June 2006 Firestarter column
by Collie Collier
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Cultural beliefs and taboos are, by their naturalized imprinting into the brains of those raised in the culture, invisible. It’s always easier to see the taboos of another culture, and it can be rather startling and unpleasant to clearly see your culture through the eyes of a foreigner. Further, it is frequently very hard for people to even see the failings of their native culture.
In the US, we’re supposed to be a society dedicated to the belief that all humans are created equal. It’s one of those depressing realities that this is not actually true, but it is a goal to aspire to. It is, therefore, an unpleasant shock when you stumble across harshly obvious examples where not only is a particular group being treated unfairly and differently — but also, when you point it out you are either mocked for being over-sensitive, or regarded with bemusement because they can’t even see what you’re talking about.
Woman as ‘prize’
The first time I noticed this with any strength was articulated in my Firestarter titled, Why I don’t like Jackson’s ‘Two Towers.’ As I noted there:
I’ve spoken with several folks about this. Aside from my immediate closest friends, I’ve noted the following: Women listen, look thoughtful… then get a growing look of indignant realization, saying things like, “Hey… yeah!” as if they feel cheated.
Men, on the other hand, listen… then tend to get a slightly uncomfortable or supercilious amused look. They often shrug and say things like, “Well… yeah…” as if they feel it’s silly or beneath their notice. Creepily interesting to see Jackson’s emotional manipulation is working so well, eh?
In a nutshell: Tolkien had the women leave — he was not interested in telling their story, and this I can respect. Jackson, however, chose to emotionally manipulate us while presenting women in an incredibly demeaning light: as possessions owned by whomever wins the battle. This was a very clear example of people not seeing (and therefore uncritically accepting) a very twisted, damaging fantasy. If this sort of fantasy is accepted as “normal” or “feasible,” how long until it is integrated into the worldview of those who believe it? How long until it starts damaging women in reality?
Woman as ‘sex on the hoof”
A short while ago I started playing the computer game “Planescape: Torment,” and stumbled across this issue again, with painfully eye-opening results. Keep in mind, this game won numerous awards for its storytelling and quality in 1999, the year it was released — which makes me wonder in appalled horror just how awful the other games were. But to continue: I first noticed the sexual objectification of women with the game’s job/species designations, which float above the head of the graphical character on the screen. There were monsters, and men and women. As I recall, men were classified about 50% as townsmen and 50% thugs. Women were similarly classified as either townswomen… or harlots.
What?! Um, hold on. Why were there no male harlots? Why no female thugs? Is the game trying to teach us that women can only be for sale, and only men are capable of violence? I found myself bewilderedly wondering: are the creators of the game afraid of women or something, that they feel the need to so dehumanize women in the game?
So while I debated with myself over whether or not to play out this peculiar game, I wandered through the bigger, nicer graphics section with all the nifty background information on the monsters and such. I came across a page for a male member of the nobility, and admired the visual:
True, the clothing looked a little plastic-y, but within the constraints of the textures available at the time in the computer graphics, it was pretty nice! As you can see, the man has nice jewelry to show his status: gold headband, pendant, and belts. His shoulder piece is a nice textured shade of purple, with matching pants, and there’s a darker blue tunic with matching fingerless gloves, and a pale aqua shirt underneath. The outfit isn’t really historical, but so what? He’s got a nice, spiffy, good-looking costume in the game, and I rather liked it.
I could imagine the clothing for noblewomen, too, and I thought the textured purple and shiny dark blue were good choices. She’d probably have something vaguely medieval, like the male nobleman had. Maybe a long, dark blue, shiny gown with the textured purple for the bodice and the light aqua on the long sleeves — that could be really cool! Add in the pretty golden jewelry, and it’d be a very nice, striking design, I thought. So I eagerly clicked on the link for the noblewoman… and got this:
Holy embarrassingly inappropriate wet dreams, Batman — what were the game producers thinking?! Was that a Mardi Gras costume someone saw once?! The poor woman looks like someone sneezed ribbons at her, and they haven’t yet fallen off. Were the artists all sniggering barely-post-adolescents, or was that created 5 minutes before deadline?! Sadly but unsurprisingly, this costuming paradigm carried through the entire game. Men wore clothing. Women were stuck in bad “wanna-be” fetish gear — and no one could tell me why this had been done.
More startling to me was that I found several folks who hadn’t even noticed this mental paradigm within the game as they played it. One of them, in fact, was rather embarrassed about not seeing this, especially when I pointed out the striking differences in the male and female walk cycles and ‘standing around’ movements. In the game, men just walked, both hands swinging freely at their sides, or stood there with one hand on their hip and occasionally ducked their heads to scratch the back of their head.
