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Reverse-engineering our cultural programming - Nothing New Under The Sun
(the ARX acta diurna)
Reverse-engineering our cultural programming
I should note for the record that my present haircut is a modified '30's bob that doesn't reach my collar in back and cut fairly close to my scalp, with a long forelock in front that comes about to the bottom of my jaw, and when I lie down and let it spill out, it's longer on the floor than I drew Dick Grayson's hair (though lacking the body with which Robin is usually drawn, alas.) Depending on how I comb it, it can either read as "butch" or "flapper", but it's not even approaching Late Beatles, let alone Bee Gees length.

A little experiment in coding, breaking down what exactly is necessary and sufficient for a figure to "read" as feminine, rather than unambiguously masculine.

Is it the tight pants?

Is this androgynous? If so, what makes the character ambiguously feminine, where other images in the same costume are not - or are they?

The long hair?

Is this one androgynous? Or does it read as masculine? Or is it disturbingly ambiguous? Why or why not? Does the pose make a difference?

What about this?

What cues, if any, change the impression?

--Is this image more feminine than this one? If so, why?

How much of what is coded as unmasculine is costume, or rather, how much of costume is not the general category (skin-tightness, bare flesh) but the fashion specifics which currently are coded as feminine and thus read as "unmanly" when placed upon an identical mannequin? If the exact same body is perceived as masculine or feminine depending only on the change of a wig and clothing, what does that tell us about our ability to discern gender without the aid of current culturally-determined trappings?

How much of what we consider to be "real" masculinity, and "real" femininity, are arbitrary and transient external conditions? How does this relate to social resistance to fashion changes, and to the inability of even those who consider themselves to be "open-minded" to cope with cross-dressing and trans-gendered people - as seen with the recent exclusion of Trans as a protected category from the symbolic attempt to pass Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

How much is dependent on the positioning? and the focus or lack thereof on a figure's sexuality, as presently coded primarily in pelvis and nipples? How much of the understanding of physical sexuality itself is coded, and dependent on other factors? (This needs more examples/comparisons, but is related to some guys having said that Wonder Woman, in her traditional outfit and depiction, reads to them as "androgynous.")

How much of a gender coding in positioning is related to signals of autonomy vs. subjection, action vs. passivity, even in scenes expressing injury or defeat? (Frex, compare and contrast.)

If an averted rather than a direct gaze is read as inherently feminine, what does that say about our expectations? About our assumptions regarding the "proper" role of men, vs. the "proper" state of women? If an artist's choice to focus on the buttocks, rather than the face of a character, in itself is sufficient to unman a character in our eyes, what does that say about our attitudes toward what the nature of women, and men, are supposed to be?

This would be an interesting one to remix, I think...as would this.

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From: deiseach Date: October 7th, 2007 06:04 pm (UTC) (Link)

This is freaking me out

Since your barbarian male is reading more "feminine" to me than your Xena.

And when I try to analyse why, it comes to down to a combination of the pose and the amount of skin on display.

Having the skirt covering the buttocks neutralises a lot of the affect (well, for me - can't speak as to how it affects the rest of yiz).

So that means I am acculturated to seeing women in sexually available, submissive, doesn't matter about consent or not, poses - in a way that no male is ever portrayed (outside of, I would imagine, gay porn - but have no direct experience of to corroborate or not).

Suuuure, these are just images of sexy, independent women and there's nothing coded there. The thing is, going by your examples, the artists could be protesting this in all good intent - they have no notion of how they've incorporated this into their views, especially working in the comics tradition, where they're (consciously or not) copying the style of what has gone before.

Add into that that it looks as if a good proportion of them have no formal or classical training in drawing the figure (guys, let me recommend your local evening classes for one of these - they even have real live models!), and you've really got a problem.

