The Male Gaze: The Sexualization of Women in Comics

As one may notice when reading, or even looking at, comics and graphic novels, women are portrayed in a certain way, often being hyper-sexualized and unrealistic. “The Male Gaze” is a feminist theory created by Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” This concept discusses the act of depicting women in visual arts, literature, and media from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that typically represents women as objects for the pleasure of the male viewer.

They way women are typically illustrated and represented in comics aligns strongly with this way of thinking, down to the way women are dressed and positioned in comic art. As stated in the theory, women in comics are often drawn in such a way that will target their ideal demographic. The stereotypical audience of many comic books and graphic novels are teenage boys and young male adults, of course the audience has broadened tremendously in the past couple of decades. The media is still very much male dominated in terms of the artists and writers. This, combined with the male demographic, gave the writers and illustrators liberty to create a “perfect female superhero” resulting in (usually) minimal clothing, suggestive positions and ideal personalities that would suit their interests. 


How is this a natural position at all?

Wonder Woman, or Diana Prince, is a female superhero meant to symbolize female empowerment and is one of the original feminist icons, but even she has fallen victim to the male gaze. Wonder Woman was created in 1942 by William Moulton Martson. He created this character because Martson believed that female leadership was necessary in a world that was going through the violence of World War 2, however if we are to really analyze this character, this may not have been done in such a feminist way. Take a look at her costume, for instance, Wonder Woman is an amazonian warrior, however she battles in leotards, dresses and heels with her hair down? This does not seem to be practical fighting attire, yes, it is addressed in some adaptations where Diana states this exact fact, however she still wears it in the end. Even in modern-day adaptations of her character, she does not seem to be wearing any battle armor, however her male counterparts are head to toe in armor and protective gear. If we were to truly analyze the character, Wonder Woman’s only weakness in quite literally bondage, if she is tied up, she then must submit to her captor. 

Another example of The Male Gaze as seen in comics and film adaptations is Harley Quinn. Harley Quinn is a character created by Paul Dini and Bruce Trimm in 1992 for Batman: the Animated Series. Just one example of The Male Gaze in use is the portrayal of Harley Quinn in early Batman/Joker comics, and more recently the 2016 adaptation of Suicide Squad (directed by David Ayer.) The point of Harley’s character was to be the literal “crazy” girlfriend of the Joker. This gave her character a lot of leeway to grown and endless possibilities for her storyline. The multiple adaptations of her character show Harley in impractical outfits and being filmed in an observational, provocative way. Flash forward to the 2019 portrayal of Harley in Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn (directed by Cathy Yan) where the character is handled in a way that had never been done before. Harley breaks up with the Joker and finds herself, giving her character more personality than just being a girlfriend. The costumes Harley is put in are much more practical to action sequences, and the camera angles, as to not sexualize the actress, as her predecessors had been. The only difference between the early portrayals and the 2019 portrayal, a female director. I will attach camera angles and costume differences. This movie caught a lot of criticism from people (mostly teenage boys and men) due to these more “feminist” takes, though the movie did really well with the female demographic, who it was more angled towards anyway.

If we take a look at how the two movies were promoted we can blatantly see a change in the targeted demographic. The ‘Suicide Squad’ promotion pictures show a full-body shot of Harley with promiscuous clothing, a smirk and she is strutting towards the camera. On the other hand, “Birds of Prey” promotion pictures, we get the same promotion shot, only it is done differently. Harley has overalls on, is broadly smiling and is posed in a non-suggestive way. Both pictures give off completely different vibes, just as both movies portray Harley in completely different manners.

Though society and media have come an extremely long way in their portrayals of women, there is still quite a way to go in term of realism. The argument can be made that “it’s a comic, it’s not supposed to be realistic” or “it isn’t real, why does it matter” and the answer to that is if young teenagers, male or female, are engrossing themselves and staring these images of how women are portrayed, then they will start looking for that in their real lives. This results in girls wishing they looked like that, and in people wanting their partners to have that “ideal body type.” I truly believe that if women (and men) were represented in realistic manners, then society would not have as many body image issues as can be seen today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *