Monday, August 4, 2014

The Problematic Way we Talk about Female Superheroes' Bodies

Black Widow

I love almost all things related to fantasy, superheroes, and mystical powers.  I just can't get enough of it.  Admittedly, I'm not a huge comic book reader (I prefer either TV/movies or straight up books - primarily because how problematic the sexism is there) but I certainly have read my fair share of them too.

Comics books come underneath a lot of criticism for sexism. The main arguments are:

  • Not enough female superheroes (and not enough depth to the existing ones)
  • Not enough female writers
  • Not enough female superheroes make it to the big screen
  • All these three are significantly worse when it comes to women of color
  • Female superheroes are highly sexually objectified  and wear skimpy clothes while the men have more practical outfits (and more practical poses etc)
  • Female superheroes have "huge chests" and "huge butts".  
The first five, I'm 100% on board there.  They are serious problems  and need to be fixed.  If you want to talk about the discriminatory nature of comic books even on a more general nature you could add that their needs to be more non-white male characters too (and authors and depictions on the big screen).  And there should also be more non-straight or strictly gender defined characters.  

Slut Shaming and Body Type Assumptions

But the last point?  The way the discussion goes down here bothers me a lot.  Even  many feminist women who should know better reinforce the ideas that women with large butts and large chests are hypersexual, unintelligent, and are only there to serve the male gaze. That's not even mentioning the idea that women who wear less clothes are also somehow less than.   I'm sorry, but WHAT?  Aren't we going into the realm of slut-shaming here?  And making a lot of assumptions based on a woman's body type?  

Wonder Woman
Some of the quotes I've found on the subject are the following:

If you’re drawing Spider-Woman with a huge chest and a suit that leaves nothing to the imagination, the words that come out of her mouth have less and less meaning.
from here.

The new female Thor.

And another:

but the way modern artists contort women into the most upsetting shapes, while giving them insane proportions, would make you average sex doll say “that’s a bit much.” And who can you trust more than a talking sex doll?

from here.

There are more out there with similar sentiments but it boils down to the idea that large butts/breasts=pron star body or sex doll.  I've discussed previously how the idea of extreme sexualization of large breasts can harm breastfeeding rates.  I've also gotten into the idea that somehow large breasts reflects on a person's intelligence.

Isn't about time that we STOP making assumptions about a women based on her body type alone?  This subject strikes very close to my heart being that I have a very similar body type to many women in comics.  I have a muscular figure WITH large breasts and a large butt.  I was a college athlete and continue to do weight lifting and swimming to this day.  Sure, I still have some extra pounds from having two kids but I have muscle there AND curves.

While I understand the sentiments of the authors and I understand that they are trying to critique the blatant sexism that is rampant in the most common comic books and superhero portrayals, we still have to be careful about our words and understand the deeper problems.

Body type doesn't determine your personality

This idea is so deeply entrenched in our culture that women can get fired for looking "too pretty", "too sexy", or "too distracting".  The idea of the "dumb blonde with big boobs" constantly arises in jokes and stereotypes in media.  But it's time to die a long over due death.  Your breast size (or butt size) has NO reflection whatsoever on your intelligence.  Yet it's very rare to see intellectual women in media being represented by a curvy women.

You see in the quotes above how it's clear that the authors feel like your bust size reflects on the reliability of your statements.  The larger the bust, the less meaningful your words.  As a very large busted women with a Ph.D I find this pretty damn offensive.

See, here's the thing about comic books that actually is good for curvy women.  For once we actually have women that look more like us.  Don't get me wrong there are still some very, very deep problems there (I get to them below) but it's so rare that my body type is depicted as strong or powerful (aren't all curvy women supposed to be  dumb sex dolls that just sit around waiting for a man to come along?) that I actually enjoy this aspect of comic books.

Now, I'm not saying I want all comic book heroines to look like me (certainly not! I wish there was a hell of a lot more diversity there, again, see below).  But I also relish that idea that curvier women are allowed to be strong and powerful in comic books where so much of the rest of media tells me that I'm overweight, weak, or a hypersexual being.

Put some freaking clothes on!

Or don't.  Whatever you do is your choice.  The issue is when women are required to wear less clothes than men.  That's the problem.  Not that women are wearing skimpy clothes in and of itself.  If all the male superheroes were just wearing jock straps while fighting crime, I would take no issue with how the women were dressed.

I think this is even an bigger issue when you're talking about curvy women.  It's a pretty well known fact that busty women are told in the work place that their shirts are inappropriate when they are wear the exact same shirt as a smaller-breasted women.  This happens with curvy teens in school uniforms too. It's not fair.  The phrase "a tasteful amount of cleavage" just makes my entire body cringe.  What if your breasts are so large, only a turtleneck makes you pull that off?

