Feminism & the Portrayal of Women in Comics – Part 2

I am extraordinarily pleased to see that our article about feminism and comic books continues to be one of our most read pieces, as feminism is something near and dear to my heart personally that will always be important to Android Dreamer as a website. That being said, the conclusions drawn in the article were called into questions by some readers who brought up very important points in the general discussion of the portrayal of women in comics that are absolutely worth addressing. Although it is hard to argue that comic books are inherently pro-women, I still believe that super hero comics as a medium are neither inherently feminist nor sexist; it is really a matter of the individual creators.

The first point brought up is that although it is true that women and men are both portrayed as near impossible standards, that these portrayals are specifically a male ideal of what women and men should be. Batman may be unrealistically portrayed as a Mr. Universe contestant, but that is because it is what men want to look like rather than what women want men to look like. Although the idea of what is attractive and what isn’t is definitely subjective, it is worth examination. Without the finances to conduct an official survey of what women find physically attractive in men, a quick Google search doesn’t really give the information required to give a real answer. Generally recurring answers to the questions of who the most attractive men are include people like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, when it comes to lists of all people living and dead, and men like Brad Pitt and Robert Pattinson in talking about the hottest men of today. You are no more likely to find Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti on the hot men list than you are to find Kathy Bates and Queen Latifah on a list of the most attractive women. This isn’t because they aren’t extraordinarily talented people in their fields, but because both men and women when talking about averages of the entire population prefer people who are physically very fit when it comes to attractiveness on a completely superficial level. This holds up in the portrayal of both genders in the comic books, as both the men and women are portrayed as exaggeratedly fit. There are individual artists that may go a step too far in the way they draw their women, but on a pure eye candy level there is generally a level playing field.

Another point mentioned that frankly shouldn’t have been missed is that it is equally if not more important that women in super hero comics are written well rather than how they are portrayed physically. The first example of an extraordinarily strong female character that springs to mind is Barbara Gordon, the first Batgirl who later became Oracle after being shot through the spine and left in a wheel chair by Joker. As Batgirl, she was an asset to Batman, and was successful operating on her own. As Oracle, she has proven that physical fitness and martial arts were not the only tools in her repetoire, as she is indisputably one of the most intelligent characters in the DC Universe. Despite her handicap, she used computer technology to communicate remotely with Batman and other heroes to feed them information. If Batman was in a public building, Oracle is there with the maps. If there’s a security system that needs breaking into, Oracle can hack through it before Batman even has to ask. Oracle is a wonderful character who ought to be a role model, and is proof that extraordinarily strong female characters exist in comics. It is only one example (Wonder Woman and Black Canary could also both be discussed) but she is at least proof that the genre is capable of feminist leanings.

It would be impossible to form an argument that pleases everyone when it comes to the topic, but it is worth continuing to discuss. We still don’t think that super hero comics are inherently sexist, but that writers and artists who portray women poorly ought to be called out for it. Characters like Starfire, a sexual liberated and gorgeous alien from a culture that doesn’t understand humanity’s hang-ups about sex, walk a very fine line between feminist and sexist, and it is important that the creators of these books are kept in check.

Advertisements

Review: Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar (2011)

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar
Angry Robot, 2011

Rating: B

After the pure enjoyment factor of The Bookman, the first novel in the loosely connected Bookman Histories, it was hard not to be excited to push forward onto Camera Obscura. While The Bookman was the adventure of a young man in search of lost love, Camera Obscura is a steampunk noir murder mystery featuring a kick ass heroine and a pile of bodies that keeps getting bigger. It is sort of a Chandler-esque gumshoe story crossed with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen style steampunk that pulls characters from all sorts of different works and puts them in strange situations.

Milady de Winter is a brilliant character so well-written that she begs to reappear. To compare her to female heroes in other novels and different mediums is to do her an injustice, as she is completely unique in her badassery. Strong black characters are rare in science fiction to begin with, and strong black female characters are even fewer and further between. Tidhar using a minority character in a steampunk setting is refreshing, and to have her be as strong a character as she is makes for excellence. Although the novel is enjoyable on its own merits, the most memorable part of Camera Obscura is surely its protagonist.

