So what is canting? Well, the dictionary tells us, "1. Angular deviation from a vertical or horizontal plane or surface; an inclination or slope." In terms of female body language, The Achilles Effect describes it as one of "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... 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."
So that's the wordy definition, but a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few:
Getting the idea? In children's media-- and comic books for adults*-- the canting is very obvious, to an almost grotesque degree, and it is quite common for it to be dismissed on the grounds of them being cartoons, exaggerating the characteristics of the characters because that's what cartoons do. In the adult movie posters it can be more subtle, as in the Italian Job, just a little bit of chest-thrust, with head down and a leg stuck off to one side, or it can be quite obvious, as in the Pirates poster, with Kiera Knightly's tilted head and seductive glance and her hand pointing right at her chest.** These postures are in stark contrast to the sort of poses men hold; consider the Gatsby poster where all the male characters have their shoulders squared directly to the camera (as do the male leads Jack, Will, and Charlie in the other two posters).
It becomes a bit of a chicken-or-egg debate, whether the movies are just reflecting that women do subtly stand this way because of their generally-larger hips and different center of balance and what have you, or whether women learn to stand like this because it's presented in media. If you think it's the former, do a little experiment (if you're a lady). Check out that Disney poster up at the top, and try on all those poses. Then ask yourself-- is it really natural for me to stand like this? Ask yourself a few more questions-- if I were standing like this in a public place, would I feel awkward because of what my body language was communicating to the men around me? Try this one: if I had a 15-16 year old daughter (the average age of Disney princesses), how would I feel if she was standing like this in a public place?
I'm just going to go ahead and take my stance on the chicken-or-egg debate-- women stand like this as a learned behaviour, not as a reflection of some kind of innate knowledge that this is the most feminine way to stand. Since I've agreed pictures are worth a thousand words, here's another in favour of that argument:
When did we go from this kind of thing to what we see in the movie posters above? Someone else can trace that lineage. What I'm concerned about is why this ubiquitous canting pose matters. I propose a couple of reasons:
1) Posture! When we stand with our feet totally together, or toes turned inward, or when we always rest our weight on one hip, or have one shoulder off-balance, or our head tilted, or our torso curved or twisted (all fairly common for women; try comparing male and female postures the next time you're in a crowd), we're trading off future, and even current, comfort and health in order to fit into a media-driven, sexually-charged standard of beauty (sort of like what we do with high-heeled shoes, or chemical-heavy make-up). This happens pretty subconsciouly, because much like figures of speech, we pick up "appropriate" body language and position from our culture without too much conscious decision-making going on. Which is kind of unfair to us in this instance, but that's why there needs to be people pointing it out.
Also, and more importantly...
2) Value. When we fall into line with a canting posture, we are nonverablly communicating a false idea about men and women-- taking the Biblical warrant to submit to our husbands far beyond the realm of marriage and adopting a submissive posture before all men. This is not Scripturally-mandated, and it is not Scripturally-lauded. When I think of the daughters of Zelophehad fighting for their right to keep the family inheritance in Joshua, Ruth proposing to Boaz so she could fulfill the Scripture mandate to maintain a family name, Tamar risking her life and reputation to do the same, Esther steeling herself to face the king and die for her people if need be, Deborah stepping up where the male leadership of Israel was doubtful and did not trust the Lord, Rahab hiding spies because she could see where the Lord's favour lay, the Proverbs 31 woman making investments and working with strength and diligence, Anna with her decades of unwavering faith, Mary standing up straight before the prospect of ridicule, shame, divorce-- everything in her life crashing down around her-- and saying "I am the Lord's handmaiden"... when I think of these women that the Scriptures honour and commemorate, I don't think about their soft, yielding dispositions to the world around them. They are women of courage, of rock-solid faith in the promise of God, bold to risk ridicule or death for the sake of that promise, even if the leadership-- the government of Jericho, Barak the judge, the partriarch Judah-- did not believe or value that promise. I don't doubt that women like Mary, Anna, and Ruth were submissive to their husbands as the Scripture requires. But without being aggressive or unwomanly in the least, the woman I listed above do display what John Piper calls "massive steel in their backs and theology in their brains".
Of course, it's as plain as the nose on your face that God did provide two different (general) body shapes to men and women (with lots of variations within that general theme for both genders). It is not plain to me at all the He wants women to damage their bodies and accentuate their sexuality for the sake of seeming submissive or nonconfrontational towards a wider mankind to whom they owe no such allegiance.
So, in closing, one more image, a turnaround by Kevin Bolk of a poster for The Avengers that puts the one female character in a front-facing, nonsexual pose instead of vice-versa. It's actually incredibly awkward and embarrassing to look at-- which is exactly how the original poster would look if we weren't so desensitized to the sexualisation of women by the sheer magnitude of the imagery that does it. Think about that.
And, hey, I warned you when I started out that these were going to be incredibly verbose blog posts. At least there's lots of pictures here.
*If you have any doubts about that, check out the Hawkeye Initiative, which sheds stark light on just how far comic book creators will go in twisting the female body to make it "sexy".
**It actually comes a lot more obvious, particularly in low-brow comedies or romance movies, but I'm sparing you that.