No, Men and Women Aren’t Portrayed the Same in Comic Books (or on Book Covers, for That Matter)

When people complain that women (even female superheros) are portrayed as sexual objects in comic books, one of the more common counter-arguments is that male superheroes are also drawn in an over-sexualized way "with attractive, muscular bodies designed to be ogled" as Boing Boing put it.

Blogs like The Hawkeye Initiative have repeatedly shown the differences in how women and men are drawn in comics, and earlier today Andrew Wheeler explained why. Writing over at Comics Alliance, Wheeler explains that both men and women in comic books are drawn to appeal to male readers.

He argues that the overly muscled bodies are a male power fantasy, not a female sexual fantasy:

Big muscles are a male fantasy. That’s not to say that women aren’t ever into them, but let’s face facts; women have never been the primary target audience for superhero comics, and male heroes are drawn with big muscles anyway. Make no mistake; women are there. But those big muscles are not there for women. They’re there for men; straight men who find male power exhilarating. If women didn’t exist, superheroes would be drawn just as buff as they are today — because as far as most superhero comics are concerned, women as consumers do not exist.

...

“Heroes tend to be drawn with tons of bulky muscles and weird proportions that I find unappealing,” said Lysandra, one of a number of women I reached out to via Twitter to find out what they want to see in superhero comics.

All of the women I spoke to seemed to echo Lysandra’s sentiments. Amy said she likes men “lean and muscular, but not bulky.” Tory noted that “too much muscle is gross, it looks like they can’t move.” Sarah said the focus on muscles “veers into the grotesque”. She noted the designs of Hulk and She-Hulk illustrate how both male and female characters are designed for a male reader; “one is a musclebound power fantasy, whereas the other is a powerlifting pinup girl.”

If you're not familiar with the characters, here are a couple covers to refresh your memory:

Hulks-620x458[1]

You can find his post here, and it's well worth a read.

I haven't written on this topic before, but it's one I've been following since long before a certain Spider-Woman cover. It's a situation many of us aren't happy with, and you can even find artwork with similar biases on the cover of many books.

Even when a book features a female lead character, she's too often portrayed as a sexual object while at the same time men are drawn to convey power.

An author by the name of Jim Hines illustrated the differences in a series of posts back in 2012. (I was just tipped to them a couple weeks ago by Maria of Bear Mountain Books).

Hines duplicated the poses used on book covers and showed that the female characters, far from being powerful, were actually posed in a sexually suggestive position of weakness. The male characters, on the other hand, exuded strength and power.

Here are a few examples:

While the male poses were easy to assume, the female poses were often physically painful if not physically  impossible.

I won't claim that this is a universal problem, but it is more common than I'd like, and it's just one of the problems with gender biases on book covers. (Don't get me started on covers made for female authors vs covers made for male authors; we could be here all week.)

Jim Hines

Comics Alliance via BoingBoing

About Nate Hoffelder (11591 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

17 Comments on No, Men and Women Aren’t Portrayed the Same in Comic Books (or on Book Covers, for That Matter)

  1. Have you ever noticed that acting in the US is mostly about looks not skills. for both genders.
    And then at the top level it is about fame (selling your looks and privacy ).
    That’s part of the problem here and it’s not about sexism. It a cultural dysfunction to put looks above all else but America is all about marketing , making everybody do the same thing because the TV said so. From what people eat at breakfast to what they drive and how they think ,it’s all shaped by some marketing push.It’s very weird how almost nothing is organic evolution, everything is first hype then becomes the norm.
    How many industries are pushing looks, beauty, social status? It’s hard to fight that. Why Google Glass was hated by many, because actors are hot. Why is Apple selling, because Harleys are cool. Why aren’t Americans saving 3-4k $ per year by buying a smaller car, because they have huge refrigerators.
    This is a far broader and complicated issue so might be hard to make the point clear in such a short post but can’t spend more time on it now.
    I’ll say one more thing though, maybe kids in schools should be taught how to better manage their money since this is a major economic problem too not just social.

    • “Have you ever noticed that acting in the US is mostly about looks not skills. for both genders.”

