Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Ridiculousness of Superheroine Costumes

As I wrote my novel, The Blue Pimpernel, I was well aware of how ridiculous superhero costumes often are. The spandex tends to be very unflattering, and capes are a stupid idea. So as I was writing the novel, I made a conscious effort to stay away from unflattering costumes. The girls are, as one of the villains in the second novel describes them, "Goodwill cases"; a description that sums up their costumes quite well. Renee sums it up even better when she refers to them as "rejects from the 1970s".

I was even more aware of it because I'm dealing with female superheroes. And there seems to be a rule of thumb anymore - female costumes are supposed to reveal as much as possible just shy of being outright pornographic, while male costumes on the other hand...

So yeah, this is another look at sexism in comics. It's me taking a look, in particular, at the nature of costumes.

Being the lead character, the Blue Pimpernel gets a bit more costume porn than normal. Her particular superhero costume consists of a pair of slightly-enlarged-at-the-ankles pants, of some kind of stretchy material. She wears normal tennis shoes, and has a baggy, sleeveless shirt that draws attention to her chest with a large, spiral, flower like design (she wears armor under her shirt. She draws attention to her chest for the same reason Batman does; so she's not drawing attention to her unarmored head). Over that dark blue sleeveless shirt she wears a jean jacket with her namesake flower sown on the back, gloves over her hands, and a blue scarf she keeps tucked into her shirt. Her face is hidden under a pair of goggles and a vented, painter's style mask that covers the entire lower part of her face beneath her eyes. All of the girls wear costumes that cover them from neck-to-toe. The Ghost, Ofelia, wears white pants and a baggy white shirt, over which she wears a homemade corset that doubles as a tool belt, with pockets sown into it to hold things like her lockpick set. Mirage's suit is made of metamaterials, so the suit becomes completely invisible with her as well - so long as she's behind it. Karasu was dressed from head-to-toe in black and dark blue, with an armored vest under her shirt.

The point I make with this is that there's no reason a female superhero shouldn't be just as covered as her male counterparts. Being a superhero is not about sex appeal. It's a power fantasy, not a sexual one. It's living vicariously through someone much stronger than you, with more power than you, doing things that you wish you could do. While I have no issues with sex in comics at all, I take umbrage against sexism. It is true that none of my characters are naturally bullet proof (not entirely true; the armor that the girls wear has no more weight than a sweater, and is capable of stopping shotgun blasts near pointblank range. It's also opaque, though, so it wouldn't make a good costume on it's own) like characters in comics are, there's still no reason at all for women to run around looking like this, while their male counterparts are fully dressed:

Notice, if you would, how the men in that picture are dressed.  The most skin that they show off is their arms, if that - Magneto back there is barely showing off his face. Cyclops is wearing a costume that's pretty close to what Mirage wears, if it could turn invisible or project multiple copies of himself. The rest of them, though... they look like traditional superheroes.

Now look at what the women are (not) wearing. Emma Frost's costume may make some sense, but even then, running around in lingerie (and with a cape no less)? Even if Frost were wearing something like what Rogue is wearing, it'd make more sense. And speaking of Rogue - maybe I'm late to the game, but didn't Rogue steal powers by touching people? Wasn't that why she wears gloves to begin with? Maybe things have moved on without me, but I still think it's stupid to expose your chest like that. If you're going to get into a fight, you want as much of you covered as possible.

And check out Storm's laughable swimsuit. Now, I love Storm. I think she's an absolutely awesome character; she's always been one of my favorite X-Men. She's so damn regal and commanding, while being drop dead gorgeous at the same time. I know that costume is a homage to one of her older costumes, and I know that Storm doesn't really like clothes to begin with. But why stop with the swim suit? There comes a point where being naked is more dignifying than the clothing you get slapped in. Their costumes make no sense, especially in light of how sensibly their male counter parts are dressed.

This is the crux of the issue; this is the sexism present in comics. This picture right here sums it all up nicely; men dress like they mean business, like they're going to fight, and like they're tough. Women dress like they're swimsuit and lingerie models.

Hell, they've even covered Colossus; the one character that it would make sense to show skin with. After all, he's tougher than any clothing that he could wear, skin made of solid steel. If it made sense for any character to go around naked in combat, it'd be this guy. The characters in my novel end up replacing their costumes half-way through the book and by the second book, they've already gone through two and they're on their fourth costume. Fixing those things is hard; gunshots are hard to sow up, so you have to patch them or just leave them alone with holes. Eventually you have to ditch the costume all together for a different one. So if you get the chance to, and you're strong and tough enough too without having to worry about permanent injury, why not just Dr. Manhattan it? It'd save on fabric and dry cleaning costs.

I'd also like to draw attention to gender disparity; there's 3:5 on the Female:Male ratio. The X-Men were actually pretty progressive because they had a lot of females, POC, and WOC characters. Still, the gender disparity in that picture is glaring. Women have come a long way in representation, but they still have a long way to go. Also worth noting is, with the exception of Storm, all of the characters in that picture are White, too, so there's a tremendous racial gap. I'm well aware of the racial gap and the gender disparity in comics, another thing I took into thought when I started writing my novel; I may have skewed the gender ratio too far in the other direction, but I don't think it's noticeable - the ratio is 4:1 F:M, 5:1 if you're including Maggie. The ratio of white to non-white characters is a little more even; if you consider Renee Korean despite her mom being white, then the ratio is 2:2, 2:3 if you include Maggie (who's Mexican). Ben and Cyan are both White, Renee is Korean, Aya is Japanese (ethnically), and Ofelia is unidentified Hispanic.

I'm not trying to solve the problems with the way that women are portrayed in superhero fiction, but I'm setting out to prove it's possible, and that it can be done, to write a superhero story without resorting to objectification the female characters inside of it. I know it can be done, and a lot of people know it can be done. We just need to start making it happen. If we start making it happen, we can pressure the mainstream into adopting the necessary changes.

Until then, though, I don't see the problem going away. The defenders will continue to whine that men are every bit as sexualized without realizing that no, they're not, and that's far from it. The men are power fantasies, not sexual fantasies. And they're power fantasies to a small percentage of the population.


  1. I'll admit that as a 13 year old boy in the long long ago before cable or the internet brought so many boobs into my life with so much ease, I could see a place for cheesecake in my comics. But I'm a grown up boy now and I've come to agree with you. I don't want my comics to be sexless, but I'm getting real tired of the ridiculous levels "fan service" has stooped to. I hate the term even, it's fucking patronizing. 13 year old boys have no shortage of wanking material nowadays, Storm can put some clothes on fer chrissakes.
    BTW, congrats on the book. My Kindle app overfloweth at the moment, but I plan to slot you into my e-reader as soon as I finish "The Way of Kings", by Brandon Sanderson... ie, I hope sometimne this century (god its a long book)

  2. I've had a superhero Idea for a while, and I'm not so good at Novel-styled writing, It'd make for a pretty good script.

    My point is that I recognise sexism in comic-books. And I'd like to think that I wouldn't perpetrate it.

  3. a recurrent typo in this post: it's sewn and sew instead of sow and sown (the latter refers to planting seeds and thus would not trigger spell check) I do appreciate that you've taken care to pay attention to how you've dressed your super heroines, as someone who's a comic book fan, a feminist, and who has studied costume history, it's nice to see it get this level of thought.