Comic Books and the Male Gaze

Comic Books and the Male Gaze

Jenny Sparks

I like comic books, really I do. They’re remarkably underrated as a medium. Alan Moore in particular is a storyteller of consummate skill; V for Vendetta, Top Ten, and others are among some of the most in-depth and emotionally involved works I’ve ever come across.

The problem, of course, is that comic books are rarely written for me.

Comics as a medium are, like the rest of mainstream media, entirely dominated by and created for men. I would probably be more interested in comics if they didn’t constantly pander to the male gaze – that is, comics display women-as-objects, there to be eye candy for heterosexual men, even if the women are characters in their own right. The Most Common Superpower is aptly named; although male characters run the gamut of size, age, shape and what have you, female characters are overwhelmingly tall, skinny, young, attractive, and have breasts that apparently defy gravity.

Michael Turner was terrible for it, actually. See here for a classic example of his work. I don’t recall ever seeing an adult female by him that didn’t have an F cup at least.

Yes, it irritates me like nothing on earth. All comics have started to look the same to me now. Like movies, they have become variations on a theme of ‘white hetersexual male plus assorted other white males and maybe some minorities get into shennanigans’. This just isn’t all that interesting to me anymore, especially when women – yes, half of the goddamn human race – is considered a minority. The Losers? Five men, one woman. I didn’t even look at the comic book. The Expendables? Nine men, most of whom are white.

That’s just two films this year that my better half was getting excited about that I really, really couldn’t care less about and will not be spending any money on. But I’m not bitter. Totally.

Anyway, I have to give credit where it’s due, and much as I have a problem with a lot of comics, some of them stand head and shoulders over the rest. And the one that I elevate above all others is the Authority.

I prefer the Ellis/Hitch early stuff. I can remember faffing around, looking at the giant boobs brigade and getting a little disgusted, before someone shoved a copy of the first issue of the Authority into my hands. I started to read about Jenny Sparks (pictured above) and it just blew my mind that Bryan Hitch was drawing her so… normal. She smokes, drinks, wears tank tops and comfortable pants, and dresses like a businesswoman with a grudge when she goes out to kick villain ass. Jenny was an immensely powerful character, a leader, and a saviour.She had history, and depth, and experience. She was real to me in a way that, say, Power Girl could never be.

Jenny wasn’t a sex symbol. Bryan Hitch didn’t draw her like that. I met him at San Diego Comic Con once, and spent a silly amount of money on an original Authority comic page because of it.

Jenny Sparks became another thread that inspired one of my main characters in the Novel, and I would have given anything to have more of her in mainstream media. It hasn’t happened yet, unfortunately, even though Wonder Woman is finally wearing pants after all these years. (Someone had to actually point out to me that WW’s usual outfit is classic dominatrix – seriously, hot pants, corset, knee-high boots, and a whip? How did I miss that?)

Someday, though. Fifty years ago, there would never have been a Jenny Sparks to inspire me. I wonder will they ever do an Authority movie?

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9 comments on “Comic Books and the Male GazeAdd yours →

  1. That bit about Wonder Woman? She's worn pants before. The look never sticks she always goes back to her super-silly dominatrix gear.As for why she wears dom gear? Marston – her creator – claimed she's a symbol of female superiority who conquers enemies with love rather than violence. He said:"Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman."There's a certain merit to that even if Wonder Woman didn't live up to everything he said.But as far as I know has also admitted in interviews that she's also just one of his bondage fantasies brought to life on the page – even in the early days while Marston was still writing her stories, she regularly bound her enemies or was bound by them. And the Amazons regularly engaged in bondage play during their leisure time in his stories.Then again he preached that the world would be better off as a matriarchy.Poor guy seemed a little confused – almost as if he wanted women to rule his world but to still maintain the fantasy image of a accessible sex object.

  2. That's very interesting, JP. I expect you could write a thesis on the evolution of female portrayal in comics based on Wonder Woman alone.

  3. Sure, the ladies in these books are young, hot, with anti-gravity-boobies. But then again, the men are olympian-bodied, steely-jawed studs with "Impossimuscles". http://img520.imageshack.us/f/marswim45es4.jpg/ The point (mostly) of this is not to depict them as sex objects, but to depict them as "ideal". The figures of the women, and men, in these illustrations are simply impossible, http://www.jonathancrossfield.com/blog/images/25282MV~Jean-Grey-Kissing-Wolverine-Posters.jpg and you've got to accept that. These characters are like Greek gods. Everything about them is honed beyond perfection, completely unattainable. The're "superhuman". It's all right there in the name. If you don't want to follow the adventures of the boobie-brigade and the muscle-militia, don't read super-hero comics. Jenny wasn't drawn as a sex-object. But again, she was an unattainable ideal. She was hot, eternally 19, and could do anything she wanted (oh no, look out, it is an empowered woman). Superhero comics are all about the impossible. Impossibly strong, smart, and yes, attractive people abound.

  4. Yes, they're idealised, but the problem is the women are constantly drawn to a ridiculous Barbie concept, whereas there same is not true of the men. We can at least point to a number of mainstream male characters who are not members of the muscle brigade – but there are pitifully fewer female characters who are drawn somewhat normally in comparison.Off the top of my head – Spider-man is usually drawn skinny, if athletic. Professor Xavier is drawn in a wheelchair wearing a suit most of the time. Wolverine is well known to be short and stocky. Nightcrawler is short as well, but much leaner. But the female X-men? There is nothing in their body shapes or even their faces that distinguishes them from each other; the only difference is hair and costume.Male characters have at least some variation; female characters, for the vast, vast majority, do not. That's my point, really. All else being equal, the levels of variation should be more or less the same. The fact that there's such a disparity there suggests to me that mainstream comic producers are either lazy or habitually misogynistic.

  5. There are one or two scenes of Prof X without his usual suit, and you will think "where the hell did those muscles come from?". Wolverine; short, stocky, the pinnacle of machismo – for gods sake, he puts out his cigars on his own arm! Nightcrawler is part of the subsection I will now label "The Freakshow". Just like characters from mythology, there are no inbetweens – a superhero/villain is either stunning or, like Nightcrawler,Beast, and the Blob inhuman/hideous. And of course the men are drawn to a ridiculous concept. Even the characters who are scientists, or whose power has nothing to do with strength or stamina have obscene musculature.http://www.stormgrounds.com/media/Green-Lantern-Comic.jpgLook at this. When this guy isn't battling space aliens, he's a full-time cartoonist. His power is based on his mind. And yet he has exactly the same body as Bruce Wayne, a man who has spent decades honing his body. Character with normal body-types will always seem weak and inferior next to these musclemen, and thats why the protagonists are drawn like Hercules.In the same vein, if you shove a "normal" fem-character into the limelight, she's not going to be seen as normal, she's going to be seen as "pretty plain, relative to….". I think the main point is that comics are fantasy, and nobody ever fantasized about being normal.

  6. Dave, I'm not arguing that male characters are not idealised in comics. I'm pointing out that, in comparison, female characters are overidealised to the point that the majority are all sexualised carbon copies of each other.My point is that there is no variation. There is one body shape in use; tall, thin, atheltic, huge boobs, and female characters that deviate from that are rare. Male characters, although more idealised than real life, show variation in body shapes.

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