Three feminists walk into a comic book store…

Comic book creator Sean Murphy shared the image below on Twitter this week, stating that it was his favorite thing he drew in 2013:

The piece came to my attention after Twitter user Ray Sonne wrote a 2,900-word post  at Eat Your Comics about Murphy’s depiction of Wonder Woman, which she found to be problematic and debated with Murphy and others online, as well as feminist critique in comics in general that left me feeling so floored that I spent a couple hours running a little experiment and putting together the response you’re reading right now.

There’s a lot in Sonne’s article to unpack, but let’s start with the crux of her critique of Murphy’s art (emphasis mine):

You will notice in the introduction that I made no mention of skin. I could have brought that up if I wanted to, if that were my biggest issue. When it comes to the amount of flesh bared, Murphy certainly bared more than usual by turning Wonder Woman’s swimsuit into a bustier and panties. He insisted to me that he would depict Batman the same way if the character’s costume revealed the same amount of skin, but in the piece Batman looks straight out at the viewer with his body in full-frontal angle, one leg and his shoulders forward and ready for battle. Even if Batman wore a bustier and panties, he would still retain an amount of intimidation (assuming a man in bustier and panties was a normal sight in our culture) as he propels forcefully forwards. His fellow male teammate, Superman, could more believably be wearing only his boy shorts if we comics readers didn’t know from experience that he wears tights. However, Superman has his arms crossed and we can see how broad and powerful he is even though he is placed at a distance.

Conversely, Wonder Woman is certainly not ready for battle as she is just getting off her bike. Her back is faced towards the threat, theoretically making her vulnerable for attack if she were not Wonder Woman. Her lasso is still tied to her leg whereas Batman already has a Batarang in hand. She must leave her pose to get into fighting position, therefore she is not in a powerful stance in the moment that this piece portrays. This leaves her, in comparison with her male teammates, at a weaker and therefore inferior position. This leads to another level of vulnerability, which is directly related to sexuality.

After an abbreviated version of the above on Twitter, Murphy closed out the conversation by tweeting, “My wife likes this piece and says it’s not offensive, and she’s the final word in my house.”

This, too, was problematic to Sonne, because she is unaware of “how much feminist education [Murphy’s wife] may or may not have had”:

The amount of feminist education generally indicates how much a person–-a male person, even–-is aware of how the two sexes are depicted in media and culture and therefore how they may think when presented with a potentially problematic example. Maybe Murphy’s wife does not see problems with the piece because she lacks a feminist education, maybe she has a feminist education and is still not offended by it, or maybe, like my significant other, she does not have good practice at giving the person she loves most in the world constructive criticism.

All of which left me kind of taken aback because it was so far from my own reading of the piece and, having spent a lot of time writing and thinking deeply about gender and sexuality in literature and other cultural productions on my way to picking up two English degrees, I stopped and checked myself. I like to think I’m reasonably self-aware, but was it possible that I’d become so out of touch that I was now part of comics’ women problem? I decided to ask a professional feminist academic.

A lively experiment

In this experiment, the professional feminist is my girlfriend, Louisa Rockwell, an English graduate student at Brown University whose work focuses on race and gender studies. She’s not really a comics reader, but she enjoys the odd Y: The Last Man or Morning Glories trade, as well as the occasional superhero movie. I sent her a link to Murphy’s piece, asked her to critique it, and questioned her about her responses and different aspects of the drawing. At no time in this highly scientific experiment did I tell her why I was asking for her critique or reveal any information that might color her answers.

Here’s her critique of Murphy’s art (again, emphasis mine):

Batman is staring down someone who is checking Wonder Woman out, but that someone is also us, the viewer. The piece could be just asking people to be accountable to the sexualization and objectification of women in comics. It’s as if Batman is saying, “What are you looking at?”

The first thing you see is Wonder Woman’s butt, which is sexually suggestive, and she looks kind of pissed that you’re looking at her like that. It seems like this is the artist’s idea of a somewhat empowered woman, but Batman still has to be the one to act; she’s non-threatening looking.

Batman looks more menacing and thuggish. He doesn’t automatically look like a “good guy.” The two of them were riding together, then Batman circled around to face down whoever/the viewer was eyeing Wonder Woman. Superman is looking down scoldingly on the viewer. He’s like the angel on the shoulder in old cartoons; he’s the viewer’s conscience.

There’s a feminist undertone where you’re being asked to confront the fact that Wonder Woman’s so much more sexualized than the men. Is it fair that she has to go out there with no armor? She doesn’t look scared, which is a stark juxtaposition to Batman. Superman is a little gay. His cape looks like a scarf, he’s more effeminate. He’s stationary, watching, not engaging to help the others.

It’s interesting because it locates the conflict outside of the scene and outside of the page. It makes the viewer ask themselves, “Am I that person he’s looking at?” It’s also interesting that the one person who’s not looking at Wonder Woman and Batman is the only other identifiable woman [in the family at the left of the frame]. The dad and son are checking Wonder Woman out and pointing at her.

