Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Spider-Woman's Butt and the Problem of False Equivalence

A while ago, a friend of mine brought up the problem with the Spider-Woman cover in conversation. I didn't even know there was a new Spider-Woman series, so I looked up "Spider Woman Problem" and Google immediately knew what cover my friend meant and what problem she was referring to.

I was a little surprised by my reaction, or rather my lack of one. Sure, I was a little disappointed in Marvel for going with this cover, especially since the issue of how female characters are presented has been so prevalent lately and Marvel has been aware of it, but I wasn't outraged by this image in particular. Of course, this is a needlessly sexualized image, but it isn't really much different from all of the other needlessly sexualized images I see all the time. Needless titillation is the norm in comic books - that's the problem. This one image doesn't change anything. This is not the smoking gun of women's treatment in comics. This is not the New 52 redesign of Amanda Waller (#3 in the linked article). I feel like acting like this cover crosses a line that comic books, magazine covers, movies, music videos, and video games don't routinely cross might minimize the larger problems in our culture.

The one thing this cover does bring to light is the seeming fact that erotic art is so close to mainstream comics art that one can be repurposed as the other. The message that a piece of art sends is usually as important as the technique. When you are working in a storytelling medium, the tone of the story being told is critically important. With that in mind, an action-adventure story should at least be visually distinct from a pornographic one. This is especially relevant because that alternate Spider-Woman cover drawn by Milo Manara is to promote a comic drawn by Greg Land and Greg Land may be the worst person to ever draw a woman. Still, I didn't think I had anything that relevant to say because I wasn't emotionally invested in the issue. I wasn't angry about this cover.

Then, a couple of weeks later, I saw a video posted of an Internet writer named Maddox responding to the controversy. Then I got angry.

Maddox may have misidentified the problem, but make no mistake - as far as I can tell, every point he makes in that video is factually correct. Sure, most normal people would probably view a person on all fours with a low head and ass in the air as inherently sexual, but that's opinion, not fact. She may be looking for a lost contact and then wouldn't you feel stupid.

You will notice that Maddox opened with the point on which, more than any other, he had the critics dead to rights. Yes, Spider-Man has been shown in similar poses. Don't deny that. Peter Parker's butt was spread wide open on a cover and nobody cared. This is why that Elle Magazine piece is an embarrassment. It's not because, as Maddox claims, they don't have the moral high ground (though honestly, if they want to be a feminist magazine, they have a lot of work to do), it's because they don't know what they're talking about. If you don't know about the editorial standards and practices in comics, you shouldn't rest your entire article's validity on that. When you pull misinformed, demonstrably untrue bullshit like this, you turn off everyone who wasn't already on your side and some of the people who were. They think, "These people are only upset because they don't understand the situation." You are giving your opponents ammunition. The subject of equivalent male treatment shouldn't have even been brought up, because that is not the issue at hand. If D.C. were to run 2 page spreads of Barry Allen dropping the soap in the shower, would it justify everything they've printed with Catwoman in it? No, it absolutely wouldn't.

The most painful thing about watching Maddox completely misread the motivation behind the outrage over the Spider-Woman cover is that I think I understand where he's coming from. To someone who hasn't had the larger problems of women in media explained to them the complainers sound like a bunch of ill-informed heterosexual women who are just pissed off because comic book artists aren't providing them with sufficient masturbatory aids. The problem is that I know these people, I have been incensed by comics' portrayals of women, and I can assure you that the people who are offended are not afraid of sex and are not opposed to sexual material in their entertainment. In fact, there are lesbian and bisexual women who are upset by this drawing. Even women who turn to women for sexual arousal and gratification do not necessarily look at that image and see a potential sexual partner or an Other presented for their enjoyment. Some of them see themselves, or rather men's perceptions or expectations of them. The thought process is more like, "When I am crawling on a rooftop looking for my contact lenses in my bright red lipstick, men are looking directly at my butt crack, which is only exposed as an unintentional consequence of the bodypainted outfit that I have to wear for my job." Not every woman views the image this way, but certain women have been very vocal and articulate about the underlying social situations, and the publication of this drawing can make it seem like nobody is listening to them.

