Sunday, March 04, 2007

Katching Up with Kara Part Two: A Matter of Sex Appeal?

Part Two: a matter of Sex appeal?

If I dare to make this point strongly enough, I’d like to hazard a guess that one key issue in the controversy surrounding this Supergirl isn’t just the fact that she’s immature, flippant, arrogant, or has such a seemingly horrendous dark past. Its because since her reintroduction, we haven’t been able to get away from the character’s sexuality.

Initially, I think this was primarily an artistic problem, one that both Turner and Churchill shared. Both portray Kara as unrealistically, perhaps abnormally thin, yet incredibly tall, with doe eyes, full lips, pert breasts, and dressed in a mini skirt that rides as high as the waistband does low. Her poses, more with Turner than with Churchill, were constantly sexualised, and her vacant expressions suggested more porn than heroism. With Churchill the problem has been the adoption of the theme, the cheeky alluring looks, the wafer thin leg poses with hips cocked and skirt flaring to suggest what the fanboys want revealed (pardon the cliché). Its unrealistic, and its concerning considering the age of the character, who started out as only 15, and even now at 16 expresses the kind of emotional immaturity that should lead to a raising of her own specific age of consent until we can be convinced she could take sex seriously. Yet with all that said, if the problem were simply artistic, it would be a clear-cut answer to protest for an art change to something more acceptable, though whether we’d get one I couldn’t guarantee.

The problem now is that it’s not just artistic any more. It’s in the writing. More than that, it’s seemingly in character. In line with the party-girl we’ve got now, Kara now takes to making frequent jokes about her sexuality; teasing Boomer about their suggestive relationship, curving over a pool table and drawing attention to her ‘nice s’, if only for the purpose of warning him its not open for him to joke about. In issue 11, during her audition with the Outsiders, Kara’s doe-eyed expression at being chastised by Nightwing seems to not just be wishful projection on the artists behalf, but an in-character reaction from a girl who has been doodling about her crush on Nightwing and his ‘cute tushie’ since she met him. The faux-innocent sexuality is becoming a part of her persona as we’re meant to accept it. When she cracks the line to Boomer ‘I’m a girl in a tight t-shirt, I can go anywhere I want’, or she tries to argue with him about ‘semi-lucid suspended animation’ making her more than a sixteen-year-old, the optimist in me would like to accept she is displaying a rye sense of humour about human sexuality, but the realist in me recognises the attempt at making Kara sexually viable, or at least present the idea that she thinks she is (as I’m sure many young teens do). As a result it becomes more and more convincing that Kara isn’t being dressed and styled by her artists into wearing skimpy outfits and pouting; she’s dressing and styling herself.

Its this train of thought that makes me worry so completely about the extent to which the ‘fanboyishness’ of the industry filters down onto the page. This isn’t just artists drawing unrealistic women or sexualised images into comics, this is the male fantasy getting written into the text. Its harder to fight for a more realistic, or at least less provocative Kara when the justification for it is becoming a part of the text, when it is seemingly ‘in-character’ for Kara to stand around pouting and posing in knee-high boots and a mini-skirt that shows us her underwear and provoking her older-male cast with innuendo. There’s a transference going on here it seems from writer to character, and the more convinced or interested in the character I become, the harder it becomes to object. To say it another way, to have Kara suddenly (and thankfully) cover up her midriff and start wearing a costume that doesn’t show us her underwear, while a wonderfully and necessary move in the effort to reduce objectified images of women in comics, would now seem out of character for a Kara who apparently seems not to care.
Its at this point I become torn between buying into this Kara and challenging the possible fanboy-service her character has become. I would also like to question my own discomfort. I am fine with a Kara with a dark past. I’m fine with her being obnoxious and flippant and complex, because I want to see where it’s going, and because I find it intriguing. But I am not fine with the sexual element being played up on the page. Why? Maybe I do have my own parameters about what is and isn’t acceptable ‘Supergirl’ behaviour, or maybe I simply don’t trust that this is happening in the spirit of complexity, and is more about writers and artists getting away with creating a male fantasy.

Phew, that’s about as far as I can get at the moment without my mind spinning some more, and
I hope my confusion isn’t too, well, confusing. As ever, any thoughts?

alex x


Anonymous said...

Again, nice observations.

One thing I'd like to add. How many heroines in the DCU DON'T play up their sexuality to the point where it becomes 'part of the character.'
Huntress started out dark and on the edge, then used more and more of her sexuality until Loeb put her in a modified bikini and said it was 'part of her character.'

Canary started out in an outfit meant to honor her mother, wig included. Since then her reputation as 'hottie' has been cemented.

Catwoman? Same deal.

And look at the villains. Poison Ivy, Harley, Talia Al Ghul.

Really, look at how many female characters have sexuality as 'a part of their character', versus how many male characters do. That's what I think is causing so much of the backlash.

Ami Angelwings said...

Great post! :D

I think you rly nailed it with what's been bothering most of us about Kara, in that she's not just a character being dressed up by the creators, but that the male fantasy is part of her from the core, and she's the "perfect girl" who's blatantly sexual, and wants to show herself off. :(

Timothy Liebe said...

::How many heroines in the DCU DON'T play up their sexuality to the point where it becomes 'part of the character.::

Amanda Waller! :D That she doesn't is probably part of the reason a so-called "villain" character has such a following among female fans....

As the former Admin of a teen feminism discussion web, I find Supergirl's recent portrayal appalling. Not for her, but for what it says about the men who are currently creating her, and the editors who consider this acceptable. I LIKE attractive female superheroes in skimpy outfits and I heartily approve of sex-positive feminism, but this, combined with her age, really does go over the line.

I sort of get that she's "finding herself", and I've known several women, from teenagers just turned 18 to my own Mom(!) after my folks divorced, who went through a period of experimentation. The operative word here is "experimentation" - they tried plenty of things briefly (male strip clubs, smoking pot, one-night stands, bisexuality, bondage), and while maybe one or two of them stuck, in the end they let go of the experimental period with a nostalgic sigh.

I'm not getting that vibe off this SUPERGIRL arc at all - what I'm getting is "Hey - indestructible sex bunny! We can do ANYTHING we want to her, and she'll bounce back!" It reminds me of a SF story about a sadistic artist who tortures a series of simulacra of his wife to death (yeah, it was as creepy as it sounds - but in this case, that was the point),

Tim Liebe
Dreaded Spouse-Creature of Tamora Pierce
- and co-writer of Marvel's White Tiger comic

AlexinWonderLand said...

hey everyone, thanks for posting!

anonymous: hmmmm, its a very delicate line isn't it.

I think sexuality and the overt use of it for female characters is a contested site of interest. The problem I think, rather than the barebones idea of a woman being able to be sexual as a means of being powerful or provocative, or simply to be sexual at all isn’t the problem per se, but rather the idea that it is a necessary component of being a female character in the DCU. Making Kara this way is first and foremost a step in saying that in order to be a top-selling popular heroine, you need to be ‘sexy’, (or worse, ‘teen sexy’). The other problem is the value judgement that goes with it. As you yourself pointed out with your examples, overt sexuality is the province of more villainess characters than it is our heroines, or 'bad girls' like the Huntress, who it seems has been sexed up more to increase the idea that she is the black sheep of the Batman family, and at one point even the Birds of Prey. (I’m not sure about the Canary, for while she is depicted artistically in sexually provocative positions, I’m not sure just how much of that is also prevalent in her dialogue or character choices etc, in the way that it is with Kara). Either way, there seems to be a bit of commentary here that the bad girls are the ‘sexy’ ones, the good ones are ‘beautiful’. In that respect, the move to make Kara a sexual character seems a cheap attempt to appeal to DCU conventions that Kara is a ‘bad girl’, or rather more interesting for being a ‘bad girl’.

Without getting too much into that debate, I guess you’ve prompted me to comment that its not sexuality in comics I have a problem with, nor sexually assertive female characters. Its when I fear that we are seeing sexuality being used to circumvent the notion of having strength in other ways, or when we see sexuality being used to justify the desires of the artist or writer, or the fan, that I start to worry. Or when we see underage characters being used as a device for those ends, which is what I worry is happening with Kara.

Ami (hey again!): And yeh, this is where what you’re saying ties in. Kara is being set up as the male fantasy from the outset. I guess what we’re questioning here are the motives and means. There are surely mature ways of having a character who is sexually strong, assertive, powerful, even provocative, without looking like an object of fantasy, but rather a subject. And who is old enough for us to buy that as believable, rather than a mouthpiece for wishful thinking.

I think I’ve addressed a bit of what you prompted me to think of above, the idea that there are positive ways of being sexual without being objectified, and that it appears age is one of those factors that affects how that works.

In terms of experimentation, do you think its possible that Kara might be able to go through the phase she is in now, and go from having this rather doe-eyed immature attitude of sexual provocative girl develop into being a strong assertive woman who also has a strong sense of, as you put it ‘sex-positive feminism’? Do you think such an end would help redefine what we’re seeing now as a legitimate stage of growth? In short, do you think its possible the writers could take Kara to a point of character development where you were able to gain their trust that this period of experimentation was always supposed to be temporary? That’s what worries me here a bit in truth, that perhaps what Kelly is doing is taking what Loeb and Turner gave him, and trying to make a logical and natural progression from the immature experimental teen to the competent young woman, with all the crazy bits in between, and that we’re being too quick off the mark to give them credit for it. Would Kara’s story be more of a success if we were able to see her learn some of those lessons of feminism over time?

And out of interest, what out of your list of experimenting activities would you NOT want Kara to retain, and why? Would you accept a Supergirl who is heroic, strong, intelligent, capable, and also is bisexual? Or smokes pot? Or has one-night stands? Just interested J

Alex x