Visual Gender Differences in Superhero Comics

I know this image has been out there for a while, but looking at it on actual paper really brought home for me just how emblematic it is of how male and female characters are portrayed so differently in superhero comics.

Black Panther #15 cover

The male Black Panther is fully covered, to the extent of having completely extraneous layers of elements on this costume. What is that thing that looks like tubing wrapped around his torso? Symbolic of some other type of pipe, perhaps?

He also wears a full-length cape, yet another layer of covering.

The female Storm, in contrast, is almost bare. She wears a bikini, just enough to cover the “naughty bits”, and the lower half is small enough to demonstrate that she must use certain hair-removal products.

If you added up the various strappy strings of beads and necklaces the artist has draped on top, you might get the same amount of material as in her actual clothing. Female characters are dressed for display and decoration, not coverage.

Additionally, let’s look at the poses. She stands, shoulders back (pushing the breasts forward) and legs spread, in front of him, meaning he’s not even visible from the waist down. No way to compare, then, whether he’s even given genitalia, let alone how prominently it’s on display.


20 Responses to “Visual Gender Differences in Superhero Comics”

  1. Lea Says:

    Here’s a fun game: how would you percieve this cover if Panther also had a cameltoe?

  2. Lea Says:

    “perceive”

    It’s sad to mock and not remember “i before e except after c.”

    I’d like to add that I like how beautiful and mature storm looks. Pity about the bikini wax.

  3. J.D. @ Four Color Comics Says:

    I’m amazed that stuff like this is still produced in 2006 and still sells well. I recognize that the publishers have the right to produce it, and that people have the right to buy it, but why do they? Is the adolescent male need for wish fulfillment so strong that comics readers are willing to sacrifice their values for this sort of thing? Or do people really not care?

    Since I started buying comics again a couple years ago, I’ve had a hard time reconciling my adult ideals with the stuff that’s offered for sale. I tend to buy a lot of older material. Part of this is because I feel most modern comics aren’t particularly worth reading, but part of it is because I can at least tell myself that thirty years ago, the creators and the public just weren’t aware enough to help themselves. That’s not true nowadays.

    Mostly, I stick to graphic novels and non-superhero stuff. This is part of the reason why.

  4. J.D. @ Four Color Comics Says:

    By the way: I should say that I’ve only been reading comics blogs in the past few weeks as I’ve tried to start my own. Comics Worth Reading is consistently my favorite. I love the topics here, and I love the writing. Thanks!

  5. Johanna Says:

    Lea … is “cameltoe” what we should be looking for on guys? Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but I would think for a guy, that would be DAMN painful.

    And I think Storm’s beauty is part of why I looked at the cover with new eyes… her body is more realistic than the usual types you see in this kind of presentation, which somehow made the discrepancy more obvious to me.

    JD, I feel the same way about older comics somehow being more forgivable. Thanks for the compliment, and good luck with your blog!

  6. kalinara Says:

    My biggest problem is that the pose doesn’t seem particularly romantic. I mean, I like Storm’s character design, and even her lack of clothes doesn’t bother me that much.

    But in order to have her body on such prominent display toward us, she’s turned *away* from him. And with her body facing front like that, the way he’s turning her head makes it look kind of painful! If she were facing him more, it’d look much prettier, in my opinion.

  7. Ed Sizemore Says:

    For the sake of clarity, what would be the male equivalent of Storm’s costume? Would it be speedos? Considering how much flesh men are permitted to show, it seems hard to conceive of a costume that would be considered objectiving to men, unless it’s a thong. Think about Hawkman’s costume, he flies around barechested and no one even takes a second look.

  8. shinypenny Says:

    what would be the male equivalent of Storm’s costume?

    You just have to ask what would be the most impractical costume for a guy to fight in. Excepting sumo wrestlers, I imagine it’s fundoshi.

  9. Lea Says:

    Imagine if they were equally clad; either both to the chin or both in revealing gauze.
    It would be a much better cover, either way.

    I find the pose very romantic, myself, partly because their heads are turned toward one another. Even when people aren’t looking into each other’s eyes, heads turned together or leaning toward each other is body language indicating affection.

  10. Scott Hassler Says:

    sheesh, dont you n00bs know anything about marvel continuity? its all part of the wakandan “love” ritual that started back in ’77 when kirby told lee……………

  11. Mickle Says:

    Would it be speedos? Considering how much flesh men are permitted to show, it seems hard to conceive of a costume that would be considered objectiving to men, unless it’s a thong.

