’t seen her in a brokeback pose in just about ever, she looks like an athlete and a superhero. I haven’t seen Rogue (currently dead, which makes it easier to stay zipped up, I suppose) unzipped in at least two years. Black Widow is never inappropriately unzipped in her new series, though she’s still sexy and sometimes wears revealing things as the story calls for it. She’s also powerful but decidedly human (if still badass) in the way she moves and looks. She-Hulk, Elektra, and Ms. Marvel also each in their own headlining roles all look appropriate and powerful and most importantly like superheroes.

Marvel Since 2012 Compilation

Clockwise from top Left: Black Widow, Hawkeye, Storm, America Chavez, Capt. Marvel, Rogue, The Women of X-Men (May 2013), Psylocke, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Elektra, and The Invisible Woman.

Psylocke, one of the worst offenders in every way (clothing, posing, beauty, and body type) got a long overdue sleek costume update from Kris Anka and her back seems firmly in place like a human woman. Ladies in co-starring and ensemble roles have been faring well on the whole too, from Kate Bishop in Hawkeye to America Chavez in Young Avengers, to the entire team of all female X-Men, who all look exactly like they should – like heroes. These positive changes don’t mean every single woman is covered up or looking the same (Dazzler on the cover of Deadpool just this month is sporting serious unzip, though she’s dressed as a rock star and not a superhero, so it’s more appropriate than one might guess at first glance) and there are certainly other instances, but as I’ve long said, there’s not much wrong with having some women out there who dress (pose/act/present) like Emma Frost, so long as they don’t ALL dress (pose/act/present) like Emma Frost.

Looking at Marvel’s line shows that, though there are outliers and likely always will be, they have made a concerted effort to change course here and they’ve presented a much more balanced look for their women – one that’s full of variety but in which their heroines regularly look like superheroes, not models and porn stars.

DC has a more mixed landscape of hits and misses, for example Wonder Woman has never looked better than she does under Cliff Chiang’s pen. She’s sexy and powerful, but athletic and powerful and reasonably practical for what she does every day, though in other artist’s hands it remains touch and go as not everyone can handle the costume and her physicality as well as Chiang. Catwoman is looking badass and beautiful as ever, but much more appropriate and anatomically…possible?…now that she’s escaped Guillem March’s pen and has artists like Jae Lee, The Dodsons, and Rafael Sandoval drawing her on the regular. Batwoman and Batgirl are looking both gorgeous and appropriately heroic – though with a few exceptions (cough< Huntress>cough) appropriate clothes have rarely been an issue for the Bat-related characters. Huntress, who for some time now had escaped her midriff baring nonsense costume for more practical gear, is now making waves in a….completely unbuttoned white shirt? Actually I’m not even sure that shirt HAS buttons. So weird. It’s an odd choice considering that the other look we’ve seen for her – a graphic cross t-shirt more reminiscent of her namesake – is actually pretty cool. The introduction of new character Equinox has also been pretty great so far from a visual/character design standpoint, not to mention some much needed diversity.

DC Since 2012 Compilation

Clockwise from top left: Zatanna, Wonder Woman, Power Girl, Huntress, Harley Quinn, Black Canary, The Women of Birds of Prey (May 2013), Batwoman, Batgirl, Equinox, Starfire, Catwoman, Amanda Waller.

However, a few high profile stars – like Starfire – remain complete nightmares. Harley Quinn got one of the worst costume/look re-designs any of us have ever had to see. Wonder Girl has implants the size of her head (but you all know THAT already). Similarly Amanda Waller got retconned out of being one of the only large women in comics and turned into the young/beautiful/thin stereotype that almost all other comics ladies already fall into.

Zatanna and Powergirl got interesting (though flawed) re-designs only to have the re-designs scrapped for more classic “swimsuit-y” looks, complete with the insanely impractical fishnets for Zatanna and most infamous costume flaw of all, the ridiculous “boob hole” for Power Girl. Black Canary got a costume update too, and though it’s flawed it does offer more coverage and practicality for her lifestyle than the old one, and that re-design is holding on so far.

Still, even with some of these glaring problems, the report card would not be bad, like with Marvel, it’s not terrible if some women dress like Starfire, so long as they don’t ALL dress like Starfire, though I continue to question why it’s a good idea to eschew the more popular variation of Starfire (animated Teen Titans) for the goldfish brained sex goddess version, but that’s another very specific post I suppose. Unfortunately, DC would come out looking pretty good on this front if not for the DC Bombshell Covers going on this month, which I’ve already covered in depth. Tl;dr – there’s nothing really wrong with the bombshell covers in and of themselves – they’re sexy and fun for the most part and much of the art is better than the regular art. However, as always, context rules supreme, and by choosing to do a “bombshell month” DC sends a glaring and frustrating message about just how it sees its female characters – i.e. as sexy objects more than powerful heroes.

So…read the piece below and you tell me – how far do you think we’ve come? Are we better off than we were two+ years ago? Or is everything basically the same? If we have seen some change are the changes indicative of a more permanent shift in the way comics view and portray women, or is it just something that’s “in fashion” and will pass? Let me know what you think:

Originally posted February 21st, 2012:

So I’ve been sitting on this post for nearly two years. Why you ask? Well, because I knew it would cause Rogue WTFa ****storm, as any comics column that’s remotely controversial does, especially it seems when written by a woman. I had also decided, partway through writing She Has No Head! that I was going to take a decidedly more positive tact for the column, primarily focusing on books that are good, and what I’d like to see more of, supporting creators that are getting it right.

But there’s a lot of talk these days, and many good columns written about women in comics, feminism, and in particular the sexism of comics by way of the objectification and hyper-sexualization of female characters and related issues. Most people who read this column regularly know how I feel about these issues. The short version is that I think it’s a big problem that extends far beyond comics and like other media, it really affects the way people view women, and how women, especially young women, view themselves. I don’t think “it’s just comics” and it doesn’t matter. I think media is a powerful thing in our society and that there’s a trickle down effect in seeing these portrayals reinforced over and over again. These portrayals shape how we view and value women and contributes to everything from sexism in the work place to eating disorders. I don’t think comics are the only media to blame, but it does happen to be the medium I write about, so here we are. However, this column is not actually a discussion of my thoughts on this issue, it’s an answer to the oft repeated knee-jerk response I see to these pieces. When I read the comments section of a piece that talks about these issues, without fail, in the comments section I come across one idea over and over again…

“The, “Comic books are sexist to women” argument does not work, simply because it is not just women who are being objectified. It isn’t about ‘how’ the characters are objectified, it’s about the fact that they are objectified at all. And men and women are both idealized in ridiculous fashions. That is why the argument on how women in comics are objectified will forever be flawed, because it is not an objective criticism.”

This particular comment was on the excellent David Brothers piece for Comics Alliance. These comments come in a variety of different flavors of course, and the one above is not particularly offensive or rife with vitriolic hatred, as they often are, but it’s the idea itself that is just painfully shallow. You can find some version of this comment (many versions in fact) on any piece about sexism and objectification in comics. And so, sick of seeing this completely flawed and tunnel vision argument repeated ad nauseam, I decided to break it down once and for all in my column. Because while you can personally decide that you LIKE seeing objectification of women in your comic books, and you can decide that you are quite content with the status quo, or that you don’t think it’s detrimental to women and it doesn’t bother you, the idea that women and men are treated visually the same in superhero comics is utter crap. In other words, “No, It’s Not Equal.”

When I look at the way characters are rendered in superhero comics for more academic purposes, I look at four primary categories: Body Type, Clothing, Beauty, and Posing. So I’m going to break each of them down…here we go!

