There are many issues to discuss when it comes to women in comic books and comic book adaptations. Issues with representation (of women in general, but also women of color and LGBT women) come to mind. So does the pervasive issue of sexist writing such as “fridging” women, depowering them so that they’re less of a threat, and so on. However, I’m here to talk about a problem that hasn’t been discussed as much lately: women’s superhero costumes. Specifically how movie and television adaptations of comics treat women’s costumes.

Superhero costumes in comic books for women have been…less than stellar. Plenty of women over the years have brought up the issues with objectifying outfits. There’s excessive cleavage, unnecessary outfit cut-outs, 6-inch heels on a hero suits, and so on. It seems like there’s decidedly less discussion about how movies and television have done with these superhero costumes.

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Movies and television based on comics have a chance to improve on outfits for their lady heroes. However, it seems like creators almost never take advantage of this opportunity. While there are a few solid examples of adaptations fixing objectifying superhero costumes, they’re few and far between.

Costume Problems

There’s a lot of ways one can make a costume sexist, so let’s tackle that first. The first examples that pop to mind are Dagger from Cloak & Dagger, Sue Storm from the Fantastic Four, and Huntress from her eponymous series. These women all have an issue with unnecessary costume cut-outs — an issue that many people have discussed at length.

Superhero Costumes
Marvel’s redesign of Sue Storm’s costume in the 90s immediately comes to mind when sexist costumes are brought up.

However, showing skin isn’t the only way women can be objectified. While there’s definitely issue when it comes to superheroines running around in outfits that look like high-cut swimsuits, there are other factors. Posing is one that people have brought up and spoofed often.

Costuming still weighs into things even when skin isn’t showing. Skin-tight jumpsuits or designs specifically meant to draw attention to a woman’s breasts come to mind. There are the issues of inefficient boob armor that exists only to draw the eye to the character’s breasts and fighting outfits that bafflingly include 6-inch heels. Many, many factors join together into the reigning issue of sexist costume design.

Agency, Feminism, and Comics

A long-standing argument for objectifying superhero costumes has been that they’re empowering. After all, by criticizing these heroes who want to show skin, or wear heels, or wear tight clothing, aren’t we criticizing women who do that in real life? There’s the prevailing notion that talking negatively about revealing outfits in fiction is equivalent to real-life slut-shaming.

There’s one very important reason that this argument doesn’t work: these women in comic books aren’t real. Any illusion of choice they have when it comes to choosing their outfits is just that: an illusion. Huntress having an outfit that shows off the fact that she survived a gunshot isn’t the same as a real woman doing that. This is because a man thought up the idea of Huntress doing that as an excuse to give her that outfit.

Superhero Costumes
In fact, using Huntress’ trauma to excuse her sexualized outfit is kind of even MORE messed up.

That’s an important distinction to keep in mind. While some women have found certain outfits iconic and liberating, and certainly women have designed costumes that are comparable, there’s no such thing as the women in comics choosing to wear what they wear. This is an important thought to keep in mind when discussing costume issues in comics and comic book movies.

Adapting and…Improving?

Adaptations have an opportunity that not many other types of media have. Adaptations can take something that has a long-standing reputation and social importance and improve it. The risk, of course, is that they can also detract from the original source material. A lot of the time, adaptations seem to stay true to their sources — however, there are certain cases where maybe they shouldn’t.

Costuming is one of these cases, in my opinion. Movies should strive to improve upon issues comics have had with sexism, racism, and otherwise. When it comes to costumes for women, it seems the only reasons adaptations have improved on certain costumes is because the comic book versions can’t physically exist in real life.

Superhero Costumes
Catwoman’s comic book outfits aren’t a shining example of non-objectifying costumes — but somehow, the movies seem to make things…even worse.

When it comes to designs, there’s still the issue of skin-tight outfits and—to put it lightly—cleavage issues. In fact, movie adaptations seem to have introduced their own issues with costumes for women, separate but just as grating as the issues in comics.

Movie Superhero Costumes

When it comes to movie issues with women’s costumes, there’s a definite problem with breasts. Comics has this issue too, of course. Black Widow and Catwoman both have issues with their jumpsuits staying unzipped to their stomachs and still, well, magically holding everything in. All comics seem to have issues with the concept of how armor would work for someone who has breasts or outfits that would cover obvious cleavage.

Movies have copied a lot of these problems. While I’m thankful that, for example, Black Widow has been able to keep her jumpsuit zipped up, it feels like that’s only because there’s not enough fashion tape in the world to hold it together had it been zipped down further. It seems like Marvel gave us a scene of Natasha fighting in a slinky cocktail dress just to make up for the lack of cleavage that her hero outfit doesn’t show off.

Superhero Costumes
Even Black Widow’s jumpsuit stays zipped down surprisingly low for combat situations.

There’s also the issue of technology. Some outfits can’t be as skimpy as they are in the comics just due to the rules of, well, reality. However, movies have recently decided that won’t stop them — as shown by the fact that Harley Quinn’s short-shorts were edited to be even shorter in Suicide Squad trailers.

The idea that movie adaptations can start utilizing technology specifically for making women’s superhero outfits closer to the comics version is a bit disheartening, considering what the comics are giving us.

Attracting The Eye

This issue isn’t new. In fact, movies seem to rise and fall with the severity that they’re sexualizing their characters. BATMAN & ROBIN, for example, is a pretty notorious older comic book movie…and its outfit for Batgirl hits tons of check marks for a sexist costume. While there’s barely any skin showing other than Alicia Silverstone’s face, the outfit is blatant in its sexualization.

