UPDATE: THE Q: PROS - "Are American Comic Books SEXIST?"
THE Q: Are American Comics SEXIST?
Update Thursday September 29, 2011: We have three new additions to the piece, all placed at the top of the answer section!Original Story: Last week, with the heated discussion about women in comics still raging, a couple of new comics got people even more focused on a related issue:
Sexism in superhero comics.
What sparked the controversy was last week's portrayal of two female costumed characters that were drawn in some poses that appeared to be purposely sexually titillating. The fact that both comics were part of a much-publicized relaunch by DC Comics got people talking. And blogging. And blogging some more.
The publisher heard all the ruckus, apparently, because last night, the DC Nation twitter feed said, "We've heard what's being said" and "we appreciate the dialogue on this topic."
That's good, because Newsarama is continuing that dialogue today. But we're turning it less toward one or two comics and more toward the larger issue at hand. We decided to ask a handful of comic industry professionals for their opinions about the assertion by bloggers that superhero comics are too often sexist. And we got quite a response to this question:
- Do American superhero comics tend to portray women in a sexist way, and does that affect the comic industry as a whole? Or are female comic characters usually portrayed comparatively to their male counterparts?Amy Reeder
I don't claim to know the answer to this definitively but I do come from the perspective of someone who is both female didn't start reading mainstream comics until later in life, so I'll chime in:
I think many superheroines are portrayed in a sexist way. Definitely not all, and it changes a lot depending on the creators, particularly the artist...and whoever hires the artist, I guess. And the costume. I understand what people say about there being sexism in movies and other media, but at least in movies there are many of beautiful women. In mainstream comics, women seem to often have the same look and body type.
I guess that's the main thing that gets to me in mainstream comics, is the repetition -- the lack of diversity. If there are plenty of female characters meant women, not to mention the few that already appeal to both sexes, there are a couple that are complete male fantasies thrown into the mix, I feel like I can be okay with that. If they're hot in different ways rather than the stretched-torso-and-synthetic-boob-body-builder look, it would be encouraging. But the repetition is what makes me feel excluded as a consumer, and as a female...because repetition sends a message of what is generally excepted.
I hate to be so negative, because I love comics, and I love superhero comics. But seriously, you hand most mainstream comics to a typical young woman who hasn't grown up with this stuff or paid much attention, and she will think it's totally sexist to the point of being ridiculous. It's a problem.
This is just something the comic industry periodically beats itself up over as a new wave of comic-book journalists replace the old and notice the same things for the first time. There's an element of truth to it, but no more than any other medium, to be honest. The dictionary definition of sexism is discrimination because of gender or suggesting that characteristics in gender make someone inferior and I don't really see this in comics. If anything, I think writers tend to be quite savvy and women are portrayed as the adults in most comics. This is common in movies and especially commercials, where they actively target a female demographic, and I can't think of a single example where I've seen a modern comic portraying women as less intelligent or capable than male characters.
I suppose the big thing that gets flagged up is the sexualised artwork, but again I don't think this is restricted to women. Cartoon, juggernaut breasts are obviously unrealistic, but so is the same fetishisation of the male form in the vast majority of superhero books. Male and female super-characters are essentially painted nudes and so the same exaggerations and impossible muscle definition on men are carried over into female figure drawing with tiny waists and ten foot legs. The other thing that gets people worked up is perceived violence against women, but again I think this is massively disproportionate in relation to horrible things that happen to men. The outcry over Hostel 2 was interesting because the exact same things happened to the protagonists as Hostel 1, but because it was women being hurt in the sequel we're genetically hardwired to recoil. I can name ten horrible things that happen to a make superhero as happened to his girlfriend or female team-mates. It can be nasty and over the top sometimes, but again no more than any other medium.
