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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 30, 2012


At the end of FEMALE OF THE SPECIES PART 3 I said:
...though I have just two more Thompson-related essays to get out of the way, I may have come across another resource that supplies me with more debate-worthy fodder.
The "resource" to which I alluded was this 2-26-12 essay on Hooded Utilitarian, where Noah Berlatsky takes issue with several current offerings of comic-book superhero cheesecake, comparing all of them unfavorably with the cheesecake offerings from such bygone artists as Jack Cole and Dan DeCarlo, as well as current artist Larry Elmore.  Though Berlatsky does give a nod of approval to Frank Miller's sexed-up version of Catwoman, most of his superhero-comics examples he regards as "moronic."

I don't agree that current superhero comics are quite as bereft of what he calls "feministploitation," where:

the fetish clothing and the putative power of the character are coherently working together, both in that the power makes the character more sexy and in that that the clothing adds (not necessarily logically, but still) to the sense of the character’s potency.

However, I will agree that the particular examples Berlatsky chose are indeed incompetent exemplars of current hyper-sexualization.  To take just one example, he notes that "Star Sapphire’s costume, for example, goes right past sexy and on into ludicrous," and I can hardly demur:

I mentioned in Part 1 that in real life women often had to dress in social situations to show themselves off to good effect without showing too much and looking like sluts.  Apparently this version of Star Sapphire took her social cues down at the Boom-Boom Room.

That said, I find some problems with Berlatsky's justifications:

I think there are a couple of reasons. In the first place, super-heroines are, you know, heroes. They’re supposed to have stuff to do, crime to fight, justice to uphold, and so forth. For Dan DeCarlo and Jack Cole, the woman are just there to stare at; they’re hot, hot hot. That’s the whole raison d’etre; there’s no effort to pretend that you care what these women think, or how they act, or whether they defeat the villain without falling out of their tops and being exposed to the vastness of space.

And shortly afterward:

If you make it simply about visual stimulation, it’s simply about visual stimulation, and doesn’t have to have anything to do (or at least, not much to do) with real women. Once you start pretending that you’re talking about a smart, motivated, principled adventurer, on the other hand, you end up implying that said smart, motivated, principled, adventurer has an uncontrollable compulsion to dress like a space-tart on crack. Which is, it seems to me, insulting.

Though I would agree that all of Berlatsky's chosen examples are indeed bad, I don't quite agree with the idea that a given heroine cannot be a "motivated, principled adventurer" and still wear something a little on the sassy side, as per the "belly shirt Supergirl" that I've defended earlier:

The above drawing is certainly a little on the cheesecakey side-- what I've termed the "TITILLATION" category elsewhere-- but is there anything about it that makes the character look unprincipled or stupid because she's chosen to show a little flesh?  I would say no, though I have the impression that a lot of fans protested "sexy Supergirl" to the extent that the new incarnation sports a safe generic costume with zero titillation elements.

To many fans there seems a major disconnect, similar to Kelly Thompson's false "idealization/sexualization" dichotomy, between portraying heroes as characters with high ideals and principles and as characters who look good and obviously have the power to attract many sex-partners.

Thus I'm surprised that anyone, such as the blogger for this BEAT post, would intimate that the existence of "superhero sexuality" might not even matter. Maybe I'm biased in that I didn't start collecting the genre until I was eleven (having only dallied with kid-and-teen comics prior to that), but to the best of my recollection I always thought that even the "all ages" superhero books of the Silver Age had a strong sexual vibe, even if the sexiness appeared in very simple form, as with Lois Lane or Vicky Vale trying to "unmask" Superman or Batman, and thus play Delilah to their Samson.

More later.



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.
And in QUICK SEX-COVER-UP REMARK I noted this offhand comment by one Charles Reece:

"I don’t have any stats on any of this, but just based on the gals and guys I know and see, for the most part, the former prefer wearing more revealing clothing than the latter. Superheroes just kind of replicate that tendency in a more exaggerated manner. The men who walk around in cutoffs or with their shirt open to the navel or in half shirts tend to be gay or aging rockers."

While Reece and I are miles apart in most if not all ideological stances, I would agree, purely on an observational basis, that men tend to cover up and women tend to reveal, however strategically, as per the example I mentioned before:

If Kelly Thompson surveyed Hollywood musicals the same way she surveyed superhero comic books, would she come to the conclusion that they too are guilty of objectification and hyper-sexualization purely in terms of that one element:  how covered men are and how uncovered women are? 

That would be an unfair question were I asking it in more than a broadly comparative sense.  Clearly Thompson's essay indicts current American superhero comics for more than just the covered/uncovered dichotomy.  Nevertheless, because Thompson is busy assailing the forces of objectification in the superhero comic, I find it a fault that she does not consider that there might be other factors at work in the way comic book professionals portray male and female characters.  I suggest that in American culture it's typical to identify "maleness" with a process of concealment, in which one dons a Brooks Brothers suit as a knight dons his suit of armor, and "femaleness" with a process of partial revealment, wherein the female, when making a display of herself not only for men but also for other women in her immediate society, must strike a balance between showing her appearance off to best effect without showing off too much and thus being "slutty."

Sometimes comic books actually get the balance of sexual representation correct, as per this fan-favorite scene from BIRDS OF PREY #104:


The above scene, in my opinion, would not be an unfair depiction of male and female tendencies of dress, as it's based on current cultural imperatives as to how males and females dress at social affairs.  By extension, I don't necessarily regard it as a vile male conspiracy simply because none of the male members of the X-Men dress as revealingly as Storm, much less the White Queen. I make no bones about the fact that most superhero comics are written to a male audience, which means that they are likely to remain more heavily invested in cheesecake than in beefcake.  That said, some of the disparity may not be attributable PURELY to the likelihood that heterosexual male readers don't want to look at beefcake.  It may also be attributable to the cultural fact that men think that other men in revealing duds look unmanly, if not outright gay.  I mentioned in FEMALE OF THE SPECIES PART 1 that there had been male heroes that showed a lot of skin without seeming unmanned, as with Hawkman and Sub-Mariner.

But should a counterexample be needed, here's Cosmic Boy from some 1970s LEGION tale:

More to come in Part 2.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Suddenly my comments are back on the Thompson thread mentioned in the previous post.  Sigh, that means it's possible that their disappearance *may* have been only an Internet hiccup.

That, or someone who reads this blog is fuckin' with me.

I'm no longer sure which seems more likely these days.

Anyway, conditional apologies to Kelly Thompson, who isn't likely to read them in any case.  Here's the comments, which I may build on later:


KT said:

“How can anyone look around at some of the recent successes we’ve been seeing in film – Avengers, Hunger Games, Bridesmaids, etc. and deny that women and girls have media power? They are 50% of the goddamn population.”

But– even if it’s true that 40% of AVENGERS watchers are female, is that necessarily true of the other Hollywood femme-action films in KT’s visual montage?

Was 40% of KILL BILL’s viewership female?


The RESIDENT EVIL franchise?

Given a very long period in which American female viewers tended to avoid the Big Loud Action Movies, whether they starred heroes or heroines– I’d say it’s going to take a long time to convince Hollywood to invest in the theory of a massive sea-change (my term) in gender preferences.

Friday, May 25, 2012


Sometimes I wonder if I'm a little paranoid when I preserve comments here that I've put elsewhere.  Surely, as long as a comment is essentially polite even if dissenting, no one would delete one just out of personal malice.

Well, said deletion took place in the last couple days on Kelly Thompson's SHE HAS NO HEAD.  Since I didn't preserve the comment, I can't prove it was essentially polite if dissenting.  Since Thompson did ring in once on one of the Sequart threads, the conclusion is fairly obvious.

I have no idea if Noah Berlatsky might do the same, but just to be sure I better hurry and copy this dissent against a Charles Reece piece on HU:

Charles, I believe I’ve caught you in a contradiction.

In paragraph 6 you say:

“Wonder Woman is the dominating will. When she’s bound, it’s always wrong. The reader is to identify with her regaining control, making others submit. Similarly, Wonder Woman does a lot of hitting, but is rarely hit herself. (I count only once: Giganta nails her with a club. [p. 44])”

Maybe I missed something about volume(s) you read but I recall the Marston WW getting hit quite a lot, though of course she dishes out more than she takes. There may be periods where she’s sandbagged less than others, but one could say that of Batman or any long-lived hero.

The contradiction appears in paragraph 5:

“Although Wonder Woman regularly uses dominating tactics (the lasso, fisticuffs) they’re always reactive (the villain strikes first). Like Billy Jack, she wants to love, not fight, but she’ll kick your ass if you force her.”

I find it really hard to reconcile a “dominating will” who waits until the other guy strikes. That too would seem not to line up well with your “fascism” charge. I’ll agree that a reluctant hero is inevitably going to kick ass. But that doesn’t eliminate the connotative difference between the reluctant hero and the quasi-hero who’s ready to go Lobo on anyone with the least provocation.


Actually, Charles R. does touch on a topic that I've mentioned somewhere hereabouts before, as to whether Wonder Woman truly presents an ethic of masochism.  Don't know when I'll get around to giving my very different take on the matter, though.


Posted this on a 2-26-12 post of THE HOODED UTILITARIAN:

Charles Reece said:

"I don’t have any stats on any of this, but just based on the gals and guys I know and see, for the most part, the former prefer wearing more revealing clothing than the latter. Superheroes just kind of replicate that tendency in a more exaggerated manner. The men who walk around in cutoffs or with their shirt open to the navel or in half shirts tend to be gay or aging rockers."

Here's a rare place where Charles and I agree.  Kelly Thompson (was she mentioned here or somewhere else? already forgotten) regarded the greater proportion of covered-up men as some vile conspiracy to subject only female characters to the evil "male gaze" or something of that sort.

But what if the superhero artists are simply reflecting their social mores?

Try to imagine what the dance-scene from THE GAY DIVORCEE would look like if Ginger was all covered-up and Fred was the one in the low-cut gown.

You may need something strong to drink after you've done so, but that won't be my fault.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


In FEMALE OF THE SPECIES PART 2 I observed with incredulity the way a certain contingent of comics-fandom gave Kelly Thompson a free pass re: the evidence she presented with regard to the “hyper-sexualization” of female comics-characters. Despite the fact that Thompson constructed her case on the assertion that this or that character was “regularly unzipped” and so on, she gave no indication as to what time-frame these representations regularly took place, be it in the last ten months or the last ten years. It was entirely OK for Thompson to present what one respondent to my essays called “anecdotal evidence.” However, when I presented a point-of-view that mitigated Thompson’s one-sided perspective on gender representation, more than one respondent wanted chapter-and-verse, scientifically redundant, DNA-tested evidence coming out the wazoo. If I didn’t present same, that lack proved me a no-good ultraconservative defender of sexual oppression.

All this supposed demand for rigor, of course, was merely a cover to reject any observation that might mitigate the narrative of female victimization via so-called “objectification.” From a rhetorical standpoint, there’s nothing a preacher loves better than the devil against which he preaches. Without that object of scorn and detestation, the preacher’s got no audience. For most ultraliberals, the objectification of fictional female characters is one of their personal devils, and perdition help the critic who dares suggest that sexual representation, whether in comics or any other medium, might be a two-way street.

One of those respondents challenged me to show evidence of my claim that male characters in comics were also sexually embodied—apparently with the sense that even if I could show such, it would be meaningless unless I could show total parity with female sexual embodiment. I imagine he thought that the only possible rebuttal to Thompson’s imputations of inequality in “No, It’s Not Equal” would be to prove such parity. At no time did I claim that fiction aimed at a male audience would not contain a disproportionate quantity of sexualized depictions of females. What I did claim was that there was an ongoing process of embodiment that applied to both male and female character-construction, and that male characters were constructed to be appealing to female characters within the comic-book diegesis.

