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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, December 7, 2009

THIS IS YOUR BOD ON STEROIDS


























However, contrary to assumptions made by poster JR on a comments-thread that I'll be addressing as a separate post...



THIS...
is not.
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This is not "hypermasculinity," much less "steroidal" muscularity. What gender codes the latter image communicates, they certainly are not identical to the ones communicated by the former image.
Any questions??

7 comments:

Gene Phillips said...

Just for clarification, this is one of the JR posts to which I'm reacting, from 11-14-09:

"Modern superheros are overwhelmingly hypermasculine. Physically, they are not represented merely as fit and healthy guys who hit the gym a few times a week, they are overwhelmingly drawn to be hypermuscular and steroidal."

JRBrown said...

Hi Gene;

I've been tied up at work, so I'll respond more to your other posts later, but the Superman cover you post is not a modern superhero. It is from 1939, I believe. Steroids weren't available then. But Superman's character design was indeed designed to be hypermuscular by the standards of the day, back when Eugen Sandow and Charles Atlas were about as big as a man could realistically get. Look at 1930's pulp hero Doc Savage, another hypermasculine hero; his impressive, unmatched muscular development is constantly mentioned by the writer, but the cover models were never as bulky as modern superheroes (by which I primarily mean from the 80's onwards), since it wasn't physically possible to be as muscular as the Supreme cover is without modern pharmaceutical assistance.

Gene Phillips said...

My problem is that you and Noah are conflating the two forms of "hypermuscularity" without any attention to the different connotations of same. I'm as aware as you of the *partial* debt that Joe Shuster owes to the Charles Atlas bodybuilding ethos, but I wouldn't define this ethos as "hypermuscularity," much less "hypermasculinity."

Interestingly, the thousands of Charles Atlas ads that ran in comic books were predicated on the same idea as the Superman comic: you built up your muscles in order to beat off bullies, after which women cooed over you. Again, that's not exactly the exclusion of femininity even if the ad doesn't portray females as they would like to be portrayed.

I assume from your earlier reference that Cary Grant would be a possible image of what you deem "average muscularity" and therefore "average masculinity."

By the same token, then, a stringy-muscled individual like actor Sterling Holloway would be not only "hypomuscular" but also "hypomasculine." If I were him I'd be rather insulted.


I realize that you are trying to promote a typology of masculinity that you think is a dominant projection of modern masculine thinking, but I think you've oversimplified the complexities of the male side of culture enormously.

JRBrown said...

"I'm as aware as you of the *partial* debt that Joe Shuster owes to the Charles Atlas bodybuilding ethos, but I wouldn't define this ethos as "hypermuscularity," much less "hypermasculinity.""

You wouldn't? Shuster's Superman looks to have a fat-free body mass index of around 25-27 kg/m^2, which would put him in the top 1% or less of the modern American male population, and an even higher percentile of the 1938 male population (since there were more underweight and malnourished people then). Hypermuscularity is of course a relative term, but I think the top 1% counts.

I don't agree that there are "two kinds" of hypermuscularity, just a greater or lesser degree. Both "kinds", as you would have it, are built on the same predicate: masculine=strong=muscular=admirable, feminine=weak=skinny=sissy.

"Interestingly, the thousands of Charles Atlas ads that ran in comic books were predicated on the same idea as the Superman comic: you built up your muscles in order to beat off bullies, after which women cooed over you. Again, that's not exactly the exclusion of femininity even if the ad doesn't portray females as they would like to be portrayed."

I disagree; these ads reinforced a conception of masculinity that excludes feminine traits. As a man you were supposed to like women, but you weren't supposed to be like women. In this specific case, the ads present that men (and boys) are not supposed to be physically weak, or skinny, and that they are supposed to be physically aggressive when provoked. Weakness, lack of muscular development, and passivity/conciliation are stereotypically feminine traits (and traditionally viewed as desirable or at least appealing in women).

"I assume from your earlier reference that Cary Grant would be a possible image of what you deem "average muscularity" and therefore "average masculinity."

By the same token, then, a stringy-muscled individual like actor Sterling Holloway would be not only "hypomuscular" but also "hypomasculine." If I were him I'd be rather insulted."

The connection between muscularity and manliness isn't quite that direct; I am focusing on hypermuscularity because it is a) an extremely common (indeed, all-but-obligatory) component of hypermasculinity, b) easily measured and described, and c) generally considered (by men) to be desirable and attractive in and of itself. I could instead discuss, say, competitiveness or aggression as example traits, but then this would be an even longer and woolier argument.