In fact, Batgirl’s outfit represents a lot of continuing issues. The bat symbol emblazoned on her chest curves in a way that accentuates her cleavage, for one. And another thing, the actual armor over her chest is designed to look like bra cups—and her costume has nipples. I wish that were a joke. While it’s true that the Batman and Robin suits in that movie also have nipples (for…some reason), the amount of detail in Batgirl’s outfit just to draw attention to her boobs is ridiculous.

Superhero Costumes
This outfit really wants to be sure you know Batgirl has boobs. In case you were unsure of it.

This is a huge thing in designs for women’s superhero costumes. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman suit isn’t just skin-tight, the stitch design follows the curves of her cleavage to accentuate it. Black Widow’s zipper is drawn down just enough to create a nice little arrow to lead the eyes. Even women in armor, like Valkyrie from THOR: RAGNAROK have armor that has perfectly molded breast shapes…even though that’s a terrible idea for armor. Sometimes the “armor” is just two plastic bra cups stuck onto the outfit.

Saving Graces

It’s not all horrible. Other than faring better due to the rules of reality, some adaptations are making genuine attempts to fix the costume design problem for superheroines. WONDER WOMAN is one of the big names when it comes to desexualizing the superhero costumes of women who fight crime or fight in general.

WONDER WOMAN Is Naive, And That’s A Good Thing

Tons of people have gone on loving rants already about the research and time put into the Amazons’ costumes for WONDER WOMAN. Many of the designs are clearly influenced by real-life armor but retain a sort of comic book iconography. The real-life influence, of course, makes the superhero costumes more realistic. The outfits the women in WONDER WOMAN wear looks and feels like armor because it’s based on armor.

Superhero Costumes
WONDER WOMAN is a great example of how outfits can show skin and still be practical rather than objectifying.

Something that really brings this into focus is seeing what happens when the Amazons are put into the hands of a man for costume design. The contrast between the Amazons’ costumes in WONDER WOMAN (by costume designer Lindy Hemming) and the Amazons’ costumes in JUSTICE LEAGUE (designed by Michael Wilkinson) is laughable.

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How To Fix This

WONDER WOMAN has given us a good template for fixing a lot of sexist superhero costumes while retaining the iconography that comic book characters need. It’ll take a lot of work, considering that even movies that are considered thoughtful and feminist, like THOR: RAGNAROK, have fallen into the same mistakes.

One of the important things about the superhero costumes in WONDER WOMAN is that the costume designer was a woman. It’s not that women can’t perpetuate sexist ideals. They can since society teaches them to. However, personal experience tends to give women more insight into sexist costumes. After having society force ridiculous, sexist expectations on you, it becomes easier to recognize them in media.

Another notable thing is references and research. WONDER WOMAN draws inspiration from Roman armor for many of the superhero costumes. Something as simple as knowing how armor works can prevent having a solid breastplate with actual breasts molded into it. Especially because designs like that aren’t just sexist, they’re straight-up impractical.

Consideration towards why a design is a way it is, and whether the reason boils down to “so that this lady looks sexy,” is essential as well. Again, it’s something to keep in mind that these are characters. These aren’t real life women with the agency to dress themselves. Someone is making these decisions purposefully, and it’s important to examine why.

Does Sexism Sell?

For a very long time, people have used the idea that sexy outfits boost sales as a defense for all this nonsense. This idea hasn’t quite died yet, especially not in the minds of creators. Even from the beginning (and even if it was true), this argument was sexist. It values the opinions and money of male fans over anyone else who may be reading.

The argument that ladies are in sexy outfits to boost sales implies that men are the comic book audience that matters. It implies that any sales lost from disenchanted women are nothing compared to the money men fork over to see Susan Storm with a boob window. Worse still, it implies the exploitation and objectification of women is worth it if society rewards it with money.

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This idea still slips into our media today. It shows in the redesign of the Amazon’s outfits for JUSTICE LEAGUE. It shows in Marvel editing Black Widow thinner and thinner in film posters as time goes on. It’s a concept that still fuels a ton of movie poster designs and promos. It’s a concept that we need to put in the ground.

Comics are not just for heterosexual men to get their fix of looking at superhero boobies. Women (and plenty of other oppressed classes!) have been reading comics since comics started existing. It’s ridiculous to keep marketing as if women only exist as money-making set pieces. It’s ridiculous to think marketing matters enough to continue spreading harmful sexist content in the first place. We need to throw the idea that sexism makes money out the window.

Sexism vs. the Future

Things are getting better. However, they could be getting better faster, and they could be getting better in more notable ways. It’s not bossy or selfish for people to demand that creators check their sexism, purposeful or not, and how it reflects in the media they make. In fact, it’s perfectly understandable to be getting a bit impatient. All of these promises of things “getting better” coupled with slow progress quickly become irritating. Especially when these are issues that could be solved as soon as they’re pointed out.

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WONDER WOMAN shows that with effort and thoughtfulness, there are ways to pull these things off. It won’t kill Marvel to not have a scene of Black Widow fighting a man in stilettos. There are other ways to show that a woman is interesting, powerful, and complex. There was no reason for DC to change the Amazon’s costumes so drastically in JUSTICE LEAGUE.

All of these women beautiful without creators turning them into objectified eye candy. However, it shouldn’t matter. They shouldn’t have to be beautiful just because they’re women. Their armor shouldn’t lovingly accentuate their breasts just because they’re women. Their outfits don’t need to be skintight jumpsuits instead of practical armor just because they’re women.

It’s that simple.

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