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Women in Comics: Sexing up Cancer

Last week, a new ad campaign was released by the Associação da Luta Contra o Cancer, a breast cancer awareness foundation based in Mozambique, who have run some pretty hard hitting campaigns in the past. These ads were a little bit different, and featured some of the most well known women comic characters, which is why you may have seen it featured on a fair few of the comic websites around.

Clearly, breast cancer awareness is a very worthy cause, and anything that will help get the message to women is great. However, that doesn't mean we can't stop and think about just why it is that a) comic book women almost always look sexualised, and b) women touching their boobs immediately gets re-shared across fandom (the reaction in Mozambique is not covered here as it is not my place!). We need to separate our applause of the message, from our apparent applause of the (objectified) method. Everyone knows "sex sells", but how messed up is it that we live in a society where the best way to spread a serious message about women's health is to use objectified women's bodies?

How messed up is it, that these wonderful illustrations of women touching their own body, have been greeted with slobbering idiots drooling over the idea of women checking their own breasts?

Wonder Woman by  Maísa Chaves

This isn't a new phenomenon by any means; sexualisation of breast cancer awareness campaigns has been happening for years. Now stop that thought right there! I can see the "but what about prostate cancer..." line appearing above your head and I don't need that kind of image of Wolverine in my head. Pretty much every other cancer is relegated to the backburner in favour of breast cancer. This is not about some war of the cancers – obviously. But this is about one particular kind of cancer being particularly easy to sexualise, and thus particularly prevalent in our media. Because everyone digs boobs.

The danger lies in the fact that women are already so objectified in our culture, and separating women from their portrayal as sex objects is incredibly difficult when we actually want to focus on breasts in a non-sexualised manner for once. Many campaigns have come under criticism for using slogans like "save the boobies", implying that the breasts are worthy of being saved because of their high sexualised regard in society. The woman underneath? Well, we don't care so much about her. As long as we save the boobs.

Again, campaigners hook on to this because really, anything to spread the message right? But while doing that, we need to seriously look at what is going on underneath, and just why something as important as cancer needs to rely on sexualisation to get its message across. Because while many media outlets would run any ad on breast cancer, we're kidding ourselves if we think the same number would run an ad that wasn't also sexy. About cancer! It's incredibly how pervasive this objectification and sexualisation actually is in our media.

Catwoman by  Maísa Chaves

Let's look at these ads in particular: drawn by a very talented woman artist; using some of the toughest women characters in comics to show that anyone can get breast cancer; focusing on the body part the cancer effects; showcasing one method for detecting the cancer; using attractive women drawn in an appealing pose.

If our media wasn't already dominated by hyper-sexualised portrayals of women, this would be brilliant. Just like the New 52 Catwoman's hyper-sexualised portrayal would be no big deal if she was the only character, or in a minority of women characters, treated that way. Sexy women? Yes please! Only, can't we have every other woman too?

Back to the campaign. We have the faces missed out in order to highlight that anyone can be effected by breast cancer, and also to highlight the effected part of the body. Unfortunately, in comics, cropping out the face of a woman character to highlight her breasts (or butt) is almost the norm for titillation purposes. Again, see Catwoman issue #1 that didn't show Selina's face until page 3 but gave plenty of space for her boobs, lips and butt. In the ads, Selina's lips are pert and moist, she's wearing one of her sexiest costumes, her tail(?) is erect in the background, and her clawed hands massage her breast. Storm also has the moist lips, while Wonder Woman has hair playfully tumbled across her body, while She-Hulk (yes, she of the gamma radiation), presses her breasts together having just exploded through a wall.

The characters have obviously been chosen for their fame factor, and I do think it's great when campaigns work with celebrities or known characters as it helps give that extra wide appeal, particularly for younger women and girls. But by picking comics, a medium where women are perhaps even more sexualised than in mainstream media, it has run into the problem of reinforcing the objectification of these women.

She-Hulk by  Maísa Chaves

Again, and I will keep repeating this so nobody misses it, this is a great way to ensure that the message is spread further and will hopefully help more women. But unpacking just why we have to sex ourselves up to help our own health message get out there, is really important. We can't decry objectification in comics on the one hand, and then ignore it when it comes attached with a positive message. The same underlying mechanisms are still in place.

Thinking further on this, I feel like the campaign would be less of a grey area were it to feature real women, who have agency of their own, being photographed or illustrated by a woman artist (somewhat like the ALCC's earlier campaign but still not quite right). Women using their own bodies to further a woman-friendly message is still happening within a patriarchal society, but that can be recognised and acknowledged in a way fictional characters are unable to do. Alternatively, less sensual posing or framing might have helped. The secondary point is that this ad campaign has not been created in the West but in Mozambique, and I do not wish to speak for the women there; it is not my place! Instead, I am focusing on the reaction to and popularity of, such campaigns in the West.

