Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

So What About the Men? Some Thoughts on Body Image and Gender

Over at my post about Barbie dolls, commenter Mark Engblom had a comment that I thought deserved more interest.

I wonder why the possibility of crazily-muscled male action figures warping a boy's body image is never talked about.


My response in the thread was:

Interestingly, Mark, I see that sort of thing talked about all the time. Oddly enough, it always seems to be in response to a genuine criticism to something with a debatably harmful portrayal of women, seemingly as a reason to dismiss said criticism.

Now why it doesn't seem to ever be brought up as its own issue, well, I wouldn't begin to try to conjecture.


I stand by this response, because I do think the question comes up more genuinely as an attempt (albeit probably a subconscious one) to silence any sort of discussion about potentially harmful portrayals of women. I doubt it's malicious, but it's a fairly obvious attempt to silence because if you think about it logically, this conclusion results: "Okay, so this portrayal of women may be harming women and this portrayal of men may be harming men, so we should change them both!"

And yet, somehow this obvious conclusion is never mentioned by anyone who brings up the male perspective. In fact, it seems to be brought up with a tone of "What about the men?" with an added dose of "Well, it hurts both of us so quit your bitching."

I am perhaps not being fair to Mark here. I don't mean to single this out as his motive. I'm no mind-reader after all. I think it's an innocent question...at least on a subconscious level, as it is for most men (it's usually men who ask this for some reason), but I also think, and again this is probably unfair but it's the impression I get, that guys like Mark are rather bored or have heard enough of complaints by women about this subject and would be perfectly happy to never talk about it again.

Too bad. I'm not going to stop talking about something I see as a genuine problem because some people are bored of hearing the complaints. You want me to stop boring you with complaints? Help fix it. Otherwise, suck it up.

I'm not going to deny that the generically overmuscled physical archetype that we see in superhero comics and the media and in GI Joes, action figures, Ken dolls and the like probably do harm men. I don't have access to any sort of statistic, but I've seen the effects of steroid abuse and I've known men who've had eating disorders and body image issues, men who are plastic surgery addicts too. While I don't think the toys and superheroes are directly the problem, I do think they, like Barbies and the girl superheroines, are symptomatic of a greater problem and worth examining and yes, if it comes down to it, even changing.

I think there are a number of factors as to why there are more complaints about the harm to women than to men. You can decide yourself if they're valid, or just excuses. Personally, I think they're somewhat valid though and worth considering.

1) The men are an idealization of strength, the women of "sexiness".

This is a reason seen often on feminist sites so I won't bore you by harping on it. I think there's some element of truth in it, of course. The men are seen more as idealized self-images, the women as a man's idealization of woman. There's a small but subtle difference there. The men are portrayed as an idealization by their own terms, women by how desirable they are to men. You're a lot more likely to see ugly male heroes than you are ugly female heroes after all.

I tend to think 1) is something of a smokescreen though for a deeper reason:

2) Both the images of men and the images of women in the media are by and large chosen and promoted by men.

This is true for sure with regards to superhero comics. But even in completely female-oriented fields like Romance novels, which are by and large written by women, the publishers and editors, the folk who choose what books get released, are men. There are female authors who have been told point blank by male producers that "that won't sell to women," which, if you think about it, is fairly ridiculous. Sure, not every woman is going to come up with awesome ideas and some will bomb and the romance novel industry at the hands of these men does fairly well, but what it comes down to is we still have men determining what kind of male images are being created for female consumption.

Barbie is a little different. Barbie was created by a woman during a time when the head of Mattel was also a woman. This is truth. However, Mattel was created by a man and I think that if you look at the stockholders and CEOs of that time, you're going to see a lot more men than you will women. If you look at the current leadership team of Mattel, there are a lot more men on it than women. And it's still working in a media society that was first and foremost created by rich white men.

And of course, these companies are going to go with what sells. However, we're working with a weighted deck. Who originally tried these methods that work? Those old rich white men. Why did they choose these particular methods? Probably, they made the most sense given the perspective of those men and society at the time. Would other methods work? Who knows. What if we try something new and it doesn't work?

But that's not the right question. The question is "who decides the consequences if it doesn't work?" The question is "How long of a chance do you give these new methods?" I mean, think about it, customers are used to things a certain way. Something new is going to spook them at first. So how long do you give them to get used to it? And more importantly, who makes that decision?

It's perhaps not surprising then that most companies stick to the status quo as created by these men. The Ferris University's Jim Crow Museum site is a marvelous site looking at the prevalence of racial stereotypes in the media through the Jim Crow era into the modern day. It deals with racism, not sexism, or rather, it deals with sexism but through racism, specifically added burdens suffered by black women throughout history, but even if the focus isn't quite the same, the perspective is still remarkably useful when examining the perpetuating harmful media stereotypes and where and how they continue.

Think about it this way. Remember the kerfluffle earlier where a CEO apparently claimed they were going to stop making action movies with female leads because Elektra, Catwoman, the Brave One, et al, bombed? Whether that was true or not, it's a scarily plausible scenario. We know those kind of decisions get made all the time.

But really, the movie making industry is billion-dollar, and if you look at all the action movies that bomb, I'm fairly certain you're going to find a lot more fronted by men than by women. (How many horrible Rocky or Rambo movies are there?) But no one would ever believe a company saying that they're going to stop making action movies starring men, right?

Let's not even get into how we might see Bruce Willis or Sly Stallone even now leading an action movie, but the closest equivalent to a woman of similar age in an equivalent "return of" role is possibly Sigorney Weaver. According to IMDB, Ms. Weaver was born in 1949 and thus she would have been 48 in Alien Resurrection, starring opposite young and cute and innocent Winona Ryder. Bruce Willis was 52 in Die Hard, and Sylvester Stallone will be 64 in time for Rambo. I think Ms. Weaver's pretty much the exception that proves the rule however. It's very hard to find women of comparative age leading an action movie unless we're talking about Demi Moore in Charlie's Angels 2. And most of the press surrounding that had to do with how good she looked for her age and how she was banging a 25 year old.

