|Greg Land cover and redrawn version from www.themarysue.com|
The recent uproar over the covers of Spider-Woman books by Marvel has lead to cries that they are both sexist and poorly drawn. I think that these covers, and especially the responses to them, make for a good opportunity to examine the idea of “bad anatomy” in drawings and how bodies are drawn.
Concern #1: Bodies are depicted “unrealistically” in comics
The first critique of drawings like this is that they show “bad anatomy.” This critique is common of course to many comic artists—whether there are claims that their work is sexist or not. For example, Rob Liefeld is basically mocked on regular occasion for his drawing of bodies and feet to the point its become a culturally accepted meme that he’s a bad artist (he’s not).
From a cognitive perspective, none of these works are “bad drawings.” As I argue in my recent book, The Visual Language of Comics, and in several articles, drawing is not now—nor has it ever been—about drawing “realistically.” The idea that drawings should somehow mimic our perception and align with “the way things are in the world” is pure fallacy (I previously called this idea “Iconic Bias“).
This can only be addressed by considering “what are drawings?” in the first place. Drawings are a collection of graphic patterns stored in the head of an “artist” who combines them to form depictions. People draw faces by combining their learned head patterns with eye, nose, and mouth patterns. Feet (including those by Liefeld) are drawn using feet patterns, as are everything that a person draws. The same is true of “cutting off” legs at the knees to imply they are behind a person—it’s just a pattern stored in the head of the artist. I have several examples of these—from many well respected comic artists—throughout my book.
This has nothing to do with how things look “in real life.” It is about the patterns that an artist has learned over time and the ways in which they then use them in drawings. Why do so many people feel they “can’t draw”? It’s because they haven’t built up a “visual vocabulary” of these patterns to be proficient at drawing.
In this cognitive point of view, there is no “bad anatomy” in these works. These artists—including Liefeld—are merely using the patterns of their “visual language.” And they are doing so with high “fluency.” The same is true of Peanuts characters or The Simpsons, which are more cartoony representations—where’s the outrage that they only have three fingers? Or giant eyes? Or have elbows that appear and disappear? The cognitive fact is that drawing is not about “accuracy” to the “way things look in the world,” be it in comics, manga, airplane safety guides, or art from any culture of the world and any time in history.
So… what’s the issue with these bodies then? It’s an issue of societal opinions about the representations of bodies—particularly women’s bodies. This is not an issue of proficiency or anatomy—they are not “bad drawings” and in fact these artists (including Liefeld) show extremely high proficiency.
Rather, it’s the fact that the way that artists of the “American Visual Language” used in superhero comics draw women is offensive to some people. This is directly analogous to the way that various words in spoken languages are offensive to some people. The “visual vocabulary items” used to draw women are on par with calling women any number of distasteful words.
People must accept that these patterns are merely a part of the learned visual vocabulary within a broader “visual language” in which that artist partakes. And, of course, that visual language is embedded in a broader culture in which women most certainly are marginalized and objectified. In order for that artist to draw women differently, they would have to learn new patterns, in the same way that they would have to use different words to speak about women in less offensive ways (which I discuss in length in this post).
Note, we’ve seen this before. African-Americans in the early 20th century were drawn in wholly offensive ways as “tar babies.” These artists were not necessarily trying to be racist, but they used a graphic pattern that was inherently racist—and they were embedded in a culture that was also inherently racist. As people realized this about the images, the culture reacted to change the visual language such that people thankfully no longer draw this way. This is directly parallel to ostracizing the various racist words for African-Americans in our spoken language.
Again, this is not an issue with “anatomy” or proficiency in drawing—it is about the sociocultural use of different patterned representations which may or may not be offensive to people.
Concern #2: The depiction of bodies in comics
This leads us to the second issue, which is that women’s bodies are drawn to be objectified in comics. As it happens, we have some data about this…
Last quarter at UCSD, I taught a class on the “Cognition of Comics” where all my students did original research projects. One student, Bianca de la Garza, decided to study the sexualized depictions of both female and male bodies in 15 American superhero comics randomly selected from the 1940s through the Present. She coded bodies using a scheme that ranked the “sexiness” of whole characters and their body parts (chest, butt, face, arms, legs, hip to waist ratio, etc.) and assessed the feasibility of their poses. Her 1-7 scale ranged from a 1 being “unhealthy” both obese or undernourished (i.e., the Blob or Plastic Man), a 4 being “normal”, and a 7 being grossly hypersexualized (i.e., gigantic muscles, enormous breasts, etc. to the point of disfigurement). Thus, a 5 or 6 would be a highly sexy but not disfigured depiction.
Now, going into this, we both predicted that, as is the cultural belief, women would be far more sexualized than men in their depictions. In fact, we were totally wrong. In almost every category, females and males appeared to have the same ratings of sexualization, and this relationship between genders did not change over time (though the sexualization of certain body parts did change over time).
(Note that these findings differ slightly from those in other studies, discussed below.)
Interestingly though, across all time periods, the numbers of women represented in our sample were vastly lower than men: Women were underrepresented in the books (including some where a woman was the title character!). While we did not code for the content of the stories, my suspicion is that the underrepresentation of female bodies (i.e., female characters) also correlates with women playing less significant roles in those books, which of course reflects a marginalization of them.
So, our data showed that while women’s bodies may indeed be drawn in objectified and sexualized ways, the same is true of men’s bodies. Furthermore, I’ll go so far as to say that this is not an issue about comics, but about the depiction of bodies—regardless of sex—in media throughout our culture. How often do you see ugly people of either sex on television or movies? Did I miss the uproar about the sexism about Chris Pratt having to bulk up his body for Guardian’s of the Galaxy? His shower scene was clearly a gratuitous look at his body, and Dave Batista spent that entire movie without a shirt on! (Of course, as in our sample, there was also only one woman on that team, and she wasn’t the lead star).
Now, I happen to be particularly sensitive to these issues because my parents have written and published books about eating disorders and body image issues for over 30 years. They were the first to write a book for laypeople about bulimia, my mother was the first openly recovered bulimic on television, and my father wrote the first book about men’s body issues (which happens to be dedicated to me).
While the objectification of women’s bodies in our culture is certain true, it is also true that men’s bodies have become increasingly objectified and scrutinized over the past decades. The question for comics then, is whether it’s acceptable to maintain a visual language where all bodies are shown in this manner, or whether people want to push for “visual language reform” along the lines of changing American culture’s visual vocabulary.
Addendum: Two other studies have looked at bodies in American superhero comics (citations below), and here is what my student Bianca noticed about them: Cocca finds that many women are depicted in unfeasible poses. However, her analysis largely ignores mens bodies. Healey and Johnson meanwhile found that male bodies were closer to “average” than females’, which were more underweight, according to the “stats” for male and female bodies for Marvel characters by calculating their BMI. However, this study didn’t look at actual drawings (just character stats), nor did it differentiate between body types—an underweight character could be malnourished and an overweight figure could be fairly muscular (a problem with the BMI in general).
If you want to explore this topic more, I encourage you to do your own corpus study!
Cocca, C. (2014). The‘Broke Back Test’: a quantitative and qualitative analysis of portrayals ofwomen in mainstream superhero comics, 1993–2013. Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 1-18.
Healey, Karen, and Terry Johnson. Comparative Sex-Specific Body Mass Index in the Marvel Universe and the “Real”World.