An Open Letter to the Artist Behind the “Lady Avengers” Starring Alison Brie and Amber Heard
May I call you Josh? Mr. WMC is a tad too formal for this letter, I think, because I'm not registering a complaint with your customer service department. So I'm going to assume I can call you Josh. You can call me Rob, because that's my name. Nice to e-meet you!
First of all, I'd be remiss not to begin by praising your obvious artistic talent and technical skill set. I've been to your DeviantArt page and I've perused your Fan Art Exhibit, and you have a definite knack for re-imagining characters in new ways that are aesthetically pleasing and show a clear dedication to your craft. Your redesigns of the Disney Princesses as action heroes are probably my favorite. One doesn't need to know any of the difficulties about Photoshop or digital art to see that your female renditions of the male Avengers, based on the Joss Whedon movie, are at or near the pinnacle of what can be achieved when a master craftsman sets their mind to a project. Is that enough brownnosing before we proceed? I want to make sure you know that your talent and merits as an artist are in no way being questioned, because I know how hard this sh*t can be and I'm barely an Adobe dabbler.
The problem is that no matter how good your 'shops of Alison Brie, Amber Heard, Sandra Bullock, and now Rachel Weisz are from a technical standpoint, the message some of them are sending out to the Internet and the world is, well, offensive. If they'd stayed hidden away on your blog, there would be no need for this, but it seems like everyone has been posting them lately. To be sure, Josh, you aren't the problem. You're but a cog in the comic art machine, simply following the path and artistic choices your predecessors both amateur and professional laid out before you. This isn't entirely about sex or sexiness in comic books, or the immaturity usually involved when those themes are broached. This is about understanding your characters and why more than traditional aesthetics matter. It's about treating your lady characters equal to your gentlemen. Sadly, the feminized Avengers from your "If Women Ruled the Earth" series kind of insult the original characters, the actresses chosen as models, and women in general.
To be fair, Josh, your versions of Iron Maiden and Lady Hulk are far less troubling, so take heart in that. I'm not entirely sure why Toni Stark is Sandra Bullock when she could be Carla Gugino, but that's beside the point. I'm also a little confused about why the titanium alloy suit needs breast cups, but I guess as an artist you wanted some feminine definition as opposed to just a more slender version of Robert Downey Jr.'s suit? That's fair enough, and a little more flair is probably warranted for that character, anyway. Fire engine red wasn't picked because it's good camouflage, after all. As for Rachel Weisz's big green rage monster, you pretty much nailed it. Honestly, that surprised me. I was expecting something closer to She-Hulk, but that is definitely a female version of Bruce Banner's Hulk if I've ever seen one. That you gave Ms. Banner a(n impressively durable) bra instead of using the loose, ripped shirt as an excuse to reveal more skin or the hint of nipple shows applause-worthy restraint.
The problems really start with the most popular of your gender revisions: Alison Brie as Captain America, or as you named her, Miss America. You deserve some amount of kudos for showing a modicum of battle damage on Ms. Brie's stomach where her skin is exposed and unprotected by the lack of Kevlar in which the rest of her body is covered. This is quite different from the suit that Chris Evans wore in the movie, and if he had worn your version, he would have looked god damned ridiculous. This is clearly a spot where serious damage could occur, which, I believe nearly happened in the actual movie. Cap doesn't always use that shield as a defensive weapon, you know. Steve Rogers isn't invulnerable and the character would probably feel like a legitimate dumbass if he commanded Black Widow and Hawkeye to "suit up" while wearing a belly shirt. So why does Stephanie Rogers dressed like she missed the bus to the USO show instead of ready to defend New York City from alien invaders? I mean, Josh, seriously. You say yourself that these images are representations of what Tony, Steve, Thor, and Bruce would be if they were women, but I don't see Captain America when I look at your picture. I see spank bank material made for 13 year-olds to hide in their bunk, and I speak from the experience of an ex-13 year-old heterosexual male comic book fan.
Your reinterpretation of Thor is equally as frustrating. Just like the movie, you have Thora's arms protected by that space-magic plating Chris Hemsworth conjured up for the film's final battle. But, then she's wearing a miniskirt and thigh high boots? I'm not going to tell you that it's an unflattering or unappealing look, but I am going to tell you that you've basically made her hips and waist into a target, with her vagina as the bull's eye. If that was your intention, then mission accomplished. But let's not pretend the God of Thunder would step out of Asgard without his pants on. Okay, maybe he would after a late night mead bender, but not to do battle. It's less that Amber Heard's crotch needs protecting and more that she's supposed to be an alien demigod and not a prostitute working the motel scene around La Guardia. That you didn't change the nipple plates in order to stay true to the original character design, despite the glaring change you did make, is awesomely hilarious, though.
