Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why Sexy Costumes For Female Superheroes Piss People Off

Just to be clear, I'm talking about an emotional response. I don't have a problem with Jim Lee drawing sexy women. He's good at it, and he should continue to do the world that service. I'm just trying to explain where the counterargument comes from.

And this really isn't in response to Zak's post, specifically, but to some of the comments on it, and on comments that I've seen pop up in this kind of discussion elsewhere.


Has everyone here seen Transformers? The first live action movie.

Don't go see Transformers. Let's all just pretend that we've seen Transformers.

There's this scene where Megan Fox's character is fixing Bumblebee, before we know that he's Bumblebee. She's leaning over the car. She's wearing this revealing outfit. Bare midriff. Etc. And the camera moves up and down her body in imitation of where Shia La-whatever's gaze is presumably travelling, and where (attracted-to-lady-bits) part of the audience is following.

I'm not going to rewatch the movie to be sure but I'm pretty sure there's not an equivalent scene where we see Sam from his girlfriend's perspective.

Okay. Does this make sense in the movie? Yeah. Sam is the main character: the camera represents Sam's perspective.

But it does imply that the audience is assumed to be male, too. Again: Okay. Sure. Giant trucks smashing into each other? Guy stuff. Guys and girls are different, like different movies, making some for one and some for the other, no big deal.

But like, just staying in the realm of action movies for a minute, you get to the point where you're like, Jesus--

Every time I go to see a movie with a male protagonist blowing stuff up, he's a sexual actor and we see the chicks around him from his perspective and sometimes he's hot so that's cool and sometimes he's just some average-ish dude who the ladies are all nuts about for no well-defined reason and that's annoying.

And every time I go to see a movie with a female protagonist blowing stuff up, she's either super-hot and we see her from her male companion's perspectives, or she's like a mom figure and she's all badass in defense of her family/husband/children and that's cool but not really all that sexy.

I say this as a woman who likes guys. I like to look at guys and have sex with guys and it gets frustrating sometimes that a lot of media doesn't do much for me or represent me or even really acknowledge that I exist. Especially when it's not just action movies but advertisements and media that's presumably "for" me. Or media that is absolutely for me, like RPGs.

It's not something I personally get pissed off about these days, and I understand why it happens and I don't think it's some vast conspiracy to keep women down. But it frustrates me.


  1. What's really shocking to me is that Hollywood used to be so much better at this than they are now. Compare this and this to the more modern (and far less interesting) this.

  2. My wife liked the Spartacus Blood in the Sand miniseries not for the writing or special effects but because she said she finally found an equal opportunity nekkid show.

  3. Todd: If you watch the commentaries, you'll learn that Stars! actually had nudity benchmarks for both sexes they demanded from the production.

  4. sometimes he's just some average-ish dude who the ladies are all nuts about for no well-defined reason and that's annoying

    Yes, exactly. I actually think Hollywood has gotten a bit better about this (see the 2011 movie Immortals, for example), but it is still unbalanced.

    Will & Grace parodied this well:

    (Jack and Karen sit down on the loveseat in the TV room.)
    KAREN: All right. This is it, Jackie. The beginning of a new era. We are going to let new fictitious characters into our lives.
    JACK: Now, I think it's important to be fair to these new shows. So let's give each one of them five seconds to grab our interest.
    KAREN: All right. Bring on the shows.
    JACK: Fat guy, skinny wife. [JACK CHANGES THE CHANNEL.]
    KAREN: Fat guy, skinny wife. [JACK CHANGES THE CHANNEL.]
    JACK: Fat guy, skinny wife. [JACK CHANGES THE CHANNEL.]
    KAREN: Ugly guy, skinny wife? America is not ready for that.


  5. As emerged during the comments on Zak's post, the assumptions about straight male consumers who cannot stand the sight of Dr. Manhattan's weiner are anticipated at several levels of motivation and/or justification:

    * I don't want to see this, I don't like it
    * I don't mind this, but most of our fans don't want to see this, so let's not have it
    * I don't mind this, and it would be great if more people came to grips with it, but it's going to lose us money, so no thanks

  6. Yes, having integrity often entails sacrifices. That's why it's such an uncommon virtue.

    And begging off from you alleged integrity for financial reasons? Yes, the universal solvent.

    "Exercising moral integrity wouldn't be financially optimal, so I'm not going to do it."



  7. "or she's like a mom figure and she's all badass in defense of her family/husband/children and that's cool but not really all that sexy."

    Unless she's Helen Parr/Elasti-Girl. From the Incredibles? Really? No one thought she was like, crazy sexy.

    I'm not helping am I?

  8. I’m a straight man, and I found that shot in Transformers uncomfortable and distasteful. There was one in the second movie too. (I never saw the third.) I find it hard to excuse it in any manner.

  9. But the movie also have a lot of tough marines in nude torso! I though it where here for the female per-adolescent that could see the movie!

  10. I'm saying this with a straight face... Do you not think that men are in general more "visual" than women in what they find sexy, which isn't to say that women don't like pretty pictures of men, but that men are more likely to enjoy leering over images of Megan Fox for protracted periods of time than women are to enjoy leering over, I dunno, images of Robert Pattinson for protracted periods of time?

    I also think that there are plenty of films and cultural products specifically geared to women which turn men into cardboard cut-outs with no personality whose entire existence is designed simply to satisfy the whim of the female protagonist. I'm thinking in particular of that series of films and books with the silly vampires - I'm sure you know the one I mean.