I mentioned on that comments-thread that I was meditating on a possible way to take a fair sampling of a batch of contemporary comic books and examine them for both male and female sexual embodiment, in contradistinction to Thompson’s skewed analysis. Given that I had in another essay touted some titles in DC’s “New 52” as representing a new development in the formulation of adult pulp, it occurred to me, “What if I performed such a survey on every New 52 title within a given month?” Limited though such a sampling would be, it would be better than Thompson’s “anecdotal” overview.

But, given the righteous attitudes displayed by most of my respondents, I thought twice. “Why bother with a full month survey, given that most fans are so in love with being blinkered and judgmental that they’ll never alter their opinions no matter what evidence is produced?” So I saved my money and, when a sale came round at a local comics-shop, I simply bought the back issues I wanted anyway and decided to use that as my sampling.

As explained in Part 1, I’m breaking down the sexual representations in each comic surveyed in terms of my deductive categories, GLAMOR, TITILLATION, and PORNIFICATION. I imagine that another easy way to dismiss my formulations would be to simply disagree with these divisions. A thoughtful critique is certainly possible.  However it's more likely most fans would just fall back to the victimization position, implying that a costume showing bare legs (an example of GLAMOR, usually) is exactly as bad as a costume that looks like Victoria’s Secret lingerie (PORNIFICATION, of course). Should anyone make this assertion, assume that I've already deemed it unilaterally stupid and move on.

I’m not counting every sexually embodied image in every one of these titles. Rather, I’m going by page-count. A book with “5 counts of GLAMOR” means five pages on which some GLAMOR-ous image is presented for the reader’s possible delectation. Covers count as only one page, though ads are not counted.
It's impossible to state that a given drawing carries the concept of sexual embodiment for everyone.  However, I focused on those drawings that at least showed enough of at least one face, one figure or the two together to connote sexual attractiveness.

Here goes.

BATGIRL #7— No counts of male sexual embodiment. 8 counts of female sexual embodiment of the GLAMOR type.

BATGIRL #8—No counts of male embodiment. 6 counts of female GLAMOR.

BIRDS OF PREY #1 – 13 counts of female TITILLATION. 7 counts of male GLAMOR.

BIRDS OF PREY #2 – 17 counts of female TITILLATION. 1 count of male GLAMOR.

BIRDS OF PREY #3 – 14 counts of female TITILLATION. No counts of male embodiment.

BLACKHAWK #1 – 6 pages male GLAMOR. 7 pages female GLAMOR.

CATWOMAN #5 – 7 counts of female PORNIFICATION. 2 counts of male GLAMOR.

CATWOMAN #6—11 counts of female PORNIFICATION. 4 counts of male PORNIFICATION. (And yes, they’re all Batman.)

CATWOMAN #7 – 7 counts of female PORNIFICATION. 2 counts of male PORNIFICATION.

RED HOOD AND OUTLAWS #2 – 1 count of male TITILLATION. 2 counts of female TITILLATION. 3 counts of female PORNIFICATION.

SAVAGE HAWKMAN #1—11 counts of male GLAMOR. No counts of female embodiment.

SUPERGIRL #1—11 counts of female GLAMOR. 1 count of male GLAMOR.

SUPERGIRL #2 – 16 counts of female GLAMOR. 16 counts of male GLAMOR.

If I wished to invest in a scanner to reproduce all the relevant pages, I could make arguments for all my categorizations—but again, that would involve spending money to prove my conclusions to an audience in love with defending victims—or what they like to imagine as victims.

Will that be my final word on the mélange known as “No, It’s Not Equal?”

Magic eightball says, “Maybe for now.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Before proceeding to Part 2 of the "sexual embodiment" test, I feel the need to draw parallels between the three categories posited in PART 1 and three categories posited in the earlier essay LET'S GET SEMI-DIRTY.

In the latter essay, I started out with two terms introduced in a yet earlier piece, which sought to analyze two aspects of what I now call "embodiment"-- that is, "sex" and "violence" in literature-- and ally them with "clean" and "dirty" versions in terms of the intensity of what the viewer/reader was shown. 

In earlier essays on this theme I tended to discuss violence, but SEMI-DIRTY is intended to focus on demonstrating an interstitial category-- "semi-dirty"-- and for that I emphasized the aspect of fictional sex:

I didn’t give [in the earlier essay referenced] parallel examples of sex, but the same standard of explicitness applies. I should note that whether a work is clean or dirty has no bearing on how exciting its kinetic elements may be for a given audience-member. Some may well find the clean but vivid courtship-rituals of NORTH BY NORTHWEST more stimulating than the explicit dirtiness of LAST TANGO IN PARIS.

The same generalization applies to the "semi-dirty" category; some may prefer it to either manifestation.  Going purely on anecdotal experience, I have one (never to be named) acquaintance who dislikes sexual explicitness of any kind.  I would presume that if he gets turned on by any sort of fiction, it would have to be something comparable to the "vivid courtship-rituals of NORTH BY NORTHWEST."

At the other extreme, I have another acquaintance whose main comment to a screening of FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! was to complain about the lack of (visible) tits.  So presumably nothing but "explicit dirtiness" would have worked for this individual.

The three categories I'll be using for the "sexual embodiment test" thus line up rather well if I say so myself:

GLAMOR-- "clean" sexuality
TITILLATION-- "semi-dirty" sexuality
PORNIFICATION-- "dirty" sexuality

The only major difference between these parallel essays is that in the "clean & dirty" ones, I didn't address narrative function at all.  In BATTLE OF THE MONSTER TERMINOLOGIES, I used separate terms to describe narrative function pertaining to spectacle, designating a dichotomy between "functional violence" and "spectacular violence"-- with the usual caveat that the same dichotomy applies to fictional sexual representation.  However, an interstititial category can be created for this aspect as well:

GLAMOR-- "functional" sexuality
TITILLATION-- "semi-spectacular" sexuality
PORNIFICATION-- "full monte spectacular" sexuality

Next up:  (part of) THE NEW 52 takes the TEST.

