Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post by Anna Peppard is one I’ve been eager to share with our readers since she first pitched it to me and one the writer says she’s been kicking around in her head for years. Brilliant and subversive, I think it has the makings of an instant classic.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the Vision’s penis. I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about why I’ve spent so much time thinking about the Vision’s penis. It’s not because I’m obsessed with penises. While I’m extremely fond of male bodies, penises aren’t the center of my attraction. They’re fine, I guess, but they’re not, on their own, something that particularly occupies me. Yet the Vision’s penis is a minor obsession. I’m specifically interested in the question of whether he has a penis. I’m even more interested in the question of whether it matters, and if so, why? To be clear, I’m not worried about the Vision’s penis; I certainly don’t think he needs a penis to be a man, or a husband, or a father, or for me (a straight woman) to be attracted to him (which I am). Nor am I fixated on seeing his penis; there are plenty of (NSFW!) pornographic options a simple Google search away if I wanted to go that route. Instead, I’m fascinated by the idea of the Vision’s penis. The Vision is arguably American comics’ most well-known android superhero. He’s also one of only a handful of superheroes who’s been married, and had children, not once, but twice, though each attempt was strange and eventually tragic. The children he has with longtime paramour the Scarlet Witch are demonic, and his second round are synthetic. Within a genre that’s always had a complicated relationship with sexuality, the Vision’s penis is an especially dense locus of meaning. It’s aesthetically absent (which is typical), narratively synthetic (which is not), and mysteriously (or perhaps threateningly) generative. As such, it’s a fascinating site of possibility, including the possibility it was never meant to exist.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: with his bald head and hard, streamlined body, the Vision looks like a giant penis. There are also phallic connotations to the Vision’s main superpower, namely, the ability to instantly and dramatically decrease or increase his mass. In other words, he can, at will, make his body either intangible or impenetrably hard, and remain in either state as long as he chooses (he did, originally, have a battery charged by the sun that occasionally drained, but his stamina is comfortably superheroic). Within the superhero genre and Western culture more generally, phallic signifiers like these stand in for the penis to preserve its mystique. As Jeffrey A. Brown discusses in his essay “The Visible and the Invisible: Superheroes, Pornography, and Phallic Masculinity,” which appears in my forthcoming anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero, “The dynamic between what is and is not seen in relation to the phallus, and how it is presented, is integral to how hegemonic masculinity is valued as naturally superior” (246). The phallus isn’t a body part; it’s an imaginary ideal inspired by the penis, which real penises can seldom (if ever) live up to; penises are never as large or hard as they “should” be to maintain the myth of male superiority on which patriarchal culture is founded. Phallic symbolism makes up for this lack; the Vision looks like a penis but is far more reliably large and hard than an actual penis.
As a feminist female scholar, I wholeheartedly concur that the superhero genre’s investment in promoting phallocentrist fantasies cannot be overstated. Yet as a feminist female fan, I often find myself alienated by analyses of the genre’s phallocentrism. However inadvertently, such critiques have contributed to assumptions—within academia, journalism, and the popular imagination—that the superhero genre is fundamentally incompatible with female fantasies and desires. When I first began studying superhero stories a little over a decade ago, I was hard-pressed to find any academic analyses of the genre that reflected my own experience of it. Book after book, essay after essay, treated the superhero genre as an exclusively male preserve. My experience as a woman whose superhero fandom began and blossomed within female friendships and fan communities was virtually invisible, even impossible from that perspective.
The first time I felt “seen” in academic work on the superhero genre was in personally inflected analyses written by gay men. This includes Andy Medhurst’s essay “Batman, Deviance, and Camp” (1991) and especially Lee Easton’s essay “Sharing a Quick Look: A Gay Man Reads His Comics” (2010), in which Easton offers this reflection on his younger self’s investment in the superhero genre:
Although I seldom forgot these hypermasculine figures’ capacity for violence, it was really the heroes’ capacity for great suffering and gentleness that kept me captivated. The fact that these hard, powerful men were also capable of deep feelings, usually revealed in short moments of great softness and tenderness, would often fill me with desire to hold and comfort them. (136)
Within the superhero genre, the same excessive violence that confirms male heroes’ phallocentrism also provides excuses for male characters (and all genders and orientations of fans) to experience excessive emotions that can feminize them, or at the very least “soften” or otherwise complicate their masculinity. As a case in point, while the introduction of the Vision in Roy Thomas and John Buscema’s Avengers #57-58 (October-November 1968) features plenty of violence, perhaps the most remembered image from this story arc is the splash page that concludes issue #58, featuring the Vision crying.
After a lengthy and emotionally fraught investigation of the Vision’s complicated backstory, the Avengers accept the formerly villainous android’s petition to join them. Before responding, the Vision excuses himself, retreats to the privacy of the next room, and dramatically weeps, accompanied by a caption declaring, “…even an android can… cry!” Interestingly, the caption is spoken by Hank Pym, addressing the other Avengers. Thus, while the Avengers let the Vision cry privately, they know he’s doing so. They know because they understand; most of these heroes have done their own crying. Indeed, the Vision’s emotionalism is emblematic of Marvel’s trademark incorporation of romantic melodrama into its superhero stories. The Vision’s android status, however, particularly highlights the subversive potential of this generic hybridity. In an essay focusing on this splash page titled “Even an Android Can Cry” (2010), Tim Nelson characterizes the Vision’s tears as both authentic and critical: “Vision cried because he found acceptance despite his artificial creation. It might not be so mischievous to suggest that the android was also crying because… the masculinity conferred upon him was a sham” (256). This was, not coincidentally, also the moment I first fell in love with the Vision. What’s not to love, as a feminist female fan, about a male android who cries—an artificial man rejecting his phallocentric programming with an improbable leaking that’s not propulsive but rather intensely sensual, his single, dribbling tear framed by an elegant hand while breaking perfectly on his graceful cheekbone? The Vision doesn’t just cry—like the similarly high-cheek-boned women adorning the covers of so many romance novels and comics, he looks pretty when he’s crying.
Yet Easton’s experience of reading superhero comics also diverges from mine in important ways. For Easton, superhero stories ignited desires they couldn’t fulfill. “But in all the pictures of the bodies on offer,” writes Easton, “there were very few poses or perspectives that could fulfill the desires of a voyeur.” “In the end,” he continues, “fantasy isn’t just fantasy of the object: it is fantasy of participation, or of seeing desires acted out. Sexually, superheroes are boring. Eventually I made my way from comics to gay male pornography, where the male body is displayed for sexual consumption in ways that comics are intentionally not” (150). But what if your sexual goals don’t involve penises or penetration? What if you’re more interested in the sensual experience of lingering and circling, and other types of climax? Easton associates such desires with juvenility. So does Scott Bukatman in his queer theory-influenced essay “X-Bodies: The Torment of the Mutant Superhero” (2003), in which he writes rapturously about how superhero bodies are “asexual and homosexual, heterosexual, and hermaphroditic” (49), yet also declares, in the first line of the same essay, “I don’t read superhero comics anymore. I’m probably not as worried about my dick as I used to be” (48). Both Easton and Bukatman complicate the superhero genre’s phallocentrism, then conclude that for them, in their lives, superhero comics only offered immature sexual fantasies, properly disavowed in adulthood. I in no way wish to question or diminish Easton or Bukatman’s personal experiences; I am eminently grateful for their honest introspection, and the superhero genre’s homophobia and phallocentrism are very real. But my experience is, inevitably, different. Because I’m a woman, and because I continue to find superheroes sexually exciting, when I see the superhero genre dismissed as sexually immature, I can’t help recalling that Freud said something similar about clitoral orgasms—that they were a girlish form of pleasure properly disavowed in maturity. Sometimes, embracing immaturity can be rebellious, and even anti-phallic. Which (finally) gets me back to the Vision’s penis.
Yes, not showing the Vision’s penis preserves its mystique. But for me, this mystique is less the promise of phallic power than the promise of something resistive. Let’s circle back to that origin story from Avengers #58. In this version of the Vision’s origin (it’s changed several times over the years), he’s created by the supervillainous robot Ultron, himself created by Hank Pym. So already, the Vision is a copy of a copy, a rebellious son of a rebellious son. But the reproductions don’t stop there. The Vision’s brain patterns—which are responsible for his ability to resist Ultron’s programming and his capacity for emotion—are copied from then-deceased supervillain-turned-ally Wonder Man. The Vision is a work of gender in a story of mechanical reproduction; thrice a copy, he lacks an aura of authenticity. And yet, as Nelson observes, his ability to cry is presented as “proof of humanity and authenticity” (256); his tears both respond to his inauthenticity and bely it. For much of the three decades that followed, the Vision would continue to negotiate this contradictory and perpetually unstable authenticity. His penis is routinely central to these negotiations.
Once the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff rejoins the Avengers in issue #70 (November 1969), the Vision’s negotiations of authenticity often center on the relationship between masculinity and maleness. In the Vision’s long-simmering on-again/off-again romance with Wanda, emotions aren’t really the issue; the Vision clearly loves Wanda, and she loves him. The problem seems to revolve, instead, around the actualization of love. Interestingly, Wanda doesn’t seem to care about this question; the Vision’s the one who’s worried about his dick. For instance, in Avengers #99 (May 1972), the Vision cites the fact he can’t have children as a reason he and Wanda couldn’t—or shouldn’t—be together. This isn’t a concern Wanda raises at this juncture and is, in fact, a problem she later proves perfectly capable of solving (I’ll return to this momentarily). Of course, an inability to have children doesn’t mean the Vision doesn’t have a penis. But given the already-unstable nature of his body, it does raise further questions. As does an incident in Avengers #105 (November 1972) involving the supervillain Lorelei, in which the Vision proves immune to the seductress’s supposedly irresistible charms. Though his immunity allows the Vision to save his teammates, it wreaks havoc on his personal life, by severely damaging his belief in his ability to have one. After the Lorelei incident, the Vision reverts to an “inanimate” or “statue”-like state. When he finally answers Wanda’s frantic pleas to tell her what’s wrong, “his cold, inhuman, android voice is deathly” as he says, “My difficulty should be obvious to anyone—and I suspect you are asking to hear me deny it. But no. Though I am constructed in the semblance of a man… it seems only humans may be affected by… love.” The first word of the next panel characterizes the conclusion of the larger plot as an “anticlimax.” Wanda and the Vision’s romance isn’t directly implicated, but the use of this particular word in this particular place is suggestive, nonetheless.
There is more suggestive philosophizing in the following issues, with the Vision opting out of the next mission to stay home and brood. During one such brooding session, in Avengers #107 (January 1973), a caption box quotes Hank Pym’s original description of the Vision as “every inch a human being, except that all his bodily organs are constructed of synthetic materials.” This statement doesn’t resolve the question of how many inches one requires to be a man, but it does suggest, when recited in this context of romantic brooding, that the Vision may, in fact, have a penis. Yet immediately following this, the caption boxes question the Vision’s ability or right to use his penis. “And if one borders on humanity,” the captions say, “in a world composed overwhelmingly of humans—would not one long to cross that border? Even if one must smuggle oneself across?” We’re told in the next panel that even if the Vision could love (have sex with?) Wanda, “society would disapprove.” But what is society disapproving of here, exactly? In the context of the 1960s and 70s, the romance between Wanda and the Vision was likely read as a parable about interracial romance. The uncertainty surrounding the Vision’s sex and sexuality contributes additional possibilities. Wanda and the Vision may be heterosexual, but their heteronormativity is consistently queered. They get married—in a joint ceremony with a “cosmic Madonna” named Mantis and a sentient tree inhabiting the reanimated corpse of a deceased former Avenger who dresses like a Medieval knight (yes, really). They buy a house in the New Jersey suburbs—which is a gothic mansion that gets burned down by bigots. They host a Thanksgiving dinner in a new suburban home—for a family that includes mutants and Inhumans, supervillains and heroes, and, naturally, witches and robots. They also have children—without semen or penetrative sex.
The scene in which Wanda becomes pregnant, in The Vision and the Scarlet Witch vol. 2, #3 (December 1985) by Steve Englehart and Richard Howell, is my all-time favorite moment in the title characters’ relationship. In this scene, Wanda pushes her mutant magic to its limit absorbing and redirecting an outpouring of mystical energy that threatens to destroy the world. The Vision helps by supporting her, catching her in his arms and increasing his mass to hold her steady in a suggestively sexual pose, his pelvis tight against her backside as he throws his head back, mouth agape with passion. Wanda’s arms, meanwhile, stretch toward the phallic shape of Wundagore Mountain, engulfed in a fiery explosion that also engulfs her embrace with the Vision, caressing their joined and straining forms with jagged and sensuous tendrils of green and white fire. The phallic mountain could be reaching for Wanda’s loins. But it’s her power, and her body, that’s corralling and aiming the energy; if there’s a penis (or phallus) here, it’s Wanda’s. The energy finally dissipates into a simmering plume hovering like a post-coital cigarette above the couple’s now tenderly reclining forms. The final panels of this page reveal that Wanda uses the energy she absorbed to magically impregnate herself with twins.
On the one hand, this scene can be read as a prudish denial of the realities of human (or superhuman) sexuality, using magic to create a first-grade bible school-appropriate virgin pregnancy. On the other hand, this scene also depicts a utopian fusion of heroism, romance, and sex, in which a powerful man’s physical and emotional connection with his even-more-powerful wife is itself so powerful that it can both save lives and create new ones. This scene is bonkers in a way only superhero stories can be. It’s also, for me, incredibly sexy, in part through its intoxicating commingling of presence and absence. Pornography scholar Robert Jensen argues that through its hyper-objectification of bodies and pleasure, a majority of mainstream porn envisions a “world without empathy” (112). The scene in which Wanda becomes pregnant reminds me, instead, of Mariam Hansen’s description of a possible female erotic gaze. In contrast to mainstream heterosexual porn, which, as Annette Kuhn argues in her essay “Lawless Seeing” (1985), tends to present a world wherein “male-female differences are reducible to bodily parts which are exclusively sexual in function” (35), Hansen envisions a gaze that longs for “a different kind of sexuality, different from the norm of heterosexual, genital sexuality” (22). This gaze, says Hansen, would be founded in “reciprocity and ambivalence, rather than mastery and objectification” (15). Maybe in the fifteen years since he first met and fell in love with Wanda, the Vision has matured, and maybe maturing means worrying less about his dick. But it’s the mysterious, symbolic sexuality of the Comics Code-approved superhero genre that allows him to worry less about his dick, because this is what lets him express his physical and emotional love for his wife, and even help her become a mother, without needing to put a penis into her vagina.
I will never stop being heartbroken by the retconning of this story beginning in West Coast Avengers vol. 2, #42 (March 1989), written and drawn by John Byrne. First, Wanda and the Vision’s children are teased as unreal; later, in West Coast Avengers #52 (December 1989), they’re revealed as shards of the demon Mephisto’s soul. This was accompanied by the Vision’s disassembly, followed by his reassembly into a white, emotionless husk, a transformation that spelled the end of his relationship with Wanda. Significantly, in West Coast Avengers #45 (June 1989), the reassembled, emotionless Vision is introduced seemingly naked, lacking a penis. Lest you assume the Vision must be wearing skin-matching spandex, a few pages later, U.S. Agent clearly identifies him as naked, demanding he “Get some clothes on!” for the sake of “decency.” The Vision replies, “Your position is not logical, sir. Humans wear clothes for any combination of three reasons: protection, modesty, or vanity. None of these applies to me.” Normally, this revelation might excite me; the Vision not having a penis lends intriguing resonances to his earlier explorations of identity. In this context, though, it’s difficult not to read this revelation as part of a concerted effort to forestall subversive possibilities. Certainly, superhero romances often end terribly; monthly publishing demands drama, and romantic bliss is purportedly bad for drama. Yet the totality with which Wanda and the Vision’s romantic, sexual, and familial bliss is dismantled is nonetheless striking. Wanda and the Vision don’t just break up; the Vision remains to haunt Wanda as a ghost of his former self, his memories intact but emotionally bereft. And the couple doesn’t just lose their children; the very existence of their children is revealed to be illusory, evil, and dangerous, and, as such, definitely unnatural and wrong. Given this, the Vision’s Ken doll body reads less like a challenge to phallocentrism than another way of proving the wrongness of Wanda and the Vision’s entire relationship. The suggestion is: their relationship couldn’t have been real or right, because the Vision doesn’t have a penis; he was never a “real” man, and thus, never capable of being a “real” husband or father. Given the interracial parable discussed above, there are echoes, here, of what Robert Jones Jr., in his 2015 essay “Humanity Not Included: DC’s Cyborg and the Mechanization of the Black Body,” describes as the “castration” of the Black superhero Cyborg, who has not, historically, had a penis. Obviously, the Vision is only symbolically racialized; it would, as such, be irresponsible to directly equate him with Cyborg. And yet, just as Cyborg must be “[s]ufficiently neutered” in order to be “safe enough to be embraced by white people,” I would argue that the Vision is similarly neutered—either/both physically and emotionally—to forestall possibilities that frighten hegemonic culture, like redefining conventional understandings of heterosexuality, masculinity, and maleness, as well as femininity and femaleness (I quite like the idea of Wanda fathering her own children, but would guess either Byrne or Marvel editorial did not).
