Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Hawkeye Initiative and the Laughably Unnatural Feminine Man

How knowledgeable I am on comic books is the same sort of situation as my knowledge surrounding computers. If I'm around someone who knows nothing about comics (or computers), then they think that I am super well versed on the subject, some sort of technological (or nerd) genius. When I'm around someone who actually knows about the things, then I come off as a more realistic assessment: a decently learned amateur. With comic books in particular, I know the characters and some of the arcs, but I definitely don't think of myself as a comic book person.

I talk about comics because I have been reading the new tumblr du jourThe Hawkeye Initiative. The basic premise of the blog is to take the pictures that portray women in comics sexually and replace them with the masculine dude character Hawkeye. The obvious argument being forwarded is a basic one about the male gaze in comics: women are exclusively portrayed as sex objects in a way that the male characters aren't.  In particular, putting Hawkeye in the place of the "Strong Female Characters" (the tumblr references both in words and in style the ideas of Kate Beaton of Hark a Vagrant) shows how those poses are not empowerment. Not only that, but the women in comic books are frequently extreme examples not only of strange bodily contortion, but of an unhealthy body standard. The short io9 article summarizes the general feeling behind the project well: it has an argument (or rather, a vague yearning/reaction), but it is also a source of humor or fun.

When I was reading the blog though, it reminded me of something that I saw perhaps a year ago that shared not only the same critiques (although in a different context), but the same method. In "Men Ups", the photographer has collected a series of men and places them in the same poses and situations as those from Vargas style pin-up art. Like the Hawkeye Initiative, there is a feminist concern behind it, although it is perhaps more subtle in the Men Ups series. As the artist says in an interview, the concern is about how gender and physical appearance affects women, to see the "unnaturalness" of women's (feminine, rather) poses and expectations.

Like almost everything, I feel a couple of different things about this. I mean, I enjoy both of these quite a bit, but I have to wonder whether I enjoy it in the same way as other people. That is to say, I enjoy it because I like seeing a kind of transgression of what we consider gender normative behavior. Having Men in pin up poses is both fun because hey, some of the guys are pretty cute. But also because there are so infrequently representations of male femininity, especially ones that could be interpreted as positive. Really when there isn't a whole lot to go on, you go with what you have. I don't think this interpretation is unique to me; really, I think that quite a few people I know (especially in the Bay area) might enjoy things like this for the same reasons.

However, there is another side of it that I can't quite put out of my mind. And the earlier way that I talked about, the naive appreciation of the pictures, is most assuredly not the intention of the artists. Much like the Jezebel article on the Men-ups states in the title, they are "So much more than just men posing as pin-ups," as if that is not in itself a critique of how gender is enforced in our society. The reason that these pictures are 'feminist' is not because men are shown transgressing gender boundaries, or at least that is not the primary reason. There is another felt reason behind what makes these pictures feminist or transgressive.

This is not the first time putting men in traditionally women's poses has been done. When I heard about either of these, what immediately came to mind was the work that John Stoltenberg did regarding pornography, called the Pose Workshop, as described in What Makes Pornography Sexy? To summarize, Stoltenberg would have workshops where he would have men take on the poses that women take in mainstream pornography. This would be the way that he would teach men about how pornography is inherently degrading to the person doing the posing. We see here the same basic premise as the Hawkeye Initiative, and perhaps the same as the Men-ups (however, the Men-ups is a much more ambivalent thing). Now, it isn't flesh and blood people, but the men and women are replaced by drawings.

I can definitely understand the idea behind all of these. Women in comic books shouldn't be exiled into only being sexual objects to be ogled. Even if there is a place for those representations (and I think there is, along with people of other genders), that shouldn't be the exclusive representation allotted to women, much the same with pornography. 

However, I think that the problem I have is that it seems that the method to achieve this aim is to put men in these poses to show how 'unnatural' or 'weird' that they are. Both of the recent incarnations are done for humor, described as 'hilarious' in the Jezebel article, and that has a distinct history of seeing men acting femininely as hilarious (but in an unsettling way). The argument is that it is obviously un-intuitive and laughable to think of men posing or acting femininely, why should women be portrayed in such a way? My problem here is that, although I like both of them, I have the distinct feeling of being laughed at. The combination of femininity and 'male' bodies is read as so disjointed that it is the cause for humor. These two artistic ventures seem to use this humor to make an argument, and exploit some people's reliance on gender norms without critiquing them, perhaps even furthering them.

I'm going to continue to enjoy them. After all, I can appropriate them for my own opinions and ends. But it's important not to confuse my ends with the ends of the other people who view and laugh.