SuperWomen and Sexuality

Superman logo

Superman logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight at 7 EDT we are having the third #SuperWomen chat! Join us on Twitter for an hour (or so) of discussion. Tonight’s topic will be SuperWomen and Sexuality. Discuss superhero costumes, armour (or lack thereof), and how this plays a role in the portrayal of SuperWomen and how they are perceived in culture.

Found this floating around Facebook, being a meme.

One of the big topics surrounding women in fantasy and the comic book world is their costumes and clothes. I mean, it’s not good enough to fight the powers of darkness for the safety of unicorns and puppies if you can’t do it baring 87% of your skin, right?

Never mind that from a combat perspective, traipsing about in a bikini leaves most of your internal organs vulnerable. Either the creators of these costumes imagine that all organs from heart to spleen reside in women’s boobs or there’s something else at work here.

It’s not just the comic books — it’s films, cartoons, video games, and everything in between. If women have powers, they’re going to be mostly naked.

The Myth of the Male Demographic

One of the biggest reasons I hear for this is that they’re just playing to the male-dominated demographic that consumes these types of media. If you look at that statement a little more closely, this is what you’ll see:

Men are only interested in powerful women if they are naked (vulnerable) and sexualised.

Not only is that horribly disturbing, but it’s insulting to the intelligence of men as well. I believe in gender equality, and to say that men only want to see strong women if they’re getting sexually stimulated by it is degrading to intelligent men AND degrading to women.

Both men and women are sexual beings. But culture would have us believe that old double standard where men fixating on visual stimulation (women in skimpy costumes) is an inextricable and inevitable hangup. It’s the same mentality that puts the blame on women for “tempting” men by looking sexy, and by saying that men have as much ability to control their urges as a toddler left alone in a candy shop.

I believe this is a self-perpetuating myth. Both consumers and media creators got it into their heads that men wouldn’t be interested in seeing female superheroes in full armour, so they rarely try to depict it otherwise. And in doing so, how can they know?

Wonder Woman Covers

Wonder Woman Covers (Photo credit: jooleeah_stahkey)

Double Trouble

Last week, someone sent me a rather troll-like reply on Twitter after I commented that Anita Blake is a powerful SuperWoman. The guy said something like, “Oh, because she’s surrounded by men to bang who are all at her beck and call?”

I didn’t respond out of disgust.

That response is a perfect example of the sexual double standard applied to male and female sexuality. Men with multiple partners have almost always been lauded, where women are whores. And notice that this Twit (not a Tweep) immediately sexualised Anita’s power in general in response to a comment I made saying that Anita shows that women can be sexual without being a victim or a “whore.” Anita’s power does not stem only from her sexuality — the ardeur is not the root of her power. She is a strong, fully realised character regardless of how many lovers she has.

Female superheroes are sexualised for the “male audience,” but if they stray from what is expected, they’re demonised, merely for exhibiting the same behaviours seen of their male counterparts.

Sex as a Punisher

Earlier this week, I discussed sexual violence in horror movies, but it’s not limited to that genre. Too often, rape and sexual assault are used as punishment tropes in media, to take female protagonists down a peg or two in retaliation for them romping around having the gall to be strong.

Seanan McGuire said something very similar in her post last week — why should SuperWomen have to be violated and humiliated? Why does retaliation against them have to be sexual in nature?

From costumes to sex to rape — the sexuality of SuperWomen has a lot of issues to work through. Join us on Twitter this evening to discuss these facets of their portrayal and how we can combat them. Same bat time, same bat channel. 7:00 EDT until we’re done.

What counterexamples can you find for these tropes? Many? Any? How can we shift the balance from the sexualising of SuperWomen to the empowering of SuperWomen in all aspects of their characterisation?



About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on October 10, 2012, in Superheroes, SuperWomen and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I thought of this on your last blog, the movie The Watchmen. I know it was a graphic novel first, but I’d never read it. But there was plenty of disturbing shit in that movie. You had the one scene where the female hero was raped. THen another where a male superhero kills his pregnant girlfriend. Yet what was everyone out raged by the most? Naked blue guy and his blue CGI penis. THAT was what most people bitched about that movie and found offensive. The rape and murder of a pregnant girl just seemed to get glazed over.

    • That is a very good point. It’s not the violence against women that people get upset about, but male nudity. Whereas female nudity is expected and lauded.


  2. Raiscara Avalon

    That always annoyed me, and I’m a devout She-ra and Wonder Woman fan. Same thing with general entertainment…women prance around naked all the time in movies especially, yet you hardly see anything below the waist of a guy. Remember Troy and all the OMG Brad Pitt’s BUTT stuff?

    I also get mad that each and every woman is the exact same shape and size. Especially in graphic novels/3D art. My best friend is a graphic artist and I yell at him all the time to give her hips, or look like she ate more than 100 calories a day. Celebrating nudity is great, from an artist’s perspective, but we should celebrate it ALL. Though I will admit that the female form is far more aesthetically pleasing. And I loves mah mensies! 😉

  3. I agree with what you’re saying about the presentation of women in superhero comics, absolutely. I think the first real modern strong female superhero was actually Buffy Summers — she has all the baggage (secret identity, phenomenal power, sworn to protect innocents, real-life problems, etc.) but does it without the gratuitous sexuality. Well, actually, what I mean is she isn’t just presented as a sex object, and her sexuality is part of her character and the ongoing story.
    I found it annoying in the early 90s to read Justice League comics, in which Guy Gardner is given a free pass (from a narrative perspective) to demean Wonder Woman with his constant crude one-liners and come-ons. She didn’t give in to either overreacting or letting him “win” — but the fact a dork with a power ring could get away with harassing a near-goddesslike Amazon spoke to the problem with the way she was presented. It was as if that was an OK way to treat the (at the time) most powerful member of the team, just because she was a woman.

    • Yeah, that sort of thing is unbearably prevalent. And if the women respond to it, they’re the bitch.

      Reminds me of the other night when I walked home from work. A guy yelled at me from across a street, and when I ignored him, he started screeching, “I’m talking to you, BITCH!” Needless to say, I got out my phone, looked back at him, and changed my route home.


      • David Jón Fuller

        I think you’re right about this sort of thing self-perpetuating in the comics. If women are treated as only sex objects, you’re going to attract only a certain kind of reader.
        Interestingly, when strong female characters are presented and written well (such as in the Claremont-Byrne X-Men run, or Frank Miller’s Elektra when he did his first run on Daredevil), female readership increases. Funny, that!

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