Where's the...Beef? : The Myth of Male Objectification in Superhero Comics

A column article, The Squeaky Wheel by: Kyrax2

You can listen to the audio version of this post below:

It never fails. Bring up the way women are objectified and hypersexualized in mainstream superhero comics, and I guarantee that you will get more than one response saying, "Men are objectified in comics, too! Look at those big, bulging muscles and the focus on Superman's chest!"

I always find this kind of funny because I've never found Superman particularly sexually appealing. In fact, my sexual tastes run in a direction nearly opposite from mainstream comic books. I'm not saying I don't like strong men, but generally I prefer men with thin, wiry bodies. Give me a gymnast, a ballet dancer, or an acrobat over a muscleman any day.

I know for a fact I'm not alone in this. How do I know? Well, consider the growing popularity of the Japanese aesthetic among women in the United States.

Japan produces plenty of porn that's aimed at men. It also produces plenty of porn, stories, and comics specifically aimed at women. The interesting thing about all this porn and all these fantasy stories targeting women is that there are very, very few bulky, musclebound men to be found between their pages. The men tend to be either willowy and ethereally beautiful, or tall and strong without necessarily bulging with muscles.

For example, consider this image:

Eight characters from a popular 'girls love' game.

Yes, all of those characters are male. That's from Harukanaru Toki no Naka de ("Within the Expanse of a Distant Time"), which is one of many Japanese "dating simulation" games aimed at young women (a couple others being the popular Angelique series and its many sequels and Tokimeki Memorial: Girls Side 1, 2 and 3). These particular games aren't pornographic, but they are all about fantasy fulfillment. Generally the player is trying to "win the love" of their favorite character. Notice how even the characters who are supposed to fit the "athletic" or "tough" archetypes (the redheads in this case) don't have much in the way of muscles?

This aesthetic is the norm in Japan, and it sells very well amongst women there. It's also selling increasingly well amongst women in the United States.

The "pretty" aesthetic for men doesn't just exist in Japan. Take a look at the wild popularity of Legolas as played by Orlando Bloom or the insanely popular Edward from the Twilight movies. And while Edward's rival, the stocky Jacob, is certainly more muscular, he's no Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rambo. He's also not the one that gets the girl. (At least, I don't think he is. I never read past the first book, myself.)

Jacob and Edward from "Twilight: Eclipse"

Yes, women objectify men on occasion. Sometimes the objectification may lean more toward the "pretty" than the "bulky", but there's no doubt in my mind that women like to look at images of men and think about them in romantic and/or sexual terms. Arguing that men are "objectified" in mainstream superhero comics, however, is just silly. Objectified for who?  Not for me. Not even for gay men, according to this article. At best, one might argue that male superheroes are drawn to be what straight men think women want to see. More realistically, male superheroes are drawn to be what straight men want to be, showing them as powerful and competent without making them sexually provocative, since a display of sexual availability might make the "target market" of those comics uncomfortable.

Clooan's Conan.On the other hand, consider Dark Horse's newest version of "Conan: The Barbarian", drawn by Becky Cloonan.  Cloonan's been criticized for making Conan less hyper-masculine than in some portrayals.  In an interview with ComicsBulletin she commented: "In my defense, here's a barbarian that has a new woman hugging his leg in every city, obviously he wouldn't get all these chicks looking like the Hulk with a Bettie Paige haircut. This is a guy who's got charisma and charm, women love him, this is a guy people want to be around. I don't think a handsome Conan is out of the realm of possibility, and hardly a destruction of the character."  It's significant that Cloonan, a female artist, equates a younger, less hyper-masculine and hyper-muscled version of Conan with a "handsome" and "likeable" Conan.  It's also interesting that this version of Conan, who is more sexually provocative and potentially more appealing to women, has raised such an outcry among male fans. 

I'm not saying that all American comics should buy into the Japanese aesthetic. I'd find a manga-fied Batman rather disconcerting, too. However, don't tell me that male superheroes in American comics are designed to sexually appeal to me. They're not and, with very few exceptions, they don't. Is it so hard to believe that different things might appeal to men and women?

I'm not going to pretend that I speak for all women. I'm sure there are plenty of women that find huge, musclebound men attractive, just like plenty of men prefer women with smaller breasts. But saying that men are objectified in mainstream superhero comics as though these women are somehow the target audience for said comics is disingenuous at best. You really can't tell me that comics don't cater to women and shouldn't have to, then turn around and tell me that they do cater to women, because look at all the muscles!


The Final Squeak

If you're skeptical that women don't necessarily find muscled hulks attractive, check out this video by Nostalgia Chick, where she does an informal survey of her female friends to determine the top ten "hottest" animated guys. You may be surprised by the results. Sure, there are some musclebound men on the list (including Batman of Batman the Animated series). And yes, most of the characters are in more or less decent shape. But over half of them, including the top two, are hardly bulging He-Men.


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