Realism versus Idealism: Sources find different ways to female empowerment in comic book culture

Poster for Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Poster for Captain America: The Winter Soldier

“It is ridiculous how she looks on the poster,” says Lauren Berkley, laughing. Berkley, a writer at GeeksareSexy.net, is referring to an advertisement for the 2014 movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier. On it, actress Scarlett Johansson falls short of reality, according to Berkley.

“Scarlett Johansson is a curvy girl, but they made her even thinner on the poster,” said Berkley. “She’s walking with her hip all the way out to one side, but then her other foot is crossed in front, almost like she’s on a catwalk. No one walks like that.”

Though she finds it funny, Berkley believes this depiction has wider implications: she attributes its lack of reality to the objectification of women by male poster designers.

“(It) was still old white dudes who were profiting on the female form and who created it,” said Berkley.

In mainstream comic books, female and male characters are often presented in a sexual manner: both are impossibly buff and/or voluptuous, and sometimes dressed in little clothing. While men are often shown in powerful positions, women are posed seductively. Some groups say these depictions of men and women play to a male power fantasy. Others suggest that both genders are equally sexualized, and still others don’t see any problems.

Aspiring comic book artist Grace Morris is of the first persuasion. She describes typical comic book portrayals of women, in which characters are drawn wearing little clothing and posed in seductiveways, as “eye candy.” Morris believes these depictions reflect and support societal beliefs that are detrimental to women.

“We are rehashing the same ideas (about women’s bodies) that people have had about women for generations,” said Morris. “We’re just doing it in a new way. When every woman – even the tough, strong, powerful – has to also be a porn star? That’s a problem.”

In contrast, Graig Weich, a comic book artist and founder of BeyondComics.TV, believes these depictions signify hero status and therefore equality with male characters.

“I think that a lot of people who believe (women are depicted unequally) aren’t looking at the way guys are positioned,” said Weich.

He believes that showing female heroes in certain poses and little clothing instead of covered up, like civilian characters, equates the power of these women with that of their male counterparts.

“When you see Wonder Woman, this six foot-tall Amazon woman, she’s very sexy and she dresses the same way a guy could,” said Weich. “Superman, he’s pretty much a naked strong guy in underwear and a cape. He’s not covering up and neither is she because they’re on equal status and they both have respect for each other. They both show their ‘assets.’”

Weich believes it’s incorrect to focus on female characters’ sexualization only.

“It wasn’t like we had these regular, average-looking guys and then over-sexed women: it was very clearly an equal dynamic of having extremely strong, powerful, physically fit male characters (and) doing exactly the same thing with female heroes as well,” said Weich. “There’s no discrimination between one or the other.”

Weich says that character poses are meant to be dynamic and cool as opposed to sexy. Most poses, he says, are taken from Olympics and acrobatic feats rather than inspired by sex appeal.

Graig Weich's character Tricity of Gekido #1.

Graig Weich’s character Tricity of Gekido #1.

Though athletes may inspire character poses, Morris believes that the female characters ostensibly performing these feats are depicted unrealistically. Referencing a Comics Alliance blog post in which Olympians’ bodies are compared to those of superheroes, Morris points out that while men are drawn as strong, women are idealized to be sexy. She believes that this trait correlates with weakness in the visual metaphor, leading to the implication that female characters are weak.

Morris traces comic book gender differences to the assumption that predominantly males read comics and that characters are therefore produced for the male gaze. In fact, Morris believes that the differences cater to a male power fantasy.

“When you have a female character who is dressed in the way she is dressed, and posed inhumanly so as to show off all her best lady bits, that’s very clearly being done for the purpose of the male gaze,” said Morris. “That’s not liberated. That’s a comic book titty show.”

Commentator Arthur Chu agrees with Morris, tying this depiction to what he calls an overall media trend of female sexualization. While the existence of sex drives shouldn’t be denied, says Chu, sexualization is negative for women and men in that it implies women are only worth looking at if they are beautiful, and that the sexual preferences of a straight male viewer are the only ones that need to be considered.

“Whenever we make jokes about how guys can’t stop thinking about sex, whenever we have to throw sexy women into something to make it entertaining… it’s a troubling kind of story that we’re telling (and) a set of expectations that we’re building up,” said Chu.

Marisa Stotter, a producer at Respect Films, expands on this line of thought. She believes that this narrative directly influences the amount of respect men have for women’s bodies. She sees typical depictions as representative of a male power fantasy, in which men are idealized to be strong while women are sexy.

