For my most recent piece at the SF Weekly, I wrote about the controversy that’s been boiling up around a new Tumblr Blog, The Hawkeye Initiative. In a way, it’s a blog that I’d like to applaud. It’s based on a very real and serious criticism of superhero comics for depicting female bodies in really weird, oversexualized, and distorted ways. The most famous example is the “boobs and butt” pose, which has become ubiquitous in superhero comics. A few examples of female characters contorting their spines in order to give the viewer tits and ass are seen below:
The Hawkeye Initiative has tried to critique this over-the-top aesthetic by having fans submit redrawn versions of comic book art that substitutes the Marvel character Hawkeye for female characters, in the hopes that it would make the absurdity of the poses more visible to people who take the boobs and butt approach for granted. And at first, there was a lot of positive response. The Hawkeye Initiative became the meme of the month for December of 2012, with media coverage from Wired, Geeks Are Sexy, Bleeding Cool, and i09, among others. But there’s also been an increasing amount of criticism on grounds that Hawkeye Initiative is using the very old trope of mocking effeminate men to make its point.
Transfeminist blogger Natalie Reed has been a very vocal critic of the Hawkeye Initiative. She was one of the first people I interviewed for the SF Weekly piece, and in fact, her thoughts make up the bulk of the quoted material in there, along with the ever-fabulous Kitty Stryker. One of the most painful parts about writing the article was figuring out just what I could cut and what to leave. She has a lot to say, and says it very well, and with her permission, I’m posting the full text of the interview here. There’s a lot to think on here; not only about gender and how we perceive it, but also about how to build and maintain truly intersectional analyses, instead of fighting one evil by building up another.
Chris Hall: First of all, could you summarize for me your criticisms of the Hawkeye Initiative?
Natalie Reed: So, my main concern with the Hawkeye Initiative, and related strategies of critiquing the representation of women in comics by placing men as substitutions in the poses, costumes or anatomy of female characters, boils down to how much of this strategy is based in the basic idea of “But it would be ridiculous if Hawkeye / Batman / Iron Man / Captain America were placed in this pose”, which is the suggestion that a male character being placed in the same pose/costume/anatomic-style will be perceived as more ridiculous than the female character, or make the ridiculousness more obvious while obviously the basic “point” here is to expose the ridiculous, impractical or anatomically impossible nature of the way female characters are represented, that point ends up falling over pretty heavily into transphobia and femmephobia by imagining these representations become more ridiculous by placing men in them. Frequently, in the Hawkeye Initiative or similar strategies, you see things like word balloons saying “I’m so pretty!”, or caption jokes about “look at Tony Stark’s seductive face!”, wherein the humor and “ridiculousness” of the drawing comes not from the basic preposterousness of the female representation itself, but from the way our culture perceives it as innately or intrinsically ridiculous, funny, disgusting, absurd or frivolous for a man (or person whose body we perceive as male) to dress, behave, or perform in “feminine ways.” This idea that it’s somehow inherently comical, or ridiculous, for a man, (or someone so designated), to do “feminine” things is one of the cornerstones of both trans-misogyny and femmephobia (the idea that femininity is inherently more superficial, silly, ridiculous, weak, or impractical than masculinity).
While I understand the point that removing our biases regarding how female character places in these silly poses and costumes has been “normalized” can help in seeing how bizarre and silly those poses and costumes are, I find that it’s impossible to do so by placing men in those poses/costumes without falling into our transphobic biases instead, where the strategy gets undermined by using transphobia and femmephobia to “make it’s point” instead of simply making the point directly.
If the concept were simply that the costumes and poses of female characters in comics were ridiculous, in themselves, it wouldn’t really be necessary to put a male character in them to illustrate that fact.
And, indeed, Escher Girls (which is, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not), run by a trans woman, does illustrate the absurdity of female representation in comics by simply presenting that absurdity as it appears.
If the costumes/poses are ridiculous and impractical, they’re ridiculous and impractical regardless of what kind of body is placed in them. The idea that male bodies inhabiting those costumes/poses is somehow more ridiculous is pretty obviously more dependent on the transphobic idea of “men in dresses are funny! hur dur” than on the simple removal of our being “used to” women being placed in them.