Women, however, had a walk cycle that made them look like they weren’t completely attached to their spines. Their shoulders and hips rotated freely in a sort of sashaying swagger, and they walked with one hand on their hip and the other held before them, as limp-wristed as if they’d broken it. When they were just standing around their “idle” movements were quite blatant: they arched their backs and leaned back, thrusting their breasts up and forward as they fondled the back of their hair. Curiously, as my friend noted, the walk cycle differences were painfully, embarrassingly obvious once they’d been pointed out — but while he was gaming it hadn’t registered at all!
Believe it or not, Planescape: Torment was the winner of numerous gaming industry awards in 1999, the year of its release. Perhaps the saddest part of this entire embarrassing behavioral charade was that the prominent female sidekick (no pun intended) was nominated for best female character for that year. I couldn’t help but wonder what this said about the other games released that year, that such a horribly blatant piece of sexism would be considered the best the gaming industry had to offer for that year. Still, perhaps things have improved since then?
Threatened by women?
Some time after this I was idly watching over my housemates’ shoulders as they played the multiple-player on-line game City of Heroes. After a moment I murmured, “Shame on them… they’re doing the women’s run cycle as ‘girly.'” Initially my housemates were disbelieving, but willingly brought up both male and female characters in order to study their run cycles — and perhaps to show me I was wrong and worrying too much about sexism in computer games. ;)
Several minutes of character-running later, they startledly agreed — the women characters did run differently than the men characters. All the women had a ‘girly’ run cycle, with their hands turned up and out at the wrists, and lots of waggly, side-to-side hip and shoulder movement. The men, however, had a very direct, energy-efficient running style, regardless of body type.
If you actually watch runners in reality, you’ll see running style is based on training, not on whether you’re female or male. Women with training run in a very long, lean, energy-efficient style, just as men with no training tend to run in that energy-inefficient, side-to-side ‘girly’ style. It’s odd to watch when you’ve been told all your life that men don’t run that way — but then reality has a way of not conforming to the desires of social prejudice.
So why did the creators of the game feel the need to make only the women look silly and ineffective? Are they afraid of strong, athletic women? For that matter… why do we use the term ‘girly’ disparagingly? There’s not even a word for ‘boy-y-ness’ — it’s as if we believe male behavior is the default, and therefore needs no description or explanation. But men are statistically the minority; women are actually the human norm. Why do we allow this aberrant treatment of women? Further, why does our culture consider it “bad” to be a girl?
Explaining it away
I’ve talked about this to several folks, trying to analyze and understand it. To my shock and dismay, I actually had one man ask me what my problem was — couldn’t I just play the game and ignore it? Sure, I said — and while I’m at it, I’d like him to play a game where the protagonist is a woman who routinely humiliates, tortures, and castrates men for fun. Why not? It’s just a game after all — what’s the problem? He was not amused, huffily telling me my example wasn’t the same. I don’t see why. Just because it’s a man instead of a woman who’s being brutalized this time… can’t he just ignore it and enjoy the game?
Curiously, I was to see this effect repeatedly: the assumption that there’s something wrong with anyone who feels no one should be routinely treated in such a demeaning fashion, coupled with an apparent need to lengthily explain away why my suggestions on turning the gender tables were incorrect or “missing the point.” I turn to superhero comic books for a good example of this: a woman — who was tired of the same old hyper-sexualized female characters being depicted as nothing more than tits and asses — did an amusing sequence of hyper-sexualized male characters.
They’re side-splittingly funny to me, after all the ridiculously embarrassing wet-dream versions of females in the comics that I’ve seen — but then I believe turnabout is fair play. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the women who replied also found the graphics wonderfully delightful, funny, and “only fair,” compared to what is ordinarily done to women in the comics. It was, amusingly, the men who were unhappy or disturbed by them. I can’t help but wonder if these are the same men who would disparagingly tell me to just ‘get over’ my dismay at the rudeness of the Planescape: Torment game.
The response of one man in particular stands out to me — not because he was particularly vitriolic, poor at spelling, or incoherent (there were several of those, alas), but because his objections actually seemed calm, rational, and thoughtful. I figured that deserved a well-considered reply, and I’ve re-presented my reply here, since it nicely encapsulates both what’s wrong with hyper-sexualization or objectification of a particular social group, and what seems to bother some men when they’re faced with being treated the way they routinely expect to treat women.
Yes, it’s true superhero comics are about iconography and simplification of complex issues into straightforward questions of right vs. wrong. However, when one particular group is consistently stylized into merely sexual iconography, while another is always portrayed as strong and virile, then what does that say about how the two groups can relate? What does it teach as the social behavioral ‘norm’? Do we want to allow such an insulting and degrading depiction of a particular social group to become the one society placidly accepts?
If we had to pick one word to describe superhero men, it’d probably be “strength.” Male supers are taller, stronger, shown with wider shoulders and narrower waists than normal men. Their abs are ripplingly developed, their jaws are square, their upper arms and thighs are well muscled. Those things may make them seem sexier, but it doesn’t reduce them to sexual icons — they are active, and their muscles underline their power within the world. In effect, they are presented as exciting ideals to identify with, rather than as sexual toys.
If we had to pick one word for superhero women, though, it would not be strength — it would be “sex.” Women have impossibly huge breasts (sometimes larger than their heads), strangely long and usually bare legs which are lengthened with high heels and slender or bare hips, large full lips, and imposing masses of unruly long hair. This might be fun in the bedroom, but it’s likely to get them killed in a fistfight. Heck, were I a super-villain in such a world, I’d keep a minion working in the emergency rooms of all the local hospitals. Their sole job would be to record all the athletic women coming in with broken ankles — as possible super-heroines who’d fallen off their heels in a fight!
Amusingly, I’ve had several guys, apparently in all sincerity, tell me super-heroines really could fight in high heels. It always makes me laugh when I defy them to go through a single day of wearing high heels to prove their point — and they always fall grumpily silent. It’s easy to say the emphasis on men’s torsos is the same as the emphasis on women’s bodies in superhero comics… but unfortunately it would not be true. Men’s bodies are not blatantly sexualized; women’s are.
What sexualizes, in super-hero comics? From what I’ve seen there are three elements involved. First, costume design which demeans practicality and emphasizes the sex of the body wearing it. For women, this means scanty costumes incorporating thongs, or cut high on the thighs and derriere — costumes which emphasize their asses, their legs, their groin — the location of their primary sexual organs. We’ve already mentioned high heels, of course. Also, the costume tops always outline or emphasize female breasts, with strapless bustiers, corsets, and patterned tops which emphasize the breasts being the norm. This is almost constant; you have to search to find single examples of men who have costumes like this, or women who don’t.
The second element of objectifying sexualization is how the characters are presented. Women are usually drawn in compromising poses: crotch-shots, rope “bondage” scenes, and “head-lights” poses are the classic ones here, but I include situations where the sexualized individual is shown to be smaller, secondary, not as important as the primary character. Think of how often you see a male character in the center of the page, with feet spread and arms folded, lips pressed determinedly together, staring directly at the reader. Now, how many times have you seen women in that pose — especially women flanked by men shown with their weight on one foot so one hip is thrust out, with one hand on their hip so their chests are thrust out, lips provocatively parted, and looking passively to one side so they’re not staring aggressively at the viewer?
For fun, let’s take a moment and do a reality check here. First, supers are athletic — that’s a given. Second, female super-heroes all look like models. Third (as mentioned above), female super-costumes almost universally include things like thongs, high heels, tops styled like corsets or strapless bustiers. So, just for fun, let’s take a quick look at some modern female athletes. After all, if women really can fight in those amazing super-costumes, we should see examples of them in real life too, right? So here’s a collection of photos of a selection of international female athletes.
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Women athletes from the 2003 Campbell Highland Games
WUSA star Brandy Chastain, after she and her team won the US Women’s World Cup.
Soma Biswas of India, winner of the heptathlon gold metal at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships.
An unknown Japanese karateka on a page about women’s kickboxing in Japan.
International Three-Day Eventing pro Cindy Rawson at the 2001 Windsor CCI** in Windsor, England.
World Cup goalkeeper Peggy Storrar in 1998.
From an advertisement for sports bras. Also appearing: Devonne Canady, gold medal winner at the 2001
Women’s World Amateur Boxing Championships.
IFBB (International Federation of BodyBuilders) pro Amanda Dunbar.
Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks, named the WNBA’s defensive player of that year.
There are two important things to note here. First, notice there are no thongs, bustiers, high heels, fishnet stockings, corsets, non-supportive tops, or garter belts. The closest we get is sports bras — very strongly supportive garment, that — and one halter-top, for a sport which doesn’t require much bounding around. In fact, it appears women athletes wear much the same comfortable and protective clothing as men! Shocking.
Secondly, notice the women’s body types. They have muscles! They have varying body types — just like men! They’re not all bulimic models, and not a single one of them has breasts larger than her head. In fact, they appear to move like men too — there are no wide-spread legs for crotch shots, no out-thrust breasts, no pouty lips. Also note the short hair, often tied back — no rampant, tangled clouds of annoying waist-length tresses. So that’s the reality of female super-heroines. Come on now, guys… can we get over the apparent male obsession with reducing women to fantasy Barbie dolls and sex toys already?
