In his excellent book ‘The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines’, author Mike Madrid raises an interesting point. In 2000, Jennifer Lopez attended the annual Grammy Awards in a sheer green Versace dress with a neckline that plunged daringly past her navel and a similar upward slit exposing her legs. The following day, Lopez and her dress were the front page story on newspapers worldwide! Across the globe, people wondered how the dress stayed in place or if she used double sided tape. This was an awards show, so all Lopez had to do was walk, sit and stand. She didn’t perform in it. Walk, sit, stand. And the world was buzzing.
Now let’s consider female super heroes. They have to do a lot more than that– climb buildings, chase criminals, leap from rooftop to rooftop– and in many cases, they do so, wearing one-tenth of what Lopez was wearing that night.
In the realm of comic books, one of the hottest topics this year has been women; women who make comics, women who read comics and of course, women in comics. It’s not a new subject of discussion, but this year it became especially heated. I won’t be discussing the writing or deeper depictions of women in comics, but I do want to examine the most basic aspect of that and that is their costumes.
There really is no place to start other than with Wonder Woman, the first major female super hero. While, certainly not as scandalous as many a female character’s garment, there is a real discrepancy when you compare her costume to that of her two male counterparts in DC’s Trinity, Batman and Superman. Superman, like Wonder Woman, is a physically powerful character, yet he doesn’t wear a sleeveless shirt. And looking at Batman, the only exposed area of skin he has is around his mouth! While Wonder Woman’s suit is fairly skimpy, I will defend it by comparing it to that of a female athlete, like Serena Williams, who designs her own apparel. Serena’s garments are always sleeveless and feature short skirts with trunks underneath, in order to provide her with a full range of motion. Wonder Woman is a very physical character, so she likewise needs to be able to move freely. She is also practically invulnerable, so she doesn’t necessarily need clothing for protection. However, the most classic criticisms of her look are the lack of straps on her bodice and her high heels.
For years, people have joked about Wonder Woman’s revealing costume and her “stripper boots.” Last year, DC finally seemed to react to that, by entrusting Jim Lee to redesign her, hopefully to provide a more modern, practical look. The red “stripper boots” were replaced with nondescript navy “footies,” her bodice was give straps… lots and lots of straps, that crisscrossed all the way down her arms and the outfit was topped off with a choker and motorcycle jacket. It was a disaster. Everyone hated it! Suddenly, people were crying out for the return of the red boots! The jacket was “too 90s X-Men!” You’d be hard pressed to find anyone to defend it.
Overall, I don’t like the design, but the new bustier is actually not bad and I like the idea of leggings, but not at the expense of the classic star motif. I also miss the red boots.
As part of the New 52 relaunch, DC had originally planned to stick with a look close to this one, but after the public outcry, a lot of it from people who don’t even read comics, DC quickly swapped out the leggings for briefs. She now wears boots similar to the classics, but in navy blue.
Wonder Woman’s classic costume is more revealing than Superman’s or Batman’s, but her athletic nature can somewhat excuse that. The fact that some people just enjoy wearing less clothing also factors in. I see women and girls constantly, wearing nothing but short shorts, tank tops and flip flops. Lady Gaga performs night after night, dancing her butt off in nothing but a bra, panties and fishnets. So I’m going to excuse Black Canary and Ms. Marvel and so forth, mostly because there are so many more outlandish costumes in the world of comics.
I’m only briefly going to touch on Power Girl. She is most famous for having large breasts and exposing her cleavage. It’s become almost a joke at this point. But in recent years, so many more characters have come along with much more revealing outfits that this looks demure in comparison. Also, a lot of the way these garments come across depends on who draws them. As illustrated by Amanda Conner, to the right, Power Girl has a cute pin-up girl look. In other hands, it can be a lot more risque. So moving on…
Another classic female character is the barbarian Red Sonja. Her costume has remained fairly constant throughout the years, a chain mail bikini and leather gloves and boots. However, when Red Sonja was adapted to the silver screen and portrayed by Brigitte Nielsen, the costume was completely altered to a more concealing cloth getup. Hmmm, wonder why? Maybe for the same reason you don’t see very many Red Sonja cos-players, because no real woman wants to wear such a ridiculous garment!
And possibly even more ridiculous is Witchblade! Her armor is her weaponry. So is Iron Man’s. Notice any difference between the two? The idea of organic armor is fine, but why wouldn’t you… y’know, put some clothes on underneath? Like Red Sonja, Witchblade was also adapted to live action, a TV series starring Yancy Butler… an always fully-clothed Yancy Butler, whom I am positive no producer ever asked to sport just the Witchblade armor like her comic book inspiration. Why? Because as sleazy as Hollywood is (so I’ve heard), no one would be that ballsy toward a real woman.
I think that’s part of the problem. Too many creators and fans don’t think of them as real women. They’re just drawings. That’s no way to think. If you want people to care about your characters, you must make them real to the reader! Too often you hear the argument that “It’s just fantasy.” Well, nearly everything in every form of entertainment is fantasy. Yet we have female protagonists like Ellen Ripley, Buffy Summers and Katniss Everdeen who are powerful and very real to their fans. And none of them wears a metal bikini.
