Early on this week, Misty Lee (notable as the significant other of one Paul Dini) made a comment in a podcast that caused some uproar. She, repeating a statement made by an unidentified source, strongly suggested that complaints about the way women are portrayed in superhero art “usually” stemmed from “ugly, fat girls” and that she wasn’t bothered by the way women were drawn because she wasn’t threatened by them and enjoyed looking at them.
This comment has spawned the posting of pictures, the mincing of words, and some stunning commentary on how a woman’s worth in our society is tied to her physical appearance. I don’t have much to say about the comment itself, but instead I want to get into the metaphorical meat of this strawman, the assumption at the root of the comment.
See, what kills me with that comment (and some different and more polite opinions that stem from the same basic misconception) is the automatic assumption that the female fans are in some sort of strange competition with the female superheroes. That complaints about hypersexualized and demeaning images somehow stem from the natural insecurity of a mortal woman who compares herself to a goddess or, in the case of Ms. Lee’s statement, a downright unattractive woman who compares herself to the ideal.
It amazes me that it never occurs to certain people that the problem is not one of jealousy or lack of attraction, but of identification with the character.
When I was a girl I was an early bloomer, so to speak. Its not a pleasant thing, especially when you have shoulders like an ox and are told by the school nurse that your chest size makes a pink turtleneck inappropriate clothing for a sixth grader. I was awkwardly larger than my classmates and couldn’t find clothing that flattered me. I also had a hell of a time in gym class, even after I got the right undergarments. On day I was peering over my sister’s shoulder as she and her friends poured over each issue of Kingdom Come, searching out the Easter Eggs, and I saw an image that changed the way I looked at my body. It was a blonde woman in a white costume, drawing her arm back in threat of a punch that looked like it could shatter a brick wall once she let it loose. She had shoulders like an ox, arms as thick as tree trunks, and was so powerful and dangerous that Superman himself had to step in to stop her from punching the guy. This wasn’t the willowy woman with balloon breasts that was omnipresent in other comic books. She had muscles and a frame to support them. She also didn’t look freakish or awkward, but beautiful and strong and unashamed to be angry and loud. I did a little research, and found an image online I loved even more. The original Wally Wood design was not only beautiful and powerful, but featured hips to match the shoulders and that slight convex of a stomach for that fat deposit that was giving me so much stress.
Its a paper mirror, not a perfect mirror. These are idealized drawings. But in Power Girl, I found my idealized body type. I would probably never ever in my life look that good, and I’d probably have that boy before I ever dyed my precious dark hair yellow, so I could never actually look like that, but it was close enough to pretend. She reflected enough of me and what I wanted to be that the details didn’t count. I hunted down her appearances, and found she made a great fantasy.
I’ve had similar reactions to Lois Lane, Katma Tui, and Wonder Woman. Its not all appearance. For example, with Lois its mainly her personality (I found myself a fan of John Stewart for life when I saw back issues where he displayed characteristics I wanted in myself). But these are entry characters. Personal anchors, so to speak. When I see them in the story, that’s where I put myself because those are the characters I have some common ground with and who each have different places in their particular stories, depending on how I want to escape that day.
And as I identify with Power Girl, somewhere there’s a woman who choose Misty Knight or Black Canary. Someone is delighted to find someone with her hair and eye color. Somewhere a girl who feels awkward about her thin body is opening a comic drawn by one of the few artists who actually uses different body types when drawing women, and is amazed and encouraged by the image of a superhero with a relative A-Cup, and latching on to that character for life.
Sometime over the past few decades a large number of female fans, for their own reasons, latched on to Mary Jane Watson as their personal anchor to the Marvel universe. They got to imagine about romance and danger, and being married to the sweet nerd who was actually a god of a man underneath. They got to fantasize about being a fiery redhead, a famous model who could get mixed up in a superhero life and hold her own face to face with a supervillain and be able to count on Peter to get a happy ending.
Some of these fans must have habitually placed themselves in her position, or at least tried to, when they saw that a statue had come out. And they were freaked out, because that wasn’t just a statue they were looking at. It was someone they regularly pretended to be. It was a fantasy of their own, ripped to shred by the revolting thought of what it’d be like to wear that, do that, and be drooled at by the sort of strange, creepy man who fetishizes statues. It was unsettling, because they were used to identifying with Mary Jane Watson-Parker and here she was blatantly objectified.
With the Heroes for Hire cover, a lot of Misty Knight fans were angry because that character was a heroic fantasy. They bought the books. They followed the character. They were paying customers, buying a power fantasy from Marvel Comics, a company which sells power fantasies, and they looked at that cover and saw their heroic character stripped of her power, her heroism, and shoved into a sexual fantasy for sale to a completely different demographic. Of course they were angry. They identified with those characters. That wasn’t an object up there. That wasn’t just “their character.” That was, on some level, them. The point of buying the comics, and following the character, was so that they could have that fantasy. So they could be Misty, or Felicia, or Colleen for a few minutes a month and forget about the dreary realities of their lives. Forget the ugliness they met with on a daily basis and spend those few minutes kicking a little ass and that cover told them that no, Marvel was no longer in the business of selling the wonderful dreams of strength they’d come to enjoy, Marvel was now in the business of selling someone else’s sexual fantasy.
