Friday, August 22, 2014

"Bad anatomy" and body objectification in comics

Greg Land cover and redrawn version from
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.


Howard Tayler said...

Very well said. I've been trying to explain the concept of comic book, comic strip, and cartoon syntax for quite a while, and you nailed it.

Neil Cohn said...

Thanks Howard! I appreciate the comment.

If I can gratuitously make a plug... there's a lot more detail on this stuff in my book and papers if you want to read more about this stuff!

xnxnxm said...

i think you are ignoring two points though...

1) re: sexualization of male/female bodies
the thing is, women's bodies are sexualizied in wholly different ways than men's are. you said it, with men, it's mostly about being very... muscle-y. anything that signifies strength, capability. readers may want to identify with such characters and they are most of the main heroes. women on the other hand are sexualized by making them thin and giving them big breasts and butts and putting them into poses to show off these features. they are meant as eye-candy. their sexualization works in the framework of women as passive receptacles for men's active sexuality.

you can't just use two different forms of sexualization, lump them together under one category, decide that men and women are equally represented because they are both "sexualized" at the same frequency and then go "look, data!!" without addressing this.

2) re: anatomy
i think you are making a good point about how comic drawings that are critiqued aren't usually "bad drawings". yet, i think in that context that... doesn't matter. not really. the function of these critiques isn't actually to fight for "realistic depictions". instead, it is primarily resistance. as such, i think your argument about visual language proficiency is rather misplaced here, tbqh.

ps: unfortunately racism isn't over and neither are racist depictions of people of color. yes, even the really gross obvious ones with long tradition are still happening.

Unknown said...

I think something was missing from Ms. Cocca's analysis.

A partially-clothed, muscular male body would score a high "sexiness" rating, but it would also score a high "powerful" rating.

A partially-clothed, even muscular female body would get a high "sexiness" score, but would not be seen as "powerful."

The male has been undressed to display his strength and power, to play to the power fantasy at work. The female has been undressed to display her body to the viewer, for his pleasure.

That's sort of a critical difference.

(This old post from Websnark also makes related points on posing, costuming, and visual emphasis of framing:

Neil Cohn said...

Thank you for the posts.

xnxnxm—I agree that the sexualization of women may be different in nature from men. I believe the coding scheme accounted for these types of sex differences with its own relative scales.

I'm happy to acknowledge the limitations of our study though—it isn't published after all. But, if you want to claim that things are or are not a particular way in comics, I'd encourage you to do a study yourself. Otherwise the claims are just speculation. (And our study isn't the final word by any means)

Just as racism hasn't ended, neither has sexism. I never implied that racism was over, just that we recognize that its overtness in the depiction of African-Americans is inappropriate. And, sexism unfortunately is usually more overt in society. (I have a friend in graduate school who showed in an experiment that whites feel taboo when discussing racially charged things like affirmative action with an African-American, but males feel no taboo with discussing women's roles to women's faces. In other words, the sexism is straight out accepted as "normal").

If the critiques about "bad anatomy" are taken, as I frame them, as "here's how we can draw people without using offensive patterns," then that's exactly in line with my thinking. If they are making claims about "bad anatomy" then they are just wrong in their assumptions (but not in the sociocultural aim that they're trying to accomplish).

Unknown -
That's a good observation about degree of clothing a character wears. I think that'd be another good criteria to analyze in another study.

You're probably right to some degree that males being undressed have some difference in the perception of being "powerful" than females. But, I wouldn't go for absolutes in that statement. Chris Pratt's shower scene in Guardians of the Galaxy seemed pretty much like they were going for eye-candy, no?

Jason A. Quest said...

Rating huge muscles and huge breasts as equivalent in terms of sexualization is a serious flaw in the study you cite. Breasts rate at or near the top of features that heterosexual males look at in assessing sex appeal, but muscles are farther down the list for heterosexual females.

As a bisexual male, I may have a better perspective on the question than most. I find the notion that male and female superheroes are sexualized equally a bit ridiculous: the men look like steroid-abuse cases, with freakish muscles and genitals so shriveled that they appear to be neutered. If that's male sexiness, then I guess I'm not so queer after all. :/

I can name perhaps a dozen artists working in superheroes today whose male figures I would describe as routinely "sexualized", but sexualized female figures have effectively been the house style for decades at both Marvel and DC and their imitators. Intuitively, one would expect this to be true. Heterosexual males make up the majority of these artists, and they aren't naturally inclined to sexualize male figures as casually, consistently, and effectively as they do with female figures. Suggesting that they do (for some unclear reason) is a remarkable claim, one which needs remarkable evidence.

Instead we see them essentially castrating the male figures, which is a more typical heterosexual male response: to DEsexualize or neuter competing males. One would not expect male figures rendered by (mostly) straight male artists for (mostly) straight male readers to be sexualized ... and in my "expert" judgment they are not.

Neil Cohn said...

Thank you for the comment Jason. As I said, our rating scale tried to account for dismorphia at the far end of the scale. It may be better to conceptualize as a skewed bell curve sort of rating, with the ends being dismorphic in different ways.

Also, the coding was done by a young woman, so I'd hope at least that her assessment of sexuality for men was a fair assessment.

Nevertheless, these are the results that we got with an empirical study. While you might not think it's "remarkable" evidence, it is more evidence than anyone else has. As I often say on this blog, if you want to make claims about something, they only carry much weight if you have data to support it. Criticisms are always welcomed about such data (that is how science operates), but opinions are are not evidence. So, I would encourage others to do more studies that can better—and fairly—explore these issues.

Unknown said...

I would also agree that rating maximum male muscles as maximum male sexyness is a bias in this study that would probably be unconfirmed if you actually asked people what types of males they find sexy.
This article on Comics Alliance by the way did exactly that:
The result is completely contradictory to your results (and also adresses the flaw in your Chris Evans analogy).

Your study only confirms that both male and female characters are equally drawn in exaggerated fashion. It says nothing about the relation to sexualization and attractiveness except for the primary bias carried into the coding system by assuming that big muscles in males are perceived as sexy. Just look at manga for some actual sexualization of male bodies that does clearly not revolve around muscles.

Please be really careful with articles like this because they could be used as ostensible empirical evidence to defend sexism in comics and other media!

Neil Cohn said...

Thank you for the comment and the link. I'll note that the article you cite is not actually an empirical study about the representations in comics. Rather, it's based on interviews with particular women about their preferences and makes generalizations about what the comics do relative to that. That still does not address the point of what comics actually do on a wider scale, nor the relation between what they do and opinions of individuals in non-case study generalized interviews. That sort of data can only be addressed through direct analysis.

Note also that I didn't make any statements about Chris Evans (Captain America), but I did make statements about Chris Pratt (Starlord). The fact that he had to lose weight and was then shown as eye-candy in Guardians of the Galaxy still stands, and isn't contradicted by the article at all.

That said, I wouldn't disagree with any of what's in that article. However, I do think that it is difficult to make blanket assumptions that "sexualization" of male or female bodies follows a single template at all. There are many ways in which bodies—both male and female—are found to be sexually attractive, and they differ both within and between cultures.

It is correct that our coding scheme did not account for those differences either, but such differences also can't be forgotten when crying foul of drawings. I think that fact also could make for a point of contention in favor of the types of arguments made about women's bodies: Why don't comics show more diverse body types for both men and women, period? (The answer is Section 1 of my article)

Bringing up manga is also interesting here, because their solution for the different preferences of appealing to both male and female audiences is to have separate genres of books. Shonen/Seinen manga are for boys/men and shojo/josei are for girls/women. The characters are then sexualized appropriately to the intended demographics. We don't seem to do this in America, but rather try to force all books to appeal to everyone. This seems like one reason why it's harder to please everyone.

Note also: I don't have a horse in this race. I fully acknowledge that some depictions of women in comics are clearly sexist (as I've said in the article), and I'm certainly not defending them. However, I also think that there are issues related to bodies of both sexes that are not being dealt with when we make it seem like a black and white issue.