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The Myth of Sexy Superman and the Search for Superhero Beefcake [Op-Ed]

2011 was a good year for superhero beefcake. Not in comics, of course, but at the movies. And not in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality. What I’m saying is that Chris Hemsworth took his shirt off in Thor, and it was great.

All right, Chris Evans took his shirt off as well for his Charles-Atlas-ification in Captain America, and I understand Ryan Reynolds was briefly featured in his scanties before having his body replaced with a cantaloupe-skinned wire-frame in Green Lantern. That was it, though. The bar for superhero beefcake is set pretty low. And the bar is set low because the source material — actual superhero comics — has never been fertile ground for the shameless sexual objectification of men.

I know that sounds extraordinary to fans who insist that the men in superhero comics are objectified just as much as the women, but I speak as someone who spent his teen years hungry for comics that featured half-dressed supermen.As a hormonal gay adolescent in the pre-internet age I cherished those very occasional — and usually incidental — moments of shirtlessness. Marc Silvestri’s Havok in a torn-up costume as the Goblin Prince? John Romita Jr.’s Matt Murdock in tighty whities? Alan Davis’s Captain Britain in drawstring pajama pants? Joe Mad’s Banshee flashing his abs as he pulls on a sweatshirt? Any comic set in the Savage Land? These were my sacred texts. (And yes, I was a Marvel kid.)

Straight boys never have to hunt for that sort of fan service. The whole industry caters to their libidos. Gay boys and straight girls do not enjoy the same level of pandering. Sure, the men in these comics are usually buff and handsome, and they’re all dressed in skin-tight clothes and they all have six-pack abs. If you enjoy looking at athletic, attractive men, you will find athletic, attractive men in these books, especially when drawn by artists like Chris Sprouse, Dale Eaglesham, Nicola Scott and Olivier Coipel.

But it’s not equivalent. Superhero men are idealized, yes, but they’re rarely sexualized. While women are presented as broken-backed boob hostesses whose every move is a bend-and-snap designed to flatter and entice the presumed-male, presumed-straight reader, the men are sexless paragons of strength, with propaganda poster good looks that serve as visual shorthand for their masculine, heroic bona fides.

As a gay man, I want more from my objectification. I can’t speak for straight women, but I suspect they want better as well. [Editor's note: We do.] There’s a popular perception that women aren’t as shallow about appearance as men, and maybe that’s true, but they’re more than capable of being just shallow enough. Many women of my acquaintance prefer the pale, skinny men of BBC costume drama rather than the Hollywood jocks I like, but whether you want Chris Hemsworth or Tom Hiddleston, Paul Walker or Paul Bettany, Colin Farrell or Colin Firth, we all like to look.


Our culture is slowly shifting towards equal opportunity ogling. TV is leading the way both with shows that load their casts with obvious hunks, like Glee, Hawaii 5-0 and The Vampire Diaries, and with shows that shamelessly pander to a man-fancying audience with previously unimagined acres of muscled male flesh, like True Blood, Spartacus, and MTV’s Teen Wolf.

Movies are catching up as well. The scene in 2006′s Casino Royale when Daniel Craig stepped out of the water in tiny square-cut shorts was a watershed moment that opened the door to Taylor Lautner’s abs in Twilight: New Moon, Ryan Gosling’s abs in Crazy Stupid Love, and Ryan Reynolds’s abs in… every movie he makes. Marvel Studios has been smartly on-message in casting leads in its man-friendly movies that might appeal to the oft-neglected other major demographic.

Yet while Marvel Studios is moving in the right direction, actual superhero comics are about as backward as it gets. The see-saw is so tilted towards the exploitation of women that when Wonder Woman put on a pair of trousers there was an outcry, whereas no-one blinked when Namor swapped his swimming trunks for long trousers and a shirt, and Namor is not a character who is coy about his sexuality.

Male superheroes are not written sexy, they’re rarely drawn sexy, and they do not dress sexy. While maybe half of all female characters belong on a skin-baring scale from Star Sapphire to Wonder Woman, most male characters fit on a scale from Superman to Spider-Man. Batman has about as much skin showing on his chin as Power Girl shows on her boobs.


There are exceptions. Hercules, Hawkman and Grunge stand apart as heroes happy to flash the flesh, and they each have their fans. The other most scantily clad guys are monsters like the Hulk and the Thing, and even the Thing now wears a leotard, while no-one thinks the Hulk wears cut-offs to bring the girls to the yard. (If Hulk were drawn to be attractive, the way She-Hulk is, he’d look less like a sack of angry walnuts and more like a green Randy Orton.)

Most male heroes actually wear considerably more than wrestlers. They wear more clothes than gymnasts, rugby players or soccer players. Because so many heroes wear gloves and masks, they’re even overdressed compared to most soldiers. A thousand justifications are given for female characters to wear as little as they do, from “she’s a ninja who needs unrestricted movement” to “she’s an alien who isn’t hung up on our repressed human notions about sexuality,” yet male characters never benefit from the same excuses.

For example, why does Aquaman wear a shirt? Why does Thor wear armor? Why does Gambit wear high collars and metal boots when he would look better and be more in character in an open-neck shirt and long leather riding boots? Why did Superboy trade in the tight black t-shirt for Tron cosplay? And Northstar must have some idea what looks good on a guy, so why does he dress like a Christmas elf in a nunnery? I can’t think of any gay man with arms like that who keeps them covered up.


Then there’s the definitive example; Grant Morrison’s Marvel Boy (let’s please not call him Protector). He was meant to be a young, dumb, sexy character, especially as drawn with a J.G. Jones pout. He was a boyband babe who wore tight shorts and short sleeves, but now that vision of the character has been traded in for a guy in the standard spandex burqa of the superman.

Despite the convention for square-jawed heroes with broad shoulders and perfect abs, superhero comics are not courting the half of the world that likes a pretty guy. The industry has the talent — especially with an increasing number of straight women and gay men at the drawing boards — but it doesn’t have the will to pander to that audience. Comics lag behind other media because the dominant genre remains devoted to one demographic, while the rest of our culture increasingly wants to appeal to everyone.

In 2012 the best superhero beefcake will probably still come from the movies.

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