Academic journal article CineAction

"Tone Down the Boobs, Please!" Reading the Special Effect Body in Superhero Movies (1)

Academic journal article CineAction

"Tone Down the Boobs, Please!" Reading the Special Effect Body in Superhero Movies (1)

Article excerpt

Superheroes have overcome their lowly pulp comic book beginnings to become an intrinsic part of North American pop culture. They have become iconic symbols to be reiterated and recycled in popular culture to mobilize and reflect themes, tensions, and anxieties of American ideology in terms of genre, gender, sexuality, class, politics, science and culture. Part of the nature of superhero stories has become the movement between mediums and across genres. Superheroes are constantly being re-embodied through different generations of comic books, TV serials, and films, not to mention the never-ending barrage of toys, candy, underpants, video games and other marketing products. As well, part of the history of the comic book superhero is that he or she is the product of many artists and writers who, over the years, subtly change and rework that persona. Scott Bukatman traces the history of the superhero body in his book, Matters of Gravity. With industrialism, railway and industrial accidents made the human body seem breakable. (2) It was after the horrors of World War I that Superman, "the Man of Steel," emerged. (3) In this incarnation he could not fly nor did he have an aversion to kryptonite but he could withstand the rigours of the Machine Age. In the 1960s and 1970s with the new Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man and the Hulk, science fiction and superhero weaknesses were injected into the superhero narrative. Superhero narratives re-imagine the limits of the human body - imagining them mixed with other species, crossed by science, and above all, imbued with superhuman god-like heroism. The year 2000 marked the release of a frenzy of superhero movies more in keeping with the traditional superhero story. Beginning with X-Men (2000), and including X2 (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Hulk (2003), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Fantastic Four (2005), Catwoman (2004), and Superman Returns (2006), these films use big budget special effects, such as Computer Generated Imagery (CGI or CG) technology, to embody the powers of the superhero and heroine. What becomes obvious in watching these films is that they are not only traditional in terms of the superhero narrative but they are positively regressive in terms of their portrayal of male and female bodies, and gender relations. Despite the varied creative re-workings of the superhero mentioned above, hypersexualized bodies remain an intrinsic part of the superhero and comic book legacy. Scott Bukatman says that in comics like X-Menand W.I.L.D.C.A.T.S.,

  hypermasculine fantasy is also revealed, with unabashed obviousness,
  in the approach to female superheroes. The spectacle of the female
  body in these titles is so insistent, and the fetishism of breasts,
  thigh, and hair is so complete, that the comics seem to dare you to
  say anything about them that isn't just redundant. Of course, the
  female form has absurdly exaggerated sexual characteristics; of
  course, the costumes are skimpier than one could (or should) imagine;
  of course, there's no visible way that these costumes could stay in
  place; of course, these women represent simple adolescent
  masturbatory fantasies (with a healthy taste of the dominatrix). (4)

Included as part of this fantasy is, of course, the invincible and muscle bound male counterpart and his gear. As any feminist knows, watching mainstream Hollywood movies, especially big budget action movies, is contradictory. It requires an ambiguous viewing position, what feminists term the "guilty pleasures" of watching blockbuster movies that are politically conflicted. As a feminist reading strategy, guilty pleasure acknowledges the ideological contradictions present in mass texts like Hollywood blockbusters. This strategy assumes that signification is contested and recognizes the negotiations that the consumer-spectator engages in while viewing such texts. Although blockbuster, action, and scifi movies are often racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic, these readings do not always capture the complexities of the anxieties about the body, gender, science, and the status quo that are being played out. …

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