Are the books harmful? I don't think so. Even the rubbish ones are easily identified as rubbish and they aren't going to alter opinions. Some of my favourite comics, in fact pretty much all of my favourite comics, have some questionable scenes or behaviour, but as a writer I feel uncomfortable when I see a wave of puritans pulling panels out of context and using them to lambast the people who make or publish the books. In my experience, comic creators tend to be smarter, gentler and more thoughtful than the other people I meet in my daily life. They're , after all. Likewise, comic readers tend to be more educated and savvy than the people I know who read comics. It's a literate audience and they know the difference between an idealised form and a realistic form. Again, I think it's meaningless. A tiny storm in a tea-cup. And in ten years time I'll copy and paste this again when the argument raises it's head like it did a decade ago. The fact is that more women are reading comics right now than at any point in my life and they're not picking them up because they feel they're demeaning in any way.Joe Field ()
Noted author L. Sprague de Camp once said this about heroic fantasy:
"...all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple...”
The comics' market tends to be very provincial. Looking at pop culture as a whole, women tend to be over-sexualized. That's true of TV, video games, movies, advertising, etc. So this really isn't just a comics' thing. Look at the creeepy "beauty" pageants for six year-olds that totally over-sexualize young girls...
It may be splitting hairs to call "over-sexualized" different than "sexist," but it seems that with super-hero comics, with an audience that is still predominantly male, women characters tend to be treated in ways that are male-oriented "fantasy." Whether that's a healthy thing or not is another question. The answer is likely "sometimes yes, sometimes no."
I would find it refreshing if there were characters that were still truly good and noble people, with fully realized and relatable personal lives, not just "super-heroes," but that may be just a simple dream of mine.Keith Giffen
Huh. Lob a grenade at me why don't you?
Now? I'd like to think there have been advances made. Chris Claremont's treatment of the women X-Men comes to mind as being an attempt to portray women as more than just obligatory window dressing and others have followed suit.
Y'know, before I go any further, I'd like to point out that all media, from prime time TV shows to beer commercials, sexually objectify women. Even if the woman is a seasoned professional and wildly competent (I'm looking at you, CSI), her fashion sense will be tailored to maximize the ogle factor, even if it is in a punky, Lolita wannabe manner.
As for comics... yeah, we do have a problem, but far from an insurmountable one. Mostly, our problem echoes the above. Sure she's smart and powerful and competent but, nine out of ten times, she's dressed to flash as much skin as possible, or, if not, her costume hugs her curves so tightly that it might as well be painted on. For fairness' sake I should point out that many super men also sport that particular look. Go figger. And don't get me stated on erect nipple syndrome. We'll be here all day.
I don't think there's one pat answer to your question. Sure, many comics to portray women in a sexist manner, but many do not. As for those that do, I'd like to think it's not deliberate.
Then again, when you've got middle-aged women plundering their teenage daughter's wardrobes (I mean... Really!?) and butts emblazoned with "cute" logos or sayings or whatever (And God forbid you're caught reading one) and the fashion industry churning out more and more styles incorporating less and less fabric... Maybe we're not the biggest problem?
In my opinion, female superhero characters in comics have mostly been portrayed from a male point of view, predominantly due to the mostly male audience, and male writers and artists. I think there are more female readers now than at any time in the recent past, with some spillover from the Manga implosion, resulting in more uproar to things that have been going on for years.
The sexy porn poses are one thing, but I find it difficult to fathom why so many leading ladies in comics have to act like Paris Hilton wannabes. I'd have no problem with showing negative behavior, if they offered an alternative to that — a few characters who are more modestly proportioned, and demure.
I think Judd Winick is being demonized over things that he's written, and I'll bet he's just trying to reflect what people see on prime time TV nowadays. Comics have not been all-ages for years now. And Judd isn't in control of what an artist draws based on his script, unless he is asking the artist to draw all the girls as if they are posing for a pornographers camera.
With Teen Titans and Starfire, it's a trickier situation, as seen in the example of the 7-year-old reader who liked and expects the character from the Teen Titans cartoon to appear the same in the comics. I have kids, and just because my daughter loved Batman or Batgirl, there was no way I'd allow her to read Killing Joke until she was older. No character is safe for a parent, based on a cartoon show experience. DC and Marvel are self-censored now, unlike kids TV that has their own broadcast standards to uphold. DC publishes an age-appropriate Tiny Titans, which is a hoot, and more in line with the Titans cartoons.