Monday, May 21, 2012


On this blog my first attempt to analyze the problems of Kelly Thompson's unworkable dichotomy, "idealization/sexualization," appeared here:
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.-- me, PROOF OF EMBODIMENT.
I followed this up in part by noting in FEMALE OF THE SPECIES PART 1 that Thompson had oversimplistically conflated various types of sexualization, some more extreme (characters wearing thongs or lingerie) than others (characters wearing belly shirts or swimsuit-like costumes).  However, in that essay I didn't attempt to define these differences.  It seems a given that I shouldn't criticize Thompson unless I can define the separate types better than she did, so I tried to come up with a logical breakdown of the differing levels in which characters had been constructed purely in terms of their sexual embodiment.

A quick prelude to my logical breakdown appears in my early essay THAT OBSCURE OBJECTIVIZATION, where I emphasized that "the standardization of sexual attractiveness" should be regarded primarily as a narrative tool:

For most genre-fiction-- particularly those media which, unlike prose, hinge on depicting the appearance of the characters-- the standardization of sexual attractiveness is a useful narrative tool. In romances, for instance, it's almost de rigeur to depict both hero and heroine as meeting a bland standard for attractiveness. This is not because the narrative is trying to convince anyone that homely people don't mate in real life, but because it's advantageous to the narrative's smooth progression to depict only good-looking people becoming romantically entwined. As long as the hero and heroine meet a basic standard of attractiveness, an audience-member is less likely to be thrown out of his/her participation in the story to think, "How can Character A possibly be attracted to Character B?"
So I start from the assumption that even the least spectacular genre-work that makes the heroes and heroines sexually attractive in some way participates in this narrative strategy.  Starting from that point, I deduced three categories, and subsequently selected a particular well-known comics-character, already mentioned in the FEMALE PART 1 essay above, to typify the three phases of sexual embodiment.

First we have GLAMOR:

Like most if not all depictions of Catwoman during the Golden Age, the villainess is meant to be appealing to both the hero and whatever readers share the hero's liking for sexy women.  However, the spectacle of Catwoman's femininity does not exceed either the dominant type of plot in Batman/Catwoman stories of the period, nor the dominant type of characterizations.  Catwoman is beautiful but only within proscribed limits, just as Batman is handsome and muscular but only to the extent that this attractive image serves the elements of plot and character.

A greater intensity of sexual depiction can be found in examples of TITILLATION:

This cover to CATWOMAN #1 by Jim Balent, in keeping with most of the interior art, actually shows less of the character's bare flesh than the Golden Age costume.  Nevertheless, Balent has chosen to give Catwoman a body type that draws attention immediately to the character's secondary sex characteristics.  The story inside may not involve any more actual sexual acts than did the Golden Age stories, but in these stories Catwoman's T&A have become a spectacle that equals or even exceeds the importance of Aristotle's primary elements of plot and character.  This category includes the gendered types of embodiment commonly called "cheesecake" for females and "beefcake" for males.

Finally, we have the neologism PORNIFICATION, handily defined by Wikipedia as "the way that aesthetics that were previously associated with pornography have become part of popular culture, and that mainstream media texts and other cultural practices ‘citing pornographic styles, gestures and aesthetics’ have become more prominent:"

And of course, I could hardly do better than to point to the "New 52" version of the Princess of Plunder:

To be sure, not every picture of Catwoman in the past eight issues has depicted her in partial undress.  Such scenes can potentially be found in both the GLAMOR and TITILLATION manifestations.  The emphasis of the PORNIFICATION tendency is that the sexual spectacle should be expected to exceed the importance of plot and character on a regular basis.  This does not necessarily mean that plot or character cease to have any importance. I may be alone in stating that the Judd Winick/Guillem March series delivers in both respects rather ably, though not exceptionally.  CATWOMAN #1 gained considerable notoriety for depicting a vivid if not precisely consummated sexual act between the title-star and Batman, but not every issue has featured such an act.  However, the possibility that such acts may appear again and again allies the Winick Catwoman with the narrative demands of pornographic art-- which is not quite the same as calling the title "pornography," by the way, nor the same as judging it on the same terms one judges literal pornography.

Next up:

The New 52 (or Parts Thereof) take the Sexual Embodiment Test.  

Saturday, May 19, 2012


I have no problem with anyone asserting the need for gender equity in these real-world terms. However, imposing gender equity upon fiction-- which I believe [Heidi] McDonald has called for on more than one occasion-- is a different matter.-- me in GENDER, BEND HER.

We may have to accept an ethical cleavage between art and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutilations in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message from the beyond, telling us what nature is up to.-- Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 39.

 While I don't agree with Camille Paglia on many matters, I believe that an "ethical cleavage" between art and reality is entirely necessary, both in terms of theory about art and the practice of art in all its variations. 

While discursive morality always plays some role in art, moral straightjacketing benefits no one in the long run.  In the essay cited above, I took issue with Heidi McDonald because I found that she had passed 'an unsubstantiated judgment upon all previous incarnations of Bond fiction: said judgment being that, because they were originally fictions designed principally with male buyers in mind, new iterations must and should be corrected to become more “female-friendly.”'  From a pluralist perspective, the oeuvre of Ian Fleming may possess its own "integrity" even though it was directed at male buyers.  The application of the above objection to the Thompson essay seems obvious.

In my Sequart critiques of the Kelly Thompson essay, I will confess to one misstep.  It's possible that I might have justified the perspective of pluralism somewhat more thoroughly. Certainly some of those readers were as the barren ground in the Parable of the Sower, but still I might have made more clear that I was not allied to those fans who defended so-called "sexism" on the basis of "keep the status quo at all costs."  The lack of criticism, which must take in some quantity of unfair criticism, may be just as injurious to art as moral straightjacketing.  Ideally one should seek a middle ground between Paglia, who recognizes few if any moral components in literature, and John Gardner's over-emphasis on "moral fiction."

