Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Batgirl #12: A Feminist Critique of a Comic Book Cover

I have seen this cover from issue #12 of Batgirl circulating through Google+. Many praise its fine workmanship, and so do I. But despite the illustration’s virtues, I take issue with its approach.

It’s about the characterization, you see.

Image © Artgerm
Observe Batgirl: hips swung forward, hand crossing her chin, eyes cast coyly askance as she plots mischief. From my (admittedly limited) knowledge of Bat-canon, Batgirl represents Batman’s female counterpart. She too is a crusader for justice, as determined to strike fear into the hearts of the wicked as the Dark Knight is.

So I ask you: if you had to judge by this picture alone, would you believe Batgirl was indeed a true Caped Crusader? Because I wouldn’t. The illustration fails to convey the grit, determination, and gravitas a person would require to battle Gotham’s criminal element night after night. This Batgirl does not even cut an imposing figure: with her small frame and lack of tone, the blades on her gauntlet look more like a fashion accessory than a weapon. The artist’s focus on sex appeal dilutes the character’s potency.

There is nothing wrong with sex appeal. It can be a lovely seasoning to the proper tale, and it has a long history in comics. But you can also drown characters in sex appeal, and the practice of subjecting female characters to this treatment also has a long history in comics. You may have heard of The Hawkeye Initiative—a blog which subjects Marvel superhero Hawkeye to the same bizarre contortions in which artists pose superheroines. I would call the effect “comical,” but I fear redundancy.

If these poses look so silly on Hawkeye, why should we expect people to take female heroes seriously in them? Such an expectation would be a double standard, and that double standard portrays superheroines as a joke. I don’t believe that is fair to these characters, to the women who read their comics, or to the women who authors want to read their comics. If you are telling a serious story, take the story seriously, and take the characters seriously. Don’t let your male reader’s nether-regions write the plot. Unless, of course, you are making pornography for your male readers. If so, then you really ought to label it properly.

Furthermore, this sort of objectification isn’t required to mix in a modest dose of sex appeal. I doubt anyone thought Rodenberry was objectifying men when Kirk lost his shirt in the classic Star Trek. Though gratuitous, these incidents did not overwhelm the character, or distract from his portrayal as a competent leader. Indeed, given our culture’s association of bare-chested men with strength and virility, Kirk’s frequent doffing of shirt may have helped this perception. What mattered most is that Kirk himself never did this to appease other characters or viewers: the showrunners made these incidents simply a natural part of events. I see no reason why an artist couldn’t apply the same principle to a female character. Nothing is sexier than candid, and competence is sexy no matter your sex.

I, for one, would just like to see more women in comics who I can believe have the mettle to be heroes. And if even a man is saying these things, you know it’s about time.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen like 3 versions of Bat girl, one from the Animated series, 2, from SBFF (Super best friends forever, that one she's on a g4 Pinkie Pie Level: & now on this one,.. actually before this one there was a concept art of another bat girl that looked real cute!: i will always love Batgirl, & i hope this new series... will do wonders.. idk... i like her as a red head more then a blonde, we've had too many characters that where blonde before the change,.. i like these bat girls... cause it's more mild then what was mentioned here?