Basically, these representations are ridiculous no matter who is being presented in them. And given the cultural ubiquity of transphobia, it’s impossible to adopt the strategy of presenting men in those poses without it being transphobic.
And far more often than not, that’s what the net result is: transphobia, and a whole lot of humor based in how “funny” it is for a “male-bodied” person to be wearing high heels, rather than how silly it is for someone to be fighting crime in high heels in the first place.
That’s obvious in Batman being given a little word balloon saying “I’m so pretty!” along with his heels. That demonstrates clearly where the humor is actually coming from, and it isn’t a politically progressive place.
Chris Hall: So then you think that the problem is congenital to the concept, not just the specific execution? I notice that the Hawkeye Initiative did make a post acknowledging criticisms of the trans/femme-phobic implications, but I haven’t been able to spot any way in which they acted upon it.
Natalie Reed: I think that nothing about the concept is intentionally transphobic, of course. Obviously the first and most common criticism I receive for pointing out the transphobia and femmephobia of The Hawkeye Initiative and related stuff is that I’m “missing the point”, and that it’s “simply” about removing the bias of the male gaze from the equation for the sake of illustrating how absurd the costumes and poses of female characters actually are.
And I do understand that that’s the driving intent behind The Hawkeye Initiative and these kinds of things. I also understand that it’s a perfectly reasonable, noble intent and concept, but, as the cliches go: the road to hell is paved with blahblahblah, and “intent isn’t magic!”
The truth is that we live in a heavily transphobic, cissexist, femmephobic, misogynistic culture, and those biases are going to be with us whether we want them to be or not, and whether we notice them or not.
As such, even with perfectly “reasonable” goals and concepts, it’s nonetheless going to be intensely easy, and perhaps inevitable, to fall into relying upon our cultural ideas that “men in heels/dresses/‘feminine’ poses are funny!” to drive the humor of your project and help it build popularity.
So while I don’t think the concept and “point” is inherently transphobic, I believe it’s virtually impossible for its execution to not be. At the very least, it’s impossible for its execution to not be received through the lens of transphobia and femmephobia, and thereby reinforce those biases and attitudes.
And more often than not, those biases pretty explicitly manifest in the work of the artists involved. If someone were to attempt to resist those transphobic / femmephobic aspects, it would require really intense, consistent work and attention, and I just don’t see that happening in what is essentially a “light-hearted” attempt to critique sexism in comics.
Additionally, what seems to be one of the major appeals of Hawkeye Initiative is the idea that it undermines the stereotype of the “humorless feminist”, and is using humor to combat sexism, but given how much of that humor is fundamentally trans/femmephobic, that’s a serious problem. And removing that transphobia/femmephobia would probably result in the meme of “humorless feminazis!” once again gaining traction.
What I see as one of the main problems here is that a huge part of the mainstream appeal of Hawkeye Initiative is the humor derived from the transphobia and femmephobia, so those problematic aspects are precisely part of what makes it effective.
Again, I’d draw a comparison to Escher Girls as a means of pointing out how this kind of thing can be done in a non-problematic way. Escher Girls clearly isn’t “humorless” feminism. Ami Angelwings has a great sense of humor, at the same time as Escher Girls being an extremely important, innovative part of the feminist discourse of comics.
That humor, however, doesn’t involve serious transphobia or femmephobia. There is some occasionally problematic stuff that goes on there, but the basic concept isn’t problematic. It simply presents the absurdity of the representations as already sufficient for laughing at. And does a good job of it.
This does remind me of a related issue: one of the problematic things that often pops up in critiques of female anatomy and representation in comics is the language of “what women’s bodies are like.”
Chris Hall: Right. “Real women don’t look like that.”
Natalie Reed: This can very frequently become misogynistic, body-shaming, fat-shaming, thin-shaming, white-supremacist, or transphobic. Recently, there was a drawing on EG that had a woman portrayed with absurdly large breasts and absurdly wide hips. A redraw gave her small breasts and narrow hips; immediately portions of the commentariat began remarking that she “looked like a 12-year-old boy”. The thing was, she had exactly the same body type as myself, and Ami, and lots of cis women (it being a very common body type for certain ethnicities, too).