Star Sapphire is one of Green Lantern’s oldest and most recurring foes. Her original costume was a long sleeve leotard that left her legs exposed. It was a simple costume, and as comics have gotten more sophisticated and the art more detailed, it was fairly old-fashioned, so her look was recently redesigned to the outfit she is wearing here. What is it with artists’ obsession with the center of a woman’s torso? Cleavage isn’t enough? Now we have to see all of a woman’s breasts except the nipples? No one is ever going to give a male character a costume that basically consists of an athletic cup!
In the storyline, Star Sapphire is revealed to be a “Lantern” and forms the Violet Lantern Corps. Unlike every other faction of Lanterns, the Star Sapphires don’t wear bodysuits under the violet portions of their costumes. One ingenious fan turned the tables by photoshopping this image, putting a black bodysuit under Star Sapphire’s armor and redesigning Green Lantern’s costume into something more along the lines of hers. Now try telling me there’s no double standard! As if anyone would look at a Speedo wearing Hal Jordan and think for a second that that was a good look and should appear in the comics. But with Carol Ferris, it’s okay. It’s just fantasy.
Originally created for ‘Batman: The Animated Series,’ Harley Quinn proved so popular that DC added her to their comic book universe. This delightfully ditzy jester proved a huge fan favorite, with many dressing up as her for conventions. Her completely concealing costume was still sexy! Many fans made their versions of her suit out of leather or vinyl– “fetish” materials. But apparently she wasn’t sexy enough.
For the New 52, DC scrapped her beloved classic costume and made her wear a skimpy lace-up corset, booty shorts and thigh-high leggings… in the snow in ‘Suicide Squad’ #1! Strangely, none of her male Suicide Squad teammates wore anything resembling fetish underwear. Hell, Deadshot wore a helmet that covered his entire face, so he had no exposed skin. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! There was nothing that didn’t work about her old costume! People loved it! The switch makes absolutely no sense. Not only is the new outfit trashy and illogical, it’s just plain ugly!
As designed by Darwyne Cooke, Catwoman’s current costume is the very definition of practicality. Flat, nonslip boots, night vision goggles, form-fitting… and it’s actually quite stylish. The zipper in front is realistic and answers how she gets in and out of it. Sadly, after Cooke left her book, other artists realized that… it’s a zipper. It can go up or down!
Sigh…so now every time we see her, her zipper is fully unzipped to the point that we can tell she never wears a bra. (Although, she was seen wearing one at the beginning of ‘Catwoman’ #1, it later seems to disappear.) The cover image to the right depicts the exact same suit, but does the illustration look anything like the one to the left? No.
Catwoman is a sexy character; the very epitome of a femme fatale. Women dress up as her for Halloween, because they want to unleash their inner bad girl. So that’s all well and good. But the silliness of this cover, just like with the Star Sapphire image is highlighted when another industrious fan thought to swap out Catwoman for Batman.
Sexy. And by that, I mean “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!” But see? Once again, we see the double standard. Male comic book characters are rarely depicted as being sexy, unless they are drawn by Nicola Scott. (Superboy? Catman? Nightwing? Swoooon!) It never even occurs to me that male heroes are attractive until Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth plays one of them on the big screen. You can’t escape the fact that female comic book characters are sexy, because it seems a lot of creators think that’s all they are.
I’ve saved the
best worst for last. No female character this year seemed to generate as much outrage as Starfire from ‘Red Hood and the Outlaws.’ Starfire, in DC’s old continuity, was in fact a passionate character in every way. She was designed to be the counterpoint to her teammate Raven, who was repressed and could not display emotion, lest she be taken over by her demon father Trigon. Starfire on the other hand was lusty and ferocious in both love and war. Her voluptuous appearance reflected that uninhibited persona in the same way that Raven’s waifish, flat-chested and nearly completely covered-up appearance reflected her discipline and inhibition. Starfire’s costume was a lavender, armored bikini. It was pretty skimpy, yet they’ve managed to make it even more so. Her top is now basically a set of pasties.
I’m starting to suspect that male comic book illustrators don’t actually know what a bra is for. It’s to provide support. Boobs are heavy. The bigger the boobs, the heavier they are. It hurts women’s backs to lug them around. So they wear bras for support as well as containment, as an errant boob can also cause injury. Female heroes and villains are pretty active. They run and jump and fly… they need support and the bigger the breasts, the more support is needed. How much support can those possibly provide? How about none?!
Starfire’s new costume was just symptomatic of larger problems with that title, which I won’t get into. But yeah, in the real world, Jennifer Lopez wears a low-cut dress and it makes front page news the world over. In the DC Universe, Starfire fights crime in what a stripper usually ends up wearing at the end of her routine and it’s just commonplace. Exposed skin isn’t a huge issue. It’s been the norm for decades now. But for whatever reason, as of late, it’s become almost a competition among creators to see who can expose the most female flesh, as if there were some prize! Everyone says superhero comics are adolescent power fantasies, but from the looks of things, some creators consider them a different type of adolescent fantasy.