The case of Amanda Conner

I no longer support the position I took in this piece; a (positive) re-evaluation of Ms Conner’s art is coming soon.


Introduction

The Silk Spectre by Conner

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.

Power Girl by Conner

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.

Power Girl by Basri

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.

Power Girl by Conner

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.

Zatanna by Conner

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.

The Black Canary by Conner

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.

‘Pot Luck’ by Elvgren

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.

Pin up by Ward

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.

Conclusion

The Cobweb (created by Melinda Gebbie)

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…

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3 responses to “The case of Amanda Conner

  1. Power Girl was objectified a LONG time before Conner ever got hold of her, so please don’t try to blame all of that on her. Myself, I blame it on Bart Sears (a man), who drew Peege during her time with the Justice League International. Of course, DC Editorial seems to have encouraged it in the extreme, in order to most easily ridicule their foremost spokesperson for the Women’s Movement. Where is that pointed out in this article?

    I’d like to have seen this article address Conner’s genius at depicting body language, at making a drawn figure seem like a real human being with feelings and opinions, by how they relate to their space and other drawn figures around them. Conner’s one of the EXTREME few who not only deems this important, but accomplishes it with panache. No matter how bad the stories she is given to illustrate, she raises the level just by doing this much, and then some more by her other drawing talents.

    Yes, Conner likes to draw pretty girls, but her pretty girls have depth to them. In a world of comic book heroes where the pretty girls are usually there merely to draw the attention and dollars of drooling male readers, it’s nice to see someone trying to get them to recognize a female character’s humanity through her body language.

    Me, I was not a fan of Basri’s work at all (I found it bland and uneven), and I’m surprised that an Adam Hughes (another exceptional illustrator who truly has an unfortunate skew on how women should be drawn) (and oh my, he’s a MALE, like almost ALL of the other artists who depict Power Girl and other heroines with huge honkers) picture wasn’t used to show just how bloated Peege’s boobs could get or how emphasis has been drawn to her as a sex kitten instead of a woman.

    Porn isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. It’s when it gets out of balance that it becomes a problem, when people start thinking that’s ALL one group is good for. Comic books have devolved into primarily an art form directed to young men, which is why of late they’ve become obsessed with stressing violence and sex. Comic books are also primarily written, edited, published and drawn by men, a point which this article seems to have missed.

    So don’t blame Amanda Conner. Instead, celebrate her genius. (And please give her some decent scripts to work with.)

  2. I do not criticise Conner for her artistry. As you will have seen, I commend it. I can, and do, criticise her for playing along with the sexism of the industry. As it is, however, my point was to observe the apparent paradox that some of the most sexualised images of women in comics were drawn by a woman, and then to draw on this to make some rather more general observations about the nature of objectification, and the definition of pornography. You may disagree with these observations, but to condemn the essay for not covering topics that it never claimed were within its scope seems unreasonable. Especially as the tiresome enthrallment of the comics industry to the teenaged male libido is a topic I have discussed elsewhere on this site.

  3. I know this article is 2 years old but I thought I’d pop in with a comment or two. I was introduced to Power Girl via the Connor era (Power Trip collected paperback) and since I mainly enjoy either “gritty” and serious drama in my comics… or else over-the-top ridiculousness.

    PG in Power Trip did a good job, imo, of ironing out a convoluted backstory that even my friends who are lifetime readers of comics were hard pressed to explain. She seemed very much to me like a real person, with a fun personality, a temper, abrasiveness yet a lot of kindness, and it was a *blast*. She honestly reminds me of my wife, who is, as it happens, a nearly 6′ tall, often ill-tempered redhead with, well, DDs that do draw attention. She has a lot of humor about it but has to do some eye-rolling for sure. She loves PG almost as much as I do.

    It seemed like someone took a character who, like She-Hulk etc. was basically a B-lister and not real popular, and breathed a lot of life and personality into her. I defy anyone to pick a recent superhero comic character with more wit and sense of self and her situation than Karen Starr. Yes, it was ridiculous comic book run but I think you missed the point…it’s about someone who is, end of the day, a pretty regular person who happens to have outlandish powers and problems and rather than being like Batman or even sometimes Superman, being grim or neurotic, she just gets it done more or less with a smile, rolling her eyes at the nonsense, punching people through buildings, spilling coffee, and pretty much owning her situation. Ultra-Humanite and Vartox as her opponents was genius and I am sorta sad that anyone feels like the way she dealt with them wasn’t outstanding. I face the fact that superheroes are inherently pretty cornball when you get down to it and the spandex and “dammit let’s just hit it till it stops moving” attitude and gorilla-men stealing your brain plots are a defining trait, no matter how much people hate it. It doesn’t have to be present in every comic for God’s sake but there is more than enough room in comics for a fun, outrageous, tongue-in-cheek book or two and PG is simply perfect for it.