Even having more women in CEO and shareholder positions is only a baby step toward finally equalizing the media influence, since ultimately these women have had to grow up in the industry created by men and have had to play by the rules of men. They play well and are now in a position to get things done, but how have all those years affected their own perspective? The shadows of their colleagues and predecessors are still very palpable.

Ultimately, I'm digressing. I think the point however is that there's a difference between a harmful portrayal that is self-inflicted and one that is inflicted on you. Both are bad and both ought to be changed but it's a lot harder to genuinely play the martyr. Yes, I'll believe that Superman, Ken and GI Joe can cause harmful body issues for men, but considering that men are running DC, Mattel and the like right now, there's nothing stopping you from changing it.

3) Arnold Schwarzenegger is less scary than Karen Carpenter.

This is rather tied into the strength vs. sexiness argument. But not completely.

See, okay, I'm more than willing to acknowledge that the body image issues reflected/projected by GI-Joe and Superman and company are harmful. I can buy that the media promotes steroid use and plastic surgery and eating disorders for men.

But lets look at the token representative for each side of this issue.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is kind of the poster child for 80s action scary steroid use. He is, at least, the first name that pops into my mind of someone who probably has used steroids. (I don't know if it's been proven, to be fair.) This is of course how we remember him:


(Swiped and re-uploaded from here)

He looks strong and tough and a little scary. I don't want to think about the long term effects those drugs and his exercise regime probably had on his body. I don't want to think about the pain he must have now. I certainly don't want to think about how many men died or suffered horrible damage from steroid use.

But I don't have to. Because this is how I remember Arnold Schwarzenegger when I think about Arnold the poster child for probable steroid use. If I think of him now, it's as:


(Swiped from here)

This guy. Politician, governor. Whatever health issues he has now are easy to ignore. He looks fine, healthy.

---

Karen Carpenter is one of the first names anyone thinks of when they think of eating disorders. I know she's how my mother explained anorexia to me. A beautiful singer, beautiful voice. Amazing and talented lady. But how do we remember her?


(swiped from here)

It's weird how horrible and ghoulish I feel posting that. I felt worse seeking out the image. How do you think to yourself "I need an image of this poor woman just before she died" and not feel just a little monstrous. This not the image that I remember my mother showing me in a tabloid, but it's bad enough.

That poor woman.

It's a scary image. It's tragic and horrifying and it's not something we can brush away or ignore because this woman is a politician in California now. This woman isn't a politician in California. This woman is dead. And so are so many other girls who've followed in her footsteps.

I'm not saying that anorexia is worse than steroid abuse. I'm not even saying that more girls die from anorexia than boys do from steroid abuse. I don't know about any of that. I'm not about to compare the long term physical effects.

I'm saying that the first name that comes to mind whenever anyone mentions the possible harmful effects of GI-Joe and Superman is alive and well and a successful politician. The first name that comes to mind whenever anyone mentions Barbie is not.

It's possible that other people thinking of this issue think of a tragically dead bodybuilder and Tracey Gold and it's different. But I think enough people share my blindspot that it becomes easier to see the harm one way than in the opposite. So we're going to talk about the issue from that side more.

This is wrong and unfair, of course. But the cure isn't to stop talking about Barbie and Supergirl and the like, it's to keep talking about them AND about Superman and GI-Joe so that the problem is real and palpable to both sides. So that we can change things for everyone.

4. Girls and Boys tend to look at numbers differently.

Over at his blog, Mad Thinker Scott examines Karen Healey's examination of heights and weights as provided by Marvel editorial staff.

Scott makes some good points in examining both sexes and likely factors, but there's one thing that stuck in my mind the first time I read his entry:

I’m assuming that straight men are like gay men, in that we know what we like when we see it, but we don’t know how much it actually weighs. I know guys who like heavy guys, skinny guys, body builder types, etc., but I have never heard even one use a number in relation to the weight of the guys he likes. Never. I couldn’t tell you much any of the guys I’ve found attractive weigh. Because I don’t believe that guys tend to have an ideal weight with an actual number attached to it, I suspect that Karen is engaging in a little projection; i.e., she knows women tend to have ideal weights in mind for themselves that they think will make them the most attractive and that those weights tend to be lower than what doctors would suggest is their ideal weights for good health, so she assumes that men also have ideal weights in mind for women. Multiple studies have confirmed that women think about weight more than men and that women are more likely to have targeted ideal weights for themselves than men do. It doesn’t surprise me to find that Karen appears to think that the weights associated with the Marvel characters are associated with ideal weights while I think they have more to do with men being relatively oblivious to what women weigh. I’m assuming straight men think more like gay men, and she’s assuming they think more like women. (And of course, I think I’m right!)


I think Scott's right. I don't think the Marvel editors really know how much 5'10" and 120 pounds looks/weighs on a woman. I think they're guessing. Maybe they're using supermodel weights. Maybe their wives/daughters lie about their numbers. Maybe they do know women with those sizes (though I sincerely doubt it because in general, those proportions don't manifest in that body type).

But that's not much of a comfort to me.

See, I know what those numbers tend to look like. Moreover, I know my own numbers. I know the numbers of most of my friends. I know the numbers of my mother and grandmother. Most men, I think, don't know or focus on numbers as much unless they have a particular reason (i.e. weight requirements for a job/sports team/et al) but when you're a woman, I think it's hard to ignore.

I know that I'm four inches shorter than Felicia Hardy and twenty-five pounds heavier. By numbers, that makes me 5'6" and 145 lbs. I appreciate that to most guys, that's just a number. Sadly the best picture I have of me is here. I don't know if you can see much of my actual body type/build, but there you go. You can see the comedically large foot I'm using to annoy the dog. I love my comedically large feet.