“You have a large chunk of (the comics medium) that is devoted to male power fantasies and making male readers feel like they’re entitled to have power over women and enjoy a certain position in our society,” said Stotter. “That can be very detrimental to the way men view the world, and the way they see women, and therefore their respect for women’s bodies.”

In terms of character, Stotter says that women are often relegated to playing certain roles in comics.

“(Women are) used as devices for the generally male protagonist in furthering his journey, rather than being afforded their own humanity and being made into fully fleshed-out human characters,” said Stotter.

Referencing Women in Refrigerators, a project detailing violence against women in comics, Stotter says that casual comic book violence against women can have harmful effects on readers’ psyches.

“(In comics,) a lot of books with male writers and artists think, ‘Oh, we’ll just throw a rape scene in here to make it more interesting and to give the male hero motivation, without really considering the effects of those images and storylines on both male and female readers,” said Stotter. “The fact that rape is a commonplace tool sends a dangerous message to women and men: to women, that rape is something that is inevitable and something that you have to worry about in your daily life, and to men that rape is a thing that happens, that other men do, and therefore it’s permissible.”

Stotter believes that this treatment alienates women and sometimes can trigger painful emotions.

“As a society we’ve become desensitized to a lot of forms of violence, but the unique (sexual) violence perpetrated against women is still very raw,” said Stotter. “Seeing images of this pervasive violence for no good reason other than to be edgy, or pretty, or what have you, that can be really difficult to swallow.”

Weich, on the other hand, who sees comics as an avenue to women’s empowerment, uses violence to build up his female character Tricity, of the book Gekido #1. Rather than using abuse as a plot point to further a male character’s trajectory, though, he says its purpose is to build up Tricity as a strong character. Weich says that Tricity, originally a civilian, builds up physical defenses in response to severe abuse. She uses these defenses to overpower her captors and empower herself. By making empowerment a theme among his female characters, Weich hopes to provide role models for young girls in his audience.

Erica Friedman, a comics and anime blogger at Okazu, finds issues in themainstream idea of a ‘strong woman.’ Often, she says, women are shown as being alone.

“A ‘strong woman’ is a woman who has everything taken from her,” said Friedman. “Her family is killed, her husband is killed or disappeared, her child is kidnapped, whatever. She has nothing to lose.”

Friedman believes this depiction is harmful because it shows strong women as isolated from society and especially from the company of other women. While male characters have friends, peers and bosses, says Friedman, ‘strong’ women often have nobody.

Despite problems, all of these sources ultimately see a change for the better in terms of sexism in comics.

“There are some really strong women in comics,” said Morris. “And there are others that are really getting a chance right now. Batgirl and Supergirl — despite the fact that they started out as mere female derivatives of larger male counterparts, I believe both of them have gone on to become characters in their own right, and really have important stories to tell.”

Chu believes that the media has generally grown less sexist than it was a few generations ago.

The past is not the idyllic place that people think that it was,” said Chu. “(The media) didn’t show rape, but there was a lot of rape culture… of women as property, of men exerting their authority and power, and all that just being normal.”

Weich is trying to change ideas about female and male characters in his comic’s depictions of women.

“I let the audienceknow not to underestimate females, and not to think that the male audience or male heroes are the only people who can save the day,” said Weich. “It’s also women, and that’s why I have these female heroes in my books.”

Morris also believes that comic books can have a large role in moving toward gender equality. She has seen what she calls positive change among smaller comics companies and web comics, but sees DC and Marvel as not having made substantial changes. She says that these manufacturers must first change their ideas about their perceived audience in order to become a force for women’s empowerment.

“I obviously love my DC and Marvel comics, and I want them to get better, and I want to have good, strong female characters,” said Morris. “If your company still believes that the people reading comics are children and adult man children in their parents’ basements, they’re not necessary interested in publishing something with strong female characters and a really powerful narrative about feminism in America. They’re going to choose to publish the one with the really sexy girls in it. That’s business. It’s poor business because you don’t understand your reading base, but it is business.”

If comic book fans want change in the stories they consume, they must make the comic book industry listen.

What do you think of comic book depictions? What can the comic book industry do to attract more women?

Next Week: Issues in attracting a wider female audience to the mainstream comic book industry

Other articles in this series:

“It’s About Time Wonderwoman Was Given Her Due”: How the mainstream comics industry can attract more women and keep them interested

It’s Complicated: Women’s vexed relationships with “Nerd,” “Geek” and Comic Book Cultures

Support, Oppression and Potential Salvation: The role of bullying in “Nerd,” “Geek” and Comic Book Cultures

Pin-ups or Powerhouses? Examining Gender Issues in “Nerd,” “Geek” and Comics Cultures

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