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‘Sexy’ is Performance Art

May 17th, 2009 by | Tags: , , , ,

I’d like to start by thanking everyone for their responses to my post last week about how sexiness is used in the comics industry.

Believe it or not, that post was going to be longer.  I was going to add an extraneous bit about how Batman or the Joker would never be shown in the poses that Harley Quinn or Catwoman were in on the covers of those books, and how that was an example of sexism.

Now I can’t decide whether it is or not.  Not because I think that Batman would be posed the way that Oracle was on any of the covers of her comic, but because the artists, when drawing female characters one way and male characters another, are simply following the rules of society in general.

No one can argue that Batman isn’t hot; the great physique, the handsome face, the brilliant mind, the noble quest – and the money and mansion don’t exactly hurt.  He’s also a draw for the ladies, if the thousands of fan-fic writers and Christian Bale fans out there are any indication.  He’s a sexy guy, and I think that if you asked the people at DC, they’d agree.

So why doesn’t he pose like that on the cover of his comic?  Because, for the most part, it wouldn’t be sexy for a man to pose that way.  Leaving aside ideals, it just wouldn’t be a cover that sells.

I’m not saying that women are opposed to a good beefcake shot, or that there aren’t exception to this, but for men, ‘sexy’ is something they are.  When Batman’s beating the hell out of the bad guys because he’s the best fighter there is – he’s sexy.  When he demonstrates that he’s the smartest guy in the room – he’s sexy.  I am not saying that him having the body of a Greek god doesn’t play in – but sexiness is determined by achievement and looks.

For women, and again let me stress that this is a generalization and not true for individual men, sexy is something they do.  The angle of the hips, the pouty expression, the revealing outfit, the overall pose determines whether or not a woman is sexy. 

Poison Ivy is not hot because she’s a success, or especially competent.  (She’s a pretty incompetent villain, since she cares deeply for plants, and plants are one of the few things that Batman doesn’t give even a tiny shit about killing.  “I will destroy all Gotham!”  “Stop, or the bougainvillea gets it!”  “Oh no!  Foiled!  How did I not see this coming?”)  She’s sexy because she vamps the hell out of everyone she meets, and the art reflects that.

The art for every ‘sexy’ female character tends to reflect that.  And it does so for women in nearly every medium.

Female sexuality has become a performance; complete with costumes and make-up, assumption of a persona from body language to tone of voice, and scripted dialogue.

Again, it is difficult to find anyone to blame for this development.  Because this ideal is held up as desirable for both men and women, it’s reinforced by both sexes.  Part of that reinforcement is channeled into the consumer world.  Producers use it to sell things, consumers are happy to buy; both have the right to do so.  The problem is that ideal of ‘sexiness’ itself becomes a set of standards that’s almost invisible, until one day you notice that people are reacting positively to female comics character getting through their stories in a series of poses that would only make sense if they were burlesque dancers, while male characters would look ridiculous in the same poses.

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20 comments to “‘Sexy’ is Performance Art”

  1. The thing that always gets me about is that the market system in mainstream comics have seemed to have created a diminishing ouroboros for this level of performance. The comics give cheesecake because it correlates with good sales, the targeted demographic buys it, people who are turned off from it avoid the products, the market becomes more insular, and the standards of what women should look and pose as become stronger. It just washes and repeats.

    And on a business level, I understand. Between being socially fair and keeping your business running on the basis of what’s worked in the past, I’d be wary of the former and be more willing to embrace the latter. But I also think that this conservatism will keep comics in the ghetto of direct market stores. I hoping that new mediums like digital comics will give companies and artists more financial freedom to try to get a fresh start with new audiences, but I guess we’ll see.


  2. I’d say that you can put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Paul Dini, but that’d be a lying generalisation. Certainly, without him we’d have a lot less slutty behaviour from Poison Ivy and other Gotham girls, and no Harley Quinn at all. This would be more a good than a bad thing; for all her ‘cuteness’, Harley is at her core basically just a sex fantasy come to life, the classic ‘intelligent/powerful woman put into her place’.

