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Planning my “Comics and the Male Gaze” lecture



It’s another one of those times where I had a snazzy idea for teaching a concept in my comics class and realized “hey, you know what would be fun? Why don’t I outsource my materials gathering to the internet?” And really, I don’t have a good reason. In fact it’s worked really well in the past. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Tomorrow’s lesson is all about how “the male gaze” works in comics using Laura Mulvey‘s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” essay as a basis. If you’ve never read it, you should. It happens to be one of my favorite academic essays ever. I have a snazzy keynote presentation and everything. But I don’t really need you to read it in order to help me here.

So what I’m looking for is: give me your favorite images that illustrate what you see as “the male gaze” in comics. Tell me why. I’m basically looking for some stuff that I can toss up on the projector and have my students analyze tomorrow in class.

For bonus points, you can also feel free to toss up some that you think rather well illustrate the concept of the female gaze or the queer gaze, though I’m not sure I’m going to actually get to that tomorrow. We’re starting with some really basic stuff where I break down Mulvey’s argument for them with film and then move into adapting it to how we view comics. The kids have already been assigned to find some on their own.

I assume a lot of the examples people are going to find are going to be superhero(ine) pics, but no, they don’t have to be. Linked below are some images I’m thinking about. I’d love to know which ones you like and don’t and any other suggestions that you think would be good.


58 comments for “Planning my “Comics and the Male Gaze” lecture

  1. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 11:00 am

    I know it isn’t a comic (I’ll try to find some comic images soon), but check out 0:07 to 0:17 of this clip. It is probably one of the better examples of the male gaze in movies (though given the tenor of this movie, that may actually be an intentional director choice to support the narrative).

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 11:05 am

      So the best part of that is that when i clicked on the link it started with an ad…. Joe Biden talking about Hilary Clinton.

      And I was like “I mean, be into what you’re into, I won’t judge. But Strauss’s idea of what ‘the male gaze’ is, is kinda weird.”

      But yeah, the actual Charlie Wilson’s war clip is good. I actually start my talk with some examples from video. I use American Beauty’s cheerleading scene as my main example. But I kinda think that I should throw that one in to show that it’s not always that blatant.

  2. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 11:08 am

    It’s not comics related, but my mind automatically associates “male gaze” with Anita Sarkeesian and the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games episode “Body Language & The Male Gaze”.

    (For better or worse…)

    (Edit: video added)

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 11:31 am

      I actually like Sarkeesian a lot. The problem with using her is that she’s doing something a little different. She’s not really explaining Mulvey’s theory. Well, she is… but she’s only doing so incidentally so as to be able to make her own conclusion about why the gaze is used and why it might be harmful. In other words, she’s sort of “giving them the answer”

      I don’t really want that. I want them to come to their own answers. Basically, I want them to do what Sarkeesian is doing on their own. Which means it’s sort of more important for them to understand how it works and then arrive at the why on their own… they might end up agreeing with Sarkeesian, they might not. They might even disagree with Mulvey (I actually disagree with Mulvey on some big key points).

      But I don’t want them being told the answer… The class isn’t about telling them what to think. It’s more about having them learn how to analyze and come to conclusions on their own.

      1. avatar
        March 18, 2018 at 12:01 am

        if you didnt want to tell them what to think you wouldn’t listen to sarkeesian at all let alone would you not neglect the fact female gaze

    2. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 11:34 am

      It was more a statement on my brain automatically equating the phrase with the video than actually thinking it would make good (or relevant) subject matter.

      I’m not the biggest fan of hers, but I certainly don’t fall into the all-too-vocal “Sarkeesian Haters” group, either.

  3. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 11:19 am

    My first search was for Mary Jane Watson. This one has practically become iconic.

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 11:31 am

      I actually was looking for that one when I found the other Mary Jane picture.

    2. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 2:55 pm

      Wow… Spider-Man’s left knee

  4. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 11:22 am

    There’s probably better options out there, but I think you’d find a lot of “Female Gaze” options when looking for images of Dick Grayson (and/or Dick Grayson’s Butt)

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 11:32 am

      Yeah, we’ve actually talked about Dick Grayson and inverting the gaze (though I probably didn’t use that term because they didn’t know it yet) in a previous class.

  5. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 11:27 am

    Go with the classics.

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 11:28 am

      And don’t forget to mention this was drawn by Pittsburgh native Matt Baker.

    2. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 11:30 am

      Then there’s the flipside… Sue Storm, whose power was literally not being seen.

    3. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 11:33 am

      So funny enough, they’re literally going to be reading THAT EXACT comic for Friday.

    4. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 5:15 pm

      Wayne Wise how many early FF comics is the B story basically “Sue is irritated because Reed is busy doing Science Stuff?” (Come to think of it, I’m not sure they ever grew out of that…)

    5. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 5:16 pm

      There’s a lot of her being an “emotional woman” like to the extent that was already kinda outdated by the 60s.

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 11:33 am

      good one there… only problem with it is that some of them are writing their papers on Harley (one specifically on Mad Love) so I don’t want to give it to them,

  6. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 11:36 am

    One of the best examples because the character in question was a rare woman in comics who wasn’t treated as a sex symbol.

