Undead sexist cliche: She’s sexually liberated (and other misperceptions)

A post on Comics Alliance rips into DC’s reboot for its handling of Starfire (reinvented as an ET who craves emotion-free sex, then literally forgets about it), Catwoman and Voodoo (an ET/stripper——apparently her new book places a lot of visual emphasis on the stripping). The article argues this isn’t about sexually independent heroines as much as sex fantasies for male readers (note: I haven’t read the books, though the post excerpts enough panels I’m quite convinced the author has a point).
This is a familiar problem not confined to comics. Poul Anderson once said that in writing The Avatar, he deliberately gave his female lead an active sex life akin to his sexually active male heroes, and that this was just a minor feature of the book; instead it’s the one almost all his readers focused on.
Having read the book it’s easy to see why. Caitlin comes off as a teenage fantasy woman, someone who’s eager to sleep with you (she spends time with all of her shipmates) and is not only beautiful and good in bed but solves all their personal problems.
I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast line between sexually independent and sex fantasy, but it definitely exists. Starfire back before the reboot was certainly stunningly beautiful and scantily clad but she was also warm, passionate and competent——and while sexually active, certainly not available as she appears to be in Red Hood and the Outlaws. Catwoman’s had sex with Batman pre-reboot, but the descriptions I’ve heard of Catwoman #1 (and the panels I’ve seen) feel very different.
It can be done. Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise is sexually active but while impressively sexy, she doesn’t come across as a sexual fantasy for male readers: She’s very tough, very competent, fully in charge and well … obviously has a life with goals other than satisfying someone’s sexual fantasy (I’ve thought about this before and I honestly don’t know why she works as well as she does [note: As a male, I have no idea if female readers see any of this the same way]).
At the other extreme, we have the sexy heart-of-gold hooker who still keeps turning up in crime thrillers. The hooker in these situations is sexually available (obviously) but she’s not at all independent: The guy is paying her so she does whatever he wants … but often she ends up really, really liking him so she’d be happy to do him for free.
Part of the Independent Sex Fantasy image is just the general sexism that pervades so much of our culture, both the sexploitative portrayal of women and the routine discomfort with women’s sexual independence (Phyliss Schaffly once explained that an unchaste woman has only herself to blame for sexual harassment, as other men naturally resent the fact she’s not sleeping with them too; Camille Paglia blamed the Virginia Tech shooting of a few years ago on the shooter’s frustration none of those promiscuous girls at school would sleep with him).
Part of it, I think, is a matter of how writers conceive their audience. If you start from the assumption you’re writing for teenage and twentysomething guys almost exclusively, that may make a difference to how you write your characters. This can be conscious, it can just be a default setting based on everyone else writing the same way.
It also depends on what you think women are like. If you assume sexy women really are all promiscuous and indiscriminate, or that women can be divided into sluts and good girls with totally different desires, or that sexually active women are attracted to creeps, you’ll probably write them that way.
Admittedly many of us have preconceptions that screw us up when we write, but this is such a widespred cliché to start with, I think it’s an easy trap to fall into.

4 Comments

Filed under Comics, Movies, Reading, TV, Undead sexist cliches

4 responses to “Undead sexist cliche: She’s sexually liberated (and other misperceptions)

  1. Pingback: Strong female characters and undead sexist cliches « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Links for writers, readers and pretty much everyone. | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: Comics (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  4. Pingback: Undead Sexist Cliche: American feminists have it so good, why do they complain? | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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