    She is part of a legion of dull, fan-favourite heroines who are completely uninteresting in every aspect and only continue to exist in order to please their rabid masturbator fans & writers – this legion also containing such persons as Cassandra Sandsmark, Stephanie Brown, and Kara Zor-El. None of them have any more personality than the protagonists of “Questionable Content”; they’re walking sex dolls. This isn’t necessarily limited to one medium, however – you’ll also note characters such as Rose Tyler of “Doctor Who”, or the entire cast of “Twilight”.


  3. @Salieri: Wow, I really have to disagree with a lot of those. For Harley, I’ll just quote from a fan, since the author is more concise with her reasoning on why Harley remains popular than I can be:

    “Harley is a particularly strong female character. Maybe not in the way we’ve been trained to see “strong female characters” but she most certainly is. She’s a strong female character in that she’s a rounded out character with a compelling story, a human and complicated psyche, flaws and foibles, vivid personality, twisted motivations, conflict, desire, needs that aren’t always “right” but that ARE “real” in a way female characters are often denied. Characters do not exist simply to prove a moral point and the ones that do, do not last long. Because they’re uninteresting. They fail to intrigute. They’re not “real” and so they cannot resonate. Harley defies this and it’s a big part of why she remains so popular.

    In addition, while Harley is submissive and needy and hopelessly obsessed, she has proven time and again she will assert herself when she views herself as truly betrayed by her Puddin’, that she will manipulate him for what she wants, that she is capable of planning and conducting crimes and that, while she has moments of heartbreak and despair and longing for “normalcy,” she is largely extremely happy in her life with the Joker.”
    http://lovedatjoker.livejournal.com/28475.html

    Harley’s always been a fun, capable character to me that never takes herself too seriously, and even though her abusive relationship is a dark turn, it’s something that a lot of people can connect with.

    Ivy’s always been a sexual character, even in most kid shows, so I’m not sure how to address her “sluttiness” properly. She was created by a guy and she falls into the same physical descriptions of many women in comics, but to me she’s one of the few that actually owns her sexuality, rather than just happen to have a giant cleavage opening on her costume or whatever. Sex and seduction her is always done on her terms, and it’s always to dominate and get her way. She’s always been one of the few rogues that isn’t afraid of the Joker too, and I’ve always liked that aspect of her.

    As for the side characters, Dr. Who, and Twilight, I don’t really know about them so I won’t comment on them. But the Questionable Content remark is really quite baffling. Are we reading the same comic here? Sure the women are pretty and most are comfortable about talking about their bodies and sex, but does that make them walking sex dolls? A lot of their conversations are what I hear at my job, which like QC, isn’t always about relationships and sex, but they don’t shy away from it either. And I don’t think Jeph would have gone through such trouble to make them all fully realized characters if he just wanted them to be conquest objects. Dora has the personality and know-how to run her own coffee shop but has trust issues with Martin, Faye has been coming out of her emotional shell these past few years, and Hanners is delightfully neurotic. Each character is pretty interesting in their own right, but at the end of the day QC is a relationship comic, and dealing with sex doesn’t make a woman slut. It’s when a woman’s worth is defined by sex that makes her so.


  4. Dane said pretty much everything I wanted to say about Harley, Salieri. The idea that she’s devoid of personality is laughable, to be honest. I’ve written about Harley before (particularly here), and I’m a tremendous fan of the character. Rather than seeing her as a broken woman who has been put into her place and a jerkoff fantasy, she always struck me as someone who either found out exactly what she wanted to be and pursued it, or had a nervous breakdown and found that she’d transformed into something new. Maybe both, I do not know.

    Salieri, your interpretation of those characters is way off, I think. I don’t even like Wonder Girl or Supergirl and I know that there is more to them than what you say there is. Have they been written the way you say? Almost definitely. Is that the driving force behind their overall portrayal? Absolutely not.

