I no longer support the position I took in this piece; a (positive) re-evaluation of Ms Conner’s art is coming soon.
Amanda Conner is, as Wikipedia tells us, a pretty eminent comic book artist, famed for her work on female characters. She has worked on any number of lines for both Marvel and DC Comics, from Vampirella to Power Girl, as well as creating the art for Garth Ennis’ independent comic The Pro. She is quoted as a possible artist for the Silk Spectre strand of DC’s proposed Watchmen 2. She has also produced some of the most highly sexualised and objectified images of women in comics today.
This, of course, runs entirely counter to much feminist theory. According to Laura Mulvey‘s theory of the male gaze, only men are capable of objectification. Women, apparently, just can’t do it. This is clearly nonsense: to say that women do not objectify objects of desire is to ignore well attested fact; to say they cannot is to place ideology above reality. But even so, we would expect a straight woman (and Conner is reportedly heterosexual) to at most objectify men. For her to create images of women that appear to be carefully designed to stimulate straight men and gay women would seem unusual. Moreover, given the general audience of superhero comics, we can cut that audience down still further: Conner’s art is aimed straight at the male libido.
Moreover, though comics are often (rightly) criticised for objectifying women, it is fair to say (as I did above) that Conner’s art is among the most highly objectified in comics today. To see an example of this, consider these two images of Power Girl, both showing the superheroine in flight. First we have Conner’s version. Attention is naturally drawn straight to Power Girl’s breasts, which are extremely large, carefully delineated, and bang in the centre of the picture, just where the eye naturally settles. If we move away from her breasts, Power Girl’s hip to waist ratio is also extreme, with her leotard cut very high to emphasise the extent and curve of her hips.
Now, by contrast, we have Sami Basri’s version (Basri is a man). The breasts are just as large and just as exposed as in the Conner image, but they no longer scream for attention: the focus is entirely on Power Girl’s face. Her breasts make their impact indirectly, via the unconscious mind. It’s also worth comparing the expressions on Power Girl’s face: Basri’s is a much more serious person.
In fact, Power Girl only regained what dignity she had left, after the jokey nonsense that was most of the Conner / Palmiotti era, when a new team with a male artist took over her book. And yet this is precisely one hundred and eighty degrees from what should, if one believes the feminist theorists, happen. It should have been men who put Power Girl naked on a toilet, or in a micro-bikini, or who perpetrated crass jokes about snow-globes, and a woman who saved her from this dreadful exploitation. Having precisely the reverse happen doesn’t make much sense in terms of feminist theory, or even in any other terms. Why would a woman want to make other women into objects for men’s delectation?
The nature of objectification
Now, the thing about objectification is, we all do it, all of the time. Whenever we interact with another person, we objectify them, in that we map them onto a construct in our own mind which represents what we see them as. This can include appearance, voice, personality, beliefs, and any number of things, but it is still, when all is said and done, an image of that person and not a copy of the person. And as it is an image, it is imperfect, and therefore we have made an object of them. It is, however, a necessary tool, in that it allows us to model how we expect the person to behave, and hence determine how to interact with them. Therefore, we need to think carefully, when we speak of objectification, about what we mean. The approach I intend to take is as follows: we objectify a person when we interact not with them, but with our mental image projected onto them. That is to say, we assume that our mental image contains all there is that we will ever need to know about that person, and so we can interact with the person as if they were just a mental construct. This is not just making an object of them, which, as I have said, is inescapable, but reducing them to being no more than an object.
Looking back at the examples above, it is fairly clear that in the images by Conner, the image of Power Girl that is being projected is of a young woman with large breasts. That she is hugely powerful, with a very strong personality, a short temper and great devotion to duty is not really apparent, though it is more so in the image by Basri. For Conner she is just a woman with large breasts, and this is carried on in other images, such as the one shown here. Once again, the emphasis is on breasts and hips, but more egregiously, Power Girl takes on the expression and posture of a glamour model posing for a skin magazine. Everything in this image, right down to the jarring orange tan, is aimed at reducing Power Girl to a body. So, in terms of my discussion of objectification, the model of Power Girl presented by Conner’s images is simply that of an undistinguished woman with large breasts and hips, and we are expected to interact with her at that level; indeed her personality, the aspect of her that goes beyond her body, is actually negated.
Just to show that this is not restricted to Power Girl, consider this cover illustration of Zatanna. Now, Zatanna’s fishnets are a part of her image as a stage musician, but her figure in this image is, to say the least, unusual. Again, Zatanna is usually portrayed as being quite well endowed, but nothing like this, and the sheer hypertrophy of her breasts forces attention to her body, and away from the attributes of her magic and the little story that the image tells. Which is a shame, because it is a very fine image. And so, again, the model of Zatanna derived from this image is that of a woman with very large breasts, a fact that is almost entirely irrelevant to her activities as a superheroine.
