Ya know, for all the good that can come out of the comic book community, sometimes it really sucks. So I’m just gonna dive into this one because I don’t feel like any fancy setup intro. Even after a couple of weeks to mull things over I’m still pissed and the only way I can convey that, in the least destructive way possible, is to write about it.
Two weeks ago Janelle Asselin, a former editor for DC Comics and Disney, did a guest article for Comic Book Resources in which she critiqued the cover art for the upcoming relaunch of Teen Titans that will debut in July with a new #1. In the article, Asselin was highly critical of artist Kenneth Rocafort’s depiction of the new Titans cover: the odd relation of characters to the background, the position of the single person of color, and the highly sexualized rendition of Cassie Sandsmark, a.k.a. Wonder Girl, standing front and center with her very large and unnatural looking breasts prominently featured. In dissecting Rocafort’s version of Wonder Girl, Asselin was also able to branch out and discuss not just the purpose of a comic book cover, but also talk about the demographic for which the comic is being made and marketed. Suffice it to say, women weren’t the target audience.
This critique, based on Asselin’s experience within the industry, however, came under fire from artist Brett Booth, artist for The Flash and former artist for Teen Titans. In some strange form of artistic solidarity, Booth began attacking Asselin’s credibility on Twitter, which then turned into a series of tweets from Booth and his supporters calling Asselin’s critique a biased nitpick with some sort of hidden agenda towards bashing DC Comics. The Outhousers has a great breakdown, including the tweets, of how this all escalated. The final tweet from Booth, however, is something I want to address. Because a woman dare question the costume choice and sexualization of a teenage girl on a book being marketed to a largely male demographic, Booth concluded:
Now, in all fairness, I’m not trying to demonize Booth. I would hope he’s a good person and he has said that his statements towards Asselin were in reaction to her criticism of the artwork, not the sexualization of Wonder Girl. While those two issues aren’t mutually exclusive in the context of the article, I suppose I can see where he’s coming from, but as with most things on the internet, intention gets lost in the translation. But even if he was just coming to Rocafort’s defense, his remark about putting female characters in burkas as a non-solution is in and of itself presenting a false dichotomy of how superheroines should be depicted in comic books.
When women criticize how female superheroes are depicted in comic books is isn’t necessarily a THIS OR THAT situation. We’re not prudes and we can appreciate the male and female forms in a variety of ways. Sexuality is not the issue, but the context of that sexuality and who that sexualized rendition of a female superhero is meant for are of greater concern. When Brett Booth uses the burka as the extreme opposite, he creates a duality that ultimately undermines the real issue. It’s the comic book equivalent of the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. Women are either pure as fallen snow OR wonton Jezebels. There’s no middle ground, no gray area, no actual understanding of human nuance. Just a nice, neat package complete with an easily identifiable label. I’m sorry, but no. Thanks for playing, now please exit the planet.
Sex sells. We all know it, we get it, and female readers of superhero comics specifically understand this because it’s pretty much shoved in our faces. Though we make up almost half of the reading audience, with our numbers continuing to grow, women and girls are still marginalized when it comes to marketing comic books. The same can be said for movies and tv shows involving superheroes or anything believed to be “for boys”. Don’t believe me, take a look at Giancarlo Volpe’s short comic about the focus groups for Green Lantern: The Animated Series. Three groups for boys of varying ages, one group for girls of all ages. Guess who gave the most thoughtful feedback. Or go back and listen to Paul Dini on Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman where he lays it all out that girls are considered unwanted afterthoughts when it comes to marketing products. The point is, women and girls, are still looked at as outsiders. Despite our growing presence, when we look to the superheroines of Marvel and DC, most of them are being written and drawn by men who’re catering to an audience that the companies at large perceive as, or want to believe is, predominantly male.
I want to be clear on this, I’m not saying men can’t write or draw nuanced and dynamic superheroines. One of my favorite books is Wonder Woman, written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Cliff Chiang. This actually presents us with an interesting surface comparison of Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl. Chiang’s Diana is proportionally sound with her body type a reflection of her life and training as an Amazon. She’s athletic and muscular, but still possesses her femininity. And save for a brief glimpse of side boob, Wonder Woman, as depicted by Azzarello and Chiang has never been shown as a sexual object. Even her costume, by all accounts a one piece bathing suit with knee-high boots, looks more like plated armor with the silver eagle atop the corset covering her breasts in order to prevent spillage. Diana’s sex appeal is ostensibly left to the reader to interpret through the actions of the character. Cassie, as drawn by Rocafort, is, as pointed out by Asselin, proportionally wrong. She says:
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Wonder Girl’s rack. Perhaps I’m alone in having an issue with an underaged teen girl being drawn with breasts the size of her head (seriously, line that stuff up, each breast is the same size as her face) popping out of her top. Anatomy-wise, there are other issues — her thigh is bigger around than her waist, for one — but let’s be real. The worst part of this image, by far, are her breasts. The problem is not that she’s a teen girl with large breasts, because those certainly exist. The main problem is that this is not the natural chest of a large-breasted woman. Those are implants. On a teenaged superheroine. Natural breasts don’t have that round shape (sorry, boys).