Some of the fans who backlashed, who didn’t understand why it caused so much anger and disgust, assumed that it had something to do with insecurity on the part of the complainers. Though I certainly can’t speak for the anyone but myself, I sincerely doubt that insecurity had anything to do with it. The posts I read implied that it was personal identification. The strongest and loudest complaints did not say “fat, ugly girl” to me, but “woman who said ‘Face it Tiger’ in the mirror until she had the same inflection as the voice actress in the cartoon” and “pretended she had a bionic arm as a little girl.”
I know how they feel. My mother stopped me from cutting the infamous boob-window in a white turtleneck years ago. To this day I still get irked whenever I see an artist draw her without the little fat deposit, or with shoulders and hips too slim, and I’m the first to get angry when I see Power Girl’s larger-than-life persona reduced to a pair of balloons on a stick-figure.
How can so few of the respondents seem to understand this basic idea? Surely all fans identify with the main characters on some level, that’s why they follow them. That’s why this is a fantasy. Are they really so detached from the female characters that they can’t imagine why someone would naturally put herself in that character’s place? That if a woman is upset by the depiction of the character, it is because she is insecure and jealous of the character and not looking at how badly she would not want to be in that character’s position?
Some of the loudest and strongest criticisms of artists and writers mishandling Power Girl are from large-breasted women. Why? Because we know what its like to have our personalities bypassed for emphasis on our bra sizes, and its painful to have that intrude on an escapist fantasy as strong as Power Girl (she’s effectively the poster girl for the informal “I’m More Than My Melons” movement).
A lot of women know what its like to apply for a job and not be taken seriously because it assumed you will get married, have children, and quit to do your husband’s laundry full-time. Many of us know what its like to get into a relationship with a seemingly perfect man only to discover that he expects you to be his housekeeper when you come over. It really hurts to have that intrude on your escapist romance.
And far, far too many women know what its like to be in a position of complete powerlessness, threatened by violence and having your pain viewed by others as a source of amusement, domination, and sexual gratification. And those of us who don’t know it personally have been warned repeatedly of the possibility every day of our lives since we were old enough that an adult might broach the subject with us. And not only is it painful to have that intrude in a hobby that serves as an escape from the feelings of powerlessness in one’s life, it is infuriating beyond measure.
Now, no doubt someone is reading this and reading to use this identification as “proof” that all of the feminist complaints are mere fan entitlement.
Well, here’s the thing. Marvel and DC are in the business of escapism, heroic stories, power fantasies and cheap thrills. That is how the product was conceived. That is how the product is viewed. That is what draws people to superheroes. That is what draws women, as well as men, to superheroes. That is what we started reading as kids. That is what we plop our three to five dollars down each Wednesday to read.
They do not sell sexual fantasies. Pornographers do that. If Marvel and DC were to suddenly take down their ratings and mark all of their books as pornographic materials, then I would be angry but I wouldn’t really have a leg to stand on here, but until such time as they do the public has a right to view superheroes not as sexual fantasies, but as power fantasies.
Now, a little cheesecake and beefcake every once in a while is one thing. Its an extra and so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the main draw, which is the heroic aspect of the genre, I really don’t think most people care.
But when an artist disregards his storytelling skills to replace a pose that should be grim and badass with one that is best seen in an ad hawking shampoo, the company is selling a sexual fantasy and not a heroic story. When covers show female superheroes as scantily clad victims rather than heroes, the company is selling a skeevy sexual fantasy and not a heroic story. When statues pay less attention to anatomy than they do to thongs and cleavage, the company is selling a sexual fantasy and not a heroic story.
I am a paying customer, and I’m here to read about and identify with characters in superhero stories. If I wanted to read about and identify with characters in sexual fantasies, I’d buy pornography. Indeed, for those of us who want both there is porn involving superheroes. It is properly labeled as pornography, and not superhero comics, though. Right now, however, I don’t want that. I want the product that is labeled as a superhero comic, because I am looking for escapism, heroic stories, power fantasies, and cheap thrills.
And until such time as Marvel and DC mark their books as “Mature Audiences Only” rather than “All Ages” or “9 and up” I reserve the right to complain when the escapist fantasies I bought are interrupted by someone else’s sexual fantasy. And no, it is not out of jealousy, or insecurity, or the fear that suddenly all men will only want women who look exactly like the drawings. Its out of the same blind shock that most people would have from reading first draft of a supposed friend’s novel, only to find the cute adventure story interrupted by two pages of BDSM fantasies involving you as the submissive party.
Now do you understand?