The concept behind the hot new Tumblr, the Hawkeye Initiative, is simple: In order to demonstrate just how much superhero comics distort the bodies of female characters, fans take real comic art and redraw it, replacing the female characters with Hawkeye, perhaps the least interesting character ever to grace the pages of a Marvel comic.
When the Hawkeye Initiative made its debut in early December, it was greeted with instant and almost universal acclaim for its gender-bending analysis of pop culture. The driving conceit definitely comes from a legitimate point: Compared to comics artists' grasp of how female anatomy works, the science behind Spider-Man seems to be straight out of a peer-reviewed journal. As superheroes have become more mainstream, the way that women are drawn has only become weirder. At some point in the last 20 years, it became an unwritten law that a woman's ass and breasts will always, somehow, be facing the reader, no matter what the rest of her body happens to be doing.
And so, the launch of The Hawkeye Initiative hit a nerve. It got coverage almost immediately from io9, Bleeding Cool, Geeks Are Sexy, and Wired, and noted comics writer Gail Simone called it "the best thing in the history of historical anything ever in the universe or elsewhere."
Not everyone is so delighted with the Initiative though. An increasing number of comics fans and queer activists are criticizing it on the grounds that the Hawkeye Initiative's satire is, at its heart, trans- and femme-phobic.
Trans blogger Natalie Reed explained some of her problems to the Weekly: "Basically, these representations are ridiculous no matter who is being presented in them. And given the cultural ubiquity of transphobia, it's impossible to adopt the strategy of presenting men in those poses without it being trans-phobic. And far more often than not, that's what the net result is: transphobia, and a whole lot of humor based on how "funny" it is for a "male-bodied" person to be wearing high heels, rather than how silly it is for someone to be fighting crime in high heels in the first place."
Neither the tactic nor the controversy are original to the Hawkeye Initiative. One notable example is the feminist activist John Stoltenberg, for years the partner and finally husband of Andrea Dworkin. In the '80s and '90s, when feminism was mired in a ferocious battle over porn, Stoltenberg held "pose workshops" which tried to teach men what a degrading and humiliating thing porn was by bringing members of his audience onstage and directing them to re-enact positions and facial expressions from adult magazines.
More recently, a controversy broke out in 2007 over a statuette of Spider-Man's girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson, washing his costume while bending over in a coquettish pose. As with the Hawkeye Initiative, one of the most prominent responses was an image of Spidey in a tiny g-string showing off his glutes while doing Mary Jane's lingerie. And in 2011, feminist and queer sites embraced a set by photographer Rion Sabean titled "Men-Ups." Like one of Stoltenberg's workshops, Sabean satirized the physical poses of pin-up art by using male models.
Local activist Kitty Stryker appreciates the point that critics like Reed are making, but doesn't see the images as inherently problematic. Her first reaction was to see them not as satire, but as red-hot smut. "It's complicated," she says. "I can see why people feel that way, but I also feel that negates the potential for it to be subversive and erotic.... I'm sure that maybe even the artists' intention is for it to be silly. But there are those among us who see a masculine man in lingerie and think that's incredibly hot."