Sex and the Modern Superhero

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in The Amazing Spider Man 2 (2014)

Last week’s Scriptnotes episode, which had sex columnist Dan Savage on as a guest, looked at sex and superheroes, or as they put it, the sexless superheroes of the big screen. Are they “sexless?” Should they be more explicitly sexual? Team WWAC reacts and opines.

Most superhero movies, TV shows, and even radio plays have aimed at being family friendly. There are obvious reasons for this: superheroes were originally marketed to kids, family friendly entertainment is big business, and hooking kids young is a proven tactic for long term business success. These days, family friendly box office means getting something between a G and PG-13 rating.

The extent to which contemporary superhero films are actually family friendly is debatable, but today we’re talking sex. Do you think contemporary superhero films are too sexy? Just sexy enough? Rife with problematic sexual politics?

Iron Man | Marvel Studios
Tony Stark and Pepper Pots share a moment

Ardo: It’s about what those films want to focus on, which is superheroes punching things, blowing stuff up, some humour and the question of how that life affects you personally (or if there’s even a personal life anymore). If you pair that up with trying to get families and kids into the theatres as well as adults, then sex isn’t a concern nor needed. The first Iron Man film was the perfect example of sex playing a role into who a character is (Tony Stark the playboy), but that’s immediately ditched once he’s become the new improved Tony Stark as the superhero Iron Man. Even then, sex is off screen and implied. With established relationships like Pepper Potts/Tony Stark or Spider-Man/Mary Jane/Gwen Stacey, sex is implied because they’re in long term relationships and/or they live together. This is where the burden of “filling in the blanks” is on the adults and goes over the heads of kids. I think sexiness is twofold: 1) what the audience sees as sexy, like the look of a hero, personality, being badass, etc. and 2) what we’re being told is sexy (moments where Black Widow becomes an object of the male gaze). Any sexual politics to be discussed in these films can be attributed to all media in regards to shaming those who have too much sex or prude-shaming people who don’t make sex a priority.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) Marvel Studios
Starlord and Gamora: Chemistry? Where? Why is this even a thing?

Wendy: I think the superhero movies are just sexy enough to allow me to enjoy them with my children and snicker behind their backs with my husband. We plan to rewatch Guardians of the Galaxy with them again when they are older just to appreciate that moment of realization when Starlord’s blacklight Jackson Pollock joke finally clicks with them. One of my defining moments in life was realizing, along with Buffy’s Willow Rosenberg, what the Divinyls’ song “I Touch Myself” was really about. As these are family-oriented films, I’m fine with the level of sexuality included (though my kids cringe at the kissing), though not so much with the unnecessary objectification.

Family aspect aside, I personally enjoy sex—as in the actual act—more often when it is implied, particularly when the sexual tension is built throughout the story with characters who clearly have chemistry. But I don’t want unnecessary and pandering sex or romantic relationships. I still have no reason to believe Starlord and Gamorra’s star-crossed romance.

Black Widow - Iron Man 2 | Marvel Studios
Black Widow searches for her missing contact lens.

Rachel: Hey, remember the time that Tony Stark made fun of Rhodey for sleeping with a trans woman in the first Iron Man movie? The unnecessary implication in a pre-sex scene with Betty Ross in The Incredible Hulk? The awful pose fighting of Black Widow in Iron Man 2, and her much remarked upon poses in the Avengers movie posters? God, that blacklight joke in GOTG, ugh.

I don’t want superheroes to be linked to sex if all they’re going to do is make fun of it or botch the execution. I honestly don’t really want them linked to sex at all, but I’d rather they get it right if they had to use the subject. Romance, sure. Implications, fine. A little touch, okay. I’d prefer nothing explicit, though. Less because they’re “for kids” (because at this point that’s a damn lie) and more because I’m not really interested in sex scenes in media. I’d rather save that for people I’m close to than seeing it on the screen with some randos, even if they’re attractive ones.

