On the cover of a 1991 issue of The Sensational She-Hulk, the female counterpart of the superhero Hulk appears in a G-string bikini. With all her curves in sharp focus, she strikes a seductive pose with a strategically placed beach ball in her arms. While the covers of She-Hulk comics emphasise her sexuality, those of Incredible Hulk focus on his strength. Artist Shreya Arora, 21, who grew up reading comic books, was surprised she had not noticed this contrast earlier.
Comic books are largely targeted at young audiences and such depictions could well play a key role in how they learn to engage with strong female characters. “She-Hulk covers are sexist in every way possible,” said Arora. “Nothing about that depiction would ever be done to a male, be it the body language or the clothing or the frivolous dialogue.”
A student at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Arora decided to flip the sexist narrative around by depicting superheroes in the same hyper-sexualised manner that superheroines are subjected to. For a class project during an exchange semester in France, she created six comicbook covers using familiar characters from Marvel and DC, such as Spider-Man, Batman, Superman. Three of these were created in collaboration with BuzzFeed India.
The subversive artworks have Spider-Man in a thong showing off his buttocks in a coy pose or Superman prancing across the sky without his cape and tights, demonstrating the absurdness of it all.
Arora says that even if the storylines of superheroine comics isn’t misogynistic, the covers tell a different story. “Both men and women in comic books have unrealistic body standards,” said the 21-year-old artist from Mumbai. “However, with men, their biceps and abs are exaggerated to make them look extraordinarily strong, while with superheroines, their breasts and buttocks are accentuated, and the waist is narrowed, to make them look extraordinarily sexy.”
An article about women superheroes on the blog of the London School of Economic says:
“If male characters are representative of what readers would like to be, the female characters are who they would like to be with; or, commonly, what they would like to possess. If the men possess extraordinary agency, women are receptors for that agency, waiting to be acted upon. Every difference between the traditional expressions of gender is heightened and refined. The relationships between superheroes operate within a fantasy space, following rules and conventions that accentuate the privilege of male characters and make their entitlement seem natural and inevitable.”
Arora believes there is nothing wrong with superheroines being sexy. This, however, should not detract their powers being taken seriously. “The superheroines in comic books are mostly made by men, for men to enjoy,” said Arora. “This is different from a female celebrity choosing to appear nude on a magazine cover because those women have a choice and autonomy over their bodies.”
This is not the first time that Arora has used art to talk about the patriarchal narratives in news, literature and pop art. In a personal art project that she worked on in March, titled The Good Victim Starter Pack, she lampooned the culture of blaming victims of sexual assault. In most cases, the implication is that the length of the woman’s clothes, the time of the incident and the woman’s demeanour were to blame. The artworks included a magazine cover with the title “LOGUE Kya Kahenge”, with an exclusive scoop on “why getting sexually assaulted is your fault”. She also created vintage style ads with taglines, such as “Maybe she’s born with, maybe it’s patriarchy” and “Give her the gift of Domestic Silence”.
An overwhelming majority of the comments Arora has received on her comic book project have been positive. But her work has also been criticised as not real feminism since it involves fictional characters. Comments on a post on BuzzFeed India’s Facebook page, where Arora’s work was shared, are divisive. One user commented that since the target audience for these graphic novels is teenage boys, featuring scantily-clad women is a business decision rather than a creative one. Another argued that the comic book audiences include women and adults as well, and that comic books can be sold to teenage boys without needlessly sexualising female characters. Data shows that female readership for comic books is growing: according to research conducted in 2017 by market research firm NPD, which collects point-of-sale data for the US publishing market, 37% of graphic novels are purchased by women.
Arora is not demoralised by the reactions that say her project is only a small part in the social project to overthrow patriarchy. “At the end of the day, it’s about me doing the best I can as a student and a graphic designer,” she said.
All images courtesy Shreya Arora.