The Naughty Knot: Unpacking Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso’s Comments On Sex Appeal And Diversity
In an interview with The Telegraph's Radhika Sanghani, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso offered some insights into how he regards the superhero comic industry's treatment of female characters -- and his own intentions towards diversity.
The interview is chiefly noteworthy for confirming what already seems apparent from recent changes in Marvel's line-up, namely that Marvel understands and is responding to demographic changes in the marketplace. "We believe there's an audience of women out there who are hungry for this [product] and we want to make sure they get it," said Alonso. "This is affirmative action. This is capitalism.”
Capitalism is not the starry-eyed spark for change that many of us might wish for, but realistically it's usually the most effective. Comics is a business -- and a very risk-averse business at that. Despite being relatively agile among entertainment media, with quick turnarounds and minimal personnel, superhero comics tend to follow change rather than trying to lead it.
The good news is that Marvel sees a profit motive and is not averse to it. The conservative instincts of superhero publishers -- with their attentions fixed on known brands and past glories -- can easily lead to a reflexive rejection of anything that feels unfamiliar, such as the paradigm-spinning notion that women are people and not set dressing. It's sad to say it, but it actually feels like a win just to have evidence that the industry isn't sliding backwards.
In this instance, superhero comics might actually be moving forwards. Alonso says in the interview that he's open to the idea of a transgender hero (we hope more than one) and to more stories about sexuality. We'll interpret this as a green light to Marvel's freelancers to go ahead and pitch those stories, and to Marvel's editors to go ahead and look for them. Let's all meet back here in a year's time to see how we got on. (Don't worry; we'll keep beating those drums in the meantime.)
Of course, Alonso's comments do not reflect a total rejection of the past. "I don't want to run away from sexy characters," he states, "but I think there's a difference between characters being sexy and gratuitous. It comes down to context. I won't say we won't do sexy female characters. That's preposterous and ridiculous. For one thing it's in the eye of the beholder."
There are two vital phrases here that I'll need to swing back to, but let's first agree that no-one should want to run away from sexy characters, except perhaps in a playfully coquettish way. "Sexy" is a useful spice in the world of superhero fiction, just as it is in video games, music, blockbuster movies -- but it's a bad restaurant that serves "sexy" in every dish. There should be sexy women in superhero comics for the guys and gals who enjoy sexy women.
To give an example of a time that sexy perhaps wasn't the right spice for the dish, another recent Alonso interview over at CBR saw him apologize for the mixed message sent by the Milo Manara Spider-Woman #1 variant cover. Alonso conceded that the cover does not reflect the tone of the new series by Dennis Hopeless and Greg Land. Rather than be adversarial about criticism, Alonso very gratifyingly said that he both respects and understands people's objections to the cover.
That's not a retreat, but an acknowledgement of nuance. Marvel's women shouldn't only be sexy. And they shouldn't only be one kind of sexy.
This is where we come back to those two key phrases. First, "It comes down to context." Alonso recognizes that a character like teen hero Ms. Marvel should never be sexed up. But the question I would ask as a follow-up is, should female superheroes default to sexy when the context allows it? Is a woman presenting her butt part of a "sexy" context, or is it the standard context? I think for too long the answer was that this sort of objectification is standard. It requires a concerted effort to move away from it.
Second, Alonso says that sexy is "in the eye of the beholder." That thought is presented here as a way of suggesting that Marvel could never de-sexy all its women, because you can't control what people find sexy. Some people are really into nuns! You just can't control it!
But the admission here is that Marvel knows there is more than one sexy aesthetic in the world, which may come as news in an industry where "sexy" conforms to a rather narrow, porn-influenced view of women, commodified as big-haired, half-dressed, conventionally curvaceous Amazons with a special today on boob and butt.
There's little sexiness out there for readers who like their women muscular, or butch, or short, or heavy, or -- dare I say it -- with small breasts. If your idea of a sexy outfit diverges away from wrestling leotards and swimsuits and towards contemporary or alternative styles, you'll have to pick out whatever scraps you can find.
Sanghani touches on this point in her interview, and Alonso admits that body shape is
"part of our discussion," but he also suggests that he wants to honor the conventions of "characters in brightly colored tights saving the world from epic destruction."
The bright colors and the world-saving aren't any kind of obstacle to diversification; the problem may only be what sort of body shapes a superhero publisher is comfortable showing inside a pair of tights. Women come in more than one flavor of "sexy," and recognizing that fact is good for both straight male readers and the new female readers that the publisher hopes to attract.
"I want to make sure I have books like Ms. Marvel and Black Widow that I'm proud about and could give to my daughter," says Alonso, "But at the same time I don't want to be the PC police and say you can't be naughty; you can't be fun."
By saying he doesn't want to be "the PC police," Alonso hopefully means only that he doesn't want to be a prude. "Political correctness" is a bogeyman term invented by social regressives to re-frame sensitivity and acceptance as partisan acts. It's not something anyone at Marvel should be afraid of.
But aside from that unfortunate phrasing, Alonso's instincts are laudable here. Marvel should make comics for a young female audience -- both because it's the right thing to do culturally and the right thing to do financially. And those comics don't need to be sexy.
Marvel should also make comics that are naughty and fun -- and every type of reader deserves a share of that naughtiness and fun. On which note, Alonso makes an admission that's going to come as a shocking revelation to a certain kind of fan; "I don’t think men are as sexualized as women."
We've made this point many times over, and we're not alone in making it; women in superhero comics are sexualized to make them appealing to straight men, and men in superhero comics are idealized also to make them appealing to straight men. Alonso is under-stating the reality; men in superhero comics are almost never sexualized. The sexual appeal of male characters is almost always accidental and incidental.
If Marvel is committed to both female readers and "sexy" characters... well, you can probably complete the equation yourself.
Marvel editor Tom Brevoort was recently asked on Tumblr, "How could there not be an audience for [male pin-up] variant covers" like the ones Manara has drawn of female heroes -- particularly given how many popular blogs are dedicated to male pin-up art. Brevoort responded, "Just because people will read something for free doesn't mean that they’ll seek it out and pay money for it."
Given how many artists on Tumblr derive income from male pin-up art, I've likened Brevoort's comment to a man standing at an open bar and claiming no-one really likes alcohol. His reticence to acknowledge a paying audience for male pin-ups perfectly shows how superhero comics' conservative instincts lead to a reflexive rejection of change.
But it's also an attitude that doesn't sit comfortably alongside Alonso's claim that he doesn't want to "run away from sexy characters."
Sexy superhero characters are great, but if it's all one type of sexy superhero character -- say, only women, and only women that conform to a certain physical type -- then that's a problem. That's perpetuating social values that treat women unequally based on their appearance.
If publishers insist on treating women differently, no number of Ms. Marvel comics is going to convince any daughter that they're valued just the same as any son.