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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...

Saturday, July 21, 2012


In Part 1 I compared the protests against oversexualized (and almost always female) images in comic books with the protests that changed widespread cultural attitudes about smoking:

Sixty years later, the discourse has reversed that position, and Party A essentially has no say in the matter any more. The objective proof of smoking's dangers have converted most people to Party B. Both in America and in many other parts of the world, people who want to smoke can only do so under the most rarefied situations.
Thus, for a societal concern in which science provides the "objective proof" that a given practice is harmful, which leads to the marginalization of the practice.

Most cultural practices, however, cannot be proven to be objectively harmful.  The Kelly Thompson essay "No, It's Not Equal" attempts to frame its objections in objective terms:

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. I don’t think comics are the only media to blame, but it does happen to be the medium I write about, so here we are.
Thompson offers no proof of this influence in this essay, but even if she had-- or had linked to citations that sufficed as objective proof for her-- this sort of influence is impossibe to prove to most people in the manner that the harmfulness of smoking was proved to the public at large.

Nevertheless, objective proof isn't necessary to get a given cultural practice converted into its opposite, a taboo that almost everyone in society openly abjures.

In my essay CARICATURE ANALYSIS I commented at length on the characterization of  the Will Eisner character "Ebony" as racist.  In my conclusion I declined to agree with this characterization but didn't entirely let the late Mr. Eisner off the hook.

It goes without saying that Ebony is much more offensive today than he was in "his" time, though one imagines that if THE SPIRIT's contemporaneous black readers weren't especially offended by Ebony, it would be because other negative stereotypes, particularly those of the movies, were far more pervasive.

But-- is Ebony White "racist" as such?

I would answer "Yes" only with qualifications. Clearly Eisner did not realize, or chose not to realize, that the minstrel-show visual devices he perpetuated "capitalized" on the "presumed characteristics" of black people, where big eyes and big lips conveyed such characteristics as stupidity and childishness, just as Fagin embodied supposed Jewish traits of criminality and miserliness. Eisner probably only saw that he had given Ebony a lot more wit and personality than one saw in many black characters in the pop culture of the time, and that would be true as far as it went.

Yet, having admitted that Eisner used a racist visual trope, I am still uncomfortable with unreservedly calling Ebony a racist creation. Eisner's case is certainly weakened by his inability to consider how the "negative stereotype" of blacks was used as an indirect rhetorical tool by which real people were consigned to second-class citizenship. And yet, his point about caricature cannot be so easily dismissed.

The visual tropes of the "Sambo" and the "Mammy" were once common in all American media and even traveled to certain other countries, notably Japan.  But over time, numerous protests from activist groups-- notably the NAACP-- effectively exiled such images from popular media.  From reading Thompson's fulminations against hypersexualized imagery, I don't think it's reaching to imagine that Thompson would like to see some similar cultural transformation take place.  I must qualify this, however, by saying that she doesn't object to particular characters, like X-MEN's White Queen, being decked out in Victoria's Secret garments if that fits their characters; she principally objects to seeing all female characters so attired as a default to male preferences. 

So could some cultural shift cause the practitioners of comic books to renounce hyper-sexy visuals, the way popular entertainers have largely renounced the Sambo image (Howard Stern notwithstanding)?  The circumstances that brought forth what David Hadju calls "the Great Comic-Book Scare" might never be duplicated, but it's not hard to imagine that a very different set of circumstances might call forth the same basic results.  It should be noted that if it did happen, we wouldn't see sexy costumes displayed only in terms of character appropriateness.  It would be an all-or-nothing conversion, wherein White Queen would start strutting her stuff in a sexy white burka.

However, the trope of Hypersexualized Women is functionally different than the trope of the Sambo.  When activists protested the latter trope, they might not have been able to prove objectively that "real people were consigned to second-class citizenship" through the effects of the Sambo image.  But they could certainly say, "Black people don't look like that."  Thus the offensive images of blacks could be anathematized on the basis that they were both offensive and inaccurate.

In addition to Thompson's particular angle-- that of protesting hypersexualization as a default for all female characters-- many fan-critics have attempted to argue that they're not opposed to sexy art but to bad sexy art.  However, it's hard to believe that all protest would die out if every hypersexual female character were drawn with the talent of a Dave Stevens or talents of similar stripe-- much less if the White Queen were the only one showing off her "secrets."   

At base, while the Sambo image was entirely a modern cultural construct, and could be rejected as such, the hypersexual female cannot be reduced to such a simplistic formula.  No matter how much one may dislike the particular modern manifestations of sexism, they have their roots in patterns that are as old as humankind.

More on these patterns in a future essay.


Al said...

Interesting commentary on Ebony, Gene. Not that I'd give Eisner a pass, but his verbal portrayal of Ebony belies the visual portrayal, so Eisner might have been trying to have his cake and eat it too. Being Jewish I'd think that he would have been more conscious of stereotypes, but he simply may not have been sensitive to such a matter.

Gene Phillips said...

I tend to agree. Also, it should be noted that through most of his life it was pretty rare for anyone to talk openly about the harmfulness of the minstrel-show stereotypes.