Thursday, April 24, 2014

Boobs (Even Badly Drawn Ones) Sell

So the Anti-boob Brigade is tossing around the idea that you can sell more copies of (in this case) a comic book if you don't slap a woman with an unrealistic rack front-and-center on the cover. In addition to complaining about the artist including stray sheets of paper and a paper airplane (because, yeah, you never see those at a school), Janelle Asselin is quite annoyed by Wonder Girl's giganto boobs.

Now, if you want to argue about the shape being unrealistic, and her choice of a strapless top to try to hold them in place being insane, or even the sexualization of a teen (how old is she supposed to be these days?) being more than a little creepy, sure, I'm right there with you.

But don't try to tell us that this is going to drive away female readers. Not without some real numbers or market research to back you up. Why?

Because Cosmo has no trouble selling badly photo-shopped cleavage to women, consistently, month after month. The relaunched Teen Titans sold 26,000 copies in March. Over the past six months of 2013, Cosmopolitan sold, on average, over 500,000 copies each month.

People like Janelle Asselin have no idea what readers actually want. They have very firm opinions about what female readers ought to want, what sorts of covers would be “good for them.” But these busy-bodies have no idea what actually drives sales.

Listen to these sorts of people as they speak on panels at conventions, and you'll hear them trash-talk Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. They'll tell you to avoid the “masturbatory fantasies” and rape and helpless female characters.

And while they do that, the romance genre of books will continue to outsell all the other genres of fiction novels COMBINED!

And hey, I can absolutely sympathize with (some) of the desires these people have for genre fiction. As a character, I find Bella annoying and far too passive to really enjoy reading about. But I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that writing a character like her will drive women away from your books. Nor will I tell you that having a half-fainted woman spilling out of her bodice with insane zero-g breasts on the cover of your novel will prevent women from reading it. Because, unlike Janelle Asselin and her ilk, I don't think you're stupid.

Like, seriously, is she a halfling?  And what's going on with her legs?!?


Telecanter said...

I hesitated for a long time before deciding to respond to your post. But I think you are smart and I've valued your posts in the past and this one really disappointed me.

You haven't really convinced me that comic book covers depicting teens without big, fake breasts wouldn't sell more than these, by opening up the market to more women. But that's kind of beside the point.

Even if it were true, I would find it sad. To me it is just an example of America's old, Protestant view of sex. Unhealthy, repressed. I mean, critiques like Asselin's are always framed as prudes trying to prevent the rest of us from experiencing sexy pleasure, but that is based on the assumption that no one finds women depicted without exaggerated proportions and fake breasts sexy. Don't you find that sad?

If a young female has to have surgery to look more like what society wants to buy, isn't that tragic?

trollsmyth said...

Telecanter: right back atcha, sir. And thank you very much for taking the time to respond.

If I haven't convinced you that big, fake breasts sell better (and I can see where I haven't; post hoc propter hoc and all that), have I at least convinced you that big, fake breasts don't sell worse? That their inclusion isn't a thing that drives away female shoppers?

If the argument had been, "this is creepy" I'd have not disagreed. If the argument was, "this is offensive" I would have disagreed but probably not posted about it. But this is opinion (without a single shred of data) masquerading as market research.

I mean, critiques like Asselin's are always framed as prudes trying to prevent the rest of us from experiencing sexy pleasure, but that is based on the assumption that no one finds women depicted without exaggerated proportions and fake breasts sexy.

Clearly, that's not the case or strip clubs and topless bars would have gone out of business with the rise of the intrawebs. I think you could make the argument that exaggerated bodies are sexier though in this case I think it's more of an attempt to pop past the competition it'll be sitting next to on the shelf. The end result of this sort of "boobs race" would probably bare some resemblance to the Venus of Willendorf if the market didn't keep pulling us back from the excesses of artists like Joe Madureira.

Assuming you are correct, though, I'm not sure I see the point. The world is full of things that are sad but true: the necessity of taxes, for instance, or that there's no such thing as the perfect political candidate. Something could be absolutely horrific and absolutely true at the same time.

For myself, I'd be far happier with more realistic proportions on the figures. I'd also be happier if Raven was a much darker character and struggling with addiction to black lotus, but all of that is my opinion. If we're going to argue that the goal is the widest possible distribution, my lone opinions aren't worth squat until collected as part of a scientifically run market research survey. Opinions are nice and all, but what are the facts and to how many decimal places?

Anonymous said...

"If a young female has to have surgery to look more like what society wants to buy, isn't that tragic?"

by society you mean other women? since the two counter-arguments are things not purchased by men.

an opinion: if I saw the three covers shown in the blog, I would think that women like pretty girls, that have exaggerated hard to obtain bodies and like men with big muscles in dominate position, while men (comics are the only thing that most guys would purchase in this list) like women who have muscles, can kick ass, and have hard to obtain bodies. Is it sad that women (as a society) prefer submissive sexual idols over dominate athletic sexual warriors? yep, but the market shows that women prefer this. If they didn't sales would show a dramatic decrease. I guess we should show wonder girl as helpless to the buff guy in just a swimsuit instead of a body suit and maybe sales will double.

instantapathy said...

