While I don’t pretend to be fully versed in the comic canon, thanks to my other half and the great people at Destination Venus, I am pretty well up on the good stuff. Fables Legends in Exile, Kill Shakespeare, Lucifer, Runaways, Neil Gaimon’s Sandman, Joss Wheedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Buffy Season Eight, Alan Moore’s everything. Seriously, Watchmen is up there with Catcher in the Rye.
As a result of this recent interest and as a feminist, my attention was quickly caught by a conversation on Facebook about comic book art. Predictably, it was about boobs. To his credit, I think my artist friend started the conversation with a creative gripe. It was his intention to draw attention to the poor quality of mainstream comic book art in comparison with the artwork of many of the above-mentioned graphic novels. Realism and proportion were at issue. The conversation soon evolved into something more.
It’s probably not possible to discuss comic book art without talking about objectification. The aesthetic of comic art is a throwback to ancient Greece in its emphasis on perfection. Female figures have exaggerated bums and boobs. Men have muscles which border on the ridiculous. I take that back, they don’t border on—they embrace and snog the ridiculous.
This was the first point made by a few people in this discussion. You cannot complain about the representation of women because the representation of men is just as heightened, just as unattainable, just as psychologically and politically questionable. My response is: yes I can and no it isn’t.
I most certainly can complain about visual representations of women in mainstream comic books because it’s pretty ridiculous. The only good thing which might be said is that the target audience for comic books means fewer girls have access to the images and therefore they have a limited impact on their self-esteem and self-image. But that is a minor point. My main issue with the argument is one of equality. Cause there ain’t none.
Anytime anyone says “it’s the same for men” they are wrong. Sorry to deflate your righteous indignation, men, but you got no leg to stand on. Domestic violence is not the same for men as for women. Unrealistic images of male perfection do not have the same impact. You cannot claim any sexual equality because there is none. There never has been. We live in a patriarchal world. Until that changes, no argument can exist about the equal impact on the sexes of anything.
If this still confuses you, let me break it down. A superhero in a comic book might have a detrimental impact on the self-esteem of some imperfect teenaged boy who reads it. But within a wider, cultural context, that boy’s worth is not based on his looks. That boy will be judged by what he does not how he looks doing it. Money, power, intelligence and influence matter far more in the patriarchy. Furthermore, even without comic book art, women are valued first and foremost as sexual objects. Every institution from marriage to procreation to the division of labour and property, access to education and healthcare—all of them in some way maintain patriarchal inequality. There are rules and norms and life or death consequences behind those boobs and bums which do not exist for the muscles.
But the far more disturbing argument I heard today is that the comic books are being made for teenage boys. Boobs and bums are what teenage boys want. What they have always wanted. What they are hardwired through nature to want. And that cannot change. Ever.
Not bullshit that men desire women sexually. Lust away. It’s the idea, this hard to shake idea that men are creatures of desire alone when it comes to women and the expression of that desire which I totally, absolutely take issue with. Even more the idea that men can’t change. Of course they can. We can. Humans are adatable. We’ve been changing and evolving since day one. You think we’re going to stop now just because we can hold a spanner properly, walk a bit taller and get our dinner from Tesco?
And yet, despite all that—when it comes to sexual equality and who does the washing-up, people—men and women—resort to a caveman argument. Boys will be boys. That’s men for you. Fire-gazers and boar-hunters who have not moved past the base instincts of homo habilis. I hear stuff like this from intelligent, progressive women all the time. I don’t know if we’ve given up or if we actually believe this crap but I’m here to say its bullshit.
Culture shapes the brains, libidos and even bodies of men and women. Culture can change it. Trouble is, culture doesn’t really want to. Patriarchy benefits men. If you’re sitting pretty in the driver’s seat, why on earth would you willingly take your place at the back of the bus? Slowly, gradually, men are starting to learn why. Because it’s the right thing to do in the name of equality and social justice. And because patriarchy has plans for men as well as women. Plans that do not always benefit all men.
Lots of men get this. They truly do. I know many men who identify themselves as feminist. One of those men said something once I will never forget. He first acknowledged that when women challenge men on issues of gender inequality, people are quick to label those women male bashers or man haters. “I have never believed this to be true,” he said. “If a woman challenges me on my beliefs or behaviours, it means she realises I have the power to change. It is an act of respect not hate. It’s an act of love.”
Patriarchal objectification won’t stop me enjoying comic books. Some wonderfully complex female characters have been created in word and image by these men (and they are mostly men). But my enjoyment of comics won’t stop me calling a spade a shovel. The male-dominated genre community should really know by now that it has some serious soul searching to do. I’ll help you do it. I’d like that. With respectful anger and love.