Sexualized Saturdays: Sexy Costumes, Slut-Shaming, and Female Superheroes

When it comes to female superheroes and villains, I constantly hear debate over the sexy costumes. On the one hand, it is ridiculous that female characters must be constantly half-exposed in order to be in comics. On the other hand, one could argue that criticism of what these characters wear can devolve into to slut-shaming and placing standards on female characters that would never be placed on men. In real life, cosplayers wearing revealing costumes experience both harassment and slut-shaming from both men and women. But for this post, I just want to discuss the characters. Why am I so offended when female heroes and villains are constantly depicted wearing sexy revealing costumes?

1438430531_1094_emma_frost-47405828520_xlargeLet’s use Harley Quinn and Starfire as two modern examples.

There was a lot of rage over the changes made to both Harley and Starfire’s costumes for the New 52 reboot. I personally was far more annoyed with Harley’s costume change than Starfire’s and here is why: Harley Quinn is not supposed to be sexually appealing to the average comic book reader. Not that she isn’t appealing, and maybe even the artists did think about drawing her a certain way to be appealing to readers, but I never got that impression.

tumblr_mi0hoiFgS71rbnjduo1_500Harley’s costume was only meant to appeal to one person: the Joker. I think Harley’s original costume was designed with that in mind. The Joker is not going to be turned on by a corset and short-shorts; he’s looking for someone more, well, like him. Harley’s harlequin costume played in perfectly to the style and humor the Joker shows in his own costume. It also reflects the change in Harley herself. She went from uptight and orderly Dr. Harleen Quinzel to the wild, goofy, mismatched Harley Quinn. Furthermore, Harley was a gymnast and her costume (with the exception of maybe her hat) allows for a free range of movement for Harley to use her gymnastics when fighting. And finally, Harley is originally from a kids’ TV show, so clearly the creators weren’t going for anything too sexualized.

Changing Harley’s costume to something sexier and more revealing makes no sense. Not because we are trying to slut-shame Harley, but because it doesn’t fit her character.

Starfire, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. From the beginning, Starfire hastumblr_lz0rbwbjKL1qbujox always been a very sexual character. She loved love, loved having sex, and showed no shame in expressing her sexuality. This most notably manifested itself in Starfire’s costume. Her costume was always sexy and revealing. That’s just who she was, so why were so many feminists upset by Starfire’s costume change in the New 52? For the most part I don’t think anyone was very upset about the costume. The main criticism about it was that it was reality-defying. Because let’s be honest, even with her superpowers taken into consideration, Starfire’s breasts would pop out of her top when she fights. And don’t tell me that fashion tape keeps her top on because I have used fashion tape and it wouldn’t hold up in a real fight. So while there were complaints about Starfire’s outfit, I think far more people were upset with how Starfire was portrayed as a sex object. Devoid of the original sex-positive personality she had in past comics and put into ridiculous poses that were clearly only meant to entice male readers, Starfire lost a lot of what made her a creative character.

So I don’t think feminist critics are attempting to slut-shame or to claim that all female characters must look and act like nuns. I think it is more about context. Harley being dressed in tight revealing clothing doesn’t make sense for her character, but for Starfire it does. But even for characters like Starfire, it’s important to have a realistic costume and be written as empowered, not objectified.

But now, you might argue, feminist critiques of female comic book characters have criticized outfits and actions of characters who aren’t meant to be hyper-sexual. Characters like Catwoman or the Enchantress immediately come to mind. The major problem here is similar to the ones I’ve mentioned before: either their costumes aren’t realistic, or the female characters are objectified, not empowered, in their sexuality. I think the biggest issue, though, is that I could argue (with few exceptions) that almost every female character in comics is hyper-sexualized.

ch920722Nine out of ten female characters will probably be some sort of vixen or femme fatale. Their sexuality is stressed above all else, as if sexuality is the only superpower female characters are allowed to have.

This video from The Venture Bros. I think sums this up pretty well.

I know that feminist critique of comics characters can often come off as being a part of the slut-shaming culture that we always claim to be against, but what we really want is a well-rounded and diverse portrayal of female characters. Not every woman likes to wear revealing clothing. Some women don’t like to be so open about their sexuality. Some women do, and there is nothing wrong with that. But just portraying all women as overtly sexual all the time instead of showing any sort of diversity is not acceptable. This sort of portrayal shows how the sexuality portrayed in the pages of comics is intended to appeal to male readers; it doesn’t show empowered, sexually liberated women. Feminist critics of comics are not trying to slut-shame. They are trying to point out that women are being portrayed as sex objects, and only as sex objects, in comic books. And this lack of any real diversity among female characters presents a generalized, stereotyped, and negative view of women.

7 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Sexy Costumes, Slut-Shaming, and Female Superheroes

  1. “Slut-shaming” has mostly been a flimsy excuse used by horny male fans as a reason as to why “those evil feminists shouldn’t pick on my virtual f*ck toys/criticize my unreasonable standards concerning the female body which is being stick-thin with a huge chest.” But a lot of what women consider sexually empowering has really been what men think is sexy, they’ve been brainwashed for many years due to being exposed to an overwhelmingly straight-male culture and have internalized the male gaze, giving rise to the distressing phenomenon of self-objectification.

  2. I don’t think it’s possible to comprehend Harley Quinn without becoming familiar with the work of Arleen Sorkin as Calliope Jones on the soap opera Days of Our Lives as it aired in the mid- to late eighties. Arleen eventually voiced Harley Quinn opposite Mark Hamil’s Joker. Hamil was also responsible for the original Starscream voice for the original Transformers cartoon, as well as his earlier role as Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. Sorkin played opposite John De Lancie’s character Eugene Bradford. The characters eventually married. De Lancie went on to play Q in Star Trek: the Next Generation, as well as succeeding Trek series.

    The outfit for Harley was inspired by Calliope’s outfit during a dream sequence of Days. A fellow graduate of Emerson working on the animated batman series explained his inspriation to Sorkin and invited her to join the show.

    All this discussion of outfits neglects to address the most critical change to Harley’s character: she is shifting her emotional attachment away from the Joker and toward an equal alliance with Deadshot. That would be worth discussing: what does a girl who owes her psyche to a man do when he abandons her? Can Harley be her own woman? Who is Harley independent of the Joker? Ditching the jester outfit for something slutty seems an interesting start to that exploration.

  3. Pingback: Starfire Statue Design by Adam Hughes | johnsonreginald3

  4. Pingback: A Look At Recent DC Costume/Appearance Redesigns | Jyger's Rant

  5. I actually think Kamala Khan’s costume is a good example of making an outfit that makes sense for the character. She’s a superhero fangirl, as well as a new take on a fairly classic Marvel archetype (geeky teenage social outsider with an alliterative name), and the spandex, domino mask, and primary colors draw on classic superhero costume tradition while the lightning bolt references some of Carol Danvers’ past outfits. But with her religious and cultural background and general adorkability, she’s not going to be running around in a battle bikini, and too much fanservice would probably come across as kind of creepy in any case because she’s pretty young. So she gets a classic superhero silhouette and color scheme, but a minidress and leggings instead of leotard and tights.

  6. Pingback: Sexualized Saturdays: Suicide Squad and the Harley Quinn Problem | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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