Saturday, May 22, 2010

Women, Comics, and Sexism

Is the representation of women in comics sexist, destructive, or even just off? Does this representation contribute to negative views or the mistreatment of women?

Jezebel has an article up that seeks to refute any possible argument that says the depiction of women in mainstream comics is NOT sexist. I understand the use of hyperbole, but this is an extreme view. It also assumes that to be feminist means that there is one right way to be feminist. Furthermore, it basically claims that there are only some right ways to depict women in art and in comics.

Is this true? The article brings up the images of characters like Lady Death and of course depicts Star Sapphire's notorious costume. It then goes through and discusses how the usual arguments against the sexism inherent in these images, such as female characters have always looked like that and male characters wear tight clothing too, etc are invalid. The one problem I have with this is that the author compares comic book women with images of female actresses in street clothes. Then, the author compares her earlier example of Star Sapphire to Wolverine and the Blob. It just doesn't compute. Where are the gray areas in this article?

I realize that I don't live in a world where I can walk around in a leotard and tights and not get offensive comments, but I want to live in a world where I could do that and I want to imbibe a world of comics and art where women do that and then kick ass and tell off the men that ogle them. And they do. The author and some of the commenters bring up some excellent titles by women and I enjoy those. I have read Trina Robbin's book about women in comics. I have read many of those titles, and I like them, but you cannot assume (as some commenters do) that that's what women want in comics. I grew up reading Batman. I identified with some of his traits and the stories. I wanted to be a superhero and I have always loved big, fantastic stories. I also enjoy comics about everyday life like the works of Jeffrey Brown, but at the end of the day I am reading superhero stories because that's what I like and that's what gets me through the awful qualities of life.

What I would argue is that the author ignores the story aspect of comic books. Sure these women have obvious breasts and often don't wear pants, but is that the whole story? No. Take for example the issue of Zatanna that I discussed yesterday. In the issue she is often in civilian clothes. It's the same with other comics like Power Girl or Birds of Prey. When these women are in costume if characters say anything negative to them it is addressed. They get into costume to signal that they have changed and are now in power. Hell, in the graphic novels of Wonder Woman I have been reading Wonder Woman rescues a girl who then tells her all about a paper she wrote for her Feminist Theory class.

I want to go into this issue more deeply and I think I will as time goes on and I review other books.

The bottom line is that women's bodies are often sexualized in our culture and certain parts, like their legs and breasts are often a part of this objectification. However, just because that can be true does not mean we should limit comic art to fully clothed people of any gender. Athletes dress in tight, often skimpy clothes: runners, ice skaters, swimmers, etc. Why shouldn't a superhero?

Who is reading these comics anyway? It's really not mostly children anymore, who will grow up as some think to have issues about women. No, I think the staunch gender stratification of television and marketing will do that nicely. I would much rather associate with a man whose been reading Wonder Woman than watching Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus. Today's comic book readers are men and women from my generation or a little younger/little older who would often identify as feminist or at least open-minded. I understand you get the vocal group of a*holes who try to ruin it for everyone, but that's on them. What about comic book fans like Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon? What about me? I saw plenty of boobs growing up and yet here I am, a confident person who does not let gender limit or define me.

Are there problems with some of the art? I would argue that the problem is in the story. If the story is sexist then the art supports it. IF the story is not sexist (see many DC imprints) then it's spectacular art of a woman who can show her body and use it's strength as a weapon.

So there is no simple answer to this question, nor is there one certain standard in comic art, just like I, as a feminist, do not have a set standard of how I want to see women dressed or depicted. We all know when it's wrong. It's easy to just look at a piece of art out of context and dismiss it as sexist. The better solution is to truly engage with these titles on a critical level and discover what is actually going on.


  1. OK, what a terrible article. She really shortchanges the sexualization of men and masculinity on top of going over the top with the sexualization of women. What she "forgets" (perhaps does not know) is that Star Sapphire's costume was VERY RACY for the time of that Green Lantern Cover and she is just looking at it with contemporary eyes on past culture and fashion. Also her selected photos of women are a limited sampling... she would have gotten a very different sampling had she selected pictures of women in dresses from the Grammy or Oscar's red carpet.

    Her analysis is also shallow, examining only a few examples and even then, only the physical appearance and not the character and psychology of female or male characters. Her eyes see something and she reacts. So I'm going to say it: She's not a feminist, she just reacts to visual stimulus and makes snap judgments. A feminist writer would bother to look beyond just the surface and examine the text and context. This is the equivalent to objecting to erotic album art and claiming that a band's music is sexist.

    She reminds me of many short sighted people... the list is too long, but you get the point.

  2. Yes. I think you really nailed it. And it is a shame that she and some of the commenters just whole sale dismiss the issues for men. One commenter even writes something along the lines of men in comic books look healthy and so it's ok. That's BS. They don't look healthy. They are grossly over the top male bodies of super humans. A real man to look like that would have to do steroids and get plastic surgery.

    But those characters in comic books are over the top for a reason. They stand out visually in the same way that their actions in the plot of the stories stand out, but you have to understand and be able to engage with visual culture/multimodal literature to get that.