Friday 28 October 2011

On the Sexualisation of Women in Fiction

JenniPosted by Jenni

Before I begin this post in earnest, I would like to draw your attention over here (warning: possibly NSFW (lots of drawings of women in not very much clothing at all):

Whilst, yes, it’s another post about comics (I just really like comics…) but it’s one of the clearest examples I’ve seen discussing the problems of sexualising women characters. If you don’t have time to read it (though I highly suggest you do!) skimming the pictures will help, since I will refer to the characters as examples throughout. The main thing I want to discuss in this post is simple – the difference between a woman acting in a sexual manner, and a writer/reader sexualising a woman problematically, and how this then plays into ‘real life’.

Just for those of you who might not be able to see the pictures, some quick descriptions of the type of image can be found at the bottom of this post.

Firstly, I want to clarify something that people often try to claim posts like this one do, and that is that they’re slut-shaming. The line I would draw for this is such:

Calling out writers/artists/etc for reducing women to only their sexual characteristics = not slut-shaming

Calling out women for being sexual in any way = slut-shaming.

There is a vast difference between the two. Let’s return to the article, or at least, one of the characters. Catwoman is playfully sexy, and this is an important part of her character. However, as we note in the panels shown in the article, she’s not being sexy for anyone – not even for her own benefit. The ‘sexiness’ (the shots of her red lace bra before we see her face) are solely for the reader’s benefit. This is not Catwoman being sexy; this is the readers using her for their own gain. The fact we don’t even see her face speaks volumes to us – she’s not meant to be a character to be connected with, she’s there solely to look at. If the art focused on Catwoman trying to seduce Batman, it would be a different thing entirely – the character would be acting in a sexual way, rather than us merely treating her as a sex object. Of course, this can also be problematic, as we see in Starfire. The majority of her poses are aimed at the ‘camera’ – again, she is being drawn in a manner that implies we, the readers, should be finding her ‘sexy’, even though the poses make no sense in context of what’s actually happening in the panel. For those of you who don’t know the character (which I expect is a lot of you) it’s important to note that Starfire has always been incredibly sexually liberal. It’s just that, you know, she had a personality too – one that the writers of her now seem to ignore in favour of her being there for the men to lust after.

Why does this matter, then? Catwoman and Starfire both have the potential to be positive examples of women being sexual without being reduced to just that – Starfire (prior to this incarnation at least) was both very open about her sexuality, but also had many other traits to focus on, whereas now it seems to be the only trait mentioned. Catwoman can be portrayed as a woman in control of how others view her – she is very knowing and playful with her sexuality, and if people are lusting after her, it’s because she wants them to. The main problem with reducing them to just this one trait is they way it plays into ‘real life’ – women who are then acting sexual/dressing in a ‘sexy’ manner may find themselves reduced to just that characteristic, which is where it becomes a problem.

There’s also the problem of where it becomes okay to admire someone because they’re attractive – the line between admiring, and objectifying, as it may be. In the case of both Catwoman and Starfire, the characters are objectified because of the reader’s gaze. Whereas, in this cover for Batgirl we see a super heroine who, yes, is designed to be attractive, but is in no way reduced to that as her sole purpose in existing. Her pose is believable, her costume practical, and her face is the focus of the shot.* (It’s interesting to note that Batgirl has far outsold Catwoman recently, showing that the market DC seem to want to aim at isn’t working for them).
*Description - a young woman, smiling and 'flying' up at the camera, in a full body suit like Batman's, cape billowing behind and a mask. She's also a redhead. The shot is in such a way that no particular part of her body is focused on beyond her face.

This topic is a difficult one to broach, because both myself and other readers want to see more ‘empowered’ women in comics, without seeing a trend towards the objectification and over sexualisation of them, and the two often seem to get confused. However, the former can only have positive effects in real life, whilst the latter merely returns us to the age old problem of women as sex objects.

This post may seem inconclusive, but it's not a problem that can be solved with ease - comics don't exist in a vacuum, and the artists and writers of these characters are writing them to sell. Whilst, as I mentioned, there is a shift in the more popular characters, Catwoman still sells. Her addition to the newest Batman game (Arkham City) has garnered massive interest, and yes, her costume is designed to show off as much cleavage as possible (seriously, I've played it and half my thoughts were 'She would fall out! It just isn't practical!'). It's not a case of just changing the medium these women are portrayed in - if that happened, sales would (unfortunately) probably drop and the point lost. It's a case of changing how women are viewed, and changing the media alongside that. Batgirl is a good start, but we need to keep pushing forward.

Interested in reading more on this? Dresden Codak has a fantastic series of re-designed heroes, discussing their (im)practical outfits here:

Picture Descriptions
1. Starfire (a copper-skinned (alien!) woman with long red hair) asking a man if he would like to have sex with her. When he responds 'aren't you Jason's girl' she replies with 'I am free to do what I want, when I want'.*
*Whilst this in itself isn't problematic, it's problematic when this is a complete about turn for a character, who, prior to this comic, made a huge point of emotional commitment.

2. Catwoman - three panels. Panel one is a shot from the neck to the waist of a woman pulling on a cat suit. Most prominent is the red lace bra. Panel two takes us up to a shot from her breasts to her nose, the emphasis still on the bra but also her pulling on gloves with her teeth. Panel three is a full body shot (excluding the face!) with the catsuit half on, still drawing attention to the bra. These are the opening three panels of the newest Catwoman reboot (i.e. an issue one, so the introduction!)

3. Catwoman - a waist-down shot of her from behind.

4. The last panel of Catwoman's newest outing - her having sex with Batman. On a roof. This has no relation to the plot, by the way.

5. Starfire, whilst talking to a guy next to her, is posing apparently for the 'camera'. She is posed very unnaturally - hips out, breasts pressed forward, and from her hips to her neck in a sort of u. Basically, it looks painful and she's not even posing at him.

6. Gratuitous pin-up style shots of Starfire in the tiniest bikini you will ever see! One is a breast-focused shot, the other is from behind.

7. Starfire (prior to the reboot) wearing just a men's shirt, standing in a sexy but natural manner. Saying "We allow ourselves to love many people, always emotionally, sometimes physically." As I mentioned before, it's not the sex that's the problem - it's the personality change!

The rest of the pictures are comparison shots - one of a superheroine in a skimpy outfit with a man redrawn in the same (for another awesome example of this in real life, see the gender-flipped Justice League! ) and then comparisons of male/female heroes - so Starfire against the Red Hood (who is fully covered, including his face) and Batman (full body armoured suit with mask) to Catwoman.

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