Why Supergirl’s shorts aren’t “patriarchal” (I do not think that word means what you think it means)

When I talked with the Toronto Star yesterday about an upcoming article about Supergirl’s shorts, there were a few points that came up that I wasn’t as articulate about as I’d have liked. Here’s one of them.

While Igle says he’s heard some complaints, fans opposed to the change have a…unique viewpoint.

“There is one guy out there on the message boards who calls them ‘the diapers of shame,’ and comes at it from the idea that I’m patriarchical and draw her like an overprotective father, and that this is part of DC’s double standard when it comes to male and female characters, because female characters should be sexy, and we’re afraid to show Supergirl in that light.”

(Newsarama: The Supergirl Shorts Story: Talking to Jamal Igle)

This is one of those insulting, convoluted, ass-backwards ideas that just makes your head explode in frustration. The stupid, it burns. What’s extra frustrating is that this guy has taken the language of feminist theory and twisted it to his own, misogynist ends. “Patriarchal” and “double standard” do not mean what he thinks they mean. The reasoning behind these kinds of inane patriarchal statements is two-fold: projection, and a deliberate attempt to obfuscate and distract.

First is the accusation that Jamal Igle is “patriarchical and draw[ing] her like an overprotective father.” If the guy had paid any attention to what Igle has said on his blog before his first SUPERGIRL issue came out and since, he would know that this is patently false. But that’s beside the point: it’s a bizarre thing to say, and he’s really overreacting to very small changes. This is just a distracting tactic. The second half clearly reveals that this unknown jackass is projecting onto Igle his own very misogynistic, patriarchal view of women. He wants us to get so distracted by defending ourselves that we accept his implicit lie about women.

There’s a rather awesome analysis of male projection in this review of the James Bond novel Dr. No, regarding the scene which describes Bond’s reaction to Honeychile Rider (played by Ursula Andress in the movie – think white bikini rising out of the sea) as she meets him for the first time – naked.

“Hesitantly she [Rider] began [whistling] again. The whistle trembled and died. At the first note of Bond’s echo, the girl whirled round. She didn’t cover her body with the two classical gestures. One hand flew downward, but the other, instead of hiding her breasts, went up to her face, covering it below the eyes, now wide with fear. … The girl dropped her hand down from her face. It went to the knife at her belt. Bond watched the fingers curl round the hilt. He looked up at her face. Now he realized why her hand had instinctively gone to it. It was a beautiful face, with wide-apart deep blue eyes under lashes paled by the sun. The mouth was wide and when she stopped pursing the lips with tension they would be full. It was a serious face and the jawline was determined–the face of a girl who fends for herself. And once, reflected Bond, she had failed to fend. For the nose was badly broken, smashed crooked like a boxer’s. Bond stiffened with revolt at what had happened to this supremely beautiful girl. No wonder this was her shame and not the beautiful firm breasts that now jutted towards him without concealment.”

[…] Fleming doesn’t understand that the instinctive reaction to cover oneself isn’t shame (we aren’t Eve–another woman trapped in a patriarchal text), but fear. Defense. And a girl like this one, “a girl who fends for herself,” a girl who’s been raped once–she isn’t going to give a damn about her nose. She might reach to cover herself, but I think it’s much more likely she’d reach straight for her knife.
(Notes from the Labyrinth: UBC #4: Doctor No)

The guy who spoke to Igle assumed that Igle’s reason for altering the costume was because he thought Supergirl should be ashamed of displaying her body. Because he thinks women’s bodies, and their sexuality, are shameful. And the only way to “prove” that we aren’t ashamed of our bodies is to – conveniently for him – present ourselves for male approval in male-determined ways, regardless of how practical that is for us.

The second half of the quote is where things get really interesting. “because female characters should be sexy” reveals the speaker’s belief that women’s primary purpose is to be sexually appealing to straight men, the dominant group in patriarchy. There is a certain twisted logic here: if you truly believe that women’s primary – perhaps only – source of strength is sex appeal, then for an artist to take that away from any female character is in fact depowering and a very bad thing. And aren’t feminists in favour of women being portrayed as “strong”? This is the bait-and-switch.

Feminists get pretty darned sick and tired of having to defend ourselves against accusations of “prudery” when we ask for (what we consider) a little respect and self-determination. Why the accusation of prudery against any woman (or man) who criticizes female superheros’ costumes for being so much more revealing and/or sexualizing than males’? It’s about power, and who gets to set definitions.

“…we need to be savvy about patriarchal thinking and the messages used to confuse, placate, or intimidate women trying to bring about change. […] Getting savvy itself has to do with paying close attention to proponents of patriarchy, keeping two things in mind: (1) since patriarchy is founded on a lie (the lie of women’s natural inferiority), patriarchal logic usually is the reverse of the truth, and we therefore can get at the truth by reversing patriarchal messages, and (2) when proponents of patriarchy get mad, we should get interested, not get afraid (for their anger indicates we’ve touched a hot button or in some way gotten too close to the truth for their comfort).

A common patriarchal tactic is to try to silence a woman who speaks up by calling her a man hater, a lesbian, or a feminist. To the patriarchal mind, these three names are interchangeable — all refer to women who are not dedicating their lives to the support of men.

Distraction, or the verbal bait-and-switch, is a common patriarchal maneuver. For instance, women who oppose pornography often are asked why they are so prudish. These sorts of accusations are based on implicit definitions unconnected in fact to the phenomenon defined. In this case, pornography is being implicitly defined as having to do with sex, when in fact it has to do with domination and violation. Ridicule of women who oppose patriarchal practices usually is based on this sort of false, concealed definition.

(Loving to Survive, Dee L.R. Graham, 1994, p. 260. Emphasis mine.)

Calling the changes made to Supergirl’s costume “patriarchal” is a misleading tactic used to get us to agree that women and girls should always be drawn as “sexy” as possible, the assumption being that that’s the only thing we’re good for. And the definition of “sexy” seems to be very narrow, if Igle’s minor changes are any indication. What that anonymous fanboy really meant was “sexually appealing to (straight) men in a non-threatening (submissive) manner, as dictated by patriarchal standards” (See "But she’s from an alien culture with no nudity taboo!" and "So you want comics full of ugly fat chicks?".) If we’re not “sexy” – according to criteria set by men, not women, including gay women, then we’re of no interest to men – the only opinion which counts. Now that’s patriarchal.

(See above re: “when proponents of patriarchy get mad, we should get interested, not get afraid” for why such a small thing like shorts and a less uncovered torso could elicit the kind of angry responses seen in the comments sections of Newsarama and elsewhere.)

On a related note: Batwoman review discussing how Guys love lesbians. Well, most lesbians. Well. Femmes.

Michelle Bacon

Michelle loves comics and code. A lifelong Superfamily fan, she's been collecting comics for 20 years, and running Supergirl: Maid of Might since 2000.

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