    Esther, this bit is excellent:

    So why doesn’t he pose like that on the cover of his comic? Because, for the most part, it wouldn’t be sexy for a man to pose that way. Leaving aside ideals, it just wouldn’t be a cover that sells.

    This is something I’ve been trying to verbalize since a few people online created the gender-swapped covers a few months (years?) back. They were offensive in a different way than the covers they were critiquing. The sexy girl covers were ugly, but they were ugly in a way that was still undeniably sexy. The girls were posed or portrayed in a way that conforms with the general idea of sexiness. Breasts out or on display, hips cocked, sultry glare, whatever– it’s all what we’ve been trained to see as sexy. The problem came in the way those ingredients mixed and the context of the book itself.

    The guy poses mirrored the female ones, and weren’t insultingly ugly like the female poses were. They were just off. I think that the intent for the gender-swap is understandable, but the execution isn’t going to be the same, because what we find sexy for either sex is two different things.


  5. I really think that it’s more the reverse. Men are sexy because of what they do, they have agency and are actively doing things that make them attractive to the opposite sex, they don’t need to show as many sex characteristics (most of them have apparently flat crotches and butts for instance, even if their chests are well-defined.)

    As far as women go, they don’t have to do anything to be considered sexy. They don’t have to be even remotely effective, as you said about Poison Ivy. It’s more about what they are, sexy women, than what they do.


  6. I think either sex can be both actively and passively sexy.

    Two examples out of the top of my head: Kari Byron from Mythbusters and Daniel Craig as 007: Neither mythbusting nor killing criminals involves a lot of posing, skin showing, buttshots etc. Yet both of them are generally considered very sexy (at least in my social cirlce). But both of them have also been in very actively sexy situations. Kari did a FHM shoot, and who can forget that scene in Casino Royale where Daniel comes out of the water in his tiny trunks, his wet, muscular body glistening in the sun… I certainly can’t.

    I like to watch old Have I Got News for You episodes on YouTube, and episodes with a female guest host often have comments of people mentioning how hot she is, but all they do in the episodes is sit behind a desk making jokes. While those old-school romance novels sexualize men in the same way Harley & Ivy are sexualised on the cover Esther posted in her previous article.

    So I’d say “Sexy as a preformance art” can apply to both women and men, if the creator is so inclined. It’s just that the comic books industry is still dominated by straigth men producing comics for other striagthmen, thus making sexuallised women more “acceptable” than sexualised men. Or perhaps that is just a subsection of a larger cultural phenomenon, where virtually all media producers still identify the general public as male (After all, Sex in the City is called a chick flick, but Rambo isn’t called a dick flick).

    So I acknowledge the problem of creators applying the one kind of sexiness disproportionatly often on female characters, but I don’t agree with the idea that “it wouldn’t be sexy for [Batman or the Joker] to pose that way” (I’ve seen fanart proving otherwise) or that “The angle of the hips, the pouty expression, the revealing outfit, the overall pose determines whether or not a woman is sexy.” (if the person/character in question is sexy, the sexyness will come shining through whatever they’re doing). And from what I’ve seen, that isn’t just because of my personal deviant tastes.


  7. […] you really want to argue about something, then this post about cheesecake from the 4th Letter should do the […]


  8. There’s this notion that with men, aggression, dominance and sexuality are all tied together somehow, and I think that’s why male characters can “be sexy” by displaying aggression and/or dominance rather than skin. Sexiness for women is associated more with vulnerability or submission – if male characters are depicted in a way that says “I’m gonna do it to you”, the message with female characters is more “Come and do it to me”. Man = seme, woman = uke. And that apparently means women must show more skin in order to be sexy – at least that’s what most people who *produce* popular culture seem to think.

