Yesterday, I signed up for the online course “Gender Through Comic Books,” a massive open online course (or MOOC) offered by Ball State University. The aim of the course is to explore questions of gender roles and stereotypes in comic books, a topic that has garnered a lot of attention recently. You may have seen images from The Hawkeye Initiative, a website filled with fan-created images of the Avengers hero Hawkeye in the revealing outfits and contorted poses of female characters.
Women in comic books, particularly in cover images, are almost always shown with painful-looking spinal twists that allow them to display both tits and ass in the same pose. Their costumes are skimpy (and hardly battle-safe), and their measurements all seem to be an impossible 34-22-36. In short, they are a geek’s wet dream–sexy, dangerous, and shrinkwrapped in latex for that mint-in-the-box freshness.
The Hawkeye parody trend was kicked off by artist Kevin Bolk, who posted this picture on his tumblr last year:
Bolk’s drawing is a parody of a promo image for the film The Avengers, written and directed by beloved creator of supposedly strong female characters, Joss Whedon (more on that in a moment.) Here’s the original image, for comparison:
While I understand and appreciate Bolk’s intention, which is to lampoon the depiction of female superheroes, I don’t think the argument is as simple as it’s often made out to be. I wouldn’t argue that women are objectified in comics, action films, fantasy and sci-fi book covers, and video games; however, I think that the male characters are also objectified, albeit in a different way. While women are shown as hyper-sexualized sexy crime fighters/cat burglars/war maidens/assassins/detectives/etc, men in these images are usually shown with bulging muscles (and codpieces). They’re lantern-jawed, steel-eyed stoic badasses or dapper, sarcastic playboy billionaires. The heroes are fantasies, too. Of course, men aren’t historically oppressed group who have had to fight to be taken seriously, so the idea that they’re also objectified in the media is kind of a tough sell.
In January of last year, fantasy author Jim Hines started taking pictures of himself imitating the female characters on book covers. A pasty white dude with fake tits twerking his pasty white booty brings in a lot of blog traffic (according to this BBC article, the posts are the most popular on his website), but I wonder how effective the images actually are at effecting change. They’re funny, sure, but like the Hawkeye Initiative, they fail to acknowledge the complexity of the issue. A stereotypical straight male–the assumed consumer of these images–might find a hot chick with a claymore attractive, but he prefers to see himself as the hunky hero.
The opposite is also true: as an avid consumer of urban fantasy paperbacks, I’m well aware that the heroines are simply another kind of fantasy wish-fulfillment. The difference is that the characters are created to appeal to straight white female readers. The heroines sexy and badass, but they’re also vulnerable and have complex emotional lives. Also they may be dating a werewolf. I don’t know if most of them qualify as Strong Female Characters. They’re tough, but sometimes they cry. They fight hard, solve mysteries, and bang a variety of attractive men (and the occasional woman). Some of them are mothers–both Toby Daye (from Seanan McGuire’s excellent series) and Charlie Madigan (from author Kelly Gay) have daughters, and Kate Daniels (from husband-wife team Ilona Andrews) adopts a spunky orphan girl.
The mother lioness figure was probably best portrayed in two films from the late 80s/early 90s: Ellen Ripley from Aliens and Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. Both transform, between their first films and the sequels, into warriors for the sake of protecting their children. Neither Linda Hamilton nor Sigourney Weaver are pretty in a mainstream way, but they are strong and beautiful. And is there anything more badass than when Ripley takes on the Alien queen?
It’s worth mentioning that both Ripley and Starbuck from Battlestar Gallactica were originally written as male characters. It’s also noteworthy how many of these strong, intelligent women strip down into a bra and panties under the flimsiest of pretexts. In the pilot episodes of both The X-Files and it’s spiritual successor, Fringe, the female leads end up in their underwear. Scully, afraid that mosquito bites on her lower back are the signs of an alien abduction, runs to Mulder’s room and, after a moment’s hesitation, slips off her robe so he can examine them. Fifteen years later, and Fringe‘s Olivia Dunham strips and climbs into a tank of water to search her dying lover’s subconscious for a clue to save his life. (Sorry, Fringe is one of those shows that’s very hard to summarize.)
If you ask folks my age to name a kickass heroine, most of them will probably mention Buffy. Joss Whedon has been long been heralded as the one guy in all of Hollywood who writes strong female characters. It pains me to say this…but I don’t know if that’s really true. I love Buffy (and Willow, Tara, Anya, Joyce, Zoe, and Kaylee), but she is problematic. The Mary Sue has an excellent breakdown of this issue here, but this quote points out the flawed premise of Buffy:
Buffy, for all her killing vamps and breaking stuff, is rather a weak character. Let’s consider that she, as a Slayer, descends from a line that was literally created by men – a formation that stems directly from the male anxiety over an inability to create life the way that women do. And inherently problematic is the idea of the Watcher, a predominantly male presence that is the male gaze made manifest – a source of constant looking that is an explicit form of control.
What Joss Whedon is really good at is creating female characters who appeal to both male and female viewers. (Except for Dollhouse; nobody liked that.) The women who populate his universe are smart, sassy, deadly, and conventionally attractive. In short: Men want to be with them, and women want to be them. While his portrayal of women is world’s better than the pseudo-feminist, exploitative films in the Chicks with Guns genre (see: Suckerpunch, the Underworld franchise, any action film starring Angelina Jolie), it’s still problematic. In particular, he has a distressing tendency to punish female characters for acting on their sexual impulses (see: all of Buffy’s intimate relationships).
The main culprit in the stereotypical depictions of both men and women in geeky media seems to be the assumption of a straight white male gaze. The creators of these images–the vast majority of whom are, coincidentally men–also assume that these straight white males want to see muscle-bound men and half-naked women with weapons, and since, you know, the books and movies and games keep selling, I guess they’re right. After all, as this post from Stuff Geeks Love points out, nobody goes to a Star Wars convention dressed as Leia in her Hoth snowsuit.
Perhaps if consumers were offered a greater variety of strong female characters (or vulnerable male characters), we could use the power of our wallets to effect change. I’m afraid that any other strategy–including parody or, uh, blog posts–won’t work. More likely than not, things won’t ever change. Even a show like Doctor Who, which has quite a diverse cast and unconventionally attractive leads, still features a white guy hero and (usually) his pretty female companion.