AIComicFeminismIllustrationVisual Art

AI: Pondering Pandering

There has been a lot of talk about the hyper-sexual representation of women in nerd media. We see, again and again, Blogs and tumblr feeds showing us just how utterly ridiculous the state of female representation is.

We have already had discussions about how this sort of pandering is problematic and there are those doing good work on more reasonable attire and realistic representations of the ladies.

Sometimes, though, we really do want sexy – I’ve not heard many people trying to end all sexual pandering in comics and video games – A lot of the complaints are about the inequity, that it’s all sexy ladies and brutish men. So, one might expect we could make things more fair and keep some of our sex appeal if we can just sexy up the dudes a bit. The problem is, I’m not sure that we know how.

Somewhat NSFW links and images included after the break.

If you are either brave or foolhardy enough to scroll to the bottom of the internet, you are likely to find a panoply of commenters telling us that men are just as sexualized in comics as women. The big bulging muscles, the skin-tight spandex, that’s totally man-sexy… right? I honestly thought it was, before I asked an actual female of the species. It seems that most of the men in comics and games are not actually physically attractive. This was news to me more recently that I’d like to admit.

I also asked what is attractive, and the answers have been vague and inconsistent. There is practically a mathematical formula for creating titillating female characters, but no such thing seems to exist for males. I thought that maybe tastes were just so diverse that it wasn’t possible, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Men’s tastes in women vary wildly, but still we know how to pander to them. We have a pattern for every race, age, and body type. I’ve started to think that the lack of a formula is partly from lack of practice. We’ve been pandering for hetero men for centuries, but there hasn’t been the same opportunity on the opposite side.

I tried to do some research, but it turned out to be damned near impossible to sort it out online without just finding parodies or pornography, neither of which I’m convinced are actually visually attractive.

Here’s the problem, then. What is man sexy? If one wishes to pander equitably to fanciers of both sexes, how do you do it? Shortpacked offers one opinion: False Equivalence

But how universal is that? Would that representation of the dark knight cause the hearts of young women to beat a little faster when spied through the comic store window?

How about something to match the double-sided tape enthusiasts like Starfire?

John Steward Green Lantern

Is that pandering to a female audience? My gut says “probably not”, but I honestly don’t know.

What about this reimagining of the Disney princes? I am not able to judge whether it’s parody or soft pornography. Is that sexy or silly?

It comes down to this, we’re so acclimatized to the way things are, that everyone knows the formula for drawing a sexy lady, but a lot of us are stumbling in the dark when it comes to the male equivalent. We have lots of examples of what not to do, but not a lot of positive reinforcement around.

How do you visually pander to a female comic book audience? Are there rules and guidelines? Are there any good examples? In comics? In gaming? In cartoons? Should we even be trying?


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. Boy, so many layers of complication to this question!

    First, what women, even the limiting category of cis-hetero-women find sexually attractive, purely physically speaking, can include an almost infinite number of features. Partially because women are socially conditioned, by and large, to not be “shallow” and go for appearances, but instead to be attracted to personalities and intellectual traits. I think a good example of a character who is often seen as “pandering” to women is Gambit. And if you ask women what is so hot about Gambit his appearance will probably not be at the top of the list.(although I do note that he is not drawn as a beefy, muscular guy). So, if you want to pander to womens’ sexual tastes more, then write more interesting characters, rather than draw them. I like the Batman comic, and I think it touches on something true. I also assume “dexterity” is a code word for “probably good with his hands” 😉

    And then there’s the fact that impossible boobs and postures are only “pandering” to men because our culture tells men over and over from birth that this is all men want, unless they are queer! (look at the way, for men, “she’s got a great personality” is stereotypically the meanest thing you can say about a woman) Maybe if we made a world where women were written and drawn to be complete human beings of all possible (and impossible) shapes and sizes, men would start to see what panders to them differently as well? I don’t know, but I don’t think we can remove this kind of cultural white noise from consideration when talking about what men and women “naturally” like.

    Aaaaaaand (I’ll stop typing soon, I promise), a lot of these pictures included in the article seem more like they are made to appeal to gay men, rather than straight women. Still a product of the male gaze, just redirected. Although I am uncomfortably surprised about how sexy I found that Aladdin, so maybe I am wrong about that.

    Sorry for the wall of text!

  2. I tried looking up the percentage of comic readers who are women, but I couldn’t find anything concrete. I did come across this website that sited a survey that said 93% of the “New 52” comic readers were male: . Of course, that was only with that one comic and not overall.

