Slut-Shaming She-Hulk

Back in June, over at Bronze Age Babies, I co-wrote an overview and review of Spider-Man/Human Torch, a 2005 series written by Dan Slott, with pencils by Ty Templeton that is kind of an apocryphal pastiche of Marvel’s past—it is made up of five issues, each one set in a particular era of Spider-Man and Human Torch’s history. The issues rely heavily on nostalgia for the tense team-ups between Marvel’s first two teen superheroes, creating stories where they join forces and/or play out their rivalry in the 60s, 70s, 80s and the 00s (like any discerning comic book reader, Peter and Johnny agree that the 90s are best forgotten).

SMHT4-johnnysenseIt is a fun series and I like it quite a bit, especially since Slott seems to know his superhero continuity as well as any pedantic nerd, but is willing to use that knowledge to play around and construct stories that are simultaneously reverent of the old days and aware of its absurdity to limn that edge of ironic humor people seem to like these days.

Despite liking the series overall, and liking Dan Slott’s work when it is not on a flagship title (his current Silver Surfer series with Mike Allred is fantastic), there is one scene in Spider-Man/Human Torch #4 that is especially troubling and that both my co-writer and I found highly problematic.

A couple of friends and I have this joke that “All nostalgia is racist.” It is one of those jokes/not jokes, in that, in a way, we mean exactly that—nostalgia only functions by constructing a narrative of the “good ole days” that willfully ignores all the people marginalized by whatever system led to the fondly remembered prosperity. Take for instance all the “Greatest Generation” bullshit we’re often fed that forgets how black people were treated in this country in the middle of the 20th century (and continue to be treated), especially after ostensibly fighting for “freedom and democracy” in segregated military units during World War II.

Spider-Man/Human Torch #4 ostensibly takes place in the 1980s, a time I certainly consider “the good old days” when I look back fondly to tween/teen me gobbling comics. It was when Spider-Man was hanging out regularly with the Black Cat and wearing a symbiotic black costume he found on another planet. Over at the Baxter Building, She-Hulk was subbing for Ben Grimm (the Thing), while he took some time exploring (the original) Battleworld after (the original) Secret Wars event. The issue opens with She-Hulk arriving at Johnny Storm’s place to go to a costume party. Johnny’s wearing the classic red and blue Spider-Man costume for the party, but She-Hulk is wearing the clichéd sexy French maid outfit. Johnny gets so hot and bothered just seeing her (despite the fact that it actually covers more than her normal FF uniform does) that he immediately proposes that they forget the party, stay in and knock boots.

She-Hulk balks at Johnny’s pass and leaves. Take a look for yourself: SMHT4-she-hulk4Those last two panels are a heartbreaker in more than one way.

First of all from the perspective of within the narrative it breaks my heart that She-Hulk would feel that way about herself, that it is her fault that her friend and colleague thinks it is cool to propose sex out of nowhere just because of what she is wearing and (as we shall see later) because of his inferences about her sex life. It is too easy to imagine the countless women who have been made to feel that their harassment (or assault) was their own fault, and to see that happen to She-Hulk, who is supposed to be the strong, savvy and liberated woman is a punch in the gut, especially given my generally positive feelings about Dan Slott writing the character in her own book.

Secondly, as She-Hulk leaves the scene she even has to suffer the indignity of asking Johnny if they are “still cool,” since in a patriarchal world she is the one that has to be concerned about the consequences of rejecting his advances, not him for making them (aside from feeling some embarrassment and less “manly”).

Third, this scene is also a heartbreaker in that it makes a similar slut-shaming scene in She-Hulk volume 2, #19 harder to ignore. Once is a slip-up I am willing to chalk up to Slott not thinking through the connotations of his “joke” at the expense of a woman with a lot of sexual partners, but twice? And with the same character? Ugh. Sure the two stories are just about contemporaneous, but that doesn’t excuse it.