So, yeah, Cassie’s one-piece costume stops exactly mid-breast. This is a girl who can fly and has to regularly throw a magical lasso and punch people. Unless she has some Acme-strength superglue on hand, the second she swings her arm or breaks the sound barrier she’ll be experiencing a wardrobe malfunction. This depiction of her is overtly sexual for the sake of being sexual with no consideration given to the character.
For another comparison, let’s look at the costume change for Carol Danvers, formerly Ms. Marvel now Capt. Marvel. As Ms. Marvel, Carol definitely had a few costume changes, but the most iconic one was the one piece black bathing suit with a lightning bolt, sash, arm-length gloves, and boots. Carol Danvers, a former United States Air Force pilot, though superpowered but not invulnerable, was flying around in a uniform her former superiors would probably classify as unbecoming of an officer. So when Kelly Sue DeConnick took over the newly minted Capt. Marvel with Carol as the titular character, she made sure the costume reflected the character, making Carol’s new costume more in tune with something a soldier would wear even if they happen to associate with mutants, aliens, and a giant green Hulk. Does it cover her up? Yes, but so what? It has everything to do with how the uniform is an extension of the character. When we see a superhero in their outfit it’s supposed to evoke specific feelings: hope, fear, inspiration, etc. When we look at Wonder Girl, what’re we supposed to think of her? Who is she being drawn for?
The depiction of superheroines and how artists draw them extends, to no one’s surprise, into the world of cosplay. Cosplay is itself a fascinating sect of fandom and the time and effort people put into their costumes is something to be commended. Women who cosplay, however, have to deal with more unwanted attention than men who cosplay simply because the costumes available to them are derived from characters who are regularly drawn with more skin showing than their male counterparts. The amount of anti-harrassment and zero tolerance signs that go up during conventions, if they bother to put them up at all, is a direct correlation to the actions of men who think that because a woman dresses sexily it gives them the right to ogle, harass, or solicit them. She dressed like Power Girl, so that means she wants the attention, right? If she didn’t want the attention she wouldn’t have chosen to dress like that character. Never mind that the woman in question is dressing as a character she identifies with who happens to have a costume with a boob window and no pants. Nope, clearly anyone dressed as Power Girl, Black Canary, Huntress, Starfire, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, or Harley Quinn wants people to stare at them to validate their sexuality, not because the character means something to them.
This leads to the final point I want to make regarding the Scantily Clad OR Burka dichotomy: the double standard of sexuality, superheroines, and female readers. The standard male response to women criticizing the sexualization of most superheroines is that male superheroes are equally as sexualized or presented as an unrealistic ideal because COMICS! Again, it’s people making assumptions who don’t understand the issue. Are comic books essentially power fantasies? Yes, but with the dearth of female creators, especially at DC and Marvel, this means that most of these power fantasies are coming from the male perspective. Heroes like Superman and Batman get to be muscular, tall, and handsome while exhibiting strength of body and mind. They’re also entirely covered up. Female heroes like Power Girl, Black Canary, Huntress, and Wonder Woman are shown in one-piece bathing suit outfits, thing-high boots, fishnet stockings, boob windows, and bare midriffs. They’re idealized, but they’re also highly sexualized. Let’s face it, we’ll always get the fan service bare-chested man, but you know what will never happen in a DC or a Marvel book? Dick slip – and I’m not talking Dick Grayson slipping on a banana peel. There will never be even the slightest notion of a male character’s fly being down or his pants being ripped off while going commando based on the design of his costume. They will always be covered up, no matter what.
In the case of female readers, our power fantasies are being dictated to us, but our means of ownership or reaction to those fantasies put us in a no-win situation. A lot of women identify with superheroines who dress in the aforementioned style of dress. In fact, those women own that sexuality and find it and the costume empowering. And what do they get for taking ownership of those characters? The words “slut”, “whore”, “attention-seeker”, and “fake” get thrown around a lot. Hell, even in Justice League: War Wonder Woman is called a whore by the leader of a mob who’s hanging her in effigy based on her costume. In an animated movie supposedly for kids! And should women go the opposite route and critique the costumes of superheroines, we’re called “prudes”, “femi-nazis”, and told we’re “over-reacting” and “nitpicking” because we have an agenda against men in general.
God forbid female readers just want to enjoy reading a comic book without having to think about how Starfire’s spine bends like a snake or how low the zipper goes down on Catwoman’s outfit. That’s our agenda, folks. We just want to be able to read our comics and enjoy ourselves without having to explain to our daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, friends and family why we feel uncomfortable talking about or showing them our passions.
And if you’d like to see a more distilled version of this argument, I’d highly recommend the Nostalgia Chick’s look at the Charlie’s Angels movies.