Obscuring the Male Gaze

I have been meaning to make this post for ages now (pretty much ever since Ragnell put out her first call for subs for the feminist carnival), but unfortunately it has come at a time where I’m freaking out over my last minute arrangements. This will, in fact, be my last real post for a while (more details to follow in my actual last post for a while).

When Ragnell put up what she thought was a fairly neutral image of Diana (that’s Wonder Woman, the Amazon warrior for justice and peace and stuff, for those of you not in the know) reading. I looked at it and “perfect example of the male gaze” is what stared right back at me. Me – thinking nothing of making such a comment on a blog by a woman who waxes poetically about the colour yellow and what it means when used in a Green Lantern comic – well, let’s just say I was surprised that pretty much none of her regulars agreed with me. At all. Even Ragnell herself wasn’t fully on board with my interpretation.

And that got me thinking: Have we become so desensitized to female sexuality that it reads as “neutral” to us when not in an obvious setting?

I. “Male Gaze”? “Objectification”? Say what?

Before we get into the actual image critique, I’d like to clarify what I mean by “male gaze” and “objectification”. A “gaze” in this instance refers to the mesages conveyed to us, the people viewing the image, by said image. Specifically, the “male gaze” is pertinent because most comic book audiences are assumed to be male. I’m going to turn to Wikipedia for more information. While the passage focuses on “advertising”, the same arguments can be made in terms of this comic panel.

This idea of power relationships within the gaze can be continued to analyse gendered power relationships in the depictions of women in advertising. Some advertising presents women in a sexual manner, and it is argued that this degrades women because of the power that the gaze provides for heterosexual men viewing these advertisements.

In short: I believe that the way the artist has chosen to depict Diana (and to a lesser extent, the other Amazons) puts her on display for the presumably male audience. In that sense, she is objectified. Which leads me to my next explanation.

Objectification, in its fullest sense, is to turn a human (or, in this case, the written/drawn representation of a human) into an object. I don’t think that the artist has completely dehumanized Diana in the panel, but I do believe that he has appropriated her sexuality for the pleasure of his viewers. Since she’s not real, she doesn’t have a say either way, but I think it’s important to see how objectification in popular culture can bleed into the way people view and treat actual people.

II. The Making of an Amazon Utopia

Exhibit A: Original
Exhibit A: Original

This is the image in its original, unaltered form. On the surface, it seems like the “Paradise Island” the text at the top says it is: blue skies, blue water, statues and temples (reminiscent of Greek/Roman society, which is a time that Western society associates with civility, peace, and great learning). The women are splashing around in the water, playing instruments, reading, and being altogether happy. And the fruit and wine glass are a nice touch: we often associate such items with wealth and leisure.

That reading is where most of the commenters stopped. And, indeed, it’s the reading they kept bringing up every time I was like, “x, y, z is why I see objectification.” And, I can understand it. There are many elements to a carefree utopia here. Diana isn’t breaking her back to puff out her boobs, and she actually has an outfit that has some give in it. Although, as one commenter pointed out, there’s no way anyone would ever actually be able to read over their shoulder like that.

Exhibit B: Without all those pesky distractions
Exhibit B: Without all those pesky distractions

I’ve taken the liberty to present an image of Diana alone. Although she’s not the only problematic image in the scene (in my comments I took issue with other elements of the group, as well as the depiction of the group as a whole), she is the one our eye is drawn to since she’s in the forefront and the largest element in the panel.

Hopefully now the reason behind my sexual objectification reading will be more apparent. Without the idyllic elements as a distraction, it’s easier to see Diana’s cleavage, her slightly spread legs, and her half-lidded eyes. Even the wineglass doesn’t look so innocent anymore. Still, perhaps she is not “come hither” enough, so I have quickly thrown together a third image.

Exhibit C: Now with pillows!
Exhibit C: Now with pillows!

I wanted to put her on a bed, but creating a convincing one would have taken too long. Still, red pillows are enough to set an erotic tone. Can anyone now tell me with a straight face that Diana isn’t even somewhat looking like she’s ready for a romp in the hay… er, pillows? That there’s nothing sexual about her? All I did was add a few red pillows, folks. That’s it. I have a thousand and one pictures of me (reading, computing, whatever) that I could add red pillows until the cows come home and I still wouldn’t look sexy.

III. Conclusion

One of the reasons this picture jumped out at me so clearly was that, on the surface, it was innocuous. It wasn’t the overt T&A, dehumanization shot that most female super heroes have to contend with. Just a nice, sweet scene with Diana reading while her sisters play in the water. My point, however, is that even in scenes that are supposed to be “neutral” women cannot escape the burden of being the sex class. Diana is not supposed to be seen as sexual in this panel. She is supposed to read as neutral, and perhaps a bit nerdy.

Yet, the sexualization of women is so ingrained in our culture, that a women’s paradise is still drawn for the male gaze, with T&A (literally) at the forefront. In some ways, this kind of thing is more insidious than the obvious reduction of women to sex objects that is found in most comics; at least then most people can see what is being done. Here, I’m not even sure that the artist himself realized what he was doing. And that is a scary thought.

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This entry was posted in Comics, cartoons, manga, and anime, Gender Cultism, Sex, sexuality, and sexual politics. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Obscuring the Male Gaze

  1. I think you’re right on point here. I don’t think I’ve read a superhero comic where the women aren’t drawn with some sort of sexual undertone–and when you read a lot of comics, (or just watch TV, look at ads etc.) you become desensitized to it.

    When I think about these images, I can’t help but apply it to myself. When I dress up on the occasions that warrant it, I often realize after the dress, the makeup, the hair, that all of it is done subconsciously for the male gaze. On a basic level I’m objectifying myself.

    So I ask myself–how can I present myself in a way that doesn’t tailors to this? And when dressing up, how do I present myself without giving into heterosexual, male fantasies?

  2. Lake Desire says:

    I see objectification as stipping someone of hir subjectivity, the multilayered identities that situate hir in the world. In this case, the other things going on in this picture seem secondarly to the position Diana assumes with the male gaze in mind.

    100littledolls, I think it’s interesting that we’re also pitted against each other in competition for male approval. How can you present yourself in a way that doesn’t tailor to the male gaze? That’s a tough one I need to ponder.

  3. Hekie says:

    I saw the initial thread that was sparked over this picture and I still just don’t understand how anyone can read this picture as “neutral.” It’s so obviously sexual to me that I just don’t understand how anyone can look at it and see it as just a woman lying down and reading.

  4. kalinara says:

    I suppose in my case, I don’t find it sexual because I actually do read in something of a similar position. Of course, I’m not built like Diana is.

    In my case it’s more comfortable though to be arched like that, (I have a mild case of scoliosis, which might be a part of it…having it arched/bent like that feels good). I’m also near sighted, so I’d need to be a little closer to the book, if not wearing glasses, but it’s not impossible to read in that position.

    I think what the position is, rather than sexual, is that it is very intimate. It looks like a pose more suited to a private setting, it’s a pose for when you want to be comfortable (as odd as it might look for others, I’ve certainly gotten my share of “how can you lay like that?! Doesn’t it hurt?!” reactions), without particularly caring how other people see you. I’ve never lain that way as an invitation to sex.

    Some folks automatically equate intimacy with sexuality. I don’t. Intimacy can be an invitation to more sexual activities but it certainly doesn’t have to be. Intimacy, for me, is about being so comfortable around someone else, in a particular setting, that the usual barriers of propriety go out the window. Like a group of young women in pajamas at a slumber party, giggling about boys and painting each others’ nails. I’d imagine many men would find that a very sexually appealing image, but those girls aren’t doing it to be sexual, they’re acting that way and dressed like that because they are comfortable with one another. The intimacy is unmistakable, but the interpretation of that intimacy as sexual comes from the outsider; it isn’t necessarily intended in the scene.

    I guess, to me, when they’re not arguing politics or preparing for war, Themyscira is just one big slumber party.

  5. Ragnell says:

    I can tell you don’t too many comics, Hekie.

    The thing about comic books is that they are ruled by techniques for “dramatic shorthand.” Bascially, in order to convey an instant impression in a short space, they go over the top to ensure the readers don’t miss it. You know when a weightlifter character tries to lift up a particularly heavy bar of weight in a cartoon? How his face suddenly goes to an expression of pain, those little lines start to show up around him, and the lighting darkens and reddens? Dramatic shorthand for “Great Effort”

    Readers get used to this, and tend to miss things that aren’t purposefully put there. That scene looked neutral because she wasn’t surrounded by the red pillows or other obvious signs of sexuality. Instead, the sexuality is inherent in the pose. A sexualized pose, with curves and hips emphasized, is the default for a female character in comics. Artists are specifically trained to draw women standing like that when they first work on figures. It’s like drawing a snowman, or the the symbol for a women’s restroom. Breasts and Hips are basically dramatic shorthand for girl, and most readers take it at that and don’t go farther. Because most anyone who’s ever read a comic has tried to draw one, and we all know the shortcuts used to draw simple and clear figures and still show everyone what’s there.

    In addition to still poses, the panels also have to convey the actions of the characters, and shortcuts are used and combined there. Right now, taking that as a normal reading post is problematic, simply because she’s drawn at the point of speaking. She’s raising her head, looking over her shoulder and subsequently arching her back because she’s listening to and speaking to the women behind her. She’s also drawn curvy to emphasize that this is a female character.

    If she had been standing up, and had her back arched in like that (see Katma), you’d have gotten more people to see the sexuality. Because that’s where a female character gets posed in a way you would never see a male in comics, with their back arched specifically to emphasize their breasts. Cooke draws Wonder Woman with a swordswoman’s posture normally (as in the cover to this trade). She takes a solid stance with her feet and stands with her spine erect. My regular readers reacted like being mugged in a meadow because most of them know this.

    What Andrea was pointing out was an across-the-board sexualization that is so institutionalized not even the artists realize it anymore. It’s what they’re trained to draw. Readers don’t notice it the same way they don’t notice breathing, it’s always there and they’ve never had a reason to pay attention to it. It would have taken me a few moments sitting down and studying that picture to notice the exposure in that pose, and it still wouldn’t have been the first thing I saw. What readers thought when they opened the page was, “Okay, breasts, hips, long hair this is a female character. Ahh, crown, Hi Diana.”

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  8. Dora says:

    Excellent analysis. Having grown up reading comic books myself, I am also “desensitized” and didn’t recognize the sexual nature of the image at first. Of course, like you said, this isn’t anywhere near the extreme (and all too common) methods of sexualizing female characters – no uncomfortable poses, improbable outfits, or breasts that defy gravity. Still, it’s worth pointing out – because the image is supposedly neutral, it shows how persistently pervasive the sexualizing of women is.

  9. Bill says:

    As a gazing male (referred here by the latest Carnival of Feminists), Diana’s pose struck me immediately as sexy. After a bit of thought, I agree with kalinara that it is the intimate casualness of the pose, particularly her kicked up foot, that does it. With as small a change as a loosely dangling sandal, I don’t think anyone would have read the image as completely neutral. Also, remember the people reading this comic aren’t just men, we’re nerds, so Diana reading a book while dissing the jocks is attractive too.


  10. yocibox says:

    The intimacy reading by Kalinara seems to be the most convincing argument that the image is innocuous yet proffered, due to the fact that it doesn’t seek to deny the obvious markers that could be read as sexual, but rather offers up a similar context where sexuality is in the eye of the beholder (in the slumber party example), so to speak. I can’t buy it entirely, due to the audience, sure a slumber party is an intimate setting, but if an artist depicts a slumber party situation and places compositional emphasis on breasts and bums, it becomes hard to deny the implied sexuality the artist evokes in the eyes of the viewer, whether it was purposeful, or simply a by product of the narrow training in symbolic representation of genders the artist received.

