Male Objectification In Comics?
The comic industry has frequently been criticized for objectifying women but, according to Sonia Harris in her recent article for CBR (“Committed: Regarding Male Superheroes as Sex Objects”), we’ve overlooked the fact that men are sexually objectified too. Sonia points out that men are being depicted as “nearly naked and entirely perfect as well.” And while she (maybe?) thinks it’s unfortunate that men and women are being depicted in this way she doesn’t think it’s sexist.
There are a number of problems with her argument not least of which is confusing idealized body standards with objectification. It is possible to consistently represent superheroes as physically perfect without objectifying them by showing that their value comes from something other than their physical appearance. Idealized body images can lead to objectification when we start using those standards to evaluate a person’s worth but idealized body images are not necessarily examples of objectification.
Sonia rightly points out that both men and women can be hurt by these idealized standards:
I first saw hints of this superheroic objectification as I walked out of 300 a couple of years ago, and overheard my friend saying to her husband “Why don’t you work out more?” They laughed about it, but he cringed and I happen to know that he did start taking martial arts classes soon afterwards and looks a lot healthier now.
But rather than question whether perhaps a more diverse cast of characters would help to put those idealized depictions into perspective Sonia’s conclusion seems to be that there is no sexism because these idealizations are harmful to both men and women.
Even if the bodies of women and men are both idealized to an equal degree in comics, comics don’t exist in a vacuum. Women are bombarded with unrealistic body images wherever they turn, images which send the message that our worth is tied up in our bodies. As a result, even if these idealized representations are equal between male and female superheroes they’re not equal in a larger context. Since comic artists and writers are aware of this larger context, when they don’t challenge it in their art and writing, they end up (intentionally or not) contributing to this message. And as a woman wanting to occasionally escape from these unrealistic body images, it would be nice if I didn’t have to be bombarded with these images in comics as well.
Sonia wonders how it is that feminists have missed the degree to which male superheroes are sexually objectified and suggests that perhaps it’s because these men are always portrayed so aggressively:
Perhaps it is because men are so aggressive in comic books, and therefore they’re perceived as less of an “object”, but realistically, portraying men as extremely aggressive, ridiculously brave and generally embodying unrealistically extreme versions of traditionally masculine traits has to be a kind of sexism.
Of course, there are problems with pigeon-holing male characters as well. Always seeing male characters portrayed in the same way does send the negative message to men that, if they want to be considered men or masculine, they have to embody these stereotypically male traits. But this has nothing to do with sexual objectification and stereotyping both men and women doesn’t mean that those stereotypes cancel each other out. It means that the industry has to work twice as hard to portray a diverse cast of characters.
When it comes to actual sexual objectification, there simply is no comparison between the way women are portrayed and the way men are portrayed. There don’t seem to be any depictions equivalent to this
in mainstream comics whereas, sadly, these depictions of women are common. Even in comics slightly less degrading than this, women are frequently scantily clad and usually have impossibly large breasts with impossibly perky nipples which poke you in the eye page after horrendous page. I don’t remember ever seeing a mainstream comic that had a scantily clad man with an extremely large penis and a perpetual boner. And I bet if there was one, lots of men would complain.
This doesn’t mean that women can’t enjoy comics and even view some of the female superheroes as role models. However, we don’t have to uncritically accept every depiction of that superhero just because we like one aspect of her. I may admire Wonder Woman, but I don’t have to admire every lewd pose that she’s drawn in or the fact that she is scantily clad in comparison to say Batman and Superman.