Herculean dimorphism

Herculean Dimorphism

This is a written blog post from Family Inequality  blog. The author attempts to make the argument that Disney and it films are selling what he calls extreme sex dimorphism. The result of this is the subtle reinforcement of gender stereotypes and sexism. This claim  does not seem like such a radical notion, but there are some elements of the argument that lack cogency. A sociologist by profession, it would help the writer to understand the process of character design and cartooning. Understanding what equality means can also contribute to the discussion. Men and women are both biologically different. Sameness feminism wants to reject this. It is subtly suggested here in the article. If the author solely focuses on Disney, then he he missing a whole world of different animated genres. If we are to label Hercules as promoting a subtle message of gender stereotypes, then we should say the author masks a concept of  Western cultural superiority. There is no mention of other countries that produce animation that gives body type diversity to it characters. There are rare occasions that female characters in animated form exhibit the muscular body type. Could this still be considered Herculean dimorphism? It would have to be classified as something else entirely. While it is critical to deconstruct our culture and question it, it should not be distorted. When examining popular entertainment in an academic context it is important not to be selective in analysis it view it from multiple perspectives.

            It would be a complete fallacy to say there is no subtle message in the character design of Hercules.  We have the appearance of a muscular man and a thin woman. The problem is Meg is so thin to an unhealthy level. The author does an excellent job citing past art works that either depict Hercules as thinner or moderately in shape. The message that one extrapolates is that men are strong and women are weak. This idea seems to be conveyed in a children’s cartoon which may negatively influence their attitudes toward the opposite sex. Women who are in Disney films are usually the damsels in distress in need of a hero to save them. The damsel in distress   has  been a longtime stock character in popular entertainment and has been criticized for its sexist overtones. Hercules our protagonist in the film must defeat Hades and his monsters from taking over Olympus. Meg’s soul is taken and Hercules must come to her rescue. She is clever and appears to be capable, but at this moment it seems those qualities  vanish. Even a capable woman it seems to be suggesting needs male assistance. This not only plays into sexist convictions and stereotypes it is a formula that has been used ad nauseum. However, Mulan  which the author did not mention broke this mold. Mulan is not a princess or of high royalty. The film showed her as a capable fighter  and she saves China from the Mongols.


Her character design is not abnormally thin. Not only that she is given a developed character and personality. This was refreshing in 1998 when it was released, because women characters were never given much development. Mulan goes from lacking confidence to a determined individual. What she be noted is her male side kicks had various body types. They were either thin, fat, or short, but they still were helpful to her. She defeats her enemy and gets the man. This is a role reversal from the old story line is a positive change in direction.

The male antagonists do not fit the model of Herculean dimorphism. The author made the mistake of saying a majority of  Disney films follow this.

 It is puzzling why the author does not mention this film. It gives the audience a non-white  and female protagonist, which is revolutionary in a way. Then again we have to understand films in the time period in which they were made. The older Disney films were produced during a time when women in America faced legal and political discrimination. The representation of women characters reflects the attitudes of creators during that period.  Racist and sexist depictions in entertainment  were prevalent, because it was accepted during the time. These negative beliefs still appear and are directed a various groups. Hercules  may do this in a less blatant manner, but that does not mean body image conformity is not there.

            The writer ignores that animation and cartooning includes exaggeration in terms of character design. The heart of the profession is to bring a series of drawings, clay, or CGI images appear to be real. Disney’s Hercules character design is partly influenced by ancient Greek art and modern day cartooning. The hero figure body type is the paradigm that is seen for males in action related genres in comics, film, and television.


