thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Catwoman has Boneitis: Comics, Bodies, and Form

In body politics, gender on July 17, 2012 at 8:49 am

brian psi

Last year, DC Comics relaunched its entire line of superheroes in an event they titled The New 52. Aimed at luring new readers, the initiative sought to wipe away decades of confusing and conflicting continuity and to present the most authentic, essential versions of their popular characters (including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and others). Costumes were redesigned, creative teams shifted, and backstories simplified or altered. 52 was by most accounts a commercial and artistic success. But despite the lip service that DC editorial has paid to bringing in new creators and readers, especially more women, they somehow still allowed a lot of crap to happen.

I do not want to rehash Red Hood and the Outlaws, Wonder Woman, or Catwoman here; even though last month’s Catwoman #0 is obviously the principle motivator of this post. Others have already written on these, and I encourage anyone interested enough to have gotten thus far to click on the links embedded in the titles above for some excellent commentary on the issues with those specific works.

Catwoman #0, cover by Guillem March

Instead, I want to tackle a very specific argument that some creators and fans have raised in defense of the sexualization of women within the pages and on the covers of these comics. Let’s call it the ‘other mediums do it too!’ defense (AKA the ‘books/films/games/etc., are just as bad!’ defense). Put aside the fact that this defense, more of an excuse, is incredibly juvenile: if a novel jumped off a bridge, would you? It also conveniently elides the greatest formal difference between comics and other media: comic book characters are drawn, inked, and colored—wholly produced—by people. This seems rather obvious, I know. But it has enormous ramifications for the ways that the human form is represented, and how that representation is understood, consumed, and/or identified with by the comic’s audience. So, when I argue that representations of women in comics generally are worse than those in other media, it is not because I am a snob or self-hating comics fan (well, maybe sometimes), nor is it because there are some objective criteria by which we can measure this phenomenon. Nor do I believe that comics artists and writers and editorial boards are evil or are actively trying to ‘keep women down’ somehow–although at times (see examples above) one has to wonder. Rather, it is because in comics, unlike in prose or film, the creator or creative team exercises absolute control over the bodies it aims to represent.

In a novel, the author has control over what characters do and what they say, but very little effective control over what a character looks like. This is because even when a physical description is provided, visualization of the character is still left to the reader. This limitation of form actually gives enormous power to readers to shape their own version/vision of each character, creating one which is as relatable or realistic or fantastical as their imagination and desires dictate. Even when a specific characterization is insisted upon by an author (for example, by repeated callbacks to it) the totality of the visual representation is exceedingly unstable, because it must be recreated within readers’ heads whenever the character ‘appears’ on the page, and is subject to our own memories and wishes and moods. They draw quite heavily on our own conscious and unconscious beliefs and fears: note the anger of some Hunger Games fans when the film (correctly) portrayed Rue as black, contrary to some fans’ visualization of her. Examples like this one make it clear that the reader exercises more control over bodies in prose works than authors do, because the action of the novel transpires not on the page, but in our heads.

In film, even with access to techniques including adjustable lighting, camera perspective and angle, costuming, makeup, etc., the filmmaker is still limited to filming actual bodies. While an actual body can be uncommon or unlikely, surgically modified or enhanced, we can only call it ‘unrealistic’ if we mean that it is not achievable by many or most. So when Michael Bay (to cite a nonrandom example) takes a body which possesses many or most of our angst-producing cultural ideals of beauty, and subjects that body to a series of slow motion, low-angle crotch shots, there are still some practical limits on how much sexualization is achieved (even when it is the filmmaker’s goal), limits enforced by the shape and size of a real body belonging to a real person.

Not in comics. It is the most tightly controlled of visual mediums, where everything placed onto paper is a choice. The visual subject takes on an authenticating significance far beyond even film, in which at some point, one must obtain actual objects or people to point a camera at: the filmed chair that a Bond supervillian sits upon is not a supervillain’s chair, but an object belonging to the props department. Megan Fox is always Megan Fox, surviving even Michael Bay’s attempt to make us believe she is “Mikaela Banes.” In comics, however, a character like Starfire can be re-presented to the audience as a joyless, mindless sex robot, not only in her actions and her speech (the purview of the writer), but in even more striking and subtle ways by how she is drawn, how she is posed, and every nuance of her expression. This is the character, those are her meanings, and there is no ‘real’ to push back against the representation, and very little imaginative space ceded to the audience to refigure her. Catwoman can be reduced to nothing but a head, breasts, and ass—literally sexualized because secondary sexual characteristics make up the greater portion of her entire body:

Parody of Catwoman #0 cover, by Josh Rodgers of Mushface Comics

The representations of characters in comics face very few technical limits: the difficulty in translating a supposedly three dimensional form into two dimensional space still exists, of course, but former constraints such as shoddy newsprint, poor publishing tools, and limited color choices are long gone. The creator(s) encounter no physical limits, either in terms of what is actually possible for human physiology, or even what is permissible by the laws of physics. This, of course, is one of the great benefits of comics as a form, and explains why the superhero was born within their pages, and still most comfortably (if not profitably) resides there. But it is also why representations of people—of gender certainly but also of race, dis/ability, and more—are so often more problematic in comics than in any other narrative form.

The best comics are amazing and super and wonder-ful because they grant their creators (like the heroes that fill their pages) nearly unlimited power—power to shape their floppy or hardbound worlds and to populate them. But with this power, as Mr Lee once said, also comes great responsibility. Those who love comics—fans and writers and artists and editors—should remember this.

(Many thanks to the comics reading group at the University of Oregon for their help in refining my thinking on this subject)

Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis.

  1. I agree with your demarcations between comics and other mediums such as prose and film and what this means for gender representation. These seem spot-on. It is interesting how the visuality of comics is often ignored when these kinds of issues are brought up. However, there seems to be a certain amount of fatalism here that gives me pause. I am naturally incredulous when I read things like “the creator or creative team exercises absolute control over the bodies it aims to represent.” As you make clear, the freedom by which comics writers and artists present their characters is unparalleled, but complete control? It seems to me that they are not the only ones involved in the meaning making of their images. Like most everything else in life, these images do not exist in isolation, and can have profound and unintended effects determined by interpretation. I can imagine a scenario where you and I both read the same comic and come away with different interpretations of what the physical features of the different characters mean (but, perhaps not with the Catwoman example you provide).

    To clarify, this response has less to with whether or not the representation of women in these comics is justified (I don’t think they are), and more about the theory of representation you discuss.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jacob. Definitely, I may have overstated the case occasionally, I’m wincing a little at the point where I wrote “This is the character, those are her meanings,” and if I had to do it over again, I probably would choose different words…!

      Certainly, different audiences can interpret an image in any way they choose, and I’m not discounting instances of bricolage or even reappropriation of some of these images (examples like Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider games, or Power Girl from DC comics are abundant enough). So, while the power to re/present in comics is, I think, as ‘absolute’ as any narrative form that I can imagine, I don’t think that this precludes the ability for audiences to reinterpret or resist (Rodgers’ parody image is another form of this resistance, as are Kate Beaton’s AMAZING pictures).

      But the space left for them to do so is, I think, somewhat smaller than in other forms. I didn’t mean that to be fatalistic per se, I try to argue that the open-endedness of comics, the ability to transcend reality as it is, and bodies as they are, is also one of its great strengths as a form!

      The problem isn’t with comics as a form, it’s with (some of) the people making them.

  2. Brian, I agree with you for the general point of your argument about media and control (though the above post by jacob is a good point I didn’t think much about), and I’m not really up on New 52 (after the puzzling/awful Final Crisis storyline, I about had it with DC, but that’s another debate). However, I do have to nitpick at the wording of this one central claim that people could take too far beyond the primary argument about visualization:

    “representations of women in comics generally are worse than those in other media.”

    I know you’re dealing with audience impressions of bodies/appearance here, but a lot hinges on the words “worse” and “women” and “representations,” and claims like this are easy to remove from context and apply generally. Women in superhero comics are more sexualized in appearance than in other media, yes, but does this necessarily make the broader portrayal “worse” overall? That’s kind of subjective. More sexualized or unrealistically idealized or objectified for the audience’s titilation, then sure, but “worse” leaves a lot of room for debate.

    Because the bulk of these women are superheroes (or supervillains) and are often primary characters, powerful, intelligent, independent, and sometimes dynamic alongside their sexualization, they could certainly be considered a “better” (though still obviously troublesome) overall representation than, say, women in the bulk of action films, who are usually secondary characters, one-dimensional, weak, and reliant on male salvation, whether overtly visually sexualized or not. The same would be true for the bulk of fantasy literature/film and a lot of science fiction, which tend to have similar target audiences attributed to them (accurately or not) as superhero comics.

    Also, how’d you write this without mentioning Power Girl even once? ;p

    • Well, I just mentioned her in the comments. 🙂 The question isn’t, to me, whether ‘sexualization’ is bad. It is. The problem is that one person’s sexy (great!) is another person’s sexualized (awful, because it means the character is being *reduced* to their sexuality/sexual characteristics). Trying to distinguish between the two requires (as Jacob rightly points out) some amount of interpretation. For an insightful look into how this can be done (at least in a few notable recent cases), I recommend reading Laura Hudson’s piece at Comics Alliance (the Red Hood and the Outlaws link above).

