By far, the most well-read blog post that I have written here discussed the issue of superhero- and more specifically, MALE superhero private parts.
If you haven’t read that entry, and would like to, go ahead. Follow the link above. I’ll wait.
Ok. That post was a meditation, and consideration of the way in which comics, movies, and then, inevitably cosplayers, promote the idea that muscles and violence are for men and sexualized body parts are for women.
While female superheroes, and therefore female superhero costumers and cosplayers have to work to enhance their cleavage and make their boobs look bigger, it is a clear and both written and unwritten rule that male superheroes in film and in cosplay have to work hard to make their genitalia not just smaller, but invisible.
That original post speculated about the origins of this differentiation in costuming.
I’ve continued to think about both sides of this equation, especially in light of both the new, and massively successful Wonder Woman (and James Cameron’s) comments on it, but also in light of some great panels I went to at a conference on gender and media called “Console-ing Passions.”
The Wonder Woman discussion merits its own post about women, beauty and power, so I’ll focus here on the men, with similar musings on appearance, beauty and power.
At that conference I heard a lot of great research and work being done on gender and representation, especially of superheroes. (I went to panels on everything from Orphan Black to Batman). I love my research.
One panel was devoted to the way in which media entities interact with fans in the production and advertising of films. The paper focused on both Batman vs Superman and the latest (2017) Spiderman reboot.
As the presenter was demonstrating the way in which much promotion surrounded the development and the technical specifications of Batman’s armor, I couldn’t help noticing the difference in the current armor from earlier iterations of the suit. Specifically, in the codpiece.
As you can see here, the armor from Dawn of Justice has the kind of enhancement of the genital area that you see in medieval armor-
This is the kind of gear that is clearly designed to draw attention to and enhance the image of a man’s penis (and suggest great size). That, to be honest, is what I was expecting when I first started thinking about superheroes, men and power. As I observed in the last post, if male genitalia is the most masculine of body parts, and superheroes are designed to be uber-masculine and super-male, why would you hide it?
A discussion at the aforementioned Console-ing Passions offered some insight and led me down a different path of theorizing. In a body suit, such as that of earlier Batman, or Spiderman, the suit is understood as soft.
In a costume such as the 2002 Toby McGuire Spidey-suit, there is a notable effort to diminish the VPL (visible penis line) and de-emphasize that area of his body. It is also clear that the suit is not armored, but rather a form-fitting body suit (that in many origin stories we see the hero sewing himself, clearly with no armor):
And this may be the key: protection. While the penis and scrotum is of course the most masculine of body parts, it is also, obviously, the most vulnerable. Making these body parts visible in a costume that is clearly not designed to protect them does not communicate power, it communicates vulnerability.
And when it comes to appearance, as the brilliant Erynn Masi de Casanova observes in her study of men’s clothing and masculinity , men’s aspirational appearance is about power: looking invincible, capable and ready for anything. Spidey can only carry that off if the (presumably male) viewer doesn’t have to worry about the vulnerability of his crotch.
The armor of the Batman suit above, however, can safely boast both about the size of Batman’s penis, but also the invincibility and invulnerability of it.
Which brings me back to the idea, discussed in the previous post, about how a VPL is “inappropriate.” One sees this in many cosplay forums, much discussion about how “no one wants to see that” or “PLEASE tuck and tape for decency’s sake”. I originally thought this was some sort of sexual prudery: the idea that it was inappropriate for either women to see, and therefore think about men’s penises, or for men (who were possibly, GASP, homosexuals) to do the same. Clearly, the desire to hide genitalia comes from social squeamishness.
However, I now wonder if the “inappropriate” nature of the VPL isn’t about sexual prudery (or at least not completely) but more about how it’s inappropriate for a superhero to show that kind of physical vulnerability.
While we may be ok with Batman (or certainly Deadpool) showing some psychological damage, they must continue to be relentlessly invincible in their physical selves. And so I leave you with this last image, which I think sums up this particular theory of superhero genitalia: It’s an add for the Chris Pratt Deadpool movie that is a very focused crotch-shot, and that even makes a not-so-subtle sexual reference to sexual potency.
Note, however, that while again, there is not an emphasis in the suit on Deadpool’s penis itself (obviously tucked and taped), he’s holding not just armor, but an actual weapon over that area as a phallic symbol of violence, power and strength. The gun stands in, armored, weaponized and ready, as an invincible VPL.