The strong man physique appears in the ancient world, Italian Renaissance,  and modern day media. Michelangelo’s David  a famous Italian Renaissance sculpture  emphasizes this aesthetic. This originated from Greek civilization’s love of the Olympic Games. The muscular body was idolized and athletes competed nude. Women who were depicted in art were more soft and voluptuous compared to male representations. This paradigm of that strong male physique has been around longer than previously thought. Animation is also an art which borrows from similar traditions. Although scholars have recently began to take it seriously, it varies in styles. Making a character recognizable through a design style is the most important element of bringing these combinations of drawings, paint, and ink to life. The point is a cartoon is not meant to be an exact imitation of life or real objects. There are that present a style that has realistically drawn human beings, but still take liberties with other aspects.  This means creators can exaggerate many features. To be honest Hercules has overly large muscles for comedic purposes. When Phil accompanies him on his hero quests he is clumsy and rather uncoordinated. The first half of the movie he does not have muscles as large, but still is performing super human feats of strength. The humor comes from the fact the audience assumes he would not be able t do that because he is thin. Eventually, Hercules looks more like our cultural idea of a demi-God  yet still is maladroit. His failure at defeating the centaur holding Meg hostage with his sword, leads him to just run fast knocking him out with his head. We would assume that the muscular Hercules would he so athletically skilled. The contrast between powerful body and klutz works for the comedy dynamic. Therefore the large muscles are adding to the unique quirk of the character. The author makes a counter argument with another post Can Boys and Girls Be the Same Size?  He refuses to acknowledge there has been a long tradition in animation and cartooning that features are not meant to be realistic. It’s the reason why some characters have four fingers or enormous eyes.  Tex Avery once said “in a cartoon you can do anything.” Animators and cartoonists continue to push these boundaries as artists. The author does use other non-Disney animated subjects ( Kiki’s Delivery Service), but does not go further. If  he truly wanted to prove Herculean dimorphism is being imposed he would take into consideration of examples that challenge it.

       There have been female characters with body types that do not follow the thin model. There appearance has few in number in animated media, but do appear. Focusing on Disney sole limits and ignores other peoples contributions to animation. Anime has become a global phenomenon and has exposed the world to aspect of Japanese culture. Relevant to the subject muscular women are depicted more so in certain series. The portrayals can either be positive or at best neutral. American portrayals can either be negative or at occasionally positive. Characters may either be the object of a gender based joke or seen as a hero. Then there are times stereotypical  masculine characteristics are placed on them ( aggressive, rude, dominating, or pugnacious generally considered “macho” archetype ).

Reiko Ando
Rekio Ando  from Outlaw Star (1998)
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Valmet from Jomungand (2012)
Mikasa  from Attack on Titan (2013-present)

The women characters of this type in popular media fall into certain tropes. The first is known as amazonian beauty. This characters muscularity is no seen as a negative attribute , but a positive quality . This seems to contradict the author’s thesis that Herculean dimorphism  is very much pervasive. It is not strange to see women of a stronger looking build appear in animated entertainment. It may reflect at some level acceptance of different looking women, or at the very least some acknowledgement. Muscular women have existed before sports, but now more are competing at a professional level. Whether its Serena Williams or Ronda Rousey  the muscular body type on women is becoming more visible. Women superheroes in comics do appear with muscular physiques that almost appear as one would perceive as God-like.  Characters such as Wonder Woman or She-Hulk  may even rival the measurements of Disney Hercules.



Even though there is a trope that presents strong women in a positive light, there are less than favorable ones. The brawn hilda trope features a woman who is strong, “mannish,” and usually has a thick accent (Russian, German, or of the Scandinavian region). This has it roots in some bias against particular countries. This image appears more often in American entertainment for a reason. During World War II America was at war with Germany and propaganda presented its people in a negative light. Most of the time it was criticism at the Nazi Party, but many could not separate German from Nazi. After the war the US made Russia an enemy. Villains were at one time portrayed as “evil Russians” or “evil Germans.”  Popular entertainment many times reflects the paranoia or biases of society. So the brawn hilda trope is not only biased against women who do not fit in to traditional femininity, but people from countries once viewed as undesirable. It could also be said that it may have basis in homophobia. Women who appeared to be strong or athletic were in the past disparaged as being lesbian. It was a way of bullying people of different sexual orientations, while preventing women from enjoying sport. However, it seems that there are more amazonian beauty tropes that have appeared and continue to this day.