      In any case, the toolset which is comics are most often deployed by men, and consumed by men, men whose attention to/interest in the difference(s) between sexy and sexualized might be somewhat suspect, influenced as they are by their personal appetites and predilections, conditioned gaze, etc.

      Thanks for the read and reply!

  3. Your post reminded me of a recent piece Greg Rucka wrote about his tendency to write “strong female characters.”

    It’s an excellent piece, which I’m sure you’ve read. Thinking about your post in relation to Rucka’s piece made me want to get your thoughts on the artist/writer divide, or lack thereof, in comics and the interpretation of characters like Catwoman. That is, a lot of the critique I’ve seen focuses on the art. Rightly so – it is a visual medium. Moreover, it’s the easiest aspect to see if you’re not a regular reader of a particular title (as is the case for myself). I suppose the aspect I’m most curious about in regards to the 52 reboot is when, if at all, the writing of well-rounded female characters conflicting with the over-sexualized art? Is this just wishful thinking on my part? (I should note that “over-sexualized” is a subjective call on my part, but one grounded in the clear abandonment of realistic anatomy displayed in images like that Catwoman cover). More broadly, (and pose this just as a larger avenue for inquiry) what are the limitations facing comic writers vs. artists in depicting these characters?

    One aspect that stands out to me is how the legacy nature of the superhero comic genre can intensify this debate. These are superheroes with a long history of creative interpretations. Yet, in the most simplistic sense, readers look to them to right wrongs, stand against injustice, and break social boundaries: in short, to punch Hitler in the face. They can operate as wish fulfillment. Obviously, this can take the route of hyper-sexualized fantasy (or, let’s face it, the downward spiral of stereotypes and hyperbole: not what the artist thinks is sexy, but what the artist thinks the reader thinks is sexy). In the case of many characters, creators have, at one point or another, fashioned a very different and, for lack of better word, empowered version of the character. If readers come into contact with the likes Catwoman or Wonder Woman written as a character (in Rucka’s use of the term) and then follow the character to a hyper-sexualized representation, well, it’s that much easier to spot the shallowness of that representation. I think your post points towards one of the reasons why the justification of “other mediums do it” is at once so vehement and so weak. Comics can objectify, but they can just as easily avoid that objectification. Comics, a bit more than other mediums though, allow the audience to lament not just that a character wasn’t fully rounded, but that she’s been diminished.

    • Excellent post, thank you! I think what you point out is so true: as a collaborative medium, it is difficult to really ferret out who is responsible for what. The artist gets much of the share of the ‘blame’ for demeaning representations, and it is the visual that I’m talking about in the post here. But I’m not sure how fair that always is: Lobdell’s dialogue here is arguably just as awful. The other thing to consider is that even if we just think of the comic as primarily the world of the author + penciller (and this is how they are generally cited in academic circles) nothing goes out the door at an outfit as big as DC without the OK of the editorial board (which wield enormous power, far more than anyone else), internal censors, probably the marketing department, etc. So while this may impact our ability to lay blame or direct accolades, it also makes the fact that instances like the recent Catwoman and Starfire that much more unbelievable! How many people signed off on this?

      So definitely, its an interesting question and one I don’t have a good answer for.

      Quick aside: I am an enormous fan of Greg Rucka’s, and I am familiar with his piece on strong female characters. I’m currently reading his run on Wonder Woman (about to start the last book), and we have a signed copy of his Heketeia, which has my wife’s name next to Wonder Woman’s boot, and mine next to Batman’s squashed head. His shortlived Batwoman/Detective Comics was so incredible because his words were team with J.H. Williams’ art, art which certainly beautifies but never reduces its subjects to objects. It’s a shame that it had to end so soon (Rucka left DC, I’m not sure why, but he had complained in the past about editorial’s meddling in his run on Wonder Woman, aka the “Amazons Attack!” debacle).

      More great women artists like Amy Reeder, Pia Guerra, and others would certainly help, along with more writers like Gail Simone.

      • Good point regarding the various levels of input involved in a company like DC. I was definitely oversimplifying (probably due to my interest in the artistic teamwork aspect of making comics). Your point about how many people signed off on something like Starfire’s reboot really brings the endemic nature of this problem out.

        I’m also looking forward to reading work by Rucka, Reeder, and Simone as soon as I get some time. (I’m less familiar with Guerra). I’ve been keeping up with comics from the sidelines for quite a bit, but what I’ve heard about those creators is drawing me back to the fold.

  4. Update! DC has changed out the solicited image (included in the original piece, above), with a new one. Same basic pose, but with fewer body parts missing. Also, catsuit now fully zipped. Thoughts?

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