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 12:04 pm

      So I will likely be talking a great deal about Sue Storm once we get into the silver age… and once we start talking about modern age and bad girl art, I might save this for then. (I did think of it)

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      So Namor (and pics like this in general) actually challenge the idea of a female gaze.

      For lots of complicated reasons, a lot of people would say that this here is actually STILL a male gaze pic, and not a female gaze one. Mulvey for instance would likely think the whole thing is dumb because she specifically thinks it only works for film. I disagree there (obviously, which is why I’m talking about it tomorrow)

      Anyway, some people would say that Namor is specifically presenting himself as a sexual object here and therefore it is female gaze directed. Others would point out that the feminizing of his form makes it queer gaze directed and others would point to that the way in which he is still more physically imposing than Sue, depicted as in the sexually aggressive power role and the image still requires bodily fragmentation of HER lips him suggestively feeding her a phallic finger, makes it a male gaze image.

    2. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      Yeah I don’t think that is female gaze, you explained why better than I could have. To me the female gaze would be more about the female pleasure and her wants and needs “coming first” haha oh I crack myself up.

    3. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 12:30 pm

      Like I said, it’s complex. Mulvey has said that because of the way society is constructed the female gaze is essentially impossible. Because it will always be read by some as male dominant.

      I also show a clip from Magic Mike as a counter. The idea being that in it the men are objectified for the pleasure of the woman.

      But it’s totally easy to read the clip the other way. Channing Tatum is so virile and masculine that women must melt into him and allow him sexual access.

  7. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 11:51 am

    Do you have a link to Laura Mulvey’s piece? I keep pulling up PDFs of the essay, in tiny print, but you said something about slides?

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 11:54 am

      the blog version has a PDF link. But it’s scans from the book. Here’s a link from my dropbox that is a PDF of it as text. It might be easier to read:

    2. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 12:00 pm


  8. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    I wonder if something like The Hawkeye Initiative might be useful? Or perhaps Escher Girls.

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 1:22 pm

      We’ve looked at the Hawkeye initiative briefly. We’ll be returning to it later in the semester. I should try to remember to use escher girls too…

    2. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 1:23 pm

      Chris Maverick There’s also, floating around on there somewhere, a great critique of a “how to draw comics” book that is…painfully male-gazey. the book, not the critique. so that book might be useful

    3. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 1:25 pm

      Hmmm… I’m wondering which how to draw comics book it is.

      I mean arguably most superhero drawing books are… hell, art books in general are to an extent (which is sort of kind of the point). But I’m wondering which book they were talking about.

    4. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 1:37 pm

      Ah yes… Wizard’s book. That was one of the ones that was in my head. It’s a weird one… because on one hand, it focuses on LOTS of different artists (it’s actually a collection of a drawing column that they had running for years). Some of them are certainly less heteronormative male focused than others. BUT, this was during the bad girl pinup craze of the 90s, so it certainly does lean heavily in that direction as a general rule.

      I wonder if I should take my copy in to pass around while we do the talk tomorrow. And maybe some others. Like Terry Moore’s book.

  9. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    Oh, I’d been meaning to ask, what is the comics class – where is it, other details?

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 2:19 pm

      I’m teaching a class called “Sex, Violence and Comics” to undergrads at Duquesne University.

  10. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Have you got something like Witchblade? Or that Manara cover of Spider-woman that was so ridiculous?

    I’m internet-less at the moment with the move, so limited on searching for images (and still unpacking my comics stash)

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 3:44 pm

      Yep. If you click on the blog link there’s a gallery and both of those are there. ?

  11. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    There’s the panel in the first The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 where the guy may or may not be checking out Squirrel Girl’s prodigious badonkadonk and his girlfriend may or may not be jealous.

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 6:16 pm

      Hmmm… I might need to look it up. I’ve read that book, but I don’t recall it.

    2. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 6:17 pm

      Do you actually regularly read Squirrel Girl?

      I know for instance Brandon Link Copp-Millward is a fan too…

      as I told him… as far as I can tell, despite it being “targeted at young female readers” it’s audience appears to be almost entirely middle aged white dudes. 🙂

    3. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      Yep, it’s one of my favorites. The letters section would seem to indicate they have fans who are non-white non-middle-aged non-dudes, but it may be a biased sample.

    4. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 6:56 pm

      It’s top panel of page three or four of issue #1 (of the first series). Arguably, the dude is checking out her super strength since she’s carrying way too many boxes in her secret identity. One reading of the joke is that the dude is reacting to her strength, but his girlfriend *thinks* he is checking out Squirrel Girl’s ass.

    5. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 7:02 pm

      I’m sure there are actually a variety of readers. But it’s sales just aren’t great regardless. I’m not sure it’s going to survive much longer.

      But she is stupidly popular with middle aged white dudes. Many of whom apparently really really really want Anna Kendrick to play her in a movie (based on one single interview where someone asked what superhero she’d like to play and and answered “well, my brother’s favorite is squirrel girl and he says I look like her, so I guess squirrel girl”) so she totally shot into being a fan favorite casting…

      even though there’s no indication hat marvel is even thinking about a squirrel girl movie and kendrick is like at least a decade too old for the role.

    6. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 7:17 pm

      I read that the trade paperback sells well, though…

    7. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 7:29 pm

      Maybe? I don’t follow those numbers as closely

  12. avatar
    September 13, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    So, as you recommended the article as one of your favorites, I read it. Reading it I can see many valuable ideas in it, but boy is it heavy on Freud’s theory of castration anxiety. When you present this to students, do you warn them about that ahead of time? As an academic at this point, I don’t have difficulty seeing it as a product of the theories which were influential in its time and accepting the good without getting hung up on the Freud, but if I were a student, I would definitely have trouble accepting this article because if you don’t accept the accuracy of Freud’s theories (which are not generally empirically supported and have mostly been discarded by mainstream psychology at this point) it seems like it would be hard to accept an article which rests on that. Just out of curiosity, how do you frame the paper for your students?

    1. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 6:15 pm

      before hand I frame it with “this is going to be complicated. You are not going to understand everything. Really you aren’t. Just keep going. Make notes of what is confusing and we will talk about it on Wednesday”

      they’re encouraged to question things. even disagree if they like. And they had to read Judith Butler for last week and she’s even harder to understand than Mulvey is.

    2. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 6:24 pm

      Oh, and as for the Freud stuff, it ultimately doesn’t matter. She’s framing it that way, because she’s a psychoanalyst. It turns out psychoanalysis works pretty well in film and literary criticism even though psychologists realize it’s bunk, because it describes the way people think about stuff in relation to a text even if the science behind why is wrong.

      But when I’m going over it I mostly skip the castration complex issues, because I don’t consider them important to what we’re using it for. It’s more about the scopophillic and narcissistic qualities that embody the male gaze of a camera. (or well, a comic panel in this case)

    3. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 6:35 pm

      I think I understand your perspective on it and what you see as important. Reading it, it was easy for me to accept the idea that they emphasize female sex appeal to appeal to the male gaze while also disregarding the idea that they do so because they have to since otherwise women’s lack of penises remind men of the fear of castration. But I can’t help but think that when I was an undergraduate, it would have been harder for me to not just read that and get to those points and say “geez, what a load of bunk!” So that’s why I was curious about how you frame it.

    4. avatar
      September 13, 2016 at 6:41 pm

      yeah… I think the “because” is problematic. But again, I don’t know that it really matters. What I’m more focused on is how.

      I stop with “because women tend to be more willing to accept their own sexualized image than men are” and then we move on to counter examples and other people’s extensions of the theory. “Can a sexualized character be empowering?” “Can a male be sexualized?” “Is there a female gaze?” “Is there a queer gaze?” etc.

      One key thing about Mulvey for instance (not obvious from that chapter but I’ve read other stuff) is that she very much believes that the male gaze REQUIRES a cinematic experience. It has to be film, because to her it relies on the psychological conceit that you are viewing the object of the gaze through a magic window from a darkened room. You need to take on the mob mentality of being amongst others to truly make the onscreen character a performing object. Being in a theater is therefore necessary. She specifically thinks it DOESN’T work with television. And I’d imagine she’d think the idea that it worked with comic books was downright silly.

      She’s wrong. 🙂

  13. avatar
    September 14, 2016 at 8:06 am

    Sadly, the list of comics that don’t apply to this analysis is probably way shorter than those that do. At some point you might google “female superhero” in class and just show them what comes up, no cherry-picking necessary.

  14. avatar
    September 14, 2016 at 8:06 am

    Btw, Carolyn Cocca’s “Superwomen” is out this week from Bloomsbury. It’s a must-have for this area of research.

    1. avatar
      September 14, 2016 at 8:30 am

      Yeah. I preordered it months ago. Got it last week. So far I’ve only skimmed it. But it’s good!

    1. avatar
      September 14, 2016 at 6:43 pm

      So since the class was today I’ve already done this, but these are still interesting.

      They’ve seen the avengers pic… on like day two of the class. :-). And it might come back again because we’ll be revisiting the Hawkeye initiative later in the semester.

      Slave Leo isn’t quite right for this. But I totally have to remember that for later. Probably when we talk about gender bending and hawkeye initiative.

      The Shortpacked strip I’ve seen before. I’m leaning away from that for the same reason as the Sarkeesian thing above… It’s not a question for them to solve. It’s someone’s opinion on the answer. I prefer for them to arrive at their own (even if they disagree with me). But moreso than Sakeesian, the shortpacked strip takes a kind of the internet shorthand towards what the male gaze actually means. They’re giving you “most comics use the male gaze and that is bad” which is NOT what Mulvey actually says. It’s shortsighted. It doesn’t really explain what “male gaze” means and actually kind of misrepresents it to a more simplified “hypersexual is bad”

      I actually did love that during today’s discussion I had a girl fighting hard for the argument of “I’m a woman and I like seeing badass sexualized women” which is sort of the problem that gets complicated by the simplified approach.

      And 300 Vogue I had not seen before… that was simply beyond awesome.

  15. avatar
    September 14, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    Thanks everyone. I used several of your images and the discussion went really well today.

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