Sexy Comics

So I was in the middle of shooing my four kiddos to bed last night when I came across an interesting tweet by writer and artist Renae De Liz. (She’s awesome, by the way. I suggest everyone follow her @RenaeDeLiz. I did.)

Her tweet, https://twitter.com/RenaeDeLiz/status/ 755605004296200192, offered useful tips to help artists create better representations of empowered female characters. Not that she’s against sexy drawings. It’s just that the market has a long history of offering nothing but sexy renderings and she believes offering alternatives is valuable. I agree.

But her post got me thinking. In it she suggests that the character on the right is drawn in a way that minimizes (if not eliminates) the objectification of the same character drawn in a sexy style on the left. The thing is objectification is tricky.

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For example, if I were to slip on some cheeky lingerie, strike a sexy pose, snap a selfie, and then message it to someone of my choosing, I would not consider myself objectified. Everything I just described involves clear consent. However, if someone hacked into my phone, stole that same pic, and then sent it out to even one person without my express permission, then I would very likely feel objectified.

So objectification and consent are intrinsically linked. But how does that apply to drawings if a 2D representation of a woman is incapable of giving consent? Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t. To be clear, the female character in the drawing cannot be objectified—she’s paper and graphite, but since the drawing signifies a hypothetical real woman, it’s through that reference that the drawing works to objectify all women. So in essence, it does come down to the choices the artist makes as the art acts upon those who view it.

But I am less interested in whether or not the sexy version of the drawing objectifies women as I am interested in whether the drawing still has value. In other words, can a drawing that objectifies women also work at the same time to empower them? Maybe.

Now, I know this sounds like a contradiction. But remember earlier I gave an example of how the same sexy picture could be construed both to objectify and also not to objectify, simply depending on the surrounding context which involved the presence or lack of consent? Well, the concept still applies:

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I put forth that the rendition of the woman on the left is every bit as empowering as the one drawn on the right, given the right context which is of course the consent of the viewer. Basically, I’m suggesting that whether an image is empowering or not depends on what the viewer takes from their experience interacting with that image, and whether that experience is positive.

Artwork by Renae De Liz

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Allow me to tell you a story. (Just bare with me for a moment.)

I have recently become obsessed with comic books. I was at my local art store discussing the benefits and drawbacks of using oil versus wax-based colored pencils (they both work great together by the way, in case you were wondering) with the coolest sales person ever, when the conversation turned to comic book art. I told him I had never really been a fan of superheroes; that I just could not identify. (I think this may have had something to do with the way the female superheroes were only allowed to be love interests for the male heroes and how they seemed to be entirely too complacent about this.) Anyway, that’s when the clerk recommended Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.

As it turned out, Saga was like a gateway drug. I couldn’t stop there. Once I had fully staked out the comic shop (only a short two streets from my new favorite art store), I just had to delve into Monstress (Marjorie Liu) and Y: The Last Man (Brian K. Vaughan) as well.

Admittedly, I am at just the beginning of my foray into comics. I can’t wait to explore Sandman (Neil Gaiman), for instance; it’s most certainly on my list. But, so far at least, each of these comics is nothing short of amazing. (Props to Image and Vertigo!) I mean the characters are well-developed. The worlds are fully realized.

Alana on the cover of Saga could easily stand in for the empowered, strong female depicted on the right of Renae De Liz’s tweet. Alana is unapologetically breastfeeding her newborn while at the same time she is holding a handgun and looks like she could be ready for anything. Seeing her like this, I absolutely believe she will be an active participant in ensuring the survival of her family in the story to come. (Also, totally fan-girling (womaning?) over Alana right now. She’s my hero.)

But moving on, if Alana fits the bill for the right side of De Liz’s tweet, is it also possible to provide a positive example for the left side? Well, while at the comic shop I also found two art books that might just do the job: Matteo De Longis’s Vox Rockbook and Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales. Let me explain.