I'm not posting this picture looking for compliments or comfort or reassurance. I'm usually perfectly happy with my height, weight and build. I think I tend to look thinner than I am, which I do like. I'm a little vain in that respect.

But I have a confession to make. And it's a stupid doozy of one. But see, I didn't know how much I weighed until I went to the clinic last week. And when I saw the weight settle on 145...I found my brain mentally comparing every height and weight statistic I knew. And yes, that includes comic book characters. And during that mild freak-out, the unrealistic stupid guessing numbers started to drown out the real ones.

God, I have never wanted to slap myself so hard.

Fortunately I came to my senses. I've always had a fairly sturdy self-image, I like how I look now, and really, I don't think I'd be too bothered about being heavier (though buying new clothes would be annoying.) As long as I don't think about the numbers.

Because it really is the numbers that count. Many people with anorexia or bulimia focus on the numbers. See, it's about control for a lot of people. And there's the idea that if the suffering person can reach that target weight, then things will be better. It's not a magic thing. Not a "if I can reach 115 lbs, my life will magically change." It's more a "if I can drop this weight, then it means that I can control myself. This won't beat me." Of course, in the end, it's the illness in control. The numbers change, decrease. The goals get more extreme. Perspectives distort and failure takes on new meanings. And victory doesn't help, because in the end it doesn't change anything. It just drives you to push harder.

Until you die.

It's why sometimes, I think, we overreact or go to such extremes about this issue. It's a scary issue. Because these diseases don't start as some full blown compulsion to just stop eating or throw up food. They're control disorders first and foremost, and as such, they're subtle and insidious. They start out small and reasonable. "Well, if I can just drop five pounds, I'll look better and feel healthier." It's hard to argue with that. And for many people it stops there. But then there are some who, energized by the triumph, decide to go farther. "Well, you know, if I drop two more dress sizes, I can borrow Sandy's blue dress!" Again, fairly innocent. "...wouldn't it be nice if Sandy's dress was even a little too big for me?" Then... "I'm just a little over x lbs. If I can just lose a little more, then I'll stop."

And so on and so forth. And each step is so small, it seems so reasonable. And it doesn't stop. And failure is crushing. Since you can't really win the game, you can only define yourself by your failures.

I don't think it's really about being thin, or rather, that's how it starts, but it's really about something you can measure. But at the very least, the images from the media, the lessons from society are helping things along, giving the compulsion a focus.

And people die.

We might not be able to completely fix the problem, but we can at least get rid of some of the factors that make things so much worse.

It's a really complex issue. All of this is. I do think, however, that we should be talking about it. We should keep talking about whether Barbie or Supergirl projects a negative body image and we should be talking about whether Superman and GI-Joe do too. Because really, just because you're NOT complaining doesn't mean that a problem isn't there.

And closing your eyes and plugging your ears won't make a possible problem go away, it just makes you look silly. Complain. Discuss. Help FIX it.

Or get out of the way.

36 Comments:

  • At April 05, 2008 8:27 AM, Blogger LurkerWithout said…

    *OVATION*

     
  • At April 05, 2008 9:15 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    Great post :) I'm tired of the "but men are and they don't care about" trope! B/c ultimately it IS a dismissal, it's saying "well men also face X" but instead of saying we should fix X it's "but we keep on truckin, therefore you wimminz are just too complainy and weak!" There's so much wrong with it in the first place, cuz it doesn't take into account privilege, society, or nething else, but ultimately it is just often used as "but what about the menz? let's talk about men and act like everything they do is and should be default"

    >:O

    Also for the numbers thing. Men DO care about numbers. At least in my experience. They have unrealistic expectations of numbers but it's not true they dun care, or about how much women weigh or nething. Almost all my rl friends are straight men, I grew up with them as my friends in school, and just so inundated with everything they think about women, and they do care about idealizing, compartmentalizing and objectifying women and whatever's involved. They know jack about real weights b/c they dun rly care about REAL women, they want women that fit their unreality.

    And of course we DO care b/c the pressure from our society to exist for men and to be perfect for men makes us obsess with the real life stuff involved in fitting their ideal of our appearances. They dun have to care what we ACTUALLY weigh b/c they're not the ones who have the pressure to diet and kill themselves to fit it.

    FYI I have the BMI, height and weight of the Marvel superheroines xD I just found that hilarious xD

    It's funny tho, if you were going to work on an official website of a large corporation, wouldn't you do a little research into heights and weights for body type first? They seem to have a good idea for men and what a muscular man would weigh, but for women, NO idea. It's not numbers and math that confuse these men, it's that they dun rly care to confront their own unreality of women. It doesn't matter to them what real women actually weigh, they have their own idea.

    Besides xD As men prove by measuring their bits (and srsly, I jsut sat thru an entire conversation where ppl talked about nothing but their bits and comparing them to other guys, and they take some rly.. decimal point measurements), they certainyl DO care about dimensions and sizes when they want to.

    NEWAYS... I am in total agreement with you. It's a complex issue, and we can't fix it right away, it's an issue tied into greater issues with our society and sexism and how the construction of gender for both sexes slant heavily towards men and everything. But we can at least try to fix some of it, and to tackle it in general. :) It's absolutely important as you said and absolutely has real world consequences, b/c it's not just some seperate random thing, it's part of culture and society.