The real reason that nobody cares if Spider-Man is in essentially the same pose is that men do not have the same perceptions and expectations on them. To say that women have no right to be offended if men aren't is an argument soaking in false equivalence, and that is a problem that infects both sides of the debate. Men and women have different roles imposed on them by society and different life experiences, and we really need to stop expecting them to respond the same way to stimuli that relate directly to gender and sexuality. Take for instance this video that has been passed around the Internet, which I think is making a point that I agree with, but is doing it so ineptly that it makes me question what point is being made. I think that woman is supposed to be an asshole because she only says the sort of things that only assholes say, but the worst that she does is question whether the guy is a real geek (Is that even a desirable thing to be? I was taught most of my life that it isn't.) and make references to situations that don't exist in our reality. If this happened in real life, I'm not sure most men would process having an attractive woman hit on them - even one who was being incredibly condescending - as a bad experience. I've seen other videos and articles and stories like this that try to turn instances of misogyny back on men and they never work because they think they're promoting empathy, but they're really just saying, "If all of society were different, as was the way you were conditioned to think and feel about social interactions, you would feel differently about the way you treat women," which, while undeniably true, is not particularly useful. In the same way, you can't expect men to feel the same way about men in ridiculous poses as women feel about women in the same poses. The images have different connotations. They mean different things.

Despite what you may have inferred from that last paragraph, I like the Hawkeye Initiative for drawing attention to a real problem without being preachy. Maddox seemed indignant that the Hawkeye Initiative didn't put its finger on exactly what the problem with the women's poses is, but the fact is that it's a difficult, complicated, and nuanced issue. Having Hawkeye as a benchmark helps people understand things on a more visceral level, because when you notice how ridiculous Hawkeye looks in a pose, you might get a sense that there was something wrong with the original drawing even if you don't fully understand why it was wrong. Just to address one specific aspect of the issue, in the articles I have read about Spider-Woman's butt, people are fond of pointing out that men are usually drawn in poses that convey power and strength, while women are usually drawn in poses that convey vulnerability and submission. The solution that people usually propose is for all characters, male and female, to be drawn to convey strength. While this would solve the problem, it would also result in comics that I have absolutely no interest in reading. As it is, too many men are drawn as interchangeable without women also being the same. Not all characters - not even all protagonists - need to be power fantasies. We need Forbush-Men and Ettas Candy and the Foggiest Nelsons you can provide. By all rights, a pose you draw for Conan the Barbarian should look ridiculous with Forbush-Man in it:

This isn't changing the subject. Some characters are goofy. Some characters are sexy. Sometimes, that is a character's sole narrative function in a work, and that can be okay. The problem arises when what character traits a character can have and what roles a character can fill are determined entirely by a character's gender. Some women should be silly. Some men should be sexy. Some women should be powerful. Some men should be submissive. We should have a variety of characters available to us and each one should be at least a little bit different. Keep in mind, though, that no matter how hard you try, there are certain archetypes that are going to show up again and again just because people really, genuinely enjoy them and that those archetypes include the hypermasculine hero and the seductive femme fatale. If you say that men shouldn't be idealized caricatures of masculinity and that women should have some redeeming social value, then you are essentially saying that Batman can't be Batman and Catwoman can't be Catwoman.

The solution to this problem is not in putting hard and fast rules on how female characters can be drawn, but for artists to seriously consider why they draw each character the way they do. Not sending a message isn't an option. Not trying to send a message usually means that you are unaware of what message you are sending. Consider who a character is, what her personality is, and what role she is playing in the story. Consider the story's tone, its genre, and its audience. If you are drawing a character whom writers and artists have worked hard to portray primarily as strong or intelligent or competent, ask yourself why you feel it necessary to reduce her to a sex symbol. You might have a reason, but I'm pretty sure that most of the time the answer is that you had better not.


Anonymous John Sorensen said...

Well said. I enjoyed reading this post.

7:35 AM  

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