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.

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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.