As a final example, we have Conner’s image of the Black Canary. Now, again, the Black Canary’s image involves the fishnets and the leotard that emphasises her bosom, but this is ridiculous. The Black Canary is also known for her aggressiveness in hand-to-hand combat. No-one serious about hand-to-hand combat would dress like that. At least, not more than once. This is nakedly a glamour picture, turning the Black Canary from a tough, resourceful superheroine into a simple object of desire. The model of her projected by the image is of a blonde with breasts, and her depiction as such discourages any attempt to look further.
And so we have seen that Conner’s art does strongly encourage objectification of women in the sense that it reduces them to objects build primarily from their bodies and the extent to which those bodies are sexually arousing for men. If the reader does not believe me, they are encouraged to search for images by Conner. The only ones they will find that are even remotely appropriate for their context are those from The Pro where the heroine is meant to look like a prostitute, because she is one.
The borderlands of pornography
In my piece What can we learn from Power Girl? I concluded, largely under the influence of Conner’s art, that the sensibility of Power Girl’s appearances in comics was that of pornography. This should be distinguished from the sensibility of the character herself, who has, as I have said, a dignity directly at variance with the ridiculous plots she found herself entangled in during the Conner / Palmiotti era. This apposition turns out, as it happens, to be a neat instance of the nature of objectification as set out above: Power Girl may be a dignified opponent of evil, but we are sold a partial image of her as a hot babe, and are discouraged from inquiring any further.
We can take this further. Consider this Gil Elvgren pin-up. It’s a highly attractive image of a pretty young woman who happens to have a body with all the curves and so on and so forth required to make her highly desirable, dressed in such a way as to make this pretty clear. Now, she’s as dramatically endowed as some of Conner’s women, and yet the effect is very different. We see a woman in a dynamic situation; we can read her emotion; we can enter into her feelings of happiness; and we can find her desirable, but that comes as a part of the whole package of her being herself.
Now consider this ‘pin-up’ by Bill Ward. The entire approach is different. The woman has a figure than even Conner might balk at, and which is probably an anatomical impossibility. But more important, that’s all she has. She is an entirely passive recipient of the man’s address, and has no characteristics other than an unfeasibly large bosom. She is pure body and pure object, as it is clear that the body is the only thing about her that is of any importance to Ward, and hence to us.
This leads naturally to a proposal. As I have said, we always objectify one another. The issues at hand are what that objectified model consists of, and then whether we use the model as a tool to help us in interacting with the original, or whether we decide that the model contains all we need to know, and treat the original as if they are merely a physical instance of the model. This means that there are two kinds of behaviour. First is normative behaviour, in which the model is a tool. Here we treat other people (whether real or imagined) as people. Then there is objectifying behaviour, in which we lose interest in the person as themselves and view them only as the embodiment of certain characteristics that we choose to place in our model of them.
More specifically, let us look at sexual objectification, that is to say the place of sexual characteristics in an objectified model of an individual. In normative behaviour, the person’s sexual attractiveness will (inevitably) form part of the model, but not all. We can still (say) appreciate their body, but that is a part of appreciating them as a whole, and not an end in itself. Now say my model of a person ignores all characteristics save those relating to sexual attraction, so it is like one of Conner’s illustrations. In this case, theoretically it could still be possible to relate to the person as a real person, and not just a sexualised image, but as the internal model is a sexualised image, and is thus so far distant from any other attributes of personhood, it is hard to see how this could be achieved. At least, I do not see how it is possible to think of someone as no more than a body and yet treat them as a full person. Therefore, we must conclude that in this case, we lose all sight of the person as an individual, and view them merely as a sexualised body that we can interact with. Therefore, we cross the bounds from normal eroticism to pornography precisely at the point where we no longer think of an individual as being more than just a body.
We have come a long way from Amanda Conner’s Power Girl, bu we still have to ask why it is that she does what she should, it appears, not, and sexually objectifies women. The answer is depressing, but obvious: a male artist could not get away with sexual objectification, but a woman can, and it sells. Therefore it is a perfect niche, which Conner fills admirably well. It’s a shame, because her art is first rate and, even when somewhat distasteful, still vibrant and rather beautiful. Also, even if one happens to like drawing sexy women, one can go beyond objectification. The Cobweb (created by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie) is a creation who knows that she is objectified, indeed positively encourages it, and it doesn’t matter because her personality is so strong and outlandish that she can get away with being a big-bosomed lady who goes out and about wearing an underbust corset, a see-through nightie, stockings, shoes, a domino mask and nothing else. And let’s not even mention her chauffeuse…