This is about how romance plays out for superheroes who don’t look like Superman. Beast, the Thing, the Hulk, Hell-boy. Bodies that stretch the limits of what it means to have humanoid form: furry, scaled, over-sized; blue, green, and red-skinned. I label these characters here dis-abled. Hyphenated to draw attention to the fact that their bodies are not impaired in their function, but unable to participate in normative society. These are, though, the bodies of heroes whose narrative patterns conform to the expectations of the action genre; they defend humans from disastrous events or evil villains, their bodies display powerful musculature, and they have heterosexual love interests.
Action is a genre of spectacle, and as a subgenre of the action film, the superhero film is more than usually defined by the physical attributes of its central characters. The spectacular body, as Yvonne Trasker memorably named the action hero, is a body as an object to admire and desire, as a site of trauma, and a performance of strength and agility.[i] A superhero is more than a hero and, by definition, non-normatively embodied. Our superheroes are aliens (Superman, Thor), genetic mutants (the X-Men), survivors of industrial accidents (the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk), and cyborgs (Cyborg, Wolverine). Through tight lycra, rubber, and leather costumes, and the romantic subplots, the superhero is also a sexualised and sexual body. The sexualisation of the superhero body on screen subverts some common perceptions of disability and bodily difference. In other ways, though, these depictions of sexual subjects often reinforce the damaging disabled/able-bodied binary. The bodies of many superheroes are not presented as desirable and able-bodied; the otherness of the Hulk, the Thing, and Beast are made clear in their names. This post focuses on The Thing aka Ben Grimm.
Bodies on Display
It may seem perverse to insist upon the superhero as a disabled body; these are bodies that scale skyscraper buildings in New York, run faster than a speeding bullet, self-heal after devastating injury. As Elaine L. Graham notes, however, it is important to distinguish between an impairment of a biological process or organ, and disability which is a culturally loaded term.[ii] Impairment is a difference from an expected physical function, whereas disability is a term of judgement about the body’s ability to meet a culturally determined standard. The superhero is anything but ‘normal’; their bodies may perform astounding feats, but these characters are often depicted as fearful of revealing this non-normativity within a society that judges by socially set standards.
The able-bodied white male is a cultural everyman, he is at the centre of cultural production and discussion and his body is taken as natural, a ‘standard’ that requires no theorising to understand. The non-masculine, non-white, or the body marked by working-class labour, has traditionally been declared too visible, too enmeshed in identity politics. The physically different body is coded as socially different too; thus, people with disabilities find their sexualities judged as always already deviant.[iii] The desire for, and of, the non-normative body is constructed as an unhealthy interest that will lead to so-called ‘miscegenation’, and thus a socially deviant act. The different or disabled body is always already ‘queer’.
The action genre foregrounds the usually invisible normative body; it forces the audience to acknowledge the power and presence of the white male hero. It does this in part through costuming, displaying the muscles; the revealing undershirt, or vest, has been worn by heroic characters from John McClane to Wolverine [edit: explored here]. The role and persona of the action hero is constructed almost entirely on the physical display of the body and its abilities, which constitute the action. Trasker notes that the troubling body in these films is fetishised, and thus fenced off and made safe for a time. The action hero who is black, female, or both in the case of character’s played by actors like Grace Jones and Halle Berry, is either hyper-sexualised as an object of male desire, or made asexual. Embodied difference is fetishised on screen, and the sexual agency of these embodied subjects often denied.
There is, almost always, a romantic subplot within the superhero film; the troubling body of a mutant, cyborg, or alien is presented as desirable when it passes as ‘normal’. It is important to ask which societal norms the superheroes challenge, and which they support. This post examines how Ben Grimm’s transformation into the ‘Thing’ in Fantastic Four (2005) focuses upon his coming to terms with his altered body through a narrative of romantic rejection and then acceptance.
Sex on Display
In Fantastic Four (2005), superheroes achieve a measure of lasting success in the depiction of their romantic relationships. Yet, there is a distinct difference in the depiction of certain types of bodies and their love-lives. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) are all affected by the same cosmic event, and develop supernatural abilities. Ben’s transformation is the most extreme; from a white, well-muscled security guard, he becomes an orange-hued mutant with lumpy skin like igneous rock formations. Ben Grimm is not a hero, initially, but a sideshow; his body presented as a source of wonder, as his nickname ‘The Thing’ attests. He is also given a uniform that exposes as much of his anomalous skin as possible, though the other superheroes wear full-body costumes, reminiscent of wetsuits.
Despite their supernatural abilities, the other characters remain able to pass as normative: Johnny, Reed and Sue are attractive, white and middle-class. Reed and Sue’s relationship survives multiple pressures in their roles as heroes so that they can conventionally marry at the end of the second film, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). The changes to their physiology are never discussed in terms of their sexuality. For Ben Grimm, however, the change to his body is presented as having a substantial impact on his interpersonal relationships; he is rejected by his fiancé due to his physical transformation. He subsequently meets Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington), a blind woman, who becomes his girlfriend. Her support is presented as key to his final acceptance of his new physicality. Her blindness, however, doesn’t erase his difference to enable their relationship; she uses her hands to explore the planes of his face and his skin, which is as alien to the touch as to the eye. She is fully aware that he is different.
Scenes depicting Ben and Alicia’s growing intimacy, her stated attraction to him, and his perspective on being positioned as an object rather than a person by others were, however, deleted from the final edit.[iv] [also on Youtube scene 1 and scene 2] This would have provided a stark contrast between the presentation of their committed relationship, and Johnny Storm’s promiscuity. It is disappointing that an unusual, nuanced depiction of the difficulties of dating as a non-normatively embodied person, for both Ben and Alicia, was sacrificed to the cutting room floor, when the conventional idea of attractive white man using his fame to enable potentially exploitative promiscuity is retained as an un-problematised source of humour. A hierarchy of desire in encoded in these narrative, not through the presentation of a non-normative relationship as bad or lesser, but through the choice to down-play a positive depiction of a fulfilling relationship between marginalised people, whilst fore-grounding the pursuit of normative sexual desire, even when that desire is acknowledged to be superficial.
Bros before geodes, am I right?
[i] Yvonne Trasker, Spectacular Bodies: gender, genre and the action cinema, Routledge, 1993
[ii] Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture, Rutgers University Press, 2002, p.121
[iii] Here’s the heavy theory back-up. The disability theorist Sherryl Vint describes this as ‘the projection of all that is ‘body’ onto the marked bodies of others.’ The anomalously embodied subject disrupts the dominant cultural construction, through a heightened physicality and thus ‘fundamentally performs a queering of normative paradigms.’ Alison Kafer suggests further that compulsory able-bodiedness aligns with the compulsory heterosexuality identified by queer theorist Adrienne Rich.
[iv] These extra scenes were included on the DVD release from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment in 2005.
Sherryl Vint, Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction, University of Toronto Press, 2007, p.184
Adrienne Rich, ‹‹Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence››, in Signs, Vol. 18, No. 1, (Spring 1993)
Alison Kafer, ‹‹Compulsory Bodies: Reflections on Heterosexuality and Able-bodiedness››, in Journal of Women’s History, Vol.15, No. 3, (Autumn, 2003).
This is drawn from a much longer discussion in a conference paper I wrote in 2014 on sex and desire in superhero movies, focussed on non-normative bodies. Hence the footnotes!