Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Laura Hudson on sex in superhero comics
You might think that I'd disagree with this post by Laura Hudson, which has been getting a lot of attention ... at least if I've managed to convey only a simplistic version of where I stand on issues of sexual politics and the portrayal of sexuality in popular culture.
In fact, I agree with about 95 per cent of what Hudson has to say. There are things that I could quibble with around the edges, as to which more later, and as happens with almost anything I read ... but in essence I agree with Hudson's post. And like Hudson, I take this view not because I'm opposed to sexual display, or to the human body, sexual openness, critiques of monogamy, or anything related, but largely because I'm all in favour of those things.
Here are some quick points. First, the material that Hudson is objecting to may not be technically pornographic - that will depend on your definition of pornography, but, for example the material does not show any culturally taboo body parts (i.e. genitals and female nipples). That is not the point of the complaint. I've increasingly to come to think that the category of pornography isn't much use in these debates. Where the word "pornography" is used, care should be taken in defining what it means for the purpose of the discussion.
Second, Hudson is not asking that anything be banned, and nor is she making grandiose, poorly researched claims about the harm that something-or-other supposedly causes. She is writing as critic rather than as a pseudo-scientist. If she were making stronger claims, I might be arguing against her.
Instead, she's doing her apparent best to explain aesthetic reactions and to put arguments as to why you and I should or might share them. This is important, because we need to distinguish between the claim that something should be banned, the claim that something should be the object of serious social rejection that falls short of legal prohibition (seen, perhaps, as a serious moral wrong), and the numerous kinds of more local and nuanced claims that can be made about the merits of works of art or other examples of individual or collective expression.
Third, once you enter in the proper spirit into discussing those more local and nuanced claims, you thereby allow some room for sensitive and principled disagreement. I believe that Hudson does this. Judging this becomes difficult, because it's impossible to justify every premise all the way down, and Hudson certainly has not done so. At some point, you have to offer your individual, potentially idiosyncratic, responses, letting others take them or leave them. You hope that any personal responses that underlie your claims and concerns will be widely shared, but there is never a guarantee of this available. If you're honest, you write on that basis.
Hudson has done so, I think: she does not overreach, but relies on her ability to respond and comment sensitively, and to convey her responses to others.
I share her response to, for example, the pic displayed above. Notice how the DC heroine Starfire does not seem to be posed in that pic (perhaps unlike some of the others) to entice the guy she's trying to seduce. Rather, she is turned into a sexy object for the gaze of the presumably male, heterosexual reader (which tends to suggest that other kinds of readers are not welcome).
Is that necessarily a bad thing? Well, not necessarily. After all, this is a fictional character - there is no real person to be hurt through her transactions with DC comics. Even if this were a photograph of a real woman, I would not necessarily protest in any very serious way - it would be her decision to pose in that manner, and I'd be wary of wild statements alleging that it does some kind of harm, either directly or indirectly. Such statements are difficult to prove, and they may often be false.
And yet, and yet, that doesn't mean that I have to agree with the message(s) sent out by such images in context, or that I must be happy to see the message(s) sent out in a superhero comic largely aimed at children. No artwork is beyond critique, even if the interference of the law is entirely inappropriate. Bring on some smart critique.
Again, note I am not insisting that children receive only such messages as I personally approve of. I am in no way suggesting that the image be hidden or censored. But I can still worry about or disagree with its message. There is no paradox here.
Part of the difficulty, as Hudson acknowledges, is that any specific case may not be clear cut. In each specific case we have to look at the full context, including the reality that we are dealing with a medium where all messages are tentative, subject to new perspectives as further issues of serial narrative publications reinterpret (and sometimes outright erase) past issues.
Nonetheless, there can be a cumulative effect. True, no number of entirely bad arguments add up to a good argument. But an accumulation of worrying cases, any one of which just might be justified individually (and so we should not be too quick to attack individuals), can still add up to an undesirable social trend.
The trend is not merely to present an image of women as disempowered, passive objects of male desire. In fact, do the Starfire images do that at all? It's probably nothing so simple. Anyway, at least within my view of the world, there is nothing wrong with being the object of someone's desire in the grammatical sense of "X desires Y." There is nothing wrong, furthermore, with desiring to be desired, or in fulfilling the desire to be desired. As Hudson herself points out, it is difficult to nail down just what is wrong with the images that she deplores.
Part of the problem, surely, is that all (?) the choices being made in the relevant narrative are presenting Starfire not just as a woman who wants to be desired, which is fine, or even as a woman who wants to experience sexual pleasure with many men, each different from the others - that's also fine as far as I'm concerned. Women are just as entitled to think that way as men.
Part of the problem, as it seems to me, is that she is presented as someone who becomes little more than an opportunity for the male characters, with whom the reader is encouraged to identify, and for the implicitly male audience. This does not give legitimacy to her experiences and values, but merely demeans her and them. That's not a pro-sex, or sexually open, or healthy, message to pass on to the next generation.
Could the same story be told in a way that makes us understand Starfire's mentality as a (rather extreme) polyamorist, somehow conveying the value that she finds in having sex with many different men ... each occasion a different and valued experience for her? I don't see why not. I'd have nothing against that story at all. Indeed, I'd probably applaud the story and its message. My concern is not based on prudishness or on commitment to some traditional set of values or moral norms based on, say, a valorisation of heterosexual monogamy.
When we dig into sexual politics expressed by our high and popular cultures, we will have to defend, and at times honestly abandon, some fairly contestable interpretations of what is going on. We sometimes need to back our judgments - to have some faith in ourselves - but we also need to avoid dogmatism or arrogance of the kind that simply dismisses interlocutors as not "getting it" (if others "don't get it", that may mean that there is nothing to "get" ... or it may mean that we should try harder to help them). A certain amount of charity in interpretation has much to commend it.
I think, though, that Hudson has provided us with a good example of what is involved in talking sensitively, locally, modestly, about these difficult issues ... but also clearly and effectively. She's had a lot of publicity for the piece that I've referred to, but she's thoroughly earned it to date.