Unfortunately, this campaign also promotes breast self-examinations which have been widely shown to be ineffective at detecting cancer and may even be harmful in terms of causing false panic or confidence. Breast awareness and education on the other hand is incredibly important, as is being familiar with your own body. So having these women heroes fondling their own boobs isn't so much about health as it is guaranteeing everyone looks at them, and thus the ads. Sexing up cancer.

And to stave off one other common argument: no, I don't think women in the media should all have to be "unattractive" whatever you may mean by that, nor do I think conventionally attractive women shouldn't be seen naked or as sexy. Conventionally attractive and proportioned women are women, and as such should be portrayed. As should all other women! In all their sexy, non-sexy, a-sexy, superduper-sexy glory. Women with big breasts, small breasts, no breasts, any kind of breasts can be represented in the media, and if that was the case, sexualised images of women wouldn't be such a big deal. Just like those strange sexed up covers of romance fiction, with the pec-heavy men sweating over the title, aren't so much a big deal as they are quirky, because it's not the norm. Seeing breasts highlighted or naked women (hello all shampoo adverts) is the norm for women.

Storm by Maísa Chaves

"If you see this as sexy, that's your problem" is another common argument. But no, using characters that are routinely sexualised, in a sexualised portrayal, touching their boobs while their skin or pvc glistens, is pretty well regarded as being sexy. They are attractive women characters that have been drawn brilliantly. If it wasn't sexy, it wouldn't have spread so far across the internet! Spreading the message of breast cancer awareness: good. Having to sex it up: bad.

"It's just a bit of fun" It might be, if it wasn't the absolute norm for these characters to be defined by their perfect bodies and desire to display them. Nudity, sexuality, boobs, the wonderful female form... all of this I like. The constant and institutional objectification of women? Not so much. I am happy that these campaigns spread awareness of campaign, I am unhappy that this is the way they have to go about it. No other health campaign has this frivolous edge to it, that both objectifies the target audience, and sexualises the need to avoid the illness itself.

"I don't see it..." Maybe you don't but others do. This sexing up of health campaigns is really bizarre and rather trivialising too, and if it makes some women uncomfortable then that is enough to criticise the trend. If you see nothing wrong with this, then please listen to the women who do and don't dismiss them. The Facebook memes of posting what colour bra you were wearing or where you put your handbag ("I like it on the kitchen table!") was both reinforcing this sexualised edge to the breast cancer awareness campaign, and also pretty insulting to many breast cancer survivors. Along with "save the boobies" are people even thinking about the many women who survive cancer and have had mastectomies?

"Only feminazis/prudes/women would complain about this!" Apologies for spoiling your guilt free oggle, but the sense of triumph some feel over being allowed to look at these boobs because it's about cancer is, well, awful. It's about cancer so it's allowed to be sexualised? Sex may sell, but we should never stop questioning why and looking at the bigger picture, while simultaneously supporting the spread of the message. If you think that's difficult, you're probably not a woman used to reading comics!

"Where's Power Girl?" Yes, clearly you are here for the message of being aware of breast cancer... not at all to look at boobs, right?

Breast cancer awareness isn't about saving the boobs, it's about women's lives.

And I say all this as someone who likes boobs. And Catwoman.


Further reading:
Feminism & Breast Cancer @ Nancy's Point
Women in Comics: Women in the New 52 Reviewed
Catwoman: The Hyper-Sexualisation of a Sexual Woman
Women in Comics: Red Sonja and Power Girl - A New Hope?
Women in Comics: An Overview

Comments (9) Trackbacks (0)
  1. First off, I feel I should tell you why I was moved to read your post: I found your “sexing up cancer” title pretty damn offensive. You’re not the first person to use that phrase, and goodness knows there are problems with how people advocate for women with breast cancer. (The Facebook memes are fairly useless, I agree.) But even if you’re trying to be critical, a title like “sexing up cancer” can still be pretty offensive.

    You say it’s not your place to talk about the reaction of this ad in Mozambique, but then you go ahead and judge it through Western eyes without any research or consideration of an audience in Mozambique. I’m not sure it’s possible to fairly judge the ad campaign by divorcing it from its place and intended audience in Mozambique. Some questions I might want to consider would be: What’s the state of awareness of breast cancer in Mozambique? What’s the state of healthcare like for the average woman there? What are the common cultural views and perceptions of women’s bodies, and breasts, specifically? Would most people consider these images sexualized there?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, and it seems neither do you. And so it strikes me as pretty presumptuous to take this ad without its context and judge it by British/North American standards of media and sexualization of women. I think you may also be attributing problems with other breast cancer campaigns to this one without cause.

