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The Hulk is on the trim side, actually
March 4, 2008 2:09 PM   Subscribe

Marvel vs. the BMI (one-link, but fun.)
posted by Navelgazer (69 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Real Americans are fat (the peak of the bell curve is in the 'overweight' category) while comic book superheros are not. Fascinating.
posted by delmoi at 2:15 PM on March 4, 2008


Oooh, oooh, do contestants on America's Next Top Model next!
posted by turaho at 2:16 PM on March 4, 2008


I can't see my feet.
Please advise.
posted by Dizzy at 2:18 PM on March 4, 2008


What? No Blob?
posted by AccordionGuy at 2:18 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Useless without She-Hulk.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:18 PM on March 4, 2008


Real Americans are fat (the peak of the bell curve is in the 'overweight' category) while comic book superheros are not. Fascinating.

Are you being sarcastic? The first thing I got was that women superheros are held to a different standard. Male superheros can hover over the upper limits of normal at 25, but women have to be down near 20.
posted by mathowie at 2:20 PM on March 4, 2008


Post-graduates get credit for stuff like this?! Sheesh, I chose the wrong course of study. What's next, a dissertation on Buffy the Vampire Slayer?... oh wait. *sigh*
posted by elendil71 at 2:21 PM on March 4, 2008


I'd like to see the results of this study vs. BMI at DC.

Then throw a little Liefeld into the mix and watch the results skew towards the insane.
posted by turaho at 2:25 PM on March 4, 2008


hey, I have a question that fits this perfectly!

I've always wondered about BMI indexes, where does muscle weight fit in? I'm told that muscle weighs more than fat, so between two people of the same height, bone structure and percent body fat, the one with more muscles would weigh more and therefore have a higher BMI, yes? wouldn't this be an inaccurate way to contrast whether each one is overweight, then? in fact, since muscle weighs MORE than fat, couldn't a heavily muscled dude with little body fat actually have a worse BMI than a fat guy of the same height who has much less muscle?

I ask for clarification. I'm not trying to prove anything. Just asking if I'm way off base.
posted by shmegegge at 2:29 PM on March 4, 2008


That's not necessarily true. Comic book superheroines have to have breast implants made of depleted uranium instead of silicon. This greatly increases their average body mass and requires them to wear stainless steel girdles.
posted by XMLicious at 2:33 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


shmegegge: here's a good explanation (which I maybe should have included in the FPP.)
posted by Navelgazer at 2:33 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've always wondered about BMI indexes, where does muscle weight fit in?

It doesn't.

It's also behind mathowie's point about male/female standards. The guys are split into two groups: guys who are scrawny and guys who are muscle bound. So their BMI forms a more realistic curve. The women are basically the same body type with different hair colour.
posted by Gary at 2:36 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Shame on you shmegegge, for introducing a sensible question into this completely spurious thread! Get with the program. Your real question should be (for example); if super-strong heroes who may have a denser muscle mass (having come from a different planet or dimension or whatever) would completely blow the BMI index. Sheesh. Pay attention will ya.
posted by elendil71 at 2:37 PM on March 4, 2008


What they don't show, what they have been sworn to secrecy by the NIH and the federal government, are the alternative-hypothesis-destroying male comic book readers whose BMIs are incalculable.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:37 PM on March 4, 2008


also, in what way is psylocke the most overweight female superhero? I understand that this is not an encyclopedic collection of all the characters, but something tells me that (although the comparison between average female bmi versus male is quite telling and likely rather accurate) the female vs female figures are based more on lazy marvel stats that don't actually represent the physical statistics these women could conceivably have. You put most of these ladies next to each other in a row and (depending on the artist) a number of them will have virtually identical figures (storm vs psylocke for example). and if someone wants to tell mee that may parker is heavier for her height than mary jane I'm just gonna have to chalk it up to bad statistics because although may parker certainly wouldn't qualify as athletic she's all skin and bones.

also, I defy anyone to tell me that Captain America is obese, but J Jonah Jameson is just a little pudgy.
posted by shmegegge at 2:38 PM on March 4, 2008


that last one is for you, elendil.
posted by shmegegge at 2:39 PM on March 4, 2008


I like the table at the bottom, with the character sample and their individual stats. Psylocke is the is the heaviest of the women they picked, tipping the scales at 155 lbs. Fatass.

I wonder if they're talking about original British Psylocke, or body-swap ninja girl Psylocke?

I was also interested to see that Kitty Pride, Wasp and Aunt May all weighed in at 110. So Kitty and Janet are hale and hearty as a dust-boned octogenarian. Nice one, Marvel. But then, Kitty's power gives her variable density, and the Wasp can change her mass. So who knows what state they were weighed in?

What I'm saying is this study needs a little peer review before we jump to any conclusions.

/nerd
posted by EatTheWeak at 2:40 PM on March 4, 2008


"Are you being sarcastic? The first thing I got was that women superheros are held to a different standard. Male superheros can hover over the upper limits of normal at 25, but women have to be down near 20."

No. The standard is the "American ideal." For men, this is lean and muscular. For women, this is just really lean. Both are similarly hard to achieve and similarly rare among the general population. It's not as if comic book artists are holding women to any higher standard, though.
posted by decoherence at 2:40 PM on March 4, 2008


Statistical outliers
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:41 PM on March 4, 2008


I wonder what the BMI is for Liefeld's Captain America.
posted by Auden at 2:44 PM on March 4, 2008


POOR SAMPLING. Left out The Thing, counted Bruce Banner in shrimpy scientist form rather than Hulk, no Blob, no Juggernaut, no Venom, no Sabretooth, counted Colossus in regular form rather than as steel, no Hank McCoy, blue or otherwise.

Laaaame
posted by spiderwire at 2:45 PM on March 4, 2008


Read the article spiderwire.

Teenagers and those whose powers or mutations can alter their body mass or sex were excluded from selection.

This was a very serious scientific study. With more funding, we may finally determine if Power Girl fits the statistical average.
posted by Gary at 2:53 PM on March 4, 2008


Yeah, the biggest hole here is that the "stats" provided by Marvel have very, very little relationship to how the characters are drawn. Which is kinda a shame. (Similarly, a fair amount of the stats featured in pornography are invented. What struck me as odd was when they weren't.)

But seriously, people are here arguing that there's not a double standard for women's bodies in comics?
posted by klangklangston at 3:20 PM on March 4, 2008


I'm going to play devil's advocate here and claim that Marvel's standards of beauty are more damaging to boys than girls. I base this on two observations from the data presented, and one instance of baseless conjecture.

Firstly, the conjecture: Marvel comics are marketed towards boys. One wouldn't accuse Cosmo Girl of creating an unrealistic standard of beauty for boys. It's not my intention to make light of the possibility that Marvel might be giving the dozens of girls who read their comics body image issues. Wait, yes it is.

On to the more empirically defensible claims: one, more Marvel women are in the normal part of the range, 72% to 56% for men. Taking this at face value, it would seem to indicate that Marvel's beauty standards for men are less healthy than those for women. My second point bears marginally more relevance to reality than the first, but is less grounded in statistics. Those of you masochistic enough to be still reading this comment have no doubt objected to my characterization of Marvel men as less healthy, given the BMI most surely fails as a health predictor when all the overweight and obese men are not fat, but simply possessed of a physique that Arnie would have envied even in his Pumping Iron days. But isn't this just as damaging as an overly thin standard of beauty for girls? I wonder how many slight, pimple-blighted, bespectacled youth have been seduced into the nightmare of bacne and testicle ablation that is steroid abuse, on account of their musclebound Marvel idols. I'd wager the number reaches into the mid to high teens, maybe even higher.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 3:20 PM on March 4, 2008


I was also interested to see that Kitty Pride, Wasp and Aunt May all weighed in at 110. So Kitty and Janet are hale and hearty as a dust-boned octogenarian. Nice one, Marvel.

That's not entirely unreasonable. My girlfriend is 26 and in more or less perfect physical condition, and she weighs 92 pounds. I'd guess that that's a in roughly the same weight range as my great-grandmother. I wouldn't say that it's out of the question for healthy young women to weigh the same amount as old women on their deathbeds; it is suspect, however, that so many of the young ladies of Marvel fall into that weight range.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 3:21 PM on March 4, 2008


the female vs female figures are based more on lazy marvel stats that don't actually represent the physical statistics these women could conceivably have.

... Uh, that's sort of the point, I think. If you compare how female characters are drawn with their stats, and how male characters are drawn with their stats, there's some bizarre disparity between as-drawn/stats on both sides, but it's WAY greater on the female side. Take Felicia Hardy. The Black Cat, a slim, athletic, mostly-non-powered detective/ex-cat burglar of reasonable-albeit-vampy proportions ... is supposed to be 5'10" and 120 pounds. I mean, what the hell, does she have silicone antigravity implants? Even for Felicia, slightly crazy gal that she is, that's a little much. And it's a trend.
posted by bettafish at 3:21 PM on March 4, 2008


Re: BMI not accounting for muscle mass.

Shaquille O'Neal (who, ironically, now actually is pretty fat) used to be the best counter-argument for using BMI. Early in his career, he was carrying tons of muscle on a large frame, but very little fat. His weight put him in "obese" category, though.

When he was told BMI proponents thought of him as being overweight, his response was, "You think that, stick to science. I've got three rings, la ot of money, and two mansions."

So, yeah, there are other factors to consider in addition to BMI.
posted by SportsFan at 3:23 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Gary - except they've got plenty of problematic entries in their sample group.

Kitty Pride = able to reduce density until she passes through solid objects.
Emma Frost = Sometimes she's made out of diamond.
Janet Van Dyne = changes size as the Wasp
Ms Marvel = has had several physical states, including one where portions of her body appeared to be made of energy.
Jean Grey = has inhabited multiple bodies
Psylocke = ditto (well, two)
Yuriko Oyama = adamantium body parts
Bruce Banner = seriously? Who changes density more than Bruce Banner?
Cloak = doesn't have a body
posted by EatTheWeak at 3:28 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


But seriously, people are here arguing that there's not a double standard for women's bodies in comics?

Well, I think there's a more moderate and defensible variant available: major label superheros, regardless of gender, are so ridiculously stylized in general (depending to some extent on the artist, natch) that the double-standard is less profoundly meaningful than it would be in a more realistically grounded setting.

Which is not to say that the treatment of female body types in big league comics isn't pretty stunningly dumb, but, you know, this is as a few folks have pointed out the industry that employs Rob Liefeld unironically.

Step away from the supers and go to indier stories about non-spandexed characters and a lot of this shit goes away. But that's niche compared to Spidey and Supes, I know.
posted by cortex at 3:30 PM on March 4, 2008


"It's not my intention to make light of the possibility that Marvel might be giving the dozens of girls who read their comics body image issues. Wait, yes it is."