And yes, low-muscle-mass men have traditionally been seen as hypomasculine. I did not invent this formulation.

Siegel and Shuster's Clark Kent, incidentally, was partially modeled on some of Cary Grant's movie roles, specifically as a "nerdy", un-masculine character.

"I realize that you are trying to promote a typology of masculinity that you think is a dominant projection of modern masculine thinking, but I think you've oversimplified the complexities of the male side of culture enormously."

Well, two ways of looking at this:

One, Noah started this discussion with the subject of comic books. We're mainly talking here about masculinity in men's adventure-spectacle media; superhero comics, pulp novels, action movies. There are, of course, other models of masculinity that are (and have been) in circulation in men's cultures; if you prefer, we could talk about the alternatives, but they're not reflected in these genres to anywhere near the same extent.

Second, I think the alternative masculinities that have existed since the 1880's or so are more-or-less polarized around accepting or rejecting the hypermasculine ideal, or specific components of it, so it's still the starting point for discussion.

Gene Phillips said...

JR said:

'I don't agree that there are "two kinds" of hypermuscularity, just a greater or lesser degree. Both "kinds", as you would have it, are built on the same predicate: masculine=strong=muscular=admirable, feminine=weak=skinny=sissy.'

I believe that male readers (who, we ageee, are the numerically-dominant readers of superhero comics) want to believe that their male heroes are characters who live up to their full potential, and that this is admirable. However, if these male readers are so monolithically obsessed with excluding the feminine as you say, then it should be functionally impossible for any feature starring a weak female to sustain any success in the American market.

And such a feat is not impossible, even if it's rare. The fact that there existed profitable comics featuring females-- ranging from WONDER WOMAN and BLACK CAT in the 40s to BIRDS OF PREY and VAMPIRELLA in the 90s-- pokes holes in your oppositional characterization of masculinity.

Gene Phillips said...

JR said:

"I disagree; these ads reinforced a conception of masculinity that excludes feminine traits. As a man you were supposed to like women, but you weren't supposed to be like women. In this specific case, the ads present that men (and boys) are not supposed to be physically weak, or skinny, and that they are supposed to be physically aggressive when provoked. Weakness, lack of muscular development, and passivity/conciliation are stereotypically feminine traits (and traditionally viewed as desirable or at least appealing in women)."

I don't think that the protagonist in the Atlas ads is ever presented as "feminine;" merely underdeveloped in comparison to what he can potentially attain. He's "weak" because he literally can't defend himself or his girl, but in building up his muscles he's not rejecting femininity, because he's not feminine to start with, even in a figurative sense. The ad presents his course of action, of meeting a threat by enhancing the manhood he already has, as quite logical, and in the terms of the situation presented, it is. He has that potential because he is a man, not because he's a woman-surrogate. The ad naturally does not suggest that the woman should build up her muscles too. Even if its creator had envisoned the possibility of a woman training to become more muscular, said creator would probably have concluded that she could never become as formidable as a full-blown muscle-head.

Thus, within the limited terms proposed by the ad, femininity is not rejected but is protected by masculinity from a masculine aggressor-- which I would argue is still a meme with considerable appeal for contemporary women, not just those of the Charles Atlas days.

Gene Phillips said...

"One, Noah started this discussion with the subject of comic books. We're mainly talking here about masculinity in men's adventure-spectacle media; superhero comics, pulp novels, action movies. There are, of course, other models of masculinity that are (and have been) in circulation in men's cultures; if you prefer, we could talk about the alternatives, but they're not reflected in these genres to anywhere near the same extent."

I wasn't referencing other genres or manifestations of men's cultures. I was saying that you and Noah were misrepresenting the ethos of "men's adventure-spectacle media," in that you fail to recognize the following:

(1) that those media include a variety of types that include not only the bull-necked muscleman (which I would say would include the Simon-Kirby Captain America) but also the slim athlete like the original Kane Batman and most of the Lou Fine protagonists, and also an assortment of "dapper" types who rarely even use their muscles, like the assorted magicians (Mandrake, Zatara and a couple dozen imitators). I believe this range can still be seen today though the Image type of the 90s has had a deleterious effect on variety.

(2) Even in the comics with "bull-necked" avengers, the stories do not exclusively emphasize the masculine traits you have described here and elsewhere but also emphasize the hero's charity and concern for innocents-- which by your lights ought to be considered "feminine" traits. It's a little easier to see in Golden Age comics because they're so much simpler, but I feel sure that aspect of superheroes has not totally disappeared (even if Frank Miller has been doing his damnedest to wipe it out!)