The truth laid bare
Last week I discussed my challenges in presenting Suzie as not only a complex character but a believable leader, and how I seem to have succeeded with that by starting “inside out”, i.e. building her through personality and actions before any acknowledgement that yes, she has boobs. In a visual medium like a comic book that would go without saying from the first frame she appears in, but thankfully Dawn’s art style isn’t in the highly sexualized mode still prevalent in a lot of comic book art, where it can be difficult sometimes to get a sense of a lady character because her chest keeps getting in the way. Again, in the interests of fairness, there are also men who suffer from a bunch of muscles getting in the way, although to be a really fair comparison there should be huge, clearly outlined dong bulging in their spandex.
That there is not, while women are still often drawn with breasts bigger than their heads flopping about bearing pertly erect nipples ready to put an evildoer’s eye out, speaks volumes to me about the old argument that men in comic books are drawn just as unrealistically as the women. Comic books are escapist power fantasies, runs the argument, and if men aren’t complaining that the Juggernaut doesn’t appear capable of scratching his own ass, women shouldn’t be complaining that Black Cat looks like she’s going have a wardrobe malfunction mid-fight and break her nose with her own teat.
The problem is that, while I’ll be first to admit I’m not a woman and probably couldn’t even pass for one in dim light after you’ve had your fifth whiskey sour, I have consulted with several women over the years and have yet to find any whose escapist power fantasy coincided with fighting in a bodysuit so tight you can clearly see camel toe. I’m looking at that image and imagining Superman punching through the wall with a similarly vacu-sealed pillar and stones, and, well, it ain’t about the punching any more at that point. There’s a line between escapism and objectification that I think we still struggle with in terms of women characters. Sure, you can argue most women fantasize about being more attractive, but does that necessarily mean ginormous boobs and stiletto heels? Is the first impression of this character someone who you might want to be (at least in your less rational, “wanna punch something” moments), or someone who seems primarily to exist more as a pin-up to be ogled? I guess that could be seen as a female fantasy considering there are definitely girls out there who aspire to grace the pages of Playboy when they grow up, but superhero comics aren’t Playboy, they’re “let’s save the world!” adventures.
Again there is the thought that what they’re doing is more important than what they’re wearing. I agree with that, as long as their appearance isn’t so crazy that my suspension of disbelief breaks wide open. For example, have I mentioned that I don’t really mind stiletto heels on a woman who can fly? I still like to see more practical footwear, but yeah, if you’ve already conquered the forces of gravity, go right ahead. Supergirl wants to fight in tassel pasties and a g-string? Okay, that doesn’t really fit her character, but from a purely logical standpoint there’s really no reason she or her cousin Superman have to wear any clothes at all. They bounce bullets off their eyeballs. In fact I’m surprised Garth Ennis hasn’t pitched a story yet where a being of Superman-level power comes to Earth and hangs around saving the world while completely naked. I guess the closest we get to that would be Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, but I picture someone being far more friendly and social and matter-of-fact. You know, like Superman. Just naked.
And I wonder if somewhere along the line in reading that comic, if we got past our initial shock and giggling, it would start not to matter so much anymore. Ennis maybe isn’t the best choice for that since he’d keep shoving it in our faces (heh), but talk about at least some riff on a power fantasy: that nightmare where you find yourself naked in front of the entire school, except that you realize that even naked, you’re still invulnerable, and everyone is listening raptly to what you have to say, not judging what you look like.
In today’s mainstream culture, a naked man tends to be played for laughs, and a naked woman for titillation. Game of Thrones gave us an entire scene of the Red Priestess Melisandre walking around butt naked as she talks about things she just as easily could have talked about clothed, which was pretty amazing, although it would have been better if the camera didn’t start with a slow pan up her thighs and ass, a shot tantamount to “Woo check it out, she’s NAKED!”
I know I’m speaking of a text-only medium here, but in the original Edgar Rice Burroughs stories featuring John Carter of Mars, here’s a strange fact: everyone’s nude. Oh they have harnesses and cloaks and such, but not one mention of a loincloth ever crops up. That pulp artwork showing John Carter and Dejah Thoris with their naughty bits barely covered? Actually a case of TOO MUCH CLOTHING. And not only is everyone naked whether going to war or sitting down to a formal dinner, it goes so unremarked upon that you, the reader, tend to forget about it, even in a scene where John and Dejah are sharing a saddle atop a giant ambulatory beast. It just ain’t no thing.
Of course, try to bring that into visuals and there’s no way an American audience (and I include myself in that number) is going to get past the alarm bells in their heads going DONGDONGDONGDONGDONG. I don’t even count myself as particularly phallophobic, I’ve just been raised in a culture where a penis is treated as something that can’t even be shown in softcore porn, much less more standard entertainment. It’s the freak in the basement, the secret shame that can’t ever be shown… although according to my spam email it should still be as big as possible. If John Carter’s giving a rousing (sorry) speech to the troops with Little John visibly standing to attention, I’m… yeah, I’m probably not going to hear what he’s saying. It’s not you, John, it’s me. Even though I see a variation on what you got in the mirror every morning, it’s still going to register as a bizarre anomaly if I see it on screen, especially in IMAX 3-D.
And then again, even though Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique is wearing barely anything more than blue body paint, I view her very differently than I did when Rebecca Romijn did the same. In a reversal of what I said at the beginning about struggling sometimes to see character past an artist who keeps drawing a woman with boobs aforemost, I expressed it as “I felt like I should be objectifying her, but her talent kept getting in the way.”
It makes me wonder about the John Carter thing. About the Naked Superman/Supergirl thing. If there was enough time and skill and good writing/performance involved, could I get past my initial knee-jerk reaction and just enjoy watching a great character doing awesome things? Could a wider audience?
Well, philosophy aside, I think there’s a core writing thought to take away from all this. There’s no denying that costuming can reinforce character (Darth Vader cuts a much more terrifying figure than Anakin Skywalker), but ideally I think even if you start with a pre-drawn person like I did with Suzie, you want to go back and figure out what this character is like when you strip away all the trappings, including those of gender. You can add those layers back on later, but at least now you’re not falling into the problem of writing someone first “as a woman” or “as a man” or even “as an Asian”. Those aspects inform, but should not define, who they are.
So strip your characters naked. Strip them beyond naked. Strip them beyond objectification and perhaps even identification, and then once you have that unadulterated core, you can start putting back on all the details, all the bells and whistles (and yes, even genitalia) that might take them in different directions in your story. Your readers might never see past the surface, but at least you’ll know the depth is there.