Real Female Superheroes Wouldn’t Dress Like That

Image: 1derwoman via Flickr

Image: 1derwoman via Flickr

I took my twins to Baltimore Comic Con this weekend. It was a much larger venue than the convention I took them to a few weeks ago, which was their first convention. Baltimore Comic Con attracts tens of thousands of people, and beyond housing a treasure trove of artists and items for comic readers, the event feels like a giant party all centered on graphic storytelling. Because I was bringing the twins, I was going to miss out on some of the panel discussions I would have loved to attend, but I was totally content to wander Artist’s Alley and drop in on the children’s programming.

While there was certainly cosplay at the smaller convention I took them to a few weeks ago, the sheer number of people increased the sheer number of costumes exponentially. What has always been overtly there on paper suddenly brought with it an entirely new understanding as the page came to life in the three dimensional world. Namely, that female superheroes don’t wear very much. At all.

It’s not the fault of the venue or the fault of the cosplayers or the fault of the artists who create female superheroes either in skin-tight outfits outlining their voluptuous bodies or in mini bustier-like contraptions that cause their breasts to spill out the top, yet the problem exists: we have an activity that naturally draws both children and adults that hasn’t found its balance yet to cater to both ends of the age range and we have artists presenting a very limited fantasy that isn’t shared by the wide-range of consumers of their art. In other words, if we don’t talk about it we run the risk of alienating the very people we’re trying to bring into the fun: the next generation of geeks (and specifically, girls).

I got to watch my daughter process in real time. She came to the event, proudly wearing a female comic book character on her t-shirt. The shirt shows a fairly tame version of the top-half of the superhero’s body. The first time she saw someone dressed as this superhero, she started jogging towards her and then stopped, whispering to me, “that woman isn’t really wearing anything.” She… uh… sort of wasn’t. What looked fairly chaste two-dimensionally suddenly became all about the cleavage three-dimensionally.

“Do you want your picture with her?” I asked.

My daughter shook her head and we kept walking. But I could see her now noticing just how tight Catwoman’s outfit is when it’s on a body rather than on a page. And how much Poison Ivy’s breasts leak out the top of her green merry widow. And it just didn’t seem… real.

“Real female superheroes wouldn’t dress like that,” my daughter decided.

“It doesn’t seem very likely,” I agreed.

“They’d wear a t-shirt and shorts,” she decided. “So they could move around easily.”

“And they’d probably wear knee pads and elbow pads to protect themselves,” I added.

She shrugged at the idea of protective gear but she laughed when I leaned down and whispered, “It’s almost like men think that we like to fight crime by whacking bad guys with our boobs.”

Costumes that are eye-catching and realistic can be done. Perhaps Michael Lee’s illustrations aren’t your cup of tea, but he has proven that we can make women interesting without placing them in what amounts to colorful lingerie. I would love to see others reimagine the current pantheon of female superheroes (and even female villains) in clothing that allows their actions to be bad-ass, not the fact that they’ve shown a lot of skin. This is a Wonder Woman who would emerge from a battle with both her breasts intact. Or to see more characters like Dust. Even Batgirl or Rogue’s form-fitting black outfits looks modest next to the cleavage-heaving Underroos of Elektra. I’m not talking about putting Supergirl in baggy yoga pants, but my G-d, would any superhero really want their midriff bare if they were facing down enemies?

Women don’t always feel welcome in the comic book world and certainly, the tech world hasn’t been incredibly inviting. From the recent Titshare fiasco at TechCrunch (which again was a collision of kids and adults) to the on-going Dickwolves saga, it takes a dedicated woman to plow through this aspect of gaming, comic, and tech culture. And it’s sad because that aspect of popular culture — that anti-woman sentiment — is such a small part of the larger whole, but it’s the one that gets noted and repeated.

But take aside our generation for a moment: what are we teaching our daughters? And are we giving them a gaming, tech, and comic world they’ll want to inherit? Is it possible to keep all that exists today and add to the pantheon female superheroes (and even villains!) that have their breasts protected under clothing while they fight crime?

There needs to be room for both: for female superheroes that fulfill a collective fantasy as well as female superheroes that reflect the sorts of girls we’d like our daughters to emulate in their very human way. No, I don’t want to raise a crime fighting supergirl, but I would like her to be influenced by the bravery and confidence that goes hand-in-hand with comic book storylines.

