DC has been announcing some big changes this week, and comic fans can't get enough of it. Love or loathe DC's new plans to somewhat reboot the DC Universe later this year, there's no denying that it's garnered them a whole lot of attention and hype.
Amongst the official announcements (everyone to start over at issue 1 again) and rumoured developments (Barbara Gordon back as Batgirl?!), there is one rumour in particular that is of great interest to geek women everywhere: all DC women are to wear trousers.
Is this a victory for feminism? Or a troubling sign of our increasingly conservative times?
True or not, the above covers of JLA #1 and Justice League International #1 do seem to point towards a trouser wearing trend amongst the women of the upcoming DC Universe. It's not the first time comics have shifted towards covering up their women characters: in the 30s there was a somewhat successful clamp down on "immoral" female characters, most notably succeeding with the lengthening of Betty Boop's miniskirt, and in the 50s the notorious Comic Code struck resulting in the loss of the slinky Catwoman and the gain of the prim and properly costumed Batwoman.
Famously, acclaimed feminist Gloria Steinem campaigned in the 70s for Wonder Woman to be returned to her original and best known outfit; in the late 60s Diana had become a mod girl, wearing fashionable miniskirts and catsuits, clothing that was in fact far more modest than her previous swimsuit hero costume. Why did such a prominent feminist wish for Diana to return to more revealing clothes? The answer of course is that feminism is about far more than what you wear, or what you don't wear.
In her trendy mod clothes, Diana was living the life of a de-powered hero, a little like a female James Bond but without all the society approved (for men) sex. Wonder Woman might have covered up, but she'd lost her power, her strength, and her character. When returned to her star spangled roots, she was also considerably sexed up, which was perhaps not quite Steinem's intention of returning her to her former athletic and slightly chunky self.
In 2010, female fans were outraged once more when Wonder Woman was put in a new outfit featuring trousers. One of the main allures Diana had held with her fans was that she could wear her Amazon tailored outfit, and have people look beyond her looks. Wonder Woman has suffered plenty of over-sexualisation in the past, but she isn't a particularly sexualised character compared to many other women in comics (yes, despite the bondage). She is strong, she has rippling muscles, and the power she wields is incredibly sexy.
The decision to put all DC women in trousers is neither inherently feminist or un-feminist. But it does tell us two things: that DC are thinking about their female audience and the portrayal of their female characters, and that unfortunately they have rather missed the point.
The main problem with women characters in comics is not the clothes that they wear, it's that they all wear a variation on the same theme. Almost every woman's body is the same idealised type: busty, very slim waist, slim but powerful legs and a perky butt. All the women wear tight fitting clothes, whether revealing or not. None of this would be a problem were it a proportional amount of women characters, but it's all of them! Putting all the women in trousers does nothing to change this - we still have all the same women looking all the same, but now in trousers. Essentially, they are just covering the problem up.
We can have women in catsuits, it's a sexy look. We can have women in short pants or skirts or revealing tops: these are all clothes a lot of women have in their wardrobes. But does every women have to wear them? All the freaking time?! Does Wonder Woman not ever just kick back in her pjs? Do no new superwomen not think, hang on, I'll go with a comfy costume that doesn't focus on my breasts? Do non-slim women just never get hit by radiation or born with a mutant gene?!
Diversity - that's what we need, and sorry, but everyone wearing trousers just ain't diverse. If every woman is still big boobed, big assed, and sexed up, not seeing bare legs doesn't make much of a difference. I actually don't mind if all the women stay pretty much as they are, but only if new women characters don't have to follow the same rules. Even it up a little and the current women won't look so out of place.
Covering up all women's legs sends a bit of a poor message: that you have to cover up to be taken seriously as a woman. Women can be sexy and powerful; sexuality is not inherently bad. Conflating sexy with sexualising is a common mistake, and of course most commonly made with the issue of women's clothing (see the recent media focus on Slutwalk turning to judging what the women were wearing, ugh).
Characters like Catwoman or Black Canary, who are almost completely covered up, have still been victim to over-sexualisation. Heroes for Hire anyone? Equally, women with much more skin on display have been portrayed in the past in a non-sexualised manner to much acclaim.
