“The Superhero Body: body politics in Comics” - a lecture by Alexandra Enache at PAVILION center

Sunday November 17th 2013, 4:12 am
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On the 14th of November Alexandra Enache held a lecture at PAVILION center concerning gender positions and body politics in the discourse of the superhero comics.

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When we talk about the comic-book culture we need to take into consideration the fact that this product doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Comics are part of the media, promoting a similar type of message which uses and shapes concepts such as identity, race, gender, individualism and other problems of the current culture. According to the social cognitive theory, media messages serve as a meaningful source for the acquisition of “gender-linked knowledge and competencies” and the development of expectations of gender roles and conduct, self-evaluative standards, and self-efficacy beliefs. Thus, it is expected that the representation of the male and female characters in the media to influence attitudes and beliefs in viewers’ perceptions regarding gender identity.

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The superhero is a symbol of power and a cultural product. The symbolic dimension is shaped through the hyperphysical body. It is a physic Gestalt, a product of a series of beliefs and values that can be read in terms of a gender analysis. There are few symbols that can communicate in such an efficient manner as the pop cultural invention of the superhero, becoming as such one of the most capable visual vehicles of communication. The superhero body – design, costume, posture – is not only a symbol of the comic book as a commodity, but, as any other type of media message, it generates a set of implications in the way in which identities, attitudes and beliefs regarding gender are constructed. In this context we can talk about the notion of ‘hyper-gendering’ – a familiar narrative element in comics. The superhero body is submitted to this type of treatment that places it in a conventional category of gender norms. The male body internalizes cultural standards of masculinity, adapting cultural behaviours and attitudes of hyper-masculinity (independence, strength, invulnerability, sexual virility). Wolverine, Thor, Batman, Iron Man, Green Lantern are a few examples of these stereotypes of large, well-defined muscular bodies. Subsequently, Wonder Woman, Super Girl, Miss Marvel, Cat Woman, Black Widow and other female characters from the comics universe share an aesthetic typical of western beauty, with an impossibly slender yet voluptuous physique. Their superhero costume is generally tight, sleek and, most of the times, revealing. Their hyper-feminization in a world of male superheroes epitomises the idealisation of masculinity.

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The comic book industry and the superhero culture were traditionally a white, straight boys’ club. Only recently have they started to open up to a larger audience, to include and approach other categories of readers. After almost a century of comics culture we are assisting to a slow process of progressive body politics in comic books. In this line, the future lecture is meant as a debate over the situation of the superhero body in the terms of idealisation, objectification and sexualisation: why the design of the superhero matters outside the fictional universe of graphics and what type of gender messages does it generate?

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Alexandra Enache is a cultural manager. She received a Bachelor’s degree in cultural studies from The University of Bucharest with the paper “Social mentalities and realities at Fin de Siècle. Reflections over the gender identity crisis” and she holds an MA in History of Art and Philosophy of Culture. Presently she is assistant coordinator at PAVILION – center for contemporary art & culture and coordinator of Bucharest Biennale. She worked as editor of the series of conferences organised by the Bucharest National Theatre and collaborated in the domain of public relations with Cotroceni Museum. She is interested in gender studies and social movements and she is currently working on her first curatorial project, “100 Greek Minutes”. She lives and works in Bucharest.

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