     
  • At April 05, 2008 9:54 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    Out of random curiousity, how big are your feet? :O I have large feet too and I'm just curious! :D

     
  • At April 05, 2008 9:57 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Heh, not QUITE as big as they look in the picture. They're size nine, womens. Which is still fairly big for my height. I have big hands too. :-)

     
  • At April 05, 2008 9:58 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    :O

    I have small hands :o

    But my feet are slightly bigger than yours XD

    But I'm also 3 inches taller tho o_o;;

    I still hate my feet XD

     
  • At April 05, 2008 10:02 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I love mine. I can pick things up with them. :-) And they make fun giant weapons to annoy the dog with. As is evidenced by the picture. It's convenient though, I rarely have to bend over. :-P

    I envy your height. :-)

     
  • At April 05, 2008 10:13 AM, Blogger Amy Reads said…

    Hi Kalinara,
    Thanks for a fantastic post. Even as a child, I never looked at Barbie and wanted to look like her. I looked at the petite girls around me and wanted to look like *them*. Barbie was fun for me because I could dress her up, change her clothes, change her hair, whatever I wanted. She could be a rock star or a teacher or a president. Barbie didn't look like me or the girls around me, and that was fine.

    As for feet size, I've a long string of peasant-class in my background. I'm 5'6 with a size 10 shoe, and large shoulders and hips.

    I always wanted to be taller, though.
    Ciao,
    Amy, who aspired to 5'10 and never quite made it.

     
  • At April 05, 2008 11:02 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    You are going to be a great lawyer, my dear.

     
  • At April 05, 2008 11:40 AM, Blogger The Random Avenger said…

    Posts like this are why I love your blog. I had a lot of the same thoughts re: the boys and action figures issue. Complicating this is that throughout history, men have been judged by society for what they do, and women judged by what they look like. Hopefully, this is changing, and it's certainly how I'm trying to raise my own daughter. And my son as well. We are all of us what we do; we are our choices. Our physicality is not who we are.

     
  • At April 05, 2008 11:55 AM, Anonymous Ahayweh said…

    You call size nine big? Women's ten or eleven here, depending on the brand. *g* I'm also five-ten, which I think *really* helps dissociate you from the numbers thing. Most of my friends in high school were tiny little five-foot-nothing girls who weighed twenty pounds less than me but were obviously not *skinnier*.

    Is it my imagination, or do a vast number of straight guys really have no clue what might be attractive in men? It seems fairly obvious to me that whatever's being exaggerated in superhero art, it isn't the sex appeal- I mean, just look at those guys in the 90s with unnaturally huge biceps and complete lack of package, like that mildly infamous Liefeld pic of Captain America. Girls get exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics, guys get exaggerated *muscles*- sure, it's an issue and it's worth talking about, but it's not actually the same thing.

     
  • At April 05, 2008 12:01 PM, Blogger Jeff said…

    Hopefully this doesn't eat my comments this time.

    Lot of truth here. Body images definitely hurt women more then men, for many of the reasons listed below.

    Related post:
    http://girlsentertainmentnetwork.com/girl-talk/aktrez-beauty-is-the-geek/

    The only thing I disagree with is the attempt to shut up comment. I think both sides feel that way. I don't think it's that men are tired of hearing the argument, as much as it is frustration from both sides over finding a solution that both sides can accept.

    Historically, identity-style arguments tend to lead to the other side adopting identity-style arguments, which leads to polarization and nothing getting done. It's why I cringe when I hear certain words.

     
  • At April 05, 2008 12:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Fascinating stuff. About using numbers to evaluate, though, I think (even in the case of a weight obsession), numbers are more of a self-evaluation tool for both men and women. I never look at other women and evaluate them based on what I think their weight is. But I find it hard to tell when my own weight has snuck up until my pants become uncomfortable, so it's helpful to watch my numbers. My male honey has been trying to lose weight, so his numbers are important to him. He could care less than I want to weigh 2 pounds less myself and can never remember what I weigh.

     
  • At April 05, 2008 1:39 PM, Blogger Pedro said…

    I don't agree with the importance of the Marvel numbers. I don't think the current readership follows numbers as extensively as other people do.

    I've read like a ton of comics since I was a kid and if you pressured me, the only person's height I could remember is wolverine's height because he's short, even though hugh jackman has ruined that.

    I also don't like the way that you've kind of made the sexuality so dependent on gender. It's been my experience that gender isn't binary, its much more varied. I rarely find males who have the same taste as I do in regards to females and have found that the group that has the same sexual tastes as myself tend to be black and latina lesbian females.

    Even the people who find me attractive are rarely the same, in regards to sexuality, demographic, ethnicity, or religious beliefs.

    You make good points but kind of lost me on the overall.

     
  • At April 05, 2008 4:51 PM, Anonymous Lyle said…

    Great post. One point I might add, however, is that while men are allowed a variety of idealized shapes (I mean, just look at icons of male sexiness like Brad Pitt and Hugh Jackman, both are considered sexy despite having different body types) women are allowed far fewer options.

    The topic of male body image has come up often in gay circles since, thanks to male privilege, gay men have probably had more opportunities to change how sex appeal is defined. (Though that privilege was only about getting the power to introduce those images. Until recently taking them from proposal to actual required that the proposed audience be straight women.)

    Tho, actually, now that I think of it, last I saw Ken didn't have that idealized a body. It's ideal, yes, but probably easier for most men to achieve.

    Anyway, the one time I can think of when the topic of action figures and male body image came up, it was in regards to Disney's Tarzan who is more muscular than most action figures.

     
  • At April 05, 2008 7:10 PM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    I hate my height! xD

    When I go to like Pacific Mall I tower over all the girls and a lot of the guys.. I can't wear heels or nething or it's rly like WOOOSH >_>

    On the bright side I can see over ppl >.>

    my feet used to be over the size where i could easily buy shoes cuz that a lot of brands stop at 10... but now they've shrunk and are a managable size :O which pleases me xD

     
  • At April 05, 2008 9:31 PM, Blogger Ununnilium said…

    Good article!

    I'm gonna agree with anyonymous there. I'm a guy, and I don't really pay any attention to the numbers of other people, but I keep a watch on my own.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 1:00 AM, Anonymous Mark Engblom said…

    Kalinara-

    Gosh...I'm honored. I think.

    Although you say you've seen it talked about "all the time", I've never seen or heard any concern about the caricatured musculature of male action figures warping the body image of boys.....especially on the level and the seriousness it's discussed with female action figures/female self image.