    You anticipate a lot of counter-arguments here, and as someone who has spent far too much time arguing about sexism and women in comics on the Internet, been called “crazy” and “hypersensitive” for my feminist views on more than one occasion, you have my sympathies for that. But I’m not really coming at this from those angles.

    I object to your referring to the characters depicted as “fondling” their breasts. Checking one’s breasts for lumps is not fondling, and I’m sure you know that. Calling it “fondling” seems dismissive and trivializing, not to mention willfully ignorant. I don’t see these images as sexualized. I see these images as showing powerful woman trying to lead others in health awareness and self-examination. I see their heads cut off as intending to imply an “everywoman”, or perhaps even to indicate the privacy one should get in healthcare. (Heads cut off in a DC/Marvel comic are something else entirely: context really matters.) I also see some beautifully rendered art of pre-existing characters who tend to be depicted in certain (often sexualized) ways.

    You view it differently, and that’s okay. But I guess what I’d like to say to you is that maybe you should try to look at this a little less narrowly, and to be more sensitive to the realities of cancer when discussing things aimed at combating it.

    • I sincerely apologise for any offence caused. I’ll explain below my reasonings but I do not intend that to negate my apology, no ifs or buts I assure you! I was moved to write this because of the reaction amongst some survivors that appeared to be being ignored.

      “Fondling” was used as that is how it has been received in many of the comments elsewhere that were flagged up to me, combined with the oft criticised promotion of self-exam over awareness.

      “Sexing up” was used as a continuation of the dialogue elsewhere on the ongoing trend within breath cancer awareness. I didn’t think of it is as being offensive, simply pointing out a shocking truth, a truth that is distasteful and often overlooked. I apologise.

      I made doubly sure I was commenting on the REACTION in the West, where male dominated comics communities have siezed these pictures and challenged “prudes” to complain.

      I don’t believe I am looking at them narrowly; on the contrary, I repeatedly said that this was a wonderful campaign IF we could remove it from the sexist society they are being congratulated in: again, the patronising West.

      Also, and I am not dismissing your comment at all I hope, but assuming anothers knowledge and experience of cancer and other severe illnesses is not a great idea. It’s no coincidence that most of the critique surrounding sexualisation of breast cancer awareness are survivors or relatives, and that those are the people silenced on the issue. I’ve had past articles here turn toxic in the comment threads where people feel too triggered, and I wish to avoid that from now on!

      It is a complicated topic, and to remove the method from the message on an emotional subject is difficult. However, I don’t believe that those who support the campaign are ignorant (I am one!), nor those who criticise the culture that disproportionately rewards the method over the more important message.

    • First off, their heads are not cut off. There’s a secret, tantalizing, titillating smile to go with each picture. Do women secretly smile to themselves when checking themselves for breast cancer? (Bonus points if you can guess who they are smiling for. Hint! It’s not their intended female audience.) Secondly, no trivialization was done at all by the author of this post. Third, if you don’t know any answers to the questions in this post, why the fuck are you judging this post? Your worthless moralizing by magically transporting your thoughts to a hypothetical Mozambique woman’s head is equally trivial and worthless, in my opinion. You equate “Western presumptuous opinions” to mean every opinion besides your own, it seems.

      Unless you demand that advertisements for men to check their prostate for cancer should demand an image for a finger in Batman’s rectum, with a secret smile on his face, I’m going to call your post out as pure bullshit.

  2. Thank you writing what I was too wary of conflict to write myself.

  3. Maddy has a very good point, is not bullshit of any kind but a critisism to tye aproach you make to the pictures without Its context. I think there is more to It than a simple question of semiotics, is more about a failure to comunicate. It could be seen as too narrow cause you fail to see the whole picture, not that I can do better, is just that is not a one post topic.

    I would have investigated more about the reception and production that only the images, every kind of information that reduced the semantics of those adds.

    The problem is that breast cancer is a sexed illness so is bound to be sexed up much more than anything else, not that it must. From the school of thought I come there is no negation of the objetification of woman as an object of desire, but thats not make sexism till that objetification becomes part on a specific structure based on a specific purpose (man overpowering woman).
    In the same spirit while breast cancer is sexed that doesnt become a problem till you insert It into a cultural sistem in this case.

