Sexualizing Powerful Poses

In my post Female Villains Can’t Win, one of the things I mentioned was that even in their powerful poses, women were sexualized. Peatbogfaery asked if I had any other examples than what I provided. Initially I was just going to reply on the thread, but it’s taken on a life of its own (when does it not?), so here it is.

For some advice I turned to comic books (thanks to Ragnell for the links!). I’m putting the rest behind a cut because of the pictures.

I. More Example Poses

As strong-willed as ever, PowerGirl (bless her soul) demanded to be first with this pose:

PowerGirl

In it she has a very active stance — rushing at the camera — and her face isn’t a sultry “come hither” look, but rather a, “I’m gonna @^!% you up!” expression. But, yet, the lines of her arm draw the eye to her breasts?

Adam Hughes also has some good examples in his Wonder Woman gallery. I’m going to just pull two of them. First up is this one:

Wonder Woman - Pose 1

It shows WW clutching a fist full of lightning with a clearly “I’m in pain but I will endure as much as I have to!” kind of look. Not to mention that her muscles are bunched with effort. Unquestionably powerful. But if you notice the lighting, it draws attention to the breasts, and her hunched posture is all about the butt-action.

Secondly we have this one:

Wonder Woman - Pose 2

There’s the clear power in her clenched fist, and it’s clearly the focus of the piece, but equally shiny and eye-catching are her two breasts (which I swear given the pose you shouldn’t see both of) and then her hair. In this, she is not even given the dignity of a face. One may argue it gives her an “Everywoman” kind of appearance, but it also reduces her to a fist and a pair of boobs.

Greg Rucka‘s webpage also has many good examples. Again, Wonder Woman is the focus of these pieces and again I’ll take only two. First up:

Wonder Woman - Pose 3

This is one of WW mid battle. Though she is in some ways in the visual disadvantage, being lower than her enemy, she is fighting actively instead of being a passive part of the scene. In addition, her fist is connecting to her opponent’s face. However, her body is contorted (possibly anatomically impossibly so) in order to show both her breast and her butt.

Second and final picture:

Wonder Woman - Pose 4

This picture of WW in the process of using her whip of submission lasso of truth. She is given an artificially wide stance (seriously, would anyone advise unbalancing yourself like that while trying to lasso something?) in order to stick out her butt for the reader. Again, you have the power of the active stance versus the sexualization.

II. Conclusion

Although my original post was on video games, I went for comic books because — being a still medium — it was easier to find examples of deliberate posing. If one were to look through box art and other promotional items that feature video game women, some of the same poses would come up.

I’m not, as everyone and their dog assumes, putting down sexuality. I’m just pointing out that women — whether they be comic or video game characters, or even real life women — can’t escape being sexualized. It doesn’t matter how powerful we are. It doesn’t matter if we’re feminine or not. Or whether or not we want to be sexual. Or whether or not we want to be sexual right now. The lens is forced on us without caring about whether or not we consent to it. And that lens applies to popular culture as well as our real lives.

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

22 Responses to Sexualizing Powerful Poses

  1. Pingback: League of Substitute Superheroes » Blog Archive » Sexualizing Powerful Poses

  2. Darth Sidhe says:

    (Psst…”lightning.”)

  3. Umm, given PG’s physique and costume, how on Earth could she not draw attention to her breasts?

  4. peatbogfaery says:

    Woo! Good post. I was dicussing this with my boyf, and we flicked through one of his comics… he said about one picture “Hey she {the Scarlet Witch} looks like she’s had a boob job!” I roared with laughter as he sounded so surprised.

    Flicking through the same comic (The Avengers United, #70) I think there is a definite difference in the female characters between earlier comics and those made today – not always consistant, but the hip/waist ratio tends to be smaller today – as it is irl.

    We also came up with a possible non-sexualised pose – that of the arms raised while manifesting a power – like Storm from the X-men.

    Also check out the head shot of Halle Berry for the recent films, a nice contrast to the above WW one!

    Also, the more physical female heroes – WW, Shadowcat, that is, those that fight more physically, seem more sexualised than those that don’t.

    Well, those are my observations from the 2 comics that I have to hand, anyway…

  5. DNi says:

    The question I have to ask you, though, is: “is this a bad thing?” More often than not, yeah, the sexualization of female characters is pointless at best, down-right inappropriate at worst. However, there are instance in which I believe the sexualization of a female character is absolutely vital.

