Last week my husband started making suggestions for what I should write about in my next column. “These are your ideas,” I said, “You should write them!” So, he did. He also insisted that if I get to use a pseudonym, he did too, stating that he wanted to be called “The Albatross”. He even did the podcast this week in his “Batman” voice, which is a darn good imitation of Kevin Conroy. I hope you’ll enjoy this guest column by The Albatross, as read by Batman. Please let him know what you think below!
Click here to listen to an audio version of this post.
Men are strong. Women are sexy. That’s the subtext one gleans from comics. This isn’t a new phenomenon: for several decades now, certainly since the 70s, at least, there has been a trend in superhero depictions to hypermuscularize the men and hypersexualize the women. My sainted wife bought me the “40 years of Marvel” CDs for the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and Spiderman, and it was surprising to note just how different things were in the 1960s. Back then, the outfits often weren’t skintight, and even when they were, it was more for practicality than hotness. The men were not particularly buff, either.
But by the Bronze Age, the muscles began to grow, and the busts, too. Womens’ outfits became more impractical. These days, the superheroines often might well be refugees from skin mags with a logo airbrushed on their negligee. Their poses often suggest sexual availability over power. I note the evolution of She-Hulk from her initial debut in 1981 to her most recent depictions. Her torn clothes were always a bit sexier than the Hulk’s shredded red pants, but the emphasis was still on strength and savage power. Take a gander at the new She-Hulk. It’s a completely different message.
And then men? They’ve become Johnny Bravo! I understand it is often difficult for women to identify with superheroines because of their reduction to sex objects; I find it hard to identify with the superheroes. I’m in reasonably good shape, but even in my weightlifting prime, I did not approach the muscles-on-muscles extremes that are de riguer these days–nor would I want to. I always identified with the more svelte superheroes; the Nightcrawlers and Nightwings.
Of course, it’s easy to bitch. Women (and some men) complain about the oversexualization of women, often attendant with pointed commentary like this. Men (not women, generally) respond that the men are oversexualized too. They’re not–those big muscles are rarely a turn-on for women, any more than they are for men. But there is a point to be made there. Both heroes and heroines have become *caricaturized.* Now, superhero comics are a fantasy, and in a fantasy made by men for men, one would expect to find stronger-than-life men surrounded by hot, sexually-available women. But this is a status quo with which people are becoming increasingly disenchanted. It is a genre that has become a parody of itself.
So how do we fix this? It’s not easy to create a completely new aesthetic from scratch, especially when the current artists are inculcated in a style that has been entrenched for decades. Luckily, it is not too hard to find imagery from which to draw inspiration. A quick google search on “superheroine costumes” brings up a variety of images.
The adult costumes are invariably (I mean *every one*) designed to titillate. “Look at my boobs! Look at the sexy cant of my hips!” the models convey. But then look at the costumes for the kids.
The skirts get longer, the sexy poses are gone. “I’m strong! I’m having fun!” their smiles seem to say. I don’t think all girls need to grow up to be sex kittens. I would like it if superheroine grown-ups were drawn with more of this aesthetic of innocent power.
Do another google search, this time on figure skater costumes. Note how the costumes bear a striking similarity to superhero costumes–they are generally skintight and colorful, often flamboyant. This is not a coincidence. Both superhero and skater costumes are designed to be visually interesting. Yet almost universally, the female skating costumes are *not* sexually provocative. They convey grace and power and beauty, but not “do me.”
Even more surprising are some of the the men’s outfits. Sure, many of them are plain practical, but check these out.
Look at those plunging necklines, those ass-enhancing tights, that teased hair. Good golly, it’s almost as if the men have been sexualized! It’s like a mirror-universe version of the situation in comic books. And perhaps it’s not a surprise that figure skating tends to be more popular with women than men. If comic books are to be written to appeal to both genders, one could do a lot worse than to borrow a few costumes from the ice rink.
Bottom line: Sometimes I want my women to be stro
ng and my men to be sexy. Sometimes I want it the other way around, or maybe both to be neither. We don’t have to be stuck forever in the current comic paradigm. I think we can still preserve the fantasy and escapism that makes superhero comics so much fun while at the same time broadening their appeal and approachability. Besides, I understand that comic book publishers aren’t doing so hot these days. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try something new.