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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 2, 2012


 And here is the second non-accepted essay intended to follow the two Sequart essays, still responding to problems with Kelly Thompson's essay.


In previous essays I’ve targeted specific comic-book works that aren’t adequately explained by Kelly Thompson’s dichotomy of “idealization” and “sexualization,” as expressed in her essay No,It’s Not Equal. 

Now I want to examine the problematic nature of the terms she uses, as she and others apply them to the artistic construction of comic-book heroes and heroines. 

Thompson uses the word “idealization” without a stated definition and in a very colloquial manner, focusing only on how comics’ depictions of heroes and heroines are “idealized” in the sense of fulfilling a purported “ideal” of physical fitness—an ideal that relates, in Thompson’s schema, to nothing but the protagonists’ ability to fight against the forces of evil in a credible fashion.  Sexualization, however, seems to overlap with idealization in one section of Thompson’s essay, yet with respect to female characters sexualization manifests in ways that apparently render the “idealization” nugatory if not non-existent.  Thompson’s definition of sexualization is also ill-defined, consisting of a simple catalogue of offensive visual or narrative motifs, not a principle in itself.  In addition to reshaping Thompson’s terms into more “fair-minded” concepts, I will also respond here to a similar problematic term introduced by Colin SS in this response-thread, where he characterizes male heroes in terms of their “aspirational” nature, which seems to me roughly comparable with Thompson’s characterization of “idealization.”

Obviously there can be no objection to a loose colloquial phrase such as, “He (or she) has fulfilled an ideal of physical perfection.”  But Thompson expands this colloquial application of the word “ideal” to a process of artistic “idealization,” one not substantiated by her logic or her examples.

Every reader should be more than familiar with basic philosophical oppositions of “the ideal” and “the real.”  Happily, the more complicated aspects of these oppositions need not be explored here.  I’m only concerned here with “idealistic” or “realistic” aspects of fictional characters, particularly those who have been constructed out of what Robert Crumb calls “lines on paper.”

Though I fully understood why Kelly Thompson opposes idealization and sexualization in her essay, an accurate explanation of the processes of character construction should view sexualization as just one aspect of a more general principle. I call this principle “embodiment,” in that it takes in everything in a given diegesis that establishes the physical nature of a character.

In my formulation, embodiment would subsume not only the sexual attractiveness of fictional characters, but also anything pertaining to their bodily nature—which would include their physical fitness, irrespective to whether it’s used to fight super-villains or is maintained for aesthetic appeal.  These two aspects would not be the only possible components of embodiment, but they’re the only ones I’ll deal with in this essay.  Thus I reject entirely Thompson’s tendency to equate physical, not-overly-sexualized fitness with a process of “idealization.”

Now embodiment-aspects are often linked to ideals of one kind or another.  The phrase “a sound mind in a sound body” attributes an ideal status to the maintenance of both physical and mental fitness.  But physical fitness in itself is not an ideal in itself until it has been subjected to an idealizing process.

In comic-book literature, one of the most renowned idealizations is the equation of “truth, justice and the American way” with the embodied form of a handsome, muscular hero in a red-and-blue costume.  Similarly, as if to validate Colin SS’s characterization of male heroes as “aspirational,” Superman is often thematized in terms of an ethic of social beneficence, as in the motto, “Do good unto others and every man can be a Superman.”

Yet no matter how thoroughly the burly figure of comics’ premiere superhero is associated with authors’ ideals and readers’ aspirations, within the diegesis of every Superman story the hero has two embodied aspects not reducible to ideals or aspirations, to wit:

(1)                 Superman is almost unbeatable in a fight, which Thompson perhaps understands to be the main signifier of his well-developed muscles.

(2)                 Superman is physically attractive to most if not all female characters in his narratives, both because of his chiseled pecs and his chiseled facial features.


     Now, it should be noted that, in contrast to heroes without such extraordinary powers, Superman could in theory still be a world-saving hero if he were depicted as a ninety-pound weakling or a fat slob.  It should be obvious that because Superman does not need to be either good-looking or ripped in order to fulfill his ideals, these factors are aspects of embodiment, not those of idealization or aspiration.

     Oddly, both people who love adventure-comics and people who hate them often attack a character like Superman for the one physical aspect he seems to lack.  The attack goes something like, “You can’t see a bulge in Superman’s crotch; ergo, he ain’t got no balls at all.”  (For those who have not encountered this concept, it is as of today still on display in the reply-thread for Part 1 of MAKING A DIRTY BREAST).
    Extending this faulty logic, one must assume that no matter how attractive or romantic a living actor may be in his films, be it Rudolf Valentino or Val Kilmer, said actor can’t be in any way sexual unless you can clearly see a significant bulge in his pants at all times.  Clearly this is not how even R-rated films function.

      A further development of the same bad logic would be to extend the same rule to female characters: to state that they cannot be sexualized by their secondary sexual characteristics at all, but only by a clear look at the organs considered to be “primary” to the sex act.  By this logic, not even “panty-shots” would sexualize female characters if all one really sees are undergarments: nothing but pure “camel-toe” would suffice as a comparable correlate to “crotch-bulge.”

      In the real world, every artistic medium uses the appeal of secondary sex characteristics more often than the primary kind, sometimes in response to societal taboos, sometimes just for sheer convenience.  To be sure, popular fiction is better known for selling its wares with the display of secondary female characteristics (e.g., bosoms) than with the display of secondary male characteristics (the male’s more pronounced musculature).  But a comic book character like Superman is not beyond the pale of “sexualization” simply because he’s become the focus of “ideals” and ‘aspirations.”  Indeed, his physical attractiveness, though irrelevant in substance to the ideals, reinforces the reader’s investment in the ideals represented.

        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”

        Next time: The Female of the Species.

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