This is very good, what you're doing here. The only way to shove it under their noses would be to take Wolverine or Cyclops or whomever, keep them in their exact same costume as they wear ordinarily, and put them into Storm's pose - then experience the snap! crackle! pop! of brain cells...
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: October 7th, 2007 06:20 pm (UTC) (Link)


not being flip, either - it's trying to dig out the subconscious stuff that's the hardest, and I've been trying to process this, consciously, for *ages* and *ages* studying art books as well as advertising media, but it wasn't until I started seeing people doing it online that I saw how it could be accomplished and what was actually the breakdown in so many instances.

The "Barbarian" is almost *exactly* taken from Frank Frazetta's original here - I swapped the arms the bracelets were on, because I wanted the studded wristlet to be visible, since that's so much a part of his design, and I ditched the scabbard because there was no way to work it in without it being really problematic both visually and symbolically. [EG] But the hair, the necklace of alternate gold plaques and fangs, the studded belt over the loincloth, the particular sword-hilt - straight-up Frank, as ol' Conan comes a cropper creeping around a decaying temple and takes a tumble with the stolen Emerald Watchfob of Yob Soddof...

The *exact* same body is used on *all* the figures btw - I didn't even make "Xena" more feminine, other than her skirt of pteryges (which isn't, given the name, intrinsically feminine at all!)

acaciaonnastik From: acaciaonnastik Date: October 7th, 2007 06:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not going to attempt to answer the other questions, since as always with these issues there are no hard answers, but I will say that both the Conan pictures look about equally androgynous to me- partly because of the hair and the clothes, and also because with the positioning I can't discern the presence or absence of breasts. The fully-clad Robin, depressingly, looks much more "male" without all that skin exposed.

Oddly, the Frazetta picture also looks like it could be a woman. If only they actually got posed like that...
acaciaonnastik From: acaciaonnastik Date: October 7th, 2007 06:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
...that is to say, both the "barbarian warrior" pictures. ~hides~
brown_betty From: brown_betty Date: October 7th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wow, that last one is coded female to me so strongly I actually lined up all time images in GIMP to make sure there wasn't some subtle difference in the curves. Nope.
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: October 7th, 2007 06:30 pm (UTC) (Link)

I *love* Photoshop!

And my Wacom tablet, of course (thanks, D!) because I can be completely lazy and recycle the same drawing ensure that the underlying figure stays the same by using layers.

I've got to try to see now if giving "Xena" short hair and a full Roman lorica, not that femmed-up backless Amazon lorica , makes the figure look more or less female...because that would indicate whether or not even "skirts" read as feminine necessarily, or if it's the ritualized partial-nudity.

I've also got a traditional Tarzan, but it's not done yet, for more comparison.
azikale From: azikale Date: October 7th, 2007 07:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I too find the 2nd picture more feminine than the 3rd. Its either the exposed buttocks or me being stubborn, I'm not sure.
evilstorm From: evilstorm Date: October 7th, 2007 07:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
My opinion may change once I've gotten some sleep, but--

To me, the Superboy picture isn't feminine--it's uke. The clothes mark it as male, but the pose codes submissive. It's the way the pelvis is tilted up. The Robin picture you did in the previous post is definitely coded effeminate.

The barbarian pictures...I'm not getting anything I can interpret clearly atm (back after sleep, promise), but I will say that the second barbarian picture (Xena? really?) is v. ambiguous. The pteruges skirt in that one pings "warrior" first, actually. I didn't see the femaleness until I read the comments. Oh, and the bum covering. That makes a difference. The arse in the first barbarian picture pings female, yes. For a bit I was actually thinking that the second picture was more masculine than the first.

I don't know what my programming's like. I like to think it's strange around the edges, but, ehhhh.
fledgist From: fledgist Date: October 7th, 2007 07:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, I'd read all three as androgynous (partly because of the way the hip is presented, partly in the first case because of the definition of the buttocks -- here I am getting into trouble again), but none of them are unambiguously masculine or feminine to me.

I don't read androgyny as unmanly (until I turned into Father Christmas I was hard for people to read -- and if you think the male gaze is disconcerting consider what it feels like when higglers in a market in Jamaica loudly ask as you pass 'Is dat a man ar a ooman?', nor am I the only person to have had that experience), just as ambiguous.

