Monday, 14 January 2013

Miscellaneous Mondays: Strong Women

I’m a fan of superhero comics, so, although we spend most of our time talking about strength of character, I have a special place in my heart for women who display great physical strength. That’s one of the reasons why my collectible Wonder Woman figurine shares a shelf with my Virginia Woolf plushie.

It’s also the reason for the focus of this post. Superhero comics are well-known for their portrayal of impossible women’s bodies. These women often have the kind of statuesque physiques that could only exist on an actual statue, with torsos so narrow it seems as if they’ve had some vital organs removed. As if these women weren’t already in danger of snapping at the waist, they all seem to possess the most common superpower. Perhaps the (usually male) artists are operating under the assumption that women can relocate their internal organs to protrude from their chests.

The most obvious example of this phenomenon is Power Girl, a superhero so well-endowed that her insignia is a boob window. There is a story, circulated through the comics-reading community and addressed by blogger Ragnell, that the character’s impressive cup size is the fault of Wally Wood, the artist who drew the character when she was first created. Wood supposedly decided to see if the editors were paying attention to his work by increasing Power Girl’s bust size every issue. Unfortunately, it took several issues for anyone to notice, so she’s been stuck with gravity-defying, back-breaking breasts ever since.

While the unrealistic breast size of these characters is certainly indicative of their over-sexualization, I would argue that there’s another aspect to this decision. In order to perform acts of tremendous physical strength, female superheroes need to have a well-defined musculature. However, because physical strength is so thoroughly associated with masculinity, the artists feel that they need to over-enhance the character’s feminine appearance. What’s the best way to do this? Long, flowing, easily-pulled-in-hand-to-hand-combat hair and fabric-straining breasts.

So it was with delight that I found this review of Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women by David L. Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky. Although I haven’t yet purchased a copy for myself, I’m more than willing to get the word out about what looks to be a very interesting work, that not only discusses issues of gender identity, but also collects a number of images of unrepentantly strong women.

Perhaps even better than knowing that this book exists, however, is seeing similar images make their way back into popular culture. MAC has recently launched a new cosmetics line called “Strength,” and its advertising is a thing of beauty. Not only is the face of the line a bodybuilder, Jelena Abbou, but the tagline of the campaign is the greatest I’ve read outside of that amazing 1980s Lego ad: “Flex your femininity with a colour collection that’s fearless, elegant and strong. Strike a powerful pose, stand out, redefine the notion of beauty -- and do it with strength too irresistible to ignore.” That’s advertising even Wonder Woman would love.

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