Supertramp

Martin goes in search of inspiring female superheroes in the morass of Raunch Culture, and it proves a depressing journey...

How does a chest of that magnitude help you fight?

I’m currently reading Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women And The Rise Of Raunch Culture, solely because the bus stop where I alight for work is regularly pasted with pro-feminist posters and one of them mentioned dates for a debate on ‘Raunch Culture’.

Seeing that legend, I had a feeling that I had finally found the not-so-newly minted term for something that had remained nameless in my perception of the world in recent years – the ugly fact that my adolescent crush on the sexy and sexist 1970s (which I remember well) has come back to haunt me in a very twisted form…

Though I have no children myself, I think that seeing a 13 year-old girl begging her mother to buy her some ‘bunny’ (Playboy) ear-rings is one of the most depressing experiences I can remember from this decade, most especially because I know for a fact that the girl was just trying to keep pace with her friends. I fail to understand how adopting such a narrow (and incidentally, awfully tedious) public projection as the objectified and commercialised ‘perfect’ Playboy woman ever slipped into the ‘positive’ agenda for young women. What kind of power is this?

Levy contends that the phenomenon of Raunch Culture is seen to have emerged in a post-feminist realisation that the women who had won equality after such long struggle were having less fun than their male counterparts. If this is so, I confess that turning a wet t-shirt contest into mainstream culture bespeaks a lack of imagination in the female psyche when looking far laughs. To quote Levy, “Why is this the ‘New feminism’ and not what it looks like – the old objectification?”.

Ad – content continues below

My TV aerial is being fixed tomorrow , and I fear to see what Pimp My Pornstar – or whatever unutterable tripe has replaced it in my absence from Freeview – is up to these days. With more silicone than IBM, and unearthly orange skin that looks like it was cultivated in space by ICI, the lodestar female of the late noughties is appropriate fare indeed for a science-fiction column: the ultimate female aesthetic seems to be something I can only call ‘androidyny’, wherein the carefully applied airbrushing pioneered and perfected by Playboy magazine is rendered ‘live’ on so-called ‘ordinary’ women aspiring to be strippers, lap-dancers and porn-stars.

How many fucking meetings did I miss?

Wasn’t the total objectification of women supposed to be something that western society was going to quietly let die after the cultural bush-fires of the 70s and 80s? Why then did it return in new raiment in recent years, like some ghastly wish-fulfilment from The Monkey’s Paw, with young women aspiring to porn-star chic? Are the boundaries of Stepford rapidly extending? This shit used to be underground for a reason, and it was a pretty damn good reason. If all cultural toxicity is therefore ultimately revenant, will smoking in enclosed spaces not only eventually return but become compulsory…?

Fellow DoG editor and rabid comics fan Sarah Dobbs started my thoughts rolling on the matter some weeks ago by pointing out one or two of the absurder excesses of the depiction of female superheroes in mainstream comics and graphic novels: ultra-sexualised, ultra endomorphic, ultra-busty and apparently quadruple-jointed, the superheroines unearthed in a casual search of Google Images are patently unready for battle; Sarah contended that the ideal male superhero is a muscle-bound, Olympian ideal, whereas their female counterparts are…well, ready to pole-dance.

Truth is, it was a lot like that in the post-censor era of the 1970s, but that was when comics were mainly read by young boys, and attempts to cross DC and Marvel output over into a potentially lucrative female readership were infrequent and usually short-lived. While the likes of Satana and Warren comics’ hyper-sexy Vampirella were unabashedly male-baiting, Marvel broke some very interesting female guest-roles into their own magazines, including Red Sonja and Ms. Marvel.

Sonja had a huge amount of potential to cross over, proven by her later tacit cloning into Xena: Warrior Princess. If they’d only given her a little more chain-mail to wear, Marvel might have doubled Sonja’s readership and extended her 70s shelf-life. But would I, as a grubby 13 year-old boy, have bought it? Yes, and I can prove it, since I also bought and enjoyed Ms. Marvel; Carol Danvers was more conventionally built and fairly decently attired, and if she exemplified the confused soul of 70s feminism, she at least wasn’t a half-nude nutter with huge tits.

Ad – content continues below

Then they made her a half-nude nutter with huge tits. And S&M black spandex (later, leather). Last time I came across Ms. Marvel she was in a story called Carol Vs. Carol where she was fighting herself.

But if society and feminism is confused, maybe comics should reflect that. And if the young women who embrace Raunch Culture aspire to 2-dimensional life and 3-D bust-lines, maybe it’s none of my damned business. Since I used to ogle Vampirella and Red Sonja, maybe I’m just getting what I asked for, and then some. But it is such a dehumanising dream, and I am sorry to see the wonderful, intelligent and highly individual female friends I have been honoured to know in my life caught in the blast radius; not three weeks ago I talked a friend of mine – a doctor, no less – out of getting breast implants. At least for the moment. And here we are talking about a woman in the top 2% of the population in terms of intelligence, tempted to submit to the homogeneity of Hugh Hefner and all the other imaginatively bankrupt enemies of diversity that are selling their second-hand wet-dreams to women as some kind of chalice of power.

Has Joss Whedon just wasted two years of his life on the on-and-off Wonder Woman film because the Amazonian heroine, like the equally problematic Superman, is a decidedly – and unmarketably – virtuous character in an insane age that can only empathise with confusion and conflict? Or does Diana Prince have extra baggage to negotiate? Perhaps it has become impossible to set the pitch for a female superhero who must carry her own film: how small can the costume be without killing the interest of the target female demographic? Wonder Woman was created by Charles Moulton and his wife as a lesson to boys that women were their equals and to be respected. She’s got her work cut out for her, since her enemies seem to have doubled in recent years.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.