    For that reason, I have to call on your critique’s of Adam Hughes’ Wonder Woman illustrations — illustrations in which I think Wonder Woman is depicted at her best. In that second image, you state that she’s degraded to merely a fist and a pair of boobs; however, in terms of appearance, I’d argue that those are her most vital attributes, that her breasts and her fists best encompass her character: that she is a woman and that she is mighty. I’d likewise argue much the same for Power Girl.

    But again, those are just a couple of characters for which I think being sexualized works. That blue chick from the earlier post? She’s just awful.

  6. tekanji says:

    DS: Oooooooooops. Fixed.

    FerrousBuller: Yes. I don’t consider “existing while large chested” as “drawing attention to one’s breasts” — and the fact that most “normal” society does I think is rather troubling. See the Ann Althouse incident for more information on that.

    peatbogfaery said:

    We also came up with a possible non-sexualised pose – that of the arms raised while manifesting a power – like Storm from the X-men.

    Hmm. I think some of that would depend on how that pose was done. I’ve seen a couple WW ones with her arms raised, but their lines an “X” right down to her breasts and the lighting really puts the focus point there.

    Also, the more physical female heroes – WW, Shadowcat, that is, those that fight more physically, seem more sexualised than those that don’t.

    I’m not suprised; the same dynamic seems to happen in video games as well. At least in my experience.

    DNi: Women not being able to get out of being sexualized? Yes, absolutely that’s a bad thing. FerrousBuller’s take on PG automatically being sexualized because of the size of her breasts isn’t coming from nowhere; we’re told that breasts = sex, hell that women = sex. And our popular media is created accordingly. In real life, that creates a culture of entitlement where men feel that it’s within their right to sexualize a woman — whether she wants to be sexual or not.

    And, while there may be instances where sexualization of a character is appropriate, or needed, it seems to me that the creators of popular culture seem to think that it’s “needed” in a lot more cases than it actually is. I’d recommend the Wizard “How to Draw” series for a rather grim take on what many well-known artists think a “heroic” woman is.

    In that second image, you state that she’s degraded to merely a fist and a pair of boobs; however, in terms of appearance, I’d argue that those are her most vital attributes, that her breasts and her fists best encompass her character: that she is a woman and that she is mighty.

    See, but you’re just proving my point right here. I like my breasts, but they are not a vital attribute and they are not what makes me a woman. WW would be just as much a woman with a flat chest. Maybe in a neutral environment where there wasn’t a problematic history of reducing a woman to her sexual parts, such a picture would not be problematic. But that’s just not the case; Western society has a culture of objectification that erases women’s personhood by doing exactly what was done to WW in that picture and it cannot be separated out.

    I’d likewise argue much the same for Power Girl.

    I wouldn’t recommend saying that around a PG fan. PG’s breasts, and her sexuality, may be the most visible part of her, but they do not “best encompass her character.” Her power — and I’m not just talking physical strength here — comes from the strength of her personality and her “take no shit” attitude. Thinking about it now, WW is much the same (although her character has BDSM in her roots, so she, more than PG, has sexuality as part of her character, I’d argue).

    It’s not that sexuality is bad in of itself, but rather that we don’t know how to use it properly. Especially these days, where we have this “powerful girls/women kick ass and are hawt!” mentality, where it feels like women of power must be sexualized. And, as I noted in my previous post, if they aren’t done so in a way to the fans satisfaction, then they get ridiculed for it. That’s pretty screwed up in my opinion.

  7. Ragnell says:

    Actually, as a Power Girl fan, I’d rather not change her bust. She’s supposed to be a large-framed woman, the bust goes with that. Ideally, she’s upposed to be a bit chunky around the middle, but comic book artists are trained to a very narrow beauty standard, and even those who venture outside that are quickly pressured to fit back into it.

    My friend Mario, a small-press penciller with aims for Marvel has been criticized for drawing smaller-busted, fully-clothed women. It’s ridiculous. There has to be this huge emphasis on sexual traits.

    This is a cultural issue. And a huge one. If the artist isn’t inclined that way, too many of the fans and his fellow artists are.

  8. DNi says:

    Women not being able to get out of being sexualized?

