A Culture Of Perfectionism

By | Monday, March 10, 2008 Leave a Comment
So I'm looking around in Second Life for some avatar skins. Nothing elaborate, mind you, just a kind of generic male body that'll provide a little more definition to my avatar. A little arm and leg hair, decent fingernails, that sort of thing. And here's what I find...
It's a conventionally attractive male body, sure, but that's just about all I found. Almost every body had a shaved chest and six-pack abs, and basically looked like they stepped right out of a comic book.

Now I don't think I look bad with my shirt off -- I've got a little definition in my obliques and my pecs -- but certainly not the type of body that gets drawn in your typical superhero comic. But looking for an avatar skin that even vaguely resembles my body has proved difficult, to say the least. And that gets me wondering.

A lot has been made of how women are portrayed in comics. All tits and ass. Thighs bigger than their stomachs. Breasts that simply defy gravity. And I'm not about to deny that that form of sexist thinking exists in comics. But, you know, the men are generally portrayed in a more idealized concept too. Look at Mr. Fantastic -- he spends ALL of his free time conducting science experiments in the lab, and yet he somehow still has time to do enough crunches to wash clothes on his stomach? Even with incredible genes, he's more likely to be built like Dr. Octopus.

So the question is: how much of the characters we see in comics is sexism, and how much is simply catering to a socially accepted ideal of perfection? Granted, women are portrayed more uniformly than men in comics -- we have documented proof of that. What I'm trying to bring attention to is that that might not all be sexism.

We are bombarded every day with images of the "idealized" male and female bodies. We're told by the media what we're supposed to look like. Now there is some scientific evidence that suggests that there is some genetic predisposition to certain physical attributes; that "conventional" attractiveness is in part encoded into our genetic makeup. Most people can recognize that at least at some instinctual level, and who is or is not attractive can generally be agreed upon by large groups of people regardless of race or background. (No one, for example, finds Alfred E. Newman attractive -- none of his features are symmetrical.) TV, movies, print ads, etc. all want to make their product(s) more attractive and they often do so by associating themselves with people who can also be generally be recognized as attractive as well. "Our product is desirable in the same way this attractive person is."

I think, to some degree, that holds true for comics as well. Publishers want to make people find their characters attractive and they therefore often use facial and body types that are readily identifiable as attractive. Without their superhero costumes, how different do Bruce Wayne, Hal Jordan and Ray Palmer really look? Prior to the Silver Age, how many of any male heroes differed visually beyond the color of their hair or the individual style of the artist doing the illustration?

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to dismiss the sexism that does pretty clearly exist in comics and the comic industry. That's certainly an issue that should be addressed, and I applaud the intentions (if not always the methodology) of the women who vocalize their displeasure at the situation. And I'm definitely not saying that men should stand up and holler from the rooftops about how unrealistically men are portrayed in comics.

What I am saying is that maybe the primary issue isn't so much that women and/or minorities are portrayed in a limited manner, but maybe the central issue is that publishers are catering too much to an idealization of the human body, and aren't really taking the time, or putting forth the effort, to consider anything beyond that culturally accepted ideal. Maybe it's that comic book creators should stop reflecting what's on their movie and TV screens, and should start looking out their window to reflect what's out in the real world. And maybe if they start doing that, the additional sexism would start to take of itself.

Of course, I might be totally off-base here, but it sure as heck wouldn't hurt if we could convince more comic creators to be a little more diverse in all of their work, right?
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