This is one of the most common deflections when the issue of how women are portrayed comes up. It’s known as a false equivalence – the idea that two things presented together as equal when in fact they aren’t. In this case, the idea that just because women have exaggerated physiques doesn’t mean they’re sexist because the men are just as exaggerated too. Of course, this doesn’t work for many reasons. To start with, it assumes – falsely – that the things that women find sexy are the same things that guys find sexy; that is, the exaggerated secondary sex characteristics. But we’ll get to that in a second.
The other issue is the reason for the exaggeration. Comics and games are fantasy true, but the fantasy aspect differs when it comes to male and female characters. Male characters are a power fantasy; the large muscles and massive torsos are visual signs that this character is an unstoppable powerhouse. Kratos doesn’t look the way he does because Sony Computer Entertainment did focus-market studies and found that women reacted best to that design; he looks the way he does because he represents the powerful alpha-male that gamers want to be.
The women, on the other hand, are sexual fantasies. These are the rewards for the player – the character’s love-interest, the motivation to complete the game. They’re designed as eye-candy; they’re intended as something to be consumed, not something to escape into. Women like to fantasize about being desirable yes, but they also like to be powerful, and their definition of what they would consider to be sexy and powerful doesn’t mean battle-bikinis and thongs of power.
But hey, I’m a guy. It’s easy for me to sit here and proclaim what women find sexy, but I could be talking out of my ass. So why not take it to the source? I put out a completely unscientific poll on Facebook and Twitter about characters that women find sexy – video games, comics, anime, whatever. And the results? Well, let’s compare.
Up top we have the exaggerated figures that are supposedly sexy.
And here are the characters my female readers find sexy:
Notice a trend here? These are not the massive beefcakes alpha-males that are supposedly as equally objectified as Kasumi, Ayane or Ivy. These men have longer torsos with much leaner builds; they’re built like swimmers rather than weight-lifters. They’re not men who scream “unstoppable physical power”. They’re lithe and dextrous, not barrel-chested juggernauts with treestumps for limbs.
And the other critical factor: it’s not just their builds that make them sexy. Gambit, for example is attractive because of his personality and his situation; he’s tortured because he can’t physically touch the woman he loves. Nightcrawler is the laughing swashbuckler, full of wit and flirty charm. Jareth is dark and mysterious and just a little dangerous and oozes sexuality.
Yes, the men are exaggerated as much as the women. But it’s the intent and the message that make all of the difference.