Having raised a daughter, I am sensitive to the fact there haven't been many good female role model characters for her. DC has tried to do some, such as Stargirl, or Mary Marvel (when I was writing Power of Shazam), but there is always a battle, to keep pure and innocent characters that way, because guys generally don't "get it." The DCU needs balance — and I think many writers miss the boat by not writing the lady heroes just rejecting the guys advances outright. Monthly comics are a great way to serialize a romance, or character arcs between heroes. Wolfman and Perez's Titans did that well in the '80s and '90s.
Gail Simone has made a nice career out of giving us a decent female voice in superhero comics, and Amanda Conner has done some kick-ass superhero art, but it's still a boy's club. In the past, I would guess ladies didn't grow up dreaming of writing Spider-Man or Superman, but I'd bet there are plenty of aspiring female artists and writers waiting in the wings for a chance now.
Things will change, as the female readers are heard, and controversies like this, while often starting as creator bashing, can have some good can come of them, as the publishers hear the complaints, and respond.
Well, there's no denying that the visual presentation of female characters in mainstream books tends to be all of a piece: eye candy for a predominantly male reader. The voices and characterization vary a lot more than the look, which for the past six or seven years has been cemented more and more immovably into place. Speaking as a writer, I view it with a certain amount of bafflement. I don't know anybody who uses comics to masturbate (or admits to doing so, which might not be the same thing), but there's this soft-porn gloss on everything as though that's precisely what comics are for. In terms of plot function, it's harder for a solo female protagonist to carry a book, which maybe can be explained in terms of a mostly male audience looking for imaginative identification with the lead character. But I think things are better than they used to be in terms of female representation on team books. The X-Men (name aside) have a lot of very strong women: they're vivid and fun to write, and they're in the thick of the action. The killing blow in both Messiah Complex and Second Coming was struck by a woman - and a different woman each time. The short answer is yes. There's still a lot of sexism in comics, just as there's still a lot of sexism in all popular media. But the honorable exceptions are many.
Unfortunately, I think the majority of American super-hero comics portray women in a sexist way. But that's not really unique to super-hero comics. The majority of action movies are sexist, too, for example. What these things have in common is that they're aimed primarily at a male audience.
In general, yeah women in comics have been portrayed pretty sexist in American superhero comics for years. There are probably lots of factors behind that though. I think the biggest is a creator's ability to differentiate sexY and sexIST and other people's definitions of what those things are. That subject itself is a shark-infested pool I dare not stick my toe in.
This past week, I've seen a lot of whacked out reactions from people who are annoyed by recent books for sexist female character portrayals. I've seen a lot of whacked out reactions from other people that think those people are crazy. I've seen a lot of whacked out reactions by people that say there isn't a big deal.
I've also seen a lot of whacked out reactions to my Bilbo and Frodo fan-fiction.
I don't see all that ever getting resolved neatly. I think we can continue to look forward to much anger an indignation on the internet from both offenders and offended in the future.
Sure, absolutely. But the American media tends to portray women in a sexist way. That's not to absolve comics that are done badly, but isolating comics from the larger media picture seems a little shortsighted. I don't even think it's a case of intentional sexism, I don't think anyone is saying, "I hate women, let's humiliate and degrade their gender." It's more a matter of a kind of creative tunnel vision, that sex sells, and so let's make everything about that. I don't know if it's so much sexist against women as it is incredibly narrow in focus. There's very little lgbtq content that doesn't pander to the male gaze, the idea of, say, polyamory is still fairly shocking. It does tend to feel a little dusty and obsolete at times.
Which I think it's a huge blind spot. No one is surprised when a superheroine's ass is shown, it's almost like wallpaper at this point. What really makes people pay attention is surprise, it's the sexy stuff you don't see coming that moves people most, which means thinking outside the fishnets and lacy bras. One of the sexiest scenes I've ever read in a mainstream comic is where Abby and Swamp Thing have to find some form of communion to show their physical love for each other. She's not wearing lingerie and he has no penis, but it's a thousand times hotter than the typical superhero soft-core stuff because it surprises, it's original, it's thoughtful and new. I think the reason most people were okay with the sexual content in Secret Six was because they cared about the emotional content of the characters, and the sex was part of that, it wasn't just there solely to throw some random cheese in.
