What are the criteria for censoring certain images, but not others, in entertainment? We may have some strange standards for what is and isn't appropriate for specific audiences.
Comic books have traditionally been a male-centered form of entertainment, and criticism regarding the portrayal of women has certainly not been lacking. However, more often than not male superheroes are also portrayed with exaggerated body types featuring all of the sought-after clichés of the perfect male body.
Last week, DC Comics took it one step further. In the new Batman: Damned No. 1, one panel originally showed the Dark Knight’s naked body with all the explicit details, including the superhero’s penis. True, the detail is slightly veiled in shadows, but it’s rather clear nonetheless. Damned is the first issue from DC’s Black Label series, a new imprint specifically aimed at mature audiences. So, no, it isn’t supposed to be seen by an underage or otherwise impressionable audience. As stated in their official page, DC Comics says the following about their Black Label series:
The imprint will be DC’s home for classy, collectible superhero stories aimed at mature readers looking to be challenged and surprised as they’re entertained, with an eye for the unique and remarkable.
So, it seems they delivered. But did they deliver too much? For better or worse, this marks the first time Batman’s genitals are shown, and it didn’t go unnoticed. In spite of the specific 'mature' tag for the series, DC Comics made the decision to censor that particular image in the online version (as well as in all subsequent printings) immediately after the issue’s debut. According to Comic Book Resources, the decision was made because Bruce Wayne’s nudity is not “additive to the story.”
Should it be a big deal, though?
There is an argument to be made for the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with showing genitals in R-rated comic books, regardless of what the specific topic or aim of the story is. The world of mature entertainment is precisely one in which we don’t need to reinforce the notion that human genitals should be taboo.
Besides, it’s a strange demand that any given element in a work of entertainment should be “additive” to the story. Most things aren’t. Aesthetic choices often have nothing to do with whether they advance the plot or not: they are there for entirely different purposes. Likewise, it’s difficult to defend that showing explicit violence or gory details adds to the story in any important way. Yet, Western entertainment (most famously, Hollywood) has this double standard. It sends the message that violence is fine, but genitals are a step too far. Certainly, this message ought to be questioned.
Certain elements in a work of entertainment can be “additive” to more than the story. For instance, showing Batman’s genitals could ultimately help cement Black Label’s distinct approach as an R-rated series in a sufficiently subtle manner (without being too subtle). Furthermore, it helps humanize the Dark Knight in the eyes of the audience: this is not an alien character nor a modified organism. The point of Batman is that he’s just human, with human flaws and human features – from head to toe. After all, who doesn't take off their clothes after a long day? Maybe it’s not imperative to censor a superhero when we can otherwise show their human side, a side that can help make them relatable, especially if we’re talking about a comic book aimed explicitly at mature audiences. Censoring just seems like an unnecessary step.
Sure, in terms of plot, showing the genitals seems gratuitous, and this would be an important consideration if it were not for the fact that the industry has no qualms about depicting violence, darkness, and female sexualization – all of which are, by the same standards, just as unnecessary.
In an ideal world, genitals wouldn’t be a noteworthy issue. However, today’s society demonizes them to the extent that whenever anyone shows theirs, even by accident, a scandal ensues. Sure, if someone doesn’t want to see them, then it’s better not to force it. Yet, one should expect that a mature person would be able to simply look at genitals with an objective (and healthy) detachment rather than with the eyes of judgment, desire, or indignation. But perhaps this is too much to ask. We are only animals, after all, driven in no small part by biological impulses.
Maybe there’s no pressing need to show a superhero's genitals in a series aimed specifically at adults. However, is there a pressing need to censor them? What do you think?
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