On the plus side, people attracted to dudes (I’m not a member of this audience) receive and from what I’ve heard typically appreciate the shirtless scenes that Cap, Thor, and most recently Star-Lord are in. They aren’t even remotely for me, but Marvel doesn’t always botch the portrayal of characters meant to appeal in an attraction sense.

Captain America | Marvel Studios
Peggy Carter inspects man boob.

I’m not really someone that Marvel’s interested in courting with sex scenes, and I don’t want to see them try what I’m into, so that’s part of why I’m not too interested. They’d just mess it up.

Jules: I feel very similarly to everyone else. I think superhero movies and especially the MCU at the moment have a real problem balancing any “sexiness” with problematic objectification. All of the things Rachel listed above just make me cringe so hard remembering them. There is a place for innuendo, but contemporary superhero movies just cannot nail it down well enough.

I wouldn’t have any problem with superhero movies being “sexless” at this point. I don’t need to go to the cinema to see sex, and what I see most of the time it does come up is just plain pandering with no real substance. Power fantasies, sure; that’s what so many superheroes are about and as long as that’s tempered I’m fine with that, and if people find that sexy go right ahead. However, there’s such a one-sided slant, in the MCU at least, with sexy power fantasies really only being advertised for those attracted to men. Meanwhile, if you’re a woman, or are attracted to them, all you get is objectification.

John August says, “Captain America is a Boy Scout. Even Black Widow, it’s Scarlett Johansson, she is inherently a sexual creature, but they don’t actually use any of that as part of the story because it’s a PG-13 Universe it has to be able to sell toys and you don’t want to sexualize toys I guess.” Which, AGGHHHH.

But let’s break that down. In Iron Man 2, Avengers, and Winter Soldier, Black Widow manipulates straight men—consistently. The camera lingers over her beauty and sensuality as much as it adores her physical and personal power. So what are John August and others who’ve made the same claim (“Black Widow: just not sexy enough.”) really saying here?

Captain America The Winter Soldier
Photoshopped for someone’s viewing pleasure.

Ardo: What they’re saying is that they want some Fifty Shades up in this joint. This whole line of thinking is incredibly flawed. First of all, why is Scarlett Johansson inherently sexy, but Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, or Jeremy Renner aren’t? By saying she’s “inherently a sexual creature,” you reduce her to nothing but a poster on a wall for men to ogle at. Hollywood has been saying that the male gaze is far more important than the female gaze since its creation by ensuring that women are first and foremost in a position to give the guy a boner. Male characters are complex and women are lucky if they make an impact on screen outside of being “sexy.” Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is one of the more interesting Avengers, because she’s morally ambiguous, a fantastic spy, and an origin we have yet to explore even now which is refreshing given that origin stories are the name of the game in this genre. There are moments of sexual objectification but a lot of that is turned on its head, which is expected from someone who calls herself the Black Widow. People get upset when I say she’s not a superhero, but she even calls herself a spy, which is why she’s good at what she does. Again, sexiness is in the eye of the beholder. It’s interesting to see our society urge for more sex positivity but in the same breath demonize people who see sex as secondary or uninteresting. We forget there’s a segment of the population who identifies as asexual, so what do you tell them? Anyways, I doubt we’ll get people protesting in the streets and shouting, “Give us sex or give us death!”

Wendy: I would argue that she is actually the most “sexless” character, because in all of the instances where her sexuality is in play, she is working. Sex is a weapon in her arsenal. One of the reasons I like the “mewling quim” scene in Avengers where Black Widow faces off against Loki is because she uses her gender to play him as much as Joss Whedon uses it to play the audience. She uses his belief that she is of the weaker sex to manipulate him, while Whedon uses society’s stereotypes and expectations to convince the audience of the same.

Avengers | Marvel Studios
Knock knock. Who’s there?

This particular scene is controversial because of the choice of words in Loki’s insult, but since her appearance in Iron Man 2, Black Widow has been using sexuality to manipulate heterosexual men because, again, it’s one of the tools she uses as a spy. But when it comes to an actual relationship, though she teases Captain America about their shared kiss in The Winter Soldier, the story focuses more on the development of a trust and friendship between them, and with Hawkeye before that in Avengers. This is what frustrates me about comments about her “inherent sexuality,” because people reduce her to a sexual object who should appear ass or cleavage first on the posters. They don’t see how or why she uses sex. They just define her as sex.

