As someone who spent her entire youth having inappropriate thoughts about superheroes, I’ve always understood that women aren’t the only ones being physically objectified in comic books, and men are being depicted as basically naked and entirely perfect as well. Finally it seems that the rest of the female population is catching on.
Women were always sexually objectified in comic books, but so are men. They are physically perfect people in skin tight costumes, why is this sexist? It is certainly sexual, and perhaps a little unfortunate, in the sense that everyone is being equally objectified, but not sexist. Recently I’ve noticed a very interesting trend. Straight, relatively mainstream-looking women who have never read comic books before are asking me where to start in the superhero genre. These are young married or engaged women, with a long term comic book reading husband/fiance/boyfriend, who want to find a good place to start reading, usually with the Avengers. Initially, their partners seem very happy and excited to bring their wives into what was previously “their” world. With excitement, I have heard men gleefully explain that “for years my wife had no interest in superheroes, but since we saw Captain America [or Thor, or Iron Man], she’s been reading my comics!” They say this with some surprise and although they’re pleased, they seem a little confused, until their wives look at me with sparkling eyes ask “Did you see his muscles!? Captain America is gorgeous!”
Maybe it is because I am the bridge between their two worlds, but I have been privy to many instances of this strange moment when husbands realize that their wives are finally reading comic books with the same kind of prurient thoughts that they had as kids… Just as these boys grew up fantasizing about perfectly built, incredibly brave, dangerous, half-naked people, now girls are too. While sharing the superhero love is a beautiful thing, embracing the reality that women are capable of objectifying men can be a daunting revelation.
I first saw hints of this superheroic objectification as I walked out of 300 a couple of years ago, and overheard my friend saying to her husband “Why don’t you work out more?” They laughed about it, but he cringed and I happen to know that he did start taking martial arts classes soon afterwards and looks a lot healthier now. It is always tough to acknowledge that alongside the geeky escapism there is also a certain amount of sexual objectification going on in superhero comic books, but we have to be honest about the appeal. I know that I spent a very unhealthy amount of time obsessing over Alan Davis’ Batman when I was growing up, and although at the time I thought it was perfectly innocent, I know now that I was secretly a little thrilled by his broad shoulders and long legs.
When I recommend comic books, or explain that the earliest, strongest female role models I had were female superheroes, feminist friends often tell me that comic books objectify women and ask why I’m not uncomfortable with this. This shocks me, how can they be missing the half-dressed, overly muscular, totally unshakable men in these comic books? Surely no woman thinks that men are realistically portrayed in super hero comic books, at least no more than women super heroes are? I frequently explain to feminist friends that comic books have objectified men for longer than they have objectified women. While the early super hero comic books might have given men more action-oriented roles, those men were always physically perfect and wearing something skin tight. Who’s the sex object in Action Comics #1 (1936)? Is it fully-dressed Lois Lane or that big guy in the tight clothes?
It is a very curious phenomenon that this objectification of men via the popularization of superheroes has been so ignored by the feminist population. Perhaps it is because men are so aggressive in comic books, and therefore they’re perceived as less of an “object”, but realistically, portraying men as extremely aggressive, ridiculously brave and generally embodying unrealistically extreme versions of traditionally masculine traits has to be a kind of sexism. The fact that they’re wearing skin tight clothing and have impossibly perfect bodies just compounds the issue. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m still very clear that women are being similarly objectified in super hero comic books, but I’m saying that this is not a one way street.
Perhaps part of the lie has been that the bulk of the male comic book reading population just never assumed that they were being represented by these male super heroes. Unfortunately, women are just more accustomed to looking at media and seeing it as a reflection of some sort of female ideal they’re being asked to echo. But this isn’t true, neither male nor female superheroes are a criticism of regular humans. The other mystery to me, is why I grew up seeing these fabulously powerful female super heroes as role models, instead of sexual archetypes I could never hope to look like. And why is it only now that so many other women are embracing the super hero concept as good, clean fun?
It is possible that our society has reached this odd balance where the sexes are being equally objectified, we have achieved a kind of uneasy balance where women are now able to tread gingerly into the fanboy mentality and get off to their own Captain America fantasies. Simultaneously, comic book reading men are gradually noticing that although they are men, just like their favorite super heroes, they find their own bodies to be sadly dissimilar to those ideals. It is a weird kind of equality and certainly not the kind our feminist foremothers dreamed of, but it is what we’ve got, for now.