The Legend of Korra (2012-2014) is should be noted because its female protagonist is given an athletic body type.
Black Cat from Spider Man (1994-1998) not only shows a powerful physique, but was a skilled fighter.
Jasper fights Garnet  in  Steven Universe (2013- present). This show features women of a variety of body types, most importantly as protagonists and antagonists.
One shot characters from Beverly Hills Teens (1987)  shown in a short lived Saturday morning cartoon.  The interesting thing here is it depicts women doing a sport at the time that was not generally acceptable for women at the time. Female bodybuilding as we know it had only emerged in the 1970s.


His sole argument is based on Disney films, but if you look at a wide variety it makes the evidence seem almost cherry picked. This may not be the case with the article can be misinterpreted that way. Looking at the selected images you can see that styles differ. The most unique ones will be remembered. If the character can be identified by silhouette it can be recognizable. Having a character with  distorted body or exaggerated body is more so an aesthetic design choice rather than a larger conspiracy of sexist overtones.Saying this may be jumping to conclusions. It could be argued that the writers refusal to examine animation from other nations could be projecting cultural supremacist beliefs. Animation from other countries may vary in their design choices. He mentions only a few anime films but gives them less analysis. It would be unfair to say the author favors a Western cultural hegemony in terms of recognition. Yet, it is something that needs to be researched more to give the thesis more credibility. This does not mean its not there. Disney films just have found a design choice which suits their aesthetic preference. The best animators are able to utilize a myriad of designs in  cartoon character creation. The more different the character looks the more attention it will get.  Animation allows for such creative license.

            The author makes a great point in posing the question why did sexual dimorphism become more pronounced in modern animation as compared to older artworks? He asked the right question but did not get the full answer. Body image conformity a recent phenomenon is the product hyper-consumerism and commercialization. It demands that women and men look a certain way. This is obviously not possible considering men and women vary in body type. The ideal body for men is a muscular one, while women should seek to be as thin as possible. These ideal are deliberately unattainable for the sake of profit motive. The fitness industry promotes this through the sale of magazines and exercise equipment. There are either commercials telling women to lose weight or men to bulk up. It feeds on people’s insecurity about their appearance. A balanced approach is to focus on improving health rather than the goal of changing one’s appearance. This also explains the the increased popularity of plastic surgery. The author may not be entirely informed of this development,  but reaches another conclusion. This is particularly damaging, because it can cause issues such as anorexia or bulima. Men may develop muscle dysmorphia. If a child sees images or media it effects their mindset throughout life . These psychological conditions have roots in early exposure to body image conformity ideals. While these conditions are an extreme case, it also poses another problem. It teaches closed minded behavior. Women who do not fit into body image conformity are normally ridiculed or repudiated.


Muscular women get the most ostracism in this regard. Body image conformity makes it so the people will be unable to accept anyone who looks different. Hercules    and other Disney films are not immune from this. What disturbs people is that it challenges the woman is weak paradigm and traditional beliefs about femininity. Men  and women also object to it due to the fact its something they are not used to. Although their has been a gradual push toward acceptance, there is also opposition to change. Children raised on what the author refers to as extreme sexual dimorphism will be less likely to being open to various body types. The author understands that Disney is selling a product, but extreme sexual dimorphism  is not the main goal. They are specifically selling a film which if successful will produce profit from ticket sales, home releases, and merchandise. Extreme sexual dimorphism  is sold on magazines, exercise videos, and every weight loss supplement or program. A better example would be to examine the fitness industry. The more precise term would be body image conformity. Consider this in the first act of Hercules  : Why would he have to build more muscle if he was strong in the first place? If he already had super human strength and demi-God like powers it really would not add much to his combat skills.

If you remember the training montage from the film you can see that thin Hercules is not any less strong. He pulls up a tree from the roots, lifts an arm of a statute, and various debris. The only reason to change the design of the character was to subtlety suggest body image conformity. The creators of the content probably assumed that the audience would not have found it believable a thin person could do strength feats. It’s a cartoon so anything can happen. Here body image conformity is suggested because creators probably believed the Hercules character should “look the part.” It could be a possibility that creators do not realize they are engaging in a form of body image conformity. It has such an impression on people during their younger years, they may not be conscious of it.

