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Some issues demand a radical, button-pushing, searingly hot take. But not this one. Not for me, anyway. Honestly, considering how many times I’ve flip-flopped on the topic of female superheroes and their sexy costumes, I’m not in a great position to give you anything but honest thoughts and candid, personal experiences. I know right? Drag.
A History of Ambivalence
I took a hard pro position at age five, defending She-Ra’s leotard against slander from Meegan, the bitchy second-grader on my street who had just learned what the word “sexist” meant. I shut her down on the basis that She-Ra’s ginger work-husband, Bow, also dressed in revealing garb.
In my teens, I flipped. I constantly pointed out that Storm needed to tie her hair back so it wouldn’t whip her in the eye at 250 knots. In college, I flopped. I read some Camille Paglia and decided the outfits were a sex-positive expression of, like, reclamation and stuff.
I became a mom and flipped again for like 30 seconds. My daughter went through that toddler phase when kids are fervidly obsessed with gender, and I began vainly trying to dilute the Disney princess bullshit that fueled my kid’s all-pink-all-the-time reign of terror with virtually anything that wasn’t hyperfeminine. When your three-year-old throws a tantrum about putting her coat on because it’s not fancy, you can’t let it lie. Not in Michigan.
Anyway, I flopped almost immediately. She’d watched a vintage episode of Super Friends that came tacked onto a Scooby-Doo DVD as a bonus and I was pathetically trying to impart moderation as she vibrated into a frenzy for Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was her favorite! Wonder Woman should have her own show! Could she have a Wonder Woman costume? “Sure, you can,” I said. “Wonder Woman is awesome. But it’s okay that in real life, we don’t dress fancy like Wonder Woman every day.”
Have you ever been savagely roasted by a toddler? She looked at me with an expression of repulsed incredulity and said, “Um, Wonder Woman doesn’t wear fancy clothes. She wears exercise clothes.”
Fair point. I’d associated Wonder Woman’s bodycon attire with glamour vis-à-vis a mental flowchart connecting it to the male gaze or something. But without yet having apparently been programmed to see a female superhero’s body as a vision specifically designed to rev the engines of teenage boys, my daughter perceived nothing special about Wonder Woman’s costume.
So she got full support in her now ongoing love of Wonder Woman. For the record, there were still times when I did put the hammer down on a character that was clearly marketing sexuality to my kid as something she should expect to wield in the name of fabulousness while she was still a child (usually something marketed under the toy-industry euphemism “sassy”). However, comparing Wonder Woman’s simple maillot to some of the fetishy ensembles I’d seen superheroines wear in the pages of my own comics over the years suddenly made my concerns in this particular instance feel silly. But was I being reasonable or just accepting the lesser of many evils in a realm where almost all the choices were dictated by men?
Boys vs. Girls
As I pointed out in my sick burn on Meegan all those years ago, male superheroes wear revealing costumes too. We’ll get to the bods underneath them in a minute, but I don’t think this inclination is all that crazy in general. Superheroes are, for the most part, defined by their alien/mutant/scientifically enhanced bodies — it makes sense to prioritize those bodies when portraying these characters in a visual medium. Some might say the practice goes back thousands of years (at least probably).
And for all her pre-K innocence, my daughter’s point basically holds. It does stand to reason that anyone of the action-adventure lifestyle would be well served by wearing “exercise clothes.” We don’t have invincible crime fighters in real life who employ acrobatics above heavy artillery (if only), but speaking strictly in terms of movement, the outfits of gymnasts and wrestlers make a pretty good case.
Of course, there’s still the fact that female superheroes are known to show actual skin, something the boys almost never do (unless Jason Momoa is going shirtless for a publicity shot). But you don’t even need a tally of how many heroines bare their legs or midriffs to know that sex is more often part of the equation when women are depicted in any art form. This isn’t really news — the male vs. female gaze hasn’t been a two-way street since the advent of agriculture, and comics were marketed mainly to boys and men for decades.
This is assumedly why some lady superheroes wear costumes that just feel embarrassing. Case in point: There’s no way to make Power Girl’s boob keyhole look anything but godamn ridiculous. But then again, nobody is actually trying to use the “exercise clothes” defense to provide plausible deniability about that feature, as it’s fairly well known that Power Girl was more or less designed around her breasts, a precursor to seemingly all renditions of female superheroes beginning in the ’90s, as most superheroines became so weighed down by their borderline-hilarious cup sizes that the whole phenomenon may have been the catalyst for this very discussion.
Strong as Hercules, Beautiful as Aphrodite
So I find myself looking over my own pantheon of heroines from the past several decades, trying hard to understand what it is about these images that makes the gloriousness with which their bodies and clothes are drawn feel celebratory, while others feel so objectifying. I’ve always delighted in Supergirl and her lithe ice skating dress — with the exception of a period in the 2000s when she switched to an outfit that obviously came packaged in a plastic bag at Party City. I’m not always in love with the way Chaotic Neutral the Black Cat is styled, but I’m obsessed with her look in the 1986 run of Spectacular Spider-Man, in which she trades in her regular kitty-cat uniform for a white unitard and a bonkers ’80s biker jacket. And from comics to cartoons to Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman feels flawless to me in just about every era. (Well, almost. Mike Deodato’s version — not my scene.)
I could go on, but these examples are plenty. Aside from having breasts in reasonable proportion to their frames, there’s no obvious single defining theme between these three superheroines — a diminutized version of a male hero, a punk reimagining, and a co-opted feminist icon. I suppose that despite woman artists being underrepresented in all comics, especially vintage ones (not to mention the director’s chair of comic book adaptations), the depictions I like are ones that feel like they could have been drawn by a woman just as easily as by a man. I like when the characters feel like they were drawn with the joy and empathy that comes from the fantasy of being the character, not just of fucking the character. We can have a whole other conversation about art that’s specifically erotic in nature — art that doesn’t try to get by expressing inherent sexuality under the banner of traditional comic book art. But that’ll require another article.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel even better about the depiction of a female superhero when I know a woman actually fashioned that depiction. I’d like to think that, someday, in humanity’s utopian Star Trek future, it won’t make a difference, but as of now, I definitely vibe even more of that aforementioned empathy between artist and creation when the artist happens to be a woman. Which is why I adored Patty Jenkins’ take on Wonder Woman’s costume and overall beauty (and her defense of it) in her 2017 film.
Not to mention the fact that Jenkins actually employed more than a little guile in this case, playing up Wonder Woman’s Greek mythological origin story and then fashioning the character’s outfit quite noticeably after the real greaves, pteruges, and curiasses of ancient Greek soldiers. That’s what I call plausible deniability. Exercise clothes indeed.
Anyway, many of the costumes I like are integrally designed around the femininity of the wearer, and I have to own that. I also happen to like the current costumes worn by Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel (at least one of which also helps mitigate the overwhelming whiteness of my options). Their costumes are gender neutral enough that they could each easily be retailored for a man. But I guess what I have to get my head around when it comes to this discussion is that, all things being equal, I don’t automatically have a problem with femininity being part of the equation.
Discounting the intended S&M appeal of Wonder Woman’s lasso (if for no other reason than to save time), weirdo polymath William Moulton Marston created the character with some fairly progressive ideals in mind — and she’s grown past even Marston’s limitations in the decades since. Wonder Woman embodies all the strengths that are more often associated with women (fairness, compassion, honesty) without excluding those robbed of women in a patriarchal society (forcefulness, bravery, decisiveness).
This example is where it all comes together for me. I’m a feminist because I want the option to be everything. I want to live in a world in which flexing any of my “feminine” traits, from my tenderness to my sex appeal, does not mean forfeiting my right to have other traits, like my intelligence or my toughness or my ability to understand spatial relations, taken seriously. I don’t want to be forced to embody any particular attributes, feminine or otherwise, but I don’t want to be precluded from any, either.
The reason I like certain superheroes (and often, by extension, their costumes) is that they eschew these bullshit notions of mutual exclusivity. New ideas of beauty and sexiness will emerge, germinated by women and intended for the main audience of their own eyes in the mirror. But those ideas aren’t going to sweep in and replace all of our existing standards overnight. And in the meantime, I’m certainly not about to give up and cede all my existing ideas of beauty back to the patriarchy that they originated from. They’re ours now. Ours to celebrate, cherry-pick, or reject, all while we hang by the ear anybody who who tries to tug at the reigns that once obligatorily held us to them.