I had an interesting conversation with Sean G. Murphy, artist of The Wake, when he posted his favorite piece of 2013 on Twitter Monday evening.
It turned into a larger discussion with several participants about how women are portrayed in comics and it was overall very civil especially in comparison with many other discussions of its kind. Despite this, however, it also included the usual rebuttals to feminist criticism along the lines of “all superheroes, men and women, are idealized anyway”, “[female person] sees no issue with it, so there is no issue”, and “you’re targeting your anger at the wrong place, he’s not like one of those artists.” These responses are problematic, happen too often during feminist/comics discourse, and need to be addressed for the umpteenth time. I will do so in this article.
For context's sake, I will first go over my critique of the piece. You will notice that Wonder Woman, the character who is supposed to be the icon of female strength, has her buttocks as the focal point of the piece. When it comes to the piece’s necessities, which portray the DC Trinity as about to go into battle, her placement in this particular position was not one of those necessities. Her bike is turned in an angle so that she does not face the camera. Her back is curved out, even as she is in a standing position by the look of her straight legs. Her entire torso does not need to be twisted so she can look out at the viewer. If you do not believe me about the anatomical points, I welcome you to stand in front of a mirror and try out her position yourself. Let me know if you find it to be a painless endeavor and if you don’t find any alternative to the intended motion such as a mere twist of your head over your shoulder.
Every artistic choice present in the piece was intentionally made by Murphy. However, he likely did not want, or think he would, make anyone uncomfortable with this piece. I do not have a personal vendetta against Sean G. Murphy and from his work on the two issues I purchased of The Wake, this is not a common decision of his.
But intent does not exclude artwork from criticism.
It Is Not About the Skin
You will notice in the introduction that I made no mention of skin. I could have brought that up if I wanted to, if that were my biggest issue. When it comes to the amount of flesh bared, Murphy certainly bared more than usual by turning Wonder Woman’s swimsuit into a bustier and panties. He insisted to me that he would depict Batman the same way if the character’s costume revealed the same amount of skin, but in the piece Batman looks straight out at the viewer with his body in full-frontal angle, one leg and his shoulders forward and ready for battle. Even if Batman wore a bustier and panties, he would still retain an amount of intimidation (assuming a man in bustier and panties was a normal sight in our culture) as he propels forcefully forwards. His fellow male teammate, Superman, could more believably be wearing only his boy shorts if we comics readers didn’t know from experience that he wears tights. However, Superman has his arms crossed and we can see how broad and powerful he is even though he is placed at a distance.
Conversely, Wonder Woman is certainly not ready for battle as she is just getting off her bike. Her back is faced towards the threat, theoretically making her vulnerable for attack if she were not Wonder Woman. Her lasso is still tied to her leg whereas Batman already has a Batarang in hand. She must leave her pose to get into fighting position, therefore she is not in a powerful stance in the moment that this piece portrays. This leaves her, in comparison with her male teammates, at a weaker and therefore inferior position. This leads to another level of vulnerability, which is directly related to sexuality.
Idealization (Or “Comics Art Styles Are Unnatural Anyway”) Is Not An Excuse
This subject deserves an entire article of its own and already has many, so I will be brief. Men and women in comics are both idealized, but idealized differently. Men are idealized as power fantasies and women are idealized as sexual fantasies. What is the difference? This is something many people, quite understandably, have trouble grasping. It is certainly not a concept easy to explain either considering its dependence on analyzing minutiae, but I will do my best to make it broad.
The general male population, according to popular culture, is attracted to small-waisted women with large breasts and buttocks. So female characters and comics are all at some point drawn with large breasts and buttocks. To further make these aspects prominent, they are often drawn with ridiculously curved backs so that their rear ends are up in the viewers face for reasons that may or may not have to do with the plot (but usually don’t) or they are leaning forward so you get a gazeful of cleavage. Overall: a common drawing of a female character includes her baring a part of herself out into the open and calling attention to it. This is showing vulnerability on the woman’s end so the viewer can imagine obtaining her, or at least that body part.
Women, too, are attracted to vulnerability or at least obtainability in men. The way Superman and Batman posture in Murphy’s piece is not telling women that they can obtain them. It is telling the viewer that they are going to kick their unseen opponents’ ass. They do not have the same twisting of their bodies that allow their chests or backs to become easy targets for viewers’ eyes and opponents’ attacks. In addition: if comics actually catered to the female gaze, you would have different kinds of superheroes on the racks or the least the ones we have now would have different presentations. I’m not going to lecture and tell you what all women want to ogle—because assuming all women have the same tastes is preposterous, as you well know–but I will point you over to manga and the characters that are explicitly created to cater to female readers. Those of that industry have pinpointed what a large number of women want to ogle. It’s not the big, muscly guys ready for battle.
One Woman’s Opinion is Not That of Her Entire Sex
To make an analogy using a prejudice more widely understood, if you called a black person a particular slur and then told them “No, it’s fine, my black friend said I could use that word”, that person you just called that slur is still probably going to punch you in the face. They do not care what your friend told you that you are “allowed” to do, they care that you offended them.
On that note, Murphy’s last word to me about this discussion was that his wife liked the artwork and that she had the final word in his house. I respect that, but the rules of his house do not transfer over to the public sphere, which is where the piece belonged once posted onto Twitter. I don’t know Murphy’s wife. I am unaware of how she’s lived her life, her perspective on political issues, or how much feminist education she may or may not have had. This last characteristic is distinctive because like how you need to be taught that fruits and vegetables are healthy and junk food is detrimental, women often need to realize through means outside themselves that repeated exposures to females being subjugated by males—either real women directly by real men or fictional women drawn by men for male viewers’ eyes—is damaging to their view of the female sex and therefore themselves. The amount of feminist education generally indicates how much a person–a male person, even–is aware of how the two sexes are depicted in media and culture and therefore how they may think when presented with a potentially problematic example. Maybe Murphy's wife does not see problems with the piece because she lacks a feminist education, maybe she has a feminist education and is still not offended by it, or maybe, like my significant other, she does not have good practice at giving the person she loves most in the world constructive criticism.
Bottom line: I can say the same for most women hence why no one woman is the end all be all of the female perspective, although a lot of detractors of comics feminism seem to believe otherwise. Not surprisingly, the female perspectives these detractors enter into the discussion always seem to be molded perfectly to support those detractors’ opinions. Murphy did not explicitly say that his wife has the last word overall, but many others like to make the inclination that their female friend's individual experiences give them some form of authority.
During the Twitter discussion, at least one fellow woman disagreed with me about my perspective of the artwork. That's proof enough that there is not a general “feminine viewpoint,” although pick-up artists and Axe deodorant may tell you to believe otherwise.
We All Know That This One Piece Is Not Representative of Murphy’s Work As A Whole
Also known as:
This Is Not A Comparison Game
There are many different ways to criticize, but one you may have heard most often recently in the light of the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allan controversy, is “separating the art from the artist.” This can also be “separate the artist from the artists of the rest of the medium.” Either an artist’s work, or indeed only one example of his work, can be viewed within a vacuum.
I never accused Sean Murphy of being misogynist. I never said all his art has damaging portrayals of women because it does not. I never maintained that he is as bad as [insert artist, probably from the 90s, here]. People seemed to jump to assume many of these things, however, which is unfortunate because that is not conducive to civil discussion about the topic. Societal and comics industry misogyny is, of course, related, but you have to start small.
If you have ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it is likely that you wouldn’t call it out as sexist. That is because every character is a horrible person in their own right and there is no particular slant towards showing women negatively. On the other hand, different things may be said about Fitzgerald’s other works because a) he wrote in the 1920s, a very misogynist time and b) he had a terrible, complicated relationship with his wife Zelda and if he didn’t have negative emotions towards women in general he certainly had some towards her. But if you did not have a solid reason to bring one of those other stories to compare to The Great Gatsby during a discussion, others in the discussion would probably be confused by what the two stories’ relevance is other than the fact that both were written by Fitzgerald. You certainly couldn’t call The Great Gatsby misogynist due to the contents of the other story unless you had a strong thesis.