            The text needs to realize that sexual dimorphism is a biological reality and understanding that does not mean the sexes are unequal. Merely pointing this out does not make you a sexist. Ascribing certain abilities or traits to entire groups does. Sameness feminism has been misguided in the concept that if men and women are the same then they will be completely equal.  These statements support this idea : “the idea that male and female humans aren’t just different, they’re opposites. ” The author continues “If men and women are too similar, then we wouldn’t need them to be paired up in order to have complete families or sexual relationships.” He also mentions this as a rationale for such behaviors : ” This contributes to the idea that Mark Regnerus defends as the “vision of complementarity” — the insistence that children need a male and female parent — which drives opposition to same-sex marriage.” This statement seems out of place when merely discussing a Hercules movie. One should then wonder why same-sex relationships are not  present in children’s animated subjects, but heterosexual ones are. This is homophobia and heterosexism. People just assume everyone is heterosexual. Yet this does not seem to be the result of men women being “too similar.” To say that men and women being similar would lead to the break down of family is erroneous. Marriage through out history was a property arrangement. Women were in the past considered property and had very few legal or political rights. Arranged marriage was common and done for the sake of love. The concept of marrying for love is relatively new. If it were true that if men and women became too similar and marriage would collapsed it would have happened already.  People are still having families and sexual relationships causing a global population explosion. Controlling societies did not come with the family structure, but with the rise of police, military force, and modern nation-states. It was the threat of violence  and repression that kept people in line. Fear for what might happen to your family by the state could make individuals less willing to resist oppression. Women and men are serving similar functions ( depending on which country you live ). Both are expected to work, share in household duties, and maintain ( or try) an equal relationship. Sociological and cultural changes have eliminated some differences, but biology cannot be ignored. Sexual dimorphism means that men and women have different attributes. So, that in terms of being opposites means the existence of primary and secondary sex characteristics. Then one must consider insexed, transgender, and transsexual people who do not it into exact binary gender categories. The fact is difference does not imply inferiority. The author notes that extreme sex dimorphism is absent in child cartoon characters using that to buttress his thesis.  It should be noted that boys and girls do not have pronounced sexual dimorphism until puberty.


He uses Charlie Brown and Lucy Van Pelt(read here:Can animated boys and girls be (almost) the same size?) as an example of a more rational depiction. Then uses other animal characters ( funny animals to describe this type of character in animation). Sexual dimorphism is not a social construct, but present through out the animal kingdom. This is the result of natural selection, sex selection, and the on going process of biological evolution. Primates show sexual dimorphism which humanity is a part of. Gorillas have more of it due to how they select mates. A species with larger males meant they had to fight one another for mates. Females would not have to fight anyone, but select the victor among the challengers. This would mean certain genes would be passed on to other generations. Male gorillas usually have a harem of females, which contain its off spring. Here competition is harder for mates so males have to fight to pass on their genes. Gibbons the level of sexual dimorphism is low because their mating strategy is to be promiscuous as possible. Males do not have to fight as much or become reliant on the practice to spread there genes. The sex differences in modern homo sapiens is due to the primate characteristics of the genus homo. The case for our cartoon children is that they have not reach puberty in which testosterone and estrogen influences the body. This means endocrinological changes will influence the brain, skeletal, muscle, tendon, and ligament structure. Men will on average will be stronger and taller than women. Although it is common, it does not mean a woman cannot be strong or acquire strength. Sexual dimorphism can vary in many degrees.

Basic sexual dimorphism  average features include men being taller, stronger, and having higher total muscle mass. Women have a wider pelvis and higher body fat ratio.
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Here you can see a man and a woman who developed their strength to the maximum. There still is sexual dimorphism even though their muscles are enormous. The man has a larger upper  body and the woman has more of a figure eight shaped body.