      Sadly, this is very true, and it is most obvious when a UK show is recast with American actors for the US market (see Life on Mars). What’s even worse is that many male actors here in the US are now being chosen for a particular phenotype. There are some shows where all the male leads look alike, and I have trouble telling the difference (Arrow).

      • I should have mentioned in my first post that equality doesn’t mean that women won’t be objectified just that men will also be (already are but maybe a bit less).
        As for movies it’s gotten so bad that often the viewer can’t even relate anymore. The actors are so polished that they are not people anymore.
        Lets say Scarlett Johansson , maybe her best movies are Lost in Translation and Her. In LoT she was a normal lovely girl and in Her she was just a voice. Maybe those are her best movies because in most others she’s just not real enough.
        Sure there are some exceptions to the all about looks theory but not many and yes there is a bit of gender inequality here too.

  2. It’s not an American versus other places phenomenon–that same culture exists in the UK and other European countries too (check the tabloids for what Kate and William had for breakfast–I’m sure it’s in there somewhere, along with what sex the baby is, where they were last seen, etc.) I don’t think UK covers are any better or less sexists overall than US covers. Oh sure, sometimes one country or the other might have a “better” cover for a particular book, but sexism exists and is blatant in many cultures/movies. Some movies in the UK are surely cast based on skill, and some are in the US as well.

    Now that that is out of the way, good article, Nate.

    • It is more of a western world problem but the US is likely leading the cultural decline. The UK is not only part of the western culture but it’s hugely influence by the US because of the common language so it’s a very poor example.
      The US consumer is a lot more vulnerable to marketing for many reasons. Culture, education, high income/low prices/low taxes and so on. The US market is plenty different overall. Pretty sure sexism is plenty different too but it’s very difficult to understand subtle differences from a distance.
      When it comes to just this tiny specific issue the article addresses maybe or maybe not. Can’t really think of any European comics besides Asterix and The Smurfs (and those 2 are certainly not part of the problem) . Don’t know anything about manga either, at all. Maybe it would be interesting to try to compare comics around the world and figure out if it is more of a US problem.
      How actors look (or are made to look) is a US thing and it’s very easy to spot the huge differences.

      • Well, try looking at the art of 2000 AD and HEAVY METAL going back to the 70’s before dumping on US comics. The art styles so strongly criticized are a relatively recent phenomenon (dating to the 90’s) and the primary practicioners are imports from the UK, Brazil, and Canada.

        Lost in the criticism are the many anime-inspired artists and the followers of the more classic illustration styles.

        More, comics are a declining art form that has shed over 90% of its audience in the past few decades with its ever increasing prices and declining page counts. Where a title that sold 25,000 copies in the 80’s would’ve been cancelled, today that level of sales constitutes a major hit.

        Which isn’t to say that comics (on both sides of the atlantic and pacific) don’t have a sexist streak, but to try to tie the failings of a dying business, pandering to its hardcore customers to a decline of “culture” and civilization is ludicrous.

        Lost in all the hand-wringing is that the bulk of the customers have already migrated to ebooks, TV, and movies (both theatrical and DVD). And to manga and anime, which have their own sexism issues but nobody tries to tie them to the “decline of western civilization” or crass materialism.

        Try going after more substantial and meaningful evils, guys.
        Women have far more important concerns than a few thousand guys buying comics about weight lifting pinup girls.

        (And, BTW, try actually reading a recent vintage She-Hulk comic before ranting. There is precious little pandering and more than a bit of girl-power whimsy and lawyer humor.)

        • Hmm. I don’t think the article was meant to be a tear-down of comics. I took it more as an example of bad covers that are over-aimed at a small segment and a tendency of an industry to think it has its audience figured out (sex sells) when in fact, the audience is more varied, smarter and more discerning than a few marketing folks in publishing expect it to be.

          But then, I’m familiar with the articles Jim Hines wrote too so there is a larger background I’m drawing from. Now as for saying it’s a 90s thing–with comics that may be true. However, if you look at some of the original Conan (and I mean the books/stories) and old sci/fi magazines–and for that matter some older covers for TOR and BAEN, I think you’ll see that this sort of thing did not start in the 90s. Wonder Woman has been around since before the nineties and, while I’m sure she is considered quite fashionable in some circles, her outfits are not necessarily all that utilitarian for battles, self-defense and heroism. Her poses are quite difficult to pull of as well. Many old sci/fi covers have barely-clad females with chain mail across strategic areas–because of course if you are going into a sword battle you need protective chain mail. Never mind you might want to cover a few more areas than two tiny ones.

