Our Attraction to Comic Proportions

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Maria Teresa Hart wrote a piece for us last week about the evolution of the “perfect” superhero body. In response, a reader flags an episode of a documentary series I’m hoping to watch in full tonight (the first 20 minutes—about the Venus of Willendorf, the 25,000-year-old figurine with the grossly exaggerated curves—is a fascinating start):

Fantasy, wish fulfillment, and dreams of power have always been central to the superhero genre. Surely no one ever looked at the Hulk as a documentary about what a healthy man looks or acts like. He’s a superhuman, maybe even monstrous creature.

There was a great documentary the BBC did several years ago called How Art Made the World. Episode 1: “More Human Than Human” explained how our portrayals of human bodies are always exaggerated, whether prehistoric “Venus” statues, Michelangelo’s David, Rubens’s fleshy nudes, or today’s superheroes and supermodels.

It is the exaggeration that creates our emotional response. Full realism becomes boring to us. This is why Hollywood is making comic-book movies, rather than distributing security camera videos from your local 7-11.

Now what constitutes the ideal does shift over time and from one culture to another. James Bond has a very different body from Tom Brady and both are different than Baryshnikov or Ussain Bolt. I live in China and I never see images here of the burly athletic bodies Americans admire. Here the ideal man is cute in a boy-band way—very groomed and wearing clothing that is highly fashion-conscious. American men would think that these men look gay, but Chinese find the muscular American look unrefined and silly.

They love superhero movies here. They just don’t see them as representing what real people look like. After all, why should superheroes look more “normal” than porn stars? Everyone in movies and TV looks better than the average person we see on the street or at work each day.