I've critiqued Thompson for an overzealous political correctness, and I have no faith in her notion of a "trickle down theory" of moral influence, which I sum up by the old formula "monkey see, monkey do."  I admit that I don't have an objective yardstick as to when moral critique is on target, and when it goes over the line and obstructs creative work.  Like most people, I know the difference when I see it.  However, I disagree with any argument that insists that one gender's artistic preferences should trump another's.  Speaking purely in terms of statistical dominance, men and women have different preferences in terms of entertainment, and in the final analysis it doesn't matter whether this difference springs from biological or societal influences.  It's here, it's not particularly queer, and we have to get used to it.

Since I value the distinctions of "gender focus" in both art and entertainment, I don't subscribe to Thompson's endorsement of a hypothetical "great middle" (my term) that would supposedly bring in more male and female readers than the current DM enjoys.  My solution, if I knew how to implement it, would be a strategically gender-divided market, as we see with Japan's divison of boys' *shonen* and girls' *shojo,* to say nothing of all the other relevant divisions in the Japanese manga-market.  I realize that the chances to bring this about in the United States aren't especially good, given the failure of a gender-focused imprint like DC's short-lived MINX line.

For some, of course, this would be the equivalent of keeping the status quo; of having a market where those pervy guys could still enjoy pictures of women wearing thongs and bustiers.  But guess what: there's already a pretty big entertainment-market where guys much pervier than comics-fans can purchase any kind of objectification they may desire.  It's called the Internet.

"Status quo," then, is the wrong way to think about the matter.  It goes without saying that even in a gender-divided market, criticism of hyper-sexualization would go on (though hopefully those critics might prove more thorough than Thompson, and would distinguish extreme sexuality from the "cleaner" kinds).  I don't suppose every Japanese manga-fan approves of the existence of OGENKI CLINIC.

Men like different things than women.  Sometimes the things men like are very good, if only in an aesthetic sense, and sometimes they're very bad.

Women like different things than men.  Sometimes the things women like are very good, at least in an aesthetic sense, and sometimes they're very bad.

However, one cannot sort out the nature of an aesthetic good with appeals to morality, as thinkers ranging from Kant to Oscar Wilde have demonstrated.  When I state pluralism's message in the saying, "Anything that can be done well is worth doing," my idea of being "done well" isn't confined to following some simplistic credo of political correctness, be it ultraliberal or ultraconservative. 

I noted at the end of THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES that I meant to address the question, "What's the difference between "sexism" and "sensationalism?"  I thought of so doing simply it amused me that Chicken Colin appeared to have no earthly idea as to how the two could be connected.  But the more I think about it, his thick-headed incomprehension deserves no answer. 

However, though I have just two more Thompson-related essays to get out of the way, I may have come across another resource that supplies me with more debate-worthy fodder. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 18, 2012


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.

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.

Monday, May 14, 2012


At the end of STINKING ULTRALIBERALLY I noted that I'd challenged the blogger then known as Colin Liar to respond to my counter-assertions on the Sequart response-thread for his hatchet-job attack on me.  That was over a week ago, and I have no idea whether or not the Liar let the "chickenshit" comment stand on his blog.  I don't mind debating a rational mind on a blog but the Liar is far from that and his drooling sycophants aren't any better.  It's my conviction that he should be accountable for his lies on Sequart (assuming that Sequart was even willing to continue the business). Since he has not responded on the comment-thread of his attack-essay, he therefore earns himself a new name:

"Chicken Colin"

-- which, as I think about it now, is a much better nickname due to its coincidental but felicitous resemblance to the phrase "chicken colonel," meaning an officer who covers up his cowardice with bravado.  And what could be more applicable than the "chicken" insult to someone who concludes his essay by asserting that he won't answer for his statements because he's said everything he had to say, yet quotes the famous Dirty Harry line with leaden humor as if a faux admission of cowardice exempted him from accusations of the real thing :

I’m happy for anyone to say what they like. Go on, punk, make my day, since, er, I’m off anyway.

It's true, so far as it goes, that responding to the broadsides of Internet enemies is a colossal waste of time. But I think that if you start an argument, you ought to be able to stand your ground for at least a short time before throwing up your hands.

 I'm sure that I could beat Chicken Colin in a fair debate, but in practice he would surely take refuge in more lies, lies, and dumbhead statements.  I've encountered a lot of dopey Internet debaters who also live by Chicken Colin's credo--"When in doubt make shit up."  Their motive for so doing was the same as the Chicken's: the more stupid statements you make, the more you force your rational opponent to waste time on them rather than on the kernel of the disagreement.  However, little though I might respect some of those ertswhile opponents, a few of them had at least a degree of intestinal fortitude, in that they tried to go the distance even while spouting drivel.  Chicken Colin couldn't even go one round.

Of course, I don't imagine Sequart would really want to host even one quick round between attacker and respondent.  Whatever their motive for printing Chicken Colin's attack, they have no percentage in participating in an ongoing net-battle.  Originally I thought that they might have done their reputation some damage by printing the chicken's shit-- not because it offended me, because no one but me cares about that-- but because the Chicken's scrathings are so laden with ignorance and stupidity.  For instance, because I linked one of my Sequart essays to an earlier ARCHIVE post about Nietzsche, the Chicken wasn't content to attack my logic, but thought he'd go after Nietzsche as well, in his very first paragraph:

[Phillips] is, after all, a man quite capable of linking without any apparent irony to a self-composed piece in which Nietzsche is respectfully referenced as an insightful authority whose thinking can apparently help explain why “superhero comics, like many other adventure-orientated genres, are likely to always have a dominant appeal for male audiences”.  There’s clearly no reasoning with such beyond-the-event-horizon, chauvinistic points of view, and any attempt to do so inevitably runs a serious risk of uselessly provoking the kind of highly-charged and futile bun-fighting which Godwin’s Law describes. I’ve always believed in simply ignoring the work of those folks capable of imagining that the words of syphilitic 19th century sexists, no matter how brilliant and fascinating in their own terms, can add anything of deciding worth to our century’s discourse about sex and gender, unless, of course, it’s to sign up the bad examples from the better.
The evocation of Godwin's Law is a predictable dodge: "I don't want to engage in a long drawn-out argument (?bun-fighting?) because sooner or later someone will commit the *Reductio ad Hitlerum* fallacy!"  Spoken like a true chicken, of course, but the more egregious idiocy is his characterization of Nietzsche as a "syphilitic 19th century sexist." 

