If you haven’t already, go read Laura Hudson’s amazing article: The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and Their ‘Liberated Sexuality’. It masterfully lays out point by point the manner in which Catwoman and Starfire are objectified in DC’s New 52.
Since it came out, the article has drummed up a bit of controversy and has received some diverse responses, including one from a 7 year-old female Teen Titans fan and one from Mr. Jim Shooter, author of the infamous rape of Ms. Marvel
in Avengers #200. (Mr. Shooter agrees that the issue portrays Starfire as “a device, not a character.”)
So I decided it was my turn.
Nearly every superhero is sexualized in some way. The Hulk is basically a giant, veiny, green phallus and Namor parades around in naught but a pair of Speedos that would make Witchblade blush. That being said, there is a huge difference between the manner in which male and female heroes are sexualized. To paraphrase a comment Adam Withers made on a panel at this year’s Dragon*Con, the difference is that when a female character is put in a skimpy outfit it is for the benefit of the male reader, whereas when a male hero is put into a skin tight suit it’s to make him look badass.
Basically, the difference in the treatment of male and female characters is the difference between being sexualized and objectified. Let’s look at what is arguably the most sexualized male hero in comics: Namor. When the sexualized Namor shows off his bulging masculinity the intent is not to appeal to the female readership but rather to the male audience. It’s male wish fulfillment, pure and simple.
Let’s contrast this with the first two pages of Catwoman #1 (2011), in which the half naked character’s face doesn’t even make it on panel. This portrayal of Selina objectifies her to the point where she is literally presented as a pair of tits. It’s like the difference between Bond and a “Bond girl.”
But I feel the problem with the portrayal of female characters in comics runs even deeper than the shallow objectification through skimpy costumes and anatomically implausible breasts. All too often in comics, a female character’s power is tied directly to her sexuality. The original run of the Young Avengers introduces us to Kate Bishop, a strong, independent young woman who holds her own against the boys. Not only does this badass heroine break into the all-boys team, but she starts calling the shots once there.
Then comes the Young Avengers Special. Here we are given our first look at Kate’s backstory. Here we learn that our heroine was once a pushover until she was attacked and, it is implied, raped. It is only after this ordeal that she becomes a badass. This insulting affront to the character implies that women, who must be naturally weak, need some sort of sexual catalyst (like being raped) to make them strong.
It wouldn’t necessarily bother me for a comic to examine rape culture and its effect on women by using it in a storyline. However, this is hardly the case. After Kate’s backstory is revealed, it never comes up again. As such, it serves only to “explain” why this young woman is strong. Also, as the Young Avengers Special points out, it’s eerily similar to Jessica Jones’ backstory.
But even if a female character isn’t one of the many who are raped, female characters in comics often still have their power tied directly to their sexuality: a kiss from Poison Ivy means an almost certain death and Rogue’s power first manifests while kissing Cody Robbins. Not only that, but Rogue continues to steal powers with kisses despite the fact that any skin contact would suffice.
That’s not to say that Rogue, Poison Ivy, Kate Bishop, and Jessica Jones are always sexually objectified. In fact, I selected these characters because they are well developed, independent, strong female characters. However, it is worth noting that far too many female comic characters’ representation, worth, and even their powers are so strongly tied to their sexuality. Don’t get me wrong, I want to read about beautiful, sexy women kicking ass. What I don’t want to see are female caricatures being objectified, belittled, and raped to give shock value and boners to an immature audience.