    I am just wondering if the readership is male dominated. If so, maybe the comic book creators don’t want to change for fear they might lose some of their current readership and not gain enough new readers to make up for it. Just a thought…

  3. The readership is, and always has been, male dominated. Alienating your audience is a bad idea, but it would seem that there is a sizeable market of roughly half the population that North American comics have either failed or refused to appeal to.

    I know for a fact that this isn’t a necessary division of the sexes, because in Japan the Female comic market is just as big, if not bigger, than the male one. And both are massive.

  4. You know, Ryan makes a decent point. A fairly consistent male type that a number of the female fans among my friends enjoy is the bishounen. This is a pretty boy type, so of course not everyone will go for it, but there is some diversity of taste and that seems to be at least one form reliable enough to be a go-to for anime and manga.

    As for the Batman example, I suspect a survey among female readers would find Bruce Wayne in a tux sexier than Batman in full cape. For more cheesecake… dunno, let’s hear some more.

  5. I have a wild notion. Want more comic book art where males are drawn to appeal to women? Get more female artists drawing comic books. You will see it!

    (And maybe they’ll actually know what women’s bodies look like, to boot.)

  6. Ryan mentions Japanese comics, and that’s one place you should look if you want to see what a formula for visually pandering to women looks like. There tends to be a lot of focus on the faces of the guys, sometimes as much as or even more than on the rest of their bodies. But that doesn’t mean bodies go neglected! There are also entire sections of bookstores filled with illustrated novels and comics of hardcore guy-on-guy action aimed at women.

    Other places to look for established patterns of “man-sexy” are romance novel covers and how boy bands are marketed. Oh yeah, and I’d like to point out that parody and soft porn are not mutually exclusive categories. Nor are silly and sexy. Parody can be a cover for presenting sexiness in a culture that refuses or is hesitant to treat women’s sexual desires seriously.

  7. Should even be trying is a good question. A really good question. So good a question that I, being a cis, hetero male won’t even attempt an answer.

    What say the women of the world?

    I also wonder if slash fiction could tell us anything useful about this? It seems to me that it’s a genre that’s all about sexualised pandering.

    My purely anecdotal experience of it has all come from women referencing their favourite stories. That might be a confirmation bias on my part though, and a quick search tells me nothing of the gender breakdown of the slash readership.

    Very interesting question, thanks Ryan.

  8. @Micheal, one of the things that started me wondering down this path is meeting and talking to female artists that are skilled at making sexy women, as if following a recipe, but couldn’t consistently make sexy men that they were happy with.

  9. Yep, Elfquest was drawn by a woman, Wendy Pini. Also, Donna Barr draws guys that I personally think are hot. Any other favorites?

  10. I recently read A Billion Wicked Thoughts (which I found through this @google talk and found it a really interesting survey of what humans find attractive. There are a lot of vocal critics of this book online, but as a cis, hetro female I found it jived unnervingly well with my personal experience. In the book they break down what women find sexy about romance novels. It is probably the closest thing you will find to a formula.

    For me I find that in general for me a guy’s looks are not nearly as important as his personality. This is true even when I’m thinking only lusty thoughts and not considering the relationship angle. Often I will start to find a guy visually attractive only after I’ve observed his personality (maybe I should say “the way he carries himself”). This is a purely subconscious process, but now that I know to look for it I’m noticing the results more and more. Looks certainly matter, but they aren’t the deciding factor. For example Tom Cruise is objectively good looking but his personality made me go back and add “objectively” to this sentence because he doesn’t look good he looks creepy.

    I think it would be hard to just plunk a guy down and have a lot of women find him attractive without any context. I know that that approach does not work for me.

  11. Thanks, Machette, that talk was really interesting. As with pretty much all psychology, I squint skeptically when he tries to explain why things are, but most of it was just going over trends in data, all of which were very interesting.

  12. @A. Noyd: Funny thing, I can’t count the number of times the females of my family have complained about romance novel covers being “what men think women want in a man” instead of what “women” (or at least, said women of my family) actually want. Of course, there are multiple genres of romance-novel-cover style, so it’s not that simple to say. Mom and sister detest the “Fabio” style male model, but he seemed to sell a lot of books!

    @Ryan: In perusing fantasy art websites like Elfwood (I’m a fan), I often find that the “sexy women” pictures I like best have female artists. I’m not sure where the difference lies. I tend to think they seem to have more personality than the typical male-drawn sexy woman pictures, the subject of the picture is trying to entice me, versus just being a doll shoved in a picture trying to look generically sexy. There are, of course, many exceptions and it’s possible that this is all perception bias on my part, but there you go. I think there are too much formula in attempts to make attractive women and not enough individuality.

    (Not to give the impression that all the art I’m looking for is sexy women. It’s just that pictures of dragons attacking castles and whatnot isn’t relevant to the topic at hand. : – )

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