    I think in general, women are much more focused on (obsessed with?) body image/appearance than men are. Naturally, many question why that might be. Some see it as an innate (if destructive) tendency, while others see it as something imposed and imprinted upon them by the surrounding culture, while some see it as a combination of both. Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: women are much more preoccupied with physical appearance than men. THIS is why you never hear about the "threat" of male action figures imprinting a negative body image upon boys. It just never occurs to us. I don't believe the vast majority of males are negatively affected by dolls or superhero drawings, and I feel genuinely sorry for women who feel shame and envy from things that should be only about joy and imagination.

    Perhaps we can chalk this up to yet another topic where men and women stare at each other across a very wide chasm of misunderstanding.

    However, a parting question: Is this something we have to "fix" externally...or something women have to "fix" internally....by refusing to let outside influences determine their self worth and self image? I know...it's not that easy, the influences are everywhere, women sometimes reinforce the distortions amongst themselves (mothers and daughters), etc, etc, etc. But, instead of blaming Patriarch, maybe it's time to collectively stop talking about the size of your feet.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 2:59 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    Except that society isn't static and CAN be changed. If somebody is bullying or assaulting you, is the problem that you just can't take it, or that they think it's okay to violate your person like that?

    Society doesn't just exist as some immutable static thing created by god, and it does give privilege to ppl of certain races, classes, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity more than others... it's not just this thing that is unchanging and should just be treated like a force of nature. The onus isn't on us to just buck up and "take it like a man" (XD). Images of men are created for male consumption, and images of women (and how women are expected to look and appear and act) are created for male consumption too. It's not fair, and it's not something that exists in a vaccuum. You can't talk about this without examining male privilege and how it affects this issue. As somebody said "Privilege is like driving a smooth road and not even knowing it" It's easy to say "well we dun see a problem, so clearly your damaged tires are just proof that you need to drive better". Many men do not feel the pressures, both subtle and gross, we feel, and the idea that women exist for men, our bodies, our actions... it's not something we're imagining and it's not something that goes away just cuz we click our heels and say "there's no place like home"... this is a complicated issue and it is a real issue... it's not psychosomatic...

    All I'm saying is that it's very simplistic to pin this on women and saying it's just them making up a problem and acting like society cannot be changed or nething. :\ This whole issue doesn't exist in a vaccuum.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 3:02 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Mark, I'd recommend actually reading the post again and not getting distracted by banter about feet in the comments, thank you.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 3:09 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    We should have our own feet banter post Kalinara! :O

    Also apparently I'm shrinking :O

     
  • At April 06, 2008 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "One point I might add, however, is that while men are allowed a variety of idealized shapes (I mean, just look at icons of male sexiness like Brad Pitt and Hugh Jackman, both are considered sexy despite having different body types) women are allowed far fewer options."

    Pitt and Jackman are both tall, muscular and strong jawed (among other similarities). I'd say their body types are closer together than, say, Salma Hayek's and Katie Holmes'. I'm not necessarily disagreeing with your thesis here, but I don't like your examples.

    Come to think of it, I can't think of many modern male sex symbols that don't have that "cut" look that's popular right now (and that I've been unable to achieve. Heh) But it's early, so I'm probably not thinking straight. Can anybody help me out here?

     
  • At April 06, 2008 9:16 AM, Blogger Scott (The Mad Thinker) Anderson said…

    I'm probably going to (eventually) write something (entirely too long) in response to your post at my blog, but I thought I'd ask here if you really believe it is men who are pushing for the thinner look in women? Multiple studies have found that men like women to be heavier than women think men like. The thin women that women tend to see are in media for women, not media for men. If a thin model is succuessful, it is because women have bought the product that she is selling, not because men have.

    In addition to blaming men for the push for thin women despite the fact that it is women who prefer thin women and women who are putting their money behind the drive for thin women, doesn't your whole post sort of suggest that women have to get permission from men to be heavier? There is an element to your post that I find rather anti-feminist. It suggests that women are at the mercy of men and haven't the will or power to make changes themselves despite the fact that they are the driving force behind this trend.

    Finally, I continue to be astounded that writers say "women are sexy and men are strong" as if strong didn't equal sexy in the minds of men. You know the guys in the gym aren't really concerned with how heavy the objects are that they can move in their daily lives, right? They get muscular to look sexy. In women, you seem perfectly capable of recognizing that the secondary sexual characterists are emphasized to make them look sexy, but when it comes to heavier musculature (a secondary sexual characteristic in men), it's as if the sexy element is invisble to you. "Thin = sexy" is ever so obvious but "muscular = sexy" never enters your mind. You just stop at "muscular = strong." You know why guys want to be muscular. You've seen them kiss their bicepts and pose lovingly gawking at themselves in the mirror, haven't you? If not, let me assure you now that it's all about being sexy and not at all about being able to move heavy objects. I'm going to go work out now and not because I need to kill a mammoth later.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 9:28 AM, Anonymous Mark Engblom said…

    "Mark, I'd recommend actually reading the post again ..."

    I did. You just didn't convince me of anything in particular.

    Bottom line: Women tend to imitate appearance. Men tend to imitate behavior. Both can be advantageous or horribly destructive, depending upon the person's strength of character.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 9:41 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Anon: I suspect a better example might be something like looking at attractive football players versus those non-threatening boybanders. I think there is room for variance with both genders, but that we do see, traditionally, a bit more variance with men.

    Scott, it isn't that I think men are pushing women to be thin. That's very much an oversimplification and ignores women's own role in the issue.

    I think that the society that still is largely male dominated teaches women that their value is in what they look like. Leading to what amounts to be a vicious cycle.