1. Body Type

Both men and women are given crazy nearly unattainable idealized bodies in comics, we can all agree on this. But that is where the equality ends. Men are generally portrayed with idealized ATHLETE body types. While women are generally portrayed with idealized PORN STAR and SUPERMODEL body types. Which would make sense if the women were not actually superheroes. But they are, and so making them porn stars and supermodels doesn’t make a lot of sense. If women, like men, were rendered like gymnasts, swimmers, runners, boxers, tennis pros, and body builders, you’d see far fewer objections, because that would make things quite balanced. An idealized athletic form that few of us can achieve but many of us would admire or like to have, is imminently reasonable for a superhero form, but that’s not what we get, instead we get idealized (and wholly unrealistic) supermodel and porn star types.

female-athlete-physique-muscles-fit-healthy

Image from Howard Schatz’s ATHLETE

And the larger issue is not the believability, but the connotation. An athletic male form suggests strength, power, and ability – all traits that make sense for superheroes.

Porn star and model body types suggest beauty, sex, and frequently, submissiveness. None of those qualities tie directly to superheroes.

Birds_of_Prey Benes

Birds of…Porn?

It’s important to remember that idealization of the form is not the same as sexualization of the form. Something can be idealized without being sexualized. But in superhero comics, because the forms that female characters are based on have their roots in porn and models, the form becomes even more sexualized once it is idealized to perfection. Is there anything wrong with perfection in fictional stories? No. Is there anything wrong with superheroes being beautiful sexual beings? Of course not. Is there anything wrong with titillation for the sake of titillation? No, not in the right context. But because the vast majority of female superheroes are rendered this way, it leaves context out. It becomes ALL about titillation and sex, regardless of context. And that creates a problem. And it’s one of the many ways that anyone interested in looking at things objectively can see that…no, this is not equal..

2. Clothing

As readers of superhero comics we call ALL agree that most superheroes, both men and women, are subjected to the incredibly unforgiving spandex, latex, leather, etc. Spandex (etc.) is skintight and leaves little (if anything) to the imagination, but women are simply not dressed the same way that men are. Men, almost universally are covered from head to toe, while women are regularly subjected to: swimsuits, thongs, strapless tops, tops with plunging necklines, stiletto heels, boob windows, belly windows, thigh highs, fishnets, bikinis, and – apparently all the rage lately – costumes unzipped to their stomachs, etc. This is not equality.

Justice-League-issue-1-Cover-Jim-Lee-Geoff-Johns-New-52-DC-Comics

As always, the problem is context. Wonder Woman wears an incredibly revealing strapless swimsuit, while every single one of her male teammates is fully covered…including either full masks or high necked collars!

12715931631

While it might be possible to give Emma Frost a pass, what is the excuse for Rogue being unzipped to her stomach and Storm’s extremely revealing strapless swimsuit? It’s particularly obvious when they’re standing next to five male teammates fully covered head to toe, with two showing their bare arms at most.

Let’s look at ten of the (arguably) most popular marquee superheroes – Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Flash, Captain America, Wolverine, and Thor. Every single one of them are covered – almost literally head to toe. The most flesh you’d see on any of them are Thor and Wolverine’s arms. Scandalous!

And now let’s look at ten of the most popular marquee superheroines: Wonder Woman (strapless swimsuit, sometimes a thong, sometimes heels), Catwoman (regularly unzipped, frequently heels), Ms. Marvel (swimsuit, sometimes a thong, thigh high boots), Storm (strapless swimsuit, thigh high boots, sometimes heels), Batgirl (fully covered, sometimes heels), Black Widow (regularly unzipped, sometimes heels), Invisible Woman (fully covered – for now at least), Black Canary (swimsuit, sometimes a thong, fishnet stockings, sometimes heels), Rogue (as of late – constantly unzipped), and Power Girl (boob hole, swimsuit, sometimes a thong, sometimes heels).

Apparently there is a rampant zipper problem in superhero comics...i.e. that they don't actually work...

Apparently there is a rampant zipper problem in superhero comics…i.e. that they don’t actually work…

 

emma and namor

Namor and Emma, two characters whose silly costumes make character and context sense

Of those ten women, only one has been consistently covered up the way her male counterparts are – Batgirl. The rest have been (or are being) subjected to a series of costumes that are quite frankly, bizarre. That make no sense for what they do, or who they are. And I’ve left off many of the worst offenders – the Star Sapphires and Psylockes of the bunch. You’ll note I’ve also left off characters like Emma Frost/The White Queen, who you can actually make an argument for dressing provocatively. And that’s where we get to the why. Why do these costumes make sense? When a male character has a crazy revealing costume it’s for a reason. Namor sometimes wears a Speedo. But that makes a certain amount of sense both from a job perspective (he lives in the ocean and is nearly invulnerable) and from a character perspective (he’s a known lothario and braggart who seems like he’d enjoy showing off his body). Similarly, Emma Frost’s insanely sexy costumes (she frequently wears what is essentially lingerie to fight crime) make a certain amount of character sense (she’s an extrovert that constantly trades on her looks and makes no attempt to hide this) and now that she can also turn into a diamond, she can be nearly indestructible when she desires and she likes to show off her pretty diamond skin, so the more skin available, the better as far as she’s concerned. And so like Namor, Emma makes some sense. But Emma doesn’t makes sense if she’s standing next to Storm in a strapless swimsuit and thigh highs, Rogue with her costume unzipped to her stomach, and Psylocke in a thong swimsuit. It’s as if Namor, Wolverine, Cyclops, and Colossus were all wearing swimsuits. What sense would that make?

Again, you can like to see things this way until the cows come home. You can personally love those sexy costumes and think they’re wonderfully designed and never want it to change, that’s your prerogative, but let’s not pretend it’s equal, okay?

3. Beauty

Like idealized forms and spandex, beauty is a common denominator in superhero comics. It’s just a fact. Not unlike Hollywood, superhero comics tend to show a world full of people that are exceptionally attractive (and mostly white, but that’s a whole other post).

However, men are still allowed to look a bit like “monsters”…on occasion. For women it’s incredibly rare, unless they ARE in fact “monsters”. And even when they are “monsters”…they’re still frequently possessors of beautiful bodies and/or sex appeal.

Beauty, being perhaps even more subjective than body type idealization is tougher to talk about, but one of the most obvious examples of this disparity between male and female superheroes is in The Hulk. Bruce Banner as The Hulk? Frequently drawn as a pretty terrifying monster and certainly not considered stereotypically handsome. Jennifer Walters as She-Hulk? Stone. Cold. Fox.

Hulks

Monster and stone cold fox. Hmmm….

Let’s look at the villains shall we? Here’s a random selection of some of the most popular villains my boyfriend and I could think of for both genders:

female villains final

From top left: Catwoman, Dark Phoenix, Poison Ivy, Saturnyne, Star Sapphire, The Baroness, Enchantress, Cheetah, Viper, Elektra, and Giganta – all drop dead gorgeous and built like brick houses.

male villains final

From top left: The Joker, Mephisto, The Vulture, Lex Luthor, Galactus, Green Goblin, Sabertooth, Loki, Penguin, Dr. Doom, and Darkseid – less drop dead gorgeous.

The disparity is a little alarming, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want or expect all characters to be unattractive. I understand that we all want to lose ourselves to a degree in fantasy. That fictional worlds provide an escape that we all want. Hell, I grew up wanting to be these heroines because they were powerful and beautiful, I’m not immune to it. We’re all socially conditioned to want youth and beauty, and we’re all conditioned to think specific things are beautiful, but that doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to educate ourselves against it. And it doesn’t make it equal between the sexes. It’s much more frequently true that women are required to be beautiful no matter what, while men have much more flexibility. From anti-heroes to superheroines, and from femme fatales to full blown supervillains it’s rare to find a female character that isn’t drop dead gorgeous. There have been examples of it over time – Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ Jessica Jones from Alias was a very ordinary looking woman by mainstream comics standards. But like many female characters that start out less stereotypically attractive (Marrow, Angel Salvatore, Callisto, etc.) Jessica Jones has now been reverted to drop dead gorgeous type. There are examples of women that break this rule in superhero comics, but it’s exceptionally rare.

