On the Hypersexualization of Female Characters in Superhero Comics

I just finished up a really awesome uni course for my MLIS, and we were recently discussing portrayals of women in comics.

This is a touchy subject for sure, and as with anything I try to keep an open mind and consider the many shades of gray. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying erotic art and comics (I do!) but I’m talking about something different here outside of the context of erotica.

To be clear before I get into it, I don’t believe in the censorship of artistic work⁠— Neil Gaiman helped shape my perspective on this topic with his blog post Why Defend Freedom of Icky Speech?, which I totally recommend reading if you haven’t yet. I’m not interested in participating in witch hunts of particular artists because they draw or write thoughtlessly sexy women⁠—I’m more interested in the big-picture phenomenon.

When it comes to hypersexualized portrayals of women in comics, the thing that irks me is the ubiquitous nature of it- it’s OK for characters to be sexy, but when the default has been that women and girls in Western comics are contorted and accentuated regardless of their personality or the context of the scene, it becomes a tiresome, dehumanizing trope.

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Don’t get me wrong — I’m a huge fan of comics in general, including many that feature these sorts of female characters, and I will defend any author’s right to write or draw their characters however they see fit. It’s your story, knock yourself out. Artistic freedom doesn’t mean you can’t be criticized for your choices, though, so I too have the freedom as a comic consumer to call you out and roll my eyes if you unleash yet another barely covered bombshell babe whose story takes a backseat to her… well, backseat.

So why does a female character drinking coffee at home alone in her pyjamas sit in a spine-cracking posture with her butt extended,  lips pouting,  and shine highlighting the curves of her inexplicably exposed underboob? Why does a powerful heroine need to bend her body in such an anatomically impossible way that we can see both her bum AND her boobs on display when she’s mid-action?

Why is this the standard way that women are portrayed? Traditionally comics were considered a masculine space, and as such these depictions aimed to appeal to the male gaze⁠— yet, I wonder how much of that historic imbalance in demographic is because of the aforementioned ways women have been depicted in comics and other media (when they’re depicted at all)?

“My feeling was never that the industry was that vile, my feeling was that there just hadn’t been any feeling that females were interested, and so all the content skewed that way, to that imagined audience. Which becomes self-fulfilling.” (Simone, 2014).

Just go to any con nowadays and you will see that women love comics- they’re a valid format for us just as much as anyone else, albeit with a long history of objectifying us unnecessarily.

“A woman’s sexuality is one of her many facets that she is allowed to express, however she likes. The problem is that our media landscape shows, values, and celebrates women’s sex appeal more than any of their other qualities, opinions, or accomplishments… when you grow up as a girl surrounded by sexualized images of women, it changes the way you build your identity.” (Rees, 2019, p.45).

Comics have a history of hypersexualizing women that goes back many decades, and people have been discussing the phenomenon for just as long. One more recent(ish) project that has really provoked discussion about ridiculously hypersexualized poses of female characters is The Hawkeye Initiative, in which people redraw sexy female poses with Hawkeye. I gave it a quick shot below…

Illustration4

Drawing Hawkeye like this might seem like taking “an eye for an eye”, but his portrayal it doesn’t have the same weight- besides the fact that my awkward rendering isn’t nearly as stylistic and professionally done as the original, the sexualization of male characters is certainly not omnipresent like that of female characters, and men don’t have the troubled past of systematic and oppressive objectification tailing them. The result is a cheeky satire that points out the absurdity of how female characters are so often portrayed.

Some comic fans will point out that lots of superheroes have bulging muscles that are larger than life, aiming to equate this with sexualized femme characters, but ridiculously strong male characters are different than pointlessly sexualized female characters for a few reasons:

  • generally there is an arguably valid reason that the man might have huge muscles (for example, he’s a superhero); over-sized muscles are certainly an unrealistic ideal, but they usually don’t come with the baggage of being totally pointless- they’re a boon to the character and part of his superpower
  • these muscled male characters aren’t created for the female gaze- they’ve been included in traditionally male-focused comics and could perhaps be seen as a male wish fulfillment fantasy or an exaggerated style
  • even when male characters have huge muscles or accentuated features, they aren’t habitually highlighted to the same cumulative extremes that the female anatomy is often subject to: protruding, glistening, tugging at skimpy fabric, peeking through non-functional viewing holes, angled awkwardly to be shown off at every possible opportunity, etc…

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Not sure if Mary Jane or a blowup doll…

Taking it to a further and more upsetting level, a female character’s assuredly ample physical assets are very often contrasted with an underdeveloped backstory, nonexistent character arc, or her being used as a throwaway plot element or means to the ends of a violent trope, as pointed out in Gail Simone’s “women in refrigerators” movement born in the late 90’s.

