Gender and the Concept of Self

While reading the fantastic McCloud “Vocabulary of Comics” piece, I kept thinking about this TED talk and so I thought I would share it with you. McCloud talks about the concept of the self as something relatively abstract; more like a cartoon than a photograph, something that resides in the world of ideas rather than images. This is what leads me to think about Caroline Heldman’s comments on women and body monitoring. Her whole talk is not long and has a lot of interesting information about objectification, but if you just want a quick overview, the video embedded here is cued up to the part about body monitoring.


If you don’t feel like (or can’t ) watch the video right now, basically body monitoring is a heightened awareness your own body, and specifically its appearance. Anyone may engage in body monitoring now and then, but according to Heldman, men do it very little while women do it almost constantly–on average about every 30 seconds*. You may for a moment think about and envision the angle of your body in your chair, the way your hair is falling, your posture as you walk, your facial expression–always from an outside perspective. Heldman suggests that women conduct these small checks on their own appearance so frequently that it can consume a significant amount of their cognitive energy–not to suggest that women have impaired cognitive functioning of course, but rather to point out the serious damaging effects self-objectification.

In light of McCloud’s statements about identity, I have to wonder: do women that engage in frequent body monitoring have a more image-based sense of identity than most men? And if that’s true, even a little, how might that effect some of McCloud’s other points about the way people can more easily connect and identify with cartoon characters? Is that process more difficult for women?

I can’t help but think of the frequent debates over representations of women in comics and video games. While there is no doubt that they are on the whole pretty problematic, for a lot of the reasons Heldman discusses in her talk, there is another argument I’ve heard often from well-meaning guys who just don’t understand why diverse images of women as playable characters in video games are so important to women gamers. They say it really doesn’t matter much to them what their characters look like, so why do women care so much? This may simply be because they are speaking from a position of privilege where they have always had diverse and plentiful representations of people like themselves (especially if they are able-bodied and white), so an occasional aberration is no big deal for them. But maybe there’s something else happening here too. Maybe women actually do have a harder time identifying with a character that doesn’t resemble themselves (or at least a slightly idealized version) because their sense of identity is just generally more strongly tied to image and appearance. McCloud talks about the ability of a person to more easily inhabit a simpler figure, because it is closer to our abstract conception of ourselves. But what if that isn’t true for everyone? What are the implications?

Obviously I’m shooting off a lot of questions here, so please let me know what you all think!


*DISCLAIMER: Of course none of this is meant to suggest that ALL women are constantly body monitoring or that men never do, but rather that they are general trends that occur as a response to socialization and cultural ideals.

4 thoughts on “Gender and the Concept of Self

  1. Wow, that TED talk is amazing and these are some really challenging questions. I get what you are saying here, I think. If McCloud is saying (as a man, which may or may not be relevant in this situation) that the human tendency is to gravitate towards more universal cartoon representations so that we can make them extensions of our own identity, maybe women who body monitor are limited in that capacity. If women who body monitor are profoundly and poignantly aware of their body and appearance at all times, it would seem to make sense that they would have a difficult time accepting generic cartoons as an extension of themselves. They are too in tune with their physical appearance to be able to forget it on some level and inhabit a body that looks different.

    I’m thinking about this as I write, but, as a mild counterpoint, McCloud extends this human tendency to extend our identities into nonhuman entities as well. He gives examples of driving a car or talking on a phone or wearing glasses. All of those things, according to McCloud, we inhabit with our identities, making them conceptual extensions of ourselves. So it seems like McCloud is suggesting that the conceptual identity extension isn’t necessarily always dependent on human likeness; it’s more something that, in a moment or activity, acts or can be seen as an extension of ourselves.

    But, if we are talking about cartoons, then the only way that cartoon would act as an extension of the reader is if the reader can picture herself or himself as the cartoon sufficiently to extend her conceptual identity into the cartoon. According to McCloud, making the cartoon generalized makes this extension possible for more people. But, for someone who is acutely aware of their body, this might not be possible, bringing me back around to completely agreeing with you.

    One last essentially disconnected thought that supports your idea, Kate. This may be somewhat personal, but the totally universal character, to me, is male. Look on restroom doors. The generalized character is male. We have to specify to make it female. Give it long hair or a dress. If you are looking at a totally blank and universal stick figure in something like an xkcd comic, that stick figure is male unless otherwise specified with a ponytail or eyelashes. So, not only would women who body monitor have difficulty seeing themselves in a generalized body, women in general would have that additional layer of difficulty if they saw the generalized body as fundamentally male.


    This is one video in an amazing series called Tropes vs Women in Video Games by Anita Sarkeesian. This installment is about the Ms. Male phenomenon, exactly the thing you’re talking about with the universal male and the need to code a character with symbols/icons so they will read as female. I’m linking to the page on her site and not just the video because it’s a nice setup, especially where accessibility is concerned. The video is embedded, but she also provides a full text transcript and a list of sources with links. I’ll probably have more to say about it later, but we’re in class right now!

  3. This just makes me think so much about the struggles I’ve had (and still have) in terms of body monitoring/ objectification (by myself towards myself and from others). I have always felt in terms of cartoon/comic characters that I could NEVER identify with any of them because I wasn’t super thin with an uncomfortably large bust and butt. And I thought I was defective because of this. I developed an eating disorder; I tried to hide myself more and more so people couldn’t judge me. It was just awful. Although I still struggle with body acceptance, I’ve since realized that society is crap, not me. What upsets me even more, and I’m sure women readers can relate, is how belittled I am as a woman. My voice is never respected as much as a man’s. Here’s an example: I’m doing amazing work right now in my program and I have an awesome job where I make a real impact, but recently my partner (male) graduated and got a full-time job about 3 hours from where I live. The only question people ask me since is when I’m going to move out there to be with him….because you know, clearly as a woman I have nothing better to do than follow him around like a lost puppy dog, and forget the idea of him following me for my career! I also always get asked (when I tell people I want to get a PhD one day) when I will have time to have children… do you think my partner’s brother who has similar goals gets asked this? NOPE. And then people tell me that sexism isn’t real, that society views men and woman the same… yeah, right. Okay… I am going to stop now before I get REALLY preachy (too late haha).

    • I totally agree Anne, one of the worst things about objectification by society is the way it leads us to self-objectify and do things to hurt ourselves because we think we have to meet some meaningless and arbitrary standard. It’s too easy to become our own worst enemies when we see messages in media CONSTANTLY reminding us that our value is based almost exclusively on how we look and how others (especially men) perceive us. One of the things that has been a challenge for me, and I wonder if you feel this way too as someone who writes a beauty blog, is coming to terms with the fact that sometimes I WANT to dress up, look cute, or be really feminine–but being able to separate doing those things for your own reasons from doing them for society’s reasons. Once you’re aware of society’s influence, it’s really tempting to just push back and do the opposite, but I think in the end you have to try to figure out what you really want, and maybe it corresponds to social expectations and maybe it doesn’t, but you have to try to choose it freely for yourself. Which is actually super hard! It’s just an ongoing process, trying to figure out the best way to be yourself and be happy in the world.

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