The younger generation of geeks are always observing the older generation of geeks, especially when our worlds collide as they seem to do as conferences with digital natives programming alongside adults and new comic book lovers sharing the joy with their comic book loving parents. Even moreso when adults invite kids into that atmosphere by providing kid-specific programming that encourages their attendance.

We want to raise the next generation of geeks, to bring them into our activities and interests. We need to make sure what exists on the page translates well in the three-dimensional world.

Melissa Ford

About Melissa Ford

Melissa Ford writes women's fiction, but she does it while wearing a Superman shirt. A geek to the core, she is also the author of the award-winning site, Stirrup Queens which the Wall Street Journal named one of the top ten motherhood blogs. You can find her in all sorts of places around the web including Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, Google+, and Amazon. She completed her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her writer husband, Joshua, and their twins.

Melissa Ford

About Melissa Ford

Melissa Ford writes women's fiction, but she does it while wearing a Superman shirt. A geek to the core, she is also the author of the award-winning site, Stirrup Queens which the Wall Street Journal named one of the top ten motherhood blogs. You can find her in all sorts of places around the web including Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, Google+, and Amazon. She completed her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her writer husband, Joshua, and their twins.

20 thoughts on “Real Female Superheroes Wouldn’t Dress Like That

  1. Thank you for your insights, Melissa. I appreciate how you’re navigating this with your children. Your voice is important in this matter. I am a big fan of comics but I had to stop reading them because the way women are clothed and depicted at times just isn’t the healthiest. Thanks for sharing!

    • It’s hard to know that it CAN be different (Michael Lee’s illustrations, for instance) and then know that people don’t take that route for comics they are trying to sell to kids (vs. still keeping the traditional merry widow look for adults who want it). And what works on the page doesn’t work when people slip into three-dimensional costumes.

      I’m glad to know there are men out there getting behind this idea too.

      • I immediately flare up whenever I see people referring to Michael Lee’s illustrations, mostly because I think they’re incredibly ugly and appear to be covering up for the sake of covering up [ie. prioritizing modesty over good design sensibilities].

        That being said, I am 100% behind the idea of having female superheroes who my daughters [if and when I have any] could look up to, and actually dress as. I want my friends who are women to be just as into comics as I am, and not be put off by cleavage deeper than the Marianas Trench.

        So all in all, thanks for writing this. It’s really fantastic to get a parent’s perspective.

  2. This is a good article. Even as a man I don’t like to think about this issue keeping girls and young women away from characters who should really be designed to appeal to them.

    Supergirl for example is one of my favourite comic characters, and as far as I’m concerned the 80′s costume (the one from the film) is the peak of her costume design – feminine, really great colour balance, and not too revealing. The 90s animated one with its bare midriff made some sense for a girl in the 90s, but the later 2004 Mike Turner design which kept that element seemed a bit dated by then and some artists tended to draw her skirt like a napkin (quite deliberately, I’m sure). The current Supergirl costume is unfortunately probably the worst it’s got – I mean, it’s a leotard with a red triangle at the crotch, coupled with thigh-length boots with cutout knees. I’d like to know if Jim Lee asked any teenage or indeed adult women if they would wear that before he committed to that design.

    At least the all-ages versions usually put pants or leggings under the classic skirt. Why can’t they just do that in the main book? Or at least put her in shorts or something.

      • Yeah. I’ve got no idea what they were thinking with the current one. Just the addition of shorts and it’d be a thousand times better. They eventually put shorts UNDER the skirt of the Turner design because the editor was sick of seeing artists draw her panties, and for my money that, along with the longer skirt length and larger top (resulting in less midriff) made it a better design all around. Do you mind if I ask which heroine it was on your daughter’s T-shirt?

  3. I took my family to our first ever Con this weekend. It was Salt Lake City’s inaugural Comic Con and we all had a blast. Because of the large Mormon population in the area (kind of an understatement), the organizers really wanted it to be family friendly, so requested that all cosplayers (pros and amateurs) tried to keep their costumes rated PG. For the most part, they were successful. There were some Gold Bikini Leia’s, etc. that some might consider PG-13, but there was definitely none of the scantily clad stuff you experienced in Baltimore.

