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Mavademics: Male Gaze through Visual Signifiers in Comic Art

Last week I saw an image for a cover to a Popeye comic. This version, drawn by Steve Mannion featured Popeye and Bluto with exaggerated vein popping musculatures and Olive Oyl reimagined as a sexy femme fatale in the style that, at least to me, is most close evocative of Salma Hayek‘s character from Deserpado. At the time I thought it was an upcoming series that reimagined Popeye in a modern context in the same way as recent series have done with Flintstones, Scooby Doo and Snagglepuss. I was intrigued and excited. I wanted to see what they were going to do with it. I’ve since come to learn that it was actually an older variant cover to Popeye Classics, IDW Comics‘ series of reprints fo classic Popeye adventures. I’m actually a little disappointed by this, because I was totally interested to see where it would go, but even without a new series to back it up, the image did make me think of some issues that I am working with in my dissertation that I figured it would be worth floating here in my blog to see what people’s thoughts were. In other words, it’s time for another fun round of everyone’s favorite game, “let’s comment on Mav’s dissertation research!”

Namely, I am interested in the fact that when I posted the image to Facebook, the main criticism that people jumped on immediately was the obvious sexualization of Olive Oyl. My friend Cenate pointed out that “A curvaceous Olive Oyl is just so strange. My brain can’t process it.” and a lot of this is because, as in the words of my friend Steve, “Admittedly I expect comic book bodies to be unrealistic, but man, my whole body is in pain just thinking about how deformed and twisted Olive’s skeleton must be. Either her left knee is twisted ninety degrees or she has a goat leg, likely both given the appearance of the silhouette of her right leg…” And while that’s true, my counter argument was that I find it interesting that this is what their attention is called to despite Olive Oyl never being particularly anatomically correct traditionally, and Popeye and Bluto also being extremely non-proportioned in they image. That is, I find it interesting but not surprising. In particular I see it as emblematic of the usage of male gaze in comic art. That is, here I am referring to “comic art” as an art style (or really set of styles collecting a series of like visual tropes) as opposed to the physical media (comic books), or the common genres most often associated with that media (superhero fantasy).

First, I think it’s worth defining the idea of “the male gaze.” I am not using it in the common internety way, of just saying “its bad to portray women as sex objects.” There’s an important conversation to be had there, but that’s not really where I am going with this. At least not directly. It’s an obvious connection that follows, however. When I am using the term I am doing so more in the vein that Laura Mulvey does in her original essay that introduced the term, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Specifically, at least here, I am concerned with the techniques by which the art style uses the media to portray female characters as sexual objects inviting a voyeuristic gaze, in contrast to make characters being depicted as subjects capable of active agency, rather than the ramifications of doing so. In her essay, Mulvey focuses on the specifics of how this is done in classic cinema pointing to the manner in which the woman, who’s primary purpose is to-be-looked-at, rather than progress the actual action of the plot, must necessarily freeze the otherwise progressing action of the film in order to invite the audience to partake in the voyeuristic pleasure of admiring her body. Since Mulvey is concerned primarily with classic cinema, she uses examples like Rear Window and Marnie. But I’m a comic book geek, so I’m going to offer Ming the Merciless’s hypnosis of Dale Arden in the cult classic Flash Gordon:

Note that when Ming takes control of Dale, everything else in the film stops so that people can just look at her. No one attempts to save her. The extra-diegetic lighting in the room inexplicably lowers so that the audience we can more easily ignore Flash Gordon and the others and focus on Dale as she runs her hands up and down her body and dances for Ming’s (and transitively our) amusement. She’s fully clothed, and in fact, is far more erotically dressed in nearly every scene that follows this in the film, and yet this scene is inherently sexual. Her movements and slow semi-orgamsic moans expressly tell the viewer that this is about sex, however her explicit lack of consent and even awareness of what’s going on key us to read that her personal sexual enjoyment, or lack thereof is entirely irrelevant. Even Flash, her love interest in the film, who is very much aware of the fact that his girlfriend is being psychically sexually violated against her will, can’t help but acknowledge that looking at her as an object (her explicit purpose in the scene) is “sensational.”

That is not to say that the sexuality on display cannot be germane to the plot, or that even doing so makes it a bad narrative. After all, in Rear Window, Mulvey’s key example, the voyeurism inherent in watching is central plot of the film. This can also be seen in the actual scene from Desperado that I compared Olive Oyl to in the first place:

Here, we’re actually given far less time to focus on Carolina(Hayek) as an erotic object. In my head, before I rewatched the scene, I remembered there being far more time to focus on her than actually occurs. She is introduced at a key moment in the action as the Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) is being pursued by his adversaries. She does not freeze the action, but instead is inserted into it because of her sexuality. She is explicitly scantily dressed to key the audience in to the fact that her sexuality is important. We don’t get much time to focus on her bare midriff, flowing windblown hair, or the fact that her tight shirt is tied to frame her boobs — approximately five seconds while other things are going on — but we are entirely aware of them. Moreover, the car crash that happens as she carelessly walks across the street keys us in to the fact that men are so distracted by her beauty that they can focus on nothing else, and her laugh at the event tells us that not only is she used to this sort of thing, but she enjoys it. Immediately after this, we have all action occurring in slow motion as the Mariachi is transfixed by looking at her, so much so that he (and we) almost ignore the the armed assailant whom we all know is coming to kill him. And yet, from this point onward, Carolina is one of the key characters of the film. But she is defined by her sexuality because the tropes of filmmaking tell us to define her that way.

So that takes us back to the Olive Oyl image. Obviously she is sexualized. But the question becomes why… and how does she command specific attention in the image beyond what the other figures do. After all, Steve commented that “my whole body is in pain just thinking about how deformed and twisted Olive’s skeleton must be. Either her left knee is twisted ninety degrees or she has a goat leg, likely both given the appearance of the silhouette of her right leg…” but Popeye’s suffers from much the same issue, his left leg is raised higher than should be possible with out a dislocated hip. His elbow has been relocated to the bottom of his oversized forearm, which should be breaking both his underdeveloped bicep and shoulder from the sheer weight of support. Given the the relative length of his right upper arm, we must assume that his left lower arm has been severed from the occlude left bicep. Similarly, Bluto, whose left arm is more massive than Olive’s entire frame, appears to be missing a right arm entirely, unless we as readers are to assume he has a congenital birth defect causing an underdeveloped arm, which would then call in to question why Popeye is attacking a disabled man. In a sense, Olive may actually be the most realistically proportioned figure in the entire image.

She is also more realistically rendered than her classic interpretation, a wiry, frail woman with joints that seem irrelevant to the points at which her body is capable of bending. While the new interpretation of Olive, with her ample bosom (again, like Hayek’s framed in a tight, low-cut, midriff exposing blouse), skirt clinging tighter to her legs to suggest her crotch, and leg pointed suggestively to expose her new 4-inch heel Fuck-Me Boots, the classic Olive isn’t actually that far behind. It’s true that Olive was never classically visually depicted as having a body that is conventionally sought after as attractive by women of the current era or her 1919 origin, she was always a sex object. She is designed to be a flapper (hence her hair and skirt), a stereotype that has as much sexual connotation at the time as it does now. It’s just that the specific style that E.C. Segar used when drawing her and the other Popeye/Thimble Theatre characters wasn’t designed to “realistic” so much as expressive. She frequently made it clear from her posture and actions that she was extremely horned up almost all of the time. In fact, a LOT of Popeye strips are pretty much about Olive basically wanting to fuck whoever pays the slightest flattery to her. It’s one of the reasons Bluto and Popeye hate each other. When she is not actively seeking amorous attention, she is the perpetual kidnapped damsel-in-distress from Bluto, who desires her sexually.

The sexual aspect of the Olive Oyl character was so prevalent in the 1930s and 40s that she became one of the most common characters featured in Tijuana Bibles (NSFW, seriously… DO NOT click to enlarge this image unless you really want to see a raunchy, rapey, bisexual, anal threesome between Olive, Popeye and Wimpy that your grandfather or great grandfather probably jacked off to at some point during the during the war… I mean, who are we kidding, we all know you’re going to click on it, but you’ve been warned). While the authors and artists of Tijuana Bibles are generally anonymous, it is widely believe that many of the underground artists creating the pieces were employed by day as the regular artists or assistant artists of these very same strips. So while they are certainly not officially sanctioned, they were very much understood as part of the comic culture of the time in the same way sexualize fan art that you might find on DeviantArt, or commission from an artist at a comicon is today. And Olive became a favorite of these because she was understood to be an innately sexual character.

So if we return to the Mannion cover we see some very specific elements at work that call attention to this sexualization despite Olive taking up comparatively little space in the composition. Obviously, the clothing choices are designed to present a sexualized image consistent with modern 21st century fashion choices. Her her hips, boobs, and legs are extended in such a way as to accentuate her femininity as much as possible. While the other characters are more dynamic, she is positioned in front of them, signaling her importance to the composition. Finally, she is the focal point of a golden spiral, the visual instantiation of the golden ratio, φ. In layman’s terms’s Popeye and Bluto are positioned relative to the rest of composition to form the beginnings of a spiral that causes the eyeline to drift towards a specific focal point, as you follow the action. In this case, specifically you are drawn closer and closer to her torso, which continues the spiral which is now framed by her boobs and crotch. Mathematically, you the image literally signifies to you “tits and pussy, right here kids.” Like Hayek in Desperado, she seems both completely aware and totally disaffected by the effect her sexuality has on Bluto and Popeye behind her. She knows they’re there, but this is regular occurrence for her (and it is) so she is happy to mind her business and rejoice in her function, to be looked at as an object to drive the action rather than a participant in and of herself.

Again, I’m not making a Frederic Wertham argument here. I’m not so much arguing that the objectification inherent in the image is “bad.” In fact, in this case, I think it’s used particularly well. But the argument is more in the fact that it is commonplace enough to have become a specific visual trope. I actually went to the comic book shop, Phantom of the Attic, yesterday to count how many female sexualized covers there were. From a pure blatant eroticization stanpoint, of the 216 covers that were on the shelf yesterday, only eight had covers that I think your common viewer people would claim were blatantly eroticized towards a male gaze, far fewer than I would have expected, honestly (and way less than would have been the case in the 1990s comic boom). However, 42 of them used golden spirals to draw the focus to an at least mildly sexualized female character or body part. While some of these make sense tonally or narratively, (as is the case with the Red Sonja/Tarzan cover pictured below), others (as in the Hit-Girl cover) seem almost incidental but for the fact that because the character is female, the focus on a sexual characteristic must be sexual.

In particular this becomes complicated by the manner in which we view an eroticized male vs an eroticized female, is is the case in two similar bondage covers that happened to be on the shelf, one for Spider-man and another for Breathless. The female cover takes on a much more erotic connotation despite being effectively identical to the male. This appears to be a function of the cultural view of feminine vs. masculine sexuality as portrayed in art. Clearly the sexual aspects of masculinity are as exaggerated, if not more so, in Popeye and Bluto than they are in Olive in the Mannion image, but it is Olive that appears to draw our attention, not only because of the focus of the spiral, but because we are more predisposed to notice the woman as sexual object than the male.

So anyway, that’s what I’m working with right now. I’m curious as to people’s base opinions and thoughts. This may possibly get worked into a future episode of the podcast… which reminds me… I want to end on a cheap plug. Check out my podcast, VoxPopcast which I do with Wayne Wise, Katya Gorecki and whoever else I happen to rope in that week. Subscribe on iTunes and Facebook and leave reviews and comment and all the things that will make me famous so I can just think about sex in funny books all the time. You know…  for you.

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