The dissolution of Wanda and the Vision’s relationship and family would go on to have wide-ranging consequences. In 2004’s “Avengers Disassembled” and 2005’s House of M, the return of repressed memories of her children causes Wanda to lose control of her powers, resulting in the deaths of the Vision and Hawkeye and the decimation of the mutant population. I try to rationalize Wanda’s actions in these stories as a form of feminist revenge; the dismantling of Wanda and the Vision’s family must have been a lousy creative decision to be capable of wreaking such havoc. But in my heart, I can’t get past the implications of this dismantling. My favorite romantic moment in the life of my favorite superhero couple is now indelibly associated with evil, madness, murder, and even genocide. For all its other virtues, Tom King and Gabriel Hernández Walta’s The Vision, winner of the 2017 Eisner Award for Best Limited Series, doesn’t solve this issue. To enact his deconstruction of the suburban nuclear family, King frames the Vision’s desire for domesticity as deeply flawed and adds a new element of toxicity to his relationship with Wanda. In this series, the Vision creates a “perfect” android family, while using Wanda’s brain patterns to construct his wife, tellingly named Virginia. Apparently, Wanda gives him permission to do this. It’s unclear, however, whether Virginia would have been capable of consenting to her marriage at the time of her creation. Virginia’s (initial) subservience is additionally disturbing. The Vision I fell in love with didn’t want a subservient wife; he wanted a superheroic partner whose passion inspired his own, and whose power he openly acknowledged as superior to his. And he certainly wouldn’t want a virginal wife, or be flustered when that wife seduces him, pulling him to bed by the waist of his pajama pants.
It took writing this essay for me to understand the main reason I spend so much time thinking about the Vision’s penis. I don’t care about uncovering its “truth”; the Vision is a fictional character, and even if he wasn’t, his truth would be his, and his alone. What I do care about is figuring out what the phallocentric superhero genre wants me to think is true, which relates to my ongoing struggle to figure out where I might fit within a space that hasn’t historically welcomed me. I want my version of events—in which Wanda and the Vision’s love triumphantly challenges gender and sexual norms—to be real, or at the very least possible, and am worried it never was. Maybe Wanda’s queer pregnancy was just a happy accident, a “production error,” like DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee said of the first—and ultimately brief—on-panel appearance of Batman’s penis in 2018’s Batman: Damned #1. If so, my feminist female gaze is like Wanda and the Vision’s progeny—unnatural, unreal, and properly disavowed.
For me, a “mature” superhero genre wouldn’t necessarily have to include explicit depictions of genitals or sex acts (though I’d be happy for it to be less prudish about these things—the decision to censor the Bat-penis smacks of homophobia). It would, however, acknowledge the diverse presences that have always existed within the genre’s absences. Wanda and the Vision’s love can be real and meaningful without including penises or penetration. So can their sexual relationship. So can their family. So can my feminist female fandom. A mature superhero genre—and mature superhero scholarship—would embrace diverse ways of filling holes, or, as the case may be, not filling them. There is, of course, tremendous value in making sexuality—and especially diverse sexualities—manifest on the page and screen; not doing so can nurture feelings of shame and exclusion, in addition to perpetuating many harmful cultural myths. But I also continue to find value in stories that make sexuality manifest while preserving a degree of mystery. Not knowing whether the Vision has a penis, and how he might use it if he does, makes (nearly) every possibility available, and I love that, because ideas turn me on as much as action does. If that’s juvenile, then so be it; I was happy with my pleasure until I was told I shouldn’t be. Just like Wanda and the Vision were happy in their gothic suburban home, constantly kissing and cuddling and rarely not dressed as superheroes, because for them, for a while, nothing was absent, except guilt about loving who they wanted, how they wanted. Exactly what that looked like is anyone’s guess. Or at least, it could be, if everyone’s guess was allowed to matter.
Anna F. Peppard is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow in the department of Communication, Popular Culture, and Film at Brock University. She has published widely on representations of race, gender, and sexuality within a variety of popular media genres and forms, including action-adventure television, superhero comics, professional wrestling, and sports culture. She is the editor of the anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero (University of Texas Press, fall 2020), and a co-host of the podcast Three Panel Contrast.