Let's see what might be produced if the cackler were forced to account for these three squawks:

*"Syphilitic"-- I love this, because on one hand the Chicken pretends to take the high road-- no appeals to Hitler, please!-- but it's OK to characterize one of the 19th century's most formidable philosophers as merely "syphilitic."  If I cared anything about Godwin's Law, I'd avoid noting that Hitler did indeed refer to syphilis as "the Jewish disease" in MEIN KAMPF, thus establishing a similar connection between physical illness and moral turpitude.  But although the Chicken's comfortable with using "syphilitic" to sum up the philosopher, it's not by any means proven that the diagnosis of tertiary syphilis for Nietzsche circa 1889 was correct.  But even if the diagnosis was correct, what would that prove?  That Nietzsche was philosopher by day, evil woman-enslaving whoremonger by night?  Nietzsche promulgated his philosophical works for about 20 years prior to the diagnosis.  Since 15 years is cited as the longest lag-time between original infection and the development of tertiary syphilis, does that mean that for the first 5 years of Nietzsche's philosophical life, those works are OK while everything in the next 15 years falls under the dread accusation of being produced by a "syphilitic" mind?

*"19th-century"-- there's not many opinions stupider than the notion that we modern persons of the  20th and 21st centuries don't have anything to learn from philosophers of the past except "to sign up the bad examples from the better," whatever the hell that means.  I mean, a whole century separates Nietzsche from the "social scientists" that Chicken Colin seems to admire (but never bothers to name), so it's a given that they must be right and Nietzsche must be wrong, because younger is always smarter than older.  The Chicken  pretty much disproves that everytime he opens his mouth about my intentions and ideas, but maybe he's the rare exception.  It's simply precious that he allows that older philosophers might be "brilliant and fascinating in [sic] their own terms."

*"sexist"-- I've pretty much covered this under STINKING ULTRALIBERALLY, in that the blogger formerly known as Colin Liar condemns both Nietzsche and Sade as sexists but can't even be bothered to produce even the most rudimentary proofs of that position.  Again, the Chicken, while horrified that anyone would dare to tarnish "this century's discourse about sex and gender" by bringing up a thinker from a whole century back, is OK with tossing out inflammatory labels, as long as they seem to serve the agenda of his side, the side of the mouth-breathing ultraliberals.

Now, although I think that a swinish line like this ought to have been a signal to Sequart's editors *not* to give Chicken Colin a podium, I'm glad that they did so.  Had Sequart denied the Chicken, it's most likely he would have printed the same essay on his blog, "Stinking About My Comics," where his reading-impaired readers would have championed it as brilliant and percuous (which would be the closest they could come to pronouncing "perspicuous.")  Chickens being chicken, I'm sure I would not have been able to respond at length, if at all, on his blog. I would have had no outlet for response but my own blog.

Because Sequart did print it, I was able to make my responses more public.  Sequart could have closed the essay from comments, but I appreciate that they did not, even though I don't imagine the mini-controversy earns them any brownie points in the blogosphere.  A few posters did attempt to poke holes in my arguments, and so I had the chance to refute some people who agreed with some if not all of the Chicken's points.  My favorite poster was the guy who echoed the Chicken's passion for things modern, claiming that Barthesian "death-of-the-author" studies had supposedly superseded all earlier literary criticism.  Yet when I defended the idea that there might be a pluralism of different approaches-- New Criticism, biographical criticism-- the poster accused *me* of "dismissing and mocking the validity of alternate forms of criticism."  Hey, guy, are they "alternate" or "dominant?"  The world really wants to know.

Had that argument gone on, I had planned to observe that lit-crit positions are not comparable to discoveries involving scientific data.  Once science can identify oxygen, the theory of phlogiston goes out the window, never to return.  But it's not true that "the intent of the author hadn’t mattered in lit crit since the 1920s," that's only true to critics who take that particular position. Both lit-critical positions and philosophies, are more like religions than scientific theories: all three are true only in an intersubjective manner, for those who grant the attendant suppositions.

Still, though I was glad to get one last use of the Sequart forum, it's enlightening to see just how far some fans will go to defend their agendas, be they liberal or conservative.  Contrary to the Chicken's statements, there's nothing sexist in my insistence that Kelly Thompson's argument should be analyzed from all possible angles (even evil Nietzschean ones).  Any reader of this blog knows that I've analyzed male critics like Gary Groth and Noah Berlatsky no less intensely.   What fires the Chicken's indignance is not sexism but the attempt to suggest that the representations of men and women in fiction might be a matter more complicated than the usual pre-packaged cant on "objectification." 

And that's as good a segue as any to mention that I still plan to address Thompson's essay from a few more angles, as I said that I would in the STINKING essay-- specifically on a question trumpeted forth by the Chanticleer himself: What's the difference between "sexism" and "sensationalism?"

ADDENDUM: Godwin's Law is BTW based in a fallacy itself.

It assumes that if I draw a parallel between Adolf Hitler's equation of physical illness and moral turpitude, and Chicken Colin's equation of physical illness and moral turpitude, that the purpose must unilaterally be an attempt to portray a mere comics-blogger as being as evil and/or repressive as the Nazi leader.

That would be ridiculous, of course.  There's no way that a mere comics-blogger could ever be as evil as Adolph Hitler.

But the "law" assumes too much in claiming that one can only be using the comparison to address issues of raw evil.

When I draw the parallel, it's not necessary because I want to say that Chicken Colin is as evil as Adolph Hitler--

Only that he's as stupid as Adolph Hitler.

Which is a very different comparison, don't you know.

Friday, May 11, 2012


For me the baseline in my "spectacular violence" concept is whether or not the violent actions in a given work go beyond their bare functionality in the plot
The counterpart to "spectacular violence" was "functional violence," in which the kinesis of the violent actions in a given story never went beyond that "bare functionality."

