Marvel and the Ideal of Beauty

It is no secret that the vast majority of Marvel superheroes are attractive in ways that most real humans could never dream of. Both men and women are presented in unrealistic, idealised forms. It’s probably fair to say that women get it worse than men, with their costumes, on the whole, allowing a lot more skin to be shown, but let’s face it, the costumes of the likes of Spider-Man, Wolverine, and the Human Torch don’t leave a lot to the imagination[1]. And it’s not just the figures that are highly idealised, but the faces are as well. Though there is a limited amount of variation, most faces look very similar to each other, and the differences between characters are more to be found in the hair and the costume than in actual facial features. I wonder, if someone was to remove the hair from Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) and Carol Danvers (formerly Ms Marvel) would I be able to tell them apart?

Villains are another matter, and here there is a more defined contrast between men and women. When it comes to these dastardly perpetrators of evil and mayhem, you’ll find that many of the men are distinctly less attractive than their heroic counterparts (c’mon, is anyone going to say that Toad represents an ideal of beauty?), whilst the women, if anything, are even more provocative and sexualised (look no further than the sometime Madame Hydra, Viper). I find the possible reasons for this fascinating insofar as they can tell us anything about our culture’s perceptions of the link between morals and beauty. In the male villains we see something that appears to be similar to the 19th century idea that evil leads to physical degeneration, or, to paraphrase the words of Lord Henry from The Picture of Dorian Gray, that beautiful people are simply incapable of committing a crime. Unfortunately, the ideas that one could read into the portrayal of female villains are darker and more problematic; it is not hard or far-fetched to suggest that a form of female sexuality is being demonised and portrayed as more deviant (than male sexuality, which isn’t really suggested at all) in the portrayal of these immoral, scantily clad seductresses. The unfortunate archetypal evil seductress has to be the Asgardian temptress, known simply as the Enchantress.

I love Marvel comics (and the films, in which these issues certainly don’t disappear) but I can’t brush some of this under the carpet and say they’re perfect. The question has to be asked as to who’s responsible for the continued idealisation of human beauty; is it the companies, like Marvel and DC, refusing to change their tried-and-tested formulae for making superheroes, or is it that the fans would simply reject out of hand books starring physically average people?

It has to be said that not every superhero fits this ideal (and on the whole, the exceptions are male). Wolverine has a distinctive face with a permanent scowl and a slightly hooked nose; he’s also constantly teased for being short. One of my favourite series, the latest Venom run, stars Flash Thompson, an intermittent alcoholic and a double-amputee (though wearing his symbiote pushes both these problems into the background). And then, of course, there’s Deadpool, who, despite boasting a physique to match Captain America, has a skin condition that leaves his face a long way from this ideal. But of those three heroes, only Wolverine has any sort of real popularity beyond comic/gaming fans, and in the 21st century that’s largely down to the supremely-muscled, 6 foot + form of Hugh Jackman.

Also, there are changes being made, albeit slowly. For example, the new Ms Marvel is a Muslim, and one consequence of this is that significantly less skin is on display than with her predecessor. What we still don’t see, however, is average people doing extraordinary things. Maybe that’s just too far beyond the scope of the superhero genre – after all, the point is that they’re superheroes – but it makes me stop and think.

The question should also be asked as to how damaging this really is, if at all. I don’t know if one has been done already, but it’d be good to see a survey done of regular comic book readers, both male and female, to see if their self-image or their expectations of real life beauty have been altered by what’s on the page. If, in truth, people aren’t being affected by this sort of thing, then one might be tempted to ask if there’s any harm in it. After all, we know that this isn’t real (however much one may want to get bitten by a radioactive spider and then be able to cling to walls and have the same strength levels as Thor).

Maybe I’m making something out of nothing with this, or maybe I’m touching on an issue that really needs to be looked at, but the ideal of beauty in comics[2] is something worth considering nonetheless. If nothing else, looking into this sort of thing could help us to understand wider issues of the portrayal of beauty in society at large. It would be interesting to hear some of your views on this. Do you have any problems with the portrayal of men and women, both heroes and villains, in comics or in their accompanying films? Do you think that something needs to change in the industry? And do you think the existing fan-base would respond well to such a change?


[1] It should also be said that of all superheroes, both male and female, the prize for most revealing costume has to go to a male – Namor the Sub-Mariner – who can often be seen fighting foes in little more than a pair of suspiciously scaly briefs.

[2] I’ve focussed on Marvel because Marvel is what I know, but they’re certainly not the only company guilty of this.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Sad but true, signs of unrealistic body standards of oversexualisation are all over the entertainment industry. It’s probably the no. 1 reason I have trouble reading comic books: I just can’t stand the amount of skin-tight latex and unrealistic phisique, it not only detracts from the story but definitely limits its readership.
    It’s shameful and obnoxious, but it basically boils down to (for the heroines and villainesses at least) that sex sells. It’s shameful, but it seems to be what is treated like a given rule for the entertainment industry. I hope that this is just a sign of an immature industry, but with a good sixty years of experience for Marvel, I guess it might be what they consider a proven formula. Ah well.

    1. bengarry says:

      It’s certainly off-putting to a lot of people, and I would say that the sexualisation of the women in particular makes me wonder how good the material actually is for younger children in particular (though the average age of comic readership is the low twenties if I’m not mistaken). I find it disappointing that it does seem to have become a tried and tested formula, and it’s a shame that an issue like this takes away from Marvel’s strong themes of social justice and anti-discrimination, particularly in comics such as X-Men (which, coincidentally, happens to be slightly better than some others in terms of sexualisation). But there are small signs of progress, and I think (hope) that Marvel is socially aware enough to realise that it can’t keep doing this forever.

  2. Exactly. Since wider audience = more $$$, I’m hoping Marvel will think about changing for the better, especially with their influx of movies, such as Days of Future Past for the X-men and their Captain America series.

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