    To be honest, I think people super obsessed with her “boob-window” are too easily distracted, shallow themselves, and far too quick to jump into being VERY overly concerned with some self-depreciation humor about it. Like many heroes she is a Greek Goddess ideal, an Olympic athlete, perfect specimen, statuesque, carved from steel. Conner portrays her as a full head taller than almost anyone else in the book. She has the most expressive face you will find, body language to match, witty and fun personality and dialogue, charm, and DOES seem like a human being stuck with no place in the world but who finds one. She is not a bimbo or a stereotype and in fact she directly addresses those ideas in her book and yet ironically, real people fall into the same traps she’s annoyed with: laser focus on her chest. It boils down to the fact that people take veeeery little to become sex-obsessed be it positively or negatively. It often IS something to joke about and that humor is going to go futher towards dissipating harmful preconceptions than any amount of dour hand-wringing and shaming Amanda Connor ever will.

    And to clear up a fact: I absolutely guarantee you from decades of involvement in the art world in general and with female comics and fantasy fans in general (most of my female friends, of whom I have a lot, my wife, my sister, several cousins, fellow artists and art students apply here)….they enjoy the female form in general and adore figures like Power Girl for sure. They are (mainly) heterosexual women. Women do love her and want to be her as portrayed by the likes of Connor and it’s patronizing to think she just draws what puerile men want to see so as to sell books. They, and I, find it icky and gross (and eye-rolling material) when someone is portrayed with no dignity, or personality, like a soulless doll or mannequin. But a bombshell with a fun wit is a different story. There is room for her and a good healthy place for that.

    My other favorite superhero (do they have to be heroines or is that out, like actress and waitress?) is Batwoman. She is actually pretty sexualized in a more realistically, serious, non-parody way, incidentally. But there is at no point the least doubt of her dead serious determination and ruthlessness to be Batman in inspiration and methods but she is sure as hell NOT Batman and even he steps off “her” crime scenes. “Strong woman” and “femme fatale” are the same term just decades apart and either are irrelevant applied to someone like Kate Kane. It’s a different tone, a different character, humorless and grim as hell. There is a place for her too and I adore her. She and Power Girl technically belong in the same universe but really…no. They are their own thing. Which leads me to my other favorite woman comics character.

    Harley Quinn. I have rambled on forever already so I will skip past the fascination of a compassionate woman who basically ends up in an abusive relationship and willfully *chooses* madness, knowing full well what it really means. This is true of her in all of her many incarnations and interpretations. And yet, she’s been portrayed so very differently and I like her best when she’s complicated. I enjoy her as Dr. Quinzel as much as her villainous persona and the contradiction. Anyway in her original series, she was originally downright zany and goofy as one might expect, coming right from the animated series. It seemed a perfect fit and I enjoyed it a lot but it didn’t have the smarts Power Trip did, overall. Then towards the end there was a new creative team not involving Connor and they made her a much grimmer character set in basically a crime drama, which I also really enjoyed. It was smarter and yet also true to the character. HQ has been a little bit of PG and a little bit of Batwoman. Her new series, *written* by Connor…well it’s young but so far what you’d expect from what I’d assume is obviously going to be more openly silly than the second half of her first series. Harley wears way less clothing than PG (and was actually sexy as HELL to me in her original costume on tv). It’s NOT that PG has huge breasts that are especially exposed. It’s that there is simply a circle around them and that’s all it takes to lead people by the nose who are easily subject to that. It’s sort of exquisite that way. So back on track, PG has shown up in the New 52 HQ book and it’s the goofy fun version of her that some people hate, complete with (face it) tame sexual humor and over-the-top silliness.

    People who don’t want that Power Girl (written by Amanda with her husband incidentally) are better served with Batwoman or the New 52 Wonder Woman, who is also serious and a little dark and dramatic yet undeniably heroic and (literally) and Amazon goddess to look up to. Or there is Batgirl or Captain Marvel, both of whom are true heroes and “super” yet a little less interested in replacing classic mythology and not real concerned with the physical form. If you want “realistic” female role models whose appearance is not definitively so related to their personhood as to be considered to have made into a bland doll no matter what as soon as they wear a particular kind of fantastical costume…superhero comics seem to be a really poor choice. If you want superheroes to wear slacks, you’re removing a key part of what they are. There are plenty of intelligent comic books out there with non-Adonis and non-Amazon characters, some of which are dumb as any Leifeld mess, and some of which are fun and smart and happen to be about people who aren’t inherently “super” as such.

    Maybe years of painting and drawing nude models and living around down-to-earth women has made this all seem like less of a big deal that it might be to other people and/or given me a different level of appreciation of a Power Girl body without it having to instantly be sex sex sex as soon as a hipbone looks beautiful (and again it’s not just, or maybe even mostly, men who appreciate those). At any rate though we come to different conclusions me and my s.o. both enjoyed your writings about PG and they did make us think more consciously about this for the first time in years and found them well-considered and worthwhile reading.

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