Bare functionality has generally been the approach of fiction to violent spectacle since literary studies became dominated by the model of naturalistic prose fiction, whose paradigm has proven no less influential on later-blooming media such as cinema and comic books.  Even when Hemingway places the matador Romero in deadly peril in THE SUN ALSO RISES, or Faulkner sacrifices Joe Christmas in a parody of the Christian crucifixion in LIGHT IN AUGUST, the violence is there to illustrate the theme, not to assume its own importance in the story.

A lot of popular fiction, to be sure, follows this generally Aristotelian model as well.  In MIGHT VS. DOMINANCE, I contrasted three cinematic treatments of the pop-fiction detective Sherlock Holmes.  In the 1922 SHERLOCK HOLMES, which I label a "drama" rather than an "adventure," what violence there is would have to be termed "functional," but it is of such a minor degree that I would label the violence "subcombative" in comparison with a drama of a combative type.  Some of the other Holmes dramatic narratives, such as THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, would probably qualify as combative dramas

The other two Holmes films cited in MIGHT both have the invigorating tone of the adventure-mythos, but as I noted of the earlier film, 1939's ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES:

ADVENTURES presents a Holmes who fights and shoots like a pulp hero.To be sure, this Holmes is still much more restrained than the modern Robert Downey Jr. incarnation.
I should qualify that my comparison of Holmes to a "pulp hero" is made in comparison to the staid 1922 film I mentioned.  Though ADVENTURES does emphasize its violent elements in terms of a strong combat, it should be noted that the degree of violence never goes beyond its function in the plot.  In contrast, the 2009 SHERLOCK HOLMES does emphasize violent combat in scenarios that add little or nothing to the plot as such, and so qualify as "spectacular violence."

One such scene is Sherlock's boxing scene, which does nothing for the plot but does establish the typically cerebral hero as a serious badass:

There may be a few plot-threads connected to the later scene in which Holmes and Watson contend with a gigantic villain's-henchman, but it still seems essentially for the purpose of delighting the audience with spectacle.

I pursue this line of thought at length because I don't want my theory to imply a one-on-one correspondence between the combative mode and the spectacular treatment of violence.  The combative mode clearly can embrace both the functional level of 1939's ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and the spectacular level of 2009's SHERLOCK HOLMES.

However, having said that, I would say that in the modern mind, most people associate spectacular violence of any kind with the "genre" popularly called "action-adventure."  In Yvonne Tasker's introduction to her academic collection ACTION AND ADVENTURE CINEMA, she cites one Larry Gross as having coined the term "the Big Loud Action Movie," which essentially applies to anything with lots of things blowing up or people beating up other people (or monsters beating up monsters, superheroes/supervillains, etc.)  But as my insistence on applying the Fryean mythoi ought to make clear, I don't think violence alone, or even violent combat, qualifies a given work to be deemed "adventure." 

Indeed, in the first paragraph of Tasker's intro, she immediately associates two combative films which in my opinion belong to entirely different mythoi-- 1994's LAST ACTION HERO (a combative adventure), and 1998's GODZILLA (a combative drama). 

Why is it important to make such fine distinctions about modes of combative/subcombative narrative, or about levels of violence in those narratives.  The answer for me is contained in the Northrop Frye quote in the first part of FX:

One reason why we tend to think of literary symbolism solely in terms of meaning is that we have ordinarily no word for the moving body of imagery in a work of literature.
This tossed-off observation is one of many in which Frye expresses reservations about Aristotle's conservatism, his belief that the sole function of the poetic work is to illustrate a "meaning," a discursively rationalized theme.  Elsewhere in the ANATOMY Frye contrasts Aristotle's focus upon "catharsis" and Longinus' emphasis upon "ecstasis," which relates more to Frye's "moving body of imagery in a work of literature" rather than a discursive theme.  I might draw further comparisons toward some of the other dichotomies I've cited here, be it Langer's "discursive/presentational" or Gaster's "plerosis/kenosis."  But those are matters for other essays.  It's enough to state here that the mode of the combative is a necessary one for understanding how narrative violence is organized in different mythoi, and that it is not defined to either spectacular or functional levels of violence, though it's understandable as to why some critics tend to associate "adventure" and "spectacle" as intimately as they do.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


As a prequel to further remarks on the subject of "the combative," I want to put forth some concrete examples of two of three qualities distinguished in this essay:

Dynamis= any kind of energy
Might= an energy which to some degree is "superior" to some unspecified lesser forces
Dominance= a superior energy which specifically arises from conflict

The MIGHT MAKES FIGHTS essay cited above already gave an example of "dynamis" in its character as generalized energy of any kind, said example being one of the least conflictive comics-pages I know, Harvey Pekar's "Making Lemonade."  So I need not repeat that here.

Leaving behind Pekar's isophenomenal cosmos, I step into the more inviting metaphenomenal world of
producer Alexander Korda's 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD.

First, here's a scene leading up to the display of sublime "might" in the form of the old sultan (Miles Malleson), about to mount the horse he's been given by the evil Jaffar:

A few minutes later, here's the sultan finding out what the horse can do:

Now though the film as a whole builds a conflict between the wizard Jaffar and his two opponents Ahmad and Abu-- a conflict which leads to an overt combat-- the sultan's horse-riding sequence is subcombative.  Once during the sequence the sultan fears that his mount may crash them into a tower, but the dominant mood is one in which the sultan is pleasuably overcome by the particular "might" of the horse, which is its power to fly.  It would be no less possible for an isophenomenal film to picture a rider being enthralled by an ordinary horse's power to run, but clearly the affect would be different since the horse was merely doing something common to its species' nature.  Here, the mechanical horse inspires the sense of wonder/sublimity in that it's doing something ordinary horses cannot.  Going by the definition I provided above, the horse's energy is superior to that of the sultan, even though the two are not engaged in any form of combat; rather, the mechanical horse is displaying its fantastic power for the sultan's delectation.

