Jim Hines, John Scalzi, and Whether Gender-Swapping Superhero Poses Makes Sexism Clearer

Over the past year, one of the most popular ways to call out sexism in the depictions of female superheroines or women on the covers of fantasy and science fiction novels has been to illustrate what it would look like if men assumed similar poses. Illustrators have posed the other members of The Avengers like Black Widow. Others staged a wide range of superheroes like Wonder Woman, whips or other objects snaking through their legs. The Hawkeye Initiative subs in Hawkeye in any number of ludicrous positions and costumes superheroines are drawn in. And novelist Jim Hines, who’s posed in similar positions as women on fantasy novel covers, challenged his fellow writer John Scalzi to a pose-off for charity.

But something Hines said about the reaction to the pose-off resonated with me, and clarified a bit of concern I’ve had about this particular trope. In an update to the original post introducing their entries, he noted: “I’ve also seen a few areas where response has begun to shift from, ‘I say, those poses seem remarkably impractical, and how exactly does one do that without dislocating one’s ankle?’ to ‘Hey, guys dressing or posing like girls are both ugly and hilarious!'” And in a follow-up called “Wait, What Are We Laughing At?” he wrote:

But if you’re laughing because you’re a straight guy and therefore must declare all male bodies brain-searingly ugly? If you’re laughing because you think a man in a dress is funny and should be mocked? In other words, if you’re laughing because of various aspects of ingrained sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other discriminatory nonsense? Then you’ve missed the point so badly it’s not even funny…So please do me a favor. Step back and ask yourself what exactly you’re laughing at, and where that’s coming from. ‘Cause I’m starting to see some rather problematic reactions out there.

And this is what makes me nervous about this particular tactic for exposing sexism. What happens if people see these poses and think they’re ridiculous because it’s ridiculous to see a man pose like a woman, to see a man dressed like a woman, to see a man pretending he’s displaying sexual characteristics he doesn’t actually possess? And what if they walk away from these posts thinking that it’s silly for men to do these things, to dress this way, to pose like that—but that it’s perfectly natural for women to be presented this way.

I wonder if the solution is less to pose men like women, than to demonstrate what superheroes would look like in sexual situations, or if they were sexually aroused, and to place them in the context of doing their jobs. If we want to demonstrate that posing superheroines is ludicrous and sexist, we need to demonstrate that it’s because it undercuts their power, that it leaves them less prepared to respond to events taking place around them, that they have sources of power that aren’t sexual. And we need to demonstrate that the same thing is true for men, that their strength comes from muscles and brains rather than their genitalia, and that it would be odd to the point of utter illogic to suggest that it did.