Feminist is a dirty word, and it doesn’t have anything to do with menstrual cups or body hair (at least, it shouldn’t.) Despite the overwhelming pervasiveness of references to things like gender inequality, gender roles, the misogynistic patriarchy, and sexual objectification, feminism comes in a variety of flavors, each of them counter-intuitive and misguided in their own disparate ways. This is a pain in the ass for anyone attempting to discuss issues relevant to the movement, for it is nearly impossible to examine every intricacy and cover all your bases. It also guarantees that a few, if not many, people will be offended. I was not surprised when a thread appeared in the deviantArt forums discussing the oversexualization of women in artwork; nor was I surprised that my brief response was not well-received. As it often does when confronted with talk of feminism, strong independent women, and the like, distaste began to bubble up inside me, and I decided that the topic perhaps deserves more than a sentence or two of discussion.
The general consensus seems to be that sexualization of women in art is bad because it objectifies women and creates artificial ideas of what real femininity is and should be. My initial qualm with these ideas stems from the fact that artists do not have an obligation to be social activists. I believe that, above all else, aesthetics are the most important feature of art and therefore must come first. Social cause should not come before craftsmanship.
In many cases, sexualization is just a manifestation of style. A huge benefit of art is the ability to create things that do not exist, or to portray things in ways that are unrealistic or fantastical. Most styles of artwork that do not seek to imitate life exactly rely upon the fundamentals of caricature; certain features are exaggerated to accentuate form and expression. Eyes are enlarged, bodies are elongated or shortened, facial features are simplified. Often, when portraying the feminine form, this involves elaborating upon the hourglass figure—enlarging the breasts, widening the hips, and narrowing the waist. However, women are not alone in being subjected to exaggeration of this form. Consider Jack Skellington’s perilously long, thin limbs, or King Triton’s huge, muscular torso. It is uncommon to hear discussion of sexism or objectification in reference to these sorts of characters, while criticism of the slim waist of Triton’s daughter, Ariel, is not uncommon at all. The way in which characters are stylized does vary between genders, but not in ways that should affect the reception of such designs so profoundly.
Superhero comics misguidedly take a lot of flack for their general portrayal of women. Comics rely upon a fundamentally unsound representation of reality; they are designed to be fantasy, to be an escape from the mundane world where everyone has an iPhone but nobody has superpowers. Yes, I understand that it is physically impossible for a woman to twist her spine in order to display both her tits and ass simultaneously. I realize that it does not make sense to wear a skirt to fight crime. But it makes even less sense for a human to transform into a massive, green humanoid monster when he is enraged or to have laser vision. You don’t frequently see men complaining about the lack of accurate male representation in comics, so there must be something fundamentally different about the respective ways in which each gender is portrayed (or, perhaps, men just give less of a fuck.)
This phenomenon seems to have something to do with what happens when people attempt to integrate facets of fantasy into the real world. That is, real people don’t react to features of the fantasy world in the same way fantasy people do. If you tell someone you can fly, they will think you are insane. If you wear a cape in public, people will stare. If you wear a skintight catsuit in public (even at Comic Con, as Mandy of beautilation.tumblr.com will attest), you will be treated like a whore. In real life, people do not assume you are a superhero just because you are dressed like a superhero. They do, however, make other assumptions based on your appearance. When you encounter a stranger, all you can initially gather about them comes from what you witness. This is a fact of life, and I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with it. However, this requires that each individual be conscious of his or her appearance, and be responsible for assuring the way they alter it is in accordance with the way they'd like to be perceived. Even if you are an intelligent individual with a heart of gold, I can’t tell that at first glance, and I certainly can’t tell that you are sexually reserved when your breasts are hoisted in the air and seem to be escaping from your low-cut neckline. Perhaps, dare I say it, comics do portray fictional females in a more sexual manner than they portray fictional men. This, however, does not force real women to present themselves in a similar manner; nor does it relieve women of accountability for their choices when they choose to do so.
The significance of appearance in viewer comprehension exists, and indeed is heightened, in the art realm. Static media such as paintings and drawings unavoidably limit character development and depth to what the audience can see in the composition. There is no real way to portray the things that make individuals more than objects of sexual admiration—personality, preferences, beliefs, behaviors, etc. Should I only draw hideous women in an attempt to assure that no one is aroused? Should I only draw real women doing real things to avoid giving an exceptionally malleable viewer unrealistic expectations of reality? This would only create visually unappealing and superficial representations of women—the problem remains. I can convey expression and mannerisms, but a truly dimensional being cannot be created on a two-dimensional canvas.
When one gets into the more dynamic realms of animation, film, and comics, artists are presented with greater opportunity to create unique and complex individuals. Characters encounter trials and choices, and their true nature is revealed in the ways in which they respond to these things. Often, however, female characters are still presented in ways that many feel are sexist, stereotypical, or objectifying. It is these sorts of figures that take much of the blame for negatively influencing the way girls and women relate to themselves, their bodies, and their sexuality. It is not at all uncommon for the mass media to take the blame for the perpetuation of gender inequality, but this is a severely foolish and errant notion.
The media is not some mysterious singular organism hell-bent on perpetuating the social issues of mankind. The media is run by people, and caters to the apparent desires of the people. People continue to buy sleazy gossip magazines, and thus people will continue to provide sleazy gossip magazines. People continue to buy comic books featuring scantily clad women, and so people will continue to feature scantily clad women in comic books. In the same way, artists draw upon previously encountered and accepted notions of femininity when creating female characters. In order to consider how the character defines herself as female, they consider how other women typically define themselves as women—their dress, their mannerisms, their interests, etc. This is where the problem lies. Even a more dimensional, less stereotypical female character is defined by her qualities that are typically female, along with the qualities that are not typically female and the typically female qualities she does not possess. By defining what a female is typically not or what a female doesn’t have to be, you are essentially defining what a female is. Consider this list taken from a Tumblr post with over 70,000 likes and reblogs:
Now, replace the word “women” with “men”. The statements are still equally true, but the list takes on a different connotation because of how we associate both genders with the items on the list. The very existence of the original list implies that women should be and do all of these things, but don’t have to. By defining what a person of either gender does or doesn’t have to do, you define what it means to be a person of either gender, and you also imply that gender is profoundly important to a person’s character and worth. You imply that gender is a rigid, definable entity, which is truly not the case. Sex is, for the most part, definable, for it is based upon genetic makeup and reproductive organs. Gender, although typically correlated to sex, is in reality a social construct based upon preconceived notions and ideas we attribute to masculinity and femininity. No matter how an artist interprets these notions of gender, this, by default, implies norms and standards that will, without fail, be offensive to some people. As long as the terms “male” and “female” carry some sort of weight and significance (until humans cease to exist, most likely), the terms will have preconceptions, however vague and varied, attached to them.
One example of “strong female characters” in the media that really baffles me is Fionna, the gender-swapped version of Adventure Time’s main protagonist, Finn. The heroine is praised by feminists, despite the fact that she is pretty much equivalent to those infamously fetishist, “female” alternatives to gender-neutral halloween costumes. While Finn’s design is geometric and androgynous, Fionna is “chubby cute”, complete with long hair, tits, hips, sexy skirt/knee socks ensemble, and tiny, tiny feet. Rather sexualized, if you ask me. In order to distinguish Fionna from Finn, characteristics that the audience would understand to be feminine were integrated; mainly, her figure and dress. I don’t actually care, because there are a limited number of ways to portray femininity in a cartoon character; anything that is recognizably “female” is, by default, somewhat stereotypical. There is no escaping the perpetuation of some sort of feminine standards when distinctions are made between male and female characters. The distinction in and of itself implies inequality.
If I could edit the tumblr post I mentioned earlier, I would write it to say this:
Nobody has to:
As someone that values personal autonomy, I believe that each individual has the responsibility to govern themselves in any way they wish. People are free to create any media they so desire, and people are free to react and relate to said media in any way they so desire. People are free to value gender and define themselves based on gender to whatever extent they wish. However, if one wishes for real equality across all sexes and genders, this will never be accomplished by defining individuals in terms of boy things and girl things or girl characteristics or boy characteristics. This will never happen through espousing “girl power” or applauding “kick-ass females” and “men that embrace their feminine side.” This will never happen through artificial diversification of communities and social circles, by fostering female involvement simply because there is less of it. This will never happen through attempting to legislate equality. For these reasons, I see no true gender equality in mankind’s future. Then again, I'm not sure if anyone really wants it.