The good things about this piece are it calls your attention to the inequities between Batman and Wonder Woman: even though she has to be in this outfit she can still do anything. They look like peers; Batman respects her. The gawkers on the sidewalk don’t respect her, but Batman is asking you to respect her.

This take on Murphy’s work totally blew me away. Her perspective in reading that piece had almost zero overlap with my own when critiquing it, and I never would have come up with most of the insights if left to my own devices, but as she went through point by point I found myself nodding in agreement on almost every one.

This pretty overtly feminist critique is worlds away from what Sonne wrote in her post. Without the image for reference, you’d be forgiven for thinking the two women were talking about two completely different pieces of art. How do we account for the difference between the two? And how do they compare to a man’s take on Murphy?

The male (navel-)gaze

My reading of the piece of art in question, even though its been informed to a certain degree by the two detailed above, differs from them in a fundamental way: I don’t see Wonder Woman’s representation as overly sexualized or objectified. I understand how and why someone could see it as such, and I’d be inclined to agree if it was a drawing of just Wonder Woman. But she’s just one piece in a larger composition, and in relation to the other components, for me, her depiction evokes composure and power more than it evokes sex appeal:

Wonder Woman has just pulled up on an old-school motorcycle (that maybe she restored herself on the weekends to relax when not saving the world). She’s sitting on her bike talking to Batman when some disruption–an explosion? the viewer’s prying eyes?–intrudes on the scene. She stands and turns, casually brushing her hair back from her eyes to see who or what it is.

Meanwhile, Batman is already off his Gatling gun-equipped future-cycle, grinding his heel into the pavement and bracing for conflict as the cable of the Batarang he just whipped off his belt is still fluttering behind him. He looks hunched over, tense, rangy and not quite as bulky as we’re used to seeing. He’s adorned himself with the most advanced armor, tools and weapons that money can buy, so why is he so much more on edge than the woman with nothing but cowboy boots, boyshorts and a whip? Is he still just an orphan child under the mask, who only knows fear and rage?

Whatever is happening between the two and their unknown interloper off-frame, Superman is not a party to it. He’s an alien, and when it comes to human matters, he will always be removed to the background to watch bitterly from a distance, because he is not one of them. In this tableau, Wonder Woman is the only one not raging or pouting, the only one straddling her motorcycle, ready for action, with a look on her face that seems to ask, “Well? What next?” And you know she’s ready.

This is an admittedly unorthodox take on Murphy’s drawing seeing as it doesn’t engage with the idea that Wonder Woman’s depiction is sexual and problematic. Instead, it focuses in on a view that de-emphasizes the sexual aspect and replaces it with a more productive one.

Mission critical

If you’re still with me, we’ve just made it through three very different critiques of the same piece of comics art.

  • One said that the work  was problematic and hurtful.
  • One said that it challenged the viewer to examine and question his or her relationship to the work.
  • One said it inspired respect and empowerment.

One of these things is not like the other.

To return to Sonne’s article (emphasis mine):

What is upsetting about that pose is not its uniqueness. The reason why it is so hurtful is because, indeed, I see it every day and I’m sick of it. It doesn’t matter how much the female form is exaggerated, it doesn’t matter that Murphy’s example is quite classy in comparison to many other examples of sexualized females in comics, it just matters that it’s there.

If we apply Sonne’s reasoning in the above quote to her earlier analogy to the “N-word,” we would conclude that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is problematic and hurtful and that we shouldn’t read it. That would be a mistake.

[T]his article is about something much bigger. It is about the discourse we comics fans have about female characters’ portrayals and the circular arguments that are preventing progression. This situation has become yet another example of why we need to keep discussing what is hurtful to female comics readers, how we can talk to comics creators about it, and why certain responses towards the issues at hand are not acceptable.

The fact that a work of art contains words or images that are hurtful or problematic doesn’t mean that the work is promoting or valorizing them. Real progress comes from engaging with the problems and working through them to move past them. Insisting on removing them without addressing the underlying issues in a productive way will only lead to more spinning of our collective wheels.

That’s the mission of criticism: to get us out of the ruts of circular arguments and move comics and its culture forward.

4 comments

  1. HanSQL · February 13, 2014

    Hi Adam! I’m the Editor-In-Chief over at http://www.EatYourComics.com, and I want to thank you for continuing this discussion! I think the way each of us looks at this piece of artwork says a lot not only about the art, but even more about each of us. This conversation is really important to the world of comics right now. Please also pass my thanks on to your girlfriend for her perspective!

  2. Pingback: A Femininst Critique of a Comic Book Panel (from the man who wrote the panel)
  3. Caroline · November 30, 2015

    Would you mind citing your girlfriend by name? I’d like to teach some of her excerpt in my class and give her credit.

    • Adam Joseph Drici · December 1, 2015

      Updated!

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