The issue of whether or not feminists should be applauding or decrying the "women in trousers" is a bit of a grey area. Women's clothing, and indeed their entire presentation, suffers from a clash between second-wave feminism and third-wave feminism. The former tended towards a de-feminizing approach, that woman who were feminists shouldn't wear make-up or wear dresses. The latter tended towards sex-positivity, with many arguing that a swing towards "choice feminism" - the concept that any choice a woman makes is automatically feminist - has gone too far.
I'm simplifying of course, but the result is that many women are confused over how to reconcile their feminism with their choice. In the case of women in comics, matters are further complicated by these characters and their representation being controlled by (in the main) men, and being packaged for (in the main) fellow men.
What clothes a female character wore did not make her feminist or unfeminist. It's true that no choice can be made in a vacuum, but equally, a woman has the right to wear what she likes and not be judged for that. Power Girl could be a feminist and wear revealing clothes. Self-identified feminists could prefer a costume on their favourite character that is skimpier than others.
For all my arguments above, this is a good sign. It shows that DC really is thinking about its female audience, and while the publisher is perhaps not quite getting it right, they are doing something, and that's more than can be said for the majority of comics out there. Plus, it's got everyone talking about women - huzzah!
I applaud DC for looking to put their women in "practical clothing". The belly window in Huntresses outfit is just illogical when she is stood next to the completely bulletproof Batman, and Wonder Woman can almost certainly fight better when she's not in stiletto heels. But practical doesn't just mean a pair of trousers, it means looking at what the men wear and then looking at what the women wear and seeing the double standard that exists. Women characters can look sexy without putting their looks ahead of their safety!
Practical however, is also relative. Power Girl is Kryptonian, the woman is near indestructible. Therefore the boob window, from a practical point of view, is a moot point. The focus on her figure however (sometimes back-breaking poses for example) and a portrayal that has moved away from her feminist origins, are much more important. (I find it interesting that the Wally Wood breast boosting myth is so prolific: for many, Power Girl will only ever be about the boobs.)
Equally important is the question of where all the other women are hiding. The ones that don't look like Power Girl. Y'know, the rest of the female population. The half of the world that isn't shown in comics?
On one level though, the covering up does worry me. Historically we've seen that other moves towards more "modest" attire have occurred at times of moral clampdown: the 30s and 50s. Even the 80s caused it's fair share of trouble for women characters. All of these occurred after a period of relative freedom for women: the flappers of the Roaring Twenties preceded the Great Depression of the Thirties; the Rosie the Riveter times of the 40s were followed by the repressive McCarthyism of the 50s; and the sexual revolution and free love of the 60s and 70s ended with the dark and conservative 80s.
As conservatism increases this decade in both the US and the UK, women's rights seem under attack from all directions, and any link between power and modest dressing for women is risky. A woman can be just as powerful, and be taken just as seriously, in a skirt as she can be in trousers. Women do not have to de-sexualise themselves in order to be heard.
I do not think this is DC's intention, just as I do not think they assume trouser wearing will fix all women readers problems with their comics. But it is certainly something to bear in mind when considering how feminist or empowering such a move really is.
It may sound like I'm a hard woman to please I know. But it is frustrating that so much attention is given to the clothing the women wear, rather than the women themselves, or the women who aren't there. The clothes wouldn't be a problem if the bodies were more realistic and varied, and even less of a problem if there were more women wearing different things around them.
What DC (and Marvel, and others) need to do is talk to women. Talk to your fans, ask us what we want. Encourage more women writers and artists into your stable. Stop stuffing our heroes in refrigerators or punishing them for their powers. Don't take away the ones we love, but give us new ones to inspire and empower young female readers.
Listen to us. Because we love your comics, and we want our heroes to be recognised.
Read more on the history of women in comics:
Women in Comics: An Overview
Women in Comics: The Phantom Menace
Women in Comics: Wonder Woman and the Attack of the Code
Women in Comics: Batwoman and the Revenge of the Supergirls
Women in Comics: Red Sonja and Power Girl - A New Hope?