This was written a while back as a response to a front-page link about The Hawkeye Initiative. It amazed me how quickly I was able to fill out my bingo card while reading the Patriarchy Apologist commentary attached to that link.
I decided at the time, since I wasn't active in the site, that it would seem silly to swoop in just to teach a lesson on the evils of the phallocracy. However, when I started snooping around the site again yesterday, I noticed this board. It came as quite a shock, I've been gaming with an international group of college-educated, progressive men and women, and I had forgotten just how much anti-female sentiment exists in other areas of nerd culture. Hopefully this short piece, coupled with the links above, will start at least a few people on the journey toward understanding.
I will attempt to outline why the clichés used in the aforementioned article are, in fact, clichés, and why students of critical theory don’t see them as valid arguments. Right off the bat the author hits us with the apologist mantra- it’s ok because these artists and editors are not being deliberately sexist. Replace sexism with another ism, like racism, and see if that sentence would still be passable. Nobody defends Song of the South for being unintentionally racist, because at the end of the day Uncle Remus is still a horrifying caricature of a Walt Disney’s idealized vision of a poor-but-happy, uneducated Uncle Tom. Just like with racism, unintentional sexism is actually the worst kind, because it presumes its own innocence. Yes, I’m sure Joe Quesada doesn’t sit down to an editorial meeting and say “How can we rile up the skirts today, boys?” but that’s not even close to the point, anyway. That’s a straw-man argument, constructed by defenders of the status quo, which, in superhero comics, is institutionalized sexism.
The other argument made at the beginning of the piece is that men are drawn unrealistically in comics, too. Again, this is an argument that, on a superficial level, seems to cover the gaps in criticism, until you look at things like The Hawkeye Initiative. Men in comics are not sexualized, rather they are idealized. There is a dramatic difference- men are drawn in action poses that highlight energy, motion, and power. Women, by contrast, are drawn in poses that highlight improbable wardrobe and impossible anatomy. Even when Psylocke is jumping out of an exploding building, she’s inexplicably doing it ass-first, with her back arched just-so, all while wearing less between her waist and knees than she is between her wrists and elbows. Oh, and she had the decency to put on lipstick and paint her nails before the battle. How many women serve in the US Military? How many of them wear swimwear into combat?
The author also suggests that the exposed curves of comic book heroines are both “natural” and “idealized” which, having watched both the Miss America pageant and the Olympics, I can confidently refute. Catwoman’s breasts are easily two cup sizes too large for the American cultural standard of healthy beauty, three for a woman who regularly engages intense physical exercise. Find me one Olympic gymnast with Catwoman’s acrobatic prowess, whose breasts are even half that size. Now look at Wonder Woman or She Hulk or Abby Chase or Power Girl or the Scarlet Witch. Look at Black Canary or Miss Marvel, at Sue Storm or Sarah Pezzini or Supergirl. These women certainly are not treated like goddesses; they are treated like Bikini Bimbos. They’re all born from the Bettie Page mold, and the storytelling reflects that.
The piece diverts a little bit, suggesting that there is a difference between sexy and sexist. This is the kind of distinction a person would only make if he failed to understand that calling something sexy is inherently sexist. The author is operating on the assumption that because he considers comic book pin-up poses to be “sexy” there are automatically not sexist. This is a false binary, and only reinforces the double-standard, that sexism is considered culturally acceptable because the dominant group in the patriarchy- men- derive visual pleasure from its existence. In superhero comics, men are shown working, fighting, drinking, or flying. Women are shown in various states of undress and/or submission, with vapid or lascivious facial expressions, with the express intention of giving visual pleasure to a male audience.
In visual art, the human form can be depicted in a variety of ways. As with everything, context is king. Sure, the Venus De Milo is topless, but that argument fails to hold water if used in support of highly-sexualized comic “cheesecake” because the sculpture is anatomically accurate, standing in a contemplative contrapposto, and appropriately dressed for the culture and situation. This argument extends to cosplayers, who dress up hoping to emulate the heroic qualities of comic book heroines and end up getting groped and ogled, because mainstream superhero comics AS A MEDIUM has failed to teach young men that a woman’s value is in no way connected to her appearance.
I never finished this rant, obviously, but hopefully it can spark a conversation!