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3Jun/1113

Women in Comics: Women in Trousers

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?

JLA/I Covers

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.

Wonder Woman and Black CanaryRevealing costumes or not, these women are damn fierce.

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.

CatwomanCorrect me if I'm wrong, but the more realistic one is sexier right?

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.

Power Girl & CatwomanTrousers don't fix this problem.

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.

Heroes for HireCompletely covered up ≠ non-sexualised.

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.

Women in Comics: Red Sonja and Power Girl - A New Hope?

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!

Red SonjaBelieve it or not: Red Sonja!

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?

art by Harry. G PeterBring back Etta dammit!

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.

Jenny, Martha, YelenaI love these women: Jenny Sparks, Martha Washington, Yelena Rossini.

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?

Comments (13) Trackbacks (3)
  1. Ok, two questions:

    Almost every woman’s body is the same idealised type: busty, very slim waist, slim but powerful legs and a perky butt.

    Does this ignore the fact that all the guys in comics are of the idealized type as well? Big arms, square jaws, rock hard abs, etc? (Yes, there’s The Blob but basically all male superheroes are Adonises). With few exceptions like the new chainmail Cap America outfit or Ironman, all the guys wear crevice hugging outfits as well. Sure the artists didn’t make large portions flesh colored when they were in photoshop, but you’re saying that doesn’t matter in the end. If that’s not a problem for the guys, why is it a problem for the gals?

    I realize how the gals are portrayed is really the issue, arching backs and cocked hips and all that, but commenting on the perfect bodies seems like a hollow complaint when their male counterparts have the same issue, but that leads me to my second question:

    Is it possible to hyper-sexualize men? I have no perspective on this since I’m straight, but from my point of view, women are the sexy ones. I don’t see how you could inflict the same treatment on a male character that the women get in comics. As far as I’m aware, the sexiest a guy gets is the stereotypical picture of a guy with a little stubble, moderate ab action, no shirt and jeans. Possibly fireman’s trousers if you’re really pushing it – but that’s not hypersexualization, that’s just sexy. It says, “hey ladies, I probably work with my hands and occasionally get my chest waxed.” Since (AFAIK) lingerie and makeup don’t exist for guys (or superhero costume equivalents of bedroom wear), nor are there “sexy poses” for guys like the aforementioned arching backs and pouty lips – is it possible to hyper-sexualize men? I don’t think it is, I’d love to hear different (so I better know how to deliver the beefcake in my comic hah hah) but if it isn’t possible, is the answer to unequal treatment of the genders in comics (and everything else really) de-sexualizing women, or upping the sexuality of guys? Or something in the middle?

    • I think the answer to your first question lies somewhat in your second: the idealised body type of the women has the purpose of hyper-sexualising them, drawing attention to their breasts, ass and crotch above all else, while the idealised body type of the men has the purpose of emphasising their strength and power. Muscles on men, big arms etc, all make logical sense: Batman and Daredevil for example spend hours training, Spidey gets lean and mean from swinging about the streets, while Superman and the X-Men tend to bulk up through their actions of strength.

      All of the men have their strength put front and centre, while the women have their strength effectively taken away. Their appearance isn’t about their power, it’s about taking away their agency and reducing them to just something to look at. You can see this more clearly if you look at the supporting characters: Jimmy Olsen, MJ, Pepper Potts, Commissioner Gordon etc. The supporting men (of which there are many) come in all shapes and sizes, and not necessarily of the same build as the male heroes. The supporting women on the other hand (in far reduced numbers) almost always have the same body shape as the women heroes. It’s the standard for all women, regardless of their place in the story.

      I would tend to say it is not possible to hyper-sexualise men, at least not in the same context as women. Because of the inherently sexist nature of society and constant demand of the male gaze, it’s primarily women who are required to conform to a sexualised standard. You can get male cheesecake, but it never serves to take away their strength or power. It’s never reducing them to the sum of their body parts as it were.

      I don’t think the answer is to de-sexualise women, but to stop hyper-sexualising them. A woman can be sexy with any body type (see the beefed up Power Girl and Wonder Woman of the past), or any covering of clothes (Catwoman) and keep her characterisation as the focus. Male heroes, while predominantly beefed up, do have more of a variety (scrawny Peter Parker to some of the X-Men) but could certainly do with more, but women are in dire need as they really are all exactly the same.

      • Rambling reply follows

        I’m a big fan of strong women, I mean the beefier look, like Power Girl and She-Hulk (when She-Hulk is drawn correctly – i.e. muscular – and not “idealized skinny”) and while the “Amazon” look breaks traditional body types, it also seems like it’s just satisfying another fetish. That may be simply be because of, as you say, the inherently sexist nature of society. Any body type or action a woman can perform can also be sexualized.

        As far as supporting female characters go, I think part of the issue with the mono-body type has a lot to do with the lack of reference material. Everyone who draws comics uses other comics as reference, or fashion magazines, or fitness magazines, up until “the internet”, it was honestly kind of hard to find photo reference of anything but the idealized woman. Well, no, it wasn’t hard, but when you’re 12 and learning how to draw, grabbing your mom’s Vogue (or your dad’s secret Victoria’s Secret catalog) is easier than going to the library to check out National Geographic. Now with Facebook and Google Image Search, we’ll have a generation of artists growing up with much broader resources at their fingertips, but it will take a while for them to infiltrate the mainstream, and that’s assuming they can get past the editors, who I can only picture as guys from Mad Men: “Why is this assistant fat? Make her skinny and draw more cleavage on her, then join me for lunch, we’re having whiskey and cigarettes.”

        In my comic, one of the running gags will be that people who have super powers look like comic book characters – flawless Adonises and… Madonises? I really tried to make my main character a little overweight, but it was something I had never drawn before and it was seriously holding up my ability to produce a strip, so I went the other way and made her a real beanpole. It wasn’t about diversification though, it was about having contrast so that the heroes looked heroic by comparison – and also for the gag value.

        Not being able to draw heavier characters was partially because growing up, I didn’t have reference – but honestly it was mostly that I lacked interest since I, like most artists growing up (I assume), was only drawing pinup type shots of my characters posing and looking generally cool (or sexy). I think that’s the primary issue. Sexy characters in comics perpetuate young artists trying to draw more of the same. It’s only now that I’m doing a strip and trying to populate the world with tertiary and incidental characters that I have the need to diversify my artistic catalog. The phenomenon of webcomics may alleviate this somewhat. People can create strips with no barrier to entry and gather an audience doing so, so instead of spending 10 years drawing pinups before taking a shot at sequential art, there’s the chance to draw strips from much earlier on.

        Back to the complaint of idealized body types in comics, I understand the issue of all heroines being on the far side of the bell curve when it comes to cup size, but other than that, it seems that most of them would have similar body types, as they’re all, you know, super heroines – they don’t spend 8 hours a day in front of a computer like most of us, they, like their male counterparts, spend all day flying (which it seem would burns a lot of calories) fighting and training in the danger room, so it makes sense that they would all look like tennis pros or professional dancers at the very least. As I’ve mentioned, I’d prefer that more of them looked like Olympic swimmers, but I seem to be in an extreme minority in that regard.

        • True on the latter, though if a hero has super powers would it really matter what they looked like? If Superman and Supergirl are inherently super-powerful, then they could be overweight and undergroomed for all it would matter!

    • That and trying to do sexy for a male superhero is going to look really, really gay. Sad, but true. A girl in a mini-skirt? Sexy or slutty. A guy in mini-shorts. GAY. Nobody wants to read “The Hefty Spider-Man” (http://unrealitymag.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/fat-spiderman3.jpg) or “The Savage Chubby Girl” (http://www.anecdotoff.com/images/stories/gallery/20070615/fat-woman-superhero.jpg)

      If you focus on a dudes crotch, you are going to get letters from parents. And a visit from Chris Hansen.

  2. “Is it possible to hyper-sexualize men?” Three words.
    Tom Of. Finland.
    Eh, the heck with it, here’s some more words; Alison Bechdel, of Dykes To Watch Out For fame, once commented that on seeing Tom of Finland’s drawings, in which the men, even when fully clothed (admittedly not for long, and usually only at the beginning of the story!) were portrayed as so exaggeratedly sexual and masculine, that she had an epiphany; in every other comic strip she’d ever seen, however mainstream, the women were portrayed in exactly the same way – fetishistic attention to outfits, accessories, and the portrayl of secondary sexual characteristics. But it took the observation of the ‘outsider’ perspective – in this case, comics produced by & for gay men – to make her realise that the ‘norm’ for portrayals of women were, in fact, every bit as sexualized.

    • Cheers for that, I hadn’t heard of him before. His work is really reminiscent of the male erotic photography books I’ve seen, and yes, very different from the norm in comic books.

    • Interesting. I do wonder if it’s possible to hyper sexualize men for a female audience though, as I’m not aware that women are particularly attracted to pokey nipples on men or outlined jean junk. I think I agree with comicbookGRRRL – it’s really not.

  3. Fantastic and fascinating post, comicbookGRRRL. Frankly, I’m not quite so willing to give DC the benefit of the doubt that they’re “thinking about their female audience.” It may be cynicism, but the combination of the women-in-trousers edict and the Superman-without-briefs design suggests instead that they’re listening to the jokers and outsiders who claim they can’t take comics/superheroes seriously when they’re wearing underwear on the outside of their pants/fighting villains in star-spangled swimsuits. The fact that Jim Lee–the guy behind Huntress’s much-maligned-but-never-actually-changed ab window–is the driving force of the redesign doesn’t exactly fill me with hope either.

    The whole don’t-call-it-a-reboot seems to have one unifying theme: DC addressing surface issues and minor details, ignoring the actual root problems. Putting women in long pants isn’t the issue, putting more women in starring roles and on major team rosters and in positions of authority is. Complicated continuity isn’t the problem, getting comics to new audiences is. Diversity is a problem, one that isn’t ameliorated by removing the one prominent disabled superhero and making her one of two redheaded women in skintight bat costumes. It all seems like it’s missing the forest for the trees.

    So I hope your interpretation is the right one, and at least they’re recognizing that problems exist. Maybe eventually they’ll blunder into the right solution.

    • I live in hope to be honest, but my expectations are not high. DC and Marvel have often claimed to be taking into account women fans, but I’ve yet to see solid proof.

      But yes, blundering into the right solution is probably the best I can hope for!

  4. Feminism is indeed about respecting women’s choices. Women SHOULD be able to be sexy without being sex objects. They should be able to express their sexuality and still be taken seriously.

    But that’s not what we’re talking about here, is it? We’re talking about characters written and drawn mostly by men, for a mostly male audience. As long as that is the case, the needs of female readers are going to remain under-served.

    • This one was more addressing the judgement that happens rather than the creative intent behind the comics. I’ve a feeling you may like my next article on Catwoman about how any perceived progression at present is purely superficial :)

  5. For some reason visual media has fallen by the wayside when it comes to casting. They picked a girl to play Wonder Woman. Let’s find a real Woman please, not just some pretty(admittedly) girl who happens to be popular at the time.


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