Why Big Superhero Muscles Aren’t ‘The Same Thing’ As Sexy Curves
As a man who reads superhero comics, I confess that I share a commonly-held prurient interest in big-chested, long-legged heroes in skin-baring costumes that barely cover their naughty bits -- or as I like to call him, Namor.
Sadly, Namor is pretty much alone in his category. Contrary to the perception that male heroes in comics are frequently sexually objectified, it's my experience that even Namor is only rarely presented as someone to lust over. Yet I'm fortunate that my tastes run towards the Hemsworth end of the scale. Like many straight men, I admire the kind of buff dudes that are the staple of superhero comics, even though they are rarely sexualized. If I shared the tastes of most of the women I know, I think I'd find superhero comics an even more frustratingly sexless wasteland.
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.
Yet I've seen it said more times than I can count that male heroes are objectified, sexualized, idealized, just the same as the women -- because they're big and ripped and dressed in tight costumes. It's an idea that's completely tied up in the narcissistic notion that androphile women are attracted to the same qualities that men find appealing.
Talk to a few women, and you'll find that's broadly untrue.
"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."
The broad consensus is that lean muscle is sexier than bulk -- and that's not only true among the women I spoke to for this article, but among the women I've spoken to in a lifetime comparing notes about hot guys. The superhero names that keep coming up as popular examples of sexy dudes among androphile women are Nightwing, Gambit, and Hawkeye -- all gymnasts rather than powerhouses.
Too much testosterone can be a turn-off. The women I interviewed were turned on by guys whose masculinity is tempered by other qualities: guys who can be a little goofy; guys with generous smiles; guys with feminine features.
"A mixture of masculine features with a brush of effeminacy is most appealing to me," said Sarah. Another respondent, Tiger, agreed; "I really love men who have a blend of masculine and femme features. Like muscly gachimuchi kinda dudes with lush eyelashes and a full mouth, or graying angular older gents with big doe eyes, or fellas with dainty complexions on a firm jaw with soft eyes and unruly caterpillar brows."
Long hair, long eyelashes, full lips, soft eyes. It seems obvious to say it, but faces matter -- and in superhero comics it perhaps isn't that obvious, because men's faces are frequently obscured to protect their "secret identities," which apparently is less of a priority for female heroes.
"Faces are very important," said Amy. "It's better if most of the face shows -- Winter Soldier, Nightwing, Gambit, Iron Fist -- than if it doesn't -- Flash, Red Hood, Iron Man." Seeing faces not only allows the reader to appreciate fine features and intense smolders, but it also makes the characters more expressive. Personality is sexier than dour macho grimacing.
None of this is to suggest that androphile women never find broad shoulders or six-pack abs attractive -- the cut obliques that form a classic "Adonis belt" seem particularly popular -- it's just that the muscles that some straight men claim are drawn as titillatingly as the female forms they admire is neither the whole thing nor even the first thing androphile women mention.
When women's magazines post polls of the hottest guys in the world, classic hero-types like Chris Hemsworth, Henry Cavill, and Chris Evans all place very high. But it's worth noting that Chris Hemsworth's eyelashes are a feature you never see in any comic version of Thor; Henry Cavill's bone structure places him at the high end of pretty compared to any print version of Superman; and Chris Evans brings a sensitivity to Captain America that the comics rarely show. New international sweetheart Chris Pratt literally provided a whole new charmingly goofy personality for Star-Lord, a generic straight-laced dude hero that few readers could previously have pinned a specific personality trait to.
And for all their size, none of these guys are actually roided-out monsters. Today's leading men are a lot leaner and sweeter than the Schwarzeneggers and Stallones of yesteryear -- and these new hunks share room at the top of magazine polls with the lean or skinny bodies of guys like Tom Hiddleston, Zayn Malik, Zac Efron, Pharrell Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, and James McAvoy.
The women I interviewed nominated Timothy Olyphant, Ben Wishaw, Aidan Turner, Jensen Ackles, and Tom Hardy as personal pin-ups -- all of them either very lean or with markedly pretty features, or both. (Hardy is a brick, and Ackles looks like a farm boy, but Hardy's lips and Ackles' eyes could both win best-in-class when it comes to prettiness.)
All my interviewees agreed that superhero comics don't pander to their tastes -- Tory noted that she feels like she's not even supposed to find these men sexy. But do these women want to be pandered to?
"Yes," said Sarah. "Yes please." Tiger added; "YES. ALWAYS."
But all the women I spoke to also had more nuanced answers to offer. "Humanizing heroes is what makes them appealing to me in the first place, and I think having a character be relatable is appealing on a level of its own," said Sarah.
"I love sexy. But at the same time I don't like the way women are made sexy all the time," said Tory. "It's exhausting to have to deal with that. I want sexy, but not at the expense of the story."
"I think the best way to 'pander' to me, or frankly the greatest slice of heterosexual women, is to incorporate a range of body types, facial features, and ethnicities," said Lysandra. "Because what I like isn't necessarily what another woman will, and even my preferences change a lot."
"I want fully realized characters -- if they're sexy, that's a bonus but not totally necessary," said Amy. She notes that male characters are often presented as sexy by having female characters drape themselves over them, and that doesn't work for her. "Give me guys who are more [defined by the] female-gaze, keep their faces visible, and don't try to make them sexy just by making them have sex."
Tiger agrees that superhero comics have a lot to learn when it comes to embracing male sexuality for female readers. She wants editors to shake off the puritanism that puts Namor in long trousers, and to embrace ideas like the recent Kris Anka X-Factor cover that showed Gambit naked in bed (but for a well-placed bed sheet, in the final version). "Let your artists run free. Let them draw all the assless pants and naked butt, and lovingly render that V-curve on lower waists."
As for who should do the pandering, my interviewees had plenty of suggestions. Tory said that Becky Cloonan and HamletMachine are "miles above the rest" when it comes to drawing the kind of sexy she finds appealing. Lysandra singled out Fiona Staples -- "it's great to see at least one mainstream comics artist drawing male characters with necks!" -- while Sarah praised Kevin Maguire and Stefano Caselli for the way they convey character through facial expression and body language.
Amy highlighted a number of artists who excel at drawing pretty, youthful guys, including Marcus To, Jo Chen, Francis Manapul, and the man she credits with first finding Nightwing's sex appeal, George Pérez. Tiger noted that artists with a background in illustration, like Phil Noto and Mike Mayhew, often seem the most comfortable portraying genuinely handsome men in their work. Kevin Wada, Olivier Coipel, and Sara Pichelli were all named more than once for their shared gift for drawing sexy men.
The pool of artists within superhero comics who can turn their hands to equal opportunity sexiness is only going to keep expanding -- and the audience for those comics is growing as well. Finding the will to bridge the gap between those two groups lies in the hands of publishers.
If those publishers aren't sure how to appeal to a female audience after years of trying to please male readers with hyper-buff grimacing supermen, here's a hot tip for finding out what women want: