Disclaimers may be in order.
First, I hate everything. It’s seriously the first thing out of my friends’ mouths when I’m done speaking to them. “Ceridwen, why do you hate everything?” Let’s just get that out of the way so I don’t have an inbox full of similar notes when I’m done with this. (What am I saying, people don’t read this blog.)
Second, I understand the intent behind The Hawkeye Initiative. The work that the management is busy with, drawing attention to the sexism inherent in mainstream comics art, is good work. It’s important that more people do this work, and on that level, I wish them success.
The Hawkeye Initiative has been live for about a week now, and the response has been incredible. Quite literally, in fact: It strains credibility to think how quickly this project has taken off. In seven days, the blog has been featured on io9, ONTD, Bleeding Cool, and Know Your Meme.
By comparison, Escher Girls, which has been doing the work of highlighting the sheer amount of sexist art in comics for over a year now, still doesn’t have the following that The Hawkeye Initiative has built in the last seven days. In the interests of full disclosure, the woman behind Escher Girls is a personal friend, but I want to be clear this isn’t a case of envy-by-proxy. I’m more interested in exploring why this discrepancy exists.
My take? People care more about issues of sexual exploitation if that exploitation directly effects men. We see this time and time again in our day-to-day lives. The sexual abuse of young men and boys makes national news, and the narrative surrounding them explores the psychological damage caused by their abuse. “What he might have gone on to achieve” is a common refrain in these stories. Meanwhile, the narrative surrounding the sexual abuse of young women ignores all of this in favor of finding some way in which her rape and abuse was her fault. Even in cases that avoid this trope, such as (most, though not all cases of) the abuse of underage girls, “what she might have gone on to achieve” is never even considered.
While objectification is not as “serious” as rape, it remains a contributing factor in rape culture. So when that culture sees an instance of a man being objectified, even if that objectification is meant to draw attention to similar treatment of women, it reacts in ways it does not when the subject is female. As I said before, Escher Girls has been highlighting this issue for over a year now, but the focus has remained solely on how this issue effects women. Ami provides smart commentary, her readers have contributed redraws showing ways in which the art can not only be less objectifying but objectively better, and the focus remains on women. The Hawkeye Initiative, meanwhile, shifts the focus to a male character, and in so doing, draws the attention of our male-dominated culture.
And that’s assuming the best intentions of the management and their contributors. Go through the archives and count how many times a variation of “This is hilarious, I had to contribute” is used. Be careful here, friends. There’s some intense ugliness hidden behind why you find this so hilarious, and it’s steeped in misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.
On tumblr, polerin elaborates:
There’s some really nasty shit lurking not too far under the surface of some of the drawings. In some cases, like the ones where they switch clothes, it’s not even too deep.
Making choices of clothing based in femininity/femme-ness on a dood isn’t a context free choice. Doubly so when you are mocking something. It relies on the deep history of cissexism and oppositional sexism in our culture. Even if that’s not the intent of the artist, it is impossible to look at these drawings and not have all the jokes about guys wearing women’s clothing or “acting like a girl” come up. That’s the POINT of these drawings.
And that point pins trans women to the wall as a side effect of (rightly) critiquing the sexism in comics.
Despite the best of intentions, the vibe comes across as really anti-femme, anti-trans women, and ultimately, anti-women. After all, if we’re unable to talk about the mistreatment of women without bringing men into the picture, what does that really say about us? If we’re unable to talk about the mistreatment of women without considering how it effects all women, what does that really say about us?
I love the Hawkeye Initiative but it’s definitely worth considering the above points and remembering that not everything is 100% perfect.
I don’t think putting men in women’s clothing and poses is inherently transphobic or transmisogynistic, because sexiness and deliberate attempts at sexiness shouldn’t be considered automatically feminine traits. I also don’t think it’s inherently homophobic - straight and bi women like looking at sexy men, and one of the ways sexism is perpetuated is by assuming that women are worthless and men are the only worthwhile audience, so any man trying to look sexy can only be doing so for another man.
However. Putting men in women’s clothing and poses can quickly and easily slot into homophobic and transphobic ideas about the “proper” way to do masculinity and the obligation to do so. As said above, even if the artist’s intentions are pure, the image can still provoke bigoted reactions in the audience. Art is not created in a vacuum.
The Hawkeye Initiative is challenging the connection between femininity and sexualization, but it’s like a hydra - while you’re cutting off the “women shouldn’t be considered sex objects” head, the “sexualized men must only be doing it for the gay male gaze” and “men acting like women is unnatural and wrong” heads are coming up behind you.
Also, pointing out the disparity between the reactions to Escher Girls and the Hawkeye Initiative is a very valid point. It seems reasonable to assume the fact that the HI is affecting men directly while EG remains focused on women is related to the relative levels of success.