Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Violence and the single girl

The Fan Fatale forum over at Big Monkey Comics brings up the subject of violence in comics, and how it differs where women are concerned to when it's just guys. This got me thinking, but it's a big subject and there is no way I can address it properly with one post, so I've decided to make it an occasional series that I'll add to whenever I can think of something to say on the subject.

The forum asks if violence towards or by women is portrayed differently than when it only involves men. I think another related question to consider might be will violence by or toward women be perceived differently by the reader?

I'm going to leave you to think about that for a while and take a look at a scene from Supergirl #3.*

Lex Luthor, who has been obsessing over Supergirl for some time, spying on her and pasting up candid photos over her all over his walls finally confronts her and beats her up. Now disregarding the whole creepy stalker aspect of the situation, what we have here is the classic hero/villain confrontation which can be found in virtually every comic ever published by Marvel and DC. So why does Lex feel the need to justify himself?

There is something distasteful about the whole scene. Is it because it's an adult male beating down a 15 year old girl? There have been teenage girl superheroes for a long time. Supergirl herself has been around since 1957. In the silver age a girl hero would be generally pitted against a girl villain, but Supergirl has fought plenty of adult male villains, and even faced off against Luthor on plenty of occasions. So what is different about this scene?

Is it that attitudes have changed over the years and such a scene carries connotations it would not have had before? Is it that Luthor, known for psychologically torturing women for fun, suddenly feels the need to justify attacking his enemy? Or that the explanation he gives is so thin and pathetic? "You wear the big S and that makes it okay for me to beat the crap out of you" doesn't begin to cover all the creepy stalker stuff that's led to this confrontation.

I think a lot of it is that the fight is so totally one-sided and so brutally depicted. Okay, at the end Supergirl appears to have hardly a scratch on her, but that's just a problem with the artist who has just shown her being repeatedly hit so hard that she's spurting blood but is incapable of actually making her look as if she's been bruised. Personally I think if you are going to show violence then do it properly and show the effects of that violence. I'd really rather do without the brutal beatings at all, but if you have to show one, then don't lie to us and pretend that 5 minutes later the character is all better with barely a hair out of place.

*Disclaimer: I picked this comic because it contains the scene I wish to address and I would have done so regardless of who wrote it. Those people who make a fuss every time I discuss a comic written by Jeph Loeb are free to suggest an alternative comic which contains an equivilent scene that I could address. Otherwise please feel free to get over yourselves.


Anonymous said...

Many artists can only draw one kind of face. A bruised pretty face just isn't in Ian Churchill's repertoire, I guess. (Churchill's the artist, right?)

Anonymous said...

This is something that's been bothering me for a while. Look at IC#1 and compare the deaths of Phantom Lady and the Human Bomb. Both are gruesome murders, but the Human Bomb goes down defiant and fighting, while Phantom Lady's is a humiliating, sexualized affair which gives the impression she's been raped to death. The creepy overtones of sexual predation in this scene are just as gratuitous. I mean, Jesus, why is Luthor commenting on her breast size while he's beating her up?

And of course this is something that only happens to female characters. No comic is ever going to end with Doomsday sodomizing Superman to death.

Anonymous said...

If you ever need an alternate source for comic book panels depicting carefully rendered and detailed images of violence and/or humiliation and/or degradation of female characters, may I suggest John Byrne stories?

I know how Byrne will justify each instance in terms of character and plot and motivation. Big whoop. It's still always a rationalization for the fact that his imagination produces those ideas, that he is drawn to dwelling on that motif again and again, and he's never tried to examine why he wants to tell that story.

It's probably not any healthier, in some absolute sense, when creators do the same things to male characters...but when it's exclusively female characters, you really have to wonder about the barely-sublimated anger towards women that writer or artist is demonstrating.

Sleestak said...

Pre-crisis Supergirl (the real one) went down swinging, have to give it to Wolfman and Perez for that. On the difference in the depiction of violence between males and females I recall an issue of What If..? where Dr Doom was fighting the elsatic Sue Storm. he didn't punch her out, he hit her with an open-handed slap like he was punishing a scullery-maid from his royal kitchen. It's another depiction where the female is humiliated and not shown as equal.

thekelvingreen said...