Contrast this scene to the scene in which Abu first meets the towering genie of the lamp:

Seeing the scene out of context, one might imagine that it too might be subcombative.  But shortly later this takes place:

So in this sequence, we are dealing with something very like "dominance," although perhaps a qualified form, in that Abu vanquishes the genie by tricking him into re-entering his bottle:

There is no one-on-one combat as such between the principal heroes and the principal villain in THIEF, as usually takes place in related adventure-films.  Earlier sequences show Jaffar triumphing over the heroes with his magic with no real contest, but when Ahmad and Abu join in flouting his forces with the help of a flying carpet, Jaffar seems to run out of magic and flees, only to receive the same fate most villains get even when they do engage in combat.

Overall THIEF OF BAGDAD is a combative film, though it's easy to imagine any number of works on a similar theme that might not be.  The original story of ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP would seem to be a subcombative form of adventure, in that there is no actual combat between Aladdin and his opponent the "Chinese Magician," nor does Aladdin fight any proxy servant of the Magician.  The conflict consists of either hero or villain swiping the lamp away from the other at this or that time, but never in a direct confrontation.  Therefore, while the idea of a mortal gaining control of a genie's illimitable power does constitute "might," it's harder to see "dominance," "a superior energy that arises specifically from conflict," in this scenario.  The traditional ALADDIN is initially characterized as the laziest kid in town, and there's a sense in which his persona in the story is closer to a comic type, even though the original ALADDIN, unlike the Disney version (which steals a lot from Korda's THIEF), is not dominantly comic in tone.

In a related vein, in my review of the 1922 SHERLOCK HOLMES, I noted how the potentially adventurous conflict between Holmes and Prof. Moriarty had been so de-emphasized that I labeled the film a "drama" rather than an adventure:

though the film strains to depict the clash of Holmes and Moriarty in Biblical terms, their personalities are too thinly drawn to sustain the hero-villain myth Doyle created.

In contrast to this, I do regard 1939's ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES as an invigorating adventure, for all that it's partly based on the same stage-play as the 1922 SHERLOCK HOLMES:

ADVENTURES presents a Holmes who fights and shoots like a pulp hero. To be sure, this Holmes is still much more restrained than the modern Robert Downey Jr. incarnation. But the epic combat of Holmes and Moriarty is played for all its worth here, rather than being “seen” via indirect means as in Doyle’s “Final Problem,” or reduced to a crime-melodrama as in the 1922 silent film.
The 1922 film is not unlike the example of Aladdin: it might be said to possess "might" in that Holmes and Moriarty remain incarnations of "good" and "evil" in a generalized sense, though their conflict is subcombative by reason of its lack of vigor.  ADVENTURES does play the combat of good and evil for all it's worth, though, so the triumph of Holmes gives him the quality of "dominance" in the above sense.

These matters will tie together when I re-examine the Kantian concepts of "might" and "dominance" in line with my own earlier categories of "spectacular and functional violence," to which I alluded in the essay preceding this one.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


'The spectacle, indeed, has an emotional attraction on its own, but of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and the least connected with the art of poetry."-- Aristotle's POETICS, Section VI,  trans.Francis Ferguson.

'The form of a poem, that to which every detail relates, is the same whether it is examined as stationary or as moving through the work from beginning to end, just as a musical composition has the same form when we study the score as it has when we listen to the performance. The mythos is the dianoia in movement; the dianoia is the mythos in stasis. One reason why we tend to think of literary symbolism solely in terms of meaning is that we have ordinarily no word for the moving body of imagery in a work of literature.'-- Frye, Second Essay, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, p. 83.


I may keep the distinction of "combative" and "subcombative," because it addresses a quality of narrative that is related to neither plot nor character, but to that element that Aristotle called "spectacle."
Aristotle lists six elements of "poetry," which seems to mean all forms of art with which he was familiar, though he centers the POETICS upon the theater.  The three more integral elements of poetry are "plot," "character," and *dianoia,* which has often been translated as "theme."  The other three-- translated by Ferguson as "song," "diction," and "spectacle"-- are less essential to the composition of poetry and pertain more to its presentation to a public, which is why Aristotle also notes of "spectacle" that it "depends more on the art of the stage machinist than of the poet"-- thus foreshadowing thousands upon thousands of 20th-century film-critics cheesed off at the audience's enthusiasm for the art now called "special FX."

Addressing first those essential three:

It may be observed that in essays like RISING AND FALLING STARS, I've embraced only two of Aristotle's three essential elements: plot and character.  The reason is contained in the Frye quote above: for me *mythos* in the sense of "plot" is the mirror-image of the "theme," for generally it's through the movement of the plot, rather than the characters in the plot, that the poetic work's theme is disclosed.

Now, moving on to the less essential three:

I won't spend any time on spelling out how Aristotle's three theater-oriented categories can be translated to other media, but will assume that the categories do appear in some degree in all poetic works in all media, even those in which "diction" and "song" must be imagined, as in both prose and comic books.

Now, for me all three of the "less-essentials" can be regarded as appeals to sensation, what Joyce calls "the kinetic."  "Spectacle," whether one is talking about feigning Zeus' lightning bolts on an Athenian stage or the rampage of the Terminator on modern cinema-screens, concentrates on the faculty of sight, while "diction" and "song" appeal to the faculty of hearing.

However, like the phenomenon of fictional violence, analyzed at length in Part 1 and Part 2 of BATTLE OF THE MONSTER TERMINOLOGIES, any kinetically-oriented FX that enhances the audience's appreciation of the poetic work can be either "functional" or "spectacular."

One may well expect, given my previous context of discussing the manifestations of violence in fiction, that this is the category of "kinetic FX" I'll be addressing here.  Someone else will have to undertake "song" and "diction" in their modern manifestations.

Violence is certainly not the only appeal to sensation in works of fiction; in some quarters, sex or even family sentiment trump violence's frenzied furies.

But it is often the one that can best be used to trace the movements of plot and theme, and of the characters imbricated with the events of a given narrative.

More later.