Kelly Thompson's April attack on the male gaze inspired this mini-satire, but here I'll go into my specific problems with her definition of the "beauty factor" in superhero comics.
On one hand, her most famous essay, "No, It's Not Equal," acknowledges that there is some appeal, even for female readers, in identifying with characters who are damn good looking.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want or expect all characters to be unattractive. I understand that we all want to lose ourselves to a degree in fantasy. That fictional worlds provide an escape that we all want. Hell, I grew up wanting to be these heroines because they were powerful and beautiful, I’m not immune to it.
So far, so good. Where Thompson and I part company is that she sees this tendency toward inequality as purely a consequence of "social conditioning."
We’re all socially conditioned to want youth and beauty, and we’re all conditioned to think specific things are beautiful, but that doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to educate ourselves against it. And it doesn’t make it equal between the sexes. It’s much more frequently true that women are required to be beautiful no matter what, while men have much more flexibility.
This education apparently comes down to harping on the inequality of (1) the prevalence of beautiful people in superhero comics, as opposed to ordinary looking people, and, to a lesser extent, (2) the tendency to allow male villains to be ugly but not female villains.
From anti-heroes to superheroines, and from femme fatales to full blown supervillains it’s rare to find a female character that isn’t drop dead gorgeous.
It's true that there is no statistical "equality" in this situation, as was apparently claimed by some defensive fans. What Thompson and some of the more monomaniacal Sequart readers chose to overlook is the question as to whether it's ethical to impose equality upon the depictions of fictional characters within a corpus of works dominantly aimed at an audience of a particular gender orientation.
As I did in Part 1, I advocate whatever narratives devices work for the type of fiction the author is attempting. If one is attempting a work in the vein of "thematic realism," as with the LOVE AND ROCKETS works of the Brothers Hernandez, then great variation in body types such as Thompson advocates is to the good of the narrative. However, if one is attempting "thematic escapism"-- as I would categorize the Stan Lee-Don Heck IRON MAN continuity I cited-- then a more standardized approach to questions of physical beauty may be necessary. In the IRON MAN stories cited, the physical upgrades of Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan exist to further the admittedly simplistic aims of the superhero/soap opera narrative. I speculate, then, that Thompson would characterize Stan Lee's standardization of these two not-too-glamorous characters as a capitulation to social conditioning, rather than a reflection of the influence of beauty (be it socially conditioned or something more complex) in the real social order, on which the narrative is partly modeled.
This seems to me a fair extrapolation, since by that last-quoted statement above, Thompson defines the tendency toward "drop dead gorgeous" characters as just such a capitulation, particularly since a lot of male villains are "allowed" to be ugly while female villains are not.
What this blinkered view overlooks is that while some female villains' beauty *may* be gratuitous, in many cases it's a narrative necessity. Take the Enchantress-- a character introduced in the original "Thor" feature in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #103, and one of those Thompson includes in her gallery of gorgeous evildoers.
I'm sure that Thompson would be aware that the Enchantress' raison d'etre depends on her being gorgeous far more than, say, Moonstone. What she probably would not appreciate is that even though extra-diegetic fans may well have ogled the curvaceous conjurer, the main purpose of Enchantress' beauty is its use in tempting the hero of the story.
This scene is one of two in which the villainess tries and fails to seduce Thor. As with my IRON MAN examples, the purpose of utilizing glamor is to encourage the reader's identification with the soap-opera travails of the main character and his girfriend. Because the dominant reader is so invested, the only possible threat to that relationship must come from some character whom the reader can believe would be capable of making Thor's hammer stand up straight (as it seems to be doing in the scene above).
I'm not saying that "thematically escapist" works don't include any situations in which a less-than-attractive female makes up to an attractive one. Changing media for convenience, here's a scene from a 1967 WILD WILD WEST episode in which the hero (Robert Conrad) is being vamped somewhat by the villainess of the story, essayed by 67-year-old Agnes Moorhead.
While the late Ms. Moorehead looked pretty good for her years in this episode, almost no one viewing the show is likely to believe that Moorehead's character has any chance to seduce the hero, which indeed she does not. And if one replaces the factor of age with any of the "realistic" attributes I mentioned in my satire-- having a bald spot, a harelip, a needle-nose, etc.-- then once again the reader is unlikely to believe that the villainess can seduce the hero. And so if an author WANTS the reader to believe that the hero can be tempted-- even if his ultimate aim is to have him resist temptation in the name of true love-- then narrative logic demands that the represenative of "vice" be as attractive, or more so, than "virtue," as we also see in this medieval image of Hercules choosing between the two.
With these examples in mind, it should be evident that comic-book artists and writers, like almost every other toiler in the vales of thematic escapism, may have good narrative reasons for emphasizing beauty in their villains: as a constant temptation to the hero or heroes. In contrast, despite all the silly-ass cant by critics who find deep homosexual patterns in superhero comics, the depiction of male villains as statistically less-than-lovely indicates the fact that they are not constructed to be sexually appealing to the heroes. Perhaps these critics are revealing their own atypical attractions by their getting boners from male-vs.-male battles.
Not that there's anything wrong with that--
Except when it leads to really bad logical conclusions.