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.