    Uh, yeah, in hindsight, that was an incredibly stupid question for me to ask. I thought I was asking something else and didn’t realize what I actually was asking.

    I like my breasts, but they are not a vital attribute and they are not what makes me a woman. WW would be just as much a woman with a flat chest.

    That’s all very true, but that’s not what I was trying to get at: Wonder Woman’s breasts do not make her, nor do they make any woman; but they are representative of womanhood (exactly like how the penis represents manhood). What I meant to state earlier is that I believe that in Hughes’ depictions, he smartly uses Wonder Woman’s breasts not necessarily as means of titillation, but to denote her strength, both physically and of character. And in that way I think Power Girl’s powerful breasts are much the same.

    And, while there may be instances where sexualization of a character is appropriate, or needed, it seems to me that the creators of popular culture seem to think that it’s “needed” in a lot more cases than it actually is.

    Oh, yes, I agree 100%. There’s a whole host of strong female characters I think work well enough that they don’t need to be sexualized — Storm, for one, comes immediately to mind. If you want truly apt examples of needlessly sexualized characters, I wouldn’t look further than Frank Cho’s recent covers for her books.

  9. tekanji says:

    DNi said:

    That’s all very true, but that’s not what I was trying to get at: Wonder Woman’s breasts do not make her, nor do they make any woman; but they are representative of womanhood (exactly like how the penis represents manhood).

    But breasts are not analogous to a penis. If a penis is the symbol of manhood, then a vagina would be the symbol of womanhood. But, even then, it’s deeply problematic to use those characteristics as shorthand for gender because they conflate biological expression with an identity that is mental (gender).

    And, besides that, women have varying breast sizes — contrary to the c-cup or higher that are standard for most popular culture — and that includes being “flat chested”. Conversely, men are also in posession of breasts and, although they typically manifest themselves in a different shape, they can be the same shape and size of women’s breasts.

    So, in that way, using the “breast = woman” symbolism sends the message to women with small breasts that they aren’t real women, as well as telling men who do have visible breasts that they aren’t real men.

    What I meant to state earlier is that I believe that in Hughes’ depictions, he smartly uses Wonder Woman’s breasts not necessarily as means of titillation, but to denote her strength, both physically and of character. And in that way I think Power Girl’s powerful breasts are much the same.

    I understand that reading, but I disagree with it for the reasons given above (well, I can’t comment on his purpose for using it, but I think regardless of intent that it was a sexualized portrayal). I also don’t think that PG’s breasts are “powerful” — some women have larger chests than others, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

  10. Godless Heathen says:

    Not to pile on to DNi, but knowing many women who have lost one or more breasts to cancer, the meme that breasts encompass or represent womanhood has to be one of the more destructive body image fallacies out there. There’s a huge push to get women who have had mastectomies to have “reconstruction” done, which doesn’t reconstruct anything, it merely introduces dangerous saline implants. The whole idea that one has lost an essential part of femininity if there are no breasts plays right into the cultural mandate that all women conform to unreasonable beauty standards and perform sexually for the male gaze. Heaven forbid women be freed from this mandate when they’re recovering from or living with a life threatening disease!

  11. Darth Sidhe says:

    Wonder Woman has BDSM in her roots? You mean besides the obvious clue of the lasso?

  12. Tekanji: I was mostly being facetious, but if I need to be serious, your complaint about that PG pose was “the lines of her arm draw the eye to her breasts.” How would you alter her pose to de-sexualize it? Is it even possible with that basic pose?

    I don’t consider “existing while large chested” as “drawing attention to one’s breasts”

    Neither do I – but PG does a lot more than just “exist.” Rather, doesn’t PG’s costume draw attention to her breasts by design? She’s a buxom woman in a tight white outfit with a peek-a-boo window in her top: is there any way to draw her so as not to draw attention to her breasts? [You seem to have ignored that I said her "physique and costume" the first time.]

    For that matter, isn’t that a part of Power Girl’s nature? She likes both attention and respect. She’s always struck me as the kind of brassy gal who wants people to notice her physique; she also wants them to notice she can punch them through brick walls. :-)

    [I'm also coming from the perpective that "drawing attention != blatantly sexualized," so we may have to agree to disagree...]

  13. DNi says:

    And, besides that, women have varying breast sizes — contrary to the c-cup or higher that are standard for most popular culture — and that includes being “flat chested”. Conversely, men are also in posession of breasts and, although they typically manifest themselves in a different shape, they can be the same shape and size of women’s breasts.

    So, in that way, using the “breast = woman” symbolism sends the message to women with small breasts that they aren’t real women, as well as telling men who do have visible breasts that they aren’t real men.

    It’s not the size that matters — I won’t argue otherwise — it’s the function. And in that, women are unquestionably unique from men.

    I also don’t think that PG’s breasts are “powerful” — some women have larger chests than others, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

    The thing about Power Girl, though, is that her design has always struck me, out of all the thousands and thousands of mainstream super heroes, as one of the best. And, quite honestly, her outfit wouldn’t be nearly as striking as it is if it weren’t for her noticeably large bustline.

  14. K says:

    DNi: To me Power Girl would *really* be badass if she wore the same costume at a smaller cup size.

  15. spiralsheep says:

    I wasn’t going to comment because, although I frequently read this blog, I tend not to comment here and it seems rude to appear with this particular opinion, however, as it’s intended to be a useful comment I’m going to risk appearing contrary.

    I already agree with the argument you’re trying to make in the above post so you’re preaching to the pre-converted in my case but I don’t think the images you’ve chosen here provide sufficient evidence to support your case because only the last image seems, to me, to be suitably illustrative (although in each instance I can see what you describe) for two reasons:

    1. Mainstream superhero comics art is SO exaggerated in its depiction of women’s physical sexual characteristics that the images you’ve chosen don’t seem remarkable to me. In fact, I’d say they’re not remarkable by the standards of western media in general and that some of the supposed examples depict those women as less than averagely sexualised. Which leads me on to my second point…

    2. Most westerners in general are desensitised to sexualised depictions of women to the extent that they’ve ceased to register even obvious sexualisation, even when it’s overtly explained to them, unless they’re simultaneously presented with a similar non-sexualised picture so they can compare the two literally point by point.

    I’ll use an example which involves an angry face rather than a pose because I don’t have to look for it. I’ve shown the last cover in this post ( http://spiralsheep.livejournal.com/84657.html ) to reasonable people and had them reject my claim that the angry expression on Dani’s face (last cover, face at lower left) has been sexualised for consumption by the beholder until I simultaneously show them another image of Dani’s face which doesn’t sexualise her anger (third cover, face central, for example).

    I have two Wonder Woman covers with her in comparable, supposedly strong, poses where one shows her looking like an Olympic weightlifter and the other shows her as T&A-In-Peril but the second cover isn’t obviously sexualised unless the viewer knows what women weightlifters actually look like. I’ve never posted them anywhere to make that point but I could or I could email you copies if you might want to use them because I think they’d illustrate the point you’re trying to make as well as most sets of two comparable images. At the very least, you might find them interesting.

  16. Ragnell says:

    Actually, I’d say the second describes it, but I was sincerely surprised at the lightning reference. To me, the obviosu sexualization is in how the pose takes advantage of the uniform to show the breasts spilling over the bustier.

    That’s my pet peeve with Hughes covers. It’s all about the boobs with him.

  17. Ragnell says:

    (Oh, and in the first one Power Girl’s specifically hunched forward to give us a full view of her cleavage. That one’s all angles.)

  18. Denise says:

    Darth Sidhe: see the summer 2006 issue of Bitch magazine for an article on the evolution of Wonder Woman from a superhero dominatrix to modern 70s woman without all that dirty feminism. The author was himself in a committed three-person BDSM relationship with two women, who remained together after his death. His philosophy was ahead of its time, I think.

  19. Lavode says:

    I hope this doesn’t count as a thread hijack, but here’s a Strangers in Paradise cover that seems to fit the bill:(http://www.strangersinparadise.com/images/issues/volume03issue79.jpg)

    She’s decked out in macho attributes – symbols of agency – but a little too much of the focus is on her butt.

    “Wonder Woman’s breasts do not make her, nor do they make any woman; but they are representative of womanhood (exactly like how the penis represents manhood). What I meant to state earlier is that I believe that in Hughes’ depictions, he smartly uses Wonder Woman’s breasts not necessarily as means of titillation, but to denote her strength, both physically and of character.”

