Friday, September 23, 2011

Sex, Superheroines, and the New DC Universe...

So, another writer linked this on facebook the other day.

Empowerments. Yes.
That's what we'll call them.
The article kind of goes on a while with the author airing a laundry list of complaints (some valid, a couple irrelevant) about the portrayal of sexy women in comics. I find myself in agreement about the poor artwork in the Batman/Catwoman coupling, but, the line I found most interesting had far more to do with Starfire:

"This is not about these women wanting things; it's about men wanting to see them do things, and that takes something that really should be empowering -- the idea that women can own their sexuality -- and transforms it into yet another male fantasy."

I think she's got a pretty valid point (leaving aside that hunting for sexually empowered female characters in the forest of male-dominated comics might not be the best idea). What she doesn't do is give us an idea of what kind of writing would portray these characters as the empowered paragons she'd like them to be. 

Food For Thought

Be honest.
Did you first notice the sword?
Or the cleavage?
It got me to wondering if I was doing my female characters justice, especially the sexually aggressive ones. I've got a couple in my DEMON books, after all. Heck, there's one on the cover. I had female test readers, after all, but I still wonder if I did it correctly.

With the new Starfire, I think there's a significant difference between sexual aggressiveness and sexual empowerment that the comic writers aren't really conveying. The blogger may be reading more into the aggressiveness than is really there. After all, the new RED HOOD is still on Issue 1. We really don't know much about the new Starfire. We only know what the old Starfire thought of love and sex (that love should be free and sex sometimes free). The new Starfire gets asked " there anything I need to know about making love to a Tamarranean?" Her response: "Just that love has nothing to do with it." 

There are a LOT of ways the writers could take that, because there are a LOT of women who might say exactly the same thing. Maybe she's into conquests. Or maybe she gets her self-esteem from physical relationships. Or maybe her alien culture really is that different. (To truly contrast that last one, they could even use a male of her species on Earth trying the same direct approach. Could even be some entertaining dialog between them about how she finds Earth a very loving place, and the male Does Not.) Will the writers show that much skill? ... Yeah, I doubt it, too.

Still, it really got me to thinking. How should I write my empowered women? What gives them a spark of realism?

"Love is a four letter word."
Truly superior rolemodels.
I know that writing all my female characters as admirable paragons of womanhood isn't always desirable. That seems to be what the blogger is wanting from her superheroines. She mentions that "...part of what got me into comics back in the day was being a 12-year-old girl who looked at strong, beautiful characters like Rogue and Jean Grey and Storm and wanted to be like them in large part because they were so sexy and confident and had exciting romances..."

My criticism here is that she might be getting a bit of rose-tint in her vision from viewing these characters from memories of age 12. Not all characters are strong. Good characters shouldn't always be a positive role model. People can be weak, dumb, and foolish. Proper characterization should reflect that. A 12 year old may not have the emotional maturity to comprehend how some of those 'exciting romances' weren't really all that empowering for the females involved.

Mind Over Emotion?

All this said, my quest here is to keep my primarily male desires out of my ladies' minds. What's the key? It's true that 'Ya wanna?' is a predominately male attitude towards sex. That's part of why a woman asking this of a man so directly is quite the turn on for us. It follows that a male-targeted story would feature that kind of woman. To truly do the character justice, do we need to know WHY she's this way? Does the existence of motivation alone differentiate between sexually empowered women and the voluptuous male parodies of womanhood in my mind?

At what point does the sexually aggressive superheroine become a valid character?

THAT, dear friends, is the puzzler, because I love this kind of cake. I want to have it and... well, you know the rest.


  1. Does the character live? That's the bottom line. If a character seems alive on the page, if we believe that they are doing what they do, then whatever is going on is fine.

    But few women are sexually aggressive the way men are, and it usually doesn't go over well in real life. This is a fantasy on the part of sexually reticent men who if they were presented with Power Girl ripping open the front of her costume would simply invert.

    Think of the power of beauty as contrasted with the power of strength. The feminine pattern is more to make herself more and more available, and then become physically aggressive after the man makes the first move. Or so I hear, he said, looking up to the rafters and whistling.

    As a creator, I doubt the validity of my ability to craft a female character that would serve as a role-model. It is my goal not to be skinned alive by the women in my life. A lot of these guys write as if they assume no woman will ever read their work and associate it with them.

    They're probably right. Which is a good thing, because reading that crap makes any decent adult feel as if they've been dipped in a vat of saliva and rolled in pubic hair.

    I think the best approach for scum like you and me is to write the erotic stuff as if the objects of our desire might read and judge us based on our work. (We're both in relationships, so this is not at all unlikely. Motivation!)

    The point is not to show how horny we are, but how primordially irresistible they are.

    It is not the same as being a good person, but it encourages the ladies to cut you a little slack.

  2. "The point is not to show how horny we are, but how primordially irresistible they are."

    I really like that. A solid point. Seems the key is making the character a whole person rather than just some male fantasy. There's not even a question about how to go about that. As writers, we're trained to create behaviors based on motivations from murder to charity to promiscuity. THAT is where the comic writers are failing.