4. Posing

Posing is perhaps the most persuasive argument in the arsenal, because it’s such a prevalent and well-known fact that there’s an actual term that has been coined. The brokeback. The brokeback pose is when a female character literally looks as if her back is broken, because that is how she must pose in order to show readers both her tits and ass simultaneously. When a word has been created in order to name this phenomenon, I feel like I should just be able to say BROKEBACK! and let that be it, but in the interest of not phoning it in, let’s talk a little bit more about this and look at some examples.

Even before you get to something as extreme as brokeback you can look back at the athlete vs porn star images on which our characters are based. Because while male superheroes pose somewhat ridiculously quite often – they are still posing as athletes, heroes, conquerors, and badasses. They generally look powerful and in control.

Mighty Avengers

I mean…what is Tigra even DOING?

In contrast female superheroes are generally not posed like athletes or superheroes, but as pliant submissive porn stars and preening supermodels. With alarming regularity they don’t look like athletes, heroes, conquerors, or badasses, but as nothing more than soulless beautiful objects and sexual temptresses, and so that is the assumption readers can make as well. Women as objects. Women as sexual. Women certainly not as heroes.

And this is the most damning evidence that gets us to blatant objectification and hyper-sexualization. More specifically, that the sexual aspects of a man are not highlighted with regularity in superhero comics. In fact, the areas generally considered the most sexual are frequently glossed over in representations of male superheroes. Meanwhile all of a woman’s most sexual aspects are put on most prominent display, which brings us back to brokeback and the attempt to show as much sexuality as possible in every single image.

Just look at this stuff:

Brokebackr2

Brokeback or bust, baby.

You almost never see men posed this way – i.e. overtly sexually. In fact, when it does happen (Nightwing!) it becomes a whole “thing” unto itself, that’s how rare it is. And there are entire memes devoted to comparing the way male characters pose with the way female characters pose.

And again I have to say, you are free to like this, and to advocate for it if you think it’s really the best thing about superhero comics and something that you love about the medium and genre no matter what, that’s your prerogative, but please, stop with this cry of “It’s equal!” because it’s really really not.

I’ve frequently heard the argument that superhero comics are primarily male power fantasies – that men want to be those powerful men and they want to have those beautiful sexy submissive women on their arm and I’m sure there’s a certain amount of truth to that. But I think it appeals to the lowest common denominator. Superhero comics can be (and frequently are) so much more than that, and they can (and should) appeal to a much wider audience, for everyone’s benefit including their own. One way to do that is to actually make the representation of men and women in superhero comics a bit more equal. Cause it sure ain’t there now.

81 Comments

Ya know, whist I have respect for your writing skills, I always see this article and my first thought is, “Oh gawd, who’s wronged the female race this week?” But not wanting to dismiss the thoughts of an obviously intelligent person, I decided to check out how women are treated elsewhere, specifically a medium that I really enjoy, music. Now, the type of music I enjoy (which shall remain ambiguous) is a male dominated affair, with a few exceptions. It seems to me, in my very limited role as an investigator, that women are fine and dandy if they are playing a particular instrument. But woe be to any women who DARE to front the band. Their looks are immediately picked apart and they get subjected to vile comments like “I’d pee in her butt.” Their actual talent, both as a frontwoman and a song writer are ignored in favor of then becoming sexual, not sex, but sexual objects and it’s disgusting. Now, applied to comics, I begin to see your points rather than just writing off your articles as “it’s just comics man.” I need look no farther than May Parker Spider-Girl to see the way a female superhero should be portrayed. She wasn’t jacked up, wasn’t (usually) put into spine-bending butt poses and was always treated with respect. Anyway, before a start rambling, let me say that I shall not look at your articles with the same sly amusement anymore. Thanks and keep ‘em coming.

It’s good to see things have changed (mostly) for the better over the last two years. Women should be portrayed as heroic, confident, and competent in comics just as they should in any other medium. It’s okay for authors and artists to portray gender differences, ’cause women ain’t men and vice-versa, but it’s not okay to relegate women to the status of “sex object” and leave it at that. Conversely, it’s okay to show a man as a sex object once in a while (not that I personally would find that appealing, but that’s just me) but as long as it’s “once in a while.” Like you said Kelly (and I’m paraphrasing) it’s okay for some female characters to be sexy, to have sex appeal, and use it – but it’s not okay for all female characters to be relegated to that role.

There is a lot of story potential that can be mined out of how characters, male and female alike, can embrace, reject, transcend, or work within traditional gender roles. Look at Game of Thrones, for instance. While the show has its failings (lots of boobies and whores) it gives us characters like Catlyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, Melisandre…and on and on. Some reject traditional roles, some work within them, but all are strong characters who happen to be women. Why can’t we have this same diversity in comics?

Well, we are finally getting it. I have been reading some fantastic stories in Marvel’s latest wave of launches featuring female leads. The new Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Black Widow titles have all been great and, more importantly, all treat their leads as heroes and fully-developed characters. I can’t look back at the wave of trashy, porn-alicous, brokeback-posing, thong-wearing “bad girl” and “extreme” comics of ’90s without shuddering. Here’s to hoping we – fans and creators alike – have left that behind for good.

Rafa Sandoval hasn’t drawn Catwoman in almost six months. Her new ongoing artist is Patrick Olliffe, whose art is average at best but acceptable. Guillem March has been drawing a pretty dynamic Catwoman in the pages of Batman Eternal. You should check out those (#8-9) because his take on Selina has definitely changed since he drew her ongoing. And you might have a problem with this but I need to put it out there: my favourite Catwoman artist of all time is Jim Balent. Ignore the cheesecake for a minute. He drew some pretty amazing facial expressions for Selina that really helped flesh out the emotion of the character (and made her fun, not the dreary Selina from Brubaker’s run). And he was able to capture the acrobatic/gymnastic mobility.motion/fluidity of a character like Selina.

I agree, Marvel is really doing very well across the board lately (specifically with art) and that includes improving the image of their female heroes and villains. I’ve never been a big Black Widow fan, but but I haven’t missed an issue of this new series.

I’ve stopped reading a lot of DC lately so I can’t fully comment on any more than you’ve mentioned in the article (though maybe my dropping titles is a comment. I didn’t drop them solely based on their portrayal of women, but mostly their portrayal of nearly everyone).

What I’m curious about is if your opinions on your previous article have changed, specifically the She-Hulk vs Hulk comments, in light of recent controversy (ie. David Goyer).

It’s hard for me to draw any conclusions about overall trends from this column. (I don’t read enough comics to personally observe trends, so I’m relying on your reporting for this opinion).Your original post focussed on four areas — costume, beauty, poses and body type. This follow-up really only addresses costume, and the survey seems cursory instead of thorough. I would have liked you to select some splash pages or battle scenes that illustrate the changes you’re observing, and perhaps tell us that you looked through every issue of Captain Marvel and only found one odd pose.

However, for the sake of argument, I’ll accept that the big 2 are currently doing better in their representation of women. If that’s the case, I still think it’s just a current trend, and that they will/may revert to the norm as soon as complacency by the public sets in. There’s recently been a lot of pressure on them to make this change, and they have responded. I don’t think it’s been long enough for this change to be really internalized. And since comics are a medium that relies heavily on nostalgia, there will be a resurgence of old styles sometime in the future when the old fans start becoming creators.

I should say that I expect styles to be cyclical, but that the cycle will moderate more and more each time. We haven’t seen the end of the “brokeback” style; but when it comes back it will be less widespread, last for a shorter period, and the style will be toned down somewhat.

