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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Beyond Boobs n' Butts

The creator of a fictional character can make that character what the creator wants.  Obvious, right? If you're an author or an artist (or both), and you invent a character to be in the story you tell, you can make that character look and behave however you see fit. The only limits are in your imagination. That's an amazing power indeed.

And with great power comes....yeah, yeah, you saw this coming: great responsibility. This power and responsibility have belonged to every storyteller since people started to tell stories, and continue to do so as the methods of storytelling have changed.  It seems like everywhere you look, the conversation is taking place about how women are depicted in the forms of storytelling known as "comics" and "video games," and this blog is no exception. But I didn't want to just keep rehashing the point, so after those two posts I pretty much only commented when there was a new development on the subject that I actually knew something about.

Or, in this case, something made the point particularly well. That something is Buzzfeed's article We Had Women Photoshopped Into Stereotypical Comic Book Poses And It Got Weird, in which female Buzzfeed writers tried to emulate the pose of a female superhero in a specific image, and....failed miserably. And then in an attempt to help them along, their pictures were Photoshopped to make them look like the superheroines.

Here's the video:


It reminds me of fantasy author Jim C. Hines' hilarious photo shoots of himself posing as the featured female character on the covers of various fantasy novels.  In addition to just being awesome, those photos were intended to show a) how a man would look adopting the same pose and wearing the same kinds of outfits as the women were, and b) how uncomfortable it would be for him to do so. In case readers dismissed this discomfort based on Hines' age/gender/non-martial artist nature, he linked to a female martial artist/contortionist who had similar findings.

The Buzzfeed women, on the other hand, were primarily showing how for comic book heroines a) the poses are highly difficult to impossible, and b) the bodies themselves are impossible.  If you've ever looked at the Escher Girls blog, you're very familiar with this.  You might even know that the most popular highly-difficult-to-impossible (hereafter referred to simply as "impossible") pose is the classic "Boobs and Butt," in which the female character manages to turn both breasts and her ass to the "camera" simultaneously, often in a way that suggests her spine is made of rubber and/or some or all internal organs have been removed.
Boobs n' Butt example 1

Kristin, one of the Buzzfeed writers who took part in this horrifying experiment, describes the B&B pose this way:
Unless you completely lack object permanence, you can deal with not seeing both boobs and butt at the same time. Like, give readers some credit: When a character turns around, it’s not like we all go “BUT WHERE DID THE BOOBS GO? ARE THE BOOBS GONE FOREVER? I NEED ASSURANCES THAT THERE ARE STILL BOOBS HERE.” In fact, the only people who actually think this way are real-life babies, and they can’t read comics, anyway!
You know the typical policy of not reading the comments on internet articles?  This is an example of an article for which that is especially the case. Readers accused the women who took part in the creation of this article of having "body issues." They accused them of trying to "ruin comics." They claimed that hey, it's the same for men, man!  They just outright made fun of the Buzzfeed writers' appearance, calling them fat, ugly, etc.

I don't seem to recall any of the same crap being directed at Jim C. Hines.

Some of the readers, though, had a slightly different complaint-- What's the point?  What are you trying to prove? they asked.  And I'd like to try and answer that.

I think a general principle can be applied to storytelling, which is that whatever reality your story is set in, if your characters differ from the what is normal for that reality (in terms of abilities, appearance, etc.), you need to account for that difference. It's sloppy storytelling-- or worse, a mistake-- to have characters deviate from reality with no apparent purpose or explanation whatsoever.

So, for example, if you make a movie that's set in downtown Atlanta in 2004, and you have your main characters walking down the street surrounded by people and all of those people are white, you're deviating from reality in a way that needs an explanation.  Did everyone of a different ethnicity get vaporized by aliens?  Did Georgia experience a holocaust?  If the answer is "We didn't bother to hire any non-white extras" or "We purposefully didn't hire any non-white extras," that's not going to cut it.  There are really only two possible interpretations for your viewer, and those are:
  • The movie-makers are sloppy story-tellers, or 
  • The movie-makers are making a statement about their preferred reality, and that reality doesn't include non-white people. In other words, the people who made this movie are probably racist.
Now take that and apply it to comic book women with impossible bodies in impossible poses. That would make sense if, and only if, we're talking about superheroines whose powers include the ability to morph self. And then, I suppose, there would still be a need to explain why they chose to manifest this ability by doing the Boobs n' Butt pose...mid-battle, fighting off fearsome enemies.
Boobs n' Butt example 2

Because you know that, absent an explanation along these lines, the reader is forced to reach his or her own conclusions again. And there are (again) two of those:
  • The comic book artist is a lousy artist. He/she has poor grasp of anatomy and should invest in some manikins ASAP, or
  • The comic book artist deliberately manipulates female forms to exaggerate certain features that are sexually attractive to the artist or his/her audience, or both, at the risk of appearing ridiculous to people who have a good sense of anatomy and/or don't think Boobs n' Butt is an acceptable trade-off for realistic-looking human figures.
I think it's fair to say that an increasing number of us do not find it an acceptable trade-off.  We'd prefer better storytelling than that.

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