Finally, I think readers can rightly object to the omnipresence of the male gaze, not because that in itself is wrong or awful...guys have every right to get turned on by comics if they want. But that shouldn't always be the default POV. Why can't we have scenes that appeal to more preferences, or at the very least don't exclude other people? We know it can be done. We know women like sexy comics and hot characters as much as the guys do, and those are just the binary choices. I don't care if a character is sexy, but objectification can be a lot more problematic because it reduces characters to less than they are supposed to be, less than what the readers have a right to expect.
I like comics to be sexy, I think people responding in that way to their comics is valid and lovely, and those kinds of scenes should definitely be on the table. Like almost everything in any creative form, it comes down to execution. Some people will do it brilliantly, others will make it ugly and repulsive.
I will also say that I've been pretty delighted with a ton of female portrayals lately. Hawkeye and Mockingbird, X-23, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Power Girl, on and on...there are still goofy, juvenile portrayals out there, but I would lift those books up as examples of female characters to be proud of. They're all sexy in their way, but they have agency and their own narrative engines. If one book turns you completely off, I'm glad at least that there's this much great stuff out there as an alternative.
Let's ask a few more questions.
1. Are male characters portrayed in a sexist way?
2. Are comics created to satisfy a male or a male-female audience?
3. Are male artists capable of portraying women in a non-sexist way?
As to answers...
1. I come from a generation of very sexist portrayals of women in many sexist ways, and much of that has changed. Did we make it all the way? Hmmm, too close to tell. I see the analogy in wrestling. When I was a kid, female wrestlers were ,..well,.. ugly and barrel-chested. Pretty-sexy girls didn't wrestle. Was that sexist? Sure, in a twisted way. Now beautiful, sexy, strong, athletic girls wrestle. Why? The Economy? The BIZ changed? I don't think so. Women's lib liberated women to do whatever the hell they wanted to do. And if men didn't like it, they had better just get out of the way.
In comics are men and women portrayed as beautiful, sexy, healthy and smart? Yes they are. We always do it first, before the rest of the culture. Are there pockets of sexism? Yes! Are there pockets of Dagwoodism, where guys are idiots and bumbling and naive? Oh yeah! Women? No.
2. More women are "into" comics than ever before. But the majority is, and probably always will be, guys. But the publishers, artists and writers are trying to establish a rapport with women. Hiring brilliant editors like Louise Jones is a clear improvement and publishers know it. OR...Sexism is BAD BUSINESS.
3. Guy artists always draw guys. It's a rare young artist who draws women. Look at their sketchbooks. Guys have muscles. Lumps. Women are smooth and far more subtle to draw. And the standard of beauty is so hard to draw, that guys retreat to drawing guys and muscles. How many guy artists can actually draw muscular women who look powerful and attractive? Adam Hughes and..........?
Joshua Hale Fialkov
For me, I don't think it's a conscious thing necessarily. The industry is run by men for the most part, the books are written and drawn by men for the most part, and men are, for the most part, not known for their, ahem, forward thinking. I don't think Scott Lobdell sat down to write Red Hood and said to himself, "Aw man, let's ruin Starfire." He probably just thought "what can I do with this character who often is portrayed like a cipher?" "What's the reason behind that?"
For me, especially with my indie books, women make up a large percentage of my audience, and I think what I do appeals to them in part because I tend to let my characters always be characters first, and their gender politics is part of their character, rather than thrown on top of them.
After that experience though, it's now something I'm extra vigilant about. Especially as the father of a (very) young girl, I want to make sure that there's strong female characters who she can identify with and who inspire her in the same way the characters I read as a kid inspired me.
As Spinal Tap famously learned, there's a blurry line that separates "sexy" from "sexist." And when you're in that gray area, the side of the line you land on depends almost entirely upon context. Is a woman parading in lingerie being objectified? If she's a runway model or if she's having fun in the privacy of her own home, we're likely to answer "no." If she's in a strip club, we would probably answer "yes," because the intentions of the woman and the intentions of the audience are presumed to be vastly different in each situation.
When we move into depictions of women in media, things get even more complicated because then the intentions of the creators come into play, and that muddies the waters even further, because we can't always be sure what those intentions are. In comics an example that comes to mind is a story featuring Power Girl in which Kara is encouraged to use her breasts as a distraction to catch a villain. What was the writer's intention here? Was it a mere playful jest or was it a sexist jab? In the context of the story, Power Girl is clearly humiliated by the suggestion; I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine what that implies.
But we can almost forgive that writer, regardless. Superhero comics’ creators are at a marked disadvantage when it comes to the portrayal of women. Most prominent female superheroes were created years ago, and their skintight costumes were intended (one assumes) as a come-on to the pubescent boys who were their sole target audience, during a time when the phrase "female objectification" had yet to be coined. Tradition in superhero comics is strong, and woe be unto him who dares to put Wonder Woman or Vampirella in pants.On the surface, the outrage over such things is baffling: it just makes sense to fight crime in pants any way you slice it (if I were out pursuing justice, I'd want pants; specifically, I'd want pockets, but that's another matter entirely). Notably, the justification for the outrage isn't, "We prefer our ladies to be hyper-sexualized, thank you," but rather, "We prefer our superheroes the way they've always been." There's some credence to that: I remain uncomfortable about the removal of Superman's red undies to (one hopes) the interior of his costume. (One is reminded of C. S. Lewis's unfortunate opposition to female clergy, reasoning that it was wrong because it had never been done.) But it's hard to deny that the hue and cry over Vampirella's costume change has at least some tinge of prurience to it. Vampirella was never a feminist icon to begin with and her allure was never primarily her intellect or her depth of character.
Leaving costumes aside, let's consider character itself. Laura Hudson's recent, fantastic article has much to say about the behavior of female superheroes, and I can't add much to it. But again, here, there is plenty of room for disconnect between authorial intent and reader interpretation. A male writer's inspiration for a character who offends a female reader might come from one of several places. 1) He might simply be sexist, as in Jack Nicholson's famous line from As Good As It Gets: "I think of a man and then I take away all reason and accountability." 2) He might have miscued or fantasized notions about what female empowerment is. It's tempting for a man to think that an empowered woman is one who will have sex with anyone and respond favorably to her male counterparts high-fiving over their conquest of her. Likewise, it's tempting for men at bars to believe that some drunk girls will make out with each other in order to get the men's attention — though in this case, unfortunately, they're correct. 3) He might know a different kind of girl than you know. I knew a girl in college who worked as a stripper and was perfectly happy to have men put money in her underwear. She believed that this in itself was empowering, and perhaps her intention in that context made it true (I've heard arguments on both sides), but I'll kick the question down the field and leave it for female readers to judge.
Regardless of the writer's intent, however, if female readers aren't seeing heroes in the heroes they're reading, then we clearly have a serious problem. We can and should discuss what it is that male writers aren't "getting" about women that makes this true, but there's another approach that I think would be far more effective, and it is simply this: get more women writing superhero comics. Obvious solution, right? Yes, but there's a hitch: it's not quite that simple. I recently asked an editor why he didn't hire more women to write comics. His response was that he'd love to hire women, but that no women were breaking down his door to get work. I sincerely hope that he was telling it true, and that he's representative of superhero editors — because the alternative is that women are being turned away, and that would be a terrible thing to discover. But if it is true, then it is a golden opportunity for all of us.
Ladies: comic book companies want (or ought to want) to hire you. They certainly need you, and the industry as a whole needs you. And we also have a lot to learn from you.
In that spirit, I will finish with an open letter to Laura Hudson: Dear Laura, You clearly a) are a talented writer, and b) probably know more about superheroes than I do. I want to see you writing superheroes. Then everybody wins.
I think mainstream superhero comics are all about exaggeration: The male characters are often ridiculously over-proportioned and exaggeratedly macho, with little connection to reality, and the same exaggeration applies to the women. It's the nature of the beast and, for the most part, I don't see it as sexist at all. (Adolescent perhaps, but not sexist.) That said, I do think the exaggeration the form encourages sometimes goes farther with the female characters. And that it can lapse into realms of bad taste and just plain sleaze.
But this isn't just a problem with comics, this is a problem in our popular culture as a whole. If you're a parent, you know that our children, girls and boys, are being exposed to a constant barrage of in-your-face sexuality on television, in the movies, in music. There's a thin line between sexual openness — which I think is a very good thing — and sexual exploitation and it's crossed every day, often in crude and tasteless ways. We call it "adult," but, really, it's just plain (and here's that word again) adolescent. Sex as viewed through the eyes of a horny fourteen-year-old boy whose idea of what a female is comes from a Victoria's Secret catalogue. Raising a daughter, I've been hyper aware of this.