Every man is not stronger than every woman. The appearance and body type of individuals is influenced by both genetics and environment. Height can be influenced by nutrition and inheritance. A child who gets less food may not grow as tall as one that is food secure. Men have the genetic potential to be taller, but that does not mean women cannot be tall. Just like with strength men have more potential due to hormones. Yet, this does not mean women cannot have a mesomorphic body type or gain strength through a physical fitness regimen. It means it will be more challenging to gain it.

   A woman who works out can definitely be stronger than a man who does not. Considering the billions of people on Earth there are numerous body types that men and women have. Sexual dimorphism is still visible, but can vary. So why such the objection to extreme sex dimorphism in cartoons if we know it is not a deliberate representation of reality? Body image conformity seems to be cogent reason. Gender role and sex stereotypes are also reasonable foundations for criticism. Cartoons have taken various liberties altering features and bodies. The goal is not to produce sameness by a library of unique designs and styles. Rare occasions involve animators playing around with both secondary and primary sex characteristics. A trope can be seen in animated subjects in which there are tertiary sex characteristics. This is not a part of biology, but something that developed out of the funny animal genre. Female animal animated characters will either appear in bows, skirts,  or necklaces ( Minne Mouse or Daisy Duck). This is a function of cultural ideas of gender, rather than biological sex. There would no reason rally for this because the audience already knows what their sex is. It is added in part due to choices in character design and subconscious gender categories. Choices in design are under the animator or supervising animator’s control.

This is Alex from Totally Spies (2001-2014). Here you can see the typical extreme dimorphism  between Alex and her love interest Raymond, but later in the episode ( “Incredible Bulk”)  this changes.
The sexual dimorphism went from extreme to less pronounced. Here you can see Alex is still shorter, but not as much as before. Her strength is probably equal if not greater to Raymond. Her body still has wider hip ratio and narrow shoulders.  This version of sexual dimorphism is more flexible.

 Animators do challenge from time to time the standard thin model. Disney rarely does it. It would not be fair to say that Herculean dimorphism is present throughout all animation . To also state that it leads people to assume women cannot do certain jobs seems rather simplistic.  The last thoughts of the written are articulated as follows:

 “In the more mundane aspects of relationships — attraction and mate selection — this thinking helps set up the ideal in which women should be smaller than men, the result of which is pairing couples by man-taller-woman-shorter much more than would occur by chance (I reported on this here, but you also could have read about it from 538’s Mona Chalabi 19 months later). The prevalence of such pairs increases the odds that any given couple we (or our children) observe or interact with will include a man who is taller and stronger than his partner. This is also behind some notions that men and women should work in different —and unequal — occupations. And so on.”

The reason that people hold on to misogynist beliefs is based in traditional culture. The cult of domesticity was the idea woman best served society by maintaining the household and serving her husband. Secondly, women  were kept out of certain professions by law simply because men did not want to compete for jobs with them. Protectionism was the legal term and concept used to bar women from certain professions. They were too “fragile ” or “child like” for “man’s work.” Religion was also used to keep women in a subordinate position in traditional culture. These ideas are incompatible with modernity, which puts emphasis on progress and human advancement. Besides sociological reasons for women not having a large presence in professions, it also involves biology. Women may continue to be  small in numbers in occupations that require high levels of physical strength. Military, police, firefighting, and construction would have more men in these positions, because the physical fitness tests would be easier to pass due to higher strength. One should not assume that no woman could pass the physical requirements if they really wanted a job. It cannot be ignore institutional discrimination and prejudice still holds women back in these professions. It was not until 2013 did the ban on women serving in combat roles and jobs was lifted. One should ask if the US military was certain all women would fail in these roles why have the ban in the first place? It is clear that it masks protectionism by a legal stand point. Societies did not become patriarchal because men had greater strength, it was due to the rise of property. Who ever controlled land in certain states could vote, hold office or a government position , and run for office . Women who did own property independently would be legally forced to had it over to her husband when she married. Having the law work against you and virtually limited or no personal wealth put women in a vulnerable position. Sexual dimorphism is not the culprit it is disregard for the rule of law and equal rights.