De Longis uses a hyper-stylized hand in his Rockbook. Here you’ll find scantily-clad females, generally with true-to-life if thin proportions, rendered in muted tones, playing their instruments against rockin’ neon backdrops. It’s all very youth-centric; the girls wear short skirts and have wide, expressive eyes and pixie cuts. Punk-style facial piercings, tattoos, nerd-chic glasses, and animal ear hoodies and hair clips round out their look.

But far from rejecting the overt explicitness present in this book, I got the overall positive impression that De Longis’s women are quite comfortable in their own skins. Rock is, after all, the sound of the rebel and these girls are a whole new breed. They aren’t afraid to flash their tits at a concert if it feels good or to have a no-strings-attached one-night-stand with a groupie. Only this time it’s the girls who are the Rockstars. And they’re ready to live it up—their way—whether their choices fit with social norms or not. That shit certainly isn’t their baggage. Really, I don’t think it’s such a stretch to see at least one possible version of a real-life empowered woman in De Longis’s work.

On the other hand, I do find it difficult to believe any real woman short of surgical enhancements and starving would ever, ever find real-life physical similarities with Zenescope’s outrageous depictions of women in their Grimm Fairy Tales. Surely not. Not with their perky, voluptuous curves and needle-thin waists. Not to mention their long, long (did I say long?) legs. With outfits that consist of little more than spare scraps of fabric barely held together to resemble those skimpy Halloween costumes many women have come to dread (as alternatives can be difficult to find), these women could easily be described as, in fact, comical.

Yet, while Zenescope’s depictions portray sexuality in a slightly different way compared with De Longis’s Rockbook, I tend to think of both (for the most part) as examples of pure fantasy (and clearly on the right side of De Liz’s tweet)—but it is a fantasy that I, for one, find accessible.

While I may not choose to wear those tiny Halloween costumes out trick-or-treating with my kids (I mean, c’mon, I’d freeze my ass off), I don’t mind admitting they serve well in the bedroom. I’ll even take it a step further to tell you that no matter my real-life proportions, when I am wearing my itty-bitty witch dress or my elbow-length red riding cape, in my mind’s eye I look exactly like the Zenescope women, right down to their brazen glances and mischievous smiles.

And let me tell you, it’s an incredible feeling—an incredibly empowered and liberated feeling. It’s an experience that seems all too rare in a society that attempts to control women’s bodies and choices with invasive BIG government and works to shame women for experiencing any kind of pleasure that doesn’t come with a ring and a baby following close behind.

So, yes, I think it IS possible to enjoy and appreciate both styles of art (on both the right and the left sides of Renae De Liz’s tweet)—that is the hyper-sexualized and the approximation of the realistic—without sacrificing any moral ideals or personal depth as a result of interaction with the two styles. I really don’t think it’s necessary to choose between them because each style represents a different mood, or even a different facet of personality. And when set side-by-side (along with many other facets, I’m sure) they work together to represent a fully realized individual.

Of course the hyper-sexualized version can have character, just as the approximation of the realistic can be sensual (Alana certainly is). There’s a lot of cross-over in real life. But I also think it’s still okay to enjoy each of these representations separately while still appreciating the other.

Furthermore, while anyone’s particular sexy inner minx may look nothing like mine, I don’t think it matters. Maybe yours is shy and reserved, or even dormant. Maybe she is a he. You do you—whatever it is that makes you feel personally empowered. Because at the end of the day, that’s really all that matters, isn’t it? At the end of the day, we each want to feel that we have gained something positive as a result of our interaction with the world. Don’t we?

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*Please, all comments are welcome and appreciated.

*I do not claim to be an expert on any of this. I’m just a person with a goal to stay open-minded and curious.

*Also, I’d like to send a special thanks to Renae De Liz (should you happen to read this post) for inspiring my blog today with such a thought-provoking tweet. I know I already said it, but I think you’re pretty cool. Stay awesome, Renae!

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