I have absolutely no problem with the sensual and erotic in comic books or anywhere else. We're all sexual beings and we should be able express that in our stories, both in realistic ways and in ways that fantasize and exaggerate. If your audience is composed of adults, and that's clear, then have fun, be as wild as you'd like. (If a reader finds it stupid, sexist or offensive, then they shouldn't buy it.) But if you're creating stories that you hope will appeal across a broad age range, if you want young girls and boys jumping into your universe and becoming lifelong fans, you have to really think, and be incredibly responsible, about the way you present your material.
I haven't read the Catwoman story that everyone's talking about, and I'm certainly not going to criticize one image out of context, but there are many ways you can present a sex scene between Batman and Catwoman (or Spider-Man and Mary Jane or Superman and Lois), depending on the audience. You can be subtle, you can be explicit, you can be humorous, you can be tasteless, you can be tender. Or all of the above! I think, before an answer can be arrived at, the companies have to decide what audience they're really targeting.
AH HA HA HA HAH AHH haaa ... waaaait, you're serious? Oh God, yes. It's a relentlessly miserably sexist spectrum of characterizations. That said, I don't think it affects the comic industry as a whole in a business way. The ghettoization of comics into the Direct Market had a far, far larger effect. It's more a bit if fringe alienation in an already fringe business.
The question is a bit too broad, but I'll tackle it as best I can.
Do American superhero comics tend to portray women in a sexist way? There is undeniable truth to that, though I think we're making strong improvements in reducing that. Rather than use the term "sexist", I think the word "unrealistic" applies better. It's more comprehensive than "sexist', which is just one aspect of unrealistic portrayal. For a lot of our history, I don't think there's much doubt that male characters have been written with a greater attempt at building a well-rounded character, whereas female characters have often been written to fulfill certain fantasies of what the writer either wants women to be or thinks his readers want them to be.
Female characters seem to have been shortchanged in terms of attempts to build more interesting characters. For example, in JLI we're using two characters, Fire and Vixen (even the name Vixen can be indicative of what we're talking about) who were previously models in their private lives — as though that's the best they could hope for or all they would care about. And, let's be honest, in terms of artistic portrayal, most any female superhero, or male, for that matter, could make a living as a model. But we're changing that in order to give them more well-rounded, deep, less "She's hot! Let's make her a model!" backgrounds. We don't need to go down those old roads.
Yeesh! That's a loaded subject and really deserves more time than I have right now, but what the hell, here's my unfiltered, instant reaction. Of course American superhero comics tend to objectify women! Absolutely no question of that and it reflects very badly on the industry. Both male and female characters conform largely to adolescent male fantasies and incidentally that means objectifying the male body too. I guess there has been some progress over recent years in giving women stronger roles, but clearly there needs to be a more balanced female perspective and there just aren't enough women working in mainstream comics to achieve that. DC just lost Janelle Asselin, so there's one less, dammit.
I guess this question has come up in the wake of the Catwoman/Batman sex scene controversy. I haven't yet read that issue, but I've seen the relevant pages and I'm baffled by why this particular scene has caused so much fuss. The relationship between these two characters has always been based on a fetishistic sexual attraction, hasn't it? So Judd Winick decided to show them getting it on. I don't have a problem with explicit sex scenes per se and I certainly don't have a problem with this one. Guillem March does erotic scenes very well. His women are almost unique in mainstream comics in that they are realistic. Idealized certainly, but anatomically credible.Here's a scene where two slightly pervy adults are getting it on in exactly the way more reticent writers have always hinted they would. They're both turned on by the costumes as much as the bodies. Batman is as much an object of sexual desire as Catwoman and the situation is very much under Catwoman's control. Batman has always appeared the masochistic partner in this relationship and Judd has treated that with humor and exactly the level of 'taste' that I'd expect. I thought Catwoman's tweaking of Batman's pointy ear in the penultimate panel was hilarious, as was the suggestion that he got a little overexcited. It's a beautifully drawn panel too.
