The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and Their ‘Liberated Sexuality’
Yesterday, two new comic books from the "New 52" relaunch of DC Comics provoked some online controversy: Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws. They were controversial in particular because of the way they depicted women, notably with the aggressively fanfictiony on-panel sex between Batman and Catwoman, and Starfire's transformation into a promiscuous tabula rasa who can't even remember the names of the men she sleeps with, and seeks out emotionless sex with both of the two male main characters while they essentially high five about it.
Since pointing out my issues with Starfire yesterday, I have received numerous e-mails -- from men -- accusing me of slut-shaming. Since there are a lot of people who don't understand the sexual dynamics that are in play here both creatively and culturally, I'd like to dissect this a little bit and explain why these scenes don't support sexually liberated women; they undermine them, and why after nearly 20 years of reading superhero books, these may finally have been the comics that broke me.I would like to say first and in the strongest possible terms that I absolutely support the right of women to embrace and act upon their sexual desires in whatever way seems right to them, within consensual boundaries. My sense of justice is inflamed by the double standard that tells us that every person a man sleeps with makes them more of a stud, and every person a woman sleeps with makes them a little less valuable and less respectable. I know this in particular because unlike all the guys who sent me angry messages last night defending the sexual honor of an imaginary character, that double standard is something l have had to live with and be judged by for my entire adult life.
And that is why books like Catwoman and Red Hood make me so goddamn angry.
Let's start with Catwoman. The writer and artist have decided that out of all possible introductions to the character of Selina Kyle, the moment we're going to meet her is going to be the one where she happens to be half-dressed and sporting bright red lingerie. That is in fact all we see of her for two pages: shots of her breasts. Most problematically, we are shown her breasts and her body over and over for two pages, but NOT her face. No joke, we get a very clear and detailed shot of her butt in black latex before we ever see her face looks like. Can't you show us the playful or confident look in her eye as she puts on her sexy costume? Because without that it's impossible to connect with the character on any other level than a boner, and I'm afraid I don't have one of those.
Like I said, I'm on board with the hot ladies; part of what got me into comics back in the day was being a 12-year-old girl who looked at strong, beautiful characters like Rogue and Jean Grey and Storm and wanted to be like them in large part because they were so sexy and confident and had exciting romances. Those books managed to offer characters that I'm certain appealed to men as well, but always felt like people instead of window dressing. I have long maintained that to bring in more female readers, superhero comics don't even need to specifically target women as much as they need to not actively offend them. This is not an insanely hard to thing to do, and yet here we are.
The money shot that most people have latched onto in Catwoman, however, is the one where Batman and Catwoman have sex on a rooftop. "What's wrong with Batman having sex?" You might ask. There's nothing wrong with Batman having sex. Or Catwoman, or Starfire, or any other hero. The problem isn't the plot point. If you're an adult, you've probably seen dozens if not hundreds of movies that included sex scenes. The mere fact that a piece of media depicts a sexual act doesn't tell you very much about how that scene is going to make you feel. You might be titillated, or bored, or grossed out, or any number of things. Your reaction depends not on the facts of what happens, but on the way it's presented. And while as with all aesthetic opinions your mileage may vary, this does not look sexy to me; it looks like a creepy fanfiction drawing.
Here's the question, though: Why? I know why Catwoman and Batman would have sex; there's nothing wrong with the idea. We saw him hook up with Talia in Son of the Demon and that was pretty cool. I mean literally, why is that last page a full-page splash of Batman actually penetrating Catwoman? Why do we need to see that? What does it accomplish or tell us about the characters that would have been lost if that page had been omitted?
The answer is nothing. They just wanted to see Catwoman and Batman bang on a roof. And that is the whole problem with this false notion of "sexually liberated" female characters: These aren't those women. They're how dudes want to imagine those women would be -- what Wire creator David Simon called writing "men with t*ts." They read like men's voices coming out of women's faces. Or worse, they read like the straight girls who make out with each other at clubs, not because they enjoy making out with women but because they desperately want guys to pay attention to them.
