The last post discussed some of the more malicious ways in which comics can alienate and mistreat women. Of course, this is not the only in which comics can alienate its female following. It can be something as subtle as costuming.
From another juggernaut in the comic world comes The Sexy Lamp Test, coined by Captain Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. The guiding principle is that a female character that can be replaced with a lamp or any other inanimate object while still maintaining the integrity of the plot is not a suitably developed character. In DeConnick’s own words, “if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft”. The aim of the test is to highlight the problem of female characters who are used as a prize, possession or object for the sake of a plot, much in a similar style to a Damsel in Distress. Think Princess Daphne in Don Bluth’s 1983 game Dragon’s Lair, who could quite easily be exchanged for a lamp in gossamer lingerie.
The Sexy Lamp Test is not an academic test, in that it has no set parameters outside its vague definition. Still, it is important to remember that there are various ways to misuse your female characters, and to deny them autonomy and humanity is one way. The fact that it is a “sexy” lamp serves as a reminder that often the women are displayed as sexual, whether it is their state of attire or the pornographic nature of their capture or demise.
Characters can be designed as sexy. Shaming women for what they choose to wear is not the aim of this argument. The aim is to highlight that there is a serious discrepancy between the genders, and often for no other reason than to sexualise. According to bleedingcool.com, as of last month only 10% of DC’s pencil artists are women. More than likely, the people drawing the characters this way are men.
The character of Power Girl was introduced in 1976 as an alternative version of Supergirl. Her powers were amazing. Her costume was insulting. Writers have attempted to explain her reasons for dressing with a breast window before, often with unintentionally hilarious results.
She wants to fill the hole. Take from that what you will.
One argument is that men are also subject to the same objectification, with examples such as Namor often cited. Again, the comparison is not really there. Male characters are not sexualised in the same way. Odd examples exist of men in revealing clothes, but it doesn’t add to the systematic oppression of male characters. Moreover, they are not representative of the sexual fantasies of women; they are power fantasies of men.
An example of the differences is between Superman and Starfire. Starfire is depicted as sexually promiscuous. All power to her. But for the sake of the male gaze, she is drawn in physically impossible ways, bending her spine for the attractive breast shot. In the New 52, her costume is highly revealing, the excuse being that her powers are made stronger by sunlight, so showing more skin makes her a stronger hero.
Interestingly, Superman is also made stronger by sunlight, but he isn’t paraded in a cape and a thong. He is muscled, but it is a power fantasy, and not for a female gaze.
Thankfully, fandom has taken the fight for realistic depictions of women in to their own hands. The Hawkeye Initiative exists as a way to highlight the double standards in comic art. Its aim is simple; replace oversexualised and physically impossible drawings of female characters with recreations starring Hawkeye. If you’re interested, I urge you to check out their tumblr page. It is both enlightening and hilarious.
These are just some of the ways women in comics are treated. Things have improved over the years, but they also have a long way to go. For every Kamala Khan, we have someone stitching Black Canary’s head to a monster’s chest for the shock value. We’re making steps. Hopefully, we will finish this race to better representation of women.