It’s been an interesting weekend.
On Friday, I tweeted (and Tumbled) the following:
My tweet quickly garnered over 650 retweets and 2,000 notes on Tumblr, and my Twitter followers shot from 750 to over 875. These numbers are probably nothing special for celebs, but if you’re a guy who averages half a dozen new followers per week, this sort of thing makes you sit up and take notice. It occurred to me that I struck a nerve: many people care deeply about superheroines, and how they are portrayed.
Several questions arose during all of this, both from readers of my tweet and in my own mind, and I’ve been mulling it over and would like to share my thoughts. I know there’s a lot to wade through here, but I promise not to ramble.
To start with, one reader complained that if we demand realism in depictions of breasts in comics, then we must also demand realism in depictions of everything, and the expressive liberties we enjoy in comics (e.g., Batman’s white, pupil-free eyes) would go out the window. My answer is that most superhero comics exist to glamorize heroism, and as such any liberties we take with reality should glorify the heroes. Batman’s glowing eyes glorify him by making him appear formidable, and are therefore justified. But does accentuating a superheroine’s breasts glorify her? Maybe, under certain conditions… but generally when I see this happening, the intention (and result) seems to be to make a sexual object of the heroine and arouse lust in male readers. I shouldn’t have to point this out, but I do, so I will: it offends the dignity of a heroine to make her do double-duty as a jiggle-girl for male arousal.
(Here I’ll pause to note that the superhero genre isn’t the only place where it’s foolish to sexually objectify the protagonist. Even in genres where the protag isn’t glamorized, you still need readers to identify with her. Making a character a sexual object will “other” that character for your readers, inviting them to desire or compete with her, rather than BE her. Note that males shun male figures whose sex appeal is their defining trait, such as soap stars, or Justin Bieber, or Fabio. Let’s not ask women to identify with a female Fabio.)
On the other hand, as another reader insisted, there are occasions IN REALITY when women’s breasts are so accentuated. A woman with large breasts, wearing a form-fitting top, may indeed find the fabric clinging and creasing in revealing ways. There may even be those signs of nipple that some artists are so fond of depicting. Wouldn’t it be more honest to include such instances in our art? Again, I point back to the goals of the genre. In reality, guys sometimes walk around with their zippers down, but we don’t want to see Captain America with his zipper down, because that wouldn’t glorify him. Does it glorify a heroine to portray her nipple-bumps and boob-creases? If it did, women would aim for this effect all the time… but they don’t, so it doesn’t. (An art director once told me she spends half her time erasing the superfluous cleavage illustrators draw on female chests. Gals aren’t as thrilled with cleavage as you may think, fellas.)
Sure, there are exceptions. Cleavage is often thought glamorous at formal events, for example. This isn’t about rules, but about attitudes. My bottom line with costumes: would a cosplayer feel great about wearing this? (Hint: I’ve noticed that cosplayers usually adopt more modest hemlines than we see in the comics.)
And to digress from boobs for a moment, let me address the vertical crotch seam. I illustrate a lot of women’s fashion, and I have never noticed a vertical crotch seam in the clothing I’ve drawn. But in superheroine costumes I see this all the time. Do ladies have anything good to say about the vertical crotch seam, or is it just a way for guys to draw a pretend-vulva?
But back to boobs. Another reader asked why artists seem to have so much trouble drawing them properly. Part of the problem, as noted above, is the desire to sexually arouse male readers, but I’d also like to point out that drawing breasts is darn difficult. Even female artists often miss the mark. Breasts are unlike any other structure on the body. With limbs, you can draw the bone and layer firm muscles on top; with fat, you can just draw a bunch of bulges… but breasts are this weird combo of structure and gooshiness that’s hard to depict accurately. Plus, they move around and change shape and come in different sizes! To worsen matters, the clothed breast is usually only lightly shadowed (hence my tweet), whereas comics’ ink lines deal in starker contrasts. A cartoonist may default to a semicircular line to denote a breast, not intending to denote a fabric crease, but lacking any subtler way to depict the form. So, let’s don’t hustle out with calipers and pitchforks to skewer anyone who draws breasts wrong (including me!). Please judge the attitude of the work on the whole, and with your criticism be generous in both senses of the word: give it often, but give it kindly.
Finally, a reader was upset that I was concerned with how superheroines are dressed, rather than devoting my energies to the REAL issues women face, such as thousands of years of sexist oppression. Well. Setting aside the false dilemma there, I want to address the notion that how superheroines are dressed isn’t a “real” issue.
As I mentioned initially, many people care deeply about superheroines and how they are portrayed. I find this appropriate.
It’s a weird anomaly that, over the last century or so, our culture has deemed heroic fiction childish. Looking back through history, heroic fiction has always been a huge part of world literature for children and adults alike. The Odyssey, the Iliad, the Aeneid, Beowulf, King Arthur, Robin Hood, The Monkey King, Gilgamesh… this stuff wasn’t intended only for kids. Adults throughout history embraced the fact that our struggles can be more easily understood when cast as totems of power. Just as it’s easier for a number to represent other numbers when you write it as X, it’s easier for misfits to represent other misfits when you write them as X-Men. We turned our backs on this utility about a century ago, deciding that superheroic fiction belongs only on the playground, but the overwhelming popularity of superhero films, shows, novels, and games among adults is forcing us now to reconsider our folly.
Superheroes, per se, are a potent subgenre of heroic fiction because their powers externalize their struggles in ways that strength alone cannot, and because they locate heroism in the present day, rather than in the distant past of Robin Hood or Conan. They are more supple and more obviously relevant than other heroic fiction. But superheroic stories have been greatly limited in their influence, not only because they were deemed juvenile, but because they were considered a MALE power fantasy. The cliché was that superheroes were best enjoyed by the dorky, un-athletic male nerd. Who had more need than he for heroic inspiration? Well….. how about members of a gender physically smaller than his, who have been oppressed not only throughout childhood but THROUGHOUT HISTORY? How about a gender of people who, unlike him, have INCREASING reason to fear physical assaults as they near maturity, rather than the reverse? Who have LESS earning power than he does, and are held to EVEN HIGHER standards of attractiveness than those he bemoans falling short of? The superhero genre may be for everyone, but it seems women have even greater claim to it than anyone else.
And they seem to be laying claim to it with a vengeance. When I drew a Kate Bishop “Hawkeye” story for Marvel a year ago, I was amazed at the devotion to that character I saw among women on Tumblr. They made jewelry out of my Kate Bishop art!!! If you had told me as a kid that someday adult women would put my superhero drawings on their jewelry, I would have tumbled off panel like a cartoon character. And it wasn’t just Hawkeye. Women are all over all kinds of other superheroes. You could replace the entire Bifröst with women’s fan art of Loki alone. Not to mention all the comics, fanfic and cosplay. They are owning the genre. Sowing it with creativity, and reaping inspiration, and joy.
But in the midst of all of this, guys are still drawing superheroines like they’re arm-candy. So does it MATTER how superheroines are portrayed? Yeah. YEAH, I THINK IT DOES.