Although Marvel has issued an apology for the Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover that had the Internet in an uproar in August, the controversy hasn’t died down — and YouTuber Maddox’s series, “The Best Show in the Universe,” just fanned the flames a little more. According to Maddox, the fact that the cover stirred up so much rage is dumb, because Spider-Woman’s ass just isn’t a big deal.
Before we delve into the video, let me start by noting the following: Maddox’s schtick is to take the contrarian view, and it never fails to enrage me, even when he kind of has a point. And to be fair, he does make some good points. He’s right in that you don’t have to have a particular sexual orientation to appreciate art, even if it’s evocative. He’s right in how he addresses the “body paint” point — obviously there are exceptions, but by and large, superheroes often do all look like they’re naked and painted whatever color their suit is. He’s also right in that there’s nothing wrong with characters being sexual; humans are sexual beings, and that’s pretty awesome. Sex positivity FTW!
But I think the thing that bothers me so much about this particular video is that it ultimately dismisses one of the biggest feminist issues in comics: All too often, women aren’t portrayed as actual people with healthy sexualities; they’re presented as sexualized objects instead. And this issue isn’t limited to comics, either; it extends to other nerd industries (see: Anita Sarkeesian and Feminist Frequency ), and the larger conversation about how women are both depicted and treated within them. It’s a problem. Period. And dismissing it as Maddox does here not only doesn’t do anything to help fix it, but moreover, it actively makes it worse.
I also disagree with his claim that there’s nothing inherently sexual about the cover. To some degree, yes, sexualization happens within our minds — but society also teaches us a lot about what’s “sexy,” so when Maddox notes that sexualization requires context, I think he’s missing the fact that that’s our context. With that in mind, let’s do a little compare-and-contrast between the Spider-Woman cover and the similar Spider-Man cover Maddox presents as proof that men are treated exactly the same way as women. Is it possible that I’m nitpicking here? Of course — but I think the subtle differences I’m about to point out have a huge effect on whether the characters’ poses present an image primarily of strength, or primarily of sexiness.
First, take a look at the position of their legs. Spider-Man’s knees are pushed out further, which, while still requiring a level of flexibility most people definitely don’t possess, has the effect of keeping his behind a little flatter to the ground (or perhaps more accurately, to the ball of criminals wrapped up in spider silk her just apprehended that, for all intents and purposes, are the “ground” for him here). Spider-Woman’s legs and knees, on the other hand, are closer together — and because of this seemingly minor difference, her arse is raised to the wind in a way that Spider-Man’s isn’t. This is a pose that usually indicates “sexy"; indeed, as The Mary Sue pointed out, it's a pose the same artist has previously used in an erotic comic called Click!
Then there’s the curve of their backs. As is the case with his butt, Spider-Man’s is relatively flat: A strong position. Meanwhile, Spider-Woman’s is curved, which, like the bum-raising, is usually intended to present sexiness. We see it in fashion ads and editorials all the time, because sex sells (also a problem, but that's a whole 'nother essay). The one thing both Spider-Man and Spider-Woman have in common, though, is that they would probably have developed major cricks in their necks if they’d posed for these images in real life. Seriously, guys. Ouch.
The “sexy vs. strong” issue is the same one the posters for comic book movies The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier brought up, as well. In the Avengers poster, all of them men displayed poses indicating strength, while Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow posed in a way that showed off her arse. At least her character poster for The Avengers let her play the strength card, though; in Black Widow’s Captain America character poster, she lost the strength, being posed — again — in a way intended to show sexiness instead. That’s not to say that women (and men, for that matter) can’t be both strong and sexy — but the way female characters are depicted in comics often eschews one in favor of the other, and it’s usually “sexy” that wins out.
Maddox is right when he says that “just because someone is sexualized doesn’t mean he or she loses worth as a human being” — or at least, he’s right in theory. But both in fictional worlds and the real one, we haven’t quite gotten there as a society yet. In fictional worlds, the sexualization of women is often substituted for personality and all the other qualities that make up a human being; that’s the main point of Anita Sarkeesian’s examination of women as background decoration in video games (an argument which extends to other mediums, as well). And in the real world, it’s why there’s still so much stigma against sex workers and other employees of the adult industry.
Maddox notes that this particular portrayal of characters is “a stylistic choice that has long existed in the comics industry.” But just because it’s a convention that’s been around for a while doesn’t meant that it has to continue being one — or even that it should continuing being one. If we didn’t keep revisiting and revising long-standing conventions, women wouldn’t be able to vote, there would probably still be segregation in schools, and all sorts of other necessary social changes would never have happened.
How women are portrayed in mediums like comics might seem trivial, but it’s just one of many, many changes we need to make if we’re ever going to succeed in making our world a better place. Dismissing the issue — and dismissing any similar issue, from access to birth control to LGBT rights — won’t help us become better people. Don’t brush it under the rug. It’s too important for that.
Watch the video below: