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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...

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


In PROOF OF EMBODIMENT I showed that it was bad logic to deem Superman's muscular visualization as simply "idealization," and concluded with this formula:

The best way to sum up the practical difference between true “idealization” and “embodiment”would be the following:

IDEALIZATION pertains to “things the hero does”
EMBODIMENT pertains to “things the hero is”

So let's look at the way Superman has been embodied:

And now the way his most famous female contemporary has been embodied:

Now, is Sheena automatically more "sexualized" than Superman?  Kelly Thompson's argument would say yes, simply because there's more flesh disclosed:

As readers of superhero comics we call ALL agree that most superheroes, both men and women, are subjected to the incredibly unforgiving spandex, latex, leather, etc. Spandex (etc.) is skintight and leaves little (if anything) to the imagination, but women are simply not dressed the same way that men are. Men, almost universally are covered from head to toe, while women are regularly subjected to: swimsuits, thongs, strapless tops, tops with plunging necklines, stiletto heels, boob windows, belly windows, thigh highs, fishnets, bikinis, and – apparently all the rage lately – costumes unzipped to their stomachs, etc. This is not equality.
Thompson's "almost" qualification clearly allows for the exceptions, one of whom she herself brings up:

In line with her understanding that form follows function where male heroes are concerned, Thompson defines this hero's costume (or lack of same) as functional:

When a male character has a crazy revealing costume it’s for a reason. Namor sometimes wears a Speedo. But that makes a certain amount of sense both from a job perspective (he lives in the ocean and is nearly invulnerable) and from a character perspective (he’s a known lothario and braggart who seems like he’d enjoy showing off his body)

At the same time, Thompson mentions another aquatic hero, Aquaman, as being one of those who does not wear a "crazy revealing costume," even though one would think that his oceanic existence would make a lack of clothes as much as a necessity as a similar existence does for Sub-Mariner.  Therefore, whatever factors contribute to Aquaman's being clad "head to toe," they don't seem to have anything to do with "function" in Thompson's sense.

Thompson goes out of her way to clarify that her problem with the male heroes isn't just their lack of sexy gear, but the fact that they don't expose more flesh:

Let’s look at ten of the (arguably) most popular marquee superheroes – Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Flash, Captain America, Wolverine, and Thor. Every single one of them are covered – almost literally head to toe. The most flesh you’d see on any of them are Thor and Wolverine’s arms. Scandalous!

However, one of the better-known male heroes who goes around wearing a good deal less than some females is curiously neglected by Thompson:

I would argue that the question of "function" is irrelevant to the question of the way in which a hero of either sex is embodied in terms of sexuality.  Not all aquatic heroes wear "crazy revealing costumes" in terms of how much flesh they reveal, nor do all aerial heroes, and so on.  Further, it's arguable that one artist may make the fully-clothed Aquaman more appealing than the nearly-unclothed Sub-Mariner, just as it's arguable that a fully-clothed heroine may be more appealing than a less-well-clad one than Sheena, above:

True, in this 1990s drawing by Jim Mooney of the character he rendered during the Silver Age, Supergirl's legs are bare like Sheena's, but I think it unlikely that any hetero reader capable of being turned on by the Mooney drawing would become less so because Mooney colored those legs so as to indicate the otherwise-invisible presence of leggings.

Throughout her argument Thompson frequently speaks of "sexualization" and "hyper-sexualization" as if they are one and the same, and nothing shows this confusion more than her attempt to lump in every aspect of superheroine costumes that show some degree of flesh-- like Wonder Woman's "swimsuit" costume in the picture seen above-- with those that really can fairly be deemed "hyper-sexualization" as per "thongs," "boob windows,"and "costumes unzipped to their stomachs."

And even though Thompson allows that a few characters might "enjoy showing off [their] bodies," she seems to feel that this would only be the case for those who are extreme extroverts, naming off both the Sub-Mariner and the White Queen as believable examples.  Yet because she recognizes no degree, something like the "belly window" becomes a symbol of hyper-sexualization whether it deserves to be or not. Here's the infamous Supergirl "belly shirt" that's been retconned out of existence:

Now, is it impossible for a real-life female-- much less a superheroine-- to wear such a costume without being an extreme extrovert/exhibitionist?  Of course it is.  I don't have a problem with Thompson's conviction that it gets monotonous when ALL heroines dress provocatively.  But the embodiment of Supergirl as a hot young girl who shows off one part of her body, the midriff, really should not be equated with this:

And incidentally, though Thompson doesn't address any of her female examples except White Queen as having their costumes justified by their character, the current Catwoman title does take pretty much the same approach as X-MEN's White Queen, making the long-time "heroic villainess" into a "danger junkie."  So one wonders whether this sort of characterization makes it OK under any circumstance for a female to display the old "costume unzipped to the stomach."

I suggest that though there's merit in Thompson's essential claim-- that female comics-characters are more egregiously hyper-sexualized than male ones-- her scattergun approach to all forms of sexualization robs her essay of any strong insights.  As discussed in EMBODIMENT, it's stunningly inaccurate to assume that male characters are less sexualized simply because they are dominantly "covered from head to toe."  What I believe Thompson truly objects to is the *feeling* of greater exposure for the heroines; the sense that they are always being subjected to the "male gaze" as promulgated by Laura Mulvey.  I'll address some of the problems with this tendency in Part 2.

ADDENDA: I should further note that though it would make a lot of "functional" sense for Hawkman or any aerial hero to be fully clad, as protection against the elements, the most likely reason Hawkman goes around half-clad is probably because his predecessors and inspirations, the Hawkman of Alex Raymond's FLASH GORDON, tended to go around without shirts much of the time-- and THEY probably did it because FLASH GORDON was imitating Hal Foster's TARZAN in its earliest years.  So again, male costumes are often designed with an eye to artistic style and/or previous inspirations rather than according to some pure functionalism.

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