    It is of course well within the realm of possibility that the artist is lacking a real concept of what a woman at rest really looks like, as photographic sources from our culture seem to avoid presenting women in anything resembling a natural pose. I suspect this is not the case, with as much life drawing as anyone who goes to any art school anywhere has to do, understanding the human body at rest is something you are forced to become acutely aware of. The only conclusion left to draw, and the original point of the post, is the annoying, pointless and potentially harmful normal state of comics that present female characters as sexual objects without context or sexual identity.

    That is actually my main problem with it really. Sexually enticing women, and men for that matter, in comic books that don’t really make any attempt to deal with sexuality (Fathom), touch on it, but blatantly ignore it when the nearly naked fight sequences start (Witchblade), or do so in a disingenuous way, allowing only villains to be sexual beings which are subsequently punished, suggesting that despite both hero and villain wear floss as clothing, those that have sex or sexual identity beyond their role as object are more than likely evil (Vampirella). There was a really good thread somewhere about this aspect of the latter example but I can’t for the life of me find the link at the moment.

    As a final thought, threads like this always make me wonder if the commodification of sexuality will end when we achieve gender parity in all aspects of life, and, this was mentioned in the other thread, but is anyone else a little confused as to why the Amazon diving into the water is wearing clothes, but those in the pond are naked? That just doesn’t make any sense at all

  11. yocibox says:

    aha! Vampirella lo and behold the link I wanted was part of the same carnival as this post, hooray for organization

  12. masale.wallah says:

    Apropos your post, you’ll find this web essay interesting.


  13. Zebee says:

    I agree that women are secualised in comics. But so are men. They all have an idealised male body, they spend a hell of a lot of time in very stereotyped male activities and poses. He man macho bullshit all of it. Sure, they aren’t portrayed as available in the same way, their objectification is different. But it’s not only women.

  14. tekanji says:

    I don’t have time to respond to all the wonderful comments I’ve gotten. As soon as I have some time, I’ll try to be a real participant in the discussion.

    Zebee: this is a discussion on the sexualization of women in comic books, not men. While image analysis of men in comics is important, it is not the focus of this post and by bringing it up you’re invoking the “What About the Mens?” Phallusy, which is in violation of #6 of our discussion rules. If you want to continue posting here, you need to read and obey those rules. Thanks!

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  18. Kimiko says:

    Could it be that lesbian women recognize such examples of male gaze more readily than het women? Maybe het women, compared to lesbians, pay less attention to women than men? Or maybe het women are more used to primping and posing to be attractive to men so that they don’t notice this when a fictional woman does it too?

  19. tekanji says:

    Kimiko: I don’t know, although that’s an interesting theory. I definitely wouldn’t put too much weight on it (for instance, I identify as pansexual and I am pretty good at recognizing the male gaze, where another woman I know who identifies as bisexual is oblivious to it), but without taking a deeper look into it I can’t rule it out, either.

  20. dragonfly says:

    I’m watching the the show Mad Men at the moment and it is beautiful and artful because of the way it uses symbolism. The the end of the opening credits show a man on a couch, in silhouette, languidly holding a cigarette. There’s more to it. But gosh, it’s so beautiful to see a conscious depiction, a real recognition and a disclaimer like that. That silhouette puts the viewer right into the hole it creates and says “Look at this, does this look right to you? Are you this man?” Any literary critic would have a field day with it. I highly recommend it.

  21. Deborrah says:

    I stumbled upon this site while doing research for male privilege and oppression of women’s sexuality for an article I’m writing and have to say WOW! You are right on point guy. But I have to disagree with you that the image was not originally designed to be sexually stirring/erotic in nature. The poses chosen for the artwork are designed to stir the imagination of men in a sexual manner. Note the full breasted cleavage, the sultry prone positioning, a handy glass of wine (to relax of course)… few of these things portray a nerdy chick! Instead, she is that representation of staid intelligence just waiting for some guy to make her forget all that and become the wanton passionate freak he imagines her to be.

    You are definitely on the right track though… I just disagree that the drawing had no sexual overtones from the outset.

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