  3. Don't forget to factor in simple biology. Every sexual encounter can have ramifications that last for years for a woman. For a man, the encounter can be rather fire and forget. It seems pretty clear that this has resulted in different behaviors and attitudes toward an activity that both sexes can enjoy greatly. In the above example, you mention a character from another planet with advanced technology. It makes sense to me that, were humans empowered with technology that completely removes the risks of pregnancy and STDs from sex, you would see women who had a more "male" attitude toward sex, since it becomes a form of recreational exercise that beats the shit out of jogging :)

  4. Yes, a friend of mine pointed out much the same thing. Advances in medicine and health allow women to enjoy sex at a much lower risk, yet the culture has yet to catch up.

    A similar case can be made for the evolution of the male role as the 'warrior' of the genders. Consider a population of 50 men and 50 women. If the men go off to war and only ten return, the next generation can still be another 50 people. If the women go off to war and only 10 return, the next generation is only another 10 people.

    As males, we're quite expendable. Thus, our culture encourages risk-taking and aggressive behavior from men. In times past, the 'winners' were rewarded with influence, wealth, and mates. The 'losers' were dead.

    The stakes aren't life and death in the modern age, but, again, the culture hasn't quite caught up.

  5. I've been trying to make people understand that if guys get to kill each other, the ratio of guys to girls improves. For guys. Who kill.

    Am I the only sane one around here?

  6. Men and women are not so different--and yet, totally different. If we're thinking about the ordinary woman, me, I would like to have 1) ~a great relationship with a guy who I respect, love and fancy (probably the same as most guys with the woman of their dreams), 2)~a fulfilling life doing what makes me happy(again...), and 3) ~an interesting and happy future to look forward to. That's the foundation, the pillars of a life well lived. And I truly believe it's what most of us would like. It has nothing to do with scantily clad characters. And us girls know how guys feel about the female anatomy. Let's face it, if Wonder Woman looked like your gran, you wouldn't bother would you? (Unless your gran is really hot, which doesn't bear thinking about.)
    The sexiest women I know don't have massive boobs and hour glass figures. Guys, this is a fantasy...and it's fine. Honestly. Fantasy is good! Keep writing it. We all need escapism. What makes a person sexy (girl and guy) is confidence, a beautiful personality, kindness, a listening ear and a comforting shoulder to lean on. And someone who is happy in their skin and doing their thing. That's sexy. And yes, women do initiate sex from time to time. And that's sexy too. If you can get all that into one of your scantily clad females, that would be a real triumph. It's what I'm trying to do. Although, she has a few more clothes on.

  7. Hi, Valentina, I agree completely about those three things being the pillars of a life well-lived. But, I think we disagree on the inherent traits that makes a person sexy. That disagreement has its basis in the evolution of our genders.

    The items you list (confidence, personality, kindness, listening and providing comfort) are very much what humans look for in each other, but 'attractive body' is in that list too. That's a loaded phrase, as it can mean different things to different people. Some go for tall, some short, long hair, short hair, chesty, flat, curvy, beanpole, big shoulders, iron butts, beards, clean-shaven, blonds, brunettes, or dye jobs. Whatever your type is, you've got one, and odds are very good your mate matches it reasonably close. So, 'Attractiveness' is absolutely a factor, and it rates very high on the priority list for men largely because that's how we judge a woman's ability to bear children.

    The evolutionary imperative for propagating the species has certain requirements for both parents. The male must see the children through to self-sufficiency. From a purely animal standpoint, that's adolescence. The man has to stick around to care for, feed, educate, and protect his offspring. The woman must do the same, but has the additional burden of birthing the creatures. That means she must be in good condition and healthy. The other items are hard-wired into the woman's brain. If she bore the child, she'll be a caregiver. Those women who cared little for their offspring never had enough of them survive to propagate that particular (lack of) trait.

    So, what says 'good condition and healthy' to a man?

    Good hips. She can bear the child.

    Long legs. She can flee from predators.

    Large breasts. She can feed the child (even though the milk glands are a relatively small portion of the breast, male evolution has still concocted the mistaken notion that large breasts = more milk. Sorry about that. /abashed). That said, large breasts do store more fat, so a large-chested woman can still feed the child even in lean times. So there's a little more credence to this desired trait than just peacock feathers. Not much more, but enough.

    And then we come to peacock feathers. A pretty face. A slender waist. Uniform skin. Healthy hair. Etc... Thing is, even those things have a bit of basis in gauging the relative health of the prospective mate. Many diseases are apparent in the skin, eyes, and general appearance. Consider that if you're not feeling well do you want to worry about your hair? Me either.

    My primary point is that the initial basis for attraction is in the appearance, not in the personality. This applies to both men and women. The basis for continued attraction relies on personality for both genders, but, for men, appearance is still a very significant factor.

    And now the usual disclaimers: No, ladies, you don't have to be supermodels. It doesn't hurt, but it isn't a requirement by any means. Similarly, guys, realizing that it's okay to like hot women does not give you carte blanche to turn you nose up at any girl who is sporting double-d's and the perfect hourglass. It's your decision, obviously, but you'll generally find a lot more to love about women with a few flaws than those with the perfect shell.

  8. I need an editor. That last bit should read:

    " turn you nose up at any girl who ISN'T sporting double-d's and the perfect hourglass."

    Oopsie. :)

  9. On your "I, demon" cover for your book I notice the angel. I didn't notice the sword or her chest until you mentioned it.