I recently read an article on 13th Dimension by Christy Blanch about the now cancelled alternate cover art by J. Scott Campbell for Riri Williams’ debut issue of Invincible Iron Man. In the article, Blanch argues that the value of the art, for arts sake, trumps the implications of the art, which in this case depicts a fifteen year old girl wearing uber-low skin tight jeans with her hip cocked out and her mid-drift showing. The conclusion of Blanch’s argument is that there are, ultimately, more important things to discuss, and that art should be appreciated by those who like it and ignored by those who don’t. And while I can certainly agree with this position in its simplest form, after this years election there are certainly other things I should be thinking about than a fairly innocuous depiction of a young girl, I have a hard time agreeing with Blanch’s opinion that critics should just disregard something that they disagree with; especially when said topic carries social weight.
In this case, the issue is the representation of women in popular culture. And, while many may find this topic exhausted, and exhausting, it is necessary to consider what it says about our culture when we collectively turn our noses at the topic of representation. We assume that the problem is fixed. Equality at last. But, I would argue that we are far from this goal. We are still struggling to even adequately represent women in a way that is realistic and natural. And the way that Riri Williams is depicted in this alternate cover effectively demonstrates this point.
As a litmus test, do a quick search for images of young Peter Parker: try Miles Morales or Peter Parker from the current Spidey! series. My bet, you won’t find any cover art that matches the depiction of Riri. I doubt you’ll see a full body spread with Miles or Peter showing their goods on the front page. That is the reality I find hard to justify. If we are talking about representation, and we want to posit that the image isn’t sexist and/or sexualized, that it doesn’t offer up a 15 year old girl as sexual fodder for the audience, then why doesn’t the same imagery exist for her male counter-parts, especially those within the same age bracket? Could you imagine the backlash if Marvel put out a cover for one of their books with a young male hero showing off some skin?
Now, this isn’t to say that art can’t be sexy. As Blanch asserts in her article, there should be nothing wrong with artists depicting their characters as attractive and beautiful. I mean, that is essentially status quo for comic art at this point, so to suggest that Campbell is any more at fault than the others would be unjust. But, when the focus of said art is a minor, and the goal of the image is to present this minor in a way that both sexualizes her for an audience (of primarily adult men), and takes away from the complexity of the character (she is a super genius taking the mantle of Iron Man, not posing for Victoria Secret Jr.) than the beauty and attractiveness doesn’t seem so vital, and arguably unwarranted.
And, while this may lead one to reply that imposing some kind of standard for appearance on the character symbolizes a form of body shaming, I urge that person to consider the commentary being made. While Blanch posits that criticizing Riri’s appearance amounts to shaming her for how she looks, I find this argument misguided, as the commentary does not center on Riri and what she wants to wear. Riri, as a product of the creators’ minds does not have the luxury of deciding for herself what she would wear. Instead, the artist and writer make that decision (both male). Which means that they are responsible, in a meta sense, for ensuring that the character is more than a cocked hip and a bare midriff. So, the criticism is not aimed at Riri and her choices, but on the male artist who believes that a 15 year old girl should look this way.
But, what is perhaps most concerning about a support of cheesecake art, and specifically the depiction of Riri, is the notion that if one doesn’t like the image then one should simply look away. This is a dangerous ultimatum, as the implied ramifications are that people who do not agree with something are at fault and should simply leave those who like it alone. In some circumstances, sure. This could be the protocol. But, this is precipitous ground to stand on; and defined logic needs to be laid out in order to avoid calamity. What about imagery that depicts minority groups in unfavorable light? Should we allow offensive stereotypes on the covers of major magazines because some find it okay? Where is the line drawn? If the answer to any criticism is simply to diffuse it by viewing it as unjust, the power of conversation is shut down. I would argue that this rationale erases the line of acceptability without a lot of justification for why it should be so. What this response promotes is cultural apathy over accountability.
This same reasoning can be applied to the conceit that to criticize the artist is tantamount to censoring the artist, or as it’s explained in Blanch’s piece, all art. While in this case the image was pulled as the alternate cover, and thus the artist was not given the opportunity to monetize the piece, the art itself was not actually censored. It exists, and can be viewed at one’s convenience. Furthermore, the claim that this type of intervention is inherently unfair leaves the defense open to be used for any form of artistic expression, regardless of the offensiveness or questionable nature of the art.
And while Blanch believes that this type of criticism is only a diversion from more important issues, a growing opinion among both commentators and audiences, to assert that this topic is trite or worn-thin is to claim that we are passed the point of needing to address the issue. However, if recent events are any indication, the problem of equality both in terms of respect and representation is far from solved. We continue to struggle, as a culture, with the reality that women are more than objects to be ogled or ignored. The image of Riri, and Blanch’s argument in support of the art, asks us to do both: first to take pleasure in the depiction, and then to put aside the humanness of the character, in favor of a vapid form of art known as cheesecake.
By doing this, we have not revolutionized anything; we have only reaffirmed the narrative of prejudice, stifling discourse; which, I would argue, resonates all the way up to even the highest social dialogues we have. Look no further than a few months ago, during the Presidential election.
Now, this does not mean that I reject the notion that people can have varying opinions of beauty. It should be clear that there is a huge difference between an individual’s preference of beauty, and one’s objection to a troubling depiction of an objectified group of people. It is unwise to allow the notion that criticism of an image based on opinions rooted in valid cultural criticism is on par with personal shaming or social ostracizing; it’s not. By denying the validity and importance of such criticism, we open the door for other groups to use it for more nefarious reasons. And that is something that we just cannot allow.