    It's not that men think thin is sexy, it's that thin is a status symbol and a symbol of wealth nowadays. Like how in times where food wasn't as plentiful, flesh was attractive because it meant regular food and wealth. Pallor back then was more attractive because it meant you weren't working outside, being tan is better now (well, at least until the melanoma fears started kicking in) because it means you can afford leisure time. The media embraces these traits because the men (and women) behind it associate these traits with prosperity.

    I think it's a societal problem with both men and women. I do think that the portrayal of women in comics in particular ARE clearly based after what the men who draw them want to see in female superheroes (NOT necessarily in real women) which ultimately just cycles into the greater problem of messages that young people get about how important fitting a certain set of traits are in order to be "attractive".

    As for "sexy" versus "strong", this is not an argument you're going to win here or probably anywhere. The fact of the matter is that the features exaggerated on female characters are sexual: lips, ass, breasts, waist, legs, et al. The features exaggerated on male characters are muscle and size. While it's true that some people find size/strength sexy, those muscles are not inherently sexual characteristics. In fact, as the commotion surrounding Citizen Steel or Alan Scott show, hints of sexual characteristics in male characters tend to cause a great deal of commotion in certain fan circles.

    I'm not denying that either extreme is potentially harmful to people of either gender, but there IS a difference between the way the features of men and women are exaggerated.

    Mark: I'm not sure where you got the impression that I'm trying to convince you. I don't particularly care if you agree or not. Your first comment indicated to me that you didn't read the post closely and were instead focused on the banter in the comments. Your subsequent comment has not convinced me otherwise, but that's fine. We can agree to disagree. :-)

     
  • At April 06, 2008 10:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'm the same anonymous as the last one. I need to get me one of those account-thingies.

    "I think there is room for variance with both genders, but that we do see, traditionally, a bit more variance with men."

    True enough. Although, as an aside, I have noticed that although the standards for women are more rigid at any given time, they've also changed far more over the years.

    The physical ideal for males (with the exception of penis size) seems to be pretty much what it was in ancient Greece. The ideal for women, as you just mentioned, seem to change rapidly every few decades.

    Rubenesque types with bellies and "child-bearing hips" gave way to the corseted ideal in Victorian times, and then the ultra-tin, boyish flappers of the 20's, the more curvy, Marilyn Monroe types that were popular in the 50's and 60's, and so on.

    What do you think causes this? An effect of patriarchy - trying to keep women on their toes so they constantly keep second-guessing themselves? It's almost impossible to meet any of the supposed ideals, but it's especially so if those ideals refuse to stay the same.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 11:11 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I don't think it's the patriarchy causing the change in standards or anything like that. It's just that fashion, I think, reflects status.

    Men of course are supposed to be strong providers/protectors according to society, so we tend to see the same approximate standards throughout our cultural history. (Though different cultures do vary on actual masculine ideals. For example, if you look at the Tale of Genji, you'll see an example of an ideal man in Heian Japan, which is very different from the Greco-Roman ideal.)

    Women on the other hand tend to be, well, more ornamental than anything else. Women's attractiveness, I think, reflects on what she indicates about her father/husband's status.

    So pre-industrial europe, when food had to be grown by hand, by serfs and farmers who were then heavily taxed, food was something of a status symbol. So you have a feminine ideal that's rubenesque. And lots of literature and art reflect women with lots and lots of soft plump white flesh and long flowing hair.

    That soft white flesh means that this is a woman who does not need to work in the fields or get exposed to the elements. Her childbearing hips and rubenesque build clearly indicate that she gets plenty to eat. The long flowing hair means that she has the leisure time, or the servants, to wash and care for her hair.

    Then when you get into more prosperous periods, generally, thin becomes better. There are always hungry people, of course, but the average person is fairly well fed, so thin becomes an indicator of leisure time. Time to exercise, the ability to afford special non-fattening food, et cetera. A tan becomes ideal (for white women at least) because it means that rather than be cooped up at home or at work, this is a woman who has plenty of leisure time to stay in the sun or go on fancy trips.

    The decades you mention, kind of reflect this on a smaller scale. The Roaring Twenties was a financially prosperous time. Many people making their fortunes via Prohibition and the stock market and all those new wave opportunities. So you have these thin little flapper girls in fancy brightly colored clothes and all those beads and jewelry.

    Then you get the stock market crash, the depression, rationing. And the popular movie stars and pin-up girls are back to being curvier. Betty Grable and the like.

    As the Cold War continues, you see less Marilyn Monroe and more Twiggy and the mod models and discotheque dancers and so on.

    It's not a perfect correllation, mind. And there are a lot of other factors, but I do think that fashion, by and large, reflects financial and social status. We subconsciously want to look like we have money and power, so society finds ways to demonstrate it. And so (most) women then subconsciously seek to follow what society says a prosperous woman should look like, and (most) men look for these same indicators in the women they court.

    I admit freely that this is a very heterocentric theory. I'm not sure how it would relate to non-heterosexuals or if it would at all. My guess is that it would, because societal expectations and norms are pervasive, but I don't want to leap to conclusions in that respect. I'm also not entirely certain that the theory particularly works with regard to countercultures like punk, but I suspect that they have their own ways to establish status that form similar patterns.

    But anyway, that's why I think fashion and measures of attractiveness in women are more fluid than they are in men. I don't really think it's the fault of one gender or the other, just an effect of society overall. :-)

     
  • At April 06, 2008 11:13 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Oh and I've nothing against anonymous posting. Though since I tend to assume each anonymous is a brand new person unless otherwise indicated, you'll have to keep reminding me that you've posted before.

    Of course, there are lots of good things about having a blogger account, and it IS awfully convenient and fun. :-)

     
  • At April 06, 2008 12:10 PM, Blogger Scott (The Mad Thinker) Anderson said…

    I believe you are correct about the status stuff, but one has to wonder if changing the look of comic characters is going to make people not want to look like the successful people instead of the poor. Still, you are correct.

    As for "sexy" versus "strong", this is not an argument you're going to win here or probably anywhere.

