Wonder Woman
Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Superheroes, Visual Cultural Theory

A Female Character’s Waistline Should be as Realistic as Her Job Description

Originally published on the Fanny Pack Blog.


There’s no denying that body image is a prickly issue within Feminism and our cultural landscape in general. As women, we live in a confusing world in which certain cosmetic companies *cough Dove cough* tell us to love our imperfections whilst simultaneously selling us products to fix imperfections we never realised we had (dry underarms, anybody?); in which we are apparently dicing with death when we order diet pills from the Internet; and in which our most shamed body parts one month could become our most fantasised about the next, depending on which female celebrity ranks highest on Google.

Dove Advert

Dove ‘Beautiful Underarms’ Campaign

It is no surprise then that our precious imaginary worlds, both on page and on screen also suffer from the same real-world problems. A recent trend happening online that has caught my attention has been identifying and even ‘fixing’ the unrealistic proportions of our favourite super heroines and Disney princesses. From hair, to historical accuracy, to waistlines – if there’s something to be changed, there’s someone with a Photoshop brush poised to change it.

Disney princesses with realistic waistlines

Disney Princesses with ‘Realistic’ Waistlines

The reason is certainly well-intentioned. These fictional characters – however much we kid ourselves – are intended for the consumption of younger audiences, and as such, impractical standards of beauty can have a negative impact on their perception of it and their sensitive self-confidence. But, does that mean that every ridiculously proportioned female character rendered in ink or animation is a problem waiting to be fixed? I would argue no, or at least, not in certain circumstances.

This thought struck me after I came across this particular image of Wonder Woman from Bulimia.com, whose creative team came up with the idea of giving superheroes ‘realistic waistlines’ after seeing people do the same for Disney princesses.

Wonder Woman Parody Bulimia

Wonder Woman Parody from Bulimia.com

The incentive was completely worthy: highlighting to young people that these fictional characters sport similarly fictional body shapes. Whilst it’s pleasing to see that adding a few extra pounds has certainly not lessened these super heroines’ appeal in the slightest, I did take issue with this treatment being performed on Wonder Woman specifically, and let me explain why.

I grew up in the late 90s/early 00s glued to the exploits of small-screen action heroines like Buffy and Xena as they high-kicked and shrieked their way through their improbable lives. They may have worn short skirts and metallic bras, but they were, and still are, hugely empowering to me, and their athletic physiques were a big part of that.

Xena Warrior Princess

“‘Sup, Bro?”

As the grand matriarch of all our pop cultural warrior women like Buffy and Xena, Wonder Woman still looms large today as the physical embodiment of female strength; the kind of strength that enables her to go toe-to-toe fearlessly with her muscular male equivalents. She is a warrior, a Goddess, and a champion of women’s rights. She’s the comic book answer to Rosie the Riveter.

The crux of what I’m saying is thisA female character’s waistline has to be as realistic as her job description.

If she was raised on an all-female island of warrior women, then she should have a warrior’s body. However, if she was raised in a fairy tale castle where her only physical activity was to sweep the floor and cook dinner for an ungrateful and demanding surrogate family then there is no logical necessity for her to sport a 24” waist and tiny slipper-sized feet. The same goes for nearly every princess in the Disney school of character design, in which being impossibly slim is as requisite as singing to birds and having at least one dead parent.

Not only can excessively small waistlines be a problem, but excessively sexualised ones too. And whilst exaggerated idealisation can be acceptable for certain characters as I’ve discussed, exaggerated sexualisation is often totally unnecessary and voyeuristic. This usually comes through not in the way that certain female characters are built, but how they are clothed and posed, and one that has attracted a lot of scrutiny recently is Starfire from DC’s Teen Titans.

Starfire Bikini

Starfire, from Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, 2011

Like Wonder Woman, Starfire is a warrior princess from a faraway fantastical place and as such she is pretty darn ripped. Her idealised toned body poses no problem to me, and her hyper-positive personality makes Starfire one of my favourite members of the Titans. However, her wrestling-inspired barely-there costume and the leering angles artists often choose to draw her at distract from her ungendered qualities as a powerful crime-fighter to make you constantly aware that she is a woman with very womanly parts.