Dude, that's dumb reasoning—girls read comics and would read more of them if not for shit like this.

"But isn't this just as damaging as an overly thin standard of beauty for girls?"

And, man, this is an old canard.
posted by klangklangston at 3:34 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


But seriously, people are here arguing that there's not a double standard for women's bodies in comics?

There is, but I don't think it's measured by the BMI or this study. Both of them are unrealistic in that everyone has an extremely low bodyfat percentage. The main difference is that the women are both very thin and very buxom. So the average boy may be able to hit the gym and get there eventually. The average girl is out of luck without plastic surgery.
posted by Gary at 3:47 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


Huh. Neat idea. I like Figure 1. Looks about like I'd expect, so I guess the data Marvel provides bears out my expectations.

My reaction to this link is as simple as that. I think I'm in a small minority.
posted by gurple at 3:59 PM on March 4, 2008


Kitty's power gives her variable density, and the Wasp can change her mass. So who knows what state they were weighed in?

Actually, Janet van Dyne (Wasp) and Hank Pym (Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Yellowjacket, etc.) are supposed to maintain their full-sized weight, density and strength when they shrink. I know, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but it was someone's ideas of 'enhanced strength', like that of an ant. So the issue of 'weight' becomes a little irrelevant when it comes to those two and their weight. Sort of like Kitty and The Vision when it comes to density...
posted by vhsiv at 4:27 PM on March 4, 2008


“I wonder how many slight, pimple-blighted, bespectacled youth have been seduced into the nightmare of bacne and testicle ablation that is steroid abuse, on account of their musclebound Marvel idols.”

Actually I got into lifting weights, in part, because of Cap.
(Shame he’s so out of shape, eh?)
But yeah, the bodies are disproportionate. Still, we’re talking stories where people can hurl cement trucks at each other and expecting some kind of realism?
I know a thing or two about body mechanics and engineering and I don’t care how strong you are you can’t lift a building because A. muscles and joints don’t work that way (where’s the load going? If it’s going into the ground, why aren’t your feet sinking into the asphalt?) and B. building materials are not designed to support weight when a building is hoisted up by it’s corner. So not only should the human bodies have an alien look to them, the archetecture should as well.
( “Ya see Stan, I’ve pre-stressed the materials on a bias and I’ve got arches running cross diagonally in case the building is tilted on a 45 degree angle and stabilizes there. And it only cost us 3700% of the original building estimate” “That’s nice work Jack”)
I talked to a woman (at college) who used the (modern) Fantastic Four as an example of mysogyny predicated on the fact that the woman’s power was that she became invisible.
The old 60’s FF, no doubt. But that was fairly ubiquitous in the culture at large. Dads still smoked pipes and gave sage advice in sitcoms.

Anyway, she was showing the cover of a comic as an example and I asked if she’d actually read that one or, really, any of them (John Byrne, et.al).
She hadn’t.
I explained that Sue Storm became the leader of the FF, that she straightened out Reed Richards on a regular basis (and not in the demure “Gee honey, perhaps” way) and was the most dominant and level headed member of the team and probably the most capable leader (albeit 2nd to Reed, like the rest of the world, only because he’s so smart).
But in terms of power and effectiveness she was shown to be unparalelled through the writing, not only in using her own powers but in dealing with the strengths and weaknesses in others, particularly Reed who often misses the human reality because he is so cerebral.

“But all she can do is turn invisible!” - pretty much cut short that conversation.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:39 PM on March 4, 2008


“But all she can do is turn invisible!”

Late '80's reactionary feminism at its best!

Clearly, that woman hadn't read FF in a while, not with Sue's force-fields, paragliding constructs and all the rest. Or, for that matter her Dark Phoenix-like turn as Malice.

It's been a long time since Sue only did the invisibility thing.
posted by vhsiv at 5:00 PM on March 4, 2008


Teenagers and those whose powers or mutations can alter their body mass or sex were excluded from selection.

Don't correct me about comics, kiddo.

EatTheWeak got part of it right -- they include, e.g., Bruce Banner and Colossus in their non-huge forms. By their criteria, they should be left out entirely. The other characters I mentioned don't alter their body mass: Sabretooth, Juggernaut, Thing, Venom, Beast, etc. There are others (Cable comes to mind), but the point is that their sample arbitrarily excludes most every character who might fall outside the norm -- large or small.
posted by spiderwire at 5:15 PM on March 4, 2008


cortex major label superheros, regardless of gender, are so ridiculously stylized in general

Exactly. With some limited exceptions, comic book art is light caricature. All attributes are exaggerated, all blemishes smoothed away. This is why Spandex superhero costumes look perfectly OK in comics, and terrible on almost all real-life actors.

This study is pretty much pointless. As others have pointed out the biographic height/weight figures don't match the way they're drawn, and the observation that female characters get one build (or a spectrum between two builds) and a few exceptions, and male characters get three distinct builds and a few exceptions, is well known.

In the case of the males, almost all adult male superheroes and supervillains have one of three distinct builds: mesomorph (classic Batman, Superman, Captain America, Green Arrow); ecto-mesomorph (classic Joker, Reed Richards, Elongated Man, Dr Light, Spiderman, Cannonball, the Flash from the JLA cartoons, Morpheus of Sandman, younger Nightwing); and the hypermesomorph or "brick" build (the Hulk, the Thing, Rhino, Bane, Batman of Dark Knight Returns, Marv in Sin City), which just does not exist in real life. There's also distinct apple-shaped endo-mesomorph build (the Blob, Kingpin, Volstagg, Gilbert Greene and one of the serial killers whose name I forget from Sandman), and the occasional actual ectomorph (Scarecrow, some versions of the Joker). Teenage male characters almost exclusively have the ecto-mesomorph build, but are shorter than the adults. Arguably some characters fit along the ecto-mesomorph to mesomorph line (the line between classic Joker and Superman), and maybe that should be categorized as a spectrum, but if so, the in-betweeners are less common than the extremes.

