Hypersexualized avatars; or, how to bring old media questions to new media worlds

I keep running into this question, such that it feels like it is making a resurgence: concerns about the sexualization of avatars, in both comics, graphic novels, and video games. Here is a pointed discussion on Racalicious about a video game design conference where one set of panelists made a little too plain what the criteria are for designing female video game heroes:

“After making a semi-disparaging remark about female characters drawn in a North American style, he concludes “I’d rather have female characters from Final Fantasy or Soul Caliber to sleep with.” This draws chuckles from the crowd. And there it was, the truth about character design that so many players know but most designers wouldn’t usually articulate: most of the egregiously sexist character designs are based on fuckability, rather than playability.

Drawing attractive characters isn’t a crime. But it starts to become grating when characters are not only attractive, but hypersexualized and mostly defined by their appearance. Even when characters aren’t hypersexualized, they can still be boring and flat in execution if there is more attention paid to animating her curves than the character herself.” (excerpt)

This follows on the heels of some discussion I’ve run across about the way female comic book heroes are being re-booted, in a way that over-emphasizes their sexuality. Ire and rebuke have arisen over the reboot of Starfire character from Teen Titans in DC Comics’ Red Hood and the Outlaws, including a post at Comics Alliance in which the author’s seven-year old daughter expresses her troubled ambivalence on the highly sexualized version of her once favorite character. There has also been recent discussion of the both sexualized and degraded version of Catwoman in her graphic novel reboot and in the new Batman video game, Arkham City. Laura Hudson puts it this way:

“In Catwoman, this is what DC Comics tells me a male hero looks like, and what a female hero looks like:

This is not an anomaly. This is the primary message that I hear. And it is one that I only hear about the people who are like me — the women — and not the men…

Female characters are only insatiable, barely-dressed aliens and strippers because someone decided to make them that way. It isn’t a fact. It isn’t an inviolable reality, especially in a comic book universe that has just been rebooted. In the end, what matters is what you choose to show people and how you show them, not the reasons you make up to justify it. Because this is comics, everybody. You can make up anything.”

In a number of these comments, though the criticism is reserved for the publishers, there is often a comment that these sexualized portrayals have emerged from fanfiction. Hudson highlights “the aggressively fanfictiony on-panel sex between Batman and Catwoman” as indicative of the problem; Peterson’s quote from the Racalicious post continues, “But the model for art in our fandom communities is often sex appeal first, to the detriment of characters.”

The question of sexualized womens’ bodies in media is certainly not a new one. But this reminds me of a conversation we have been having, about what questions of “content” look like in new media schoalrship: I keep having this itchy feeling that, though we’ve nominally charged ourselves with talking about “digital cultural production,” we’ve had little substantive discussion of digital cultural productions. We seem to have a lot of strength in examining technologies, distribution, producers, and user practices, but the dimension of what in the end gets made seems absent. Perhaps we are too quick to drop persistent questions about the character of the content, and the complexity of how these images emerge both from professional media organizations and from fan communities, and are appealing and troubling among both.

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