She-Hulk Is Not a 'Giant Green Porn Star': How Female Superheroes Become a Male Power Fantasy
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For the most part, the major superhero properties at Marvel and DC Comics were created for guys by guys who were, to put it kindly, not especially enlightened when it came to gender issues. Early Superman comics featured images of naughty girls getting spanked (“I am doing it— and do I love it!” the spanker declares). Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Invisible Girl (because girls just kind of fade into the background, you know?). The first issue of X-Men shows Marvel Girl/Jean Grey being ogled and harassed by her X-peers while Professor X looks on benignly. Examples continue right on up to our own day, in which Starfire is an amnesiac sex-doll and Catwoman appears to be menaced by her own rear end.
“Man of Steel” screenwriter David S. Goyer recently managed to both explain and embody this tradition of superhero sexism in a Scriptnotes podcast interview. In a conversation about the character She-Hulk, the podcast host called her “Slut-Hulk,” and then Goyer launched into his own interpretation:
I have a theory about She-Hulk. Which was created by a man, right? And at the time in particular I think 95 percent of comic book readers were men and certainly almost all of the comic book writers were men. So the Hulk was this classic male power fantasy. It’s like, most of the people reading comic books were these people like me who were just these little kids getting the shit kicked out of them every day… And so then they created She-Hulk, right? Who was still smart… I think She-Hulk is the chick that you could fuck if you were Hulk, you know what I’m saying? … She-Hulk was the extension of the male power fantasy. So it’s like if I’m going to be this geek who becomes the Hulk then let’s create a giant green porn star that only the Hulk could fuck.
Goyer isn’t wrong, exactly; most estimates of superhero comics readership I’ve seen put the audience at around 90 percent male, and She-Hulk herself was certainly created by men (Stan Lee and John Buscema.) And the character is, and has always been, very sexualized. But it’s also hard to miss that, even as he describes a male power fantasy, Goyer is participating in it — referring to She-Hulk as a “chick,” speaking about her in sexually graphic terms, calling her a “porn star.” Goyer’s rant here isn’t just descriptive; it’s lascivious. He is saying: This character was made for guys to objectify, and that’s just what we’re going to do with her. He identifies the sexism in the character and simultaneously embraces it.
Stan Lee has pointed out that She-Hulk is Hulk’s cousin, not his lover. Alyssa Rosenberg argues for her part that “She-Hulk is not a male fantasy of how sexual liberation works, where women focus more on making men happy than on their own pleasure. Rather, she is an adventuress with a clear sense of her own gratification and joy.” There’s no doubt that She-Hulk can be used in a feminist way — but even in the Dan Slott version of She-Hulk that Rosenberg praises, there are issues. Osvaldo Oyola points to a sequence where Slott has a court literally slut-shame She-Hulk by reading out an extended list of all the people she’s ever slept with. As Oyola says, “It is this kind of stuff that undermines Slott’s work to establish her character as a formidable lawyer — not because we don’t see her solving cases and doing research, all the things trial lawyers do, but because her sexualization is always at the forefront no matter what else she is doing.”