A question…Isn’t beauty and sexiness a form of power to women in general? I mean look what is marketed to them. Men have a variety of interests while women’s products are usually mostly appearance-based in nature.

speaking personally, by my observations of what Marvel comics I read (which include A LOT of ‘Lady Comics’) I agree Marvel are definitely improving.

as for the comment about Googling pics of characters, as someone who’s done that a LOT lately, looking for pictures of Marvel characters for new desktop wallpapers, you have to bear in mind there’s about a 60/40 split between legit images of characters and fan art which often puts the female characters in more ridiculous tit/midriff baring versions of the costumes they actually wear.

and for Vizator, glad to see someone man enough to admit he’s been wrong in his attitude and good to see someone admitting that it is more than just a comics problem.

Minor note: The Dazzler in Deadpool right now is from the past. so blame John Byrne. Not sure what the regular Dazzler is wearing, since we haven’t seen her since Mystique shoved her into a closet.

I’d like to echo Vizitor’s sentiments about initially being on guard with this article, but then finding it very even handed and well stated. Nice.

For what it’s worth, comics, and especially Marvel/DC are a pop culture entertainment medium, and grabbing you attention is always going to be in the forefront. It probably says a lot about us as a culture (or at least what CW says about us) that sexuality is such a major selling point, but it does grab eyes. In that vein, I don’t feel superhero costume/pose tropes fall very short of what we’re exposed to with Pop music and the Miley Cyrus’ of the world offer us (for better or worse).

Also like music, the further you get from mass pop, the more even-handed the representations tend to be.

I would agree with your assumptions. There are still a lot of offenders but things definitely have changed and I would argue they have changed for good. DC still compares badly to Marvel but this is true for anything, I guess. The stupidity standards of DC’s policies is hard to meet.
Now they just have to start on other subject matters too. For example, I’d love for comcis to start viewing Africa in a realistic way or the depiction of indigenous people. But maybe we should just be happy that there is change already.
Oh, but I never want to see something like the introduction of the transgender character in Batgirl again. That was the most clumsy attempt of political correctness I have ever seen, especially since Gail Simone is normally good at this stuff. But who knows what the editors screwed up there again.

I wonder if you saw this from Diane Nelson: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=53442

To me, this is kind of a big deal. Someone with actual power came out and said it: the way that the Big Two have traditionally handled female characters is embarrassing. That strikes me as a positive step toward actual change.

I would love to see Kelly do a general synopsis on the Empowered Series by Adam Warren. I am certain she would have a lot to write about how the lead character is portrayed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between Hulk and She-Hulk, and find that there is an odd difference between a male monster hero (ex. the Thing) and a female monster hero (ex. Tigra) The male monsters are all about guys who hate what they have become and are always trying to get ‘cured’. The female monsters are about women who prefer their monster forms to the more traditional images of beauty. Is this a statement about women’s liberation, or just an excuse to be okay with coloring a pretty girl green or making her a furry? I’m sure a lot of people have opinions on that.

Things are somewhat better, but far from perfect. Great articles, I’m glad you’re willing to speak about this topic with honesty.

I see the temporal differences that still need to be ironed out for an equal playing field. But at some point we have to let artistic merit be artistic merit. And I think both genders can agree. Sometimes we do want a skintight and slightly revealing outfit on a character…right? Muscled men or toned women…

Reading about the brokeback pose again makes me want to see someone introduce a female character who constantly does those poses, but to such an extreme that it looks disturbing instead of sexy. Have her turn her torso 140 degrees instead of 90 or bend so far backwards that the top of her spine almost touches the bottom. Make her a Skrull or a Durlan or some other kind of shapeshifter to explain how she can survive moving her body like that. Or maybe she’s Ragdoll’s long lost sister.

Why do I want to see that? Because it would be hilarious, that’s why! And a nice parody of bad comic art.

In terms of the main thesis, I’m still not on board with it. If I understand the idea seems to be that making superheroines sexualized is appealing to a certain male demographic because it makes them look like weak objects. I think that the more likely explanation is that a lot of men (and some women) simply like looking at sexualized characters, full stop. Or in other words what you are arguing is:

-Sexualized woman ->Objectification-> Dehumanization -> Enjoyment

Whereas I think the more logical explanation is:

-Sexualized woman ->Enjoyment.

So I don’t necessarily agree that the popularity sexualized female characters in comics is a sign of any malice towards or lack of respect for women. It’s just noticing that a large part of the audience enjoys it and giving them what they enjoy.

I completely agree, however, with your assertion that such sexualization is bad from a plot and character perspective. Have a character dress in an outfit that is blatantly and ludicrously unsuited for combat, or having an introverted character dress like and exhibitionist are both terrible mistakes from an artistic perspective. It is bad to disrupt the internal logic of story and character just for a little fanservice.

A few of the commenters have noted that the disparity in how men and women are portrayed goes beyond comics into other media. I agree, and I think this observation shows that this issue is far bigger than most of us realize instead of the opposite conclusion that there is in fact no disparity. It is true that sex sells and marketing has to tailor to get the biggest audience so the business can continue, but I think the audience is changing while the business model is remaining stagnant. For example, this conversation about how men and women are portrayed in the media did not take place as frequently decades ago. I think this shows how marketing and what the public wants were in tune more in the past. Now, there is a growing segment that sees how comics have traditionally portrayed people and this audience wants something different.

I think it would be in the big two’s best interest to give this new market a fair shot. I’d love a series that has a female engineering genius who pilots a mech that doesn’t look like a sexy robot lady, or a super soldier decked out in SWAT gear with head to toe bulky coverage. I welcome the Scarlet Witches and the Power Girls as well. I think the comics world can be bigger and more varied because our real world is bigger and more varied due to the Internet.

@Dean Hacker That statement in contrast to this updated assement almost cements my assessment of how Marvel is clearly getting the picture (Disney’s traditional demographic down through editorial and creative teams all help). Meanwhile, we have just a small number of female artist work in an environment where it appears that having a women as the head of your devision is not the key to resolving this. One is actually foolish to assume gender in a leadership role alone will solve the issue. That women has to actually do something to make this work. I am very critical of her role in all of this. I am happy to see Marvel win again. I grew up a Marvel fan. But this is totally unfair to anyone who likes DC (which I do) and anyone who cares about women (which I do) and anyone who understands the importance of Wonder Women. Diane Nelson has failed and is just talking about doing something now?!

A couple of quick corrections on the DC front. The Helena Bertinelli who appeared in NIghtwing 30 is not the Huntress. While I am not a big fan of open blouse look, the Huntress in World’s FInest costume should also be counted.

Also, as cats meow said, Patrick Oliffe, not Rafa Sandoval is currently drawing Catwoman (and is scheduled to do so at least through September). There aren’t any back breaking poses or too much focus on the T&A, but she is occasionally frail skinny looking, especially when he draws her in evening wear. (That said he’s pretty great at layouts).

I wish the Zatanna redesign stuck. Or at least she spent less time in the magicians assistant outfit.

The first comment makes a very valid point, touching on considerations of our culture as a whole. To look at sexualization of women in comics in a vacuum is somewhat unfair to the medium. Is it any worse than most video games or blockbuster movies or ads in men’s (and women’s) magazines? If you look at the women attending the Oscars, they’re not in flattering, yet conservative dresses and pantsuits; they’re wearing $30,000 midriff-baring, semi-transparent evening gowns, and if they aren’t posing beside their man in his standard black-and-white, then they are still coming off as arm candy. Sure there are exceptions, but that is most definitely the norm. And actresses and musicians are, bar none, the idols that receive the attention and adoration of young women in the first world.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue to push for equal and fair treatment on all sides, but taking comics to task seems a bit disingenuous when there are far larger fronts in that struggle that shoulder way more of the responsibility when it comes to dehumanizing women.

Did the feminist movement allow for empowerment through sexuality? It could definitely be viewed as having done so. And is that really just a perversion of the original intent? Probably so. But is it still a positive thing? Not going there, but has it allowed women to achieve more, in comparison to other countries where female repression is the norm, or is it holding them back? That’s a very valid question with no short answer.

