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Comic Book Cheesecake: When Does Sexy Get Sexist?

With the Power Girl series hot on the racks (no pun intended), Comixology writer Noah Berlatsky — who admits that he’s a fan of cheesecake imagery, generally — had a bit to say about the way superheroines are drawn in comics, and how a lot of superhero comics are trying to have their cheesecake and eat it too:

…if you’re going to have pictures of sexy women, and the pictures of sexy women are why you’re there, maybe it makes more sense to just admit that, and not disingenuously pretend that you’re interested in what’s going on in their heads. If you make it simply about visual stimulation, it’s simply about visual stimulation, and doesn’t have to have anything to do (or at least, not much to do) with real women. Once you start pretending that you’re talking about a smart, motivated, principled adventurer, on the other hand, you end up implying that said smart, motivated, principled, adventurer has an uncontrollable compulsion to dress like a space-tart on crack. Which is, it seems to me, insulting.

So when does comic book art cross over from drawing attractive pictures of attractive ladies to pandering or being insulting? Is it simply with how skin much they show, or whether they are treated as serious characters, or whether the artists force them to swivel their breasts towards the viewer in every panel for no reason? Where do you draw the line, and why?

More after the jump.Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with visually enjoying things — and people — that are attractive. I like looking at attractive people. Babies like looking at attractive people. By definition, we all like looking at things that attract us, and surely there is a time and place for appreciating something on the basis of its beauty, whether it’s a sunset, a painting, or a body.

Of course, it’s important to remember that in real life is different from fantasy — sexual or otherwise — and that actual people are more than just bodies or photos or drawings, and should be treated that way. But plenty of people respect their girlfriends and boyfriends as people, while also having moments where they look at their bodies in a purely sexual way, and the two are not mutually exclusive. So it’s not a matter of whether or not looking at people (or the case of art, drawing them) sexually is “wrong,” but rather when it’s appropriate to do it.

If a superheroine is going out for a night on the town or hanging out by the pool, it makes sense for her be rocking miniskirts and bikinis that make your jaw drop. But if she’s commanding a team in the middle of a life or death battle, forcing her in a barely-there swimsuit and contorting her into orgasmic poses is less appropriate, because it draws the reader away from her role as a serious character — and the things she’s doing and choosing and accomplishing — and focuses them on her rack instead.

I don’t think the issue is whether or not serious characters should be sexy — how boring would it be if our fantasy characters had to dress like they were Amish? — but when that should be emphasized, and to what degree. Of course, there are also characters who aren’t supposed to be Serious Warriors or district attorneys or government agents, but simply hot chicks or femme fatales whose sex appeal is part of their role in the story, and that’s a different thing as well.

In the case of Power Girl, Nina Stone has an interesting take on the bustiness of the Kryptonian firecracker currently drawn by Amanda Conner, and why the mere fact of her enormous cleavage doesn’t mean have to mean anything one way or another: “I guess I just don’t see what is being oppressed here. Is there some strong feminine story that could be told if this character didn’t have large breasts? What is it I’m missing?”

Berlatsky adds that what offends him most about superhero cheesecake is often how poorly it’s done — that what it portrays isn’t sexiness at all, but rather a total disregard for the female anatomy it’s supposed to glorify. In contrast to pin-ups from artists like Dan Decarlo and Jack Cole, who “seem to care about women enough to have looked at one or two of them at some point,” Berlatsky says that “super-heroine cheesecake is often offensive just because it’s so thoroughly incompetent… You look at super-heroine cheesecake, and you get a sense of a boys’ locker-room cluelessness so intense that it is indistinguishable from disdain. Honest sensuality in these circumstances would be a relief.”

Observe. Exhale.

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