A little bit more than halfway through the novel, a traumatic and extraordinarily violent episode for Milady de Winter happens that not only changes her character significantly but changes the tone of the novel so drastically that it feels like a completely new story. While the first half is pretty straight forward (and enjoyable) point to point murder mystery, the second half reads like a twisted existentialist fantasy that is interesting but sometimes hard to follow and more difficult to enjoy. Tidhar obviously is a brilliant writer whose prose is careful and exciting with characters that leap off the page, but the change in mood makes the end result of Camera Obscura feel a bit more disjointed than it should.

Although it is easy to enjoy Camera Obscura without having read its predecessor, it is recommended that you read The Bookman first to get a sense of the world that the story takes place in before moving into this second installment. Both novels are completely unique experiences that are nothing like anything else in steampunk. Despite their flaws, they are essential reading in the steampunk subgenre, as being unique in the world of zeppelins and goggles is something that just doesn’t happen too often.

Feminism & the Portrayal of Women in Comics

Whenever discussion of comic books as a medium comes to anything beyond simple plot discussion and goes into the sociopolitical ramifications of super hero books in particular, the portrayal of women is often the most highly criticized point. No one doubts that comic books were ground breaking in discussion of topics of great social importance, such as when Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy was shown to have a drug addiction in Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow series in the late 1960s, or when the uncomfortable and enraging subject of domestic violence came to forefront in the pages of Avengers when Ant-Man struck his wife. Still, when looking at the pages of a modern comic book for the first time, it is hard not to notice the way most artists draw their heroines; they are almost always voluptuous, sometimes to the point of bordering on unrealistic. But there are a few points that are worth mentioning before we condemn superhero comics as sexist.

Generally speaking, when a woman is being objectified, she serves no purpose other than being the object of sexual attraction. Fiction as a whole is full of these kind of characters, across all of the visual mediums. In the case of comic books, however, the superhero women who are depicted as extraordinarily well-figured are generally also shown to be highly intelligent. While Catwoman may be dressed a bit provocatively, to say the least, she also shows time and time again that she is not only charismatic but capable of outsmarting just about anyone who comes in her path. The same can be said of Wonder Woman, who is not only an Amazonian goddess of exceptional beauty, but is also highly intelligent and among the most powerful characters in general in the DC Universe.

One of the main criticisms for portraying women with an exaggerated level of attractiveness as they are in comics is that it sends out the wrong message to young women who read the books. It is feared that by portraying these superheroes as being the standard of beauty they should aspire to that young girls will develop issues with their own body images, something that no self-respecting feminist would ever hope for. This may be a genuine concern, but it should be noted that the “absolute perfection” of these characters is not limited to the women alone; male characters throughout all major comic books are given physiques that would only be seen in competitors for Mr. Universe. Aside from bring possibly the smartest man alive, Batman is also built so ridiculously (once again dependent on the artist at the time) that it borders on the impossible. The same can be said of Superman, most incarnations of Green Lantern, Aquaman, Hawkman, Captain America, and more than half of the male X-Men. It is actually easier to list the men who aren’t designed that way. So although the unrealistic body image portrayal is definitely a part of the way these characters are drawn, it is not a gender issue.

Despite not thinking that superhero comics are inherently sexist, there are individual aspects that need addressing. In general, everyone in comics wears spandex. Man or women, teenage or senior citizen, the vast majority of those fictional men and women who take on secret identities are dressed in skin-tight clothes that leave nothing to the imagination, and that’s okay. For every Wonder Woman leotard there is a Green Lantern black and green skin-tight body suit. Despite that, there is one particular costume that we find hard to swallow, that of DC’s Power Girl. She may have personality, and she may be written okay from time to time, but Power Girl’s costume is one thing that is blatantly ridiculous, no matter how tongue-in-cheekedly it is explained away by the writers.

In the end, it is hard to see comic books being any more exploitative of women than they are of men, and certainly no more driven by sex appeal than any other medium. We would conclude that as long as the women are smart and powerful, and that neither of the major comic book companies introduces a new character called Hooker Woman or Brothel Girl, there really isn’t anything here to be angry about. There may be a topic of discussion for the sociology of depicting either gender as being physically ideal, but it is not a male vs. female issue so much as a cultural portrayal of people against the truth of existence. Comic books may sometimes have important things to say, but in the end it is escapism. Once the hole on Power Girl’s costume is filled, all will be well.