And the pose itself is ambiguous: is it submission or is it the result of the wall collapsing? Is the necklace a prize or is it something that belongs to the person portrayed?
From: deiseach Date: October 7th, 2007 09:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

Well, obviously I'm a sadist

Or something. Picking up cues of vulnerability, submission, and defencelessness where others are only seeing injury/need of help.

It's also something to do with the weird slanting (maybe just an artefact of the artist not being able to draw?) that is necessitated in Storm's picture; it's not exactly a bird's eye view, and it's not seen on a level -in order to see the lying flat on the ground figure in all its glory, it's on a kind of slant so that it's almost upside down - the buttocks being where the head would be.

Possibly that's why I'm reading submission into it - the head of the figure being on the bottom of the page, the hips and bottom being at the top of the page, and the viewer standing over them looking down, so the figure's head is at the viewer's feet.

Well, either that or I'm turned on by helpless, defenceless, unconscious pretties lying there all helpless and vulnerable for me to do what I will with them, bwahahaha!
therealsherbs From: therealsherbs Date: October 7th, 2007 07:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
I can give you my instant reaction before I started trying to analyse it in any way and that is that it is the shape of the bottom and buttocks that give the strongest signal.

On further analysis, I think that where the shape is masked by clothing it alters the impression. So, the loincloth hides the cleavage and squares it off making it less curved, the skirt however actually drapes around it and makes it look rounder and more feminine, and the tights are skin-tight and so you can clearly see the rounded shape.
voxwoman From: voxwoman Date: October 7th, 2007 08:46 pm (UTC) (Link)

The third one was the most difficult

The first one seemed obviously male (especially with the red pickle sticking out of the groin area - but the musculature was highlighted to a large degree), the second one too, to me. The third not so much - even though he's got on a Roman-type skirt. It was the extra ornate doodads, but mostly the upper-arm bands that disguised the biceps.

Which would probably mean if I saw Grace Jones wearing that and in that pose, I'd guess she was male, too (I thought she looked great in that awful Conan movie she was in, as an aside).

One thing though, a lot of men have hair on their thighs that would be visible, and a not insignificant number of men (over 25) have hair on their backs as well. Unless the barbarians are waxing or shaving (I know the Romans did). I also realize that comics aren't drawn to that level of detail. I suppose the most we see is a bit of chest hair on Wolverine (who should by all rights look like a bear when he's shirtless)
morgan_dhu From: morgan_dhu Date: October 7th, 2007 08:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that my perceptions of gender in these three images are largely determined by who I expect to be wearing the costume. The first one read male, becasue I assume it's Superman from the costume. The third one read female becasue I assume it's Xena from the costume. The second one read injured person in need of assistance, because it could be any barbarian warrior.

It would be interesting to repeat this exploration of the effects of hair/clothing with costumes that are not associated with any known comic/fantasy characters to see what the responses are.
fledgist From: fledgist Date: October 7th, 2007 09:18 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well, obviously I'm a sadist

Not being a comics person, I'm probably missing a lot. About the only comics I read regularly are my younger son's manga (puttamanjl.deviantart.com, if you're interested).

I don't think it's a matter of being turned on by submission or anything else, but what we're coached to expect from given depictions. Or maybe I'm just naive.
evilstorm From: evilstorm Date: October 8th, 2007 05:50 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well, obviously I'm a sadist

Manga, in their own way, are even worse when it comes to hardcoding things in people's heads. The only positive thing is that they're absolutely genderblind when it comes to submission--you'll get both males and females in that "help help I'm about to be raped" position/situation.
the_resa From: the_resa Date: October 7th, 2007 09:25 pm (UTC) (Link)

Gotta hand it to ya -- Your work always disturbs me.

In a good way though.
As i write this on my dialup computer, all the images are loaded except their heads -- and my gut impression:

1. Sympathy for the first -- he's so obviously hurt ... because he's fully clothed.

2. A young male being presented sexually. I find this negative.

3. A female. Based primarily on the additional adornment and the pose. The idea of sexuality doesn't kick in ... because ... this is normal.