    I’m not sure they’re right. At least some straight females, self included, prefer male characters who aren’t always strong and in control. Take Ittô-dono from “Lone Wolf and Cub”, as seen in the banner above – he’s sexy when he fights 70 other samurai and wins, yes, but much more so when he’s taking care of his baby son… or when he’s half naked and being tied up by yakuza, but I won’t go there. On the other hand, I’m also not sure I’m the target audience for most producers of pop culture.


  9. @david brothers: The thing is that, like you say, it’s what we’ve been *trained* to see as sexy. I’m pretty sure that the offness you mention in those genderswapped covers is mostly a matter of that kind of sexuality on men is largely uncommon or new, and therefore scary and weird.

    I honestly think that this kind of thing is something that needs to be done before it can be talked about. In an ideal world, companies or a company would just start doing men and women both ways, and people would.. find they liked it, or not notice, or find they didn’t like it and wonder why, and in general just get used to it. Talking about it first kind of puts a big label on the idea, ‘doing this would be weird’, that colours the thinking and ties you in knots.

    Saying “oh it just wouldn’t be sexy on men”.. is making the problem. No?


  10. @claire: Kind of– I think we’re both getting at the same idea, but from slightly different angles. It’s not so much that it would be weird that’s my final point, as that people would take away different things from it. The Heroes for Hire or Star Sapphire covers (first two examples off the top of my head) struck me as a broken, leering, distorted rictus of sexy. I can look at it and go “Okay, it was trying to be sexy here, here, and probably here.” The genderswapped ones didn’t strike me in the same way, because it ran counter to that training to see certain poses for either sex as sexy.

    I don’t know that this train of thought would necessarily color the thinking or close off a discussion– if anything, I’d expect that it’d lead to an examination of why we find something sexy, which is definitely related to the topic at hand. I’d like to think so, anyway, but idealism only goes so far.

    Does that make more sense?


  11. @david brothers: Yes, it does!

    I mention the thinking being unhelpful because several times when I’ve been thinking about my own reactions to gendered things, I’ve noticed that I *think* I think things that I actually don’t. If you see what I mean? I assume that I’d have a certain reaction to a situation, but then I realise that I’ve been in that situation before, and I didn’t react that way – in fact, I reacted in a much “better” way than I’d been thinking I would. Prejudices and assumptions run on a lot of different levels, and some of them are only on the surface! But concentrating on the ones that do lie higher up (in this case, talking about gender roles in “sexy”) can make them burrow lower. The problem isn’t in the discussion or thought I guess, but in the danger of misreading yourself in hypothetical situations. I think that’s particularly possible when the topic’s to do with gender matters.

    Yeah, I can see what you mean. I do think that the genderswapped covers (If we’re thinking of the same ones? I particularly remember a Green Lantern’s arse, I think Hal Jordan) missed the mark a bit because they gave a slight impression of being slightly vicious. They were essentially revenge, after all. But, I don’t believe that *all* exercises in genderswapping would have the same effect. And I know that seeing my darlin’ (a gentleman) in female-sexy poses certainly floats my boat. I don’t know if you’re attracted to men, but if you aren’t, do you think that affects how those covers struck you (forgive my asking)?

    I also wonder if it’s more than just seeing certain poses for either sex as sexy, but seeing certain poses for either sex as integral. I’m remembering a recent line-up of silhouetted Hydra (or similar) forces where it was possible to pick out females in the rows because they had swayed hips.

    Which is more directly to do with the original post, actually, and Esther’s previous comment about beauty being a requirement.


  12. @claire: Misreading yourself is an interesting point, and one I can appreciate. I have scenarios in mind for “What ifs,” just like anyone else. And, just like everyone else, I’ve made the exact opposite decision I should have/thought I would have made.

    You also touched on something else that bothered me about the covers, and may be the crux of my problem with them– they were the get-back. That kind of thing is something I’m a little uncomfortable with. I can understand them impetus behind it (because sometimes giving someone the finger and a dirty look feels so good), but at the same time, I don’t want to be that guy that answers bile with bile. In the end, someone’s gotta clean up all of that vomit, you know? It’s something I try to practice whether I’m discussing sexism, racism, or even why having vegetables on a pizza is the worst idea ever. I do waffle back and forth, but I’ve been making a conscious effort over the past year to tone down the snark and tone up the content.