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009)

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse, 2009

Rating: B+

Steampunk for a younger audience seems like an obvious market. Younger readers tend to eat up fantasy and science fiction like no other crowd, and yet the number of young adult novels that are considered steampunk is surprisingly small. On steampunk forums around the internet, requests for recommendations of YA steampunk nearly universally revolve around the Leviathan series and a half-dozen other novels. So why aren’t more writers doing what Westerfeld has done with this series? Maybe it is more difficult to write engaging stories about zeppelins and clockwork than it seems.

Leviathan is essentially a re-telling of World War I in a world in which the British, French, Russians, and Serbs use biologically re-engineered animal creatures as weapons and vessels; the title refers to a large airship made out of a whale, which one cannot even begin to explain thoroughly enough to satisfy anyone but is at least a cool visual. On the other side, the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians use large steam-powered ships and battle machines, which is not nearly as fresh of an idea as genetically modified whale ships but is definitely equally cool.

The main characters fit generic archetypes, but are likable in spite of this. Alek is the fictional young son of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who finds himself without a family when they are assassinated. His family’s closest advisors squirrel him away in a walking robot tank and head away to try to find safety. On the other side, Deryn is a young woman who wants to badly to be a pilot that she decides to hide her gender and pretend to be a man so that she can enlist. Both of these stories sound like retreads but they are written in such a way that it feels fresh anyway. It doesn’t hurt that there is something wonderfully feministic and subversive for a woman to sneak her way into a “man’s world” and not only succeed but do better than her male counterparts.

Although written for younger audiences, Leviathan will have a general appeal to older fans of steampunk as well. Nothing is too dumbed down or simplified and it has enough plot to hold interest. It is definitely action oriented, with some kind of major fight or crash or explosion every couple chapters, which will certainly help younger readers keep interest in a book of this length. Although it is definitely the first book in a series and as such is not very friendly to stand alone reading, it is good enough that the idea of continuing on into the series is hardly an unwelcome one.

Wanting to Have Sex with Scarlett Johansson Does Not Make You A Bad Feminist

Scarlett Johansson, BAFTA Award winner and Golden Globe nominated actress best known for films like Ghost World, Lost in Translation, and more recently, Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, published an article Thursday on The Huffington Post to discuss all the tabloid magazines that have claimed that she used dangerous fad diets to shed the weight she needed to in order to fit into her Black Widow catsuit. In the excellent article, she discusses extensively how bad and dangerous it is for these rags to lie to their readerships and lead people to believe that there is some magical cure all out there that will fix their personally weight issues. It is an important article, as most of the fad diets described in these articles are simply dangerous, especially for the younger generation.

A small handful of people who read the article responded by condemning Johansson, essentially for being sexy. They strongly imply that by virtue of her appearing in a catsuit, she is somehow damaging women and encouraging objectification. It is implied by these commenters that two things are inherently anti-feminist: finding a woman’s body attractive, and a woman showing off a body that she is proud of. It is easy to sympathize with women who feel like they are thought only in terms of what they look like, but I think it does all men (and women) a disservice to imply that by being attracted to someone because of their looks, we are some how bad feminists and bad people.

Biologically speaking, just about every person is genetically wired to what to have sex with anyone who looks remotely healthy. Without this genetic need to procreate, we would go extinct. Although human intellect allows us to hold back our internal animalistic urges significantly, if we were ever able to completely control our sexual urges, the population would plummet rather significantly over the course of a few generations. Would you fault your pet cat for wanting to mate with a female companion that he just met? If you accept that humans are animals, then to call into question whether or not they should want to have sex is absurd.

Basically, if you want to have sex with Scarlett Johansson, it means that you have pulse, not that you are anti-woman. If you, like me, read this article and suddenly found yourself even more attracted to her because not only is she absolutely gorgeous, but she is also highly intelligent and snarky as hell, then it proves that you are more than simply objectifying her. If she was just an object, would it matter how smart she was? It boils down to this: objectifying women (or men) in terms of your sexual desire is perfectly normal; humans are perfectly capable of balancing this with their intellectual desires. If you think that is okay for women to be paid less for the same work, or that they shouldn’t be able to vote, or that they shouldn’t have control of their own bodies, or if you simply think that you are smarter than a woman because of your gender, THAT makes you a bad feminist. Having sexual desire for them does not.