I do not have any urge to bring in Murphy’s pencils on The Wake, put them up next to this work on Twitter, and use it to say, “This is why this particular piece is not sexist.” The same characters are not in both works. The characters are not in a similar situation—as of the two issues I own of The Wake—and are not put into similar poses. There is no comparison when it comes to the focus of this article, other than the two were produced by the same deft hand. Comparing it with another artist's work is only putting it at an even more irrelevant point.
On the Other Hand, This Piece is Part of a Pattern
What is upsetting about that pose is not its uniqueness. The reason why it is so hurtful is because, indeed, I see it every day and I’m sick of it. It doesn’t matter how much the female form is exaggerated, it doesn’t matter that Murphy’s example is quite classy in comparison to many other examples of sexualized females in comics, it just matters that it’s there.
To an extent, everyone remembers at one point of their lives where they were like teenage Peter Parker. Either they were smaller physically than or psychologically intimidated by another person. High school is usually the breeding ground for scenarios like these. After a few years, those of us who attended high school leave it, those bullies follow their own paths of life until death, and if we’re lucky we never see them again. There are bullies in the adult world as well, but if you’re a man there is the possibility that you won’t have to deal with too many of them. It is a different story if you’re a woman, though. If you’re a woman, you get new bullies every day for the rest of your life because you are smaller and weaker than men and you are defenseless against their catcalling, their vulgar lyrics about you in their music, and how they visually portray you in advertisements, movies, television shows, and comic books. In fact, superheroines lack of vulnerability towards getting hurt–especially by men, considering the gender ratio of supervillains is tilted towards males–is exactly what is so appealing to female readers. This is, of course, ignoring the too plentiful “women in refrigerators” business.
In the adult world, there are no authorities to run to and say, “All these men are bullying me.” You inevitably receive these responses: “I see your point, but he’s not the enemy here.” “You’re overreacting.” “Oh, he’s not as bad as all those others.” “I don’t see the big deal.” “Just ignore it, no need to kick up a fuss.”
Something that needs to be phrased in most feminist pieces nowadays is that intent is not the issue here. Someone has hurt you before when they didn’t intend to hurt you. They made a rude remark about your work, or how you should probably lose some weight, or tried to make a joke about one of your flaws that did not come off well. Some of these comments may have been trying to help you, but socialization is a balancing act and dialogue often goes wrong.
So, what do you do if someone hurts you? You can not say anything and privately lick your wound, but they may not be aware of their actions and therefore might do it again. If you have several wounds all over you, whether they were caused by the same individual or not, you probably have a level of tolerance that will be exceeded and you will eventually decide to take a different kind of action. My action was to talk to the artist about it because the situation was not like high school; it could be solved with a mature, rational conversation even if it took place on the internet.
I actually asked Sean Murphy why he posed Wonder Woman like that because I know it’s not a habit of his. If anyone is going to be more open to discussion of your critique of how women are depicted in comic books, the artist who doesn’t have objectification as his M.O. seems more likely to listen to you than the artist whose forte is drawing women half-naked and in ridiculous poses. I know many male artists—female artists too!—take pride in how beautifully they draw the female form. If they consistently do it in ways that others view as hurtful, it is not because they want to be hurtful but because they enjoy drawing it in that way. It is unlikely that those telling them it is hurtful are going to make them want to stop drawing in the way they enjoy, especially if they are also profiting off of it. Artists like Murphy, on the other hand, have succeeded for other reasons and at the very least seem more approachable about female portrayal since theirs do not constantly turn off women. Notice for people who love to scream “CENSORSHIP!” when this kind of topic comes up: the hope is that the artist will take to the new perspective on women on his own, not be forced to draw in a way he does not like.
At any rate, I’m glad Murphy enjoys his work and I did not mean to ruin his pride in his favorite 2013 piece, if that is what I did. Other than the problems I have mentioned, it is a great piece of artwork rendered by a very talented man. Once again, I’m sure he did not mean to hurt me or any other woman by producing and posting it. But more importantly, this article is about something much bigger. It is about the discourse we comics fans have about female characters' portrayals and the circular arguments that are preventing progression. This situation has become yet another example of why we need to keep discussing what is hurtful to female comics readers, how we can talk to comics creators about it, and why certain responses towards the issues at hand are not acceptable.