          • My point is that we see the same kinds of articles over and over harping on the same whipping boys that represent a tiny fraction of the real problems, as if fixing comic book covers or condemning 80 year old pulps would bring on the jubilee.
            Comics aren’t even remotely mainstream or representative of anything cultural; making them stop their bad ways would in no measurable way improve the overall state of civilization.

            If even half the time spent harping on the same old sins, (providing free publicity to guys that put those covers up to try and prop up declining sales) were spent helping at soup kitchens, volunteering at community centers, or lobbying for tougher laws on domestic violence, I would be more impressed.

            Talk is cheap, especially on the internet.
            How about some deeds?
            How about boycotting Disney over the oh-so-demeaning Marvel covers? Or how about boycotting Time Warner over the gratuitous sex and nudity and offensive treatment of rape on GAME OF THRONES? Or all the porn money both derive off cable?

            When Bank of America announced yet another predatory fee rise, one young woman used the internet to take them on. And won. But she was actually serious about doing something about injustice.

            The comic book crusaders? I dunno how serious they really are but hand-wringing blog posts don’t impress me much anymore.

          • Here:
            http://petitions.moveon.org/

            Or, better yet:

            https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/

            Pretty easy to start a petition.
            Organize all the concerns and get it out there.
            Prove how serious the matter is.

        • You seem a bit confused.
          ‘but to try to tie the failings of a dying business, pandering to its hardcore customers to a decline of “culture” and civilization is ludicrous.”
          and soon after
          “Try going after more substantial and meaningful evils, guys.
          Women have far more important concerns than a few thousand guys buying comics about weight lifting pinup girls.”

          That’s exactly what i was doing, going after the bigger problem by placing the issue into context. Comics don’t exist in a void ,they are created by the world around them.
          People are attacking Playboy, Barbie, comics, PC games by taking them out of context and oversimplifying the problem. Comic books don’t live in the void, they are part of this world
          I argued that the problems are wider and deeper and it’s not really sexism to begin with, it’s addressing the market and objectifying the opposite sex . Yes going after minor things like this and taking it out of context won’t solve anything but at the same time they are part of the bigger problem and understanding them in that context would actually help.

          Anti-intellectualism, media culture are huge problems for everybody and a lot of minor things are just the result of that mess.
          Could be that i am focusing on other causes besides sexism because i can’t quite understand sexism , never seen women as inferior so not sure what sane person would (and why).

          PS: I don’t see sexual objectification as a feminist issue since anyone can be objectified and as i stated in a previous comment ,equality seems to result in both sexes being objectified, so more of it not less.

  3. @fjtorres — Actually when Jim Hines was doing his series of articles, he started it as an awareness and discussion on the models that were used on his own covers (and his acknowledgement that he had little say in them) and after the initial few posts and discussions, he did the remaining discussions/cover poses to raise money for a charity. It’s not likely that any of the authors involved (he involved several other authors including Scalzi) were participating due to declining sales. This last pose here that was a group effort:

    http://www.jimchines.com/2013/01/group-cover-pose-reveal/

    shows an AMAZING contrast when you reverse the “roles” and poses. This sort of thing may not solve world problems, but it does bring about an awareness and some of the photos (the one I linked to happens to be the best IMO) speak louder than words–a comparison of sorts of reality versus the make-believe, a contrast of supposed norms with real norms and how far some covers go–and don’t even really raise an eyebrow because such covers are so common.

  4. This is a vastly overly simplistic analysis that is slanted to fit into the “society objectifies women” meme. In the case of Playboy or Hustler, that label might fit, but for American comic books aimed at a tiny, generally young male audience, that is continuing to shrink, it’s not so clear cut.

    First, presently, the purpose of these covers is to explain to potential buyers that the stories inside fit into the basic super hero genre. So they have to visually look like most of the comics covers before them (particularly now, since there are a variety of comics that don’t fit into that genre). In the same way that romance novels often feature bare chested males (who happen to have pretty nice stomach and chest muscles). Or serious books have serious covers. Or non-fiction books often have white covers with two paired objects. The first purpose of these covers is to simply say, this is a superhero comic.