Yeah, but their breasts are CLEARLY implants

So what?  Who cares?  Maybe they were a cancer survivor or a mom whose had multiple kids?  Maybe they lost a significant amount of weight and just had loose skin for breasts pre-op?  Maybe their breast tissue never developed?  Or maybe its none of the above and they just wanted larger breasts?  That is that woman's business and nobody else's.

The deeper problems... 

The problem ISN'T the skimpy clothing OR the large breasts and butts.  The problem is the lack of diversity.  The problem is the slant towards females having more shower scenes, more overtly sexualized body parts and lack of agency.

But, but, what about how many men are only shown one male body type??? Look up false equivalency and read this comic...

False Equivalency

Going back to the lack of diversity.  A good explanation for it is

It’s important to remember that idealization of the form is not the same as sexualization of the form.  Something can be idealized without being sexualized.  But in superhero comics, because the forms that female characters are based on have their roots in porn and models, the form becomes even more sexualized once it is idealized to perfection. Is there anything wrong with perfection in fictional stories? No. Is there anything wrong with superheroes being beautiful sexual beings? Of course not. Is there anything wrong with titillation for the sake of titillation? No, not in the right context.  But because the vast majority of female superheroes are rendered this way, it leaves context out. It becomes ALL about titillation and sex, regardless of context.  And that creates a problem.  And it’s one of the many ways that anyone interested in looking at things objectively can see that…no, this is not equal..
from here. When they are always all the same, that's the issue.  Not the large breasts and butts themselves, not even the skimpy clothes.  It's the sameness.  It's the reductionism of the female form and personality into ONLY a very specific form and sexual being.  I do take issure to some of her language there (specifically that large breasts+butt=perfection and comparing this immediately to porn).

For example, I am bothered by the author above's phrase:

Porn star and model body types suggest beauty, sex, and frequently, submissiveness. None of those qualities tie directly to superheroes.

In that she associates a specific body type with certain characteristics.  Why can't women with very curvy body types be strong?  Why do they need to be submissive or sexual?  Our body types don't dictate who we are as people.  Maybe that isn't what she meant here but it comes off as such.

But going back to the idea of diversity.  I actually think comic books miss out on something when they include a lack of diversity in body types.  One really awesome quote that I found reinforcing the need for diversity is:

Superhero characters are products of design. If design matters, there should be some consistency in a character’s look from one artist to the next – and some inconsistency between characters from a single artist. It should matter that She-Hulk is big and Shadowcat is slender. It should matter that Superman is bigger than Batman. It should matter that Power Girl doesn’t look like Supergirl, and it should matter that Spider-Man won’t be confused for Captain America in the dark. If design matters, if character matters, then diversity matters. Superheroes shouldn’t have to look like Olympians, but they should look as diverse as Olympians do.

Read More: Olympians: Superhero Bodies and What Real Athletes Look Like |
Even if we require all superheroes to be athletes (and I'd argue that is one big assumption in and of itself because if your power is to be invisible or telekinesis why do you need to be super fit?).   There's a huge variety in what female athletes look like...

It should be pointed out that the issue of diversity is even more embarrassing to comic books when you realize the lack of racial and ethnic diversity.

What about female empowerment and using their sexuality?   

Another issue that is deeper is that these women are using their sexuality as a weapon because they have to NOT because they want to:

“But these women are so empowered,” people cry! “Don’t they just own their sexuality?”
Sure. I could buy that if any of these female characters’ storylines didn’t revolve around primarily the men in their life. But they don’t. So, yeah, not buying that.
These female characters aren’t exerting sexuality because they want to. They’re doing it because they have to. It’s the only way they are afforded (somewhat) equal status to men.

from here

 Sexual objectification in comics is currently very lopsided... 

One of the clearest representations of the current inequality is through the Hawkeye Initiative.  The artist substitutes in Hawkeye into all the clearly sexually objectified positions of women in comic books.

Taken from the Hawkeye Initiative

At first glance it might seem ridiculous or even silly, but this confronts so much preconceived culture stereotypes and notions that it really tests many of our ideas of gender identity.

You can't claim equality when one gender is clearly being objectified significantly more than the other.  It goes back to the idea of false equivalence.  The male superheroes fulfill the male fantasy of the perfect (hetro, white, powerful) male whereas the females fulfill the MALE's fantasy of the perfect, NOT the female fantasy. Even when we see the male superhero's muscles it's there as a part of the male's fantasy about himself, it's not their for the female gaze (or gay male gaze).  I've talked in the past about about what many find attractive about men and I have to say it's not just big muscles, height, and square jaws!

It's visually boring and confusing

Comic books certainly aren't the only form of media that is guilty of this but you'd think artists would who have the ability to create heroines of any shape or size would play around with that more, you know?  Media is very different than in real life because you only view the characters for a very short time period and in very specific settings so if anything you want your cast of characters to be the most diverse looking as possible for others to be able to distinguish them.

I can think of a number of TV shows and movies that fall into the sameness gap i.e. they have characters that are so visually indistinguishable from each other that I have difficulties telling them apart.  Probably the worst offender that I can think of off hand is Da Vinci's Demons where Lorenzo Medici's wife and mistress look so similar on the small screen that I didn't realize they were separate people until we were a few episodes into the show.

Lucrezia Donati - Lorenzo's mistress

Clarice Orsini - Lorenzo's wife
I mean does the guy have a type or what?  They're similar in height, weight, body type, hair color etc.  It's a bit too much, isn't it?


Can we please solve these deeper problems and stop criticizing curvy women and being the slut shaming police?  Please?


  1. Thaaaank youuuuu
    From someone who's read comics, superhero and otherwise, since the tender age of 7 and has like 30H boobs at this point. I think more people need to hear this.

  2. With all due respect, as a reader of your blog, I feel you may have missed the point in this post. For one, in the article you reference above, particularly the quote, the author is pointing out the ridiculousness of the poses as making the super-heroines looks like "sex-dolls". The reason their body type comes into it is only because the contorted poses are for the male gaze and therefore emphasizing features for that point. I mean, if we were discussing contortions like those of Mr. Fantastic, there might not be any discussion (i.e. unrealistic contortions related to function). Additionally, you could potentially make the argument that all all the women in comics are oversexualized, regardless of body type...but the fact that they have no (or a very, very limited set of) other body types other than big boobs and butts points to objectification not representation. The body types presented aren't representative of many women, even the women who play them see the controversy over the photo-shopping of Scarlett Johansson's body , or of many world-class athletes (as can be seen in the picture you post). Not all women are insert adjective here. There are women with small boobs, wide waists, flat butts and everything in between. To see that none of that is represented in the superhero world probably does point to the idea that these characters are being presented as objects, not 'people' and that the complaint of sexualization may have a grain of truth. Sexualization doesn't just mean boobs and butts and just because a woman has has these does not make her less of a superhero, but the point here is more: how is it possible that in the superhero universe, there is nothing but that? We can get into the point that sexualization does not mean 'just' boobs and butt too. If you notice, most super heroines also have long legs (in proportion to their body), relatively small feet, big eyes, and a lot of other features that the average woman may or may not have. Are those sexual features and should there be variation there too?

  3. "The first five, I'm 100% on board there. They are serious problems and need to be fixed. If you want to talk about the discriminatory nature of comic books even on a more general nature you could add that their needs to be more non-white male characters too (and authors and depictions on the big screen). And there should also be more non-straight or strictly gender defined characters."

    Except you seem to be mistaking the word need, for the word you actually meant to use which is desire. You DESIRE there to be more of these things, there doesn't NEED to be more of these things.

    See need is a word of requirement, ala "this remote control NEEDS batteries to function." However superhero comics don't NEED any particular minority group to continue to exist. In fact you could take out all the minorities women & people of colour & the genre could still function. You DESIRE there to be more than just white heterosexual men as characters & fair enough, but you don't NEED them.

    That however is not how creativity works. Creative works isn't paint by numbers, you create by what comes to you, usually fully formed, waiting to be expressed in your chosen medium.

    for example, my own RPG superhero universe has at least one transgender superhero (and 2 and a half transgender villains), but I didn't say "and now I must create a transgender superhero." It was created because a combination of traits combined unbidden in the mind of the creator & said creator went "Eureka, I have a character concept!" At which time that character concept was transferred to my medium of choice.

    In fact we've seen what happens in pretty much all mediums when people create things out of equality concerns rather than legitimate interest.... 99% of the time it flops so hard that developers & publishers actively avoid that topic in the future specifically because of the past flops.

    As for the title of "The Problematic Way we Talk about Female Superheroes' Bodies" I think you should change that for the sake of accuracy to "The Problematic Way in which women who aren't comic book readers Talk about Female Superheroes' Bodies as a way to justify there own bigotry against a genre of comics they actually have no personal knowledge of & white knighting men copy them because they've been told that not parroting back the rhetoric is sexism."

    Because lets be honest, that's the group most likely to bad mouth female superheroes physical appearances.

  4. Slowly the tide is turning IMO, these same issues and topics arise in gaming and as more and more women embrace gaming this issue keeps poking its head up..