What if Male Superheroes Posed Like Female Superheroes?

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This is the cover of Justice League #1. If you are shocked and appalled by this, I should point out that this is what comic book covers have looked like for most of the last ninety billion years:

I like how Superman's hand is wider than Wonder woman's waist.

Then someone decided to point out how stupid Wonder woman looked by drawing all the male character in similar costumes and in exactly the same pose:

Why doesn't Batman wax his legs like all the other guys? Because he's all man, that's why.

The point of this caricature was to show how mainstream comics continue to marginalize women by depicting female heroes as sex objects in poses that undermine their authority, credibility and the like.

The point of this post is to point out how pointless an undertaking that is.

Comic book fans really really want to believe that their favorite genre/medium is very inclusive, progressive and cutting edge. But the fact is that the genre itself–the superhero comic book–makes progressiveness impossible. The genre exists to portray men as hyper-masculinized, women as hyper-sexualized objects, evil as too smart and too corporate for the common good, and the real justice system as too corrupt and too weak to deal with these criminals, requiring ruthless extreme vigilantes who act swiftly, decisively, and uncompromisingly.

So who would readstories of an impotent society desparated for a faceless (and therefore dehumanized) avenger? People who are themselves frustrated, and and angry and who perceive their anger against their parents, school, job, Bill O’Reilly, Obama as righteous rage. The worldview presented in the stories is usually simple and uncomplicated, with the hero as simultaneously the stand-in and avenger of a wounded society that in some metaphorical way reflects the reader’s worldview. They’re hurt by or afraid of forces smarter and more powerful than them, so they want to lash out. Both the hero and the villain share this outlook, but from opposites sides of course. And it’s important to note that the reader sympathizes with both the villain and the hero. (The villain is the hero of his own story, after all.)

This kind of story is literally thousands of years old. Achilles, the strong invincible superhero of Greece, directed his rage just as much at the leader of the Greek forces, Agamemnon, as at the Trojans. And his rebelliousness is very much a part of the subtext of the story. In Achilles’s eyes, Agamemnon was too weak, too dissembling. Too quick to hedge his bets and to hold back. Achilles is the first superhero. DC and Marvel have slaughter forests and made fortunes from retelling his story over and over again.

Sing to me, O goddess, of the rage of Batman, Son of Gotham…

The problem that the superhero genre has is that it didn’t model itself after the rest of the Iliad. Achilles is an asshole. For all his talk and bravado, he didn’t win the Trojan War. What won the war was the Trojan Horse, a scheme concocted by a secondary character, the rather put-upon mortal named Odysseus. Where Achilles is an unrealistic character that reflects the unrealistic way in which youth views itself, Odysseus is a very realistic representation of a middle-aged man. He’s burdened by all the responsibilities he has left unattended back home. Odysseus, “the man of many twists and turns,” is like all reasonably mature middle-aged men, fed up with the all the high and mighty bullshit. He just wants to go home and play with his dog.

There is no DC or Marvel superhero franchise patterned off of Odysseus.

That a genre originally targeted at teenage boys would approach storytelling in this hyper-masculinized, hyper-sexualized way is not at all surprising. This is how many adolescents see the world. What is surprising is that the people who buy comics aren’t teenage boys anymore, they are men in their late twenties and thirties. For them, the comic book is an escape from that which frustrates them in the real world.

And what frustrates men in their 20’s and thirties? Their employers, and women. Mostly women. Women literally frustrate men. They frustrate men’s attempts to have sex with them. Feminism has left many of the now-grown men in Generation X utterly stranded in how they approach women. “Do they want James Bond? Or Anthony Michael Hall? Wait, they want Edward? From Twilight? Isn’t he gay?” So comic books become a testosterone-fueled escape from that. Adn in this escape, women are depicted how these readers want to see them, as sexualized and available.

Now before you bray, “But I like Batman and I don’t blah blah blah,” remember that I’m not talking about Christopher Nolan’s films, or the characters in general. I’m talking about the stories currently being told mostly with pictures in the little magazines that come out every month that apparently only a few hundred thousand or so people actually buy. Ask yourself this. When was the last time you actually book a Batman (or Superman, or Spiderman) comic book? If the answer is more than two months ago, then you don’t count. They aren’t for you.

If comic books started presenting realistic female characters with lifestyles and waistlines lines that mirrored those of contemporary society, they would not sell. So complain all you want about Wonder Woman’s impossibly arched back or ridiculously uncomfortable costume. She’s like that because the people who buy the books want her like that. It’s not an afterthought. It’s on purpose. So a better question to ask is “Who is buying this? Why do they want this?”

Related posts:

  1. Guess Who Dies in Green Lantern.
  2. Sucker Punch
  3. Becoming Captain America
  4. The Mechanism by Which Narratives are Promulgated
  5. The next phase in the evolution of action movies

24 Responses to What if Male Superheroes Posed Like Female Superheroes?

  1. Dan Dravot says:

    …requiring ruthless extreme vigilantes who act swiftly, decisively, and uncompromisingly.

    The worldview presented in the stories is usually simple and uncomplicated, with the hero as simultaneously the stand-in and avenger of a wounded society that in some metaphorical way reflects the reader’s worldview. They’re hurt by or afraid of forces smarter and more powerful than them, so they want to lash out.

    Yes, weak-minded people often fantasize that arbitrary, unconstrained power in unaccountable hands can solve all our problems.

    But I thought you were going to tell us about comic books?

    • DataShade says:

      Should I deconstruct your possible motivations for threadjacking with crass, partisan, political bullshit? Or just ignore you, like everyone else did? What a dilemma.

  2. mwigdahl says:

    There is no DC or Marvel superhero franchise patterned off of Odysseus.

    Very true. So don’t read DC or Marvel. Instead, try the critically-acclaimed Astro City, which teems with realistic female characters and plotlines.

    You definitely won’t find any “simple and uncomplicated” worldview in Astro City. You will find complex characters and great storytelling.

    • DataShade says:

      I won’t even claim to know what constitutes a realistic female character anymore, but some of the women I know who like comics like comics like (yes, that’s deliberately obtuse) Girl Genius (which was a print comic a decade ago before being redone for the web), Planetary, Elf Quest, Strangers in Paradise, and webcomics like Plan B, and Goblins.

      Almost none of those are superhero comics, and some of them barely have women in them.

      • AnonymousAtLarge says:

        Superheros are inherently masculine as well as juvenile.

        Males are raised to win; when he is young, he is incapable of this so instead he looks up to a male figure who is an archetypal winner and leader. Thus superheros. The idea is the boy identifies with the superhero, absorbs and styles parts of his personality after him.

        Characters in superhero comics are purposefully simplified, as this augments the “leadership” of the hero. Allowing for the possibility of understanding and complexity quickly gives rise to egalitarianism between characters, with differences being merely a matter of perspective or motivation. Absolute good and absolute evil, on the other hand, gears a person’s mind toward domination (of the evil thing) . There is no room for evil in the world, after all. All evil should always be eliminated all the time and there is no other possibility and every effort should be made to eliminate it, never to understand or educate or compromise.

        Females do not have this innate need (to dominate, lead) and society does not place pressure on them to adopt it either, therefore females are rather uninterested in superheros. It is therefore expected that comics which appeal to females would be more about social dynamics/relationships, human complexities and other interests more in line with feminine thinking/social roles. Therefore, when speaking of girl geeks, you’ll rarely find a girl who is a huge fan of superman or spiderman, but it’s not uncommon to find a girl whos a fan of the xmen series.

  3. JMiller says:

    1) “If the answer is more than two months ago, then you don’t count. They aren’t for you.”

    Okay, so noted. And I generally agree. But.

    2) “And it’s important to note that the reader sympathizes with both the villain and the hero.”