    • That would have been wonderful. I’m not sure what the convention creators asked of cosplayers. Since we knew we weren’t dressing up beyond donning comic book t-shirts, I didn’t look to see what they asked. What they got was a wide range of costumes from G to X. You had Minecraft heads next to women in lace up black merry widows and thigh-high boots.

      • GeekDad should get someone to cover the event next year. Maybe you could bring your kids and experience it for yourself. :) We broke the record for highest 1st year Comic Con attendance with between 70-80K on Saturday alone. We also had a special panel with Adam West and William Shatner on stage for the first time ever. Not to mention the last minute addition of Stan Lee himself because Lou Ferrigno asked him to come. It was amazing!

          • Stan Lee claimed that Lou Ferrigno threatened to beat him up if he didn’t come to SLC, Maybe he wasn’t joking. lol

            I think, given the fact that most of the attendees were from Utah, it was fairly easy to get everybody to cooperate, but since it was such a big success and they are already predicting growth for next year, which will mean more out-of-state attendees, I hope this year will set a good precedent and everyone will just know that’s how we role in SLC.

            I’m telling you, this con is ideal for GeekDad/GeekMom: celebrating geekdom in a family friendly environment that encourages bringing your kids to share in the magic. I can’t say enough how much fun it was and how exciting it was for all ages. I’m already looking forward to next year.

  4. At some point, it might be helpful to realize that if the details of geek culture are offensive to you, that you should find something else to be interested in. Geek culture itself is a culture of appreciation for details- every little detail from a character to a line from a movie, to a prop. It’s fun to hold these mutual details in common, to be in-the-know. And some of those details are superheroes and their costumes.

    It seems like we spent the last 6 months hearing about how terrible it is that people are slut-shaming the cosplayers, and (I know this is something people will disagree with but take a moment and think about it honestly); here we are slut-shaming the cosplayers.

    I know everyone reading this thinks they’re doing something else, something vaguely feminist and all. But you actually aren’t. You seem to be saying you want Wonder Woman or Catwoman or whoever else.. to dress more modestly because her body (as depicted through the body of a cosplayer) offends you and makes you uncomfortable. And people are going to jump right on this bandwagon and agree with it (just like they agreed about not slut-shaming the cosplayers) because it seemed like the vaguely feminist thing to do. But maybe it really isn’t, I mean, if you think about it.

    Bottom line up front: Cosplayers do what they do because they love those characters. They want to wear those costumes because they find them interesting or empowering or fun. They do it because to them.. it’s cool. That’s kind of the end of the tale. If you think people should have better costumes, well, there are plenty to choose from already. Some female heroines wear full suits of armor or a trenchcoat or a dress. These characters exist today. But for some reason, cosplayers choose the costumes they want to wear.

    Larry Flynt (the pornographer, yes, but bear with me) once famously said in court “don’t blame me, blame me the manufacturer”. The human body in itself, isn’t shameful to look at. I once read that the reason superheroes wear skin-tight costumes is because it was simply easier to draw a body in motion if you didn’t also have to draw clothing. And it seems pretty obvious that male characters wear skintight costumes too, often going shirtless or just wearing a pair of trunks.

    Is the real problem the discomfort that “gross boys” might look at these women? Is the real issue the stealth-promotion of shame, self-hatred and body-loathing.. all under the guise of an ersatz post-modern brand of feminism– into a community of people that just want to have fun mutually ‘geeking-out’ over comics, games and movie characters they love?

    • I can’t agree with you because slut-shaming insinuates a behaviour to go along with the article of clothing, and nowhere do I make any assumptions about the people wearing the costumes. The issue is a critique of the artists who design the characters, not taking into account that their ideas don’t translate well off the page if they want to attract a wide audience. And beyond that, it’s one note. The characters like Dust are few and far between.

      Did you take a look at Michael Lee’s illustrations? They certainly highlight the body but they do so in a way that translates off the page for a wide range of people. They keep that idea of something that skims the body to make drawing movement easier but don’t leave breasts dangling in the wind.

      In the same way that it would probably make people uncomfortable if I walked through the grocery store in a bikini because what works at the pool doesn’t work at the store, I feel similarly to the costumes of superheroes.

      And for conference creators — don’t throw in children’s programming and encourage kids to come if you don’t want to make the event kid-friendly. And by kid-friendly, I don’t mean shapeless articles of clothing and ignoring the fact that people have bodies. But it’s disingenuous to pretend that all articles of clothing are appropriate to wear out in a mixed age situation.

      • Slut shaming is literally to mean.. a public shaming of the sexuality of these women who are trying to have fun dressing in costumes. Here you are, on a popular public website, openly describing these women you don’t know personally as dressing too sexually, and reporting that “real” superheroes wouldn’t dress like that. And you posted a couple of their pictures too, before you dissed them. You shamed them because of their bodies being on display. In their minds they are likely thinking “I’m dressed up as Wonder Woman! This is great!” but all you saw and reported on was sex.

        I didn’t misunderstand this article. You didn’t give us their names or opinions or any quotes from cosplayers, or ask them how they came up with their costumes or what their favorite characters were. That wasn’t the point, was it?

    • nobody is trying to shame the cosplayers. I think the bigger question is: why are female characters being presented in this highly sexualized manner in the first place? Batman doesn’t wear a speedo and net tank top.

      I understand your defense of ‘geek culture’ but geek culture does not mean that we all have to accept whatever is presented to us without question. Culture is a dialogue.

        • Is it your contention that *all* female characters are presented in such a manner? I mean.. this is a big subject.. all of comics fandom? And I can namedrop Namor just as easily as you namedrop Batman. (Namor only wears a speedo.)

          Nothing is so monolithic.

          Once again, if you hate the way these characters look or the fact that they exist.. why take part? At what point do you realize that just maybe.. if you hate the way Wonder Woman looks, is it possible that she isn’t meant for you? And in a larger sense, isn’t it possible that maybe none of it is meant for you?

          This doesn’t mean you can’t like a character or a depiction of a character, but there’s a difference between having a Wonder Woman pencil case and being a person who dresses up like Wonder Woman. There’s room for all of the above.. but not if comes with this kind of loathing.

          • One sure sign of an open-minded member of the community is when they say “if you don’t like it the way I like it then you should leave”.

            Don’t fear change, my friend. You can trust us, we mean you no harm.

          • After reading the article three or four times, I still failed to see the loathing of which you speak. Indeed, Ms. Ford seems to be far more interested in finding a better balance between all of these factors than citing cosplayers or artists or character designers for indecency. She is expressing what seems to me to be a valid concern – while your concerns about the feelings of cosplayers are quite valid attempting to disparage her concerns by flinging about terms like hate and loathing (words she never used) isn’t helpful.

  5. While I agree with you that a number of heroines are hypersexualized by some artists/writers/publishers, I think we should be careful in throwing stones at either the artists or the cosplayers that celebrate these characters. …and I don’t mean that to imply that I think the White Queen and her corset, fishnets, and stiletto heels aren’t anything more than silly eye candy for pubescent boys. Almost everything about comic characters is designed to be larger than life, pure exaggeration of the human condition. Look at the physical forms of almost every male and female in comics. Hero or Red Shirt, they all are slim, trim, and athletic…obscenely so. (remember, fatties are only for comic relief, right? right?) Most heroes, regardless of sex/gender, wear singlets/leotards/spandex or just let the flesh show….further exaggerating these impossibly perfect musculatures. The same larger than life approach goes into their character backgrounds, motivations, and plotlines.

    Do these barrel chested brutes and busty brawlers actually skew the perceptions of the human form for kids/tweens/teens that read them? Sure…some. Just like the kids that read Muscle Fitness and become narcissistic adults with body dysmorphia. There is always going to be that percentage of the population that cannot make the fundamental leap from reality to fantasy…. (note that in this I’m only referring to the biological aspect of the character, not the corsets/fishnets/stilettos)

    That being said, sexual costumes are much more pronounced in female characters and these do need to be addressed in much the way this article approaches it. Rationally. Point out what’s silly….point out the alternatives….and hopefully vote with your consumer dollars. But at the end of the day, sexuality is a part of life…and Hugh Jackman isn’t getting his wolverine suit all ripped off for the heterosexual boys in the audience. >laugh<

    (and for the record, I'm still pissed from when they ruined Psylocke by transforming her into the ninja pin up model)

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