I've worked in comics, read them, and thought of myself as a very forward thinking woman. I did not consider myself a feminist when I was younger because I had bought into a lot of this crap and figured that nothing was really wrong at all with our society.

Been rooming with a cousin of mine who's been kicking me in the head with arguments to the contrary now for several years. And ... it's a bit shocking to see how far I've yet to go.

Thanks for my daily kick in the head,
blueinkedpalm From: blueinkedpalm Date: October 7th, 2007 09:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
The third one comes across as feminine to me at first glance, because of the "skirt", and I suppose the vulnerability and poor anatomy, although the figure's large for a comic woman.

I really like what you've done here. It brings up a lot of interesting questions.
the_resa From: the_resa Date: October 7th, 2007 10:05 pm (UTC) (Link)

I was talking to my cousin about this ...

And she pointed out to me something else that might make for an interesting image experiment. How does a person with a facial expression of emotional hurt or sadness trigger the subconscious. Is there a difference between how we "code" that look on a man's face than on a woman's?

I see female pin-ups all the time with that "deer in the headlights" look, and now I'm a'wondering.

A true story my cousin gave me regarding this question.

She'd been ill since High School. And she'd always been fairly good at hiding this in public. But one day, while in her last year of High School, she was feeling particularly bad. She found that she couldn't hide it properly. She was feeling unhappy, a little frightened, and very sick. And she went from invisible girl to attractive girl. Boys that had never noticed her before suddenly had great interest.

Later at home, she asked her mother about what had happened, and her mother said that her appearance that day had simply brought out the protective instinct in the boys at her school. But it was more than that -- there was sudden romantic interest in there too. She'd become very sexually attractive by being so vulnerable.

Beyond the question of just how screwed up are we as a society that anyone frightened or ill or depressed could be seen as "hot", does the same visage in a male bring out that same response?
voxwoman From: voxwoman Date: October 8th, 2007 12:14 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I was talking to my cousin about this ...

I think the reasoning cycle goes like this:

Damsel In Distress -> Protective Instinct kicking in -> Heroic Impulse ->
Knight in Shining Armor to Save The Day -> Get Sex as Reward

Thus the "romantic interest" appears because the intermediary steps were all taken in the boys' head w/o doing any of the rescuing, or they think that sex (with them, obviously) will "fix/save/rescue" her.

(I am reminded of a line of dialog from The Emigrants: "All she needs is a cock inside her as far as it will go")

As to your "male with the same expression" question - for me, personally, it elicits on a very strong nurturing instinct. I think boys in our society are not taught to distinguish between "nurturing" and "sexual" when they are teenagers. I think teenage boys tend to sexualize pretty much everything. Which is more than a little creepy.

From: deiseach Date: October 7th, 2007 11:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re-thinking word choice

Perhaps the word I need to use here is not "submissive" but "vulnerable".

These superheroines, despite being super-powered, are still presented as vulnerable in a way that superheroes are not. Part of it is the skin on display in the costumes - no matter how tightfitting a hero's costume is, if it covers the vulnerable parts of the body it still seems protective.

Batman with his midriff bared would be a different proposition to the covered from head to toe Dark Knight. Oh, now there's a suggestion - lift a representive image from the comics, don't even change the pose, just change the costume and see how that looks.
the-willow.insanejournal.com From: the-willow.insanejournal.com Date: October 8th, 2007 12:19 am (UTC) (Link)

It's that frigging ass up, curved spine, porno position

Personally I'm very surprised that my first thought on the Xena one was get up. The spine's the same, the ass up is the same - though it's covered. Maybe it has something to do with Xeam = Strength to me.

But I don't find it gratuitous. I just go "Xena Get Up!" and worry about the bad guys and who was strong enough to do that to her.

Otoh - Kal-El looks like you erased the dude plowing him from the back and the other dude he's wanking and the dude he and the barbarian are blowing and replaced it all with debris. The barbarian is also missing a Princess Leia (in the gold bikini) style leash
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