Friday, May 18, 2012

THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES PART 2


Most people who read this column regularly know how I feel about these issues [of objectification and hyper-sexualization]. The short version is that I think it’s a big problem that extends far beyond comics and like other media, it really affects the way people view women, and how women, especially young women, view themselves. I don’t think “it’s just comics” and it doesn’t matter. I think media is a powerful thing in our society and that there’s a trickle down effect in seeing these portrayals reinforced over and over again. These portrayals shape how we view and value women and contributes to everything from sexism in the work place to eating disorders.-- Kelly Thompson, No, It's Not Equal.
At the end of Part 1 I said:



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.

I want to emphasize the word "tendency" because I'm not claiming that Thompson has been either directly or indirectly influenced by the Laura Mulvey essay. I'm saying that she makes an assertion which parallels the same tendency I see in Mulvey's essay, where any sexual view of women is anathematized.  Mulvey's last sentence speaks of "women, whose image has continually been stolen and used for this end."  Thompson's essay is neither as radical nor as academically turgid as Mulvey's, but I think that there is an oppositional aspect of the former essay that has been overlooked in the circles of comics-fan online response.

Thompson doesn't spend any time proving her case that the "portrayals" of objectivized women contribute to "everything from sexism in the work place to eating disorders"-- though she may have done so in other essays-- but focuses only on one unattributed assertion made in a comment-thread, which Thompson says that she's seen in many other versions:

The, “Comic books are sexist to women” argument does not work, simply because it is not just women who are being objectified.
It isn’t about ‘how’ the characters are objectified, it’s about the fact that they are objectified at all. And men and women are both idealized in ridiculous fashions. That is why the argument on how women in comics are objectified will forever be flawed, because it is not an objective criticism.
Just like her title says, her essay is entirely devoted to disproving this, but in keeping with her dislike of "vitriolic comments," Thompson does not *overtly* anathematize those who defend female objectification:


while you can personally decide that you LIKE seeing objectification of women in your comic books, and you can decide that you are quite content with the status quo, or that you don’t think it’s detrimental to women and it doesn’t bother you, the idea that women and men are treated visually the same in superhero comics is utter crap.
And toward the essay's end, the above thought is repeated:


again I have to say, you are free to like this, and to advocate for it if you think it’s really the best thing about superhero comics and something that you love about the medium and genre no matter what, that’s your prerogative, but please, stop with this cry of “It’s equal!” because it’s really really not.
Many of Thompson's respondents, as well as several of the negative respondents on my Sequart essays, were beguiled by this seeming tolerance for disparate tastes.  I initially had a similar response that I placed on the Thompson comments-thread on 2-27-12:

I’ll add that one thing I did appreciate about the essay was that Thompson doesn’t call for any jeremiads. She’s very explicit about saying, “If this is the type of thing you like, that’s one thing, but just don’t pretend it’s fair and balanced.”
And yet, as I've intermittently assailed several of the weak points of the essay over the past few months, most of the responses to my essays have been jeremiad-like in tone.  My most moronic critic (I hardly need name him) has accused me of trying to pretend that there is no sexism in the sexual representations of comic books.  Thompson's not responsible for these dimbulbs, of course.  But I do think she is responsible for rendering a very poor definition of the "sexism problem," and that she has constructed an oppositional "either/or" that tends to attract those who want simple solutions no less than the fans she excoriates for "tunnel vision."  So these days I tend to think that she did manage to launch a jeremiad, albeit a more *subtle* one than most of its breed.  And Thompson did so by focusing on the question of "equality."

American culture is founded on the ideals of fair play and equal opportunity, no matter how often various forces conspire to establish unfair hegemonies or hierarchies.  American feminism is from the first an opposition to a hierarchy inherited from the Old World: the bifurcation of societal roles and rights based on gender identity. 

In No, It's Not Equal, Kelly Thompson focuses most of her attention on the inequity of male and female portrayals in comic books.  This in itself could be a worthy undertaking.  However, as if to provide proof for the statement made by the unnamed poster Thompson opposes-- who states that "the argument on how women in comics are objectified will forever be flawed, because it is not an objective criticism"-- Thompson fails to define her criteria by any objective method.  She gives the impression of an empirical approach by aspiring to "break down" the problems with the equality-argument into "four primary categories."  But as I've noted copiously elsewhere, she blurs the line between "sexualization" and "hyper-sexualization" so that both terms become meaningless, and makes vague references to temporal periods without specificity:



And now let’s look at ten of the most popular marquee superheroines: Wonder Woman (strapless swimsuit, sometimes a thong, sometimes heels), Catwoman (regularly unzipped, frequently heels), Ms. Marvel (swimsuit, sometimes a thong, thigh high boots), Storm (strapless swimsuit, thigh high boots, sometimes heels), Batgirl (fully covered, sometimes heels), Black Widow (regularly unzipped, sometimes heels), Invisible Woman (fully covered – for now at least), Black Canary (swimsuit, sometimes a thong, fishnet stockings, sometimes heels), Rogue (as of late – constantly unzipped), and Power Girl (boob hole, swimsuit, sometimes a thong, sometimes heels).



I confess I didn't read every response in the mile-long comments-thread to the essay, but I'd be curious as to whether I'm the only online critic to fault Thompson for tossing out terms like "regularly unzipped" or "sometimes a thong" without nailing down a time-period during which she made these unsupported observations.  That she could have supported at least some of them had she tried; that I do not doubt.  But I do doubt the perspicacity of online comics-fandom for giving Thompson a pass on issues of empirical reproducibility, when she's so vehemently against the "tunnel vision" of those who spout unsupported defenses of "equal treatment." And yet, despite all this, Thompson got that pass because she used the right password-- "equality," which in this case carried the connotation of "fairness."

Most of the American comics-fans who could fairly be called "hardcore" (ironic though the term may be in other contexts) are male.  Some male fans, as Thompson observes, don't have a real problem with what Thompson terms objectification, and claim that the representations are essentially equal.  Other male fans may purchase sexy superheroine comics but would never overtly defend the practice, and probably would be entirely sheepish if called out on the matter.  Still others buy into the oppositional "either/or" argument Thompson promulgates, finding both sexual and hyper-sexual superheroes to be repellent, and thus using them as a club with which to beat superhero fans, as I showed in my response to a Dirk Deppey blogpost.  All of them, to the extent that all are influenced to American culture to some degree, must respond in some way to the feminist imputation of unfairness.  Thompston's exemplary unnamed poster claims that the argument will "always" be flawed, by suggesting that it's impossible to mount objectively.  But even the fact that he makes an argument, flawed in its respects, demonstrates a desire to see gender-representation in comics to be essentially fair-minded.

I have no doubt that Thompson could have justified her belief that "sexism in comics" engenders what she calls a "trickle down effect" leading to real-world inequities, but since I haven't agreed with such "monkey see-monkey do" arguments in past, I doubt I'd find her justifications persuasive.  In one of my comments to Julian Darius, I said:


I agree that male readers don’t relate to the female characters precisely the same as they do to male characters. It’s a whole different question as to whether they *should* react exactly the same, any more than female readers should react equally toward male and female characters.
In other words, there's some question in my mind as to whether either "equality" or "fairness" in the senses Thompson uses the words should be the signal qualities of any art, be it highbrow canonical literature or the sort of arts that James Joyce called "pornographic"-- which is to say, all popular arts.

But that's a subject for Part 3.


















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