Persecution of Women in the Public Eye: How Much has Changed?

By Jackie Collens

That the lives and actions of men and women of notoriety are critiqued differently is no new concept. As we watch the media hype over Hillary Clinton’s potential second run at presidency, there are a number of questions I would like to pose:

For what reasons are women in the public eye persecuted today, and how is the language used against them different from, or similar to, that used to persecute women in the past? As a society, has our treatment of notable women improved, gotten worse, or remained the same?

I will be looking at media coverage and public discourse on Hillary Clinton as she is widely recognizable and has been in the public eye for a significant amount of time. The sexist language used during coverage of her presidential campaign in 2008 stirred up a great deal of debate, and as rumors arise that she may potentially run again in 2016, her actions continue to be scrutinized. In an article examining sexism in the coverage of the 2008 election, Joseph E. Uscinski and Lilly J. Goren collected a sample of comments made about Clinton by reporters on various news programs. They also looked at the different ways reporters referred to Clinton compared to other candidates.

A few noteworthy comments include Tucker Carlson’s, “I have often said, when she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs,” and Glenn Beck’s claim that her voice, “sounds like my wife saying, ‘take out the garbage.’”[1] Both of these comments play into familiar stereotypes not only of Hilary Clinton, but also of women in general who appear to have a significant amount of power, political or otherwise. This stereotype portrays these women as nagging, power-hungry, and overall threatening to the men that stand in their way. Uscinski and Goren also discovered that in discussions of Clinton’s candidacy, topics ranged from her laugh, to the pantsuits she wore, and her menstrual cycle; during an episode of The Chris Matthews Show, she was depicted with devil horns drawn onto her head.[2] As a woman in the public eye, Hillary Clinton has certainly seen her fair share of criticism using gendered language and stereotypes. Her presence and influence have drawn a great deal of negativity, much like other women in U.S. history who gained notoriety for stepping outside of their determined gender norms.

For the sake of historical comparison, I will be looking at the language used in discussions of the women participants in the Antinomian Controversy of the seventeenth century.[3] While the persecution of the women involved in the Antinomian Controversy stemmed from their religious beliefs, Hillary Clinton’s criticisms are generally within a political context. Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer are still notable for the attention they gained as outspoken women who became influential members of their communities, particularly because they were outspoken at a time when women were rarely able to play quite as direct a role in politics as they can today. Anne Hutchinson, perhaps the most recognizable figure of the Antinomian Controversy, has been discussed at great lengths in historical writings not only because she was a woman unafraid of sharing her ideas and opinions publicly, but because she did so in a manner that gained her loyal friends and followers. One such follower, Mary Dyer, became a similarly influential member of the movement in her own right. She was forced to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony several times, and each time she returned, was faced with the possibility of being executed. In response to her actions, Dyer was described by her own husband as having, “inconsiderate madness.”[4]

The governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, remarked that she was, “notoriously infected,” by Antinomian doctrine, as well as, “censorious and troublesome.”[5] Perhaps some of the most interesting language used in discussing Mary Dyer’s life comes from the accounts surrounding her birthing of a deformed stillborn child; descriptions of the birth allude to the idea that this, “monstrous birth,” was a sign that Dyer herself was a monster or a witch, or that this event was God’s punishment for her heresy.[6] Another one of Hutchinson’s friends and followers, the midwife Jane Hawkins, had been denied membership by her local church and because of her behavior and mannerisms, was the subject of rumors suggesting she may have been associated with the devil. Indeed, by drawing comparisons between the language used to describe these women and that used when discussing public women today illuminates how absurd the media’s treatment of Clinton is today.

Anne_Hutchinson_on_Trial

As discussions of another potential presidential candidacy continue, the popular news media will no doubt continue to discuss Clinton’s every move. The nuances of the rhetoric aimed at women in the public eye during the 17th century and today may differ slightly, but overall it appears that not much has changed. When women past and present have chosen to speak their minds publicly, they have quite often been persecuted as mad, threatening, and even evil. While the historical examples discussed here only represent women from one area and period, surely there is something to be said about the fact that the criticisms used against them are still heard today.

[1] Joseph E. Uscinski and Lilly J. Goren, “What’s in a Name? Coverage of Senator Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Primary,” Political Research Quarterly, 64:4 (2011): 885.

[2] Uscinski and Goren, “What’s in a Name?” 892.

[3] A religious and political conflict in the Massachusets Bay Colony from 1636 to 1638, between the colony’s ministers and magistrates and those who believed in the teachings of Free Grace Theology.

[4] Anne G. Myles, “From Monster to Martyr: Re-Presenting Mary Dyer,” Early American Literature, 36:1 (2001): 8.

[5] Emery John Battis, Saints and sectaries; Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian controversy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 270.

[6] Myles, “From Monster to Martyr,” 3.

Spider Woman, the Contortionist?

By Kaitlyn Kohr

There is a trend in comic book art to make women look as sexy as possible: from their clothes, to their hair, to the very position of their bodies. The most famous of the poses women are contorted into is called (and pardon the language): the “tits and ass” pose. This form is exactly what it sounds like. The female body is twisted so that the breasts and butt are both on display for the viewer’s gaze. To achieve this stance and many other “sexy” poses, however, anyone with an understanding of how the human body is constructed will notice that comic book artists have deleted some key parts of the human anatomy, such as: spines, ribcages, internal organs, and hipbones.

If the problem with this transformation of the female body is unclear, allow me to explain. While these are superheroes and there is a certain amount of creativity that artists can take with their renderings, male superheroes are not intentionally drawn in this manner. Spider-Man, Superman, Iron Man, and Captain America are drawn, for the most part, anatomically correct. Unless it is a recent update that I have missed, Cat Woman, Storm, Wonder Woman, the Scarlet Witch, and other super-heroines do not have super-bendy spines and disappearing bones in their cache of superpowers. The only character that should be drawn in Exorcist-like poses is Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic, whose superpower allows him to stretch and contort his body. The distortion of women’s bodies feeds the unrealistic ideals that their bodies are held up to in western society, and is a major source of disenchantment for female fans (who make up the comic book industry’s largest growing consumers).

A recent and prime example of this distortion is present in the variant cover art for the upcoming new title Spider-Woman #1. When Marvel announced that in November of this year, they would be releasing a new solo comic for Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew), female comic fans were elated.[1] This comic emerges as a part of Marvel’s equality initiative (the same campaign that the new female Thor and black Captain America formed from) in an effort to be more inclusive toward their non-white, male, cisgender, heterosexual audiences. With Marvel being so keen to appeal to women, it confused many people when the variant cover art for the first issue was released and viewers saw this:

0clip_image001

In case it is not clear, in this image, Spider-Woman is meant to have just leapt onto the roof of a building, one leg hanging still over the ledge. Why is her butt in the air for this maneuver? Why is her suit digging into the crack of her butt? Why is her head tilted backwards at an impossibly acute angle? Well, according to the artist, that is just how the female body works.[2] Milo Manera, the artist in question, was an odd choice to begin with for a comic meant to appeal to feminists, as his usual work is drawing for erotic comics with male audiences. The image made women everywhere wonder what in the world Marvel was thinking when they allowed the image to be released. But do not fear. Women did not simply let the ridiculousness of this drawing go unnoticed. Instead, they got creative.

Among the litany of critiques that emerged on the cover art, which ranged from memes, tweets, and parodies, to a horrifying 3-D rendering of the pose; is a video by Alice Dranger, a gymnast.[3] Dranger and two other female gymnasts attempt to recreate Spider-Woman’s pose by leaping onto a faux-skyscraper ledge made of floor mats and freezing in the position they land in to see if women’s bodies do in fact work in the way that Manera draws. To no one’s surprise, not a single gymnast landed in Manera’s stance. If three adult, trained female athletes cannot replicate the pose, it seems highly unlikely that any woman, including a super-heroine could either.

Another response came from artist Karine Charlebois, who runs a tumblr blog, Less Tits N’ Ass, More Kickin’ Ass, and uses her artistic skills to transform women’s unrealistic poses in comic books into the anatomically possible.[4] Charlebois’ blog and other blogs like it are different from the “Hawkeye-Initiative,” which draws the superhero Hawkeye in the poses and outfits of super-heroines to note their absurdity, and has received backlash for mocking femininity.[5] Charlebois does not alter the women’s costumes (no matter how impractical they may be), and she keeps the poses as similar to the original as possible, only altering them so that they correctly reflect the flexibility of real human bodies. Her alterations show women can be drawn in ways that are anatomically correct, yet still display plenty of the breast and butt areas of which comics seem to be so fond. Her re-imagining of the Manera cover loses none of its eroticism, yet puts Spider-Woman in a stance that is physically possible:

0clip_image003

It seems that this bombardment of criticism may have made Marvel see the error of their ways. Manera was scheduled to do two upcoming variant art covers for X-Men and Thor (the new, female one). Yet, as of September 23rd, Manera has been conveniently removed as the artist for these covers due to scheduling errors.[6] The removal of his art from these future comics gives hope that female comic fans have the ability alter the superhero landscape one pose and cover critique at a time. Above all else, one thing stands to be glaringly true, women comic book fans refuse to be silent in both their passion for the genre, and their criticisms.

*Kaitlyn Kohr is a second year student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. After Sarah Lawrence, she plans to go to school for a Doctorate in Art History and one day work in an art museum. Her hobbies include becoming overly invested in the lives and treatment of female comic book characters, exploring museums, watching British television shows, and reading about representations of women.

[1] Lucas Siegel, “SDCC 2014: Women of MARVEL Panel New SPIDER-WOMAN Ongoing Announced, More,” Newsarama, July 27, 2014, http://www.newsarama.com/21730-sdcc-2014-women-of-marvel-panel-live.html.

[2] Jill Pantozi, “Spider-Woman Cover Artist Milo Manara & Writer Dennis Hopeless Respond To Online Discussion,” The Mary Sue, August 22, 2014, http://www.themarysue.com/manara-hopeless-respond-spider-woman-cover/.

[3] Alice Dranger, “Opposing Images: Women Attempt Spider Woman Cover Art” (video), accessed September 27, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7aQKFPJX4o.

[4] Kanthara (Karine Charlebois), “It’s a two-fer! Courtesy of…,” Less Tits N’ Ass, More Kickin’ Ass, August 20, 2014, accessed September 27, 2012, http://lesstitsnass.tumblr.com/post/95253962172/its-a-two-fer-courtesy-of-dcwomenkickingass#permalink-notes. Another great blog that is conducting similar work is Ami Angelwings’s tumblr: Escher Girls (eschergirls.tumblr.com).

[5] Chris Hall, “The Hawkeye Initiative Pokes Fun at Sexist Comics, but Is It Backfiring?,” SFWeekly, January 8, 2013, http://www.sfweekly.com/exhibitionist/2013/01/08/the-hawkeye-initiative-pokes-fun-at-sexist-comics-but-is-it-backfiring.

[6] Jill Pantozzi, Marvel’s Editor in Chief Says Missing Manara Variants Are Due to a “Scheduling Problem”,” The Mary Sue, September 24, 2014, http://www.themarysue.com/marvel-manara-variants-scheduling-problem/.