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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

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.


Patrick said...

Starfire has an additional issue.

The most popularly held reference for Starfire for an entire generation of people is the Teen Titans cartoon. It is a VERY different portrayal of the character than the comic book referenced in Hudson's post. In fact, its probably best to say that, in spite of sharing some general similarities, it really isn't the same character at all.

And the decision to introduce this Starfire in the way that this comic did seems to at least suggest that they were actively trying to distance their Starfire from the cartoon one.

...And the cartoon one was beloved by children of both genders, and was portrayed as a generally non sexual, female-audience-friendly teenager. So in order to distance the comic Starfire from the cartoon Starfire, they pumped out something that did as much of the opposite as possible.

Which creates a (only partially unintended, I suspect) message of, "This Starfire isn't FOR you, teenage girls! This is a Starfire for DUDES!" When Hudson (and teenage girls who might have cared about Starfire in comic form now that the cartoon is over) states that she feels like she is being rejected while in a place where she thought she belonged, I suspect its because she's literally and intentionally and knowingly being rejected by the producers of the comic in hopes that a different audience can be obtained.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, I can see that - sort of like a slap in the face for fans of the cartoon version of the character.

Russell Blackford said...

Though even that requires some subtle judgments. E.g., in the past I've defended the Rogneto relationship in the X-Men comics, which apparently feels like a slap in the face to some X-Men fans. Some of these probably became fans via X-Men: The Animated Series.

One difference, I suppose, is that the Rogneto relationship has actually been around for 20 years, and is even older than the Gambit-Rogue relationship that so many fans seem to love. And Rogue has always had a dark side and been shown as attracted to bad boys (and willing to try to understand to some extent even advocate Magneto's viewpoint).

In pursuing the implications of Magneto and Rogue finally finding themselves on the same side, with no impediments anymore to their long-established mutual attraction, the writers are being deeply faithful to the source material. But some fans presumably feel that their faces are being slapped.

Patrick said...

I'm not saying it was a slap in the face just because it was different than what certain fans knew and loved.

I mean, work out the timeline.

1. No one much cares about Starfire. She's an extra on a superhero team. Her fans, to the extent that she has any, are adult comic book readers.

2. An enormously popular cartoon series is on television. It garners an audience that is entire orders of magnitude greater than that of the comic books. It does so in part by changing style, tone, personality, artwork, and basically everything about the characters (though also in large part it gains viewers simply by being in a more lucrative medium). It markets to both genders in terms of audience, but definitely aims to be a show for early teenagers that can perhaps be enjoyed by older viewers, but is not targeted to them.

3. The show ends.

4. DC reboots. There is ambiguity about who the Teen Titans are going to be "for." Are they the kids version of the more grown up Justice League, designed to be about kids and for kid readers? DC decides that they are "for" the 18-30 year old male comic book reader bracket, and not the 8-14 male and female cartoon viewer bracket. They design a comic accordingly, and, it at least seems to me, intentionally include material designed to pander to adults in order to reassure them that Teen Titans aren't "for kids." Or girls.

That's the context in which this whole dispute takes place. Or at least, what I infer to be the context.

Legal Eagle said...

This post reminds me of this post: http://rule63rules.tumblr.com/post/10723088694/image-a-portion-of-a-comic-page-in

The women in the inset picture are saying, "I mean, what if there were superheroes who had the same qualities as superheroines? Wouldn’t that be awesome?"

"Totally! Like, what if superhero costumes accentuated the masculine sexual characteristics in a way that made no sense for fighting!"

Now you know you've got to check out the picture of what they are imagining. :-P

Jambe said...

@Legal-Eagle: hah! Have you seen Men-Ups? Men in stereotypical pin-up poses? On a related note, you may like Dresden Codak's recent re-imagining of DC's mainstream characters. That's actually a link to his imagined DC-reboot of his own comic, but it contains links to his reboots of their characters; they're really quite good!

to Russell: did you see Hudson's recent article of interviews from writers and artists in the industry? There were some interesting perspectives in it: Female Super-Hero Characters and Sex: Creators Explain How Comics Can Do Better

Generally it seems DC and Marvel have relied quite heavily on titillation to move copies for some time. They've moved from low ground into a ravine over the years and are now digging a mineshaft (DC especially).

It does strike me as strange that we expect sex- and gender-positive attitudes from properties whose characters are generally over-idealized and/or overtly sexualized. Being anything other than a svelte, large-breasted, decidedly feminine woman or a bodybuilder-tier testosterone-pumped macho man seems to preclude superhero status. There's much in the way of nonsensical physical characterization in mainstream comics that could stand an overhaul.

However, I too would applaud a well-written polyamorist who may wear over-the-top ungainly clothing and be extremely sexual. As far as I know, though, no such well-written character exists, and even if it did exist, it would surely be better as an exception to the rule. This is supposing a sex-positive, gender-equal society as a baseline we want for said comic universe — we're not talking about a fictional society of uniformly-polyamorist beings with perfect bodies of which they are never ashamed.

I think you make a good point that the issue at hand is many-layered. While I think you give mainstream comics writers and artists perhaps too much credit, I agree there is plenty of room for debate and much nuance to be interpreted.

It all maps fairly well to pornography, as you point out. I mean, I like images of the nude human form because I think bodies (especially fit ones) are interesting, visually appealing objects, and they can be appreciated without a sexual context. Further, I think sexually provocative imagery and imagery of outright intercourse can be artful and worthwhile... but I'm still usually offended by such material if it presents either party as hapless or as a mere object to be pursued, or as is so often the case, as solely a giver or receiver of lust/sex/etc.