On the other hand almost all adult female superheroes and supervillains have an ecto-mesomorphic build, with evenly distributed variations between the triangular mesomorph figure with much wider shoulders than hips (Big Barda, She-Hulk, Power Girl, Fairchild, early versions of Wonder Woman) and ectomorph (Mary-Jane Watson, Supergirl, Invisible Woman). There's a common "perfect" build, in between these two, basically the idealized female athlete (Lois Lane, Black Canary, classic Wonder Woman), with notably larger breasts than is normal for her muscularity. In almost all cases, their waistline is distinctly narrower than their hips and ribs, the classic hourglass figure. Breast size is almost always C or D-cup, with few exceptions. Teenage female characters are usually ectomorphs with B-cup breasts. There are very few outlier builds among major female characters - only a few endomorphs (Amanda Waller, Granny Goodness, Ma Hunkel) spring to mind.

My major objection to BMI in this context is that, from the way they are depicted, almost all male "heroic build" characters, and a large proportion of female characters, have such very low body fat levels and very high muscular development that they're in the small percentage of people for which BMI is inaccurate. Their muscles are highly defined, their abdomens flat, their calves and biceps bulging. The male heroic build, if it exists in the real world at all, is rarely seen outside of bodybuilding competitions; the female heroic build is rarely seen except for ballet dancers and gymnasts.

Now if we were to completely ignore the issue of artistic choices and tendencies to standardize among artists who separately depict the same characters, and treat "Comic Book World" as a real place, and comic book panels as if they were photographs of the inhabitants, I think it's reasonable to conclude that they just diverge less from each other than we do, women diverging even less than men, with some notable exceptions that may even count as subspecies. This is a separate argument in itself against BMI. While BMI is just a calculable number, its meaning exists in the context of real-world human variation. BMI 18 is considered a little too skinny here, BMI 26 a little too fat.

Further complicating this line of reasoning, it's arguable--and I tend to assume the argument is correct, in the context of superhero RPGs--that there are separate "categories" of people in Comic Book World, to which different rules, even to the extent of different biology, apply. Either the people who get superpowers are different from the normals, or the getting of superpowers makes a normal person different. Whatever forces "select" recipients of superpowers "choose" individuals with particular body types; alternatively, the process itself makes people assume particular body types; alternatively, the person themselves gets, subconsciously, some limited control over their physique--more so than we do in the real world, and why not, it applies to everything else they can do that we can't--and thinking of themselves as a superhero (or supervillain), they assume particular body types associated with that kind of person.

My point is the stereotype builds do exist, and if you bother to do so you can justify them in-genre. This study is intended to prove a point, which is that depictions of women are less diverse than depictions of men. Even excluding the miscellaneous outliers and the male tank build, male characters diverge somewhat more than female characters. The authors have chosen a silly way of proving that point, but the point itself is pretty much self-evidently true. The reason why, simply, is that significantly more artists, writers, and readers of comic books are male than female, and there's a psychological effect to widen differences between "us" and to narrow differences between "them". Same thing happens in reverse in romance novels.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:30 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


but the point is that their sample arbitrarily excludes most every character who might fall outside the norm -- large or small.

The way I saw it, they were trying to compare the characters most like regular humans so they could see if Marvel was accurately portraying real life. So it's not a question if Thing or Juggernaut can control their weight at will, it's that their powers have already changed their weight dramatically. So they're decidedly non-realistic.

People without bodies notwithstanding. I'm more of a DC guy, admittedly, and didn't catch some of the characters. (DC is better because they don't just reset things with magic and lazy writing like Spider-Man. They drag it out over years of implausible plot twists and retcons like Green Lantern. (All instances of them resetting things with magic notwithstanding :) )).
posted by Gary at 5:40 PM on March 4, 2008


Well, according to those numbers, I win the BMI contest.
posted by KingoftheWhales at 5:59 PM on March 4, 2008


When I first saw the post I thought it was the other BMI.

Now THAT would be a sweet smackdown.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:07 PM on March 4, 2008


I saw Wonder Woman drawn a bit ago with a fairly regular sized bust, but very narrow hips and a flat rear end. I always thought she should be built like Joyner. Unless you’ve got those buttock muscles and that athletic physique you’re not going to be that good on a horse (Hippolyta means “Horse-Person”) or throw a javelin well (back, butt, leg and abdomen - and I mean the hunter’s throw, not the distance throws) or fight using pankration.

I do like the way Alex Ross draws Superman. He looks like a strong farm boy, not a body builder. Strikes me as perfect. It’s the powers doing the work, not the muscles. So the accent should be on character evoking body style instead of any other consideration.

I suppose that’d be my gripe with various looks people are drawn with. Superman should look like he’s a beefy guy from Kansas. Spiderman should look like a reedy nerd. Sue Storm should look like someone’s mom. Mary Jane Watson should look like a top model. Elektra and the Black Widow should look like superb athletes. (And yeah, Cap should look like the strongest man in the world).
So yeah, I suppose there should be more variation in how women look.
But I think that’s more the imposition of marketing mediocrity than a limited range of artistry.
It’s valid as a critique in dramatic terms, I think. This, not so much.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:12 PM on March 4, 2008


My personal BMI fits somewhere between May Parker and Bruce Banner.