    Actually it isn’t — that’s just an indicator that the writing doesn’t suck. As the (iirc) lead writer for the upcoming Star Wars MMO put it, “The one thing you’re never going to hear is ‘make the bad guys less interesting.'” If a reader/viewer/consumer doesn’t feel a tension between the two values systems represented by the polarities, then I suspect they’re moving closer to sadism in just wanting to see the “bad” guys crushed under a “good” juggernaut. (Counterpoint: just because we’ve found a reader that can sympathize with a villain doesn’t mean the writing doesn’t suck — sometimes correlation implies bad things about what’s being correlated far more than causation.)

    3) “Wait, they want Edward? From Twilight? Isn’t he gay?”

    The actor might be gay but I’d be more concerned about the character: unable to grow up, abusively domineering, unable to accept himself for who he is, practically pedophiliac, and (un)dead. Even Robert thought the script was a bad joke when he first read it. Put bluntly: celibacy sounds like a healthier way to go than being like Edward.

    I might also suggest the alternative that the hyper-sexualization isn’t meant to be attractive in any normal sense, but rather provoke a heightened sense of anxiety (cross referencing the music video from yesterday), but I can’t say for certain — see #1 above. But. The other flip side is that this exercise might not be entirely pointless: the audience isn’t the people buying the comic books in the status quo, but rather the gender studies students who consider them to be total write-offs — now those people (the students) have an artifact they don’t have to hate and can use that to start a conversation… like this one here.

  4. jade says:

    For the record, DC or Marvel may be a nontrivially biased sample. Case in point: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Or the Serenity comic. Also, Persepolis, Maus, and Blankets.

    • Dan Dravot says:

      Maus? Yeah, nothing oversimplified about making all the Jews mice, all the (non-Jewish) Poles pigs, etc. I don’t recall any Japanese characters. I guess they could’ve been moles, with thick glasses and buck teeth. Blimey.

      But in any case, while it’s true that all the exceptions you name are “comics” in the literal sense of the term, he didn’t say “comics”. He said “superhero franchise”.

      And I think he’s right. If a few hundred people each printed Roissy’s URL on a few hundred business cards and went around tucking them between pages in comic shops, they’d bankrupt DC and Marvel in a year.

      • pulchrifex says:

        “… the people who buy comics aren’t teenage boys anymore, they are men in their late twenties and thirties. For them, the comic book is an escape from that which frustrates them in the real world.”

        “If comic books started presenting realistic female characters with lifestyles and waistlines lines that mirrored those of contemporary society, they would not sell.”

        Yeah, we know what PB meant. But neatness counts.

        The divide between “comics” and “superhero comics” also isn’t always clear, either by company or even by property. The now-tiresome trend of superhero-deconstruction was basically initiated by DC’s publication of WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, the latter of which is obviously a Batman book. It would be a mistake to say either one “would not sell.” Garth Ennis’ ongoing series THE BOYS is probably the best contemporary example of that subgenre (not published by DC or Marvel), and it’s also doing quite well, for a comic. And DC’s Vertigo imprint did a pretty brisk business in decidedly non-superhero titles back in the day — PREACHER, TRANSMETROPOLITAN, THE INVISIBLES, SANDMAN…

  5. CubaLibre says:

    Also note that any comic which depends, as its theme, on taking the manchildishness of superheroics to its logical extreme (Dark Knight Strikes Again, All-Star Batman & Robin) is universally reviled by the ordinary superhero-consumer. The exception is when the reader can mistake the critique for a badassery of its own due to an overabundance of subtlety (Dark Knight Returns, Sin City).

    All of those comics are by the same dude, by the way. Just goes to show.

  6. lilin says:

    She’s like that because the people who buy the books want her like that. It’s not an afterthought. It’s on purpose. So a better question to ask is “Who is buying this? Why do they want this?”

    She’s like that because enough of the people who buy, and make, the books want her like that, and because enough of the rest of buyers don’t care enough to drop the book because of it, and because the group of people who will drop the book because of it isn’t large enough yet.

    The point of this caricature was to show how mainstream comics continue to marginalize women by depicting female heroes as sex objects in poses that undermine their authority, credibility and the like.

    Wrong. The point of the caricature is to do that in a way that gets enough notoriety that it embarrasses the readers and the makers of the comic enough to shift the above proportion. The fact that I’ve seen it on at least three different sites makes the notoriety part of that plan successful. We’ll see about the second part.

  7. CubaLibre says:

    Hercules was a superhero before Achilles.

    As for the Iliad, you’re reading it all wrong. Your analysis makes sense when applied to Achilles as a mythological figure, considering his entire entire mythological “life” divorced from any particular work. And perhaps also for what he “meant” to the ordinary ancient Greek (there are like five problems with that statement, but let’s just let it sit for now).

    But the Iliad itself is not a story of the Trojan War, but a story of Achilles. It begins with his personal rebellion against Agamemnon in the tenth year of the war and ends with his victory over Hector and the funeral for his slain lover, Patroklos. The Trojan Horse and the end of the war aren’t even in the poem, and neither is the death of Achilles. It’s about one particular arc: Achilles’ vengeance for Patroklos’ death. And Achilles is very clearly held up as a paragon. Odysseus is presented as an alternate path, one less noble but more possible and therefore perhaps ultimately more suitable for mortals, i.e. you and me (so are Hector and Priam – all of them more comprehensible and human than godlike Achilles). But Achilles is their perfect man-god, nobility unleashed with no regard for justice. Pure arete. By identifying Odysseus as the true heroic figure, the mature man contrasted with Achilles’ petulant child, you adapt the Iliad to modern mores and miss its full meaning.

    • xylokopos says:

      I like PB’s characterizations. Odysseus is the middle aged guy that wants to go back and play with his dog. Achilles, a pissed off superhero. I reckon Jason could be a forgetful fella looking for better clothes, Oedipus could be a shitty driver who attracts the wrong type of woman, Ajax a ‘roided up meathead with emo tendencies..damn, the possibilities are endless.

    • Cambyses says:

      Achilles “means” to us precisely what the author needs him to mean. Like Moby Dick, the Iliad and the Odyssey begin with imperatives (Call me Ishmael) which makes us aware of the narrator. If you’re bored, read the end of book one of the Iliad and see what happens. Zeus and Hera are arguing, which seems to be what they do every day around dinner time. Hephaestus enters, tells them a story and makes them laugh. The entire tone of the poem changes and they go off to bed. There are two characters described as “polymetis” (crafty, clever) within the Homeric tradition. One is Hephaestus, the other Odysseus. But here Hephaesus is not crafting material things, he is crafting a narrative, with which he can manipulate the feelings of people and get them to do what he wants. As a caveat, he also lies when he tells this story, which you find out later in the poem if you’re reading very carefully. Basically, the message is subtle but it’s there that, for all of the muscular banter and butchery at Troy, Olympus is in control of the war, and Hephaestus-as-storyteller is in control of Olympus. It’s a boast of the poet that, at the end of the day, the guy who crafts the narrative rules the world. In other words, the finger on the finger on the red button is 24 hour news broadcasts and internet sound-bites.

  8. wisegirl says:

    When boys are small, they worship superheros. They could not care less about wonder woman as long as they have batman, superman etc. Most men outgrow this obsession, but some boys as they become men still feel powerless and thus extend their superhero worship into adulthood. They must now insert their sexual fantasy into their superhero fantasy in the form of a sexed-up wonder woman, she only exists for that purpose. If no one is really reading these comics, I suppose they don’t have the power to do much harm, but I worry for these young men that reality is not good enough.

    • ASeriesOfWords says:

      Its not really that reality isn’t good enough for them. Its that they aren’t good enough for reality, or at least they don’t see themselves as good enough for reality.

