I caught up on my Cutie’s comics (it took some doing, but I got my bride-to-be to read some comics! WOO-HOO!) tonight, as I had fallen behind. Catwoman #4 was fun as usual. I really like the way Winick writers her; sexy and fun, but tough as nails. Guillem March does a solid job on art as well. His layout isn’t consistent–it shifts from fluid and animated to more “still-shot” style almost from page to page, but he totally nails facial expressions. Wonder Woman #4 continues with pure comic book gold. It’s some heavy, dark stuff. The lead character is human enough to be relatable, but we never forget that she’s a true warrior; there’s a moment of pure awesome in every issue. Azarello progresses the overarching plot with a great scene between the gods Apollo and Ares, and it ends with a truly unsettling cliffhanger. I’ll be back for the next issue for both books, even though my Cutie has dropped Catwoman.
Reading these comics, and thinking about my experience with getting Cutie into comics, moves me to write about my thoughts on the way women are portrayed in comics. Before you read further, I would encourage you to read this fun and informative post by Megan Rosalarian Gedris that actually visualizes the point that so many female comics reader are trying to make: yes, both men and women are idealized in comics, but only women are objectified. Equally eye-opening is this article by Andrew Wheeler over at Comics Alliance, which is the portrayal of men in comics as seen through the eyes of a gay man. Both articles point out that the readership of comics expands beyond straight men, and those readers might enjoy seeing something other heaving bosoms and curvy hips from time to time.
Personally, I’m not offended by the portrayal of women in comics. Don’t get me wrong–a few artists could benefit from a lesson in Practical Anatomy for Artists, because the human body just doesn’t bend like that. But am I offended? No. I am a straight male, and I’ve been reading comics for a long, long time. Psylocke was my first crush. Catwoman was my second. I saw nudity in comics long before I saw nudity in film (A quick aside: as a kid my treat from time-to-time, after school, was a trip to the comic shop. Mom would buy me a comic and I’d read it on the way home. I picked up a back issue of Swamp Thing one day, started reading it on the way home–in the passenger seat, beside Mom, and…awkward.). I’m not going to lie: I like looking at pictures of pretty girls–real or otherwise. So I’ve never been particularly bothered by Power Girl’s keyhole top or Rogue’s PVC bodysuit. I am solidly in the demographic for which the artist is aiming.
But when I take my fiancee to the comic shop, and she browses the racks, and she starts rolling her eyes at the ridiculous female anatomy, I start running out of justifications. “Honey, her breasts only look perky because she’s wearing body armor. That’s an action shot, dear, it’s not like she’s holding that pose. Oh come on, she uses her sexuality as a weapon!”
Actually, that last part is true for some characters. Catwoman, Black Cat, Emma Frost, Poison Ivy, and Starfire are a few examples of female characters that are openly sexual and use their looks, charms, and–from time-to-time–a man’s own sexual urges as a weapon. Yes, the New 52 Starfire is a bit too much like a porn star, but let’s not forget that this is the women who, all throughout her history, even when not fighting crime walked around wearing little or no clothing; she came from a very openly sexual culture, so it made sense. I would even say that the skimpy armor of the Star Sapphires (especially Carol Ferris) isn’t out of place; they embody love, and sex is supposed to be the ultimate expression of that emotion (which is why so many people wait until marriage). I know that’s a bit of a stretch, but think about: the Sapphires have their power rings to protect them in battle, so why not wear outfits that make them appear alluring and provocative?
But does it make sense for every character to use their sexuality as a weapon? No, and not all of them do. Wonder Woman is perhaps the least sexual female superhero there is, despite wearing armor that (let’s be honest here) looks like a bathing suit. But when I see her in that armor, I don’t see sex: I see strength and confidence, a fighting general who likes to have freedom of movement on the battlefield. Kate Kane is a very human superhero who has complicated relationships and isn’t afraid of sex, but her relationships never seem to be for titillation (and she’s a lesbian–putting a lesbian character in a medium targeted at boys would seem to be asking for some cheesecake) and when you put her in her Batwoman armor, she strikes the same intimidating figure that Batman does. Power Girl is well-endowed for sure, but she makes a joke of it and manages to hold her own against the toughest super villains while still being a very feminine character. Even the new Starfire isn’t reliant on a man to save the day (plus, let’s be honest–it’s a bit unfair to compare a character from a comic book meant for adults to her counterpart in a cartoon meant for children).
But not every superhero is a complex and satisfying character study or a logical picture of a vixen. Lots of characters seem to be sexy just for the sake of being sexy: Miss Marvel, Black Canary, Huntress, X-23, and Mockingbird are female characters who are pin-up models simply because the artist was male and wanted something pretty to gaze upon. And the new version of Harley Quinn is possibly the most disgusting thing about the New 52; they’ve dressed her the way all the guys that listen to heavy metal and smoke pot and have an unhealthy interest in high school girls wish she had dressed for years.
I know it’s frustrating for female comic book readers to find characters that are not idealized sex objects–and it’s true that there’s too much of it in comics to this day. Psylocke is wearing the same costume she’s worn for ever. Why does Spider-Woman have such a large bust when it would make more sense for her to have a more svelte figure? Maria Hill and Black Widow are hardened special operations operatives–the skin-tight leather makes about as much sense on them as trunks do on a male superhero costume (another topic, probably more controversial, by the way). Would it kill us to have Zatanna wear maybe a tasteful skirt instead of fishnets and bikini bottoms? If the Incredible Hulk is built like a tank and the Red Hulk is built like a giant gorilla, then why are the She-Hulks built like giant swimsuit models?
I guess what I’m saying is that there’s nothing wrong with idealized female superheroes, but I’d like to see more of them idealized in the way that the men are: as the better form of humanity, as incredibly clever and wily, as expert tacticians and masters of psychological warfare. You know, superheroines at their best and super villains at their most deliciously evil–and all the points in between.
Think about this guys: more complex and interesting female characters taking the place of eye candy means more female readers, and more female readers means more single girls hanging out at the shop! (Yes, ladies, I understand that sounded as sexist as the art looks, but I’ll be honest: you’ve got explain things to men on a level they will understand.)
And as a heterosexual male, I must say that I’m comfortable enough in my sexuality to not be intimidated by gratuitous pecs shot or a shameless guns show every now and then.