There is of course nothing wrong with female characters utilising their feminine wiles. Poison Ivy and Catwoman, for example, use the femme fatale shtick as part of their villainous arsenal, and Starfire is in fact a very playful and flirtatious character – she even worked as a model at one point in the 80s. But I refuse to believe that even such a body-confident beauty like Starfire would decide that an outfit that risked her boobs popping out every time she threw a punch.

The Bulimia.com parody artwork was of course not intended to criticise comic book art as a whole, but it did unintentionally hit upon the solution to the problem of unrealistic proportions in fictional characters: Diversity. As I said earlier, if we want our heroines to look more positively ‘realistic’ then the parameters of their realism need to be defined by their individual lifestyles just as we real women are defined by ours. If a female character is a brawler that spends every night kickboxing street thugs, give her a six-pack and killer thighs. But if she’s just rocked up as a new student at the Xavier institute with the power of telekinesis then she could be either over, under, or of an average body weight and it wouldn’t make any difference to her abilities or our ability to connect with her as a character.

Thankfully this positive change towards body diversity is already alive and well in pop culture as exemplified by excellent comics such as Rat Queens and excellent cartoons such as Steven Universe, which both feature refreshingly female-orientated super-powered teams of diversely powered and sized heroines to love and relate to.

Rat Queen

Rat Queens

Steven Universe

Steven Universe

In terms of costume, it’s also pleasing to see the small but significant changes made to powerhouse heroines recently like Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel, and (yay!) Starfire, whose idealised but practical bodies are finally matched by practical clothing.

Wonder Woman, Starfire, and Ms Marvel Costume Re Design

(From left to right, clockwise) Wonder Woman (2015), Starfire (2015), and Kamala Khan, aka the new Ms. Marvel (2014)

We still need our Goddesses, warriors, and sirens, but there’s more than enough room for our chunky, scrawny, or just plain averagely shaped heroines to inspire us as well.

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Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Selfies – “Electronic Masturbation?”

Written and posted for new blog, Fanny Pack, on 19th November 2014. Please head over there and follow them for more of the same Feminist articles written by myself and others!

Today’s technological advances have made it possible for us to make as many self-portraits as many times a day, hour, or even minute, in any place, and then exhibit them instantly for public exhibition and judgement on the Internet. For women, who have long been models on which to project fantasies of the ideal rather than the real, the significance of this has perhaps been undervalued. Gaining full control over the capturing and displaying of one’s own image today – especially in an image-obsessed digitalised culture – is no small achievement or freedom. Prior to this, the portrayal of the female form as a passive image rather than active participant has been an enduring cultural tradition. Instead of being directed, caught, degraded, positioned, posed, or manipulated by someone else with or without your own permission, the Selfie truly reclaims the autonomy to take a picture on your own terms and decide who your audience is.

“Electronic masturbation” – Karl Lagerfeld’s provocative dubbing of the Selfie – was clearly intended as a slur. After all, the solitary act of masturbation is for self-gratification only, and there is nothing more self-gratifying than a self-portrait, right? Of course it makes perfect sense that an icon of the fashion industry – an industry that makes it’s money telling us what to wear and how to look – would disapprove of a medium that undermines this power. Lagerfeld is right – the Selfie is “electronic masturbation” – and just what’s so wrong with a little self-gratification?

The backlash against Selfie ‘culture’ boils down to this:

We question why the taker of the portrait has chosen to take a flattering picture of themselves. We question why their self-gratification has to be acknowledged in a public forum. We question why women continue to present an image of themselves that they have been culturally conditioned to present – idealised, sexualised, and for the viewing pleasure of others.

If all women went against this idealism in their Selfies, would we applaud their honesty, though? In a culture we have constructed for ourselves that continually over-values physical appearance, why are we so irritated and surprised that the majority of women are still more comfortable covering their faces in layers of foundation and mascara, taking a self-portrait from a flattering angle, and then distorting it with an Instagram filter rather than share a brutally honest one and risk attracting negative judgement?