Just as a bit of devil's advocate, you have to consider target audiences. Romance novel covers work because they are targeted at people who read them... the same with Cosmo. Comics readers may or may not fall into those categories...
I've seen enough conflicting anecdotal evidence to say the issue is murkey. I will say I find the unnecessary over sexualization... tiring. But as far as comics go, that doesn't really effect my purchases.

trollsmyth said...

Instantapathy: Yep, I'll absolutely agree on the "murky" thing. And industry insiders have displayed enough confusing and clueless behavior that I no longer trust the conventional wisdom. If you're going to quote market forces, give me some good, hard, crunchy data on which way those forces are pushing.

anonymous: Alas, Namor belongs to the Marvel universe. ;)

jdh417 said...

The comics media (not the publishers, but the people who comment on comics) are continually in an uproar that comic books and comic book movies are too white, too male, and too hetero. Anything that blatantly or even subtextually hits on these points gets hammered.

Telecanter said...

"have I at least convinced you that big, fake breasts don't sell worse? That their inclusion isn't a thing that drives away female shoppers?"

The point I was trying to make is that this is irrelevant to Asselin's right to criticize these kinds of goofy depictions.

And anyway, there are a lot of markets for bad things, but I would hate to see all the rhinos extincted just because people want to buy some trinkets. What people are buying is never a good indication of value or virtue, I'm sure you've heard of Radium water and Minstrel shows.

"Assuming you are correct, though, I'm not sure I see the point. The world is full of things that are sad but true"

There are a lot harder problems in the world than asking people in a target demographic to stop and wonder why they only ever depict women as some hyper Venus of Willendorfs-- thick-hipped and ready for breeding. I think this problem can be solved. Is that such an outrage?

Anonymous said...

Didn't we go through all this with:

Jazz in the 20s
Rock in the 50s
Comics in the 50s
D&D in the 70s
Rock (again) in the 80s
And now video games.

It never ends. There is always somebody trying to control what everyone else watches, reads, and listens to.

Alexander Osias said...

Hey! That's Heart Evangelista on the Cosmo magazine!

Does the Philippine version get all the way to Austin, Texas?

Wolvercote said...

Guilty as charged. I've picked up my fair share of Power Girl comics here and there simply due to the cover image. Sorry if you feel that makes me a bad person. Actually, I'm not sorry at all. Welcome to reality.

trollsmyth said...

Telecanter: The point I was trying to make is that this is irrelevant to Asselin's right to criticize these kinds of goofy depictions.

Again, I don't question her right to criticize. I question the accuracy of her unsupported claim that such depictions drive away female readers. Thus, I provide examples of businesses that successfully attract female readers using the sorts of images she claims would repulse such readers.

It's hardly an iron-clad argument, but in the absence of scientifically gathered market research, it's stronger than hers.

Now, if you want to argue the morality of creating such art, we can certainly do that. Or, perhaps, the validity of the message of the art itself, though that invites an all-around-Robin-Hood's-barn argument about what those messages are.

Alexander Osias: that's a cover of Cosmo that came up when I googled for the March 2014 cover. No idea if she was on the cover at the grocery stores around here. While Cosmopolitan may appeal to lots of women readers, it's not cup of tea. Still, if she's the sort of thing you see frequently in Philippine grocery stores, I think I'm horribly jealous.

alzrius said...

I think that you've made a good point here, regarding the issue of big-boobed females on covers helping, or at least not hurting, sales (at least for comics, some magazines, etc.).

That said, I think that there's a wider issue here, potentially several, regarding the intersection of ethics and economics.

I interpret Asselin's article as a veiled accusation that this cover sexist, and that this is not only harmful for all the standard reasons that sexism is bad, but that it's also harmful to the comic's own economic prospects, in that it's alienating the demographic who watched the animated Teen Titans show.

With regard to these points, I disagree with her. For one thing, I personally believe that sexism, like all forms of measuring moral impact, is held with regard to actions people take towards other people - creating art (in any medium) is not and should not be held to the same standard. Writing a story or drawing a picture does not need to be held to the same measures of social justice that we'd use when evaluating how we'd interact with another person.

Yes, Wonder Girl in that picture has unrealistically large breasts that look like they're about to pop out. On a teenager. So what? Sexy images, even when part of a commercial enterprise, are part-and-parcel of artwork, and how "appropriate" they are in a given venue is for the artist and publisher to decide; everyone can choose whether or not to patronize the material.

(There is, I admit, an argument to me made that what we see in our environment can influence young people - and the mentally incompetent - to some degree. The answer for this is not to try and remove such materials from society altogether, but rather to make sure that such people have strong role models who can counteract the very weak influence that such materials exhibit. That's what parents are supposed to do.)