If Jen’s Hulk form is anything like Betty’s in Red She-Hulk, she looks human and attractive because she isn’t going full Hulk. Red She-Hulk showed that when Betty went full Hulk, she was just as unattractive as Hulk.

Have anyone noticed that cyclops, who doesnt have super-strenght, have muscles the same size of spider-man who does have super-strenght ?.

Your article is well-written, and tries to maintain a logical base. I simply don’t agree, which as you kept saying is my right. Overweight guys with no muscle tone envision themselves as the iconic superhero with a perfect body, and they want to see a thin, beautiful, busty lady by their side. Conversely, some females could see those heroines as a role model of power and strength. Bad-ass body and skills. I say keep them as they were.

Rafael Sant Anna Meyer

June 16, 2014 at 1:34 pm

I know some professional brazilian artists, and in several times I touched at some subjects like how sexy they did their art and one of them told me half of his “inspiration” to draw the female form came from the pictures carefully chosen from fashion and fitness magazines. Basically they use fashion poses to draw their girls and the editors and publishers never told a word about the poses. Later, when the art return polices changed the cheesecake art pages were sold faster and for a larger money sum than the normal pages. So they started to think with their wallets. And their design started to take off at the cosplay circuit, improving that designs intrinsic values.

And being sincere, several of that half naked ladies were draw to fill several fetish subgroup niches. Just now it is changing with the feminist online buzz and the need to keep their regular money income.

@ doctoraquaman:

Is this a statement about women’s liberation, or just an excuse to be okay with coloring a pretty girl green or making her a furry?

Both She-Hulk and Tigra started out far more like monsters than they are today. Here is Shulkie:
http://marvel.wikia.com/Savage_She-Hulk_Vol_1_2?file=Information-silk.png

Here is Tigra:
http://marvel.wikia.com/Giant-Size_Creatures_Vol_1_1?file=Giant-Size_Creatures_Vol_1_1.jpg

To me, it is a more extreme version of what happened with Amanda Waller. Every female character becomes more of a babe over time. Monster heroes don’t wear a ton of clothes, so that impulse is more intense.

Part of it is also that many comic book artists just don’t have great figure drawing skills. They have the one male and one female body type. Plus, they have pretty limited skills in rendering fabrics, so you tend to get body paint instead of realistic costumes.

J. David Clarke

June 16, 2014 at 1:55 pm

I agree with pretty much every point in this article. Well said.

@Dean Hacker- You’re on to something there. Even when introduced and long standing like Waller, someone eventually comes along and “babe’s” them up. Rogue started out pretty ugly, and now she’s a Marvel poster girl. Tigra was always in a bikini, but no one gets hot by Ben Grimm in just briefs because he’s STILL a monster.

What’s wrong with Zatanna’s costume. I like it.

@ Ben Cohen:

I don’t think Diane Nelson’s gender has much to do with it.

She is a marketing person coming from the film industry. The content of the actual comics were plainly not a huge priority for her. She seemed to trust Dan DiDio, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns to produce content that she could push down more profitable channels. It was not a plan that has gone overly well. So, she is taking a hard look at the content.

Her role (on the other hand) is huge deal. Ms. Nelson is The Boss at DC Entertainment. If she makes gender a priority, then it will be a priority. She has a proven ability to get stuff done.

Regarding the DC vs. Marvel aspect, Marvel is clearly much more female-friendly right now. However, I don’t exactly trust them. They were the first ones into the proverbial pool on the “bad girl” trend in the ’90s. They still routinely employ some top offenders in terms of artists.

I’ll admit that I’m always baffled whenever these arguments come up. I get all the stuff about representation of women in comics, please understand that I have no confusion there. But what I don’t understand is how all of these (admittedly important) discussions were started with the preoccupation with these character attractiveness

I’ve never understood why things have to be sexy in the first place. It’s “sexy” this and “sexy” that, as if if something’s not sexy then there’s something wrong with it? And I see this on both sides too; people say they don’t want to read a comic unless the female character is sexy enough, and on the other-side side there are people who want memorable well written female characters who almost universally write “still sexy” as something that’s important.

These are characters that can lift buildings, beat the shit out of assassins, shoot lasers from their eyes and can control entire countries with their minds, why the hell do we care about something so arbitrary as their looks.

Ghatanathoah –

I agree with you.

It’s not malice or any conscious desire to dehumanize women.

I always saw it more as bad art than bad politics.

However, there is insensitivity involved. And some guys do turn really malicious when they’re called on that insensitivity.

@Tupper

I’d be happy to see some less overtly “sexy” stuff as well, but that’s really a different problem to my mind than what this particular column is trying to address.

A really common argument about the portrayal of women in comics is that taking the sexy out of things is wrong and that there’s nothing wrong with sexiness (which I agree with) and so thus nothing needs to change. So it’s critical to me that we demonstrate that more equal representation does not have to eliminate the sexy. Illustrating that women can still be sexy without everything being so overt all the time and that women can be sexy in a myriad of ways without being unzipped or porn-star-ified at every opportunity is one of the first steps. Getting to not everything always needing to be sexy is a couple down the line (in my opinion)…baby steps!

@Dean

I did see the Diane Nelson comment/piece. I feel mixed about it. I loved that a shareholder said something so aggressive and honest – and I’m glad it was a dude if only so that nobody was all “I KNEW KELLY THOMPSON WAS A SHAREHOLDER!” ;)

I thought it was a surprisingly insightful statement to talk about not only being embarrassed in the portrayals and representation but to also talk about the lack of creators/higher ups.

I think Nelson’s response was about as good as one could hope for and yet it’s simultaneously highly disappointing to have someone say “check back with me in a few years.” I know as well as anyone how long the road on these creative things take, how complicated they can become, how many roadblocks can crop up, still, it’s disappointing to hear that even people in this much power cannot make things happen.

I have to disagree with you about the porn star physique. Most pornstars do not have rocking bods with six packs. Same with Sueprmodels. It is all about being thin more than anything else, with one favoring big breasts and the other very small ones.

My biggest problem with women in comics is that they all look generally the same. Perfect bodies, big boobs plump butts. I like looking at so-called perfect bodied women as much as the next guy but it looses its appeal when all you see is the same body shape over and over and over again. This is one of the reasons I adored Waller – she was fat – yet she was also strong, powerful and confident.

I have no problem with characters showing off their breasts but the character should be designed around that concept (like Emma Frost) or such outfits should be saved for scenes when it is called for (like parties, seduction scenes, casual-wear, what have you). Most of the women who seem to be exposing their breasts most often are the ones who could be horribly mangled if they were ever hit with a bullet or cut with a knife.

Side note, I had not noticed this before but Superman’s, Green Lantern’s and Aquaman’s New 52 outfit all have the same collar. How strange.

“though with a few exceptions (coughcough) appropriate clothes have rarely been an issue for the Bat-related characters. Huntress, who for some time now had escaped her midriff baring nonsense costume for more practical gear, is now making waves in a….completely unbuttoned white shirt? Actually I’m not even sure that shirt HAS buttons. So weird. It’s an odd choice considering that the other look we’ve seen for her – a graphic cross t-shirt more reminiscent of her namesake – is actually pretty cool.”

And this is why I can’t take this article seriously. Here is the classic example of reacting to 1 panel without the context that goes along with said panel.

Fhiz over @ Gotham Spoilers explained it in detail.

http://www.gothamspoilers.com/2014/05/spoilers-helena-bertinelli-psa.html

@Mister Ferro:

So…one example of dozens in a 4k word piece undermines every bit of the piece for you? Even the bit that argues that the portrayals of women at DC and Marvel are both better than they were two years ago?

Okay, in that case you should probably just be on your way then. What a shock.

