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