Male Superheroes Get Super Strength and the Batmobile, Female Superheroes Get…Corsets and High Heels?

We’ve always been ready for female superheroes. Because women want to be them and men want to do them.~Famke Janssen (Mystique in the X-Men films)

Can you see me in this, at the supermarket? ~Elastigirl, The Incredibles

I'd like to see a male superhero try this

I’ll admit it…I’m a superhero geek. Never so much with comics (and no, they are NOT graphic novels, they’re comics), but I love superhero movies. I think the Janssen comment above is true when it comes to the conundrum of females with superpowers. Because 95 percent of superhero culture is written by men, for men’s pleasure, there’s a curious double standard. Admittedly the men’s super-cossies are just as absurd as the ladies’, but they’re somehow more practical. Nobody expects Batman to go up against the Joker wearing four-inch platform boots, nor does Superman’s legendary strength have to be contained by a super-bustier.

Female superheroes, along with any strong women depicted in pop culture, have the annoying responsibility to look good while doing good. This is for two reasons. The first and most obvious is, to be objects of unbridled lust for teenage and twenty-something young men. And then, there’s the second reason. Despite the strides made by American women in the last hundred years, we still have to be sexy to be relevant at all. In order to be sexy, we have to fit a man’s ideal. That means fetishized Halloween costumes: micro-mini skirts, latex pants, bosoms that defy the very laws of physics. And of course, perfect hair and makeup no matter how many evildoers’ asses a female superhero kicks.

Oooh...I'm scared. I'm really scared.

With a few exceptions (Wonder Woman, Storm, etc.), female superheroes even get the short end of the stick when it comes to naming. Supergirl. Batgirl. If we’re following the same logic, shouldn’t Robin be “Batboy?” Even the more arcane names sound, well, more like perfume brands than deadly fighters. Mystique. Elektra. Cheetah. Harley Quinn.

What always happens to me when I write pieces like this is: I’m forced to look in the mirror and ask if I really am a feminist.

In some ways I’d say no. I believe there are jobs (infantry soldier, Ranger, defensive lineman, to name a few) which women cannot, and should not, do. I also believe most women are genetically predisposed to want to take care of things and not hurt anyone’s feelings rather than, perhaps, execute a hammer lock and a roundhouse kick on a would-be bank robber. I’m not the kind of feminist who burns bras, demands an Equal Rights Amendment, and swears an eternal hatred of men. I like men. I really do. I just wish they’d collectively evolve past a sweating, slobbering pack of Neanderthals that beer commercials and trashy sitcoms seem to want to keep them as forever.

I would call myself a feminist when it comes to a generally harmful media depiction of girls and young women as a whole. I have huge problems with the oversexualization of young women and girls, even those as young as 5 or 6. This could be a whole different blog post, and may be at some point. Just look at the average Halloween costume selection for girls as opposed to boys, and you’ll be able to see what I mean. Boys get to be ninjas, firefighters, and knights; girls are usually stuck between micro-miniskirt outfits. We also see this with female superheroes. If they’re not young, nubile, and well-endowed upstairs, they’re not depicted. The market won’t bear it.

Does this make my superpowers look big?

Forgetting the costume double standard for a moment, I’d just like to offer an open call for superheroines who don’t fit a Barbie doll mold for a change. One of the reasons I loved The Incredibles so much was that it depicted a middle-aged mom and her gawky, overly introverted daughter as the two heroines. How about an older woman (a la Professor X or Magneto), a woman of color other than Storm, a disabled woman, a woman who can’t fit into a size 2 catsuit? All of these women exist in the Real World, and, while I understand that superheroes are meant to be an idealized fantasy, it doesn’t mean they can’t be more inclusive.

To confront a commonly-used argument: no, I’m not jealous of the size-2, “pretty” girls. I work out, keep myself healthy, and I imagine a mugger would have a much easier time with them than he would with me. I don’t wish I looked like Catwoman. In fact, looking a certain way, if you’re a woman, just invites too much attention. Poofy hair, elaborate makeup, designer clothes…who needs ’em, unless you’re trying to impress someone?

Make fun of my leather dress and I'll kill you

I’m also guilty as charged for not only liking a particular female superhero (Xena), but cosplaying her at various events. Given, her outfit is slightly more practical than the average superheroine’s…leather, flat boots, some armor…it’s still pretty darn suggestive. I honestly don’t know how Xena would have fared riding a horse all day in a leather tennis dress, but that’s the wonder of TV.

At the end of the day, I’m pretty sure that I, like many women, want to have it both ways. We want men to appreciate us for who we really are, without having to resort to trickery. In my case, this means looking my best and keeping my body healthy. I will never be a size 2 and I’ve stopped trying. If a man doesn’t like that, well, he’s just not for me. On the other hand, I want to live vicariously through the world of superheroes, whether they’re absurdly muscular or have bionic breasts. By definition, superheroes are what average people can never be. I don’t expect them to be a perfect representation of the population as a whole (if they were, the stories would be really boring.)

I only wish Wonder Woman would ditch the leotard and get a track suit like Uma Thurman’s in Kill Bill. That way, she wouldn’t have to worry about a potential Out of Bodice Experience when fighting bad guys. And the Lasso of Truth? Trade it in for a Glock .45, lady.

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on March 22, 2011.

One Response to “Male Superheroes Get Super Strength and the Batmobile, Female Superheroes Get…Corsets and High Heels?”

  1. Ah, the question of feminism. It’s a topic that tends to take a while to answer when it comes to my own personal beliefs, but I’ve managed to coral it a bit in more recent years by stating: I’m an old school feminist. In other words, I’m more on trail with 19th century feminists that believed that women should be allowed to work, should have the same ability to divorce their husbands as the husbands did the wives, and generally be counted as a human being. I believe there are certain jobs that men are more prone toward, others that women are, but there are always exceptions to the rules.

    I grew up on comics and have only moved away from them recently b/c they kept either killing my favorites off and replacing them or just destroying their general character. One of my favorites, though, will always remain Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl and now Oracle. You asked about disabled superheroes. She’s bound to a wheelchair, but the boys would be *so* lost without her. XD Seriously, I’d like to see Gotham function without her running everything in the background. She’s great. I actually like her better now than when she was Batgirl, which is strange because I tend to like characters in their first incarnations the best.

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