This is one of my pet peeves. The human breast is not a mysterious organ, it does not have a strange shape, and it is not complicated to reproduce in visual arts. Even when you take into account the myriad variations in human anatomy.
So why, WHY have *centuries* of artists given us gravity-defying, physics-mocking, unfleshly apparatus?
This is nothing new, and certainly nothing unique to comics. For instance, see this 15th century painting of the Madonna del Latte (as in the Breastfeeding Madonna – there’s a whole tradition of religious art centered around this act) by Jean Fouquet
A lot of the anatomy is weird there, and none of the figures look particularly real, but what the hell is going on with the Madonna’s bosoms?! A bizarre flaw in an otherwise cool picture.
Maybe it’s discomfort with sexuality, or flesh, or humanity itself – Catholicism has never fully come to terms with the reality of bodies. And yet, look at those lush colors, the folds of the Madonna’s cloak and the baby Christ’s blanket – and those pearls on the throne! Clearly, someone loves life here! But this all goes pear shaped at the Madonna’s breasts. Or rather, orange-shaped.
If we can go back even farther for some chestacular weirdness, I give you the Venus of Willendorf!
This figure dates to about 22-24,000 BCE. You’ve probably seen it or versions of it. Now that I look at it again, the Venus’ breasts aren’t that odd. They are closer to a certain variety of human breast. The weirdness – for a modern viewer – comes from their prominence. I’m not an archaeologist, so I can’t conjecture professionally why the figure has the proportions it does. One of my favorite theories comes from Timothy Taylor’s The Prehistory of Sex, if memory serves. He thought that possibly a woman sculpted our Venus, and other similar ones, because in those days before mirrors, one could only see one’s own body by looking down. And, if a woman looks down, she can’t see her own head, but she will see her bosom, her belly (if it’s prominent, maybe the tops of her thighs, or mons, and way down there her feet, which will look very little compared to whatever is closest to her eyes. I like this theory, as the vast swath of art history has long groaned under the mistaken presumption that most art was made by men. The fact is that women have been making art all along, it just wasn’t recognized. So why not have paleolithic women sculptors?
So there’s two perspectives on breasts in visual representation. Now let’s look at fashion, the art and history we put on each day. Tuppence Ha’penny’s blog has a wonderful history of undergarments and their oscillation between concealing and emphasizing human breasts. When you scroll really fast, it makes it look like human beings are awfully uncomfortable about breasts. First they need to be concealed, then revealed, then revealed with support, or only if you possess a certain shape and body type…class, sex, race, everything is played out on womens’ chests!
Anyone else a Bettie Page fan? Ever notice the shape of her lingere (as if that’s the point…bear with me)? Anyone remember Madonna’s infamous cone bra? The bras popular during Page’s heyday (and referenced in Madge’s 90s phase) formed the breast into a pointy, conic shape – called a “bullet bra”. These things were blessedly replaced by rounder, more natural* shapes in bra design and garment design, generally reflecting the “standard” shape of a human breast.
*”natural” is a dangerous word when discussing body shape – I don’t use it here to indicate that one type of breast is superior to others, but that the garments now resemble the anatomical feature more, instead of an artificial shape.
The reason I have given you a short tour of breasts in art and fashion is to give you an idea of what happened more or less *before* comics. The timeline isn’t clear cut, but I wanted to ground my complaints in something larger, so it doesn’t seem like I’m picking on the genre or any artists.
I can accept a lot for the sake of an artistic conceit, or a droll joke, or an obscure trope only an art history nerd will get. And I can only imagine how hard it is to produce the sheer amount of art necessary for a comic, and the speed at which the artistic team must work to get the issues out.
That being said, I still take offense at poor anatomy. And I’m not talking a small mistake, or a sour note in a really hard piece of anatomy. As I said at the start of this post, breasts in all their forms are not that hard to figure out. They obey certain rules of physics as the woman moves her body. This is not rocket science. Look at anatomy models, other artists’ nude studies, or, hell, even porn. There’s no excuse to get something relatively basic this wrong:
That’s not the worst I’ve seen, being familiar with Escher Girls and the like. But this figure cheesed me off because it could have been so much better.
Also, the reason I have harped on “bewbs” so much is that they are not just another part of the body – they are highly symbolic. And, you might have heard, somewhat popular. Not taking the time to observe and replicate how female bodies move in space (tough as that is to do in 2D) reads as sexist. If there was a long-standing tradition of well-crafted, realistically drawn female/feminine bodies in comics, this wouldn’t be as big a deal. But as a reader, it telegraphs that a collection of parts is “good” enough – which strikes me as both sexist and disrespectful to hardworking artists.
And you know that I’d be saying the same damn thing if I had been around to see the Fouquet Madonna unveiled 🙂