Insofar as the idea that this cover is off-putting to potential customers, that may be true in some cases, but I suspect that Asselin is overestimating the amount of cross-media pollination that would otherwise exist between the TV show and the comic book. The two have never been (insofar as I know) very close in their specifics, so I imagine that the presence of boobs on the cover is less of an issue than she'd think.

In short, I don't agree with the idea that sexualized drawings in the media are worthy of moral condemnation, nor that they're necessarily a sales-killer.

Jon Hiesfelter said...

"That's what parents are supposed to do."

How many waking hours per day are parents with their children? What they and their peers see likely has a large impact on their identity.

While this page from the University of Washington doesn't have a causal link, the stats of how many girls disapprove of their bodies and the extent of eating disorders is pretty awful. And that doesn't even speak to other potential crap this might contribute to, like rape culture.

I'm not a big fan of censorship either and consider myself sex positive. But this kind of art and out of place sexualization is f'd up and I wouldn't buy it.

alzrius said...

@John Hiesfelter

Your asking "how many waking hours per day are parents with their children" completely misses the point I was making.

You seem to be implying that parents need to be around their kids a large part of the time in order to stop them from seeing "damaging" imagery. I don't believe that's the case.

When I said "that's what parents are supposed to do" I was referring to their job of instilling their (presumably positive) values in their children, and dispelling any contrary values that they might have picked up elsewhere, including from media.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and kids will learn a value system from somewhere. If parents, guardians, and other people active in their lives don't step up, then yes, they can learn negative values from mass media.

That, however, is not the fault of mass media itself. It's not meant to be used as a template for real life any more than a chair is meant to be used as a bludgeon to attack someone with. In both cases they can be put to that use, but it's not what they're made for.

Parents who are active in their childrens' lives - which does not necessarily mean being there to run pass-block on "objectionable" media - can make sure their children are well-adjusted regardless of what they read, watch, or listen to. They have much greater sway over their kids than the cover of a comic book.

As for the study you linked to, the most pertinent thing about it is what you pointed out - that is has no causal link. Likewise, while I do believe that rape culture is real, I don't think that it's applicable here (in terms of this comic cover), even taking into account the many different definitions that various people and groups use.

If you think that that cover is "f'd up" and "out of place" (which is a shaky claim, since who gets to decide "place" is up in the air"), then you might not be as sex positive, or as down on censorship, as you think you are (which has nothing to do with whether you'd buy it or not).

JB said...

@ Trollsmyth:

One of the critic's points (which I think is valid) is that such imagery doesn't do much to grow the product's following. As in, it doesn't attract the potential new comic book buyer.

One of several things the comic book biz has in common with the RPG biz is the ever-dwindling market and the powers-that-be's pandering to the perceived "loyal fan base" the case of comics, young white males. While this may result in comics initially flying off the shelf, it would seem to be neglecting (or hindering) a new influx of potential readership (the young women Titan fans cited by Ms. Asselin).

To me, that does seem like a business mistake, even if it results in short-term sales.

trollsmyth said...

JB: All well and good, but you're assuming that this sort of cover will repel (or, at least, fail to attract the interest of) these same young female readers.

What are you basing that on?

Based on the sorts of publications that successfully sell to young women, I see nothing on that cover that would repel them. If you're going to tell me that such-and-such-a-thing drives young women away, please provide me with some evidence. Because scantily clad babes in attitudes (and surrounded by words) that scream, "Sex, sex, SEX!!!" seems to work very well for the women's magazines and YA fiction.

(And check out the trailer. It's not just sex, but extremely deviant sex at that.)

Craula Besh said...

Cosmopolitan seems to have general problems staying in touch with women..

trollsmyth said...

Craula Besh: as much as I might like to think that such articles prove that Cosmo is out-of-touch, the final proof is in sales and circulation numbers.

I'm not much of a fan of Cosmo. I find their articles painfully fluffy and I'm not a fan of the brand of femininity they promote. At best, it's a fascinating window into an alien and bizarre culture.

But there are enough folks who like it to keep them in fat circulation numbers, decade after decade. They've got a formula for success that's riding through an extremely ugly period for dead-tree periodicals.

The best argument against my argument is that it's entirely possible there's an even more successful model out there that isn't based on boobs and Photoshopping. It's a great argument, but nobody's proved it yet.

Craula Besh said...

Trollsmyth, I didn't intend to disagree with you. I wanted to point out that there are many opinions about those boobs and about feminism in general and Cosmo is not the one true way. The term sex-positivism dropped already, even some feminist directions pick this up and see it as empowerment. I think the subject may be more difficult than one might think. I also see the problems of sexualized images.

BTW your shield-splinter rule is really 1awesome ;)

trollsmyth said...

Ah, I see. Apologies, I tend to assume posters are disagreeing on threads like this. Bad habit of mine. :p

Und danke schön. It's been a ton of fun at my table and I full intend to port it over to my 5e game.

Craula Besh said...

It also does a good job in keeping alive my T&T-characters ;)