In my last post, I explained how superheroes’ bodies matter, especially in the way that they serve as stand-ins for our fears and anxieties, beings who are able to overcome the things to which us normal people must bow down. Some of these fears included being blown up by bombs in WWI and II, being irradiated, falling off buildings, and, most of all, to ease the physiological burden of those moving from the rural country to the technological metropolises. I also pulled heavily on Scott Bukatman’s work to say that the way superheroes’ bodies look, are colored, and what nationality they identify are the driving force of comics and movies. In this way, superheroes embody not only our worst fears, but our most devastating biases, whether they be sexist, racist, or nationalistic. What I want to deal with in Part 3 of my series “Capes and Flags” is how people relate masculinity with salvation, and the effects this relation has on things like racial and gender bias. Better put, if superheroes help us deal with our fears and embody our political concerns, how do they do so, and why is this protection usually overly masculine?
It’s probably best to start with Bukatman again, since he is my most respected authority on superhero bodies and their masculine tendencies.Warding off these insecurities happens only insofar as the superhero becomes what Bukatman calls an “armored body,” a body that creates a boundary that protects the hero from outside imposition. Like a military soldier in war, the superhero must armor himself from destructive forces, both mentally and physically. The superhero’s body is militarized, disciplined and formed to work as a part of the larger political machine, to accomplish its purposes and resist any other order(s). The armored superbody, therefore, becomes hyper-masculine: it grows huge muscles, dominating stature, and/or supreme brilliance. The superhero’s body becomes rigid and impenetrable, protecting itself from the danger of being killed by outside destructive forces and bodily emotions.
Take Henry Cavill’s Superman in last year’s “Man of Steel.” As the picture below shows, a super human looks undeniably like a very muscular, hairy man. So the question becomes, does Superman have big muscles and demonstrate powerful maleness because that is simply how his creators envisioned him, or is there a need for our imagining of a super being to look like a Greek God. What I want to argue is that we humans, especially of the American flavor, cannot envision a super being that isn’t ripped with a six-pack and hyper-masculine.
Superhero fiction shapes the armored body as the masculine, impenetrable body, and, therefore, shapes the feminine as the evil, destructive force that threatens the armored body. Spider-Man and other heroes are constantly afraid to love because it will cloud their judgment or put others in danger, a temptation always enacted by the woman. If the superheroes’ armored bodies marks masculinity, then the woman embodies the fear of being penetrated, and thus destroyed. Even female superheroes are no exception in that they most often end up looking and acting like their male counterparts while they undoubtedly indulge male fantasies. The female superhero becomes more like a cosmetic reconstruction of the male. Bukatman’s notices that superhero fiction confronts the consumer “with an aggressive hyper masculinity that depends upon a ruthless suppression or an obliteration of the feminine” and attempts to ground one’s subjectivity in and around the masculine armored body. In this, notions of femininity become tied to that which threatens the superbody. The armored body constitutes itself over and against flowing bodies – the masculine against the feminine.
A wonderful, yet horrifying example of this evil, feminine body in opposition to the armored body comes in the form of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker. The guy wears makeup, is oddly in love with Batman, and has a keen eye for bright and flashy colors. He is the opposite of a hardened, serious fighter with muscles like Batman and Superman; instead, he laughs and tricks and dances around. He is the flowing body set against Batman’s armored shell. Wearing makeup, laughing, and dancing are not bad things, but they become associated with evil and weakness after constantly being attached to insane character like The Joker. (Greg Hunter wrote a great piece on The Joker’s sexuality over at The Comics Journal. You should check it out.
Consequent to the masculine, armored body, the woman lies outside of the social norm, only making her way back in through, like the female superhero, embodying or completing masculine fantasy. Wonder Woman, for example, looks more like a teenage male sexual fantasy, with more muscles than the average body builder.
Like the woman, Bukatman’s primary focus is on the bodies that threaten and lay outside the social norm of the armored masculine. He calls these bodies “X-bodies”: “Marginal beings” who “pose a question and a threat to the social body” who either must be reincorporated or marked with an “X’ to brand their difference. Superhero fiction most often represents these x-bodies as mutants – freaks of nature whose bodies, while possibly armored, are uncontrollable and risk erupting (a mark of the feminine) the stable body politic. Cyclops, for example, has a flowing body that is tormented by the risk of his power erupting from his eyes uncontrollably. These bodies are constantly undergoing modes of assimilation, but where inclusion fails, they must be eradicated because of their threat to social norms.
Bukatman is right to connect mutant bodies to real, marginalized bodies in modernity, where the feminine is only a subcategory of the greater community of intolerable bodies: “Mutant bodies are explicitly analogized to Jewish bodies, gay bodies, adolescent bodies, Japanese or Native or African American Bodies – they are, first and foremost, subjected and subjugated and colonized figures.” All of these enslaved identities, whether inhabited by a man or not, undergo a kind of feminization that sets them apart from what it means to be a masculine male. Therefore, these marginal identities become a threat to the normalized body and call for exclusion or eradication.
This affects those of us who watch superhero movies and read comics, however subtlety, teaching us what looks acceptable and rejectable. If Superman is how we envision perfection, then what about those of us who are not muscular . . . or white? If strength and, most often, wealth are monikers of power and respect, what about those who are poor and weak? If being strong, dominant, and impenetrable is salvific, what about those of us who have been wounded or view the world from a wheelchair? If a super man is a white, straight, chiseled, male, then what does that make me?
These are but a few questions we should be asking about current superhero films and narrative. Still, it is helpful to talk a bit more about how this works psychologically, that is, what is the actual effect of watching these things having on our political views, desires, and ideas. My next post will deal with this important question. I will argue specifically how superheroes and their literary mediums work to form who we are in the same way that our worship, prayers, and liturgies at Church seeks influence the way we think and live.