    I’m not attracted to guys, but I know an attractive guy when I see one. Jae Lee drew a very attractive Namor in FF:1234, Jim Lee’s Gambit/Cyclops are basically the prototypical attractive superheroes to me… I feel like I’m forgetting a really obvious artist who I like a lot, but I’m sure it’ll come to me. That probably factors in a bit, but I’d like to think that I’m detached enough that it doesn’t factor in a lot? Then again, scenarios and expectations.

    Your Hydra comment reminds me of something I almost blogged about a while back. Mike Deodato has a habit of swaying the heck out of the hips of almost any female character he draws, like he caught them halfway down the catwalk. After I noticed it, I couldn’t not notice it, and now books that he draws are very hard to read.


  13. @david brothers: Haha, yeah, that’s the problem I find too. Finding the balance between the outrage and the reasonable examples in trying to get a touchy point across. Male vs female depictions in comics is something that really burns my biscuits and sometimes it feels impossible to illustrate why without actually *illustrating* why.. but that becomes spiteful so easily and no-one wants to/can take notice. But such problems are what give us goals, right?

    :] Thanks for the backandforth.


  14. @david brothers:

    “…It’s something I try to practice whether I’m discussing sexism, racism, or even why having vegetables on a pizza is the worst idea ever…”

    David, how about mayonnaise, soft-boiled egg, béchamel, cream cheese, salsa, teriyaki, or curry sauce? :)


  15. @Dane:

    “…But the Questionable Content remark is really quite baffling. Are we reading the same comic here? Sure the women are pretty and most are comfortable about talking about their bodies and sex, but does that make them walking sex dolls? A lot of their conversations are what I hear at my job, which like QC, isn’t always about relationships and sex, but they don’t shy away from it either. And I don’t think Jeph would have gone through such trouble to make them all fully realized characters if he just wanted them to be conquest objects. Dora has the personality and know-how to run her own coffee shop but has trust issues with Martin, Faye has been coming out of her emotional shell these past few years, and Hanners is delightfully neurotic. Each character is pretty interesting in their own right, but at the end of the day QC is a relationship comic, and dealing with sex doesn’t make a woman slut…”

    I agree, Dane. I’d add that dealing with sex doesn’t make a story mere mushy stuff (heck, I outgrew that attitude when I was 10). Jason said in “‘Golden Age’ Science Fiction“:

    “…These authors [Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke] seemed to typify the ideals of SF at this time. There was a lot of scientific extrapolation with a generally well written story, but lacking in any depth of characterization or (usually) any literary insight (although it was a far cry above the usual pulp material of Hugo Gernsback fame)…”

    Unfortunately it seems like some people still adhere to this standard and regard characterization in fiction as fluff. :/


  16. Esther, sorry I didn’t see that one earlier! Meanwhile, your post and one of Rick Wears Pants’s comments struck a chord:

    “…Because, I guess, if she’s not sexy, why bother dealing with her? There’s no reason to listen to the words coming out of an unattractive woman’s mouth. There’s no reason to be interested in the adventures of a woman unless the word ‘erotic’ is slipped in there, however subtly…”

    “…I remember a line from Chasing Amy that they gave Ben Affleck’s charcter when he was discussing why his book was successful: ‘Underweight and overweight guys who don’t get laid, those are our bread and butter.’ While that’s a huge stereotype, it certainly feels like something the comic industry believes. And with covers like these, it becomes a self-propigating thing where it feels like their audience is being set up to be portrayed that way…”

    These remind me of how, when I was a naïve high schooler, I expected underweight and overweight men who don’t get laid to be more sypathetic to underweight and overweight women who don’t get laid. Years later (and especially after the events covered here and here) I know better.


