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[Guest Post] Young Avengers #1: Sex and the Female Gaze

2013 January 31

Last week’s long-awaited, big-release comic was Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers #1, a classic coming-of-age story about a group of 18-year-olds who just happen to be superheroes.

While many mainstream comics are still producing the kind of material that gets sent up on Escher Girls and The Hawkeye Initiative, Gillen and McKelvie actively reject the kind of objectification that gives the genre such a bad reputation amongst feminists. In contrast to the stereotypical tits-and-ass fare, the opening sequence of Young Avengers provides the reader with a three-page essay on the (straight/bi) female gaze. In a medium that overwhelmingly caters for straight male desires, this is a rare demonstration of how to do a sexy scene with decent gender politics.


On page one, Kate Bishop wakes up in an unfamiliar bed, having just hooked up with a man whose name she can’t quite remember. At this point anyone who’s familiar with comics, or popular culture in general, would expect to see some slut-shaming, or at least some titillating semi-nudity, but we get neither. Kate is dressed in a t-shirt which comes down to her mid-thigh, and it’s clear that she has no regrets, thinking: For a second, some part of me thinks, “I should be ashamed.” I think that part of me is really stupid.

In the fourth panel we even see Kate smiling as she thinks back to the earlier part of her evening, and it’s the smile of someone who has just got laid and is pretty damned pleased with herself.
The second page introduces us to Noh-Varr, whose bed Kate has woken up in, and this is where we see another convention subverted, because he’s the one in nothing but his underwear. In an interview with Comics Alliance, artist Jamie McKelvie explains the idea behind this scene:

We’ve long had a problem in comics where the women are “sexy” (in a sexist fashion) and the men aren’t. Time to redress the balance. And there’s a big difference between sexist and sexy.


Although male superheroes are usually drawn with extremely muscular physiques, it’s not normally sexualised in this way – the reader is supposed to want to be them, not have sex with them. This is a rare acknowledgement that people who fancy men read superhero comics too.

But rather than providing equality of objectification, the aim here is to have a sexy scene which enhances the story and doesn’t devalue either of the characters. If you’re enjoying the view of Noh-Varr in his underwear, it’s just a bonus, not the entire point of the sequence; if you’re not into it, his lack of clothes is incidental. As Gillen puts it in an introduction to the character of Noh-Varr on his Tumblr:

…characters being sexy is cool but objectification in the process is bullshit. An inability to see the difference is a fundamental weakness. My wife’s in the next room watching Lord of the Rings, and I guarantee she’s thinking sexy thoughts about Aragorn. But that works without anything which annihilates him as a character, y’know?

The reader is supposed to see this scene through Kate’s eyes, and as she watches Noh-Varr dancing around in his pants, it acknowledges the existence of the female gaze, both through Kate’s interest in watching him, and the fanservice of the artwork.

Noh-Varr has a masculine appearance, but – perhaps because he’s an alien from another dimension – he doesn’t appear to be burdened with ideas of conventional masculinity, as we can see from his music choices. The comic’s title page states that the record he puts on is ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes (incidentally, this is the track played over the opening titles of the film Dirty Dancing, which is also about female sexual awakening), and he talks about his enthusiasm for “close harmony girl groups” in a way that a heterosexual Earth man probably wouldn’t, because he’d be afraid of seeming effeminate. The play on gender roles is, of course, entirely deliberate, as one of the major influences in this version of the character is David Bowie during his androgynous, bisexual-identifying period in the early 1970s.


As Kate watches Noh-Varr, the scene is interrupted by a Skrull attack (Skrulls are a species of warrior aliens that occasionally pop up in the Marvel Universe to attack either Earth or Noh-Varr’s species of warrior aliens). If this was a horror movie, this would be the moment where Kate’s decision to go back to Noh-Varr’s place for sexytimes gets her killed in a disgustingly graphic way, but rather than being punished for her naughty behaviour, Kate is rewarded with another adventure, when she pilots the space ship.

As well as understanding what many female fans want to see, Gillen also accepts that sometimes our appreciation goes beyond what’s on the page:

Ever since our work on Phonogram, Jamie have [sic] strove to make our comics – for want of a better phrase – slash-fic-able. If you’re working in certain heroic fantasy genres, that’s part of the emotional churn.

(taken from Gillen’s tumblr post on Noh-Varr)

Recent comic book adaptation movies like Avengers Assemble and X-Men:First Class have been gleefully adopted by fanfiction writers, who find that the gender imbalances and close friendships between male characters give them plenty of material to work with. While slash has sometimes been treated as fandom’s dirty secret, Gillen and McKelvie are obviously quite comfortable with it. The title page even provides a nod to fangirl culture by adopting their language: editors Jake Thomas and Lauren Sankovitch are credited with “LOLs” and “feels” respectively – that’s “humour” and “emotions” to anyone who isn’t up-to-date on their internet memes.

Young Avengers clearly demonstrates something which I’ve long suspected to be true: it really is possible for male writers to “get” female fans. Although there are female comics creators producing work that doesn’t make women cringe – even with big publishers like Marvel and DC – it doesn’t mean that their male colleagues should have a free pass to be obnoxiously sexist. We should be holding more men to the pro-feminist standard that Gillen and McKelvie have set, not just in comics, but in all forms of pop culture.

    • At night Alyson Macdonald dons a cape and tights to fight sexism and the Tory government on the internet. She mostly blogs at Bright Green and tweets as @textuallimits.


9 Responses leave one →
  1. burntcopper permalink
    January 31, 2013

    Mckelvie and gillen: actively encouraging the fans and reblogging the fanart they find. And yelling a lot about shitty gender stereotypes and portrayals on twitter and tumblr.

    Not to mention McKelvie is currently engaged in designing some of the best superhero costumes at the moment, taking over the cosplay world. (captain marvel & miss America)

  2. Christian O. permalink
    January 31, 2013

    Plus, it should be noted that Skulls are themselves queer, as they’ve been shown to change gender at will.

    • Phoenix DK permalink
      February 1, 2013

      The Skrulls have no notion of “queer” in any sense of the word usage. On panel it’s been described as “We change our gender as easy as you humans change your hair colour”. Their shapeshifting is such a part of their culture that gender roles and norms (by earth standards) don’t feature in their society.

      …and there goes the geekiest thing I’ve written this week. :)

      • Alyson permalink
        February 1, 2013

        I love the fact that other people have views on Skrulls’ concept of gender.

        • Russell permalink
          February 2, 2013

          They obviously do have a concept of gender roles. It’s just that for a Skrull those roles are far more fluid and open to change than in our less developed and nuanced human gender.

  3. wererogue permalink
    February 22, 2013

    I haven’t read any of Gillen’s comic work – I’m still mourning his loss from the games journalism world. I’ll have to rectify that.

    • Miranda permalink*
      February 22, 2013

      Phonogram is very good. Especially the new volume, The Singles Club. That’s better than the initial volume, I think.

    • finbikkifin permalink
      February 23, 2013

      You should read his run on Journey into Mystery. If you can avoid spoilers about the ending, all the better.

      It also sets up one of the characters in Young Avengers, but isn’t necessary for reading YA.

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