The bulging muscles of Captain America and the va-va-voom curves of Black Widow are no surprise to fans of comic books and action films. People have known since Superman’s debut in 1938 that superheroes are exactly that — they’re super. However, a recent study applies a new analysis the idealized bodies of heroes. They aren’t just super strong and super fast — they’re also “supernormal sexual stimuli.”
In other words, the outrageous features of superheroes are exaggerations of what humans have long found attractive. Researchers explain in the April edition of Evolutionary Biological Sciences that hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine features — think cut jawlines and low waist-to-hip ratios — signal primal, powerful associations in the human brain. These are traits we’ve evolved to pay attention to and we pay extra attention to superheroes because their traits are beyond what humans are capable of.
Co-author and SUNY Oswego associate professor Rebecca Burch, Ph.D. tells Inverse that as a life-long comics fan, she’s always been interested in how comics depict men and women. Here Burch and co-author Laura Johnsen, a Ph.D. student at Binghampton University, indulged in that interest by examining the bodies of 3,752 Marvel characters and, when possible, comparing those illustrations to their film versions. They excluded gods (so no Thor) and if a body could change in size and morphology (like the Hulk) they counted that as two bodies.
They found that male characters were expectedly large and beyond the normal range for shoulder-to-waist ratios. Their over-the-top upper bodies were so huge that when Burch and Johnsen attempted to estimate the male character’s body mass index, the average was 30.8 — which is considered obese.
Meanwhile, female bodies were uniformly thin and, they write, with “waist-to-hip ratios smaller than the most sought-after porn actresses.” The female characters were also drawn in a more uniform manner, while male characters had a much larger variation in their bodies. Only four female characters that were technically obese emerged — and only three of those were villains. The one hero, Big Bertha, had a 120-pound supermodel secret identity.
These hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine forms are exaggerated reflections of endocrine markers that we interpret as signals for youth, health, and fertility. The endocrine system is a system of hormone messaging that affects the development of sexual characteristics.
“I was surprised at how exaggerated the drawings were, but not about what parts of the bodies were being exaggerated,” Burch says. “We expected they would be exaggerated according to testosterone and estrogen markets.”
When they compared the comic character’s bodies to their film version, they found that while their human counterparts were more fit than the average person, they were far less exaggerated than the comics. Hyper-masculinity specifically lives on in film through computer-generated imagery and costuming with molded muscles. In turn, hyper-masculinization has become more prominent with recent years — an example being the transition from Adam West’s ‘60s Batman to Ben Affleck’s more recent hulking version.
Our relationship with these characters isn’t a passive one. Burch points studies that show that males rate rival males with higher shoulder-to-hip ratios as more attractive and more dominant, and that we start paying attention to sexual, physical dimensions in adolescence. In turn, this study argues that the popularity of Marvel characters lies not only in storyline or character development, but in the very depiction of the characters.
In an interview on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter explained that when she made Black Panther’s costume, she added clay muscles to a model of Chadwick Boseman’s actual body.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how much muscle milk you drink. You’re never going to be a superhero — you’ve got to have some clay muscles.”
We examined the visualization of male and female superheroes, paying attention to physical dimensions and costuming that accentuated hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine features such as shoulder-to-waist ratio, jawlines, upper body muscularity, waist-to-hip ratio, and breast morphology. Body mass index (BMI) data were collected for 3,752 Marvel comic characters. Males were on average “obese” whereas females averaged at the low end of normal weight. The male higher body mass was caused by extreme upper body muscularity, with male shoulder-to-waist ratios far above human limits. This is in stark contrast to low weight female superhero bodies with far lower waist-to-hip ratios than average humans. The endocrine markers that are exaggerated in these depictions create supernormal sexual stimuli for each sex. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).