I'm really not trying to pick on you, Josh. The bothersome images are purely symptomatic of the larger comic book culture you and I are both immersed in. Female superheroes are so often depicted as women first, champions second - meaning sex appeal is the top, and sometimes only, priority - while male superheroes are almost unanimously avatars of power. We can argue gender norms through human history; how men were commonly the gods of war and women the goddesses of love; how up through the 1980s it was rare for women to be in positions of power much less actually in the workforce; how Wonder Woman always wore a skirt before cutting out the middle man and going straight to underpants, while Superman had so much cloth left over he fashioned a billowing, majestic cape. That alone is apparently enough reason for one actress not to don the tiara and wield the lasso of truth, despite being a fan herself. But like Sandra Bullock, that's missing the larger point.
Times and culture have changed, and they will continue to do so as history bends toward progress. Women are more than sexual objects to be admired or hated, as one's particular brand of sexism warrants. Sex is a fact of life, so it obviously has a place in our fictions, even our superheroic ones, but surely you know that women can be doctors, lawyers, soldiers, artists, and any damn thing they please as long as they're qualified for it. That's a privilege us menfolk have had for quite a while. What was okay yesterday may not be okay tomorrow and, even though the comic industry hates change, that also includes how people perceive and respond to female superheroes. We wouldn't respect a male doctor for scrubbing into surgery in cargo shorts and a tanktop, and we'd deeply question a male soldier's combat ability if he thought a tan Speedo was sufficient for a tour in Afghanistan. It's fine if some characters, both male and female, are overtly sexualized as long as there is meaning to the sexy beyond the base appeal.
I call it Sexiness Equity, or Sexquity, but that's only acceptable in the right story context or character motivation. But certainly not all characters should sexified all the time. Right now, that's where the majority of female superheroes stand, so it irritates and opens an already sore wound when traditionally male superheroes turned female are treated the same way. Frankly, only one Avenger ought to use their sexuality as a weapon and she's already the lone woman on the team. Make of that what you will, but thankfully Joss Whedon knows all this and adjusted things accordingly (just compare Black Widow between Iron Man 2 and The Avengers if you're unsure). But it seems for women, fictional women, anyway, the default is hot pants and a bikini top at all times. Story and character don't matter as long as the women are hot, hot, hot.
Of course, your work isn't that over the top, Josh, and that shouldn't be ignored. In my book, the fact that any misogyny or sexism has to be carefully teased out in these images already puts you above nearly every professional artist selling their wares at comic cons the world over. But when this very site covered your first three pictures, the most common refrain was about how attractive these characters were and not whether they captured the essence of Captain America and Thor. No, it was about how everyone loves Annie's Boobs, not what these women might have looked like if they were the exact same characters we've seen in the three major motion pictures, so far, with one admittedly large physical alteration. This happened because we're Pajiba and we are equal opportunity oglers. But it also happened because when you turned two male superheroes into females, you lost a bit of the truth of their characterizations along the way in favor of making them more appealing to the male gaze.
Let's face it, this Cap and Thor are far more sexualized than Jack Kirby ever likely intended. And maybe that would have escaped notice if practically every single female superhero in the history of the genre didn't already have that line covered. If you're goal was to transform Cap and Thor into Sexy Super-Halloween costumes for very confident women, then you excelled mightily. But by showing the characters in what would be the last, hour long action sequence of Marvel's The Avengers, the backgrounds belie that.
That single artistic decision established expectations from some of your audience - namely that Alison Brie's and Amber Heard's costume designs ought to reflect the context of the situation they are in, posed or not. That situation is one filled with explosions and alien laser blasts and falling debris, all things that do not bode well for exposed stomachs and targeted crotches. As it stands, no matter how expertly created those pieces are, they fail to meet the low bar that Captain America is a boy scout who's always prepared, and that Thor's biggest concern is which face Mjolnir should bust first. (Hint: Loki's.) Instead, Miss America is opening herself up to a mortal wound and Thora is going to flash everyone in NYC the moment she flies off to shoot some lightning with her hammer. All for the sake of showing off some nubile flesh, simply because they're the "Lady Avengers" and that's just how we do in comics.
You probably aren't a bad person and you're certainly a good artist, Josh. After all, your female version of Christian Bale's Batman is almost exactly what a film adaptation of DC's Batwoman should look like, albeit with a different actress. Keep that in mind should you decide to do a Lady Hawkeye or a Nicolette Fury, who between them only bare their arms and a shiny, domed cranium. Just by creating art and sharing it with people, you have great power in influencing the world around you. And we know what comes with great power, don't we?
Your mate in comic bookery,
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He'd really like to see an Avengers line-up with Pepper Potts as Iron Maiden, Peggy Carter as Captain America, and Lady Sif as the eternal extraterrestrial with a chip on her shoulder.