I was pretty excited by this, because I figured that May Parker meant Aunt May

Which actually would have worked pretty well, as I was thinking that these two people as my personal bookends within the Marvel universe defined my characteristics so nicely in the real world.

Just think of me as a skinny, quiet guy who, when he gets really, really angry turns into an old lady.

Unfortunately they meant May Parker as in Spider-Girl, and unfortunately, I'm just not that cool.
posted by quin at 6:16 PM on March 4, 2008


Well, according to those numbers, I must resemble Pete Wisdom.

I have no idea if this is a good thing, or a bad thing.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:21 PM on March 4, 2008


So the average boy may be able to hit the gym and get there eventually. The average girl is out of luck without plastic surgery.

Yeah, ok. Women in comics. Unrealistic proportions? Hell yes.

Men in comics? Inhuman proportions.

I mean, sure, the reason behind it is still sexist: attractiveness of the female characters is considered mandatory. But let's not get silly here. The brick performs an uber-masculine role.

As for BMI itself, well Newtonian physics doesn't work at extremes either. Let's not pretend it doesn't work well enough most of the time.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:04 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


I mean, seriously. The brick's function is to be such an exemplar of male virtue, he's not even a man anymore.

Why not have VaginaGirl and BreastWoman running around nurturing the villains into submission.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:40 PM on March 4, 2008


meh. i think i'll hold out for the VaginaGirl and BreastWoman slash fanfic.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:15 PM on March 4, 2008


The way I saw it, they were trying to compare the characters most like regular humans so they could see if Marvel was accurately portraying real life. So it's not a question if Thing or Juggernaut can control their weight at will, it's that their powers have already changed their weight dramatically. So they're decidedly non-realistic.

Well, the main issue here is whether they're presenting an unrealistic or unhealthy body image -- and for the female characters I think that's definitely the case. For the male characters,

(a) It really irks me that Beast is left off the list -- half the point of his character, it seems to me, is dealing with his self-image issues, and he's not proportioned like Mr. Universe, either.

If the point of the argument is that superheroes promote an unrealistic body image, then oversimplifying everything to BMI is just obtuse -- X-Men in particular actually does a decent job (I think) of addressing the underlying issues there (See also, Rogue), and it's important to differentiate that from Calvin Klein ads.

This is actually an important issue, I think, and it's selling it short to complain about unrealistic caricatures of superheroes without also acknowledging that there's often more depth here that you'd see reading fashion magazines. Equating the two uncritically just cheapens the point, because it's not entirely about the portrayal, it's what the portrayal means.

I can see the argument for leaving off Thing or Juggernaut, but --

(b) At that point, I also don't think that the criticism of the other male characters necessarily holds water. The female characters in many comic books are clearly far too waiflike, granted, but in actuality it seems to me that you'd expect superheroes to be pretty well-built even if their powers aren't strength-related.

I.e., Cyclops doesn't have any reason to be in good shape, but if he's being put through the Danger Room every day and since Xavier's probably pumping him up with Mutant Growth Hormone, it's to be expected, and probably the smart move on his part -- since he has to expect that he'll be smacked around by Juggernaut, et al. from time to time, he needs every edge he can get.

(c) Of course, that's more of a reason why the female characters are too spindly, but I just don't think it holds water w/r/t the male characters.

In general, I think you'd expect any superhero to be in relatively good shape. The bottom line is that if they were proportioned "normally," (not even accurately -- because if they were truly average, they'd be overweight) they just wouldn't live that long.

People without bodies notwithstanding. I'm more of a DC guy, admittedly, and didn't catch some of the characters. (DC is better because they don't just reset things with magic and lazy writing like Spider-Man. They drag it out over years of implausible plot twists and retcons like Green Lantern. (All instances of them resetting things with magic notwithstanding :) )).

Eh, I prefer DC too, but this disingenuous -- let's be honest, the continuity for both Marvel and DC is absurd, and retelling stories can be a good thing if you're willing to accept the creative license. Most of my favorite Batman stories aren't really canonical (Arkham Asylum, Dark Knight), but that's arguably why they're so great -- they're self-contained and they create a neat story space to explore.

And to be honest, the original Stan Lee arcs really do suck in a lot of ways. I mean, they're classics in their own rights, but they're not perfect and they shouldn't stop new writers from telling what would otherwise be cool stories. The writer is what makes the story good or bad, not whether it's canonical or not.
posted by spiderwire at 9:23 PM on March 4, 2008


So the average boy may be able to hit the gym and get there eventually. The average girl is out of luck without plastic surgery.

I doubt you could go into the gym and introduce entirely fictional muscles into your anatomy.
posted by ODiV at 9:24 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Don't correct me about comics, kiddo."

Don't be wrong about comics. The Marvel stats for Bruce Banner exist as stats for Bruce Banner. That he can turn into the Hulk is immaterial at that point. It's like saying that because water can turn into steam that measurements of its density when its water are somehow suspect.

"This study is pretty much pointless."

Except as a way to quantify the exact same points that you elucidate further, though with a more representative sample.

"My major objection to BMI in this context is that, from the way they are depicted, almost all male "heroic build" characters, and a large proportion of female characters, have such very low body fat levels and very high muscular development that they're in the small percentage of people for which BMI is inaccurate."

Inaccurate as an absolute measurement of health. As a height-to-weight measurement, or even as a rough predictor of how "thin" someone looks, it's fine.

"My point is the stereotype builds do exist, and if you bother to do so you can justify them in-genre."

Comic book explanations often suck and alienate fans. All of this smacks of Green Lantern being made fearless by the ring. (I was looking for an older Marvel reference so I could award you a No Prize, but I couldn't think of any off-hand that sucked as much as that one.)
posted by klangklangston at 9:29 PM on March 4, 2008


"I mean, seriously. The brick's function is to be such an exemplar of male virtue, he's not even a man anymore.

Why not have VaginaGirl and BreastWoman running around nurturing the villains into submission."

Uh, way to misjudge your analogies. The equivalent there would be the cockmaster bullshit you see in Hustler Humor, which is so terrible that no one should ever read it.
posted by klangklangston at 9:32 PM on March 4, 2008


The brick's function is to be such an exemplar of male virtue

Vice, too. I think men with the brick physique are at least as commonly villains as heroes. Exemplar of masculinity, maybe?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:34 PM on March 4, 2008


After postin', I see that spiderwire gave a much better explication of his point of view. Sorry 'bout the collateral snark, SW. I just get annoyed at all the shit pinup women in comics ALL THE FUCKING TIME in a way that I don't with the guys. A big part of that is that guys are rarely drawn in the pin-up mode, I think. But I guess what I'd say is that I'm willing to accept all sorts of stuff, so long as the characters are still human. I think that the pinup girls diminishes their humanity, and that makes it less interesting for me to read. Because, frankly, I'm sure the silicon intelligences of Rigel Seven have their own narratives that don't even touch on our carbon-based tropes, but that's pretty fucking boring. The one commonality of all of our comics here is that they were written by humans for humans.
posted by klangklangston at 9:37 PM on March 4, 2008


I think that the pinup girls diminishes their humanity, and that makes it less interesting for me to read.

This is how I feel about the current Catwoman series. When Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke and Cameron Stewart worked on it, they didn't go for realism and avoided most of the full page pin-up nonsense. The art was stylish, it was really fun and she was an interesting character. The moment they left it became a book for greasy guys in sweatpants again.
posted by Gary at 9:59 PM on March 4, 2008


Well, I think there's a more moderate and defensible variant available: major label superheros, regardless of gender, are so ridiculously stylized in general (depending to some extent on the artist, natch) that the double-standard is less profoundly meaningful than it would be in a more realistically grounded setting.

Actually, I think it's very meaningful, cortex.

See, male superheroes are ridiculously stylized for heterosexual men.

Female superheroes are ridiculously stylized for ... heterosexual men.

Hmm!

Oh, and to the folks noting lack of Beast, Sabretooth, etc - as I understood the authors (disclaimer: I hang out on hosting site girl-wonder's forums, so I do know Karen and her writing style pretty well), they meant not just superpowers which involve overt shape- or density-changing as part of the power, like Colossus' metal form or Hulking out, but also characters whose powers give them bodies and physical stats that are blatantly outside the human norm (Sabretooth, Colossus). They're saying they wanted superheroes who could possibly exist in real life as people, minus all the laserbeams and healing factors and stuff.

(Of course, if you really want to get nerdy, there's no real reason to my knowledge that Sabretooth should have particularly deviant height/weight stats because of his powers, even if he looks all beastial, whereas Peter Parker is known to have increased bone and muscle density thanks to that radioactive spider-bite, but the principle is a fair one.)

I think it's also interesting that there are more male characters that need to be excluded according to their "approximates possible, if not plausible human stats" criteria than female characters, which bears out in my reading experience as well. There are lots of Things and Beasts around, but Monstress got her head blown off.

Also, klang, as a female comics nerd I kinda want to hug you right now.
posted by bettafish at 10:43 PM on March 4, 2008


Why not have VaginaGirl and BreastWoman running around nurturing the villains into submission."

Uh, way to misjudge your analogies. The equivalent there would be the cockmaster bullshit you see in Hustler Humor


That would be exhibition of female virtue? Ok there, kiddo.

Exemplar of masculinity, maybe?

True, though the virtues I was thinking of were sheer physical strength and ability to take damage.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:53 PM on March 4, 2008


also characters whose powers give them bodies and physical stats that are blatantly outside the human norm (Sabretooth, Colossus). They're saying they wanted superheroes who could possibly exist in real life as people

That's kinda leaving out some notable counterexamples, though. I mean, bricks are clearly designed with masculinity taken to the nth degree, not as animate heaps of matter divorced from ideas of gender.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:58 PM on March 4, 2008


It should also be noted that the reason Beast or Sabretooth are missing might simply be because they picked their 25 men and women at random. Of course, the total possible pool is small enough that it's not clear why they did it this way. My guess is they thought picking a random sample made it look more science-y.
posted by Gary at 11:56 PM on March 4, 2008


I just get annoyed at all the shit pinup women in comics ALL THE FUCKING TIME

No shit. I've basically given up on mainstream comics, despite my love of big silly battles, primary colours, and epic life-or-death stories, because every other page I burst out laughing at yet another drawing of a woman contronting a serious situation by standing so that her buttocks and her breasts are exposed to the reader, which sort of takes me out of the story. And that's in stuff like Countdown, which doesn't even have the excuse of being drawn by Land.

With Y: The Last Man finished and the Blue Beetle series in danger of being cancelled, Simone, Morrison and Ellis are the only reasons to even bother thinking about acquiring comics these days. For the rest, I check back to scans daily and laugh and Marvel and DC's apparent determination to chase of their female fans.