    • DataShade says:

      If no one is really reading these comics, I suppose they don’t have the power to do much harm

      There aren’t a lot of people reading those comics. If you read sites like warrenellis.com or mightygodking.com you can see a lot of information about the decline of comics – something like an 80% decrease in the number of comics stores from 1990 to 2010, steadily aging readership, etc. The smaller the market gets, the louder the vocal minority crying for a return to basics, rigorous adherence to cliches, etc, gets. Meanwhile, aside from the top-tier superheroes like X-Men, Superman, Batman, the only really popular and profitable comics of the last 10-15 years didn’t deal with superheroes.

  9. TheDevastator says:

    So complain all you want about Wonder Woman’s impossibly arched back or ridiculously uncomfortable costume. She’s like that because the people who buy the books want her like that. It’s not an afterthought. It’s on purpose. So a better question to ask is “Who is buying this? Why do they want this?”

    I think you pretty much nailed it. Are we supposed to be looking deeper?

  10. claudius says:

    So who would readstories of an impotent society desparated for a faceless (and therefore dehumanized) avenger? People who are themselves frustrated, and and angry and who perceive their anger against their parents, school, job, Bill O’Reilly, Obama as righteous rage. The worldview presented in the stories is usually simple and uncomplicated, with the hero as simultaneously the stand-in and avenger of a wounded society that in some metaphorical way reflects the reader’s worldview.

    Alexander the Great’s hero was Achilles…

    You’re referring to “superheroes” and “frustrated comic book nerds.” What about the person who holds him/herself to an ideal and fundamentally changes his/her behavior to become that ideal? Obviously, certain characteristics are imaginary, and some characteristics of individuals are bad, but one can always pick and choose (e.g., the valor of Achilles and the intellect of Odysseus).

  11. wishswudhavwings says:

    I don’t know if you read comics, although from this post I would guess no.

    “The genre exists to portray men as hyper-masculinized, women as hyper-sexualized objects, evil as too smart and too corporate for the common good, and the real justice system as too corrupt and too weak to deal with these criminals, requiring ruthless extreme vigilantes who act swiftly, decisively, and uncompromisingly.”

    Wrong. You write this post as if everything in comics is black and white but if you had read enough of them you would know this wasn’t the case. Undoubtedly there are examples galore of what you wrote above but there are just as many against. The X-Men series alone has plenty of ambiguity and is made up of very young people who often suffer internal conflict from fighting others who have been oppressed as they have. Friends often become evil, either accidentally, for revenge, or simply because the solution they believe in is against what others strive for, and shifting alliances are now (and have been) a staple of the comic book world in general.

    To compare superheroes to old Greek myth is interesting but fails, ultimately, because the Greeks considered hubris (pride) to be a fatal flaw in the face of Gods who were vain, all-powerful and cared nothing for humans. And Odysseus fails as a role model because ultimately he kills all the suitors plaguing his house in exactly the fashion you described above, so your example leads nowhere.

  12. Rocket Surgeon says:

    Why don’t we step back and get rid of a couple of things like “superhero” and “comics”, and if we look at it as a just print media that consistently sexualizes women. From that standpoint we can begin to see where the actual problem stems from: the readership.
    What it is often neglected is that comics are a business, and comics have been a volatile market for a long time. The big contenders, Marvel and DC, have struggled throughout the years to stay in business. I know in the magazine industry, including the ones that highly sexualize women, they number crunch on almost everything that goes into it and look at the sales list afterwards. Covers are a big aspect of the number crunching and they know what generally gets them better sales. Do comics work in the same way? I suspect to some extent they do.
    So, what about the readership? Well, there seems to be a vocal section of it that wants change, but will that change allow the business model to continue? Comics are very slow to adopt changes and it’s not hard to see why those changes don’t come about, because they could very well affect sales. We already know that change is good, but can Marvel or DC sustainable change? I don’t think we’ll get that answer anytime soon.

  13. thestage says:

    That’s a pretty limp reading of Odysseus. And it certainly isn’t the one presented in either Iliad or Odyssey (neither of which even include the Trojan Horse, you’ll note).

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