Thursday, 20 April 2017

Sexy Comic Book Heroines: Girl Power or Exploitation?

I've been a comic book fan for a long time and a comic book art fan for even longer.  I follow several fan art feeds in Twitter and I'd love to share more, but I find I have a moral hiccup.  No matter how badass the heroine, she always seems to be portrayed with bust or butt (or both) prominently displayed.

Catwoman: Queen of Snark, expert thief, master of the bull whip and able to disguise herself into virtually any situation, including sneaking past Batman.

Plenty of people have weighed in on how women are portrayed in comics.  The argument consistently seems to boil down to "It makes real women feel bad" on one side and "But that's what the customers want" on the other.

Scarlet Witch: able to bend reality to her will (as in, she imagines it, it happens), shoots hex bolts, can teleport, fly and move objects with her mind.
I found myself pondering the issue lately and decided to share my ponderings.  First of all, the fact that women in the entertainment industry are pushed to present a sexualized image is a problem, regardless of format.  It's not that the problem is with any particular sexy woman, but the fact that there are not many alternative archetypes out there.  It goes back a long way: the heroine of fairy tales is described as beautiful and it is implied (or outright said in some cases) that her beauty is the reason she has the adventure or attracts the attention of the hero or villain.

Wonder Woman: super strong, super fast, bullet-bouncing bracelets, Golden Lariat of Truth, expert in bow, sword and hand-to-hand combat.  Oh yeah, and immortal.
Women often face a double-edged sword when it comes to beauty.  It's nice to look attractive but can be dangerous (the "Dressed like that? She was asking for it" defense).  Often women are required to present their most attractive side (eg, wearing makeup to run to the store) but are then dismissed because of their beauty (too pretty to be smart/competent).

Storm: able to control the weather on continent-wide, local and individual levels, can throw lightning bolts at her enemies, can fly, expert thief and marksman with handguns and thrown knives, immune to climate extremes.
Heroines in comic books face the same challenge.  Those who might be truly inspired by the strength and depth of these characters and stories also tend to dismiss them because of how they are drawn.  Granted, sometimes these powerful ladies are forced into "damsel-in-distress" roles or pushed aside in favour of the male characters, but at one time or another, each has found herself in the hands of talented writers who utilize their strengths and weaknesses to reveal incredible three-dimensional characters and powerful stories.

Supergirl: invulnerable, x-ray vision, laser/heat vision, super strong, super fast, can fly, super breath (ie, can blow out building fires).
I love strong female characters.  And yet, I find myself feeling a little hurt and alienated when looking at these images.  Because this is not how real women look.  It makes me feel as if there is a barrier between the super-version of myself as the heroine of my own life and these characters who I admire.  And it's the most superficial barrier of all, a size 0 waist, DD cup size and flat abs.  Nothing to do with their personalities, drive or morals.

White Queen: one of the strongest telepaths in the Marvel universe, with a brilliant mind and wit, can transform into living diamond, has multiple college degrees and is a successful CEO.  Can design and build electronics, expert in neurology, biochemistry, and genetics.  Owns several multi-billion dollar conglomerates.
And yet, at the same time, I find myself asking: why shouldn't they have it all?  Why shouldn't they be brilliant, powerful, dynamic and gorgeous?  Women shouldn't have to settle for being less than they can be in order to make other people feel better.  That would be blatantly against everything that we have fought for.

Batgirl: superior speed, flexibility and strength, expert in hand to hand combat, expert marksman with projectile weapons, master of stealth and distraction, makes her own explosive/smoke pellets.
It does seem a little silly, once we start thinking about how their backs must ache when forced into the bust-forward, butt back pose, or the near 180 degree waist twist required to show both bust and butt in the same picture.  The images may be dramatic, but also impossible in reality.  And yet, comic books are supposed to present larger than life images and stories.

Black Widow: superior agility, expert marksman, gymnast and contortionist, brilliant tactician and political analyst.
In the end, it all boils down to a personal choice.  What is more important: the characters and the stories or the way they look?  It's hard to overlook their appearance, but behind the skimpy costumes are ladies with hearts of gold, steel and every metal in between.  They are smart, they are skilled and they kick ass.  And if they happen to look amazing while doing it, that's a compromise I'm willing to live with.

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