As a general point to the rest of the thread, female comic fans may not be the majority, but they're not an insignificant minority either. The focus currently being applied to sexist portrayals of women in comics is not from an academic or feminist perspective necessarily, but from people who actually read them, pay money for them, and want to feel a bit less insulted by them.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 11:56 PM on March 4, 2008


...which is not to say that said comic fans don't have a feminist perspective, simply that they are not critiquing comics because they're feminists, but because they're female comic fans who are also feminists.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 11:58 PM on March 4, 2008


Sorry 'bout the collateral snark, SW.

I was just playing around, so no harm no foul. Really, "kiddo" is pretty mild for me...

They're saying they wanted superheroes who could possibly exist in real life as people, minus all the laserbeams and healing factors and stuff.

I still have an issue with leaving out Beast, and it's not only because he doesn't strike me as a "strongman" character, but rather because he really calls into question the premise of what they're saying -- he represents the awkwardness of a non-normal body type in a way that casts the other characters' images in a different light. Put simply, a world where Beast's problems exist just has a fundamentally different underlying narrative than the world of fashion models and underwear ads.

(That said, it's worth repeating that while I see the two as distinct -- and I think the distinction's important -- there's certainly ample room to criticize comic books in this regard. I just think it's a pretty narrow approach to the issue.)


Something that did occur to me when reading aeschenkarnos' comment is that I'm not really sure what the female characters should look like. Another way of looking at my comment on the relative plausibility of male figures in comic books (i.e., it's actually somewhat rational that crime-fighters with access to superpowers would all be in exceptionally good shape) is that the figures of superheroes are an almost arbitrary decision considering the world they already live in, which is already pure fancy. Although some of the female characters do tend toward blatant objectification, it also makes sense to me that superheroes would generally be as fit and attractive as, say, movie stars, which is about where they fall. (Again, that's not to defend some portrayals which are pretty clearly over the top, but it is worth pointing out that it's the message communicated that's important, rather than just the image itself.)

The point, I think, is that the central problem with unrealistic body imagery in the media is that there's an undercurrent of twisted realism and legitimacy that's really problematic: it's selling an unhealthy, unrealistic caricature of beauty as a goal or a standard. The objectification in comic books -- although it does exist -- just strikes me as much less sinister. Making superheroes "more realistic" would actually come across as pretty patronizing, I think (and when it's tried, I think that's often what happens -- it's such a painfully blatant sop to political correctness for its own sake that it just falls flat). The bottom line is that there's a somewhat plausible reason for comic characters to look like they do, as there is with athletes, for example -- and that's not at all the case with models in magazines.

Frankly, I think I prefer the way that books like X-Men deal with this issue -- Rogue, of course, is the best example: beauty without personal contact. That's actually a valuable metaphor to stack up against the idealized images you find on most fashion magazine covers, and the unhealthiness and self-loathing that often underlies them. That's a unique perspective that we elide if we just condemn all superheroes as overly-idealized without stopping to consider the different message that's being expressed in the medium.
posted by spiderwire at 12:11 AM on March 5, 2008


See, male superheroes are ridiculously stylized for heterosexual men.

Female superheroes are ridiculously stylized for ... heterosexual men.


I'm also not really sure that I buy this. Frankly, I usually never notice the sexualized aspect of comic books, whereas I can't help but notice sexualization in other media. Although that might be because I'm jaded, I also think that it's because the characters' figures are really just part of the iconography for me -- as Scott McCloud might say, they're arguably just purely stylized, like a smiley face, or word bubbles, or motion lines. That stuff just fades into the background unless the author's really trying to do something with it.

I acknowledge that this might not be true for younger kids, but I'm pretty sure that most of the adults that I know who read comics really aren't in it for the boobs and the rippling muscles. I'm not really convinced that comic books can compete for the attention of heterosexual men on that particular playing field.
posted by spiderwire at 12:19 AM on March 5, 2008


It's also totally awesome (and funny) that the comments on this thread seem to be well above MeFi's average terms of content.
posted by spiderwire at 12:37 AM on March 5, 2008


Although some of the female characters do tend toward blatant objectification, it also makes sense to me that superheroes would generally be as fit and attractive as, say, movie stars, which is about where they fall.

I think, if you were going for realism, that soldiers would provide a much better standard than movie stars. Young and fit, but still a range of body types.

I'm not really convinced that comic books can compete for the attention of heterosexual men on that particular playing field.

Well, no one said they're succeeding. Supergirl sold 36,000 issues in January. Maxim has a circulation of 2.5 million.
posted by Gary at 12:55 AM on March 5, 2008


Reading over a bunch of Showcase and Essentials reprints, I can totally see where female comic fans are coming from when they object to the treatment of women in comics. From females being portrayed as plot-moving-rescue beacons to one dimensional psycho bitches, there were not a whole lot of balanced female characters in the Golden through Bronze Ages.

And there's still not a heck of a lot of them now.

But I don't get the point of this article. It shows that female characters are depicted with a different BMI shift compared to their real-world analogs than men, right? It also shows that the shift between comic and real females is much more pronounced than that of comic and real men.