Long limbs, small breasts, (relatively) narrow hips, thin. That’s not a body type that is foreign to women. Women come in lots of shapes, and none of them are what “real” women look like.
The entire idea of “real women look like X” has an enormous amount of transphobic, classist, white-supremacist, ableist and cissexist implications. So, there are a lot of ways it’s very easy for our critique of female representations in comics as “non-realistic” to end up playing into our own bigoted ideas of “what women look like.”
Chris Hall: One of the things that I find interesting is that it has been embraced by a lot of queers and queer-friendly outlets. io9, for example, wrote rather gushingly about it.
Natalie Reed: Yeah, but “queers” is a demographic and discourse that is very heavily cis-dominated, despite what is often assumed. “Queers” aren’t necessarily any more trans-aware and accepting than straight cis people, generally, and frequently the overconfidence that comes from membership in the “LGBTQ” political coalition can end up making cis LGBs *more* ignorant and entitled and appropriate and insulting than cis straight folk.
Chris Hall: True. io9 came to mind because Charlie Jane Anders, one of the main editors, is trans.
Natalie Reed: Really? That’s interesting. Yeah… but maybe she just didn’t feel safe critiquing it? I remember Ami Angelwings had a lot of the same reservations about Hawkeye Initiative that I did at first, but she didn’t speak up, because (if I understood correctly) she was a) worried she was reacting hastily, and b) worried that her position as “competition” might bias her perspective.
She didn’t end up voicing any of those concerns until another trans comics fan, Girl In Four Colors, more openly pointed out the very obvious transphobia in a few specific Hawkeye Initiative drawings.
The one where the Avengers are all posed in retro burlesque outfits was the one in question. It had the “look at Tony’s face!” caption, which was clearly nothing but humor derived from “lol! dude acting like a chick!” It seems that quite often trans women don’t speak up about what bothers us because we simply aren’t empowered to do so or don’t feel safe doing so. We don’t have a whole lot of clout and leverage, politically speaking.
Chris Hall: What other examples of this strategy can you think of, and have you ever seen a productive discussion or response come out of it?
Natalie Reed: The strategy itself is old as dirt. The Hawkeye Initiative didn’t invent it, they just packaged it in a very meme-friendly, marketable way, which is in fact part of why I have so many concerns about the transphobic elements lending to its mainstream effectiveness. I imagine that, at the very least, conversations about “what if [male character X] was drawn/dressed like…” have been happening since the early 90s, and Rob Liefeld’s snake ladies
I did come across, recently, a post on The Mary Sue about the stiletto heels from The Dark Knight Rises, that predated Hawkeye Initiative by a few months. The idea there was that if stilettos were a reasonable fighting style to train for, then Batman would’ve trained too, since he infamously trained for everything. So, inevitably, this came to “LULZ what if we drew Batman in heels?!”
And then it became, of course, a bunch of transphobic drawings of Batman in stiletto heels. One of them was just a little doodle on a notepad, with the word balloon I referenced, “I’m so pretty!”
It was intensely obvious in this instance that the humor in the drawing had fuck-all to do with Catwoman’s stilettos, and everything to do with the “hilarity” of a trans-ish, “feminine” Batman.
It pretty much cut to the heart of the problem for me. How far more of what is ultimately driving things like Hawkeye Initiative is the desire to laugh at men-doing-fem-stuff than any actual critique of female representation in comics, or desire to laugh at that representation.
The feminist politics there, the idea of “removing the male gaze”, that’s a very catchy excuse. But it sure as hell isn’t what most people are clicking on Hawkeye Initiative for.
Chris Hall: Do you think that part of the “hilarity” lies in the eroticizing of male bodies? Are male bodies presented in erotic contexts, especially when not through a male gaze, seen as inherently silly or feminine?
Natalie Reed: Yes and no. The way that male bodies are eroticized is conventionally different than the way female bodies are eroticized, and this has to do with a lot of the sexist notions in our culture of “men are sexual agents, women are sexual objects.”
This can be different in certain contexts vs. others. For instance, in gay-specific contexts, male bodies can be eroticized as either objects, agents, or something in-between. The basic “beauty of the male form” can be presented erotically, without much complexity.
