A False Equivalency: That Crossdressing Trope

The sexualization of women in superhero comics is not a new subject. It’s something everyone who’s ever read graphic novels has encountered and commented upon. It’s one of the reasons mothers cite when telling their children they “˜shouldn’t be reading that crap’ and a big reason why a lot of women are turned off by comics in general. But in no way is having a discussion about the sexualization of women beating a dead horse – because despite the outcry, it’s still the norm.

That said, there’s one trope perpetrated by well-meaning artists that has bothered me since the first time I saw it. It seems like it has become a rite-of-passage, and every incarnation spreads across the internet like wildfire. I’m talking about artist renditions of male superheroes in a heroine’s costume.

Doing a quick Google search, I found nearly 20 examples of this satire. Just a few can be seen highlighted here on Jezebel, here on Art Threat, here on BoingBoing, and rummaged together in a huge post here on Comic Book Resources. That was within a five-minute search. In the massive abyss of such sites as Tumblr, there’s no telling how many renditions I would be able to find.

Coelasquid's rendition of cross-dressing Green Lantern, Batman and Superman.
Coelasquid's rendition of cross-dressing Green Lantern, Batman and Superman.

After the initial humor, this type of comparison turns my stomach. These artist interpretations are at best a lapse of judgement, and at worst offensive. When we get to the heart of the issue, it comes down to privilege. Whether you’re laughing or cringing at them, the artists and supporters of these images are perpetuating a false standard of gender stereotyping.

When you approach a piece of artwork like this, it could be construed in two ways – either as something humorous and disturbing, or as something empowering. A male in a traditionally female costume and pose could be empowering and reclamatory for those who stretch gender stereotypes.

But the majority of these memes aren’t seeking to fight heterosexism in comics. They’re seeking scandalous ways to shock people into seeing their point, without thinking of unintended consequences. They’re meant to be laughed at, to be viewed as ridiculous in an attempt to prove that they’re equally ridiculous for the female heroines to dress and pose the same way.

This vein of artwork ultimately harms the cause by derailing the conversation. Though it may be born of legitimate frustration at sexism in the industry, It’s aiming low, at a short-term solution of reeling in standards on female costumes and poses. These portrayals hurt the very demographic that they’re trying to protect. It doesn’t address the real issue surrounding super heroines and women in comics in general: a lack of diversity.

Most superhero comics are done within the male gaze – more specifically, the white, heterosexual, cisgender male gaze. Characters are mostly white, and unless otherwise specified, assumed to be straight and cisgender. The males are idealized, the women are sexualized. This is the case even when the super heroines are the main character.

A great example of this is the New 52 reboot of Catwoman – the first two pages in the reboot consist of various panels highlighting her breasts and butt before we finally see her face in an upside-down, half-dressed action shot of her vaulting out of a building. The rest of the series continues on in the vein of boob and butt shots, with pelvic-breaking and back-twisting splits and twists that even a contortionist couldn’t muster.

The problem lies in the fact that super heroines are all portrayed in these same poses and have the same body-type. Selina may not be the shyest with her sexuality, or even a super heroine in the traditional sense, but there are certainly heroines that personify the role of a superhero as a harbinger of justice and representation of raw muscle.

What would bring such big-hitters in the comic industry up to viewer standards might be to start basing the body types of their heroines based on their background and strengths. One big excuse in this regard is that superheroines would by necessity be fit, and therefore look somewhat the same. In actuality, if we take a look at Howard Schatz photo series on female athletes from Sport Illustrated in 2002, we see that, even within these prime examples of female fitness, there’s a wide variety of body types.

Taking it to another level, being a superheroine doesn’t mean you have to be thin or muscle-bound either. If we take a look at some of the body types represented in the athlete photo series, we see that there are also some plus-size women among them. We rarely if ever see plus-size women in superhero comics – and on top of that, any plus-size women that are shown don’t follow the same standards of sexualizing.

We also see one-dimensionality in regards to how super heroines are dressed. Granted, super heroes are generally given the short end of the stick in regards to costume, with brightly-colored, form-fitting spandex abounds. But such superheros as Superman, Batman, Captain America and Spiderman are completely covered. On the other end, such heroines as Wonder Women, Emma Frost and Starfire are often in glorified bathing suits. Add in a little added bonus of such figures as Rogue from X-Men and Catwoman having continual zipper issues, and we see a pretty one-dimensional picture.

In such cases as Catwoman, this type of provocative costuming may make more sense. But in a lot of these comics, it’s not the women’s personalities and back stories that are dictating these. It’s a set of industry standards catering to the male gaze.

This inequality shouldn’t be rectified by going in the opposite direction. Rather than just transferring the male gaze towards the male superheros, artists could better spend their time creating examples of what a well-rounded cast of female characters would look like. Many of these artists are well-meaning individuals looking for a way to express their frustration with the industry. There are simply better ways to do it.

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Bipolar Gurl

Bipolar Gurl is an artist and... well, that's about it really. Multi-talented she is not.

13 thoughts on “A False Equivalency: That Crossdressing Trope”

  1. I think this is a good article and I appreciate your points, but I don’t entirely agree. Some of those ‘cross dressing’ superhero drawings are just meant to titillate, but there are a number that explicitly seek to point out many of the issues you raise here — namely improbably body types, unrealistic physical contortions, and male centered gaze. I don’t think they’re exploitative and I believe that they do a good service for the fans of the genre. Let’s be honest, comics is a visual medium and it’s main  audience is not one who is known for critical consumption — they need those kind of illustrations to hammer home complaints about sexism in the medium.

    But the other side of the coin is that these aren’t artists that are being hired by the Big 2. The Big 2 have a very concrete set of specifics the artists on their books need to conform to, and editors make sure this happens. Most creators aren’t Frank Miller or Neil Gaiman who get to dictate what their books look like. And conversely, most artists who become incredibly popular manage to do so because their art fits into a certain aesthetic. (I say this as a former professional in the industry with some insight into the business aspect of these decisions.) The simple answer as to why those artists don’t enact change in their books is simply because they never get a chance.

    I think the place to look for change has to be in the independents or the experimental lines from the big publishers. The comic that immediate comes to mind that addresses many of your issues is Runaways, which has a multi-ethnic, and early in its run, a body diverse cast, including an overweight hero.

    1. I agree that change is only going to be seen if we start at the bottom and work our way up by investing in indie comics. The Big 2 are only going to change if readers demand it, and if that means going to other sources, that’s what we should do.

      I don’t see these artist renditions as harmless though. It’s sacrificing one demographic for the sake of another. The same result can be done in a less harmful way. It seems disingenuous, especially for artists that preach intersectionality. I realize nay-sayers can be frustrating nuts to crack- believe me-  but I still find it incredibly offensive and frustrating to see artists taking the easier way out to get their point across.

  2. I have always liked that many super heroines are depicted as having strong muscles — that, I figured, was pretty empowering on a general level.  But the boobs, people!  Good golly, those things are off the fucking rails.  Where do they buy their super bras?!

    Great article.  Very thoughtful.

    1. Rich Vietch’s ‘Brat Pack’ has an interesting take on many of the issues raised in this article and rather directly addresses the question of ‘how do they keep their boobs up’ in regards to the female heroine. I don’t know how easy the GN is to find these days, and I should issues a trigger warning as it is a very dark take on the superhero genre, but I really loved it to pieces.


  3. Ah yes, I was just thinking about this the other day! I too find it to be a poor solution and think it should be gone about a different way. I don’t recall where I saw it, but there was a tumblr post about how to correctly draw women’s breasts that I am reminded of. For some reason (I blame in part the pornified ideal of the female figure), most comic book artists don’t realize that gravity affects breasts.

    I’m also reminded of the pictures that went around awhile ago where various people posed like Mary Jane in a recent Spiderman comic to show how unreasonable and overtly sexualized it was.

  4. See, I don’t have a problem with the cross-dressing superhero drawings because I’ve read a lot of unfortunate male commentary about this issue and there are a lot of guys who Just. Don’t. Get. It and they need to be smacked in the face before they will understand. I do, however, think you are right and the most effective thing would be a one-two punch – “The is why we are complaining” and then drawings of “How about something like *this* instead?”

    1. I think if you really want to show the inequalities, you can do so in a way that isn’t offensive. Instead of just jumping on the cross-dressing bandwagon, doing some critical thinking would be time better spent. Artists are creative, problem-solving people. I feel like by doing this trope, they’re just choosing the path of least resistance. Feel free to disagree =P

  5. Great post. I love reading about comics as much as I love comics themselves. I’ve come across this trope numerous times as well, but I’ve never thought of it as representing a lack of diversity. Sometimes it seems like comic book artists have never actually seen human women before.

    1. It took me a while to realize what bothered me so much about them. In the first draft of this I mentioned I thought they were funny but incorrect, but the more I wrote the more I realized that it really isn’t all that funny at all. I think it’s important to show the gender representation in comics for those who don’t understand it, but I think it’s energy better spent to find a less offensive way to do it. Thanks for reading! =)

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