I really should have done this last week, but last week I received the Absolute Sandman Vol 1 and the hardcover Castle Waiting, and the thing about beautifully bound, wonderfully written volumes of comics with exquisite characterisation and splendidly realistic treatment of gender is that they tend to make one content, as well as suck up a lot of reverential page-turning time.
In short, last week I was mellow.
Then I turned the last page of Castle Waiting and sighed. “Why can’t all comics be as good as this?” I asked and poof! I was mad again.
But also, I was whimsical. It may have been the influence of the aforementioned works; it may have out of the genuine pursuit of knowledge; it almost certainly had something to do with putting off whatever I should have been doing at the time.
However it happened, I took it into my head to run the stats of Marvel women and men through a Body Mass Index calculator. Suitably aghast at the results, I reframed my methods and ventured to turn my procrastinatory efforts into a study entitled “Comparative Sex-Specific Body Mass Index in the Marvel Universe and the “Real” World.”
Thanks to the coding mojo of Betty, you can read that here.
I know fuck all about maths, but I do know some people who know a great deal about it, and Terry D. Johnson explained to me what normal distribution meant and made graphs. Terry is a real scientist – he wears a labcoat and points out the mistakes on CSI and everything. The Marvel universe isn’t real, but the numbers are.
Realism was, rather obviously, the least important motive for deciding what the physical stats of Marvel’s women should be.
Check it out – it is vaguely possible that one physically capable superheroine might have a smaller BMI than MJ Watson-Parker, supermodel/actress. That twenty percent of a random sample of Marvel women have a BMI lower than a working supermodel is bizarre. That four of those women are Kitty Pryde (ninja), Storm (extremely capable martial artist), Felicia Hardy (martial artist; acrobat) and Ms Marvel (punches starships) is beyond belief.
Ms Marvel, apparently, is an inch off six foot even, and weighs 124 pounds. Her bones must be hollow.
As a fan of superheroes, I’m clearly not all that attached to reality. I like reading about women who beat down gods and men who duel with demons and children who can create pocket universes. But these stats confirm what an observant reader could already tell you – there is a difference in the way women and men are portrayed, in the same unrealistic universe.
In most cases, the female BMI stats bear little resemblance to the women as depicted in the art. Unless she’s made of helium, a woman of Ms Marvel’s height with her (lavishly illustrated) breasts, hips and thighs does not weigh 124 pounds, and is not depicted with that weight. But the stats, like the art, point to that overpowering criterion for the representation of women in Marvel comics: Women have to be sexy.
And by Western standards sexy includes being tall and slim. In this case, sexy has been translated into absurd numbers for height and weight. Clearly, very little thought has gone into this, but the lack of thought is indicative both of the common cultural perception of what “attractive” weight is for a woman and the utter lack of realism in that perception.
Marvel men, let us note, do not escape the patriarchal realism-skew. Men, you understand, have to be strong. Captain America, canonically at the peak of human physical perfection, has a BMI of 28.31, which in real life, even for an athlete, would make his physician frown suggestively. Want to lay bets on the chances of any Marvel woman whose mutations don’t alter her body mass having a BMI anywhere close to this? Psylocke’s BMI is the most realistic of our sample – at 21.66.
To sum up:
Men: Strong. Women: Sexy.
Buy Castle Waiting. It has many women. Some of them are fat. Some of them are thin. Some of them are strong. Some of them are weak. Some of them have beards.
All of them are imaginary.
All of them seem real.