I can't help feeling that the reaction has been over sex, rather than sexism. Okay, I'm speaking as a man with all the bias that implies, but I just can't see this as anything but an uptight reaction to mildly kinky sex.
And now I just checked out the rest of your links and I've seen the earlier page where Catwoman 'gets dressed'. (Claps hand to brow!) Now this is why you should never comment on isolated images out of context. On this earlier page the deliberate cropping of the face seems to be intended to dehumanize the character and reduce her to a set of body parts and that does appear to be sexist. Accchhh — well I did say this was going to be an unedited reactive thought process. Guess I'll wait until I see the entire issue to form a final opinion.
Most American superhero comics tend to be sexist, yes.
I'm not saying the creators are sexist. That's a different beast altogether. Much more likely, most creators are just guys and gals who possess a lifelong love of comics. It doesn't occur to them that the comics they're making are sexist because their comics look like all the other comics. But since those tend to be sexist too, it becomes an echo chamber of a self-fulfilling sexist prophecy that goes on to inform the next generation of creators and fans.
All it takes is stepping out of the echo chamber for a minute to see that's what's happening. These images and scripts don't appear as if by magic. People work on them. For hours and hours. Everything that happens in them: every act and pose and image and thought of every one of those fictional constructs is the result of choices made by real human beings. Starfire doesn't choose to dress in a battle bikini, to pose as provocatively as possible, and to have lots of meaningless sex with whatever warm body is around. Starfire isn't real. She chooses nothing. Real human beings chose those thoughts and actions for her.
And it's disappointing because those real human beings could have just as easily chosen for her to not be that way.
Now apply the Starfire Problem to every other woman character in comics. That's the scope of what we're talking about. It's not a few images of a few characters in a few comics. It's everywhere. It's pervasive. And I think in the case of the new 52 it's especially disappointing because there was a lot of talk of reaching out to new readers, to letting go of what didn't work, to shedding excess baggage, and so on.
The fact that things like the Starfire Problem happened right out the gate is a big sign that it was all talk.
Do American superhero comics tend to portray women in a sexist way, and does that affect the comic industry as a whole? Or are female comic characters usually portrayed comparatively to their male counterparts?
I mean, sure. Yes. Totally. Also? No. There’s no right way to answer that question because first of all, it’s on a case by case basis. Second of all? It’s on a person by person basis. Every single person has a different definition of what is sexist versus sexy, and what is over the line versus what is not? That all said, and I’m guessing this is why you asked, here’s my personal opinion: I do the subway test. Not the sandwich shop, though they’re very good, and you should check them out. The test is, “Would I read this comic on the subway?” And for a lot of them, no, I wouldn’t, and it always comes down to how women are dressed – or undressed – in comics.
Look, I get that sex sells, and in particular, female nudity or states of undress. I’ve worked for plenty of websites that straight up say, “Do something about sex where we can post sexy pictures, because that’s the only thing people click on.” I’d even point to a story on – not to call you guys out – Newsarama, that was asking whether the recent DC books were over the line, and the thumbnail was of a sexy lady that seemed to imply if you click through, you’d get to see her naked. I don’t blame anyone for that, that’s the way the Internet works.
Neither do I think we need to cut sexuality out of comics. I’m not necessarily a fan of thinking about what my superheroes do with their penises and vaginas, but comics should reflect the human experience, and our dangly bits are a large part of that. However, it always comes down to what makes sense, and what’s appropriate, and doing things that mean something for the story. That’s true of sexuality, but also violence, and also, you know… Dialogue.
Are there people who don’t know how to appropriately handle sexuality? Yup. Are there people who don’t know how to handle violence? Hell yup. We just all need to be more responsible as a whole, and try to think not about what gets our rocks off, but, “Would this character really do this at this time?”
And just to sum things up, or rather, get to the point, I’m not a huge fan of female characters wearing shirts that are open to their bellybuttons. Not because I don’t like that sort of thing, but because their boobs would flop out, and it just doesn’t seem practical when you’re regularly fighting giant robots. Same thing for men, though: why all the pockets, and extra guns and knives? End of the day, it comes down to costume design: simplest and cleanest is always best, and it should never be a costume that takes us out of the story. Girls who are armored just around the areola, or wear alien body armor that also manages to show off their vaginal lines? That’s distracting. There are a million other ways of costuming people, and showing their strong and confident, but through character, not nudity.