    As for why the books have those particular images, it’s important to understand that comic books in America have a long history of extensive censorship, that have shaped their insides and outside.

    Critics of these covers try to say that they are aimed at straight males, but I don’t think that’s always the case. A lot of comics are bought by young gays, bisexuals, and younger kids trying to figure out their sexual identity. In the fifties, comics were widely criticized as having a secret “gay” message and their were bans on them. Some of the overly macho imagery might be a historic effort to prove they were “straight” because they had mainly men on the covers and women who were sexy. America is so repressed about sexuality and sexual identity (as seen by all this arguing about the sexual implications of these covers) that even young boys and men who aren’t gay, would hesitate to buy a comic book that might look too “gay.” (Which is why I feel the Hawkeye project has a gay bashing edge to it. Showing men in feminine poses and then mocking them.)

    The other thing that people don’t want to talk about, is that many males (including straight males) identify with the female characters in a fantasy “if I was a girl that’s what I would be like” way. That’s why many males play video games as the female character, it’s actually a form of mental drag. Just as when men dress up in drag, they often portray exaggerated forms of femininity, when men want to fantasize about being a woman, say a super powered woman, they think in exaggerated terms of women who are very buxom or feminine. This has a lot to do with men feeling uncomfortable in their own identity and looking for an escape by being exploring femininity.

    In other cultures, like Japan, where they have less American sexual baggage (but plenty of their own), it is even common and popular to have male characters that transform into beautiful women, and there are also plenty of comic books with male gay themes that appeal to women imaging themselves as men. In America, the idea that genre bending comics like those can be targeted to young people sets off huge alarms. (And certainly wouldn’t have passed censors for the first fifty years or so of American comic book history.)

    It’s all about fantasy and fantasy is complex. It’s wrong to try to guess what is really going on in every readers head. But trying to say that this is about straight males who want to picture themselves as huge muscled monsters making out with frail buxom women is at best simplistic, and probably wrong in terms of what is really going in in the majority of peoples conciseness.

    Of course, none of this is going to stop the American puritanical instinct to yell at nasty boys for having nasty thoughts and looking at the wrong pictures because they should only think about sex in one way. That has a long history too.

    • Actually, my goal was to engage in literary criticism of certain tropes in comic books and books. I may have painted with too broad of a brush but I think my original goal was a valid one.

    • Interesting take.
      A few weeks ago i was comparing US movie ratings to EU ratings on IMDB and the US is far stricter with nudity and more relaxed when it comes to violence. I said nudity not sex because those are two very different things and oddly enough the problem seems to be nudity not sex.
      Also noticed that one of the favorite superpowers people would like to have is reading minds. There is a certain amount of voyeurism in that.

    • quote: That’s why many males play video games as the female character, it’s actually a form of mental drag. end quote

      Nonsense. It’s quite possible that many men or women play a female character because it FITS the story and one is needed to enrich the play, storyline and interactions. Playing games and writing characters is a form of creativity and storytelling. When I write a male character I don’t do it because I feel like being a guy that day; I do it because the story is enriched by the male point of view, the interaction between he and the other characters and the story itself needs one to tell the story I want to tell. Role playing in the game sense isn’t so cut and dried as “I’m pretending to be a girl, and I’m going to be a kick-ass girl.”

      And that is the whole point of this conversation. Depicting men and women as objects takes away from the fact that games, books and real life is a walk in different viewpoints and creativity. It’s about far more than “pretending” for the day. It’s realizing and valuing the contributions of others–by playing the part of a girl or boy, you might accidentally appreciate their attributes (other than the obvious sexual ones) including the fact that regardless of WHICH one anyone plays, we generally all the want the special abilities, we want to be strong, in control, desirable, powerful and kick-ass. We want to be important, we want to be the hero.

      To reduce role playing or the art of characterization to “it’s all about fantasy” is believing the cover shot and ignoring the complexity of recognizing that there is more to characterization than the muscles and the kickass. Even though people play games or read comics/books, most are hoping for a better storyline/plot than what is shown on the cover.

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