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Idealising beauty is certainly damaging, but that doesn’t mean we should always demonise vanity. In every image we create or capture there is an automatic disconnect between the person and the portrait of the person. In a sense, we create an alter ego of ourselves in every one of these portraits. Every time we digitally adjust these portraits – even as little as a change in brightness – we are confirming that this alter ego not only exists, but that it is the ‘better’ version of us. This is not vanity, but wish-fulfillment. Yet, for women in particular, vanity is a dirty word. The cultural twinning of vanity and sin can be traced back to the artistic tradition of depicting women with mirrors in classical portraiture, which itself can be traced back to Biblical lore. This is vanity punishment; a concept that teaches us that a woman is supposed to be effortlessly and naturally beautiful for the pleasure of others, but not for her own pleasure. It has helped mold our definition of feminine beauty in art and pop culture as one idealised through the eyes of male heterosexuality, and conversely both elevating and condemning female vanity.

If we change our perception of vanity, then perhaps we can change the way we perceive Selfie culture – as wish-fulfillment, as self-gratification, self-definition, and ultimately self-empowerment. Take pride in your own unique image, beauty, and sexuality, and feel empowered by the autonomy to capture, share, and immortalise it. If digitalism has made us the photojournalists of our own lives, why should we feel ashamed in being a bit vain about it?

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Comics, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

The Problem with Graphic Novels

 

I have loved comic books right from when I first learnt how to read. It started with Tintin and Asterix and Obelix as a child, which my mum introduced me to. I later discovered superheroes as a teenager – Batman and X-Men were (and still are) particular favourites. Not long after that I started to widen my reading list to include series’ like Hellblazer, Sandman, Lucifer, The Authority, Phonogram and Watchmen, as well as many popular manga titles like Death Note, Cardcaptor Sakura, Neon Genesis Evangelion, D-Gray Man, Black Butler and Ouran High School Host Club. So that’s me: nowhere near an expert, but very much an avid fan-girl.

There were of course more innocent times when I pondered things like, ‘Wait, is that guy Marvel or DC?’ And ‘So what is the difference between manga and anime?’ It’s all part of the learning curve. It was while reading the blurb of Watchmen (and very much still curving the learn) that I first remember coming across the term ‘graphic novel.’ It was used in a quote from Time magazine: “[Watchmen is] one of the greatest graphic novels of all time.” ‘Graphic novel?’ I wondered. ‘So this isn’t just regular comic I’m reading then…’ I mean, the word ‘novel’ as opposed to ‘book’ somehow sounds superior doesn’t it? Coupled with the sheer strength of Moore and Gibbon’s work I naively believed that the formula must be:

graphic novel > comic book

As though ‘graphic novel’ was a higher title bestowed upon a higher quality of comic book. Like a knighthood or something. I also found out that Watchmen was the only comic book to have made Time’s 100 Greatest Novels of All Time list, which cemented all this further in my mind. ‘Wow!’ I thought, whilst probably brushing my hair into a frizzy hell. ‘This comic book is so good its ranked among real books!’

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Of course graphic novel is not any determining value for quality. What ‘graphic novel’ is actually defined as is merely collected issues of a continuing storyline of a particular character/team/franchise. It’s a volume, really. I don’t know why they didn’t use volume as the name for it in the first place as they do in Japan for manga collections. According to Wikipedia (because I’m a lazy researcher) the term first appeared in 1978, was thrown around a bit for similar titles to Watchmen,and eventually become popularised enough to be inducted as an official category in bookshops and publishing companies. I suppose the thinking was that as the stories became longer, each issue served as a chapter, and so to collect all of these chapters together meant that the volume resembled a regular book…but with pictures. So yes, the term makes sense. (Certainly in my mind, a graphic novel is a more fitting description for the format that most illustrated books take – particularly children’s books, in which image and word are separated rather than integrated.)