Specifically relating to Huntress, I even bring up the other costume in the piece (and you quote it), so there’s no attempt (by me) to ignore the other look. And even if the open/buttonless shirt is just a feint as part of a story I still question the decision to show her that way as – #1 just a poor choice based on the context in which women are so often presented and thus falling into the same boring trap of so many others and #2 How does a buttonless shirt – far less practical than all the other costumes presented btw – make anyone look more like a “crazy murderer”? That’s exceptionally lazy for no reason that I can see other than to attempt to be titillating. For what active character does a shirt with literally no buttons that is poorly drawn and defies the basic rules of how clothing actually works make sense? I see a lot of “crazy villains” who have shirts with buttons. Ridiculous argument. And a poor choice for the creators/artists/editors.

You forget the big picture and that is Helena is a spy and spies are supposed to blend in while infiltrating the known target. So having her dressed as a crazy psycho killer was the right call.

@Mister Ferro:

Repeating the same information a second time in no way addresses (or refutes) the arguments or links provided to you to further the discussion.

You are just digging up 3 week old “controversy” for your article.

You asked why did she have to be dressed the way she was and I gave the reason.

I’m done here.

As a white male, I completely agree that women are not only misrepresented in the medium of comics but act as a sort of sexual fantasy reputation in the comics. I constantly answer the “why don’t women read comics” with “because female comic book heroes are complete mis-sexual-representations of reality.” It is sad but shouldn’t be surprising considering the types of people that the industry attracts. The industry aims at the stereotypical comic book reader that loves Spiderman, cosplays, is 35 and still lives in his mother’s basement; they’re going to imagine something that is fantastically sexual and wears suggestive clothing. I know that seems a bit close minded, but that’s my two cents.

I’m digging up nothing – controversial or otherwise. This was not some misinformed big “hit piece” on the new Huntress. She was an example (not entirely negative, btw) of DOZENS.

YOU are the one nitpicking one line in a 4,000 word article and thus decrying the entire concept and argument (which you don’t even seem to understand since it’s largely a positive reflection on where we are compared to two years ago) as worthless. And when I tried to engage you as to why it’s still not great to present her this way, regardless of nebulous at best story elements you just repeated your first sentence.

I’m delighted you’re done here. Please do let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.

@misterferro PROMISE???????????

I think more credit needs to be given for Marvel’s work on female teen characters. MU has always been more teen-friendly (in the best possible connotation!), and, for the most part, the Runaways, Avengers Academy, Avengers Arena, and (awesome book!) Ms Marvel have all done good jobs with strong female leads.

@Kelly Thompson: Don’t engage the close minded and the trolls, they will only drag you down to the abyss from whence they came.

Really interesting to note the changes. I’d spotted some of the obvious ones myself such as the demise of what I’ve often heard described (and not too inaccurately) as Psylocke’s ninja-hooker look. Good riddance to that and may it never return. I personally loved her original X-Men costume with the hood and armour. Mysterious and cool I thought.

Am I right in thinking Harley’s costume makeover was something to do with the Arkham Asylum video games? I
wonder if this poor decision was made by someone in marketing wanting sell more games and comics.

I have to say though Kelly, you and I have very different tastes in art. I think Chiangs Wonder Woman is very poor by his excellent standards and I hate Captain Marvel’s costume it’s so awful words fail me. I am just begging for Marvel to give her the costume her namesake wore and get rid of the 1950’s musical outfit which hurts my eyes with it’s too bright colours

great article!

I’m kind of glad I wasn’t imagining the improvement in Marvel. DC has huge issues though. I did not know about Amanda Waller, and now I feel sad.

Psylocke’s ninja-hooker look. Good riddance to that and may it never return.

Disagree with this 100%. I have seen a comic in the past with Spider-Man that ridiculed the look. The ridiculing in question was that she wore high heels. It was even featured on the cover. The marvel editor(s) that allowed it is/are to me asshole(s).

I personally loved her original X-Men costume with the hood and armour. Mysterious and cool I thought.

I am stunned! I liked it too but mostly because she wore a mask!
The thing what is missing to me is that the current look of the marvel character Elizabeth Braddock, does not include a full on face mask. I love it on the marvel charcter Ava Ayala.
I am sad to see that the mask of the marvel character Kamala Khan does not cover up her hair and nose so that only her mouth is exposed. Still, even if that was the case I cannot support her series because she worships the marvel characters Carol Danvers and Tony Stark.

I hate Captain Marvel’s costume it’s so awful words fail me.

Holy! Again, I am stunned! I feel the same way!
35 years ago the GREAT late Dave Cockrum designed a, to me, awesome uniform for Ms Marvel who’s secret id was Carol Danvers. Later editors did not preserve the look he created because they ALLOWED other artists to draw the mask as lines on her face and make her wear a thong (Again, editors and artists being assholes).

Ms Marvel went from red and blue to black (GREAT) before Spider-Man went from red and blue to black (also GREAT).

While I agree to your article I have to be honest and say as long as women are characterised as strong and capable of handling themselves, I can live with sexy, even revealing outfits.
Take Storm for example. She mostly wore very explicit outfits, but was portrayed as a powerful leader of the X-Men.

Eh, I’m not buying that Rogue is really dead. It happened in another, “evil” universe midway through a story. She’ll be back shortly once “Uncanny Avengers” gets its schedule in gear. Or when it gets cancelled. Either is cool by me. (I’m one of those people who doesn’t really “get” Rick Remender; I’m way more on the side of HIckman’s Avengers books.)

I don’t have a problem with skin on costumes or even swimsuit-like costumes — male or female. Namor, Hercules, Hulk, Thing, Beast, some of Colossus’ looks, Tigra, some of Storm’s costumes, Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel’s Cockrum costume, Psylocke, Elektra…don’t have an issue. It’s a costume.

Should every hero show skin? No. But I don’t have an issue with the ones who do.

I DO agree about the brokeback or sexy poses in the wrong situations though.

On the Beauty department, that is what I like about Joker’s Daughter. She is ugly and a villain, which makes her seem so unique.

Lol at Mister Ferro citing a shitty article and a shitty argument: “they have to blend in.” You realize that this is a fiction created by a person, right? That person could have written the spies to have less “sexy” outfits, right? That this writer and artist could have designed ANYTHING other than a “sexy” gross outfit but chose to design it that way, right?

In general (genderal?), I love your articles, Kelly, but I often have nothing to add other than a vehement and vigorous nodding of the head. Keep on keepin’ on!

Ghatanathoah –

“Why do I want to see that? Because it would be hilarious, that’s why! And a nice parody of bad comic art.”

You should check out the Grant Morrison written “Doom Force” (reprinted in the final ‘Doom Patrol’ trade, Planet Love). There’s also a great Jhonen Vazquez story that does exactly what you’re asking for; I don’t know the issue that it was printed in, but I would assume it is reprinted in the “Squee” trade with all of the other short pieces he did at the time.

Great article. Sadly, well, some of the comments. The comicbookguy responses would be funny if there were fewer of them. It seriously makes me depressed about the state of the representation of gays and minorities in comics if this is where we are with women. Women! Half of everybody!

@ MegaGearMax:

Here is the core questions from my stand-point: “who is the target audience for Big Two comics?” and (relatedly) “is the core audience for superhero products across all channels the same?”

During the Direct Market era (i.e. mid-to-late 1970s until the mid-to-late 1990s), the answer to both those questions was pretty unambiguous. Comics were a product for young men that weren’t that into sports and didn’t have girlfriends. Every thing that went down a different sales channel was derivative of the core thing, which was the comics and, therefore, the target audience was assumed to be the same. You can argue whether that was ever fully true, since the all-male clubhouse was never exactly my experience. However, it is hard to deny that was how Marvel and DC had the market segmented.

If you look at the content of the comics themselves, then it is a pretty interesting look into the psychology of the generation of men that grew up in the immediate wake of second wave feminism. That generation (or ‘mine’) was always the target audience and became the creators during the Image revolution. The medium ‘aged up’ with us.