SMHT4-torchWorst of all the scene is written with Johnny Storm as the POV character. He is one of the heroes of the mini-series and we’re supposed to sympathize with his striking out and being in the “friend zone?” Complaining like the proverbial “nice guy” that She-Hulk is willing to sleep with Starfox, but not him is quintessential male entitlement. It’s gross.

shulkie-9

Slut-shaming She-Huk seems to be a tradition (from She-Hulk vol. 2, #19)

Anyway, it would be fairly easy to modify my “joke” with my friends to be “All nostalgia is sexist” and this scene is a perfect example. Johnny’s irascible playboy ways were funny back in the day, and while it may be possible to argue that he is being made out to be a fool because of those ways, the female character remains the target of the pernicious sexualization common to American superhero comics. We can look back and laugh at the ignorance of the past, but if all we do is laugh aren’t we just recapitulating the problematic representations we are supposedly laughing at? Sure while the story ostensibly takes place in the 80s, the scene is in a comic from 2005, so we should note how much the discourse has changed in 10 years, because I can’t imagine this being printed in 2015 without the comic blogosphere and Twitter going nuts about it. However, at the same time it also points out that rather than clear progress, these attitudes towards women’s sexuality in comics is an ongoing problem, 50 years ago, 30 years ago, 10 years ago and today. We’d probably like to think that comics have gotten progressively “better” decade by decade, but if such an egregious scene was possible just ten years ago in the service of evoking a “fun time” in comics, readers and creators both need to remain cognizant of not only that possibility, but its likelihood.

SenSH34

A not uncommon cover, this one from Sensational She-Hulk #34 (1991). By John Byrne

I can’t help but wonder: is it possible to evoke the sense of an era without recapitulating its problematic aspects? Yes, many long time comics readers like to think back fondly on some of our favorite superhero eras, but if we let our pleasure in looking back keep us from also looking critically all we do is obscure the degree to which such problems extend into the current moment. In other words, we need to exercise “critical nostalgia”—something I have written about before in regards to comics—remaining aware of how collective memory seeks to erase individual memories that run counter to the romanticized narrative.

In fall of 2014 I wrote a long post about Dan Slott’s She-Hulk and what it did right in using her self-awareness as a way to comment on the treatment of her sexuality. However, I also wrote about how it fails by recapitulating the problematic transformation of her sexual desire into a running joke—She-Hulk as the Kelly Bundy of the Marvel Universe. When I wrote that post Man of Steel sequel writer David Goyer had not yet referred to She-Hulk as “a giant green porn star” and said “I think She-Hulk is the chick that you could fuck if you were Hulk.”  But here’s the thing, Goyer isn’t wrong. Certainly John Byrne’s (and others’) Sensational She-Hulk series counted on prurient interest of what was beneath covers frequently depicting She-Hulk in various states of undress to sell books. I get it. I was 12 years old once, too. Or look at the “jokes” (and I use that word loosely) in the What If? Humor issue, #32 (1982), which features two stories that imagine Hulk and She-Hulk as married (despite being cousins), or the Old Man Logan mini-series, which depicts a world where maddened Hulk and She-Hulk sire a gang of Hulks, because as an aged “Pappy Banner” explains, “who else was I gonna mate with besides my first cousin? Jenny She-Hulk was the only woman out there who could take the damn pace!” Again, gross.

 I’ll say it again, Goyer is right—to many She-Hulk is “a giant green porn star that only the Hulk could fuck.” She can’t be this smart sex positive character she seems like she could be and that her fans want her to be while continually returning to a state where she is defined by the humorous degree of “sluttiness.” Thankfully the most recent She-Hulk series by Charles Soule and Juan Pulido focused on her starting a new law practice and ignore the usual sexual history shenanigans, but then again that series was cancelled before it had any time to develop.

iloveshe-hulk-md

The fact that this (and another) gag imagined She-Hulk and Hulk as a couple as early as 1982 (just two years after her debut) suggests Goyer was onto something with his problematic comments (from What If? #32).

