A little while ago, I came across a twitter debate about the new Iron Man comic featuring a black, female teen genius (Riri Williams). Apparently Marvel are trying to accommodate their growing female readership audience by diversifying their heroes. This makes sense. Traditionally, they have always served the white, heterosexual, male reader by creating stories that reflect that readership. Any black or female characters are usually secondary or exist for eye-candy.
However, what didn’t make sense, was their choice of artist J. Scott Williams to draw the character. His style is considered to sexualise women, where their breasts and body are highlighted over and above anything else. This is what he came up with:
Of course, there was an outcry about this. Some people blasted the image as both sexist and highly objectifying women, more specifically, black women. Black females are historically poorly represented in the media and tend to be highly sexualised. (Reasons include to both dehumanise them and to serve as fetish fantasies for some white males.) In addition, as Riri is a teen, many felt it was an inappropriate representation of children and didn’t reflect how teens look. So this image hit several hot buttons.
On the other side of it, people claimed that this image wasn’t aiming to do any of those things because it was the artist’s style. Others claimed that the uproar was about nothing because the image wasn’t even sexualising the character and therefore none of the earlier complaints are relevant. Some claimed that the artwork had nothing to do with sex or race, and did not contribute to those discussions. And they stressed that these complaints shouldn’t apply to this artist’s artistic expression of the character.
I read the comments with increasing disbelief at some of the ignorance.
Why does your opinion matter?
A side note…
There comes a point in debates/arguments about race, culture and ethnicity that you have to step back and wonder why you are engaging in the conversation. What I have learned is that there are people who engage in these discussions who do not want to learn anything or have any kind of meaningful debate. They simply want to browbeat everyone with their opinion – and usually their opinion is irrelevant.
It is unlikely that those who are not black females (or people of colour) will truly understand the effects of the way that we have been represented for decades in the media, because its difficult to see if you’re not part of that group or close to people in that group. Yet there are many who don’t want to learn why people/women of colour have a problem with it. These people just want to talk about what they think they know and the way they see the world, while dismissing, disrespecting and trivialising the views and opinions of the people who are effected. Why does your opinion matter if you’re dismissing the opinion of others?
Social media has created a culture of people so self-absorbed with their own opinion. Where they believe what they think is the most important thing in the world and, of course, they must be right. Where it’s impossible to believe that other people have an experience that doesn’t fit in with their view of the world.
What Marvel did
Well, Marvel listened. And adapted quickly. They agreed that Riri Williams shouldn’t be sexualised and pulled Campbell’s image. Within 24 hours of the backlash they released some of the interior art drawn by artist Stafano Castelli.
When you see this art you realise how far off the mark the earlier images were. While they missed the mark initially, it’s great to see that Marvel responded quickly to the concerns voiced.
At what point do we stop accepting art that breaks moral conduct? Should there be a limit?
I am all for free speech and freedom of expression in artistic form. It’s one of the things I love about creativity, which I hold in high regard. I understand the concern that the artist’s style was being attacked. However, there is a bigger picture.
Any artist who creates work for an audience to experience will understand that their selection of devices, textures, colours, movements, words, staging techniques and visual choices will communicate an intention to an audience. The artist will decide how much they want to refine that intention, and how clear they want that message to be. But, ultimately, art communicates.
The choice to communicate women as sex objects has been supported by many companies worldwide. After all, sex sells and historically men have been the money earners and principle consumers.
But there comes a point when that view becomes immoral. There are people (and children) who don’t want to be represented in that way, particularly when there is already a lack of positive representation (as in the case of black females). This should be taken into account by companies who use art to sell their products.
Who is the consumer? Choose how you’re sold to.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Campbell’s artistic style. It’s his choice how he chooses to present women and he has an audience that loves what he does. But, those people have been conditioned to accept art that is erotic as being the norm.
As a female, if I’m going to buy a comic, I don’t want to see breasts hanging out. I don’t want to see completely impractical costume/outfits in favour of highlighting a woman’s figure. I don’t want to see bare stomachs or tight clothes. I want to see her powers and abilities. I want her to be just as powerful as her male counterparts. I want her to have an interesting story-line and backstory. This is one of the reasons I was never attracted to comic books.
Many comics also portray one type of male character too – the stereotypical white, macho, heterosexual man with bulging muscles and with a focus on his groin (which is why their underwear is in full view). The difference is, the male character is also powerful and interesting. He isn’t secondary to anyone else or there to serve as variety or as a love interest.
So while I don’t think there should be a limit to how far artists go to communicate their own personal message, I think, as consumers we have a right to be fussy about how we are sold to. We shouldn’t have to sexualise or demean anyone to sell products or tell a story.
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