    And here in lies the problem. Are you actually suggesting to me that you know more about what men think is sexy in men than I do? If I made statements that said that I knew more about what women thought was sexy in men than you did, wouldn't you think I was colossally arrogant? Seriously. You don’t think this topic has come up time and time again among gay men who have talked about sexual imagery in comics? Seriously? There is nowhere that I’m going to win this argument? Not at the Gay League site or Prism comics? Take a second to think this through. Ask yourself this, if guys had to choose between looking strong but being weak and looking weak but being strong, what do you think they’d choose? I think if you come to the correct answer on this (and you know what it is), you’ll know that the point of “muscular” is not “strong,” it’s “sexy.” They’ve done the studies and they know why guys go to the gym, and it’s the same reason that women go, to be sexy.

    The fact of the matter is that the features exaggerated on female characters are sexual: lips, ass, breasts, waist, legs, et al. The features exaggerated on male characters are muscle and size.

    Right. And those muscles are on their chests, asses, waists, legs, et al, right? Oh, maybe not the lips, but have you met a man who thought his lips were sexy? Do they stand at the mirror flexing their lips? Men could this collagen shots in their lips, but they get steroid shots in their asses. I can point you to literally hundreds of gay porn sites that emphasize muscular bodies, but I have never, ever seen a site that emphasized lips. If muscles are not there to be sexy, why are they so very, very sexualized? Why do guys, even straight guys, choose muscular physiques when they pick who they think women will find sexy?

    There is an Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champ who was banned from the sport for using steroids. When asked why he used the steroids, he admitted that it wasn’t to make him better at the sport, but to make him look better. He’s far, far stronger than the average guy. He’s about 6’7” and very, very strong. But he doesn’t look strong, so every guy who heard him say that knew he was telling the truth. He did it to look sexy. He risked this career, the consequences of breaking the law, and the side effects of steroids to look sexy.

    Have you at all noticed the covers of those men’s fitness magazines? Have you noticed how very infrequently the cover is showing how much a guy can lift and how often they are showing his body for its own sake?

    While it's true that some people find size/strength sexy, those muscles are not inherently sexual characteristics.

    Yeah, and those “some people” are men. As I mentioned in my post that you quoted from, men thing “sexy” is about 30 lbs more muscular than women do. I’m sure you know about a lot of things better than I do, but when it comes to what men think is sexy in men, trust me on this, I’ve done more research, have more experience with them discussing this topic, and have seen more of what they are looking at … oh, and I’m am one.

    The actions of our species, men and women, are driven by sex, not feats of strength. That musculature is so very obviously about being sexy is so enormously obvious that I am stunned that you can write “this is not an argument you're going to win here or probably anywhere” without blushing.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 1:58 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    The first thing they teach in law school is how to make far more extreme statements than that without blushing. :-)

    However, I've been thinking and I suspect what we have here is a misunderstanding that's largely my fault for falling into the trap of using the very oversimplified "strong vs. sexy" terminology to begin with. I apologize and respectfully request your patience as I try to see if I can explain the concept I mean more precisely.

    You point out, rightly, that men don't go to the gym to be strong enough to hunt mammoths, they go to the gym to look attractive. This is true.

    But superheroes ARE figuratively the mammoth hunters. THEY don't go to the gym to look attractive, they go to the gym to be strong enough to take down supervillains/aliens/giant robots/whatever else. And thus, they tend to look like they're capable of doing so. That they look attractive is important, but it is also important that they look as though they can perform the role of a superhero.

    Superheroines on the other hand are very rarely drawn like actual athletic women would be. Instead, their secondary sexual characteristics are exaggerated often to the point of lack of visible function altogether. These women often don't look like their spines would support the weight of their bulbous breasts at all, let alone allow them to actually throw a punch at a supervillain. It's the same level of exaggeration, but without the same care to portray the exaggeration in a manner that would allow these women to do their jobs.

    So ultimately "sexy" versus "strong" is a bad way to phrase the dichotomy, and I was sloppy to have used it.

    More accurately, perhaps, it's that the men tend to be drawn as functionally sexy. Their features are exaggerated and impossible and idealized but in a manner that still allows them to plausibly do their jobs. They're drawn to be heroes who are sexy/attractive. Women tend to be drawn as dysfunctionally sexy in ways that make it clear that they are drawn to be sexy/attractive first with the hero-element as an afterthought or at all.

    Probably both sexes are primarily drawn to be sexy/attractive. But it's fairly clear that the artists always keep in mind that the men are supposed to be HEROIC eye-candy, whereas, it doesn't seem as though many take quite the same consideration with the women.

    I hope that makes a little more sense. :-)

     
  • At April 06, 2008 2:20 PM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    You're ttlly missing the point. None of this stuff is innate to gender. It's socially constructed. That's the point Kalinara is trying to make. :]

    FYI I know guys who care about their lips. xD That they're too big, too small, too thin, too fat. Plz dun act like you're the only person who knows men, gay, straight, bi, cis or trans. And plz dun act like you're the only GLBT person in the universe or the only person heavily involved in GLBT communities or the only person who knows a lot of gay men. :)

     
  • At April 06, 2008 2:26 PM, Blogger Scott (The Mad Thinker) Anderson said…

    Everything you've said is true; however, you are seeing the mammoths and ignoring JM, Lois, Catwoman, and all the other women that these heroes have sexual relationships with. Yes, part of the muscle is about the fights, but part of it is about attracking the chicks. But even winning the fights is about getting the chick. You've seen the Charles Atlas ads. The fight is not the ends; it is the means to the ends, and that ends is getting laid.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 2:44 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I don't actually disagree with you, Scott. But even if the fight is the means to the end of getting laid, I think the artists are constantly aware that the fight exists, and aptly portrays that for the male characters.