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I’m not certainly not against collecting issues of comics together – my comic book consumption these days is largely centred around waiting for collected volumes to be published as I simply do not have the time, space or money anymore for every individual issue of every millions of titles that apparently are necessary for every bloody character…*SHARP INTAKE OF BREATH* Long story short: I like volumes. (Manga titles are collected as ‘volumes’, FYI.) My problem is that the term has become so ubiquitous that comic book and graphic novel are used as interchangeable names now even when the technical definition is incorrect. In the same way I thought a graphic novel was a fancy word for a comic book as a kid, nowadays it is commonplace for people to use the former rather than the latter for one of two reasons:

  1. They genuinely think that the comic they have read is ‘too good’ to be classed ‘simply’ as a comic.
  2. They don’t want to admit they enjoy reading comic books.

The first point I think I’ve talked about already. If you are reading a collected volume of issues, then yes, you are technically reading a graphic novel and I’ll let you off. If not, there’s no excuse: It’s a comic book. If you enjoyed it then you enjoyed it because it was a well-written and well-drawn comic book.

The second point is what I call the Harry Potter factor. Do you remember when Harry Potter started to emerge as really big thing? Like a massive-all-consuming-religious-behemoth-of-literature thing? It was enjoyed by millions of children everywhere (myself included) but it was also enjoyed by millions of slightly ashamed adults. They were ashamed because they actually enjoyed reading a kid’s book on the train to work. So rather than these poor ashamed adults just removing the dust jackets, the publishing company came up with an alternative solution for them: they published new editions with fancy-schmancy ‘adult’ covers. I’m guessing this was also quite handy for the sales figures (as if they needed help…)

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This issue is to do with elevation. Usually when a product has to be ‘elevated’ it means that its original form is not deemed palatable enough for consumers beyond the product’s normal fan circle. So it has to be re-branded. You can also see this exemplified in the re-release of old films in 3D – same content; different jacket (and more money to be made). A more complex example is the elevation of graffiti to street art. Where graffiti or tagging is illegal, certain examples by certain artists – Banksy, for instance – are now protected and treasured by the communities of whose walls they adorn. Of course in the case of Banksy a conscious decision was made by the artist to elevate his own work by exhibiting it in gallery spaces and selling it, and in doing so I don’t think he intentionally meant to dilute the graffiti art genre away from subversive, transient and – most importantly – free pieces into the massively fashionable and collectable commodities that they have become. It’s hard to get on a bus these days without seeing some dude or lady-dude sporting the ‘Obey’ motif by Shepard Fairey on a beanie, for instance. Now, as a commercial artist I of course recognise and understand the need and want to make a living from doing what you love. However, donning my critics’ hat (which is covered with coffee stains and glitter in case you were wondering) I can’t help but see this tale of a rebellious medium being eaten up and then spat back out in glossier, commercialised packaging as an all too familiar and cautionary one.

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Comic books, however, were born into commercialism. They began life as satirical cartoon strips in newspapers and magazines, where they still survive today, and morphed into the form we know them in today through fantasy, sci-fi and Superheroe stories. (I am ignoring the history of manga here, which is far older and culturally rooted in classical Japanese art.) Comic books never had to worry about the whole ‘selling out’ thing. That’s the beauty of them in a way: crude, intelligent, arty, surreal or serious; as long as they found a fan base, big or small, they could survive. They had no formal rules of content or conduct really – aside from the obvious self-defining ‘must integrate pictures with text’ one. Comics are a true art form for the masses. Comics were born to be sold. In the same way that retro-fitted 3D doesn’t improve a film and a fancier dustcover doesn’t improve a Harry Potter book, calling a comic book a graphic novel doesn’t improve the comic book. If we make the mistake of assuming that a graphic novel is an elevated comic then we could make the mistake of thinking that a comic book is a downgraded graphic novel by default, in the same way we could assume that a black and white film is a downgraded colour film.

Let’s not forget either that comic books were once – and sort of still are – aimed at children and teenagers. The fact that these kids grew up and continued to enjoy them speaks for the strength of the storytelling in having universal and enduring appeal, not for the strength of the marketing campaign or the category it can be found under in a bookshop.

“[I write graphic novels not comics books?] Meant as a compliment I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” – Neil Gaiman, The Sandman Companion (1999)

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