As comics have moved into book stores as ‘graphic novels” and the places superhero stories were told proliferated starting with the first X-Men movie and the “Smallville” TV series, those answers should have started changing. Comics as a medium and superhero stories as a genre are far, far more appealing to much wider cross-section of the population I could have possibly guessed when dudes were shoving multiple copies of SPAWN #1 in mylar bags.

It is weird how long it has taken the folks that produce the product to accept that.

I think it’s important to notice that it was not always this way. For a good example just google “Jim Lee X-Men”. First two images are the famous X-Men #1 cover, wherein yes Psylocke is in her swimsuit but Storm, Rogue and Jean Grey are as covered up as they’ve ever been. The second image that comes up is a slightly earlier version of the team, with Polaris also covered head to toe and Jubilee wearing shorts but generally covered up. Also it’s in Australia making shorts sensible. Also note the poses. Everyone is posed more or less the same. My point is, once upon a time, fairly sensible dress, and realistic poses were once the norm, and it has shifted away from that (arguably, Jim Lee was the start of that). I always thought it was nosedive in writing quality, combined with the hike in prices that happened in the 90’s that chased me from regular comic reading. Maybe it was also, in part, the art getting sillier.

@ MegaGearMax

So, before anyone revises costumes (or whatever), they should have in mind who they are trying to appeal to and how.

To me, that is not a question of ‘representation’. It is about having a good business plan. Someone is going to fall outside your target market and, frankly, it is bad business to give a damn about offending them. Sometimes offending the right people is even a good decision from a brand perspective. The problem is that DC has been drawing too small a target for the last 10-15 years that overlapped too much with the equally small target that Marvel had been drawing the dawn of the Direct Market as a reaction to the success Image had in hitting an even smaller target in the overlap between the two.

My hunch is the best way to expand the audience is to focus less on zero-sum arguments between factions of the existing fan-base (e.g. should The Question be a white dude or a gay woman of color?) or worse on side issues that don’t really mean anything (Wonder Woman: Would Pants ‘Fix’ Her?!?) and focus more on what makes comics an appealing medium to tell stories in.

The most critical area that is overlooked is the character design. It is something that comics (and animation) can do that other media can’t. The way these characters look matters. It conveys meaning. Amanda Waller being a big square gives her a personality. Putting her in a thin, hourglass frame changes that personality. Creative teams that in synch can take things a step further and give the character a personality that contrasts with their design. The Wolfman-Perez take on Starfire was a great example of that. George Perez drew Starfire like one of Charlie’s Angels and Wolfman gave her an attitude toward the world that was immune to what that meant. That animation folks took that a step further and developed a fuller character. When Frank Miller put Batman and Superman into conflict, the first thing that he did was tweak their looks so they no longer appeared to be brothers.

However, it works the other way as well. When Marc Silvestri took the plain, fairly butch looking Rogue and turned her into super-model, she became a different character. The same is true of the transformation of Betsy Braddock into a Sex Ninja. That is all totally fine when your target was what it was in the Direct Market era. It just doesn’t work for a broader (not ‘different’, but ‘broader’) market.

@Jesse

Re: taking comic books to task when there are bigger, wider problems with female representation in media and culture.

This is a blog about comic books. Kelly writing an article exclusively about music videos or (non-comic related) movies would be pretty weird, wouldn’t it?

Don’t confuse the issue with logic, Danny.

How do you defeat the old method of “sex sells”? You make it result in low sales. Get every title depicting an oversexualized character to completely fall to the bottom of the barrel in terms of sales, then we’ll talk.

PowerDad (Jeff)

June 17, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Very good article, Kelly! Thank you so much for writing this.

Your article is spot-on. The industry, at least in regards to the Big 2, has made progress. I don’t think we’re There yet—There being the ideal balance of all things—but we’re moving in the right direction, and that’s very heartening to see.

Concerning the concept of ‘Beauty,’ especially in regard to female characters: Dawn Powell once wrote in a diary entry entitled “The Secret of My Failure”: “Just thought why I don’t sell stories to popular magazines. All have subtitles—‘Last time Gary saw Cindy she was a gawky child; now she was a beautiful woman . . .’ I can’t help writing, ‘Last time Fatso saw Myrt she was a desirable woman, now she was an old bag.’” Now maybe these were the words of a cynical writer, disgruntled that she never received her due—deserved—acclaim. Or maybe she’s just correct in thinking that publishers—and audiences—gravitate toward the beautiful. Historically speaking, in almost any art form—literature, painting, sculpture, etc.—the subject of the work is aesthetically pleasing, approaching the concept of Idealized, unless there’s some ‘reason,’ some specific point being made by the creator.

Whether that ought or not be the case is a discussion for another day, my concern is this: It seems that for males—be they characters in a book or actors on a screen—appearance is only one part of a greater whole. In addition to beauty, they’re allowed, even encouraged, to be brave, gallant, clever, strong and/or ambitious. If we have a male character who is attractive but lacks positive character traits, we typically label them a villain or coward or annoying brute and limit discussion to his portrayal. Whereas with females, beauty is all that seems to be required. If she has other positive traits, great, wonderful, we’re still going to spend unnecessary amounts of time praising her beauty. If she has beauty but no positive traits, great, wonderful, we’re still going to spend unnecessary amounts of time praising her beauty. If she is no great beauty, yet possesses positive traits, we’ll talk about her ‘horse teeth’ or ‘chunky frame’ or ‘lopsided breasts,’ forgetting she did anything other than dare to be an ugo.

Likewise, male characters (perhaps I should specify with ‘heroic’), when posed on comic covers look great. Let’s not lie, Superman, Thor, Dick Grayson are all yummy, yummy dishes; however the beefcake is only part of what’s on display—what’s being sold to potential buyers. In addition to chiseled Adonises, they’re blocked to look strong and brave, imposing bastions of Truth, Justice and Beating the Unholy Hell out of Villains. Whereas, in times gone not-so-long past, females were posed first, last and middle for the purpose of highlighting sex appeal—the more naughty bits visible the better. And that, to me, is possibly the most dangerous disparity between portrayals of the sexes. Because it limits. It limits the initial selling point of the female character to ‘Sexy.’ It limits the reader’s expectations of what (s)he’ll find the character to be—what (s)he’ll allow the character to be—when (s)he opens the book. And it limits the perceptions of people who don’t even crack the cover but see it whilst walking by, and sweet devil below what they must think of the medium.

Someone should really teach me that saying about ‘brevity’ and ‘wit.’ Every time I post here it’s a freaking novella. I should probably apologize for that.

“When Marc Silvestri took the plain, fairly butch looking Rogue and turned her into super-model, she became a different character.”

@Dean,
I always had a problem with Rogue becoming a pin-up for just that reason. Take Dave Cockrum’s version from #158 (my first introduction to the character) and compare it to Jim Lee’s version. Paul Smith and John Romita Jr. never drew her sexy (though JRjr did have her in a bikini for an issue). Even when JRjr played around with her costume, she always stayed covered up. Silvestri’s bathing suit with black arms and legs led to Jim Lee’s “sexy” designs. I still think a lot of today’s artists are too influenced by the 90’s Image look and that still resonates in today’s comics. Compare Steve Leialoha’s Spider-Woman and compare her to Frank Cho’s version. John Byrne catches flack for his Malice design for Sue Richards (which made sense with the storyline at the time) but he’s also the guy who gave us Kitty Pryde and Amanda Waller. I think a lot of today’s artists are trying to sell original art pages versus trying to tell a good story so we get lots of butt shots and brokeback poses.

I should have wrote “TAKE Steve Leialoha’s Spider-Woman and compare her to Frank Cho’s version.”

Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but there seems to be substantially less pounding of their righteousness by some commentators this time around. One can hope the new moderation policies are paying off.

In regards to Rogue, the last Uncanny Avengers made it quite clear she is coming back soon.

Travis Pelkie

June 18, 2014 at 9:47 pm

Huhhuh heehee you said “cock-eyed” and “pounding of righteousness” huhuhhuhuhuhhuhuhuh hehehehehheeeeheheehheehehheeeeee

I’m…I’m sorry I have nothing of substance to add to the discussion. I think we all know I’m just a dang drillrod.