The toys comment is amusing, since toy companies seem not to believe that boys (remember only boys play with superhero toys) would want to play with a female superhero. I had to hunt for a Black Widow toy for my daughters, and am lucky if she’s included in Avengers paraphernalia. Yet Princess Leia will forever and always be available in her slave outfit.

Rachel: Yeah, ScarJo’s Black Widow is objectified by the camera/herself when she feels like that’s what she needs to do to get a job done, but as a character I don’t think of her as being even remotely sexual. She’s in a tight catsuit that’s usually unzipped to her cleavage and made to do acrobatic poses, but her voice is just so…so dead. I haven’t seen much else of ScarJo’s work, but she practically plays her role like a robot preprogrammed to fight and clown on dudes. You’d think I’d like her more, put like that. Hrm.

Still, she is totally made sexier than even I’d want her to be, just because of the direction of the films. She shouldn’t have to be made appealing to men.

Emma Frost - X-Men First Class
What is Emma Frost even wearing?

Jules: They all just seem like they came straight out of watching X-Men: First Class and expected every woman in every superhero movie to be exactly like Emma Frost was. They sound so indignant that there hasn’t been something like a scene where Black Widow strips down to lure an enemy, a shallow objectifying fantasy that’s warped and gussied up to be some sort of empowerment message, and that there hasn’t been any toy of that particular moment. Whenever I hear criticisms like theirs, it comes off as if they’re mad about having to work to find a character sexy just because they’re played by an actor they find attractive.

Also, I am still trying to wrap my head around that toys comment. I’m pretty a-okay with no sexualising toys, thanks. Yes, I think you should teach your kids about sex at an appropriate age, and you should be open and honest with them about it up to a certain point; however, I’m fine with kids not having some plastic rendition of a “sexy” encounter in a superhero movie. The real funny thing is that kids don’t even need their toys sexualised; they’ll figure it out themselves, like undressing Barbie and Ken dolls. It just seems like such a weird thing for them to point out, though.

I like sexy comics and sexy movies as much as the next gal, but I also think it’s important that comics and films intended for kids or families remain kid friendly. I don’t think that means “sexlessness.” Disney, Pixar, et al have consistently put out films that work for kids and adults without either group being bored or uncomfortable—and I think that’s great. At the same time, there’s this weird argument in the superhero comics world, over whether superheroes are for kids or for adults. Well, why not both? In separate books?

Ardo: The thing about kids movies is that they’re already going to bring an adult along with them, so why not make a film that the adult can enjoy just as much? I saw The Lego Movie with my twelve year old sister, and we laughed at all the same things, but I also laughed at stuff that flew over her head. It’s the same way with the older cartoon shows like The Bugs Bunny Show. By doing this, you make better quality kids films as well because the urge to dumb it down is removed.

Teen Titans Starfire - DC Comics
TEen Titans Starfire Cartoon Network

Wendy: It’s important to keep in mind that, while the superhero movies are aimed at families, they are still rated PG-13, so the content is going to be much more adult-oriented than a Disney film meant for a general audience. A kids movie will most certainly still have adult humour, but it’s far more subtle innuendo than a PG-13 film. That said, because the movies are trying to be inclusive, the comics pose a problem. I can’t reconcile the current comic book Starfire with the one my kids know from the Teen Titans cartoon. I’d love a return to the late 80s where comics could deal with sex, violence, and various significant topics in a mature fashion that an adult can appreciate and a younger audience can still understand. I can share my old comic collection with my kids, as my brother did with me, but I can’t share my current superhero books with them because there is a very distinct division when it comes to adult content. As things stand right now in the industry, I’d like to see more comics aimed at a younger audience. Books like Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel are great, but I think if you’re going to have PG-13 movies that offer Avengers and Justice League that there should be corresponding series that serve as a gateway for both a younger audience as well as people who liked the movies and now want to check out the source material. Sexuality discussion aside, I love that comics are becoming so mainstream, but with so much convoluted lore behind them and so many different books, what do I recommend to a friend who’s seen an X-Men movie and wants to know more?