This is not about these women wanting things; it's about men wanting to see them do things, and that takes something that really should be empowering -- the idea that women can own their sexuality -- and transforms it into yet another male fantasy. It takes away the actual power of the women and turns their "sexual liberation" into just another way for dudes to get off. And that is at least ten times as gross as regular cheesecake, minimum.
Here is what it looks like just before Starfire tries to initiate sex.
Why is she contorting her body in that weird way? Who is she posing for, because it doesn't even seem to be Roy Harper? The answer, dear reader, is that she is posing for you. News flash: Starfire isn't being promiscuous because this comic wants to support progressive notions of gender roles. Starfire is being promiscuous so that you can look at pictures like this:
If you really want to support Starfire's "liberated sexuality" like she's somehow a person with real agency, what people should really be campaigning for is more half-clothed dudes in suggestive poses to get drawn around her, since I'm sure that's what she'd like to see. But people don't really want that, do they? Because it's not about what Starfire wants. It's about what straight male readers want. And they want to see Starfire with her clothes falling off. And hey, hey -- there's nothing wrong with that specifically, but let's be honest about what's happening and who we're serving (or not serving) and at whose expense. And let's be honest about the fact that this treatment happens almost exclusively to women, which is a huge part of what makes it so problematic.
Incidentally, while the Starfire here wants emotionless, casual sex with people whose names she can't remember, that's very much a departure from her previous incarnation, where she came from a culture that was primarily about love, not being available for joyless hookups with random dudes:
Conversely, if you would like to see an example of an extremely well-done superhero sex scene, check out the Spider-Man/Black Cat hookup from Amazing Spider-Man Present Black Cat #1 by Jen Van Meter and Javier Pulido, where Felicia is presented as a tough, sexy lady who knows what she wants sexually and unapologetically goes out to get it. Visually, the morning after is presented on a level playing field with Spider-Man hilariously hanging out in his boxers. Note: This is also a scene where the two superheroes have sex without knowing each other's real identities, and yet it couldn't feel more different from how that happens in Catwoman.
There's lots of room for these books and I welcome them, the same way I welcome Empowered, which I think is particularly successful at having fun with cheesecake in a very self-aware way. It's good for comics to have well-executed sexy books just like it's good to have well-executed sci-fi comics and well-executed horror comics and good comics in any genre. The only reason there might be a problem with a sexed up superhero title like Empowered was if that was the way women were depicted all the time. And the problem is that in a lot superhero comics, it kind of is.
Below on the left, I submit to you one of the starkest visual differences between men and women in superhero comics. On the ground, we see how the editors and writers and artists have chosen to dress a male Lantern, and standing above him we see how they have chosen to dress a female Lantern. These characters didn't appear out of thin air one day; someone designed them to look the way they look, and designed it for a very specific reason. And those design choices shape the way that the universe treats women generally. And on a more personal level, it also plays a big role in how DC Comics tells me they see people like me. Because I know that institutionally, they don't treat men like that; we're never going to see a major hero like Hal Jordan in a costume like one on the right as imagined by Deviant Artist Bionarri.
But the problem isn't Star Sapphire. Or Catwoman. Or Starfire. Or Dr. Light raping Sue Dibny on the Justice League satellite or that stupid rape backstory Kevin Smith gave Black Cat or the time Green Lantern's girlfriend got murdered and stuffed in a refrigerator. The problem is all of it together, and how it becomes so pervasive both narratively and visually that each of these things stops existing as an individual instance to be analyzed in a vacuum and becomes a pattern of behavior whose net effect is totally repellent to me. As an anomaly, maybe Starfire could be funny, the way the big-breasted, over-sexed Fritz (who even got her own porno comic, Birdland, which is pretty good if you're into that) is often funny in Love and Rockets, mostly because the series is already packed full of incredibly diverse, fully-realized female characters. But as the 5,000th example of a superhero comic presenting female sexuality in tone-deaf ways, it's just depressing.
In Red Hood and the Outlaws, this is DC Comics tells me a male hero looks like, and what a female hero looks like:
In Catwoman, this is what DC Comics tells me a male hero looks like, and what a female hero looks like:
This is not an anomaly. This is the primary message that I hear. And it is one that I only hear about the people who are like me -- the women -- and not the men.
And the problem is that when I look at these women, I would very much like to see confident ladies who enjoy sex and are having a fun sexy time. But what I see instead are women who give me the same impression as creepy dead-eyed porn stars mechanically mouthing "oh yeah, I want it." And that feeling of coerced sexual enthusiasm is the creepiest, saddest, most unerotic thing I can imagine. And if I were able to have a boner, seeing something like that would make me lose it every time.
When I read these comics and I see the way the female characters are presented, I don't see heroes I would want to be. I don't see people I would want to hang out with or look up to. I don't feel like the comics are talking to me; I feel like they're talking about me, the way both Jason Todd and Roy Harper talk about Starfire like two dudes high fiving over a mutual conquest (left).
I've heard people citing everything from Starfire's cultural background to her recent experiences with slavery(?!) as reasons for her promiscuity, the same way I've heard that it is totes cool for the debut issue of Voodoo, the first black female character to get her own DC ongoing series, to open with her stripping on her knees while men throw money at her, because she has a previously established history of being a stripper. But let's be honest -- they didn't make her a stripper because they really wanted to create a positive and well-rounded portrait of sex workers and how they exist in our culture. And you want to know how I know that? Because this is not what that looks like:
This is not the picture of that. And honestly I don't care if the final art next week reveals that she's reciting the Vagina Monologues or long excerpts from books by Gloria Steinem; it is not going to change the way looking at the image makes me -- or a lot of women -- feel, or the message it sends about how that comic regards ladies.
Female characters are only insatiable, barely-dressed aliens and strippers because someone decided to make them that way. It isn't a fact. It isn't an inviolable reality, especially in a comic book universe that has just been rebooted. In the end, what matters is what you choose to show people and how you show them, not the reasons you make up to justify it. Because this is comics, everybody. You can make up anything.
Most of all, what I keep coming back to is that superhero comics are nothing if not aspirational. They are full of heroes that inspire us to be better, to think more things are possible, to imagine a world where we can become something amazing. But this is what comics like this tell me about myself, as a lady: They tell me that I can be beautiful and powerful, but only if I wear as few clothes as possible. They tell me that I can have exciting adventures, as long as I have enormous breasts that I constantly contort to display to the people around me. They tell me I can be sexually adventurous and pursue my physical desires, as long as I do it in ways that feel inauthentic and contrived to appeal to men and kind of creep me out. When I look at these images, that is what I hear, and I don't think I even realized how much until this week.
In many ways, the constant barrage of this type of imagery (and characterization) is not unlike the sh*tty neighborhood I used to live in where every time I walked down the street, random people I didn't know shouted obscene comments about my body and told me they wanted to have sex with me. And you know, maybe a lot of those guys thought they were complimenting me. Maybe they thought I had tried to look pretty that day and they were telling me I had succeeded in that goal. Maybe they thought we were having a frank and sexually liberated exchange of ideas. I'm willing to be really, really generous and believe that's where they were coming from. But in the end, it doesn't matter that they didn't know it was creepy; it doesn't matter that they "didn't get it," because every single day I lived there they made me feel like less of a person.
That is how I feel when I read these comics.
And I'm tired. I'm so, so tired of hearing those messages from comics because they aren't the dreams or the escapist fantasies or the aspirations that I want to have. They don't make me feel joyful or powerful or excited. They make me feel so goddamn sad that I want to cry, because I have devoted my entire life to comics, and when I read superhero books like these I realize that most of the time, they don't give a sh*t about me.
I have been doing this for a long time, now. I have lived in the neighborhood of superhero comics for a long time. And frankly, if this is how they think it's ok to treat me when I walk down the street in a place that I thought belonged to me just as much as anyone else who lives here, then I'm not sure I want to live here anymore.