    Well, it would be more than a thong, because, as Johanna pointed out, Storm’s clothes are meant to be decorative not just revealing. So, irregardless of whatever else he doesn’t have, the Black Panther costume must include metal bracelets for the wrists and upper arms and the like to be the equivalent of Storm’s getup. Preferably something dangly that gets in the way of all that fighting.

  12. Ed Sizemore Says:

    A lot of impractical jewelry never stopped Mr. T. So it has to be more than just a ton of bling that would make a male costume gratuitous. I just remembered that Submariner runs around in nothing but a pair of speedos and again doesn’t seem to attract attention by all that skin. Of course, he isn’t drawn anatomically correct either. Maybe if Marvel gave him a nice “package” people would finally complain about his costume.

  13. Johanna Says:

    Ed, I do believe that there’s a certain subculture who very much does notice Hawkman’s bare-chested leather boy look. At least, that’s what one of his former artists used to tell me.

    And yes, I think it’s not just what they’re wearing but how they’re drawn. Presented the right way, a tight pair of jeans can be sexier than a speedo… but the artist has to want to present the guy as eye candy, on at least one level.

  14. Rachel Says:

    Interesting that in so many societies and cultures there are strict guidelines about covering the female form, yet it is acceptable for men to go about in many states of undress so long as their genitalia are covered. For instance, I cannot wash a car without a shirt without facing social ridicule but my male neighbor may. Why is it we see the exact opposite of this in media? Scantily clad women frolicking around bundled up men? In Las Vegas, male dancers get to wear distinguished suits, but women have to show their legs. It’s the exact opposite of the “women mustn’t show their ankles” rules of yore.

  15. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Another question would be, whether fanboys would notice their favorite male heroes being exploited? Or would this complete the adolescent fantasy aspect of most superheroes? Turning Batman into eye candy might make the average fanboy think, “Now, that’s what I’m talking about. Batman reigns supreme on the battlefield and in the bedroom. He tears up the ladies like he does the villains.” Honestly, I’m not sure how to shock the average male comic reader. I think most will simply take whatever you do and make it work to further their fantasies.

  16. John Says:

    The way to shock the fanboy may be to make his hero *not* reign supreme in the bedroom. As being in control is the opposite of being exploited.

    Create a relationship similar to the one in the Star Trek:Next Generation episode, Angel One. Notice, the women aren’t wearing leather, or carrying whips, so that particular fantasy is also eliminated.

  17. Johanna Says:

    Confronted with an obviously sexually attractive Batman, I don’t think most fanboys would be comfortable.

    John, I remember that episode! I thought it was pretty ham-handed.

    There’s also the issue of the “female gaze”. Men are taught, in terms of most entertainment, to think of themselves as the protagonist, the one doing the looking and acting. Women are taught to think of themselves as what’s being looked at, an attractive object. I don’t know how you subvert that easily within such a male-dominated area as superhero comics.

  18. Mickle Says:

    “A lot of impractical jewelry never stopped Mr. T.”

    Um, Mr. T’s jewelry is not nearly as impractical as Storm’s in the above comic. It is also obviously meant to be a display of his (buying) power – not a way to draw one’s eye to certain parts of his anatomy.

  19. Lyle Says:

    Considering this cover, I don’t think it would look oddly inapt if Black Panther were clad in a loincloth, albeit one stylized similarly as Storm’s bikini.

    Johanna, I’m still laughing at one of the lingering, unasked questions in your post — when have we seen a guy in a superhero comic where it’s clear that he needs to use “sensitive region” hair removal products?

    There’s also the issue of the “female gaze”. Men are taught, in terms of most entertainment, to think of themselves as the protagonist, the one doing the looking and acting. Women are taught to think of themselves as what’s being looked at, an attractive object.

    The female gaze of it is one of the aspects of yaoi that I find interesting, since both of the sexually-appealing characters are men, preventing the creator from reverting to ‘male gaze’ mode (something even female artists do).

  20. Shawn Hill Says:

    Kazar has a surprising lack of hair for all of his skin revealed. I’ve always thought Shanna’s costume was more modest than his.

    Storm and T’Challa just aren’t in love. I don’t buy it, nude or clothed.




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