Before we really get started in this blog, a question must be posed. What group of people is the target audience for superheroes? The answer…everyone. It is not just children, it is not just teenage boys, it is not just girls who choose to hang out with skaters, it is not just men in their 20s and 30s, it is not just the LGBT community, and it is not just single people living at home with mom and dad after they should have been on their own for about two decades. Superhero stories are written for people of every age, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.
Some people may not realize this, but most comics are not super-hero based. That being said, it seems that everyone who really wants to write or draw comics wants to do superhero comics. And why wouldn’t they? Those are the ones that are turned into movies, have cartoon series, and have their own toy lines.
There are tons of movies based on comic books: 30 Days of Night, 300, Alien Vs. Predator, American Splendor, Art School Confidential, Blade, Bulletproof Monk, Constantine, The Crow, Cowboys & Aliens, Hellboy, A History of Violence, Howard the Duck, Josie and the Pussycats, Judge Dredd, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Losers, The Mask, Men in Black, Painkiller Jane, Red, Richie Rich, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, The Rocketeer, Road to Perdition, Sin City, Spawn, Spy Smasher, Steel, Surrogates, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Tank Girl, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Timecop, Unbreakable, V for Vendetta, Wanted, Watchmen, Whiteout, Witchblade. (Wow…and I didn’t even mention Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron-Man or any other real heavy hitters from Marvel or DC).
There are numerous superhero cartoons. Mostly targeting boys, but also targeting girls. One’s that target girls include: Totally Spies, Sabrina’s Secret Life, Power-Puff Girls, and The Last Airbender.
There are numerous superhero toys. Some for ages 2-5, others 6-10, and some meant for adult collectors.
While American comic sales have declined in recent years, Manga sales have gone up. But even with declining sales in numbers, taken collectively (books, toys, movies, etc.), profits have risen.
So what does this all mean? First, it means that the graphic genre on the whole is clearly here to stay for the foreseeable future. Second, it means that you can count on continuing to see summer blockbusters with superheroes, and attempts at making these shows work on television. (Smallville got it right when they focused more on the characters and less on the powers. That gave the live action show enough drama to keep it moving.) Third, it means that the superhero and graphic novel genre is a genre worth looking at and critiquing. In fact, a lot of critiquing goes on.
Perhaps the biggest criticism I see is in reference to the sexualizing of women in how they are drawn in comic books. The next criticism is for the unequal treatment of women and minorities in the genre. The final one I see is based on the violence prevalent in the genre. So I thought it would be a good idea to tackle these issues, but from a broader perspective. I am interested in hitting all mediums and not just the comic books.
So let us begin.
Portrayal of Men and Women in Comics, Graphic Novels, TV, and in Films
In each venue, character development is important and there are all kinds of characters. There are strong characters, weak characters, sane characters, insane characters, confident characters, and incompetent characters. There are also characters of all races, both genders, and of different sexual orientations. When I talk about the portrayal of men and women in comics, I am not talking about what is on the inside. I am not talking about the character of heroes and villains; I am discussing the physical portrayal of characters as we see them.
Both men and women are portrayed in comics in an idealized manner. This is less so in television and in film, because real people can’t have muscles where muscles don’t exist. So here is the skinny. Men are drawn to appeal to men who wish they could “look like that.” They are also drawn to be physically attractive to female readers. Likewise, women are drawn to appeal to women who wish they could “look like that.” They are also drawn to be physically attractive to male readers. This is perhaps less so in cartoons as cartoons are intended for younger viewers. But this is not always the case, especially not in the New DC direct-to-video film releases or in any anime cartoons intended for older viewers.
In toys we also see character molds with extra muscles, etc.
The appeal of the drawings is also enhanced by colors. Many characters wear brightly colored outfits that would look utterly stupid in real life, but that really help art come to life in drawings. Because they look bad on real people (except sometimes in cosplay), most live action films and TV shows have to change the costumes.
I am not opposed to drawing characters as idealized images of what we would look like if we could.
However, I am sometimes uncomfortable with how sexualized some characters are in their drawings. Not just the females, but more so them than the males. I think in some respects the over-sexualizing degrades women, but more on that below. Sometimes this comes from men who apparently can’t have any real relationships, or who are trying to appeal to 14-year-old boys, but sometimes it also comes from female writers and artists.
I think outfits should symbolize who characters are, but the outfit should be both idealized and appropriate.
So what is appropriate?
Well, basically I would say that an appropriate outfit is anything that does not blatantly cause someone to be treated or seen as less than human. Appropriate does not degrade the character from who he or she is.
I know, I know, that is incredibly broad. Sometimes skimpier things are necessary, sometimes we need to see Batman without a shirt on, but we don’t need to see characters looking out of character or as less than their character’s persona warrants.
So to conclude this small section, let me summarize with a few points:
- It is acceptable to portray characters as idealized versions of humanity.
- Sometimes showing skin is acceptable.
- Sometimes it is not.
- Having 5,000 muscles is cool.
- Having bright colors and tights works on paper, not in real life (yes cosplayers, not in real life…unless you can prove me wrong…I think some of you can J).
- Outfits and looks should match character personality. Wide ranges of personalities are needed for characters and their development.
- Sexualizing goes beyond costume, and that is where it becomes easier to define what an appropriate look is and is not.
The Sexualizing of Men and Women in Comics, Graphic Novels, TV, Film, and in Toys
In comics, sexualizing comes in several forms. As noted above, there is an element of it in drawing. More importantly, it comes in actions. When women are treated as nothing more than sex objects, that is bad (unless someone is treating someone that way and about to get his teeth kicked in for it).
But relationships are a big part of life, and sexuality and relationships certainly have a place in any story (age appropriate of course).
Gail Simone is a good writer. She has done much in the world of comics to educate people about ethnic stereotyping and violence towards women. She has written some great Superman, Wonder Woman, Secret Six, Birds of Prey, and other comics. But I don’t understand why she defends the sexualizing of characters so much. I am not talking about sexual preference, but rather how things are drawn. Sometimes she does speak out against it, but she seems to defend it just as often.
Regardless, Gail created a website called Women in Refrigerators. This site chronicles violence against women in the superhero genre. Since creating that site, she has done much to raise awareness as to what kinds of characters are needed (effectively making Barbara Gordon the most loved handicapped character in comic history), and she has raised awareness regarding instances of racism, sexism, and other such misogynistic and/or bigoted ideas that have been portrayed in the genre.
It is not just comics where characters are sexualized. It was through this type of advertisement that Smallville was promoted on the WB for years. What about the Transformers movies? The leading actresses in all three films were objectified continually.
So here is the thing.
- Male and female heroes in comics need to be positive role models.
- They need to be liberating.
- They need to exemplify their unique natures, attributes, and assets.
- They need to be relatable.
- Women do not need to be written in a way that is degrading to all women, and men do not need to be written in a way that is degrading to all men (though there are some characters who are just bad seeds).
- When men and women read comics, watch movies, watch cartoons or TV shows, or look for cool toys to purchase, they need to feel accepted as consumers into the genre. Part of this is finding characters to which they can relate and feeling like the characters are portrayed in a way that does not degrade the reader’s gender, ethnicity, or any emotional or physical characteristics he or she may have.
- Costumes can enhance, but should not degradingly objectify. Tightfitting costumes that show musculature can be good, so let’s draw them in a good way.
Equalization in Comics, Graphic Novels, TV, and Film: The Characters
We are seeing more and more female lead characters in movies, television shows, cartoons, comics, and in graphic novels. We are also seeing more minority characters. So the genre is not perfect (and probably never will be), but a lot of work is being done to make it come as close as it can.
Equalization in Comics, Graphic Novels, TV, and Film: The Writers
There are certainly a lot of well-known male comic book writers, but also a lot of well-known female writers. It seems that more men write superhero stories, but there are many female writers in the industry. They write films, TV shows, cartoon, and graphic novels.
Violence in Comics, Graphic Novels, TV, and Films
In general, comics, cartoons, TV shows and films can be extremely violent. I think that is part of the genre. But there is good violence and bad violence. I do not really support reading comics or watching movies that are grotesquely violent just for the sake of having violence. Violence should be used to prove a point, raise awareness, or resolve an issue, but not just to be violent. Violence is to be portrayed, but not promoted in most cases.
Violence Against Women
With the onslaught of more and more female characters, it seems acceptable to say that when the woman is throwing the punches, she may also receive some. But when violence against women is portrayed in such a way that the “woman is victimized and unable to control the situation.” I am less inclined to find it appropriate. When a female is being beaten and unable to escape it does not generally come across as appropriate. This is also true when violence is portrayed against children, and even sometimes against men. Again, I am not talking here about the superheroes; I am talking about the casualties around them. Domestic abuse should not be promoted in any superhero media.
In the movie, The Expendables, there is domestic abuse. It is written in such a way that the viewer is meant to hate the domestic abuse and I would hope that it would cause anyone who is guilty of delving out this kind of abuse to think twice.
Violence Against Men
There is nearly as much violence against men in comics as there is against women. But most male
superheroes tend to have wives and children that have been victimized. I am against that kind of portrayal in most instances.
A note on the permanence of violence: No one is dead, anything that is broken can be mended, anything mentally damaging can be erased. Though it is clear that in super hero stories women tend to stay dead longer than men; in this genre, no one is really dead forever, and everyone can survive or recover from things that no actual living person could.
That being said, let no one assume that it is acceptable to portray violence that no one in reality can live through, just because it is a fictional story.
In the film, Red, one character fires a revolver at a missile and stops it. That is not what I am talking about. I am talking about the gross amounts of physical and mental torment that characters are subjected to that can be viewed as nearly satanic. The kind of stuff that would have been common in say…the Holocaust. That is the kind of violence that should be avoided or never looked upon favorably, especially when the story is geared towards teenagers or younger children.
Conclusion: A Few Suggestions
Below are a few suggestions I have for writers, artists, and producers going forward for the superhero genre in comics, films TV, cartoons, toys, and books.
- We need to see more women as lead characters and not just as sidekicks or accessories to the main male characters.
- We need to make sure that violence is redemptive and not just present for the sake of having violence.
- Characters need to be drawn in a way that does not degrade who they are.
- Writers need to be careful about ostracizing fans with how they portray certain lifestyles, genders, and ethnicities. Not everyone of any race or gender is good, but not everyone of any race or gender should be treated as less than human.
- We need less objectification of female characters.
- We need heroes with values.
- Be willing to raise ethical, political, philosophical, and spiritual issues in your stories. Make your audience think!!
- Tell good stories, and share good messages.
On a side note, props to Laura Hudson and her work in these areas.