  11. Barking Alien: I appreciate it. :D But yeah, if I'm remembering correctly, Elasti-girl is presented as an object of Mr. Incredible's sexual desire in a way is never really reversed. Understandable, since the movie is largely presented from Mr. Incredible's point of view, but... yeah.

    noisms: To repeat my closing paragraph: It's not something I personally get pissed off about these days, and I understand why it happens and I don't think it's some vast conspiracy to keep women down. But it frustrates me.

    To unpack "why it happens:" Men are more visual than women, etc. etc. Yes.

    It's still frustrating. Especially because the stuff targeted at men is mass market and culturally accepted (action movies) whereas the stuff targeted at women is still widely percieved as "niche" (romance novels.)

    Which, again, is understandable-- visual media is broadcastable throughout the culture in a way that text isn't. So obviously the more visual sexualities are going to have a broader impact on the culture's visual environment than the non-visual ones. But everyone, regardless of sexuality, is still exposed to that visual environment, and it wears on one after a while.

    Also, I suspect that women are really a lot more capable of being visually stimulated sexually than our culture tends to believe, but that the response tends to be more specific, and that our culture isn't really comfortable with female sexuality so it gets shunted out of big public spaces like action movies and off into corners like fan fiction. But I have basically no evidence for that beyond my own speculations and experience. I thought I was asexual until I was about 16, and it took me 4 years after that to figure out what I was really into.

    (As something of an aside-- the people who get really pissed off about this tend to believe that sexual objectification is something that only men do to women because the visual kind is a lot more obvious than the non-visual kind, and they tend to believe that sexual objectification, period, is a bad thing. I've been limiting to this to explaining my own reaction to this stuff because that's what I understand, but my reaction is going to necessarily be an incomplete description of the broader phenomenon, because I'm (a) highly visual for a straight woman and (b) very much in favor of mutual & respectful sexual objectification.)

    Twilight's an interesting example, actually. Because it's the target of massive, cross-gender, cross-subcultural hatred. My pet theory there is that that's because it appeals to young female sexuality, and a lot of people are threatened by that, even if a lot of people are also happy to make money off of it.

    And yeah, a lot of people criticize stuff like Transformers as well (*waves!*) but... I dunno. It doesn't feel entirely equivalent to me, for a lot of reasons.

  12. You really think that action movies are more mass-market and culturally accepted than, say, rom-coms? And rom-coms are targeted at women in the same way and to the same extent action movies are targeted at men, aren't they? Perhaps even more so.

    As for Twilight being the target of massive, cross-gender, cross-subcultural hatred... Personally I think Transformers is pretty much just as universally panned. One of the two is made for adolescent girls and is hated by the rest of society, and one of the two is made for adolescent boys and is hated by the rest of society. I don't think you can single out Twilight as being uniquely condemned.

    What I do think is that in its own way Twilight is just as crass, manipulative and stupid as Transformers, and so it's hard to argue that there's much difference how the two sexes are treated nowadays by Hollywood. They both get what they want - if they're willing to check their brains out at the door. That's what's truly frustrating for you (and I) I suspect.

  13. My issue with stuff like Shia checking out Fox in the Transformers is that it's both gratuitous and lazy. Storywise, it's using a visual nod towards lust as shorthand for a deeper emotional investment. And yet, we're burning valuable film seconds lingering on this moment for what? A visual thrill cheaper than the special effects that hit you through the rest of the flick and which doesn't require the male actor to actually do anything?

    I haven't seen the Twilight flicks, but at least in those the shirtless werewolves and brooding vamps are the story. Making both her suitors drool-icious supports the story of a girl torn between her emotions for two very different guys.

  14. It's not that the guys in Twilight are drool-icious. I'm all for drool-icious people appearing on screen. It's that they only exist to make the central female character feel good. Neither of the two male leads has an independent existence outside of "I love Bella unconditionally", and everything they do panders to her every whim. It's just as much about adolescent wish fulfilment as Transformers, in other words. It doesn't look as visually exploitative because it's stylistically different, but I think it boils down to a similarly simplistic and objectifying portrayal of an entire sex.

  15. noisms: I've not seen any of them, so I won't argue whether it is or isn't simplistic and objectifying. My only point is that, even if that is the case, I still find it less objectionable because the lead's feelings for these guys are what the story is about, rather than just something tacked on for a gratuitous thrill.

  16. How could I miss it? HBO was showing that fucker 8 times a day! One of the reason I got rid of HBO was they showed Transformers 1 and 2 constantly. The only thing I miss is Bill Maher (Boardwalk Empire I catch up on with Netflix).

  17. I don't think that the folks who commodify female bodies are part of the conspiracy to put women down. But, I would say that commodifying female bodies reinforces the way women are judged for their appearance. Nobody asks male politicians how many shoes they have. You can see how this affects some women: while male anorexia and bulemia are on the rise, they are both heavily female diseases.
    Judging women on their appearance is a cultural meme that of course doesn't affect all individuals all the time but it does influence a lot of people a lot of the time. It doesn't devalue all women all of the time, but I understand it makes a lot of stuff harder for a lot of women.
    I think it also reinforces negative views of women. While Limbaugh is certainly paying the price for calling Fluke a slut, I would say that media that portray women as primarily sexual objects enabled Limbaugh to use that devaluing insult. And it was meant to be devaluing - despite attempts to change that, women are mostly still unfairly judged for being human (ie, sexual) in ways that men get a pass.
    I think the one sided commercialization of female bodies and sexuality contributes to the work of the more tangible conspiracies against women ( stuff ranging from restricting reproductive rights to fighting civil rights legislation and other such crap) even though most of media producers (Frank Miller being an obvious exception) wouldn't see themselves on the same side.