    The “save the boobies” is much more simple, as Its intention is clearely trivialize the illness, dehuminize the breasts and alienate them from the woman, so the campaign could be “fun”. Problem is the fight against an illness is not fun, dehumanaizing a part of your body that is afterall part of your identity is no OK and in the end of the day in a context that still see the “boobs” as a metonimic form for woman you end up alienating and trivializing women!.

    Is not that this post is wrong but, as a teacher told me, is not right enough. However this is just a post not an essay, so people should take this as an opinion and not as the final thruth

  4. Judging by the way men were drooling over these images on Facebook… yes, they are sexed up.

    As a woman and an avid comic reader, I feel these pictures were not drawn thinking about women or cancer. I would call it distasteful and disgusting.

  5. When I read this article, I was very conflicted on my position. I may be still slightly…but this really was a revelation that hit hard for me.

    This is a pretty personal subject for me, becaue my mother had breast cancer (she survived). Her mother had ovarian cancer (whose sister had brain cancer), and her mother before her had breast cancer (neither survived). Her father’s mother also had breast cancer (and amazingly survived waaay back when that was very rare).

    So, as you can guess, I already do these checks. Next visit to the doctor will be a mammogram, even though I am only 27 (my mother was diagnosed at 37…10 years from the closest member is the general rule).

    Breast cancer is terrifying, and it is not uncommon for women to have to have full mastectomies–this is often just done as a matter of course and as the best protection against relapse. My mother had to have a double mastectomy and an ooferectomy (removal of the ovaries) because of the extensive history of cancer in the family….always better safe than sorry, after all.

    When I first saw the picture of Wonder Woman, I thought what a good idea…but then I got a closer look and looked at the following pictures and I felt insulted. Breast examinations are not fun or sexy. They’re scary. When do the heroines not have serious looks on their face? If they were talking about war or starving children, or other causes, would they not have a more serious look? Would they still be as sexed up as they are? Why the hell, for that matter, does She-hulk have her breasts squeezed together? This would actually cause flesh to shift and would not be the best way to give one’s self a check.

    Truth is…this crap is for guys. And if it isn’t, it’s just happened that way because this is the standard by which female characters are drawn. And I, for one, find it sick and insulting and degrading. I’m sure it came with good intentions, but I fully agree with what you are saying here.

    Focusing on saving the “boobies” just makes breasts seem even more important. It makes it even HARDER for women to deal with having their breasts literally cut off their chests. Hell, those “save the boobies” and “tatas” stickers came out at a point where breast cancer had a crap ton of awareness arleady. And where are the ads for heart disease, which is still the number one killer of women? Where are the adds for ovarian cancer, which is far more deadly?

    I had a pretty emotional discussion with my boyfriend about this, and he brought up many valid points…and then it hit me–testicular cancer is a serious problem too, requiring self-checking as an early detection method. Where are the ads that show a cut of Superman’s hands gently and clinically checking his package? We need to get this message out, and that would certainly draw attention.

    My bf paused for a moment, thought about it, and clarified that he would still be fully clothed (yes -.-;), and then agreed that he would be okay with that. ….and yet, we don’t see it.

    Maybe I’m a bit senstiive, because I have watched someone I love have to give up a part of her body to this disease. Maybe because I am and come from a family of large chested women that have constantly been sexualized since a sadly young age for it. But this crap doesn’t fly with me. There is so much they could have done different….I find the end product unacceptable.

    And while maybe I can’t speak for Mozambique…it is the sad truth that everywhere in the world women have to deal with similar or much worse crap…so oI don’t think the argument of “you’re American, you don’t get it” is going to fly here.

  6. Well, it’s a smart move in one regard: it eliminates the eternal lack of encouragement given by standard medical literature. Women of all ages commonly experience anxiety, dread, even outright fear about such breast exams. Seeing some no-name female drawing (or worse, some blank-faced living ‘cadaver’ going through the motions in a photo) only heightens that anxiety.

    Unless you live under a rock, you’re aware that comic fans are NO LONGER just males. It is estimated by both Marvel and DC that fanbase is nearly equal on both sides. Which means these women are ICONS for courage and conquering fear. If you have a gripe over equality, a corollary for men would be a series which graphically depict male superheroes checking their testicles for lumps. But that can’t POSSIBLY be done can it you whining repliers? Can’t POSSIBLY have the unclothed male sex organ flagrantly visible for the purpose of showing a medical process, of conveying a sense of courage to men, whom ubiquitously tend to base their ENTIRE GENDER IDENTITY around those organs. At least the females in the images above could remain covered and still fully elucidate the process. Not so with men. What do you say about that truth? Whiney asses.

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