Also, Ms Marvel and She-Hulk are dang good books. And it’s a good thing that things seem to be turning around and improving.

On the whole “but men are portrayed as sexy too” argument – I want to point out the utter lack of giant cocks showing through their lycra and spandex. For guys wondering why this bothers women – imagine if all the superheroes in comics had big sexy bulges in the fronts of their pants. After all, people like looking at sexy people, right? What’s your problem? etc etc

@ Shawn Kane:

Compare Steve Leialoha’s Spider-Woman and compare her to Frank Cho’s version. John Byrne catches flack for his Malice design for Sue Richards (which made sense with the storyline at the time) but he’s also the guy who gave us Kitty Pryde and Amanda Waller.

Frank Cho is nearly perfect example of the trickiest part of this problem in my mind. He is a wonderful artist, who clearly does the right things in terms of figure drawing. He is also an artist with pretty specific interests. I mean, it is the title of his blog. He also has a well-deserved following.

However, Cho is also a guy that draws one female body type almost completely to the exclusion of any other. When you say “Frank Cho” and “Spider-Woman”, then you know exactly what it is going to look like. That character bears little resemblance to the one Marie Severin, or Steve Leialoha drew. Back in the Silver and even Bronze Ages, creators had long enough runs on titles that were able to define (or re-define) characters. Today, four straight issues feels like a long run for a star artist.

If you paired Frank Cho with a writer that could use his interests to tell interesting stories (Gail Simone springs to mind) and turned them loose on a title with a solo female character that had the body type Cho likes to draw (a long, long list) for 4-5 years, then you might have a modern classic. However, the economics of the industry don’t support 60+ issue runs by one creative team telling their own story anymore. Cho doesn’t crank out pages at a rate that matches that every single month schedule that publishers need. Instead, you get a long stream of images of the “Frank Cho woman” essentially cosplaying the Marvel Universe.

The above is true of a lot of artists in one way, or another. I have no idea how you fix it.

Since this article again has pointed to and referenced only non cartoony comics, once again we must look through the contextual lens of Thompson’s article, which means stuff that is drawn like Daria or a post modernist Calvin snd Hobbes style doesn’t really apply here, though in about 9 hours somebody would attempt to square hole that round peg. This, however, leads to a very important point:

Unless every pundit and boffin on public radio around the globe is wrong, women represent EIGHTY PERCENT of the fiction buying market.

If any company makes one imprint or editorial subdivision that brings in female representational artists of the type whom are finalists in topshelf portrait comps and trading card sets (ala WotC) and team them with writers like Linda LaPlant and Sarah Waters, it doesn’t matter what readers who drool over anorexic blow up dolls with silicone torpedo boobs enjoy or buy, because a new market is then formed. Like fast food brands; KFC doesn’t have to give a crap about complaints agaist burger jounts in the past about how burgers made by their competitors were prepared; KFC forwent selling dead cows, they chose to sell chicken, so it was not their problem.

Here’s the furtherance of the metaphor: visual sexism is like the business of beefburgers, so start a company franchise selling poultry cooked in healthy and tasty olive oil (e.g. non sexist super images) instead.

Like the art we see above, and characters mentioned in the article, vs Roberta Gregory’s work. If the preponderance of work by female artists is cartoony, which is never the art used in the corporate comics in the article, then cartoony work is irrelevant to this thread. Fine Art used in comics is not. :-D. As Gaiman’s career in comics (including Black Orchid) never would have began without McKean’s wondrrous hyper realist efforts in Violent Cases. I don’t recall fake boobs and protruding female Pilates butts in that three issue mini series.

I have seen hundreds of women producing art of that calibre in both paint and linework. You go to any real life drawing class, look around and you will see that 2/3rds of the students are women.

Art is the driving force and meat (pun intended) of Thompson’s article. If the same recipe of artists is put into the same publication pot year after year, the same problem comes up year after year. If you put in the same ingredients the same way into the same pot you get the same soup. If that is Sexist Soup and you don’t like the taste, buy different ingredients. Get some realist female artists involved since it appears the most successful title is Saga and it looks anything BUT cartoony.

But nothing done or said by Bechdel or Ware or people using underground art to webzine the pain of their dating lives, or their fans (who actually don’t read super books despite complaining about them), will have any effect upin this sexism problem, or be anything but ineffectual in attempts to help change this. Like street dancers doing Crump never have any impact on the state of play on Broadway musicals or Glee.

If no one wants to change the recipe, fine. We love these threads and kibbitzing and bitching and that draws more traffic amd hits to Thompson’s article which supports a female writer in comics. Amd technically that should mean more $ for her.

Which is good enough for me, tonight.

magine if all the superheroes in comics had big sexy bulges in the fronts of their pants. After all, people like looking at sexy people, right? What’s your problem? etc etc”

More than a few pencilers did so since 1986, when Craig Hamilton, in the final issue of the Aquaman miniseries, wad anti sexist and treated us all to what amounted to the best of Nouveau in comics and Pre Raphaelite inspired women. But the crotches had to be redrawn or the inkers were instructed to take the bulges out.

Edit: when I referenced Violent Cases, mention of the Black Orchid miniseries, of 3 issues length, was supposed to follow. However my pudgy fingers and this fablet don’t get along.

@ Sarah: many artists from 1986 onward have pencilled in man bulges (the male version of cameltoe). The editors make artists redraw the crotches without them or tell the inker to leave them out.

Since you brought the original essay back into print, here’s one of my biggest problems with it, quoted from a comments-thread on the subject:

“… I also had problems with [Thompson’s] methodology. One of those problems that bothered me more than it did others here is that she didn’t identify the time-frame for her visual examples. One of the few I recognized was from 2001, so is that the baseline for her survey? I know, as does everyone else here, that hyper-sexualization had been going on longer than that, but her overview would have been on much sounder ground if she’d provided its parameters.”

So what were those parameters you KT didn’t feel it necessary to mention in the original essay?

Still no parameters. Let’s look at why they’re important:

“And now let’s look at ten of the most popular marquee superheroines: Wonder Woman (strapless swimsuit, sometimes a thong, sometimes heels), Catwoman (regularly unzipped, frequently heels), Ms. Marvel (swimsuit, sometimes a thong, thigh high boots), Storm (strapless swimsuit, thigh high boots, sometimes heels), Batgirl (fully covered, sometimes heels), Black Widow (regularly unzipped, sometimes heels), Invisible Woman (fully covered – for now at least), Black Canary (swimsuit, sometimes a thong, fishnet stockings, sometimes heels), Rogue (as of late – constantly unzipped), and Power Girl (boob hole, swimsuit, sometimes a thong, sometimes heels).”

You can claim, to use your phrase, that this is a fair representation of the costumes of superheroines until “the cows come home.” But it cannot possibly be a fair representation until you SHOW YOUR WORK. If you do not establish roughly how many comics you surveyed and over what period of time, then your observations cannot be assessed. You lack what politicians term “transparency.”

If you don’t provide sources, the only thing you have in common with “transparency” are four letters of the word:

R, A, N, and T.

Travis Pelkie

June 28, 2014 at 7:03 pm

I think gene needs to adjust the settings on his browser, apparently all the images that SHOW examples aren’t appearing for him.

+1 to this girl’s favorite oilfield potential extraction implement…

Thankyavurrymuch, Becca.

Ho hum. I never claimed that there weren’t valid examples of sexploitaton shown, though I’d probably disagree as to whether they all are. I claimed that showing them with no context as to how many comics were surveyed and over what period of time makes this survey– if that’s the word for it– about as meaningful as Frederic Wertham’s assassination of the comics industry. And at least at the time one might have bought into his excuse for lack of transparency, that he had to protect the confidentiality of psychological patients.

What’s KT protecting?

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