Saturday, September 24, 2011

Superheroines of the New 52: Sexually Liberated or Sexual Objects?

I just read an article called "The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and their 'Liberated Sexuality'" (link above), and it was a fascinating take on the new superheroines in the comic book world. It discusses many of the characters of the New 52 series that we're all starting to read for class, and I was surprised by many of the images from the comics that were shown in the article. For example, this picture of Starfire from the new "Red Hood and the Outlaws":

Women have been pretty sexualized in some of what we've read so far, but really? Is this entirely necessary? This frankly looks more like porn than an actual comic with an actual story. The article discusses as well how this particular character is known for sleeping with a lot of guys (whose names she often doesn't even remember), but it is all meaningless and emotionless. It doesn't seem like she is "sexually liberated" by taking on this role; as the article's author, Laura Hudson, writes: "This is not about these women wanting things; it’s about men wanting to see them do things, and that takes something that really should be empowering – the idea that women can own their sexuality – and transforms it into yet another male fantasy. It takes away the actual power of the women and turns their “sexual liberation” into just another way for dudes to get off."

The new Catwoman in just as bad - the article shows the first page of the new first issue:

As you can see, we see shots of her breasts, her bright read lingerie, and her tight leather-clad behind before we even see her face. I agree with Hudson's statement that this is no way to connect with a character for the first time. It gives readers the idea that the first thing we need to know about a woman, even a superhero, is what her body looks like.

This new take on women in comics is completely different from the old depictions of them. Although women have been somewhat sexualized in comics for years, it has never gotten this bad. And before, women seemed like real people even when they were "sexually liberated" - they could still be strong heroes even though they were sexy. As Hudson said in the article, "I’m on board with the hot ladies; part of what got me into comics back in the day was being a 12-year-old girl who looked at strong, beautiful characters like Rogue and Jean Grey and Storm and wanted to be like them in large part because they were so sexy and confident and had exciting romances. Those books managed to offer characters that I’m certain appealed to men as well, but always felt like people instead of window dressing." But clearly, this new portrayal of comic book women is just too much.

This is not what comics should be. "Superhero comics are nothing if not aspirational. They are full of heroes that inspire us to be better, to think more things are possible, to imagine a world where we can become something amazing. But this is what comics like this tell me about myself, as a lady: They tell me that I can be beautiful and powerful, but only if I wear as few clothes as possible. They tell me that I can have exciting adventures, as long as I have enormous breasts that I constantly contort to display to the people around me. They tell me I can be sexually adventurous and pursue my physical desires, as long as I do it in ways that feel inauthentic and contrived to appeal to men and kind of creep me out." I feel bad for the girls of today who have only these kinds of comic book characters to look up to. This is a sad regression from what superheroines are supposed to be like.

(I know it's a long article, but if you have time to read the whole thing, it's worth it.)


  1. It's really sad that these are what some of the "New 52" superheroines look like. They are even more overly sexualized then they were in the past. I thought that maybe in a new day in age, the illustrators might make women look more realistic and not as sexualized, but that was clearly an optimistic hope. They are not good role models for young girls. Boys can look up to superman and all of the other super heroes, but who can girls look up to? These "superheroines" who don't wear enough clothes and whose bodies are completely unrealistic.

  2. Fantastic post! I'm glad you highlighted Starfire, because while I didn't read Red Hood, I did see the interview with the writer and illustrator at the end of the other books that came out this week. Scott Lobdell, the writer, quite oblivious to the caricature of female sexuality he's seeing, says that his favorite page is "Kori stepping out of the ocean, just basking in the sunshine. I love the joy on her face. The people of this planet may not want her here.. but God, how she loves this place." Uhh, if that's not sort of creepy, then... In any case, it perpetuates a male idea of what female sexuality might look like, hinging totally on the male gaze that looks in on a woman when she believes she's alone.

    We also have to recognize, and I think Laura Hudson points this out, that being sexual or depicting sexuality or sexy people is not the problem, it's the fact that these scenes are don't really serve a purpose other than to "excite" male readers. As Promethea is next, I believe you'll see a different way of depicting sexuality in comic books. The skimpiness is still there, but in many cases it's not only for the sake of skimpiness, and the sexual scenes therein are full of literary/philosophical/social significance and actually address the concept of agency head on.

  3. Wow, that article was very much worth reading. I can feel Laura Hudson's disappointment in the way women are portrayed in the current comic book industry DRIPPING from every word in her article, and I completely agree with her. Her bit about Starfire's awkward and extremely sexual position on the beach hit me the hardest: "Why is she contorting her body in that weird way? Who is she posing for, because it doesn't even seem to be Roy Harper? The answer, dear reader, is that she is posing for you." Who or what can we even blame for the oversexualization of everything nowadays? The celebrities? The media? I don't even think some of the current depictions of "superheroines" can even qualify as superheroines anymore, because they're more sexual objects than anything else, least of all role models.

  4. I think the thing is that they are superheroes and heroines. If you're going to look at it from a point of view that says "to be powerful I have to wear as much clothes as possible" than, as a male, I can easily say that I have to have very broad shoulders a six-pack and wear underwear that emphasizes a particular part of my body. It is the same for men as well but it must be that way because these people are ordinary, they are SUPERHEROES and SUPERHEROINES. That is why the word SUPER sits it front of the other. It is upto the readers own logic and understanding to either be able to or not be able to make the difference.

  5. This kind of portrayal of women in comics book can no longer be considered "sexual liberation"...this is blatantly exploitation. You were absolutely dead on about your analysis of the first page of Catwoman, it was ridiculous, and extremely awkward to be introduced to a character's breasts before the character herself. The focus of these comicbooks are definitely aiming to appeal to ideas of sexual pleasure than the thrilling adventurous plots of comicbooks with male protagonists.

  6. While I agree with the comments that such exploitation of the female body is unnecessary, I also think that perhaps this is being done solely because the creators hope to revamp the series and seem to have no other means of doing it besides making it extremely raunchy. As the article points out, "...while the Starfire here wants emotionless, casual sex with people whose names she can't remember, that's very much a departure from her previous incarnation, where she came from a culture that was primarily about love, not being available for joyless hookups with random dudes." While Starfire's attitude towards sex greatly differs from that in her previous portrayal, we must recognize that this is a different series. I think that Starfire is being shown in such a provocative manner to provide change, marking the explicit difference between the various series and enticing readers to return to Red Hood, even if it may be for the wrong reasons.


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