Laura Hudson at Comics Alliance has written a very thoughtful and personal indictment of the way DC Comics depicts female superheroes. She holds one one particularly egregious example (shown below) to “explain why these scenes don’t support sexually liberated women; they undermine them.”
Her conclusions is one that I would agree with, and that many others would too. Hudson spills a great deal of ink trying understand why “DC Comics tells me a male hero looks like [a muscular fully-clothed guy], and what a female hero looks like [an airbrushed porn star]” But by phrasing the question that way, she fails to understand what is really going on.DC Comics is not telling you what a female superhero looks like. You, Ms. Hudson the avid comic book reader, tell DC what you want them to look like. You tell them with your money, and with your fanatic devotion. She admits that she’s been buying comics for 20 years. She confesses, “what got me into comics back in the day was being a 12-year-old girl who looked at strong, beautiful characters like Rogue and Jean Grey and Storm and wanted to be like them in large part because they were so sexy and confident.” You wanted sexy and confident, which you equated with the impossibly endowed female superheroes of 20 years ago. So that’s what DC continues to deliver. The airbrushing and color shading are more over-the-top now, but that is simply because Photoshop wasn’t around when you were 12. DC is giving her exactly what she wanted all those years. The reason these salacious images of women in comics are called “fan service” is because that’s what the fans are really paying to see. All that changed is that Laura Hudson grew out of it.
Good for her. It’s about time. The comic book medium is a ghetto. People like Laura Hudson, who can write several thousand words of insightful commentary, are wasting their time and talent on comic books. They’ve matured beyond the medium. Comic books are for adolescents. The medium doesn’t age with you, it continues to serve it’s target audience even as your age right out of it into the the Food Network demo. You’re supposed to leave it behind, like Sesame Street and Super Mario Brothers. Dear Laura Hudson: write fiction criticism or film criticism instead, because the comic book medium cannot stand up to your critical scrutiny. It is so completely Oedipal, so utterly pubescent, so completely reactionary and superficial, that the narrative falls apart under the slightest analysis. In that way, comic books are exactly like pornography. Pornographic films make money, they are part of the culture, but they can’t be subjected to film criticism the way Citizen Kane or Inception can. They operate on a libidinal level, below the threshold of higher conscious thought.
Both pornography and comic books are overwhelmingly read by men who want to objectify women as pliant and willing partial objects for them to exploit. If you made pornstars realistic, the men who watch pornography now wouldn’t watch it anymore. Comic book fans, like porn fans, don’t want realism. They want hyperrealism. If comic books represented women realistically and maturely, the medium would cease to exist; the audience that buys them now would not buy them anymore. The objectification of women in them is a necessary precondition for their existence, just like absurd muscular hypertrophy and a monstrous villain. Comic books exist for the sole purpose of showing jacked-up bodybuilder heroes, huge-breasted heroines, and panel after panel of muscle-flexing and teeth-gritting. People have been trying to give comics literary theory treatment for years. And what has it achieved?
Forget about changing comic books.
The question Laura Hudson should be asking herself is “Why didn’t I give these up ten years ago?” Because she, like most people in their 20’s and 30’s, are smarter than the medium ever wants to be. And this goes for men too. I understand it was cool in the 90’s and 2000s to read comic books written for 15 year olds well into your 30s. You millennials don’t appreciate how important it was for Gen-X to take everything previously thought of as “lowbrow art” and give it highbrow treatment. Comics books were made for just such a cultural inversion, because before the 1980s, no one ever considered taking them seriously.
But as fanboys rage over my elitism, consider this: the highbrow is highbrow too. Novels routinely tell complex stories. So do films. Television pulls it off occasionally. Even video games these days tell meaningful, grown-up stories. There are so many places in our culture to turn to for something of substance, there is no use in trying to pull the comic book industry out of the ghetto that it built for itself and that it enjoys inhabiting. You don’t have to carry the flag of comic-books-as-high-art simply because you chose to make that part of your teenage identity. Walk away. Set aside these childish things. Choose life.
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