Rachel: So, I grew up on classic Silver Age Marvel books, and I think that that’s a pretty good tone. Sure, writing styles have changed from the now overly verbose prose, but people die, there’s romance, there’s excitement and adventure, and many of the stories still hold up. Jack and Stan didn’t really censor themselves in the name of trying to tell good stories.

Superhero comics have gone too R-rated, too violent, too objectifying, all in the name of courting the dudes who read older comics as kids to try to grow up with them.

I honestly don’t think that’s necessary. Old comics didn’t talk down to kids, but they were hardly joyless or too simple. They read like they were targeted towards teenagers, basically the equivalent of the Marvel movies today except the comics were smarter and more willing to try to expand the reader’s mind. If you tried to tell me that the current Marvel movies are anything but entertainment, I’d disagree. There is barely any real political/societal critique in the Marvel movies or strange philosophical ideas, just action and a framing plot to make it happen.

Comics can be accessible to kids and still be more than just moralizing and more than just action. They can be brave; they can try to do more than the status quo. They can even have non-white and non-male characters be heroes. I think the movies forgot that part.

Jules: I’m really tired of seeing people consider only in-your-face-with-zero-subtext themes of over-sexualised objectification, gruesome violence, and dark deconstructions to be “mature” or “adult” nowadays. Comics should definitely be for everyone, and I think they are and have been. There’s very much a balance any comic can strike up to cater to kids and teens and adults, and I don’t necessarily begrudge any that specifically cater to only one of those demographics instead. It’s a medium, a delivery mechanism for stories and art, and mediums contain thousands of genres and themes for all sorts. Plus, there is always a way to be attractive to teens and an older audience while also not talking down to kids. Mark Waid’s Daredevil has a sex scene with Black Cat, but it is done well and not wholly explicit, while also highlighting how such an experience would be for someone like Matt Murdoch.

Daredevil #8 Marvel Comics
Black Cat and Daredevil in Daredevil #8

Also, like I said before, you don’t even need to be explicit or have a scene like Daredevil’s because kids are curious people; they’ll figure something out even from something innocent. I feel like a lot of people who argue that comics are only just for kids or just for adults need to severely re-evaluate how they view media.

Mazin: It’s all Jesus-based heroism. Like I am a pure person—that’s part of the problem. A lot of these heroes that we put out there in movies are just a retelling of the Jesus story. I am a pure person who will absorb the sin of the world around me, suffer for your sins, and then save the world through my resurrection.
Savage: I cannot compromise my desire.
Mazin: Bingo. Bingo. And this is part of what goes on, I think, these days at least, a lot of the narrative we put out to kids.

I don’t disagree that Biblical narratives underline a lot of superhero stories (in fact, Ardo and I just went to a talk about this!), but it’s interesting to me that Mazin puts this in opposition with sexuality and maturity. I don’t think the other side of the Jesus pose is having sex with your girlfriend, and I don’t think that martyr narratives are inherently immature. What Mazin’s admittedly brief comment neglects is that this kind of Biblical heroism (whether it’s strident and destructive or conciliatory and forgiving) is a response to crisis, and superheros are a way to talk to kids about crisis and conflict. I think healthy sexuality can absolutely play a role in these narratives, but I don’t think it need be a dominant one.

So, I guess my question here is, what should sexuality in superhero stories do? How can its presence enhance or undermine such stories? Let’s get technical—what’s the utility?

Rachel: It shows how the characters react in non world ending crisis situations. It shows more about who a character is besides what they do. It shows if they can be a good partner besides being a heroic person. Just because you save people doesn’t mean you’re actually good with people. Using sexuality just for the sake of getting the reader aroused is the most useless thing I can think of narratively, if it isn’t explicitly supposed to be a sexual work. There’s nothing wrong with sexual works of art or media, but sexuality does undermine things if characters are objectified for no reason while plot is going on. See: Civil War’s art. So many boob and butt shots framing someone talking; it’s unbelievable.

