[Staff Editorial] Comic Women, Breast Cancer, and Objectification

Comic book women against breast cancer?

Having an aunt who is a survivor of breast cancer, coupled with my pursuit of study in the health care field, you’ve probably figured out that I’m really big on breast cancer awareness and research. So a photo posted in the Geek Girls community on Facebook naturally caught my attention. It is actually a combination of four artworks, each one depicting a comics heroine (She-Hulk, Storm, Catwoman, and Wonder Woman) giving herself a breast examination. My first thought at seeing the picture was ‘Wow, pretty! And a good way to get word out to the geek community about breast cancer.’; however, the more I looked at the image, the more I noticed a major thing that kept bothering me about it. And so, as a geek feminist, my final decision on these images is a resounding ‘Meh, this could have been great, had it not been for that one thing‘.

So what is that ‘one thing’ that bothers me? Take a look at the image at the top of the post. See anything unusual? If not, I’ll fill you in. It’s one of my least-favorite shots of any human being: a torso shot from just below the nose to the waist. (Why they don’t just take the time and add the entire face I don’t know.) It’s a highly impersonal, highly sterile shot that wouldn’t be out of place in an Anatomy textbook, complete with black lines pointing to different structures. It always baffles me that this pose is used so frequently in breast cancer ads of all stripes; for a cancer that’s touted as one that ‘your mother or your sister (or your father or brother, might I add. Remember, men get breast cancer too!) could have in their lifetime’ the advertising uses some of the least humanizing images to get the message across. Or worse, they substitute objects for breasts, for added objectification. Nothing like breasts being shown as balloons, or grapefruit, or whatever other *winkwink nudgenudge* visual euphemisms they can come up with.

And that is where my biggest issue lies with this image, both in the comic world and in the real world. Comic book heroines are already marginalized and sexualized enough as it is, whether the proportions of certain parts of their body are gradually increased (Power Girl), the characters themselves are dumbed down and turned into bimbos (Starfire, infamously), or they are merely plot devices that are used to help develop the male character throughout the series. My biggest comic-related problem with these images is when I have to ask myself who these women are. Are they really Jennifer, Ororo, Selina, and Diana? I honestly have no clue, since the only part of their faces I can see are their lips. They could be totally different people in those costumes and I’d have no idea. So these strong female characters are reduced to an object, a depiction of two sexy traits (lips and breasts) that men love to look at. No identity, no individualism. Only their parts. (And before anyone asks, yes, I would find crotch shots of Captain America, Thor, Wolverine, and Batman showing how to conduct a self-exam for testicular cancer just as problematic, though mainly just for this reason. Why? Keep reading.)

As sad as this makes me, it does not surprise me. For many years now, breast cancer awareness has been awash in pink and triteness. I always roll my eyes at the ‘Save the Boobies’ slogans, because they imply that those are the only parts worth saving. What about the rest of the person? After all, we are more than the sum of our parts. As Jazmine Walker so beautifully states in her blog post Saving the Boobies Will Not Save Me:

“Saving the Boobies” is a mantra that gets thrown around a lot this month, but it does not properly address how breast cancer adversely impacts and ends lives. Talking about breasts as if they are an independent entity, as if it’s the breasts that are worth saving as opposed to the life and body they are attached to is not only patriarchal, but also down right sexist. It implies that a woman’s worth is in her breasts, in her sexuality. There is no “Save the Dick” campaign to raise awareness for penile cancer because unlike dick, boobs are objects of heterosexual male desire. Breastfeeding (another topic for another day) and a little thing called cancer interfere with that. Making breast cancer “sexy” as a marketing device not only undermines the severity of breast cancer but also assumes that women are the only ones with mammary glands. If we cannot have productive conversations about breast cancer without  pitting women against their bodies, we will never be able to bring awareness to the early detection of other deadly (presumably unsexy) cancers like penile cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, lymphoma, and countless others.

I literally could write ten pages and not address this as perfectly as Ms. Walker just did in that paragraph. That right there is my biggest issue with breast cancer ads and with those images. Women are reduced to their sexuality, because that is seen as the only thing about them that makes them worth saving. Under that model, someone like my aunt may not have been seen as ‘worth’ saving. She’s a middle-aged woman, well outside the traditional ‘sexy’ norm. Also, what about other types of cancer that affect women? I lost an acquaintance a couple years back to ovarian cancer. When does ovarian cancer get the attention it’s due the way breast cancer has? Also, when are we finally going to fix the institutional inequalities that lead to poorer and minority women dying from cancer at higher rates than wealthier women?

Am I saying the images are terrible and the artist should be stoned for them? Absolutely not. I do still think awareness is necessary, especially for women who may come from cultures or backgrounds where talking about the dreaded C word might be seen as taboo or forbidden. I do think the images show the larger problem of female sexuality and how it can adversely affect even a positive message. This behavior and thought process will take time to unlearn and to change. But I hope that, if/when I have daughters of my own, they can look at a page similar to Geek Girls and see the faces of their favorite comic heroines educating them about breast cancer.

    Link of Interest:

Saving the Boobies Will Not Save Me – Jazmine Walker

Leave a Comment