    That's where the misnamed "strong vs. sexy" argument gets so frustating for me and I'd imagine a lot of other female fans. I have nothing against female characters being drawn sexy for male (or lesbian) fans, but it's upsetting that many artists don't seem willing to give the hero role the same respect.

    I think that frustration tends to feed into why there tend to be more complaints about potentially harmful portrayals of women than of men. Because while both probably are equally as harmful in their own way, the dichotomy tends to give the impression that sexiness as defined by the portrayal is the be-all and end-all when you're a woman versus being an (admittedly quite important) aspect of a greater whole for a man.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 6:38 PM, Blogger Scott (The Mad Thinker) Anderson said…

    I have nothing against female characters being drawn sexy for male (or lesbian) fans, but it's upsetting that many artists don't seem willing to give the hero role the same respect.

    Are you suggesting that you don't think women would get eating disorders if all the thin women were doing something important while being thin?

    I think that frustration tends to feed into why there tend to be more complaints about potentially harmful portrayals of women than of men.

    I would suggest that one of the reasons there is a difference is that if a men take things to far, men blame the men. Men would tend to say that guys should be responsible for their own actions and not try to blame comic book images for their problems. To say that the comic book images make men take steroids is to admit that the comic is more powerful than men. I think men would be embarassed to say that they were helpless against comic images in the way that you seem to be suggesting that women are helpless against comic book images. Personally, if I fretted over the heights and weights of comic characters, I'd blame myself, not the comic. I'd see it as my failing, not the comics.

     
  • At April 06, 2008 6:51 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Scott, I'm merely going to point out that throughout my post I specifically state that I believe the problems with portrayals in comics/dolls/whatever are not that they are the cause of the problem, but other symptoms of the greater problem.

    The fact is, much as I like you, I think we're reaching that point in the discussion where you're not actually reading what I'm saying but rather what you've decided I'm saying. I don't really see the point of continuing the conversation with you.

    I understand that you probably have more that you'd like to say, but I'm going to have to ask that you take it to your own blog as per my comment policy. You're more than welcome, of course, to drop a link here.

    Thanks!
    -Melissa

     
  • At April 07, 2008 5:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    While I have personally found the arguments revolving around the extent to which society promotes/doesn't promote unhealthy body types for women (and what, if anything, should be done to 'fix' that) to be problematic -- even I can see that certain of those arguments have at least some validity.

    For instance, I remember all the hullabaloo surrounding the 'waif' chic of the mid-1990s, epitomized by Kate Moss' rise to fame.

    As a guy who hit puberty around the time that models like Elle MacPherson were considered to be the apex of beauty -- I remember being rather nonplussed, even a bit disgusted by Moss' anorexic-seeming physique.

    Moss, and the other models at the heart of the waif craze looked very unhealthy to me, and that impression was reinforced when some of the girls I knew back then began crash dieting in an attempt to emulate them.

    So I can see how the exultation of one body type (particularly one that isn't attainable by the vast majority of girls/women without placing their health in jeopardy) to the exclusion of all others by pop culture could be construed as harmful.

    However, applying this argument to the vast majority of comic books has always struck me as a bridge too far.

    Mostly because the artists usually singled out as guilty of promoting unhealthy body types (Michael Turner, Ian Churchill, etc.) draw in a HIGHLY stylized fashion.

    To say that a Turner/Churchill Supergirl drawing is unrealistic in a way that might present health problems for girls that might strive to emulate it is, to me, an utterly specious criticism.

    Because Supergirl a la Turner, Churchill, Joe Madiuiera, etc. is utterly impossible to emulate because of the highly stylized nature of their art. Their women don't look like real women, their men don't look like real men, their dogs don't look like real dogs.

    This doesn't necessarily make them bad artists, much less bad people. No more than Charles Schultz was a bad artist because Lucy Van Pelt didn't look like a 'realistic' young girl.

    Trying to make yourself look like Lucy, or Blondie Bumstead would be at least a dangerous -- and no less silly. Same goes for the work of most of your manga/anime superstars as well.

    If the way Supergirl was drawn could result in fangirls developing eating disorders, certainly we'd see more of them trying to drastically enlarge their eyes to emulate their favorite Rumiko Takahashi character.

    But we don't see that, not really.

    And the superhero artists who do markedly more realistic work, like Adam Hughes, Dave Stevens, John Cassaday, Frank Cho, or Bryan Hitch? The vast majority of the women in the comics they draw don't appear to be starving themselves. There are several criticisms folks could make about the way Frank Cho draws women, but nobody in their right mind could argue that his women are scrawny.

    That, IMHO, is the key fallacy of this argument when applied to comics across the board or even just the Big Two's superhero output. While their are a few artists out there practicing extreme realism, the work of most DC/Marvel artists tends towards highly stylized, cartoony work -- that while that work may (or may not) be skilled, cool, fun, and have real verve -- it obviously isn't trying to approximate reality.

    In other words: Kate Moss =/= Red Monika/Supergirl/etc.

    If a young woman looks at Kate Moss, envies her for her extreme thinness, and tries to emulate her look with disastrous results she just might have a valid bone to pick with pop culture.

    HOWEVER, if a young woman looks at a Michael Turner superheroine drawing, envies the peculiar sort of 'beauty' on display there, and even thinks for a moment that she could, much less should strive to emulate THAT...

    ...it's safe to say that whatever body-image issues she might have are the least of her problems and she should contact her local mental health professional IMMEDIATELY.

    It's not that I'm unsympathetic to all arguments regarding the deptiction women in comic books. It bothers me to see women treated as props and/or deprived of agency by poorly crafted storytelling. And while I think that instances of 'objectification' tend to be over reported in the comics blogosphere, I'd be remiss to say that such things never occur.

    But extending this particular argument, an argument that does have some currency when applied to real-world 'paragons' of beauty like Kate Moss, Paris Hilton, etc. this far into the fantasy realm of Barbie and Supergirl seems patently absurd.

     
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