Mainstream porn is often terribly lopsided and misogynist and I think it's fair to suggest that such norms are reprehensible. I also think it's fair to suggest that, for example, the outfits of comics heroines are on the whole ridiculous and impractical and far out of tune with heroes' outfits, that females in comics are often written as props or generic damsels, that their contributions to storylines are often hackneyed and trite, etc, and that such norms are, if not reprehensible, at least bad and worth changing.

Jean Kazez said...

The woman in the picture is eagerly posing, true, but the artist has also set up the male as a sex object. He's got lots of muscles, a cool low swimsuit, groovy hair, a nice face. The fact that he's got a cool demeanor, and isn't trying, is actually part of his sex appeal. This is a strange thing about heterosexual psychology, I think--effort is sexy in one sex, but effort is unsexy in the other. Dunno what that says, but it's not as if the picture sends a message that men don't have to be sexy. They do, but success is measured in a different way.

Didn't read the original essay and I know nothing about comics, but that's my reaction to the picture.

thefloatinglantern said...

I read a couple of the blog posts complaining about this issue, and Hudson's was I think the most clear and convincing. I definitely agree with her.

Max II said...

I have to say I have one disagreement with you here. I think you run afoul Frank Miller's observation that kids are the minority readership of comic books. That is to say that kids aren't reading comic books as much as people outside the industry (and for a long time within the industry) think. Comic books have realized this only recently and DC with the launch of the New 52 seems to have taken an Image sensibility into the new direction at DC.
That isn't to say of course that kids (lets define that as persons 13 and under) don't read comic books clearly they do. They are just not overly represented among comic book readers.

Personally I don't mind images like that of Starfire in the right context. Say a comic book that is specifically aimed at titillating readers, or one that is playing with a genre (like say the excellent Hack/Slash, which is both send up and effective representative of the T&A teen horror flick). In a Justice League I have to ask what purpose it serves other than looking pretty. I don't mind Batman and Catwoman having sex, as they seem to do at the end of the latest Catwoman. In that context it all makes sense. My question is generally one of how the art is useful to the story, conveying character, etc. In the picture above it only establishes that she is sexy. But that can be established any number of other ways, that don't distract the reader, or cause hiccups in the story.

Concerning the difference between comic and cartoon incarnations of characters I tend to follow Ian McKellan's rule. The comic is the comic, the cartoon is the cartoon, and the movie is the movie. There will be some overlap, but don't expect that they will be exactly the same. The 90s X-Men cartoon would have been infinitely more enjoyable to me I would have let go of the fact that the early seasons made Logan an old fogey who talked tough but more or less got his ass kicked every episode.
My thoughts for now.

tony c said...

Regarding the ravine of gendered stereotyping and sexuality in comics, when Reed Richards is ripped and Sue Richards is poured into her costume you really have left yourself nowhere to go.
These were always the Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day of the comic world. Sure they played roles but Sue RIchards (like my old favourite Dazzler) had thighs wider than boobs - pear shaped figures. In fact that was the appeal. All American family turned into superheroes.
Now all heroes are the same pretty much. All kick ass without any contradiction. Heck even Bruce Banner before he turns into the hulk is fit. What's the point of that.

Russell Blackford said...

Interesting comments, Tony.

To some extent it's just a convention that all the super characters are extremely fit - though people from the public have pretty much the normal range of bodies. Up to a point, I don't have too much trouble with it. But I agree that there's no in-world reason for Banner (for example) to be especially fit and muscular.

Sue Storm/Richards probably should at least look athletic. She trains for combat after all (one presumes). Most of the heroes and heroines who see themselves as such should be training hard, and should be very fit, but they should have bodies like real athletes, not hypersexualised bodies and not the bodies of bodybuilders, which are built to impress with sheer bulk of muscle rather than to be useful in combat situations.

I think Sue looks pretty good back in the 1960s Fantasy Four comics ... where Jack Kirby was drawing her as fit, healthy, etc., but as you say with a more or less normal body, not a distorted or hypersexualised one. Something similar applies to Reed - he should be a fit, strong man in his forties, but there are limits in his case. He should be spending most of his spare time doing science not in the gym.

Some of the villains should be highly athletic if they see themselves as involved in something like a war against the heroes, and so deliberately train themselves for combat situations. Thus, someone like Magneto should be a very athletic man - he sees himself as a soldier and takes pride in his combat prowess even when he can't rely on his powers. He should be a tall, strong imposing man, built maybe like a cruiserweight boxer ... but he should not look like a bodybuilder as he was often depicted in the 1990s.

Many of the other villains are not the type of people who see themselves as physical combatants, and they are not looking for physical battles with the superheroes; so they shouldn't look highly trained.

There's a lot of scope for artists to use their imaginations to create images that look good, while also giving some gesture in the direction of real life, and just plain more variety.

Russell Blackford said...

Er, that should say "Fantastic Four" not "Fantasy Four" - it was a typo or maybe a Freudian slip.

Dave Ricks said...

There's something about a tree.

stuart peace said...

i read both hers and your posts, and i agree. but i can't help think of the old quote "don't hate the player, hate the game." it is such a shame that comics will never be regarded as prestigious or worthwhile in the literary world. no nobel prize will ever be awarded to a book if it too has pictures. so marvel and dc have to find new customers in different ways than most art forms. these type of titillating stories and pictures speak to the cliche of socially awkward male teenagers, who i imagine are exactly who marvel need to grow their audience.

to be clear - i dont think i am arguing against anything that russell and laura have said. it's just frustrating that there IS a logical reason behind it

Stuart said...

Btw props for knowing the difference between those that look strong and those that are strong. bodybuilders physique are ridiculous. Also I've never understood why superheros need such a low bodyfat content, aka a six pack. At least boxers fight in weight divisions. Some of them Eg colusses or strong guy should look like powerlifters