‘Gambit’ and the Female Gaze

So, I banned myself from writing about comics this week, but here we are anyway.

Before I read the first issue of Gambit, I was curious what I would find between its covers. In an interview with Comics Alliance, writer James Asmus said, “Gambit really is one of the few explicitly sexy male characters in mainstream comics, and that’s a major part of how I envision this book. Luckily, our artist on the book is Clay Mann. And he completely taps into the easy cool and good looks that help make Gambit such man-candy to his fans.” (Also, Asmus said he has actually lived in Louisiana and known actual Cajuns, and therefore won’t have to rely on “other fictional portrayals of the culture,” which is amazing for a whole ‘nother set of reasons, fit for a whole ‘nother post.)

The idea of putting Gambit’s sex appeal at the forefront of the book was extremely interesting to me, for a probably fairly obvious reason: superheroines are primarily sexy all the time, regardless of how much sex appeal their characters actually have, but superheroes are rarely sexy first and foremost, even when their characters have a lot of sex appeal. Also, James Asmus thinks that Gambit’s “fans” think he’s man-candy. This means Asmus understands that not every single comics reader is a straight man. Which blows my mind in the most unreasonable way.

And then there were hints of a shower scene! Be still, my beating heart!

Fast forward to the release of issue 1. What do we open with? Naked Gambit in a naked shower! Hurray, world! Four thousand points to feminism, right?

Sort of. What I find most interesting about the way Gambit is drawn is that his sexiness manages to be both overt and subtle at the same time. His character also manages to be sexy without being objectified.

Let’s go back to that shower scene.  In the first panel, we get all of naked Gambit that’s fit to print. (Meaning, he’s positioned so he isn’t facing us, so sorry, but no genitals.) Then we see various body parts of Gambit as he gets out of the shower, all leading up to the panel where he’s toweling off his hair in the buff, with a picture frame covering (just) his crotch. This panel is extremely erotic, I think, and in part because it balances subtlety and overt sexiness so well. The placement of that picture frame at the same time conceals and emphasizes what we all know is there anyway. And then the final panel gives us a gleaming shot of Gambit’s muscley manly-man back.

First page of Gambit #1

This is all pretty hot-and-bother-inducing, yet, does it differ from superheroine shower scenes? Do I find this portrayal sexy, but not creepy, simply because I’m not a man and am unused to seeing naked men in comics?

I don’t think so. One of the major reasons why objectification of women’s bodies is so harmful, is that it teaches us that women are interchangeable. The eroticism associated with a woman’s body is unrelated to her as a person; she is sexy because she has a cis woman’s body, not because she is a sexy person. And yet, in this first page, this snapshot of Gambit is very intimate, in every sense of the word. It’s not just that we’re seeing him naked, it’s that we’re being introduced to him as naked, and, while he is naked, we are putting together pieces of his life. In the panel with the picture frames, we’re looking at Gambit’s not-penis while also looking at the picture in the foreground of Gambit and Rogue. These things are associated directly. We’re not just looking at a naked attractive man; we’re looking a specific naked attractive man, one who we are trying to get to know. His naked shower scene is actually advancing story and character. This is inherently different to the idea of objectification, which, in addition to being gratuitous, teaches us that women (or men, but usually women) are sexual objects, not sexual people.

Throughout the first two issues, most of the time Gambit keeps his clothes on, and leaves his sex appeal to be channeled through his words and actions. However, even when clothed, Gambit’s posture and placement are much sexier than that of most male comics characters. He’ll lounge topless, looking devil-may-care, while having a conversation about that thing that got stuck in his chest (long story). Which brings me to another distinction between the sexiness of Gambit and the traditional sexiness of women in media, particularly when catering to the male gaze. Women’s sex appeal usually slows down the plot, allows for a pause in the story, and is never used for the advancement of anything, really. But Gambit’s sex appeal functions as part of the story. It keeps pace with the story, rather than slowing it down. Consequently, it seems natural and necessary. I can hardly imagine this book being the same without these poses and angles.

The one reservation, sex appeal-wise, I have about this series is actually his female antagonist/partner. In the first issue, I actually liked how she looked. She had a cute, rockabilly sort of style, and she wasn’t drawn in gratuitously sexy poses or angles.

But, I’m not sure that’s going to stay that way. Issue 2 had a cover which, though hardly the creepiest cover I’ve ever seen, was still somewhat problematic, with the shot of Gambit surrounded by the cut-out silhouette of a sexy woman, presumably his new acquaintance.

Cover of Gambit #2

When we met this woman, she had personality and style, but now that’s she’s on the cover, she’s just a hot body. Next week’s #3 isn’t looking too much better, considering that apparently she decides to wear short-shorts and a belly shirt when they go do secret-adventurey things in Guatemala.

While the objectification of the female character in the series is tremendously less bad than in most mainstream comics, it’s still objectification to some degree. The series manages to make their male character a sexy person, yet fails to emphasize that the sexy woman is a sexy person. It leaves me to feel disappointed and strangely apologetic at the same time. I’m forced to say, “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, because it’s not that bad, but it’s still noticeable!” Which is an annoying thing to have to say.

My theory is that they excel at keeping Gambit’s sex appeal without objectifying him precisely because he is male. When female objectification is the norm, it’s difficult to make a specifically sexy character without falling back to the same old tropes. And when you’re a man, I imagine it might be more difficult to spot the difference between mild objectification and sex appeal.

I’m not opposed to sex appeal in comics, especially when that seems to be at the heart of the series. And I really am enjoying the “man-candy.” But objectification, male or female, is something comics needs to learn to avoid. My suggestion? Do what you’re doing with Gambit, but do it with the female character, too. Include her sex appeal in ways that are interesting and advance the story or character. Cater equally to the male and female gazes, so that sexiness seems natural.

Or, at least, put Gambit in booty shorts and we can call it even.


Follow-Up Time!

This week’s lazy post is brought to you by A Couple Things I’ve Posted About in the Past Have Updates I’d Like to Share.

First off, remember when I told every single one of you to see the documentary The Invisible War? Well, now no one has any excuse not to, unless they don’t have internet access or $4.99.  The filmmakers are doing a special online screening of the film, with a live chat with director Kirby Dick to follow. Unfortunately I think you have to sign up to watch it by using their Facebook app (so that might be another obstacle), but it’s worth creating a Facebook account just to see this movie. I’m not entirely sure how they’re streaming it, but in any case, head on over to the film’s Facebook page for more info.

I also reposted an article about superhero body diversity. The artists who, in the article, were ranking and discussing the bodies of all the superheroes were male. Andrew Wheeler did a second one, this time with female artists.  It’s interesting to see the differences and similarities in the perception of superhero bodies between male and female artists. I would also say that, overall, the female artists were more unified in their understanding of the superheroine bodies, and more willing to actually think about things like bust/butt sizes based on the characters’ athletic training. I’m really glad that both of these articles happened.

Also by Andrew Wheeler (can you tell he’s my favorite Comics Alliance writer?), is this great look at diversity in comics and why it matters. That’s not really a follow-up, but it’s still great and you should read it.

That’s all, folks! Hopefully next week I’ll have a real post. Til then!


An Unsurprisingly Insensitive Superhero Fight, Domestic Violence-Style

Apologies to the world for my spotty posting as of late. My non-internet life has been pretty busy recently with various things, not least of which is my sister’s conversion to Islam, decision to wear hijab, and the inevitable fragmentation of my family as a result. (Other events include: a planned vacation, an attempt to rid myself of internet addiction, an upcoming concert, the first week of classes, video games, and being really poor all the time.)

My return post is, surprise surprise, about Storm and Black Panther. Specifically, Why It Makes Me Feel Skeevy That Storm and Black Panther Are Going to Fisticuffs.

For those of you who aren’t following the Avengers vs. X-Men, Marvel’s giant summer money-making scheme tie-in event, Black Panther and Storm broke up. By that I mean, BP acted like a jerk and annulled the marriage behind Storm’s back. So now, in the tie-in to the tie-in, Vs., a limited series that showcases plotless superhero fights, BP and Storm are hashing it out.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the underlying reason why this makes me uncomfortable: they’re a recently-divorced couple who are physically fighting each other to deal with their marital issues.

Seriously, Marvel?

I’m not going to say that there’s no way that a comic could use what is essentially domestic violence in a way that is meaningful, insightful, and interesting. But this is AvsX: VS, and that was just never going to happen.

The first thing that could have made this less skeevy-feeling is not allowing Black Panther to prevent Storm from using her weather powers. Without those powers, they’re forced to go to actual fisticuffs, rather than allowing the melee/ranged difference between the character’s fighting styles as a buffer to prevent it from devolving into a husband/wife fistfight disguised as emotional depth.

Another mistake: making it about their marriage rather than about the big superhero war that enabled the divorce.

When Storm says, “this is about you and me,” this issue abandons any hope of not making me feel skeevy.  At that point, we really are watching a husband and wife beat each other up over their relationship. What’s worse, that last panel just looks like Marvel isn’t taking this very seriously. Maybe it’s the art, but to me that punch looks a lot like a punchline, or at the very least an invitation to snicker, or to enthusiastically take a side. I don’t want to cheer on either of these fighters. The whole fight just makes me sad.

Later we get a thought from Storm: “If we’d only had children, maybe things would’ve been different.” Really? Really? This is how the writers are exploring the emotional depths of a woman who just got her marriage annulled behind her back and is now fighting her ex-husband?

And then there’s this page:

I hate how Wakandans show up, just so they can make Storm feel guilty for leaving. As if Storm didn’t look enough like a bully in this issue.

At the very least, there is no winner in this fight. (Vs. normally declares a winner after every fight.) Still, Marvel screwed up an opportunity with a lot of potential to show that it prints writing that actually has emotional depth and sensitivity.

The only way to make this worse is to bring them back together at the end of AvsX. I don’t want two people to get together after they felt the need to go to physical violence to properly end their marriage. That is an unhealthy relationship. So unhealthy that if Marvel glosses over this, should they choose to bring them back together, I will be very upset. If we’re supposed to celebrate their getting back together, expect an angry rant to appear on the blog.

Also, I think it needs to be said that Marvel needs to be careful what stereotypes about black people it reinforces with things like this. Again, not something you need to be a genius to understand. Or, at least, you only need to have a modicum of emotional sensibility to understand.

So, this final death knell for Storm and Black Panther’s relationship hammered the last nail in the coffin for my interest in this series. Fuck this noise, Marvel. Seriously.