The final and saddest element of sexualizing objectification is when the women are truly considered to be secondary to the needs of the story. An appalling number of (usually male) comic and games writers seem to believe women are useful mostly for support of the primary character, or shock value when raped or murdered. This happens so consistently in the comics that there’s a name for it: the woman in the refrigerator effect. The name comes from a particularly pointlessly disgusting story where a villain murdered and chopped up the then-girlfriend of Green Lantern, then stuffed her parts into his refrigerator. As the woman who wrote the site notes, “[I]t’s not that healthy to be a female character in comics. I’m curious to find out if this list seems somewhat disproportionate [note from Collie: it is — check the site list for yourself], and if so, what it means, really. These are superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator. I know I missed a bunch. …the question remains as to why they were thrown in the wood chipper in the first place.”
Stop and think about the Green Lantern story for a moment: the woman was brutally disposed of solely so the male “hero” could murder the murderer without remorse. Was that really necessary? It is true both women and men are objectified in superhero comics. But why is it so one-sided? Where are the sexual men, the strong women? We can doubtless name one or two of each, but the vast majority fall into the categories I’ve already stipulated. Isn’t that what unconscious lack of perspective is all about?
How many stories have you read where the “good man” dies tragically in the arms of the story’s heroine, giving her a righteous reason to go on a killing spree? How often do the men tearfully confess to friends that they were raped when they were younger? Heck, can you name any male supers which were raped? I can think of only one off the top of my head — and not only was it not even referred to as rape, but past that one issue it never appeared in the story again. And yet, female supers are apparently devastatingly raped and tortured every time a writer runs out of ideas. How delightful, for a hack writer, to have such convenient scapegoats to abuse for his own aggrandizement. Heaven forbid he actually have any empathy for the group, or sense of responsibility for what he’s teaching his readers.
This isn’t unique to men, of course. Our society is so inured to categorizing women as ‘sex’ that we can’t even see it sometimes. As an example, I recently read a fascinating web log (or “blog”) post on the “Twelfth Carnival of Feminists.” As explanation, an on-line “carnival” occurs when a blog’s owner — in this case a feminist woman who loves comics — invites others to give her links to interesting on-line articles about a selected subject — in this case, women within comics. The original blogger used a graphic of Wonder Woman to illustrate her Carnival, deliberately choosing one which was, as she noted, non-sexual.
Except… it wasn’t. As the original carnival blogger herself wrote of the ensuing article: “Andrea offers a cutting image analysis, using the picture that accompanied the first submissions call for this very carnival. She examines how, even when she is not supposed to be sexualized at all, Diana is still specifically posed to entice male readers.”
The article, Obscuring the Male Gaze by Andrea Rubenstein, is well worth reading. It’s a fascinating review of how pervasive and ‘unseen’ the objectification of women is in our society, such that women themselves sometimes no longer notice it! I find that both sad, and frightening. What wrongs and injustices was I blindly accepting, because they are so ‘normalized’ in my culture that I cannot even see them any more? More importantly — how do I open my eyes?
A brave new world
When I was younger and still new to this, and I still identified more with the perceived strength of men than the assumed weakness of women, this sort of double standard was amusing — but I believed it didn’t really apply to me, of course. I was different — I was ‘one of the guys’! Forty billion insulting examples later, I know better. Threatened guys will never see me or any woman as one of the guys, even if we try to appease them by mocking women who’re validly upset at being treated like disposable diapers.
Further, this sort of thing isn’t funny any more — it’s mean-spirited and demeaning and exhausting. There are so many who don’t see so much (myself included), and so many more who, frighteningly, don’t even want to see. I don’t understand that. Slavish loyalty to privilege may make those who lack status feel safe, like they actually belong — but it’s a lie. The truly privileged aren’t interested in raising up those below them. What’s the point of privilege if everyone has it? Those in power are more concerned with making sure those below them are constantly desperately squabbling for the pathetic crumbs they’re thrown — too busy fighting each other to actually do anything to make life better.
Can these people not see the current status quo harms them? Or have they chosen to refuse to see? I don’t want to be one of those blind, gullible people. I encourage others to fight this too. Don’t just silently swallow the pabulum that surrounds us — take a moment to consider. If it’s demeaning garbage, you have the choice of refusing it. If you’re female, you don’t have to docilely put up with being treated as a second-class citizen / object! Don’t hang out with dorks.
Further, if you’re male, for heaven’s sake, take a stand already! It doesn’t sound nice, but in all truth if you benefit from the privileging of men, you too are indirectly responsible for the accompanying abuse of women. There’s an easy answer, though: do something about it! Don’t just sit there tamely if you see guys acting like sexist pigs or joking about rape or cheerfully discussing how they showed some woman her “place” — say something! Object! Don’t ever be silent — silence implies you agree with them. Fight back; insist on treating all people like human beings — not property owners or flawed goods.
And for everyone: you don’t have to pay for a game, a piece of clothing, a movie — any consumer product, in fact — which you think is insulting. You don’t have to purchase goods which use demeaning or patronizing advertising. You are not required to financially support companies who consider you too stupid to make good, informed decisions. If you don’t like the message, don’t purchase the medium!