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“At the time, you know, female readership was low, female con attendance at comic cons was low, morale for female readers was low. And I kept seeing guys ask, “Why don’t women read comics?” And for me, it felt that there was a connection between that and the fact that if you loved female superheroes, you had this endless parade of stories where the women were killed or de-powered, and they were never the focus of the story.

It felt symbolic, it felt textural. It felt like they were saying, okay, no one cares about Supergirl, no one cares about Batgirl, and so their stories rarely became about survival, they became about some dude getting revenge on their behalf.” (Simone, 2014).

Again, drawing sexy female characters in and of itself isn’t a bad thing – a sexy woman is empowering when she’s owning it – but it’s the nonchalant routine of the industry expecting this uber-sexed up default paired with otherwise forgettable, tragic, or underdeveloped characterization that doesn’t sit well with me.

To conclude, I don’t think we should be trying to ban works or shame those who read them – let the creators create what they will, and let consumers enjoy what they want in peace- but I hope more creators and publishers are beginning to realize that mindless routine portrayals are alienating a potentially huge reader base who are rolling their eyes at yet another pointlessly and predictably titillating femme fatale.

Today, although hypersexualized female characters are still common, both indie and mainstream comics are being published with much more diverse characters and successfully appealing to more demographics, which is wonderful to see.

 

 

References

Claremont, C., & Buscema, J. (2005). Marvel comics presents: Wolverine. New York: Marvel Comics.
Gaiman, N. (2008). Why defend freedom of icky speech? Retrieved from http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/12/why-defend-freedom-of-icky-speech.html
The Hawkeye Initiative. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from https://thehawkeyeinitiative.com/
Houser, J., Portela, F., Sauvage, M., & Dalhouse, A. (2016). Faith. New York, NY: Valiant Entertainment LLC.
Loeb, J., Kelly, J., Churchill, I., & Rapmund, N. (2016). Supergirl: The girl of steel. Burbank, CA: DC Comics.
Marz, R. (n.d.). Green Lantern #54 (1994).
Montclare, B., Hadley, A. R., Bustos, N., Height, R., Bonvillain, T., Lanham, T., & Kirk, L. (2017). Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. New York, NY: Marvel Worldwide.
Nelson, Kyra (2015) “Women in Refrigerators: The Objectification of Women in Comics,” AWE (A Woman’s Experience): Vol. 2 , Article 9.
Available at: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/awe/vol2/iss2/9
Pak, G., Parker, J., Frank, G., Kirk, L., Pagulayan, C., & Sibal, J. (2008). World War Hulk the Incredible Hercules. New York: Marvel.
Rees, A., & Esmeraldo, M. (2019). Beyond beautiful: A practical guide to being happy, confident, and you in a looks-obsessed world/ Anuschka Rees ; illustrations by Marina Esmeraldo. New York: Ten Speed Press.
Simone, G. (2014, December 01). Gail Simone: The Comics Alliance Interview, Part One. Retrieved from https://comicsalliance.com/gail-simone-the-comics-alliance-interview-part-one-batgirl-birds-of-prey-and-women-in-refrigerators/
Thompson, R. (2016). Silk Volume 1. Panini UK.
Wilson, G. W., Alphona, A., & Herring, I. (2014). Ms. Marvel: No normal. New York, NY: Marvel Worldwide, a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, LLC.
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Nelvana of the Northern Lights

Today I checked out Nelvana of the Northern Lights by Adrian Dingle, edited by Rachel Richey and Hope Nicholson.

I’m glad that this book was made so that the general public have a chance to learn about Nelvana, a part of Canadian comics history and one of the first female superheroes.

The introductions give an interesting look into the process and passion of those who helped get this book into print. I’m greatful that the introductions put into perspective that this series is a product of its times- unfortunately there are some culturally insensitive caricatures within the series. As Benjamin Woo States in the intro, it is ‘tempting to imagine an alternate history where the character could have continued to mature with its readers and the country as a whole… What if we had sixty years of Nelvana comics to look at, instead of the handful of stories that were actually produced?’