Superheroes Don’t Fight Crime by Whacking People with Their Breasts
Image: 1derwoman via Flickr
I took the twins to a comic convention. It was a much larger venue than the convention I took the twins to a few weeks ago, which was their first convention. So, I think they entered thinking it would have a similar feel. I certainly thought it would be just as kid-friendly due to the scope of kid-focused programming (which it was, but in a very different way from the other convention). But it was, from the very start, a very different experience. There were tens of thousands of people at this convention, and a cavernous room of artists and vendors (not to mention panel discussions). We wandered through Artist’s Alley, looking for 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 the ChickieNob 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.
ChickieNob 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,” ChickieNob 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 colourful 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.
Coda: I posted this first on GeekDad the other day, unsure of the response it would get from a mostly male audience. But I was really excited to read a lot of people saying the same thing I said: that this has always been there, but until those outfits came off the page, it wasn’t totally clear just how unrealistic the clothing was in the context of the story action. It would be like having a school principal wearing a bikini: there is nothing wrong with the article of clothing at the pool, but it makes no sense (and would probably make people a tad uncomfortable) if they saw it in a school.
There was, of course, as you’d expect, the person who used the argument of “if you don’t like it, stay away.” And yes, that is certainly one way to solve the problem. But if that’s the approach people are going to suggest, they can’t complain in the future when there are no girl comic book-lovers. Or girl gamers. Or girl programmers. Anywhere girls are currently feeling unwelcome due to the climate AND the message they get to leave if they don’t like it.
And as I pointed out above, that unwelcomeness is a small part of a much larger, much happier world of geekdom. It’s a shame that it’s the part of that world that keeps getting highlighted. But it will keep getting highlighted until we do something about it. Because girls are going to speak up if they don’t feel welcome. And as my little girl pointed out with that simple thought of “Real female superheroes wouldn’t dress like that,” there is a big disconnect between the realistic-fantasy that could exist and the objectifying-fantasy that does exist.
And that what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work in the three dimensional world. With the popularity of cosplay, artists need to remember that and work together with the fans who bring their images to life.
Instead of foisting a one-note fantasy on the reader, allow them to build their own fantasy and not get distracted by the details that are pigeonholing the character. You can present a sexy, confident, ass-kicking, intelligent, beautiful character who just so happens to have her boobs covered up so they don’t fall out as she delivers a roundhouse kick.
And no one is saying that grown women shouldn’t be able to walk around in merry widows. If that floats your boat, more power to you. But girls do need to see that there are a plethora of options out there. If you walk into the comic book store and see what’s on display, you’d walk away thinking that there’s not.