There are lots of American super-comics that aren't making lust-objects out of their female characters, so I wouldn't tar the whole industry. And we have nothing on the European and Japanese comics industry when it comes to that. But what makes ours stand out and be so egregious is where we sex up characters that are featured in children's cartoons and sold on lunch boxes and bedsheets.
You can have more mature elements even in those books, the problem is how you execute it. Who really needs to see the exact instance where Batman penetrates Catwoman? I was thinking about that just last night as my son was making a reading breakthrough with a young readers book that had Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman fighting a dragon. It was really well done, well drawn, and my daughter got interested in it too when she heard him read when Wonder Woman shows up. I think those characters were made to fill that kind of role and do it really well. And simultaneously, you can see one of those heroes bonin' in a current comic. Can you imagine Disney offering up an erotic version of The Little Mermaid?
Again, I think you can allude to all kinds of activity in superhero books, it's when you put a point on it that you slide into lurid. Just create new characters or use ones that aren't also used in better-selling reading primers. I have a sex scene in next month's Thunderbolts, but there is virtually no chance that say, Satana is ever going to be marketed to young girls.
There's plenty of room for sexy stuff in Big Two books, but have it be healthy and not radiate a bro atmosphere so the comics feel like beer commercials. You can't fetishize and empower at the same time, that's strip-club logic. This all kind of started in the 90s with what were called 'Bad Girl' comics and they spread out of their niche into the bigger books. We're in the second decade of the 21st century, let's let that drop already and welcome our women readers in.
Certainly, I don't want to paint all creators with the very broad "sexist" brush, but on the whole, I do think that comics publishers tend to, in general, court a predominantly male audience. Certainly there's no shortage of attractive, muscular men in comics either, but there is often an over-sexualized portrayal — typically in terms of costume or the character in question posing suggestively — of women in comics. I don't think that's really even a debate at this point. I know, in my own work, I've caught some real flak for daring to (gasp!) alter one character's costuming from an impractical (for supernatural monster hunting, at any rate) bikini to a nice suit and some sensible shoes.
I think that, for example, Terry Moore drew some of the sexiest women in comics during the run of Strangers in Paradise; very few of them posed like box-shot covers for an adult film. And largely, they worked as characters because they felt like real people, not blow-up dolls.
I have to assume it's harmful for the industry as a whole, because the segment of the market being (mostly) ignored is actually an entire gender's worth of readers with disposable cash. If the numbers are as bad as they say, then it seems shortsighted to not sell books to as many people as possible.
There are obviously creators who "get" it, and craft accessible, mainstream superhero material that doesn't pander and doesn't fall back into those tropes, and there's greater diversity in material now than in any other point of my life, which is absolutely fantastic, but it sure feels — from my vantage point, anyway — that there's still a long way to go.
B. Clay Moore
I don't honestly think "superhero comics" can ever be lumped into one generic category, so expressions like "tend to" make me wary. Generally, there's probably a lack of depth in the way both male and female characters are portrayed, sometimes by design, and sometimes
through lack of skilled execution. But we have a tendency to spend all of our time shouting about the things we have issues with, and spend too little time focusing on the positives. I see positive portrayals of women that largely go unnoticed. I'd prefer people focus on the specific books or characters they have issues with and not make sweeping generalizations about the industry.
I have a daughter who grew up on the Teen Titans Go! cartoons, and while I'd love to be able to hand her a book with Starfire in it, I have to accept that she's simply not the intended audience for the current version. But there probably is an audience for the current
incarnation. And it's probably DC's primary job to serve their customer base. And, you know...I can always hand my daughter the new Wonder Woman or Supergirl, and feel comfortable doing so.
Then again, she'd rather read Scott Pilgrim than superhero comics...
I do believe there is a fair amount of sexism in comics publishing, but it can go both ways as male characters are portrayed, with their painted on "second skin" look that I feel is much more revealing. As for any sort of derogatory female depictions, however, think that this is born not out of any sort of malice, but a rather warped perception of what actually sells or a simple lack of carnal experience with the fairer sex.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!