August 22, 2016 If Superhero Bodies Were Real
If superheroes were real they’d look like Olympic athletes. And world heptathlon champ Jessica Ennis-Hill would be near the top of the league. Here she is in actual flight during the long jump at the 2012 Olympics:
I trimmed away the crowd, filled in her uniform, and experimented with a cape and sash:
The cape didn’t work, but other inspiration did:
For the background I expanded my superhero variation on Warhol’s Marilyn and ran it through a black and white filter:
But the best thing about the image is Ennis herself. She doesn’t need a mask and leotard to look like a superhero. Her body is already superheroic. I made the image because I’ve been writing about superhero bodies a lot lately as I finish a draft of my book Superhero Comics out next spring from Bloomsbury. Here’s a recent excerpt:
Because of the visual nature of the medium, superheroes are foremost their bodies, and their costumes are an extension of their bodies. “The Superhero,” writes John Jennings, “is a symbol of power that is reified as the hyper-physical body,” one that is “perfect” and whose “skintight costume seems directly connected to the display, performance, and execution” of its power (59, 60). Joe Shuster, an aspiring body-builder in high school, partly modeled Superman’s costume on strongmen and acrobat leotards, the thinnest and so most body-revealing of real-world costumes—second only to nudity. When attempting “to delimit the elements of the superhero wardrobe,” Michael Chabon accordingly reduces it to “nothing,” a “pseudoskin” that “takes its deepest meaning and serves its primary function in the depiction of the naked human form, unfettered, perfect, and free” (67-8).
Chabon does not examine his use of the adjective “perfect,” but Jennings acknowledges that a “hyper-physical body” embodies a variety of “cultural and social values” and “belief structures” (59-60). Although narratively superheroes are presumed to be intelligent, the superhero body emphasizes physical over mental ability. James Bucky Carter observes, for example, that “the muscular American body” of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Fighting American is “stressed as an asset over the prowess of the American mind” and that “the American seat of power resides within the vigorous body the creators so obviously favor” (364). The Fighting American, a self-conscious 1950s recreation of the pioneering creators’ 1940s Captain America, is representative of the hyper-masculine body and the plot structure of physical domination that the imagery encourages across the genre. That formula reflects and reinforces a cultural ideology of “machismo,” which psychologists Donald Mosher and Silvan Tomkins define as exalting “male dominance by assuming masculinity, virility, and physicality to be the ideal essence of real men who are adversarial warriors competing for scarce resources (including women as chattel) in a dangerous world” (64). As fantastical embodiments of traditionally defined masculinity, male superheroes express two of the three traits of the “macho personality constellation”: “violence as manly” and “danger as exciting” (61).
Gender ideology also shapes the cultural meaning of the physique. For male superheroes, physical attractiveness and physical effectiveness are merged. As the two qualities are summarized by psychologists Jacqueline N. Stanford and Marita P. McCabe, male superheroes combine “the level to which one’s physical appearance is viewed as pleasing to the eye” and “the degree to which an individual’s body and body parts allow activities engaged in to be successful” (676). A male superhero’s “hyper-physical” body then may be termed perfect in the sense that it expresses both hyper-effectiveness and hyper-attractiveness, embodying the belief that optimal effectiveness and attractiveness should be combined and that a male body is attractive to the extent that it is effective—a concept that reached its apex in the cartoonishly exaggerated male muscularity of 90s superhero art.
Female superheroes disturb gender dichotomies to an even greater degree. If, as Moster and Tomkins write, “affects are divided into antagonistic contrasts of ‘superior and masculine’ or ‘inferior and feminine’” (64), how can a character be both superior and feminine? Fredric Wertham’s 1954 response to Wonder Woman as “a horror type” encapsulates the conflict: because a “superwoman” is “physically very powerful,” she is then also “the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman,” “a frightening figure for boys” and “an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be”. Although U.S. cultural attitudes have shifted since the 1950s, studies show the same gender discrepancy continuing into the 21st century. Stanford and McCabe report in a 2002 study of mostly white, middleclass U.S. college students that conceptions of ideal male and female bodies differ significantly. Not only were “males’ ideal ratings … larger than for females,” females “wanted to decrease their upper body, while the “majority of males indicated an ideal upper body that was substantially larger” (679, 681). Males also “indicated an ideal middle body that was slightly increased in size,” while females “wanted to decrease it substantially” (679). Despite shifting ideals for female beauty, the expectation of a thin waist has been a cultural constant since the popularity of corsets in the mid-19th century. Ideal female body mass index has also decreased, a trend apparent in Miss American pageant winners from 1922-1999, an increasing number of whom were under nutrition when crowned (Rubinstein and Ballero).
Although a corseted, malnourished body may be physically attractive according to a culture’s beliefs, it cannot be physically effective. Where men combine attractiveness and effectiveness, the two qualities are divorced and even opposed for women. Within the superhero visual system, female bodies are designed to appear weak, necessitating their rescue by strong male bodies. Drawing from centuries of precedents, Siegel and Shuster established Lois Lane as the prototype for the male superhero’s female love interest in comics. In the first six issues of Action Comics, Superman rescues Lois from a firing squad, a flood, a fall from a skyscraper window, and multiple gangsters. In each case, while Lois is unable to protect herself, Shuster draws her stereotypically attractive body in calf-revealing, form-fitting skirts and dresses, and with a strap slipping down a shoulder as she encounters Superman for the first time. Inverting the attractive-because-effective logic of the male body, an appearance of female physical ineffectiveness is attractive specifically because that ineffectiveness invites male intervention. She is attractive because she is weak.
In what sense then can a female superhero have a “perfect” or “hyper-physical” body? Depictions must emphasize one spectrum over the other, and superhero comics overwhelming emphasize perceived physical attractiveness, even when it explicitly contradicts effectiveness. Thus female superhero bodies are, for example, often large breasted, when breast size has either no or a negative correlation to athletic and combat effectiveness. Female superheroes are not drawn to resemble female body-builders—even when the character herself narratively displays the equivalent or greater strength. Superhero worlds provide a range of non-naturalistic explanations for the discrepancy, but when a character is not fantastically enhanced and so not bound by rules of human anatomy, her performed strength still contradicts an appearance of relative weakness through thinly drawn arms and legs. Muscles are somehow not her source of physical strength.