I can follow all that, but I get lost around the "Yes, and...?" point. I agree that female comic characters have long been drawn in such a way that objectifies their bodies. But then again, so are male comic characters (see aeschenkarnos' point). Every character in Comic Book Land either has washboard abs or is fat. This even seems to apply to characters who do not train daily in the Danger Room. I mean, if you take a look at minor characters and cameos - those characters who show up for one line, impart some information, or need rescue - in comics, they will always be Fit or Fat with nothing in between. And you can play a Law and Order style 'guess the murderer game' with that Fit ones.

(In Law&Order and its spin-offs/imitators, you can always tell who the murderer is by the actor who plays him or her. If it's a character actor you recognize, he or she is probably guilty. So a line-up of 'Some Dude, Some Dude, Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers, Some Dude, Some Dude' will always lead to lonely times for Balky.)

So if Awesome Man shows up to the scene of a crime and there are two witnesses, a Fit Guy and a Fat Guy, the Fit Guy will probably turn out to be involved while the Fat Guy will give his one line and then disappear, never to be heard from again. There are two exceptions to this: First, if that Fat Guy is sleezy, creepy, or otherwise a slob, he's probably up to no good and involved in the crime. Second, if the Fat Guy saw too much, he'll need to be rescued (or at least have his corpse discovered) by the hero. Other than that, you can be pretty sure that it'll be the Fit Guy you end up seeing again.

Okay, so what does this have to do with depictions of female characters? Well, it stands to reason that if male recurring characters are idealized, then so are female characters. I don't think the idealized versions of either gender are realistically obtainable or are the norm (as shown by the article), but I have accepted that as a given.

So what is the impact of this female idealization? Less female comic book fans? Does that mean that if female comic characters were less idealized, there would be more female fans? But wouldn't that mean that if male characters were less idealized we'd have more male comic fans?

So I agree with the article's findings, but I can't wrap my head around its purpose. It's like reading an article that proves it is warmer out when the sun is up - yes, that's true, I've long since accepted that, so... and?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:12 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


And the above took so long to write as I kept trying to insert this point:

As minor characters and cameos, Fat Guys and Females get treated with the same broad strokes in comics. Fat Guy minor characters are either going to be hapless witnesses or corrupt/creepy/skeezy villains of the week. Same goes for Females, except that their 'evil' version tends to be of the stuck-up bitch (for lack of a better word) variety. So if Awesome Man comes across two witnesses, one a Fit Guy and the other either a Greasy Fat Guy or Bitchy Female, then you can be assured the latter did it. If he meets a Fit Guy and either a standard Female or standard Fat Guy, then the Fit Guy probably did it.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:17 AM on March 5, 2008


I realized last night that I should really backtrack a little.

I'm not saying that the dearth of body-type alternatives for female characters in comics isn't depressing. If it's strictly variation we're talking about, then I agree 100%. (Me, I'd actually like to see -- gasp -- muscles on the female superhero) Whereas I can find a male character with whatever body type I need to relate, if that's key for me. I just find it funny and sad when someone looks at a female comic character with exaggerated boobs and a tiny waist, and then looks at a male comic character who is the size of an army jeep, and concludes that women in comics have been caricatured.

on preview: roles for these archtypes are another thing altogether, and there they can't seem to avoid caricaturing women -- either as helpless dimwits, scheming manipulators, or in the positive sense but no more realistic, Mary Sues. But then it's never been the least bit unclear to me that the industry is packed with some people who have some pretty screwed up ideas about sex. Witness anything by Frank Miller. Of course, yes, we then have Sandman, Watchmen, etc.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 6:34 AM on March 5, 2008


"[T]he point is that their sample arbitrarily excludes most every character who might fall outside the norm -- large or small." And that apparently includes mindless swamp creatures.
posted by Man-Thing at 10:03 AM on March 5, 2008


So a line-up of 'Some Dude, Some Dude, Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers, Some Dude, Some Dude' will always lead to lonely times for Balky.

Heh. I thought you picked him for exaggerated comedic effect. No, no you did not.
posted by Gary at 11:15 AM on March 5, 2008


I just find it funny and sad when someone looks at a female comic character with exaggerated boobs and a tiny waist, and then looks at a male comic character who is the size of an army jeep, and concludes that women in comics have been caricatured.

The argument isn't that men aren't caricatured, the argument is that men and women are caricatured in gendered ways, and this gendering is often sexist.

Spiderwire, you seem to be conflating two different issues. 1) The sexualized objectification of female characters in (superhero) comics for the benefit of a heterosexual male audience, and 2) the market success of comics in relation to said audience. As Gary's already pointed out, comics with objectified female characters can be aimed at het guys, but that doesn't mean they're going to do well. As to the first point, well, I'm pretty sure that the work of (SKEEVY AND POTENTIALLY NSFW IMAGES/WEBSITES AHEAD, BEWARE) Greg Horn and Greg "Pornface" Land, two of Marvel's most prominent cover (and sometimes interior) artists, kind of speaks for my side of the argument here. They are only two (of the worst offenders, admittedly) among dozens. And that's just the overt stuff - okay, hair-pulling fight on Ms. Marvel #whatever's cover. Then there's the stuff like, say, artists randomly choosing to focus panels of characters standing around talking on a woman's ass (my favorite example of this is in the Civil War miniseries, where Dramatic Events of Political Import are happening and, whoop, teehee, Dagger's got a rip in the butt of her costume!).

And then there was the time a bunch of girl-wonder forum folks decided to try drawing male characters in the poses female characters are regularly seen in mainstream US comics (many, though not all of those parodies are direct "homages").

Really, are you going to tell me that this is for the benefit of a gender-neutral, orientation-neutral audience?
posted by bettafish at 2:25 PM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


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