Yeah, it's the breasts bit that is creepy here, I think. If that reference weren't there, it wouldn't be quite as scary and odd. By saying what he does, Luthor's bringing attention to her sexuality as he's hurting her.

Ragnell said...

I don't think this example is your own perceptions, Marionette. The character is actually drawing attention to what you're worried about.

I'd love to see the Zamarons back. Just long enough for a scene where one beats up Superboy (they are strong enough to), and expresses shame about hitting a helpless boy.

Writers could have a field day calling attention to scenes like this with the roles reversed, and they already have a race (Guardians/Zamarons) where the males are smaller/more cerebral and the females are tall, buff warriors; they just never use them!

Anonymous said...

I agree that 99% of the time the sexualized violence is against women, but it's not always. For example, I was quite shocked the first time I read Marz's run on Green Lantern, to notice how often Kyle Rayner ended up in a gratuitous beat down and/or tied to a table or otherwise restrained, with a very strategically torn costume.

As much as I liked the story and character, I was starting to get the impression that I was reading Golden Age Wonder Woman.

But it is true, I think, that when that sort of thing does happen to male characters, it's always with a particular type of male character. You never see that sort of thing happen to Hal, Superman, Batman for example. But Kyle, Nightwing or Robin can often be seen in that sort of situation. Not sure what *that* means, really.

Anonymous said...

Addendum: I do see what you mean about that particular scene though. The image itself doesn't bother me, but does he *have* to mention her breasts? I hadn't thought fifteen year old girls were Luthor's style anyway. Seems out of character.

Ragnell said...

I think you've just hit upon what was missing from Green Lantern once Ron Marz left.

Anonymous said...

See, I read this as a clumsy attempt by Loeb to deflect criticisms that having Luthor beat the ever-loving Hell out of Supertorso is misogynist. Luthor doesn't hate women! He loves women! He just really hates Superman. So beating up a girl in a Superman shirt is OK.

At any rate, this fight seems a good deal more brutal than your average Luthor/Superman fight--not that I've seen many, but the blood spray and such seem more gratuitous than normal. As to why that is, I'd rather not hazard a guess.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

These panels make me feel all oogy.

It's not just the "old man beating up young girl," though that's a lot of it. It's not just the nasty little sexual connotations of it. It's the lurid way the scene is drawn out.

Panel one: he punches her in the midsection with a curious look on his face.

Panel two: a contemptuous backfist that bloodies the face of the pretty, pretty girl and derides her breasts.

Panel three: a slow-mo smash and disposal of the pretty, pretty girl. Her blood spray tracks the uppercut. Oh, that's tasteful.

Other panel: Half-naked pretty, pretty girl helpless, bloodied, and in a receptive pose, the old man gloating over his domination of her.

There's a sadism here that is, for lack of a better word, oogy. If this were Luthor beating on Superman, I'd consider it gratuitous and nasty. That the victim is a pretty young blonde girl sinks that oogyness to greater depths.

Subtext! Subtext! Gotcha scary-ass subtext right heah! C'mon and getcha subtext!

This is the part of comics that I avoid real hard and keep hoping changes. Brrrrr.

Adam! said...

i think it's easier to depict women as victims of degrading acts of violence (more often than not, sexual in nature) because, as chauvinist or misogynist or whatever -ist it may sound, violence against women is still essentially taboo and is still a very effective device to bring a heroine down.

for men, it's just sodomy or castration or forced fellatio, things like that.

but for women, it's all of these things, and more. even alan moore tends to stoop to that level every once in a while (but in his books, the females tend to gain the upper hand in one way or another, and often very convincingly, but still, like evey's transformation in V, or the comedian's interrupted rape of silk spectre 1 in WATCHMEN). i remember jaime delano using this, too, in ANIMAL MAN and HELL ETERNAL. ennis uses this, too, and ellis.

off-hand, the only instance gaiman resorted to this sort of thing (and it's somehow elliptical) is with the nubian princess (i forget her name) devirginizes herself with a rock (but then again, it was supposed to be from a man's point of view, so it had an excuse).

again, i think this sort of portrayal of violence is prevalent in comic books (and other media) because it's easier for evil men to do nasty things to women and have it really come out as really really evil, as compared to having evil men do nasty things to other men. when it's that, it's just basic stuff and it doesn't have much impact.

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