The problem with She-Hulk is not that she has a history of being written in that vein, but that it remains okay—a joke. I suffer a bit of cognitive dissonance that a writer who can explore the problematic aspects regarding consent in the use of Starfox’s power can still write a scene slut-shaming She-Hulk and wanting us to feel sorry for douchey, entitled Johnny Storm. Sometimes I think that its compartmentalization that allows for human society to function to any degree, but I think is it my job as a comic reader and scholar to not let those disjunctures go unnoticed.

9 thoughts on “Slut-Shaming She-Hulk

  1. Very well written as always.

    When the Goyer quote happened and everyone was clamoring to demonstrate how that’s not what She-Hulk and her stories are around, I was thinking “that’s not what he’s thinking of when he thinks of She-Hulk. He’s thinking of something like the Byrne covers.”

    In general I don’t think people are responding to the actual stories when it comes to supper heroes. They’re responding to the costumes and poses. The stories you attach to them without knowing the actual stories. This is potentially dangerous for reasons beyond reinforcing sexism.

    • I think you’re probably right, but I think it is also important that there are stories that also reinforce that idea – that the joke of her sexuality even when not explicitly part of the story is never far from the surface in her narratives. Even before her transformation into the She-Hulk we are familiar with today, her wanton sexuality was the key part of her characterization. I have an issue of Marvel Two-in-One where she spends the whole story hitting on Ben Grimm and making him uncomfortable (this is pre-Secret Wars, of course), the joke being she is so horny she’d even fuck the Thing (compare that to the more soft-spoken Alicia Masters who loves him for his gentle soul).

      As I’ve said before there is nothing wrong with a female character with that kind of confidence- a womanly equivalent to Hercules -but when it can only ever be a joke, a way to humiliate her – the underlying message overwhelms any positive possibilities of a sex-positive character.

  2. Great post. I agree with you; I’ve always liked She-Hulk and always wondered why the hell she wore a (very skimpy) bathing suit to battle monsters and what not. It’s just stupid. For that matter I always wondered how/why Namor could do the same thing. So, Goyer was right. Bit crass, but spot on.

    Intention is very fundamental here. If the intent were truly to illuminate a very sexually-oriented character, very independent, doesn’t care what the herd thinks, likes to have sex with whomever she wants, then the scenes might work; but as you point out, they don’t allow She-Hulk to position herself that way. She’s the butt of the jokes. Another buxom female the guys (immature guys) can laugh about, drool over, cast judgments upon, etc. I think there was even one issue where she was the “centerfold” of some playboy type of magazine. It’s the same “cognitive dissonance” that occurs when Sports Illustrated comes out with their swimsuit issue and female sports warriors are done up to pose like playboy bunnies.

    The difficult part is how obtuse people (even the females posing in the magazine) can be to the underpinning sexist attitude, which is less adoration of said female’s beauty and athletic physique and more greed/lust for woman as quantifiable object that can be had for a price.

    • That’s FF #275 you’re thinking of. Some paparazzi drawn to look like Stan Lee snaps pictures of her nude sunbathing on the roof of the Baxter Building, and the issue is about her trying to stop hm from printing them. It could have been a great “legal case” issue. . . but isn’t. If I remember correctly, Johnny is extra creepy about getting his hands on the issue when it comes out.

  3. You definitely make some good points. I still, however, believe that Goyer was wrong, at least in the way he expressed his opinion. I’m not even sure if he was really interested in opening a dialogue about problematic portrayals of female characters so much as making a crass joke. The comment about fans of the Martian Manhunter being virgins could be taken as evidence of this.

    You’ve done a much better job of showing the problems with how Jen has been written.

  4. You definetely make some good points about how Jen’s sexuality has been portrayed. I still think Goyer was wrong in his approach. It seemed to me he was less interested in drawing attention to the poor portrayal of female characters and more about making a crass joke to get a rise out of people (see the comments about Martian Manhunter fans being virgins).

    Yes, problematic portrayals of female characters should be called out. But like you say, there’s a right and wrong way to do it.

    • Yes. I agree with you 100%. I should have been clearer that I was not condoning Goyer’s approach and attitude, but trying to remind readers that that attitude comes from somewhere other than merely his misreading,

      Thanks for commenting!

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