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Women in comics discussed at UNI presentation

Women in comics discussed at UNI presentation

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CEDAR FALLS | Psylocke's thigh is bigger than her entire torso.

Catwoman's breasts and buttocks are bulgy bookends to her luridly sculpted face as she contorts her spine into an "L" shape.

The most noticeable characteristic of Mystique isn't that she's blue. It's that she's walking around stark naked.

Those are some of the more well-known female characters in the universe of comic book fandom, and this is how they are depicted: as skimpily clad, hyper-sexualized objects of male desire.

This was the point that some of the panelists made at a discussion in Rod Library on the University of Northern Iowa campus Wednesday afternoon.

The panel, called "Representations of Women in Comics: How Women are Drawn, Dressed, Desired and Discarded," tackled the issues facing women in a historically male dominated medium.

"Cleavages keep getting bigger and the sexuality keeps getting more advanced," said panelist Annette Lynch, a professor in UNI's School of Applied Human Sciences and co-director of the Center for Violence Prevention.

Lynch focused on how superheroines are commonly drawn to emphasize what she calls their "hedonic" power to influence male characters through their overt sexuality.

Male comic characters, on the other hand, are more often defined by "agonic" power, or their brute physical strength.

Lynch thinks these classic portrayals of gender have led to the majority of women in comics leading underdeveloped lives in relation to their male counterparts.

Fellow panelist Mike Welch, a librarian at the Cedar Falls Public Library, walked the middle ground on the depiction of women in comics.

Welch agreed there are plenty of unrealistically proportioned superheroines but noted there are also many examples of empowered female protagonists as well, such as Michonne in "The Walking Dead" or Jean Grey, widely known as one of the most powerful mutants in the "X-Men" universe.

Much of the panel's discussion focused on scenes of sexual assault and rape that have unfolded in the panels of mainstream comic books in the last two decades.

Popular graphic novels like Mark Millar's "Wanted," Alan Moore's "Watchmen" or Garth Ennis' "The Boys" all feature scenes of women being sexually brutalized by male lead characters.

Lynch thinks such scenes are for the most part prurient in nature and serve only to perpetuate a culture of sexual violence against women.

Welch agreed that rape is abhorrent but said sometimes, when written about properly, can motivate the characters of the story into taking definitive action.

"That's the world we live in, boys and girls," he said. "And if you can't handle it, maybe you shouldn't be reading some of this stuff. Maybe you should read the Bible. Oh, wait. I'm pretty sure that stuff is in there too."

While she said she isn't in favor of censoring comic books, Lynch disagreed with Welch's outlook.

"There are so many ways to be creative," Lynch said, "and no one can convince me that you need to rely on a script with rape in it to engage the human imagination."

Karla Brown teaches women studies at Hawkeye Community College. She agreed with Lynch that comics, like other forms of media, have an opportunity to tell stories that don't hinge on the oppression of their female characters.

"I'm sick to death of violence, I'm sick to death of a porn version of sex told everywhere in the culture," Brown said. "I don't have much that I can spend my money on that is a story I can enjoy."

At the end of the day, Lynch said that the superheroes and heroines of comic book lore are role models for their readers whose identities are reflections of what values we hold in the highest regard.

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