Wendy: For one thing, I would like sexuality in superhero stories to be normal. Husband and wife team? Nothing wrong with them discussing a mission while lying naked in bed. Catwoman has a bad day and wants some sex and violence kind of stress relief? Batman fails to resist. Starfire, Tony Stark, and She-Hulk enjoy sex? Okay. Black Widow is manipulating a mark? Go for it.

Batwoman #4 DC Comics
Kate Kane and Maggie Swayer having a conversation, as couples often do.

But none of these examples need to be a giant splash page that screams LOOK THEY ARE HAVING SEX or LOOK AT HER BOOBS. On the other hand, don’t be coy about the inclusion of sexuality in adult-oriented comics. We’re conditioned to accept brutal acts of violence and murder, but sex is still taboo, despite the fact that we’ve likely all been through sex ed classes at school and may have already participated in the act itself. If the darker aspects of sexuality are to be part of the story then please oh please understand what you are writing! Do not just fall on basic tropes without understanding the consequences! And as with everything, it’s all about context. If you’re just throwing in sex to titillate or prove that superheroes—much like educated fleas—do it, then it has no meaning.

Cyclops Emma Frost X-Men - Marvel Comics
Cyclops and Emma Frost sleeping. As couples often do.

Jules: Specifically with sexuality, I want to see it being as much of someone’s everyday life as it is for me. Or in other cases, maybe depict it as something a character totally isn’t into. I want more than only scenes of backstabbing in the bedroom and seducing villains. The stuff Wendy’s mentioned, I’m onboard with; you don’t have to be subtle or extreme, but just sometimes very upfront and stone-faced. And I want it depicted as something that actually affects them. I want writers to follow through; don’t stop short and consider it adequate. Two characters have fallen in love? Fantastic, while I don’t want or need raunchy panels afterwards it would feel rather empty if zero intimacy is shown beyond that initial showcase. I feel like sexuality and relationships in a lot of comics are aiming to be these grandiose romances, but they’re never really shown as moving past even the first date. I want connection and sparks.

Ardo: “Just because you save people doesn’t mean you’re actually good with people.” That’s an awesome line, Rachel! Everyone has said some great stuff and what it comes down to is this: always service the story you’re telling. Never ever throw things in for just the sake of it and the problem with sex and sexuality when done poorly is that it comes off objectifying the characters. If it’s a moment needed to strengthen what you’ve already set in motion or is a naturally progression of the story or something the character would do given the circumstances, go for it! We just have to remember that films and comics aren’t paced the same way so every moment counts in a two hour film. Again, sex according to Mazin, Savage, and August comes across as the more explicit form—which isn’t to say full frontal—and we’ve basically said why that won’t be happening: THE MAGICAL PG-13 aka LET’S PRINT MO-NEY.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

3 thoughts on “Sex and the Modern Superhero

  1. How are black male characters adjusting to the new neutering?

    The really interesting viewing is simply to birdwatch American media in general play out their racism as a study in intersectionality.

    Then we can be thoroughly entertained and fully appreciate their never ending fight against the portrayal of black men as sexually desirable. An alluring black woman is a given trope in modern mainstream entertainment media especially sci/fi.

    Another given is that she naturally finds her love interest in a man of another race.

    Any black man is, of course, a sideliner. Older, fat, defective, conveniently married off, or unsuited for some other perfectly innocent reason.

    Current entertainment media is directed by racial sexists who crave black women and fear black men.

    Oh well, I suppose it’s a step forward from all black men being crooks or pimps and all black women being maids or prostitutes.

    Still, I look forward to the time when TV allows black men and women to have relationships with one another aside from slapstick sitcoms. I would love to see black people as whole PEOPLE, not just props.

  2. A thought provoking article on a topic that needs discussion. Thanks for writing!

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