This originally appeared on Comixology.
I’ve been following the When Fangirls Attack linkblog (Update: sadly largely defunct now.) recently. Among other things, it’s a good way to find out what moronic cheesecake schlock the big two have served up this week. I think there have been at least three prime slices of said cheesecake since I’ve been following the blog with some regularity, namely:
And, what the hell, here’s a blast from the past or two as well.
The thing is, I have no problem with cheesecake. I even like cheesecake. Anita the Swedish Nymphet? Japanese Vogue? Michael Manning’s fetish porn? Sure; I vote for all of those. Or for the classic pin-up art of Dan DeCarlo:
Or Jack Cole:
Or even Larry Elmore’s trashy fantasy illustration:
Yet, despite my general appreciation for the form (in various senses), I find super-heroine cheesecake irritating and often borderline offensive. Why is that?
I think there are a couple of reasons. In the first place, super-heroines are, you know, heroes. They’re supposed to have stuff to do, crime to fight, justice to uphold, and so forth. For Dan DeCarlo and Jack Cole, the woman are just there to stare at; they’re hot, hot hot. That’s the whole raison d’etre; there’s no effort to pretend that you care what these women think, or how they act, or whether they defeat the villain without falling out of their tops and being exposed to the vastness of space.
I guess there’s a school of thought which would argue that turning women into objects like this is bad. And (despite the strong demurral of a couple of my lesbian friends) I do think there’s something to that. But, on the other hand, if you’re going to have pictures of sexy women, and the pictures of sexy women are why you’re there, maybe it makes more sense to just admit that, and not disingenuously pretend that you’re interested in what’s going on in their heads. If you make it simply about visual stimulation, it’s simply about visual stimulation, and doesn’t have to have anything to do (or at least, not much to do) with real women. Once you start pretending that you’re talking about a smart, motivated, principled adventurer, on the other hand, you end up implying that said smart, motivated, principled, adventurer has an uncontrollable compulsion to dress like a space-tart on crack. Which is, it seems to me, insulting.
The second thing is that, if you must make your adventurer into a fetish object, it seems like the least you could do is make her tough. That outfit that Larry Elmore’s fantasy warrior is wearing above is clearly ridiculous, and not a whole lot more practical than Star Sapphire’s get-up. But, at the same time, Elmore’s warrior looks badass. She’s got a giant sword and she looks thoroughly pissed off. She’d cheerfully castrate you without a second thought. And that’s the way to go: if you’re going to do action-hero cheesecake, then bring on the masochism: get off both on how hot the action hero is, and on how thoroughly she can beat you black and blue. It’s feministsploitation; not feminism exactly, but a fetishization of feminism, and it makes some sense at least to the degree that the fetish clothing and the putative power of the character are coherently working together, both in that the power makes the character more sexy and in that that the clothing adds (not necessarily logically, but still) to the sense of the character’s potency.
This sometimes works for super-heroine cheesecake too (Frank Miller’s Catwoman is an example). But more often, you get images like those above, where Star Sapphire’s costume makes her look vulnerable, not tough…or the Marvel Divas cover, where everybody but Hellcat is making with the bedroom eyes, and the only threat is that Black Cat’s costume may pinch so tightly that she actually pops apart at the waist, causing everything from the torso up to go swooshing about like a deflating balloon.
Which brings us to the last and perhaps most important point. Super-heroine cheesecake is often offensive just because it’s so thoroughly incompetent. Star Sapphire’s costume, for example, goes right past sexy and on into ludicrous. For the Marvel Divas cover, the artist couldn’t even come up with more than one body type – and he can’t even draw the one he’s got. As I already intimated, Black Cat’s top and bottom look horribly mismatched; similarly, Hellcat seems to have borrowed her breasts from Giant Girl. All of them look like toys, not people. And that Justice League cover starring Supergirl’s chest…why would you even do that? How is it sexy to have a disembodied bosom flapping about your foreground? And as if that’s not bad enough, as Katie Moody says in comments on the Beat; the artist seems to have accidentally left out our heroine’s ribcage. Or maybe it’s deliberate; did Supergirl lose her skeletal structure during one of the post-Crisis reboots? I must admit I haven’t been following the continuity that closely….
In any case, the point is, you look at drawings by DeCarlo or Jack Cole or yes, even Larry Elmore and they get the proportions minimally right (Elmore’s barbarian’s breasts are big, but not that big); they select flattering clothes (DeCarlo’s dress with its va-va-voom horizontal stripes); they take the time to figure out fluid poses (Cole’s sophisticated lady arranged in classic curves upon the couch.) In short, the artists seem to care about women enough to have looked at one or two of them at some point.
Not that I’d argue that good art can’t be sexist; craft and talent aren’t everything, or even necessarily all that much, in these matters. But they are something. Even if you’re pandering, doing a professional job of it implies a certain minimal level of respect not only towards your audience, but towards your subject as well. You look at super-heroine cheesecake, and you get a sense of a boys’ locker-room cluelessness so intense that it is indistinguishable from disdain. Honest sensuality in these circumstances would be a relief. Sexism may be bad, but incompetent sexism is just intolerable.