    I’m not very familiar with Wonder Woman, but is her sex an important aspect of her character? So many images in fiction scream “this is a WOMAN” or “this is a MAN”, and speaking for myself, I’d prefer it if they’d say, “This is THAT CHARACTER and s/he is strong” instead. It wouldn’t encourage the “Mars/Venus” mythology.

  20. DoveArrow says:

    “I’m not, as everyone and their dog assumes, putting down sexuality. I’m just pointing out that women — whether they be comic or video game characters, or even real life women — can’t escape being sexualized. It doesn’t matter how powerful we are. It doesn’t matter if we’re feminine or not. Or whether or not we want to be sexual. Or whether or not we want to be sexual right now. The lens is forced on us without caring about whether or not we consent to it. And that lens applies to popular culture as well as our real lives.”

    I think you’re right about women being objectified as sexual objects, and I think that there needs to be a change in the way that women are depicted and thought of in society. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s true that women can’t escape being objectified as sexual objects. In fact, I think there are female characters who are powerful and who are attractive, but whose sexuality is not exploited the way it’s been exploited by other people. To prove that, I want to give you two examples; both of which come from the movie “Willow.” The first is Queen Bavmorda, the second (to a lesser extent) is Princess Sorsha. I think if you take a look at these two characters, you will see that women can be depicted without necessarily objectifying their sexuality.

    The first character, Queen Bavmorda, is one that I think is a perfect example of a character that is attractive, and powerful, but whose sexuality is never exploited or objectified (and if I did this right, you should see an image of her below).

    [img]http://www.lepconnie.com/willow/pictures/pics/vid208.jpg[/img]

    Note that, in this image, Bavmorda has an expression very similar to the one that Power Girl has in the image shown above. However, unlike Power Girl, Bavmorda is in a pose that commands attention, shows that she has great power, and does so without drawing attention to her sexuality. I think this is an excellent example of how women could be depicted without resorting to poses that draw attention their physical attributes and I think it would be neat to see more women characters portrayed this way.

    Princess Sorha is another character from this movie who is shown as powerful without necessarily objectifying her sexuality.

    [img]http://www.lepconnie.com/willow/pictures/pics/vid238.jpg[/img]

    Granted, her character isn’t always handled deftly (I’m referring to her relationship with Madmartigan, where she is often depicted as an object of lust). Nevertheless, I think there are some things that they did well with her character in this movie. The first is that she’s not wearing a chainmail bikini or thong, like the one worn by the githyanki character from Neverwinter Nights. Instead, she’s wearing a full suit of metal armor that is nearly identical to the armor worn by other male characters throughout the movie. There are also a number of scenes where she is depicted as fully capable of standing toe-to-toe with male characters of equal strength, and even where she is shown as being more powerful than they are. So while I don’t think you could say that her character’s sexuality isn’t objectified at all, I think you can say that her character’s depiction is better than most and is certainly a step in the right direction.

    So in conclusion, while I do think you’re right about women being objectified, don’t think these two characters show that women can be depicted as powerful and attractive, without necessarily objectifying their sexuality. I think it’s important to remember these two characters too, because maybe they’ll prove to be inspirations to others who want to see depicted in a more realistic and politically correct manner. :)

  21. DoveArrow says:

    Okay, so I didn’t get my images to show up, but follow those links and you’ll see what I mean.

  22. jingjo says:

    Excellent articles and a topic I’m interested in, as well: female archetypes, especially how female villains are portrayed. But heroes are interesting, as well – and of course the physical appearance (as with any visual genre) of the character is very important to his or her characterization.

    On the note of being sexualized, I believe in a heteronormative world (which most of the comic/superhero world is – as well as being male-dominated both in creation and consumption) naturally favors the woman as sexual object. But you could take a similar set of male characters (Batman, Colossus, Spiderman) and find similarly “sexualizations,” if one is so inclined. One reads that into the character. In fact, anecdotally I would say that current visual genres sexualize men even more (more defined muscles and more self-conscious about genitalia) compared to 50 years ago. The difference of course is that since the world is heternormative everyone – men, women, gay, lesbian, is trained to view the woman as a sexual object. Only a portion view men in the same way. But it is common knowledge that there are many homoerotic undertones (sometimes not that subtle) to many comics/fantasy games if one so chooses to read it that way.

    just my 2cents ^_^

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