In mainstream culture, men are eroticized as protectors, boyfriends, husbands, or “bad boys,” the agency of the man being the erotic symbol, not his body. But women, consistently, over and over again, are broken down to the erotic appeal of their bodies rather than their agency, personalities, who they are.
This actually sheds light on a homophobic aspect of Hawkeye Initiative: when we see men presented erotically as sexual objects, rather than as sexual agents (like an alluring half-naked dude in a thong, vs. a doe-eyed Brad Pitt face in a scent ad), there’s an instant, subconscious association with “gay,” in that, culturally, men are only to present themselves as the object of erotic desire in “gay” context. Thus, if we look at Tony Stark in that Avengers “burlesque” pic on HI, we not only think “LULZ he’s acting like a girl!” we also think “LULZ he’s acting gay!”
Since our culture considers the attempt to attract sexual desire an explicitly feminine/female thing, and considers the attempt of a man to attract sexual desire as an explicitly “gay” thing.
And this, of course, relates to the often murky borderlines between transphobia / femmephobia / homophobia and misogyny, which are far more interconnected than I think any of us are really willing to admit to each other.
The way men’s bodies are conventionally portrayed in comics, though, is not eroticized. It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the male gaze. Not a “male idea of beauty” of some hypothetical female/gay gaze. So the idea of “the men are just as objectified as the women in comics” is an idea that doesn’t hold any water.
Chris Hall: You have a big love of comics yourself. What do you like in them, and what criticisms would you make of the sexuality and body depictions?
Natalie Reed: First of all, I think it’s important to make a distinction between “comics” and “western superhero comics.”
Chris Hall: True.
Natalie Reed: “Comics” itself is an incredibly broad medium, that isn’t even remotely pinned down to a single genre. Comics can be used for biography, journalism, sci-fi, fantasy, westerns, historical fiction, avante-garde, humor, surrealism, drama, soap opera, superheroes, whatever. It’s as broad a term as “film” or “literature.”
What I love about comics as a medium is how it’s so new, and has soooo much unexplored potential. Only the tiniest sliver of what we can do with comics has actually been done, and there are things we can do in comics that we can’t do in any other medium!
I find that really really exciting. It’s “technically” old, in that even ancient South American cultures did sequential pictorial narratives, but for us it’s new, at least. And, as said, exciting.
Why I like superheroes is a different thing; I think part of it is nostalgia. But I think mostly it’s about allegory. As trite and cliche and pretentious as it may sound, superheroes are a lot like mythology for our culture. They’re big and grandiose, they don’t “belong” to any individual writer and can be interpreted and reinterpreted over and over while only the “best” bits make it across interpretations, and they tell the stories of who we are, and what we deal with, through allegorically “grand” narratives and I can see my own story, my own struggles, reflected there, in my own way. Even if in my case it’s not the fate of the world, or the fate of Gotham City, on my shoulders, it is the fate of me, my soul, my conscience, my friends, my loved ones, my life, my readers—and that feels like it’s the fate of a city, a world, a universe.
And I had a secret identity. I do live double-lives, and have secrets. People have called me a “hero”, and I HAVE struggled to live up to that.
Chris Hall: Superheroes are also all about transformation.
Natalie Reed: And often times they reflect my struggles in ways I can’t even say are allegorical.
Batgirl has been by far the comic most personally meaningful to me of late, and a ton of that has to do with Barbara Gordon’s struggles as a survivor. She faces down a personified image of survivor’s guilt, the feeling that you “deserved” to die, then she faces down a personified image of the desire for revenge on the people who hurt you, and so on. She directly embodied my own struggles with myself, with my history, with the people who hurt me, and with my ethics and responsibilities in the face of that, and reflects the struggles of my friends, too.
And yeah, superheroes can be about a lot of things. Identity, survival, transformation, responsibility, ethics, secrets, living up to what people expect of you, living up to what they need you to be. and all of those are things I genuinely struggle with.
So, yeah, it’s allegorical, and mythological, but also, it hits a lot closer to home than most “real books” do!
More on Natalie Reed and The Hawkeye Initiative:
- Sincerely, Natalie Reed at Freethought Blogs
- Follow @nataliereed84
- Escher Girls
- Girl in Four Colors
- The Hawkeye Initiative