Step Lightly and Bow Your Head--Body Language in Animated Female Hero Characters

“[O]ur ability to recognize someone either as male or female is absolutely fundamental to our ability to interact with them, and there is nothing natural about that recognition. It’s dependent on certain signals being communicated that allow us to position people in categories—male/female—that make sense to us.” These signals, based on a two sex/two gender distinction, have become a sort of gender code that is communicated through the human body.

So begins the documentary The Codes of Gender: Identity and Performance in Pop Culture. The speaker is Sut Jhally, professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts and founder and Executive Director of the Media Education Foundation. In this film, Mr. Jhally discusses the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, who identified pop culture (and advertising, more specifically) as the best place to see these gender codes in action.

There is much more to the discussion than this brief excerpt implies, and I encourage everyone to download the film’s transcript and read it. In this post, I will focus on a particular form of body language discussed in the film—the “canting” postures that are often used in depictions of women and girls.

The film talks about the many ways that female bodies, when displayed in popular culture, are sexualized and positioned to communicate submissiveness and powerlessness. Showing females in a recumbent position is one way of communicating this message and canting is another. It is the latter I want to look at here because, in children’s popular culture, it appears where one would least expect it: in animated female “hero” characters.

So, what is a canting position? Mr. Goffman referred to it as “the bashful knee-bend,” but there are other variations: the crossed leg position, standing on one leg, the torso twisted away from the vertical, and the head cant. All of these positions serve to place the female character off balance and give her an air of vulnerability.

The quintessential canting pose is that held by Daphne from the Scooby-Doo gang. You know the one—hands on jutted-out hips, one leg slightly extended with the toe pointed, and head bowed slightly:

But the females who appear in the more action-oriented cartoons—shows like Totally Spies, the variousBakugan series, Beyblades, and superhero programs—are also shown in poses that closely resemble Daphne’s.

Take, for example, the girls/women (it’s hard to tell their age) from Totally Spies. They have the Daphne hip-tilt down pat:

Even some of their action shots communicate a clear gender message. In these pictures, one might assume they are kicking, but they all look off-balance. Their bodies are twisted to the side instead of facing the “camera” head-on. Sam looks especially vulnerable, given her crouched position and the fact that she is being looked down upon. Would Superman ever be positioned in such a way? Not likely.

This image from a video clip of the program shows the canting position and its sexualized undertones. Again, I present a contrast to a male hero: it’s hard to imagine Spider-Man leaning like this, with one knee bent.

The girls from the Bakugan universe show similar postures. Fabia looks rather contorted and tentative, compared to the more surefooted Dan:

Characters from the similarly themed Beyblades program have the same discrepancies in posture:

Even Gwen from the Ben 10 series, a great female character, gets the sexy canting treatment in this picture:

Even female superheroes have even been subjected to canting poses, as though their skimpy costumes didn’t make their gender obvious. (For a great post on the attire of these powerful women, read Kicking Ass in High Heels.)

The way Wasp descends from flight contrasts sharply to the method used by her Avengers colleague Iron Man:

The way these two characters stand communicates gender differences, although more subtly than their landing techniques. Iron Man’s shoulders are squared and his fist is clenched. Wasp looks more delicate. The differences could be a result of their origins—she is an insect and perhaps deemed more fragile than Tony Stark inside his metal robot costume—but gender most certainly plays a part.

As a team, the Avengers look pretty menacing, except for Wasp. She appears lost in a daydream, defenseless, with her arms behind her, unlike her ready-to-rumble associates:

And what of my favourite superhero team, the Justice League? There are many variations of these characters, so I looked at a few of the more recent examples.

The canting is subtle, but definitely present in this image. Wonder Woman’s upper body is twisted ever so slightly, and Hawkgirl has the “bashful” bent-knee pose (in contrast to Wonder Woman’s bent knee which is also seen on male heroes in flight.)

The images from new series Young Justice also show some interesting contrasts. I’m not sure what Artemis is up to here, but this does not look like the best position for hitting her target:

Compare her sideways pose to the front-facing Robin and Superboy:

Then there’s Miss Martian, shown in flight like Superboy, but presented from an angle without making direct eye contact. Her knee, unlike Superboy’s, is pointed outward. In addition to being less aerodynamic, her positioning seems to give her body a slight twist, made worse by her arm being stretched out behind her:

And I can’t resist including this DVD cover, found recently when I searched online for Wonder Woman toys:


Admittedly, this sample of pictures is very small and consists only of still shots from the websites associated with each television program (and one toy store). And there is no doubt that in the programs themselves, many of these girls and women give as good as they get.

Still, I have to ask, what does it say about cultural representations of gender when even the most powerful, capable, and heroic female characters are routinely shown as sexualized and submissive?

Image Sources:

Image Sources for Achilles Effect Body Language Post