A while back I said it could be fun to talk about how I deal with sexualization in my comic. That was my first mistake.
I realized pretty soon that in order to do that I would have to make it clear what I intend with sexualization, what I think is harmful about it, why a lot of people get it all wrong... Oh, shit, do I have to talk about the spooky “male gaze” as well? Is this, like, feminism? Is the introduction going to be bigger than what I actually want to talk about, which is tiddies in my silly comic?
All right... Let’s start with the basics: to sexualize someone is to make them appear suggestive in a sexual way. If the author wants you to have the hots for a character, he’s going to sexualize them.
“Hey! That’s my jam!” I hear you saying. There’s nothing wrong with it in and of itself. There are, however, bad ways of doing it. Being sexuality a sensitive topic in our culture, these “bad ways” are not only detrimental to the story, as any other poorly treated topic, but can also contribute to real-world harmful stereotypes.
I’ll focus on nudity here, but there are other ways to make a character sensual without stripping them. On the other hand, not all nudity is necessarily sexualized.
Stripping a character can symbolize impotence or vulnerability or be played for comedic purposes. As any other tool in the belt of a storyteller, it’s only a matter of using it effectively. The setting, the context and the way it’s portrayed all concur to the desired effect.
Non-sexualized nudity in movies: dramatic and comedic.
So, sex appeal is good and all, but what happens when it becomes the solely defining attribute of a character? When their personality, goals and dignity take a step back and they’re only valued as an object of sexual desire? That’s right, it’s sexual objectification. (*Ominous music in the background*)
To better understand the difference, let’s look at this totally unbiased take. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me ranting about it already.
What’s the difference between Aquaman and Carol Marcus from Star Trek into Darkness?
Aquaman is the titular hero of his own movie. We follow his journey from rags to riches, we root for him. He evolves through the course of the story. He’s strong, capable, funny, generous, a badass with a tormented past… and hot. Sure he is, but it’s hardly the first tag you’d stick to him. (Or better: it’s not the first tag the story wants you to stick to him, you saucy minx!)
Carol Marcus is very bangable. That’s literally the first thing we know about her, since she is presented through the point of view of Kirk, a notorious womanizer. The director is suggesting that that’s the way we should see her. This alone wouldn’t be enough evidence to call her portrayal objectifying. She’s also shown to be a skilled scientist willing to sacrifice herself for others. Unfortunately, her presence on screen is limited and it’s likely that the first impression is the one that sticks the most. If you compare her with other secondary characters like Scotty or Bones, her personality comes off as extremely plain. It’s difficult to relate to her or be engaged by her personal journey.
And then there is that scene. The most unnecessary, unjustified fanservice of the past twenty years.
Click here to watch it on Youtube. I’ll wait.
I’ve seen porn with more credible beginnings.
I cannot stress this enough, it’s not a matter of measuring how many centimeters of skin are exposed. Sexualized nudity is not the only deciding factor: objectification comes from the context in which nudity is presented.
Unfortunately, being naked is not the appropriate attire in most of the cases. The first question we should ask is: “Is the character’s lack of clothing well justified in the narrative?”
Secondly: “What’s the purpose of the character in the scene? And in the overall story? Is the audience supposed to care about them for other reasons beside the fact they’re nice to look at?”
To better understand the concept, look no further than popular porn webcomics Alfie and I Roved Out. Are the main characters sexualized? 200% yes. Objectified? Not really. They have agency and personality, they’re not defined by their sexual appeal even if it’s a big part of them, we’re interested in their emotional journey and them being naked most of the time is fitting with the erotic context of the story.
If even PORN may not be objectifying, I can’t think of better evidence that mere nudity is not the issue!
It’s also worth noting that sexualization and objectification depend entirely on the author’s intention, not on the audience’s perception. (This is true whether the author is aware of it or is doing it subconsciously. Tropes are pervasive and can quickly become a habit!)
For example, even if some anime fans find the protagonist of Kiki’s delivery service sexually attractive, no one would say that Hayao Miyazaki’s young heroine is sexualized, let alone objectified, because that’s in no way, shape or form the author’s intention.
Now that we understand the importance of context and authorial intention, we are ready for the most controversial part: women have it worse.
Let’s look at the Twitter post again. Many responded that Aquaman is a male power fantasy while Carol Marcus is a male sexual fantasy, to point out that everything is made to appeal to a perceived male audience (the so called “male gaze”).
Predictably, they didn’t convince anyone. It seems easy to poke holes in the theory: what about the covers of romance novels for women? Don’t those female sexual fantasies look suspiciously identical to male power fantasies?
At this point, many fell in the trap of doubling down against all evidence. No! It’s a power fantasy for men! Women are not supposed to find him attractive!
Sure, what men and women find attractive may vary, but no one in their right mind would deny that shirtless Jason Momoa is what many girl’s dreams are made of. We have already covered this, so it will come to no surprise that a male power fantasy can also be a female sexual fantasy and there’s nothing contradictory about it. As we’ve seen before, we can add many tags to a character. Being attractive can also be an integral part of a power fantasy. Ask ten women to design an outfit that makes them feel powerful and chances are you’ll see a few cleavages. The same goes with fit guys and small-sized shirts.
The Male Gaze boils down to who’s the audience the author is writing for. Since the majority of authors of mainstream media are men, chances are that their target audience are men as well. The collective tags on Aquaman make him a male power fantasy because his role is to inspire men, while Carol Marcus’s role is to titillate them.
Don’t get me wrong, even in this kind of stories there can be instances of things specifically made to cater to women (I’m pretty sure that the PR department of any male superhero movie mandates a shirtless scene), but when no other audience is specifically required, men are considered the default.
To reiterate: the problem is always objectification. It would be less of an issue if female characters were treated with dignity. Unfortunately they tend to be objectified way more than their counterparts, because they’re often defined by their relationship with the men in the story, rather than as autonomous actors.
This is not true for those niche media traditionally authored by women, where the opposite may occur, like the already mentioned romance novels or shoujo manga. Aside from that, I have a hard time finding a sexually objectified man in stories of other genres. Can you find examples in a thriller? Police procedural? Historical drama? Action adventure? I’m not denying there could be, but they’re hard to find.
Note that when I say “male” or “female” fantasies I’m implying “straight”. The queer audience is rarely taken in consideration in mainstream media.
Again, this is not true for niche media like webcomics, that are super duper gay. (They’re so gay that I decided immediately that my two female leads will not end up together, because it would be too cliché. Sorry, shippers!)
Ok, now that everything is clear, it doesn’t seem difficult! We just need to flesh out our characters and not make them strip at inappropriate times. Easy!
There are grey areas where characters may be well-rounded and full of personality in the script, but the way they’re depicted hints that their real value lies elsewhere (wink wink).
For an obvious example, look no further than how our favorite super heroines are often drawn.
The spine-breaking boobs-and-butt pose seems to be the most ubiquitous superpower!
Now, I’m no expert on superheroes, but I know there are a bazillion years worth of good stories about these characters. I know they’re complex and relatable, but their depiction is just ultra cringy. (Shut up, it’s a technical term.) It’s not only the ridiculous costumes: the poses and the shot compositions seem to suggest that they’re more concerned about putting up a good show than fighting crime. Tell me if there is a story where the fact that all superheroes are horny exhibitionists is finally addressed, because there’s nothing I’d like to read more!
American comics are far from being the worst offenders. We all know a manga or two where every single picture of the badass fighting girl is an upskirt shot for no reason. The anime industry lives for the most part on fanservice and comes up with new absurd and hilarious ways to raise the bar of poor taste a little higher every year. It’s almost a form of art in and of itself!
Whoever the fuck animated this deserves a medal.
These are all instances where what we see does not match with how it’s presented. We see a fight scene, but it’s framed like softcore erotica. It becomes especially troublesome when what we see is supposed to be extremely dramatic, like a murder or an act of sexual violence. Don’t do that unless you want to give your audience something to talk with their therapist!
Ludicrous clothes, women fighting in skirts… Wait a minute, this is all very relevant to Ten Earth Shattering Blows!
I didn’t think about all of that when I gave my heroine skimpy clothes. My goal was to identify her as a member of the lowest class, like all the other almost-naked slaves working in the fortress. My main source of inspiration is the post apocalyptic dress code popularized by the Mad Max franchise, which absolutely does not mirror what a real person would wear in a desert, but the Rule of Cool wins over realism! Being 10ESB set in a fantasy world, I can get away with stuff that would stand out like a sore thumb in a real environment, like superhero costumes in modern day New York.
So, yeah, Joy wears a tattered skirt. And I have to say, making it flap is really helpful to convey movement during action scenes. This means that occasionally you’ll see her panties.
My main concern is to make the scene non-sexual. Not because I’m a prude, but because it’s not what the story requires in these moments: some of them are proper fight scenes, some of them are humorous, in neither cases Joy is seducing the opponent.
I try to achieve it following two simple rules: one, no sexy poses. Joy is fighting and she should move appropriately. If you find her pose unnatural, blame my poor drawing skills!
Two, the framing of the panel should follow the story, not her panties. If I draw a low-angle shot it’s because it enhances the narrative, not because I want to take a peek under the skirt.
There’s also a rule number three, but I didn’t need it so far: no overfocus! If you usually draw bodies like stick figures but the boobs and butts look like renaissance paintings, it’s obvious that you’re focusing all the attention on those details, making them the protagonists of the scene. In animation, an overfocus could be the jiggle physics that make boobs behave like gelatine. If you waste your budget on that, don’t act surprised when the audience gets distracted!
Consider the following panels by korean artist Boichi to understand what I mean:
What the actual fuck is happening here?! Is there a story to follow or am I just looking at her crotch? The weird angles are detrimental to the narration. Bottom right: the guy you can catch a glimpse of behind her thigh is supposed to be the protagonist! Shouldn’t we at least be able to see his face? I especially enjoy the sequence on the bottom left. Sure, she’s shooting with an oversized gun, but let’s devote a panel to check how her panties are doing, just in case!
By the way, I really admire Boichi: he’s an exceptional artist whom I look up to. I want to make it clear that when I point out my issues with comics or movies it doesn’t automatically mean that I consider them garbage. Maybe I enjoy them and I’m critical only because I know they can be even better. So no hard feelings, m’kay?
This is genuinely amazing. I don’t care, sue me.
Anyway, playing the panties police is so much work! Luckily, I decided since Joy’s first appearance that I’m gonna give her trousers after the current chase is over. (Sorry for the minor spoiler.)
There is one last danger that as a storyteller I try to avoid. Sometimes even when the character is well written, the scene is justified and the staging fits the story there could be an objectifying aspect to it. Remember when I said women have it worse? I’m talking about double standards.
If women are the only ones getting undressed (or if they undress way more and more frequently), the message you’re giving off is that no matter what their roles in the story are, their “natural” role is to be eye candy.
Countless of popular comics, shows and video games fall for this. Take for example the (rightly celebrated) Witcher video game franchise. It seems very progressive: women are powerful, clever and know how to get what they want. But after a while you start to realize that they are often naked on full display, while it’s almost impossible to catch even a glimpse of Geralt’s sweet bum bum. Even in the most sober situations, cleavages are omnipresent. During romance scenes, the camera lingers on the female body, boobs take over the screen… boobs everywhere… uuh... sorry, where were we?
The point is, we want equal opportunities to show off the goods! Do you want to strip the ladies? Strip the men too! Do you want to dress them in a chainmail bikini? Give the men chainmail briefs! Do you REALLY want to animate gelatinous boobs? Give the men jiggling bulges! Do it, coward!
As far as non-sexualized nudity goes, my men are way more naked than my women. I have hundreds of idiots fighting in their underpants! I even have flying guys with their pee pee out. (Another example of non-sexy nudity used to convey vulnerability.)
What about sexualized nudity then? I don’t have much of it, since it’s not the focus of the story, and admittedly the only instances so far involve women. (Men are too covered to compete.)
There will be occasions to even the distribution in the future, I promise. Meanwhile, this allows me to confess a terrible crime:
Guys, the two concubines on the left... I think I have objectified them!
I mean, sure, you can say that they’re tertiary characters at best: nobody cares about their lack of personality! But according to my rules, they’re undoubtedly objectified. They serve no other purpose other than being nice to look at. Oh, god! Am I sexist now?
Are my rules too strict? Let’s say you’re writing a detective story and you include the obligatory strip club scene. You can’t possibly halt the plot to introduce a detailed backstory for all the naked pole dancers! So, what can we do?
Luckily, the rules have a loophole. It’s really easy: add more women.
If the pole dancers are the only women in your story, they will become your take on womanhood in general. If you have other women in prominent roles, the pole dancers will be what they’re meant to: unimportant tertiary characters in the background.
Having multiple women (or multiple men, if you have the opposite problem) is good for your story in general, because it gives you room to experiment. Maybe one of them is genuinely a flirt who’s constantly sexual at inappropriate times. She could be a fun character to explore, but you don’t want to give her the responsibility of being the avatar of every woman! If you have only one female character, chances are that she’s gonna be ms. Perfecta Snoozefest, because you’ll be too afraid to give her flaws and ruin your only female representation.
In one word, variety is the key. This is why we hear a lot about diversity these days. And it’s equally important to have more than one representative for every group. The more people you have from a group, the less likely it is that your representation of that group is a tired trope.
This, by the way, is also how I tackle race and other sensitive topic where bad stereotypes could be harmful. I cringed a little when I realized my first speaking black guys were these stupid-looking, half-naked savages. Straight out from a colonizer’s wet dream.
BUT I also have these guys…
And, to be fair, 98% of my characters are stupid, half-naked savages. So, bullet dodged, am I right? (Please, say yes.)
That’s all, folks! I think I have exhausted the topic. I hope it can be useful to you in case you’re a writer, an artist or a curious person who just wants to know what goes on in my head when I’m looking for excuses to draw boobs.
For the “too long, didn’t read” crowd, here are all my rules in bullet point format:
- Flesh out your characters. Make sure they’re not interesting only because they have a nice butt.
- I know it sounds obvious, but believe me: there must be a valid reason why they’re showing us their butts.
- The staging of the scene should work in accordance with the narrative. Don’t focus on the butt if it’s not what the story requires.
- No double standards between genders. Show ALL THE BUTTS!
- Have a diverse cast and multiple individuals for every group. A single butt shouldn’t represent all the butts of its category.