So, here's the thing: comic books are awesome. What's more, they tend to be especially awesome when they feature superheroes doing the sort of awesomely super heroic things that allow us to live vicariously through them, and project onto them our dreams of our best selves.
Comic books are also, however, deeply problematic. Generations of writers, artists, editors and behind-the-scenes industry folks have tirelessly produced iconic characters and plot-lines – but they've also produced close to a century's worth of images and stories that routinely treat anyone who isn't a straight, white male with the body of an Olympic athlete as being somehow less than those who are. Things are changing – and they're changing fast – but in an industry that until recently refused to even contemplate a gay superhero, and gave pretty much every non-white hero a shockingly stereotypical name, it's no real surprise that there's a long way to go.
Indeed, one of the most shocking realizations many fans have, going back over beloved comic books from both the past and (to a slightly lesser extent) today, is that:
Female Superheroes Have Been Sexualized to the Point That Their Bodies Don't Function the Way Regular Human Bodies Do
Now, as a kid, I was, perhaps unsurprisingly given that I was a middle-class white male, not all that aware of the institutional sexism that has long plagued the comic books I love – and I don't really recall the moment that I became aware that it's incredibly difficult to find a female superhero pre 2012-or-so who didn't, as a matter of course, look (and routinely appear dressed) like this:
Which, in retrospect, made me part of the problem.
Y'see, for most of their existence, comic book makers have labored under the double whammy of largely unintentional institutional sexism and misogyny (just like pretty much every other industry in the world), and the long-standing impression that their readership expected all female superheroes to be half-naked, large breasted white women with bodies that defy the laws of science.
And, of course, since the vast majority of the comic book audience either never questioned that situation (i.e. me as a kid), or weren't really listened to when they did (i.e. pretty much everyone who questioned before 2010 or so who wasn't a white dude), nothing ever really seemed to change.
Now, sure, there were certainly trends within that trend – up until the 1980s costumes were tamer, and the '90s and '00s both saw phases of particularly problematic imagery (the Rob Liefeld-imitating heightened style of the early '90s and 'pin-up' covers of the early '00s, for instance) – and male superheroes aren't immune to either sexualization or improbable character design, but the overall impression you get when looking back on the last half-century or so of comic books is this:
It Really Does Seem Like a Lot of Comic Book Artists Intentionally 'Forget' How to Draw Anatomy
So much so, in fact, that when some of the folks over at Buzzfeed recently decided to try to replicate some particularly unrealistic artwork, they quickly discovered two things.
1. Comic Books Only Display One Ideal of Feminine Beauty
Specifically, one featuring a tiny waist, massive breasts, high cheekbones and the ability to force one's own body into positions the average gymnast can't physically achieve.
Which, as the intrepid Buzzfeeders soon found, was pretty much impossible to replicate without causing severe injury:
So much so, in fact, that...
2. The Only Way to Replicate Many Comic Book Poses Is to Use Photoshop. A Lot...
Notice how the above image of Spider-Woman on a ledge features the hero just hanging out on a rooftop, her butt raised to the city as though to say 'hey, city, look at my cavernously exposed butt and terrifyingly improbably body posture'? Well, as it turns out, in order to replicate that particular look with an actual human person, you have to change the way spines – and butts – work.
Similarly, upon attempting to replicate a particularly improbably image of the X-Men's Psylocke...
...the team at Buzzfeed found that not only do spines not work like that, but legs, torsos and angles don't either...
In fact, in order to make a real-life woman look like a superhero, you pretty much have to photoshop her to the point that she looks like she's dislocated something – even after making her pose to the point of intense discomfort.
In other words?
There's Clearly Something Fundamentally Problematic With the Way Female Superheroes Are Being Depicted
As Buzzfeed's Sheridan Watson notes:
"I just find everything so hilariously awful. I know a lot of people will say 'it’s just a cartoon' or 'it’s not real' but what people don’t realize is how these images can actually affect women — and men alike. We’re perpetuating an image that is physically impossible to attain. Is there something wrong with having women with rib cages fight crime? Or do they HAVE to have heart-shaped bums in order to succeed?"
In other words, there's a genuine risk that by implying to comic book fans – male and female alike – that they should aspire to meeting the physically impossible body standards depicted in comic books, the industry is telling them to expect something impossible from both themselves, and those around them. What's more, by actively sexualizing female characters, something that is rarely done to anything like the same extent with male superheroes (just take a look at The Hawkeye Initiative), generations of comic book fans are being taught to objectify women, and potentially to treat them unequally as a result.
Now, sure, all of that certainly carries potentially damaging consequences for men too, but in an industry – and, more generally, in a world – in which women are routinely both intensely and destructively sexualized and systematically discriminated against, it's important to remember that there's a big difference between someone in a position of institutional power – say, your average straight white male comic book professional – depicting themselves in an exaggerated fashion, and that same person depicting a member of a group that has been routinely excluded from positions of power in the same manner.
Again, things are getting better – you only have to look at the rise of plausibly-drawn and designed characters like Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel...
...or the accompanying rise of non-straight, non-white, non-male creators alongside that new generation of heroes – but that doesn't mean that the battle for true comic book equality isn't still raging on.
What do you think, though?