Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 2)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Content note: this post contains a satirical drawing of hypersexualized women, and a picture depicting sexual harassment.

The Geek Feminism Wiki lists two common criticisms of strong female characters as being:

– she still has to conform to gender-normative standards of attractiveness

– she will wear skimpy or fetishistic gear to fight in, and her battles and acts of heroism will be presented to the audience as erotic spectacles.

There are also the Hark! A Vagrant comics about strong female characters one and two which satirize ‘strong female characters’, including how they are visually presented for erotic appeal.

This is from Hark! A Vagrant!. I think the ‘strong female character’ in the lower left needs to move further to the left so that the audience can see her butt (yes I am being snarky).

If you want to see what the Geek Feminism Wiki and the Hark! A Vagrant comics are critiquing, satirizing, I put in the internet search ‘female marvel characters’ and one of the first hits was this this of the 10 strongest Marvel female characters. I will let you judge the pictures of those strong Marvel female characters for yourself. And here is an explanation of why contorting bodies to show the butt is an issue.

I’ve established in Part 1 that the first criticism about conforming to gender-normative standards of attractiveness definitely applies to the stories of Jin Yong. To the second criticism, I would add that it’s not just female fighters – even (strong) female characters who do not engage in combat are a lot more likely to be visually presented for prettiness than male characters.

The second criticism mainly applies to visual media – whereas Jin Yong novels are prose, not directly visual. But all of his novels have illustrations. Let’s see if this criticism applies to the illustrations.

All of the characters in this picture, including the baby, are female. That baby is SO DAMN CUTE that every adult who meets her wants her to be their daughter, so martial artists – both male and female – keep on kidnapping her and fighting each other over custody. In fact, the two adult women in this picture are about to have a martial arts match over who gets to be the baby’s guardian.

In the above illustration, none of the female characters are drawn in a particularly sexually exploitive way. However, one of them is a baby (and it would be very disturbing if a baby were presented in an erotic way), and the other two are in their 30s, a demographic of women which is less likely to be presented erotically. Furthermore, this is not a fight scene. So let’s look at an illustration of a younger woman in a fight scene:

Here is ‘Iron Hand’ He, who has an iron hook on her left arm, in the middle of a fight scene.

So, here we have a young woman in a fight scene, and she is not being shown in a way which is sexier than her male opponent (well, we get a better view of her face and feet, but that’s mainly because we see her front and his back). In all of the illustrations I’ve seen of female characters in fight scenes published with Jin Yong’s novels, I do not recall any which depicts her in a way which is more erotic than the male characters.

Let us look at yet another illustration from a Jin Yong novel – an illustration depicting sexual harassment.

Zhao Min does not want Zhang Wuji to touch her foot.

Even in this illustration depicting sexual harassment, the female character is not drawn in a particularly sexual way. (To be clear, I am merely saying that the *drawing* depicting this scene is not problematic – the scene itself is very problematic).

There is still the questions of Jin Yong adaptations. Generally, I would say that they do not VISUALLY present female character in a sexier way than the male characters. There is a bit of a double standard in the comic book adaptations by Tony Wong, but even those are mild compared to what would find by browsing the display window of an American comic book shop.

First, let’s see an example from a Marvel blockbuster movie. I typed ‘black widow fight’ into Youtube, and then looked at the first hit which was less than five minutes long – it’s this one from Iron Man 2 (I wanted to pick the first clip under 5 minutes so that I would not cherrypick the example). On the one hand, it’s not that bad in terms of depicting Black Widow as an erotic figure. If I were not critically examining it, it probably not bother me (or at least, not bother me much in isolation – if I kept on seeing stuff like this over and over in movie after movie, there would probably have a cumulative effect). However, her dress emphasizes her breasts and ‘sex appeal’ in way which the male characters’ clothes do not emphasize their sex appeal (not to mention the first bit where we see her take off her shirt and her naked leg).

Here is a fight scene from a TV adaptation which does not just feature any female character, but a female character who is supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world. The fight scene, however, is not an erotic display. (I do have problems with how this TV adaptation handles this fight scene, but they have nothing to do with sexism). I do not recall seeing any fight scenes from any TV adaptations of Jin Yong’s work which are any more erotic than this. Oh, and if you’re curious, yes the fight scene from that TV show clip is also depicted in an illustration from the original novel – the illustration of that fight scene looks like this:

There is the most beautiful woman in the world fighting a whole bunch of guys in a monastery. Even though she ultimately does not ‘win’ the fight, the fact that she holds out so long while she is badly outnumbered is very impressive.

If one really wants to know what this fight is like in the novel, here it is (note: I only took a quick look to make sure it’s the right scene, since I haven’t really read it I cannot tell whether or not this is a good translation).

Even in this scene (which pushes the sexy visuals envelope past what one would usually see in a Jin Yong TV show), there is a good look at the male character’s bare skin too.

Does this means that Jin Yong is not sexist after all? HECK NO! I think the lack of visual eroticism has less to do with respect for women, and more to do with Sinophone cultures’ general reluctance to put erotic visuals in mainstream media. Even in Taiwan – which, unlike some Sinophone societies, does not have government censorship of popular media – if one wants to see people shown in a visually erotic way (like the “Strong Female Characters” picture above), one has to turn to a) American media, b) Japanese media or c) go to the porn section. In Sinophone media, unlike American and Japanese media, there is not a continuum of mainstream-to-porn (or porn bleeding into mainstream, which is another way to look at it) – if it’s not explicitly intended to be porn, then it’s not going to be visually eroticized too much.

(Now I’m going to shift away from Jin Yong to Huang Yi. Just to be clear, Huang Yi is NOT Jin Yong)

I will say that in the works of Huang Yi, there is a discernible visual double standard between the illustrations of male and female characters (to see what I’m talking about, look at this, this, and this. Furthermore Wan Wan in the Cantonese language adaptation of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan has the most skin-exposing outfits of any major female character of an wuxia TV show I’ve seen. However, the other female character in that show seem to have clothing which is no more revealing than the clothes of their male counterparts. No Princess Leia in a slave outfit here!

Black Widow vs. Wan Wan: who has the more sexually -objectifying-aimed-at-male-gaze outfit?

(One can compare the dress of the male and female characters in this video of the theme song of Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan, and yes, I like the theme song for the show quite a bit because it’s a very appropriate song for Kou Zhong, and it’s sung by the actor who plays Kou Zhong).

In short, Huang Yi is worse at this than Jin Yong, but Huang Yi is still mild compare to, say, Marvel Comics/Cinema.

There is something more going on here. Maybe you’ve noticed it already in all of these pictures and video clips. Namely, Jin Yong works (and even Huang Yi works) put relatively more emphasis on expressive parts of the female body, whereas Anglophone mainstream media puts relatively more emphasis on less expressive female body parts.

Here is a video which is just about the ‘beautiful women’ of just ONE Jin Yong TV adaptation, which then ranks six female characters from least to most beautiful. The fact that there is a lot more cataloguing of the beauty of Jin Yong’s female characters than the handsomeness of Jin Yong’s male characters says something. However, the body part which is most emphasized in catalogues is the FACE. In fact, we do not see much of the female characters’ other body parts.

If one goes back up to see the video showing Wan Wan, one also sees that it is mostly focused on her face. Even her dress – which shows a lot of skin for an wuxia outfit – is designed to emphasize her face, not her chest.

Yang Kang really likes Mu Nianci’s feet (this is from the 2008 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes).

In Sinophone cultures, generally when someone says a woman is beautiful, they mean that her face is beautiful. Besides the face, the parts of the body they are most likely to discuss are her hands and feet. One can see this in Jin Yong novels – for all that he emphasizes how beautiful his female characters are, he has very little to say about their breasts or butts.

Does it make a difference which body parts are emphasized for physical beauty? Yes, it does. Breasts and butts are not very expressive. One cannot learn much about how a person thinks or feels by looking at their breasts and butts. Thus, focusing on those areas ignores them as an agent. By contrast, faces give tons of information about a person’s feelings and state of mind. Hands can also be very expressive. Feet are not as expressive as hands, but more expressive than breasts and butts. Thus, when one is mostly looking at the face (and to lesser extent, hands and feet) it is much more apparent that these women are sentient beings and not mere pretty objects.

Even though I do not think wuxia’s restraint in displaying female characters in an erotic way, and the emphasis on the face/hands/feet vs. emphasis on breasts/butts/exposed skin comes from a greater respect of women, I welcome it nonetheless. This is not the main reason why I love wuxia, but for me, it is an extra reason to gravitate more towards wuxia than mainstream American geek pop media.

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