             The appearance of the muscular female character challenges the extreme sexual dimorphism thesis. They would not fit into that category because of their sex and flexible sexual dimorphism. As revealed earlier, some attributes of sexual dimorphism can have overlap. A new term would have to be developed to describe this. Amazonian dimorphism  differs from the Herculean dimorphism. It seems to want to show the muscular female in a more positive and heroic light. They can appear across genres. Again, it still is not as prevalent, but as some visibility in mass entertainment. The female hero seems to be getting as much notoriety as the male hero. Persistently the appearance of the extreme dimorphic concept is present in Disney films and makes appearance in others.

This buzzfeed article (If Disney Princesses Were Proportioned Like Disney Princes)points out how proportions for male and female characters in Disney films are bizarre if examined by neck, chest, and wrist size.
Would audiences have reacted negatively if Mulan was made to be stronger looking? It’s not entirely certain.

Amazonian dimorphism also poses a problem even if it is an alternative image. Would it just impose another unrealistic body image standard? This is the criticism that is usually directed at the “strong is the new skinny” zeitgeist. Replacing one unrealistic standard would not be considered very progressive. The true goal is to expose a variety in body variation of characters. They could be short, fat, tall,  thin, average, or athletic. The best animators and character designers can make anything look great and making it be notable. Amazonian dimorphism seems to occupy a uncharted space as far as animation is concerned. It could be easily eliminated like Achilles slaying Penthesilea. Herculean dimorphism may not be the result of completely vicious misogyny; it could be that more men are producing animation. Men may continue to produce this image of over exaggerated muscle man, because they think it is what people want to see. No input from women their perspective seems narrowed. The solution would be to get more women involved in the animation industry and start companies of their own. When this happens it solve some of the problems. Animators should be able and open to new and bold designs in their characters. This may mean pushing boundaries. The author makes a mistake of saying “normal sexual difference” in one his writings in regards to character design, when discussing The Simpsons . Normal is in many regards relative, but The Simpsons  is far from what we would refer to as normal. He states ”   Marge and Homer Simpson, the most durable couple in animation history, have very similar features: heads, eyes, noses, ears. His arms are fatter and neither of them really have wrists, but I’d put this in the category of normal sex difference.” There is still sexual dimorphism in the design, but The Simpsons takes liberties at times in its depiction. Marge and Homer are close in height, Homer is obviously bigger ( in waist and weight wise). During the course of the show characters body types go through various changes for a single episode ( “king Sized Homer” and “Strong Arms of the Ma”). The 300th episode which saw Marge transform into bodybuilder the design took these creative turns in projection. Marge still maintains the traditional figure eight body women have, but her upper body is larger due to weight training and drugs she took in the episode. Flexibility in sexual dimorphism is done here which makes that example seem misplaced in the post (considering Homer and Marge are adults and the topic was sexual dimorphism among children).

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Characters both male and female can be made to be outrageous, outlandish or plain in appearance given a particular creative direction or premise. Stretching  the limits of what is possible is what animation is about  . Few can understand this; animators have this sense intuitively. Herculean dimorphism is the product of making a strange and unique character in a film. The extreme sex dimorphism may also be for comedic effect. The stranger the appearance of the character also works for facetious  effects ( Chief Wiggum resembles a pig which is a metaphor for how people feel about police ). There is settle body image conformity in Hercules  and saying so does not mean you are a hyper politically correct censorship advocate. Deconstruction always people to decipher the entertainment they consume. There are people who are not interested in academic investigation of particular issues or solutions, but merely act as moral crusaders. Like religious fundamentalist they blame some person or entertainment for society’s ills. Popular  mainstream entertainment to subcultural nerd culture  has from time to time been a target .    Anita Sarkeesian’s campaign against video games to christian fundamentalists trying to ban Dungeons and Dragons are just a few a numerous attacks on entertainment. Hopefully, the author does not fall into this mode of thought in regards to Disney films. Identifying a problem is pivotal and having solutions to it is just as important. Animators need to be more accepting of various body types in their designs. Women and men must change the way they think about standards of beauty. Women need to get more involved in the creative, financial  and management elements of  the animation industry. Only then can body image conformity be challenged  in animated works.











Herculean dimorphism

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