  17. @Hsifeng: David, how about mayonnaise, soft-boiled egg, béchamel, cream cheese, salsa, teriyaki, or curry sauce? :)

    That reminds me of a burger I saw in Japan at a Wendy’s— it had eggplant, cheese, and meat sauce. It made me ill just describing it to a friend, and all I saw was a picture.


  18. @david brothers:

    Eggplant, cheese, meat sauce – sounds like the eggplant parmesan option on pasta menus next to chicken parmesan, veal parmesan, etc., only this time the starch is buns instead of ziti. ;) Anyway, now that we’re on to burgers, ever seen hamburger with the lot?

    @Syrie Wongkaew, About.com said:

    “The famed burger is served in pubs, fish & chip shops and restaurants around the country. It usually consists of a juicy beef patty in a bun served with with cheese, sliced tomato, sliced, canned beetroot, onions, lettuce, bacon and an egg. Some versions are served with a slice of pineapple for that extra flavor of summer.”


  19. Sorry to necro-post on this but been away and love your guys blog.

    Batman can beat the living sh#t out of an ‘alleged’ wrongdoer and get readers applause but if Wonder Woman even hints at showing too much cleavage it doesn’t matter what heroics she does… she’s objectified by how WE readers expect her to act/behave/be portrayed. Is Bruce held to the same standards? Is he objectified as such?

    Doesn’t it have more to do with the cultural ideals of ‘womanhood’ than the actual portrayal of women in media? It’s really about what bothers us more than the actual content itself… seems to me.

    We expect women to act a certain way. We expect women to be portrayed a certain way. We have our own way we see a woman as honorable compared to how we see a man as honorable. When we see something outside those boundaries… is it the woman being demeaned or our belief system being questioned… denied?

    Bruce dates numerous women he’s a playboy? Wonder Woman dates numerous men and she’s a slut?

    I am a human male. I am a sexual being. I am okay with that. Shouldn’t Wonder Woman have the same freedom to be okay with that without being judged? Does she require our permission? Does she have to live within the boundaries we set? Does Bruce Wayne? He doesn’t care… why should Wonder Woman?

    Comic artists should not explore human sexuality? Only violence and action?

    We have inherited beliefs… half of which we have no idea what caused their creation… we’ve just inherited them and accepted them without fully appreciating how they evolved through generations… and why they came to be.

    What is so damned wrong about a sexually aware woman? Really. What is so damn bad about a woman being sexy? Why is being sexy so bad in this age?

    Why is being violent so admirable in this age?

    The 1960’s Batman TV show was a sexy celebration of humanity…like sexy covers of comics today and they’re both deemed lesser. The Dark Knight is a celebration of violence and depravity… and it’s praised.

    I value sexy as a positive human quality in men and women


  20. @Coleman: Well, I think I beat your record for long-dead posting, but since I’ve seen your comment, let me respond.

    “Bruce dates numerous women he’s a playboy? Wonder Woman dates numerous men and she’s a slut?”

    I don’t recall ever saying that. I’d be perfectly happy if Wonder Woman started having sex. If she took a man, or a woman, or men, or women, or men and women to a hotel room and had sex with them until they were panting and exhausted on the floor, I’d be just fine with that.

    The problem with these covers, with that art, with Wonder Woman ‘showing a hint of cleavage’ is they are *not* female characters being sexual. They are male artists and male fans being sexual. They are a show being put on for someone else’s pleasure. That ain’t female sex.

    And if it were? It still wouldn’t be ‘exploration’. Having female heroes stripped down and posing on the covers of comics is about as much of an exploration for comic artists as a trip to the bathroom is an exploration of my house. This isn’t new. This is familiar territory. This is what they know will sell, and has sold, for decades.

    Lastly, I value sexiness as a positive quality. I don’t value sexism. There’s a difference, and when female characters are required to be sexy while male characters aren’t, the difference is clear.