Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Unrealistic Portrayal of Spandex

The first time Jessica Drew's chest really caught my attention was during Secret Invasion. Drawn in voluminous pop-off-the-page detail by Leinil Francis Yu, Spider-Woman's breasts were simply too distressingly weird to ignore. I suspect that if I had been a sixteen-year-old boy I would have been intrigued for very different reasons, but as a straight woman who would never go near a treadmill without a sports bra, the question going through my head was “Where is her support? What in the name of Galactus is holding those things in place?” Of course, Spider-Woman is not unique. Time and time again, you come across female characters in comics wearing costumes that look more like body paint than fabric.

The topic of how women are portrayed in comics has been an ever current point of discussion for years. While I would disagree that the female physique is always portrayed in ways that are less realistic than is the case for male heroes (how many men really look like Steve Rogers?), it is the female heroes who are usually guilty of wearing outfits that simply don't look up to the task. They leave delicate areas exposed, seem difficult to move around in and don't keep anything in place. With Women's Month coming to a close, I thought we'd take a look at the most outrageous trends in female costume design. Hit the jump for more skin.

Booty in Body Paint

Let's begin this study with a group of ladies who are apparently suffering from the same ill as Spider-Woman. The Marvel Divas caused quite a stir when the cover of the first issue hit the Internet and had Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada trying to quiet an onslaught of outrage at the decidedly cheesecake nature of the art and the borderline pornographic poses.

As I see it, the problem with what these women are wearing on this cover is that they're not actually wearing anything. Adjust the color of those costumes to match the skin tone of each of these lovely ladies and draw nipples to complete the look and you have four naked superheroines staring back at you.

On the surface, the full-body costumes look like a nice step in the right direction, but these outfits are snug enough to look like nothing more than body paint - or possibly something in the high-tech nylon family.

You'd think this would upset me as a woman. To be honest, it upsets me more as a science geek. Spandex doesn't behave like that. But I'll tell you this, the day someone decides to give a male hero a form-fitted pair of tights that reveals every curve of said hero's crotch, I'll let this one go.

Wicked Wedgies

I have to say, I actually like Carol Danvers, and I think she's a pretty kick-ass superheroine. As for the costume, I will say that it looks nice, and that is pretty much all it has going for it. On the other hand, Ms Marvel is such a powerful character that she probably doesn't need to protect her skin against the hazards of intergalactic assaults and her breasts might have the same gravity-defying traits as the person they're attached to.

However, I can't see her moving for more than five minutes without having that skimpy costume start to dig into places it shouldn't be allowed to go. Ms Marvel isn't the only example of a superheroine who's made the unwise decision to pair an extremely high-cut suit with minimum coverage of her derriere, but we can be certain she's paying for it daily.

Oh, and don't get me started on the sash. I'd be hard-pressed to think of a more impractical costume detail...

Chafing Chest Plates

Now, what could I possibly have against armor? Here I've been complaining about these poor, albeit superpowered, women going without protection, happy to leave nothing but a single layer of barely there fabric between their vital organs and the elements. By comparison, incorporating metal into your costume รก la Wonder Woman is as sensible as, well, sensible shoes.

Metal does have one problem though. If we're not talking about something along the lines of chain mail, you're necessarily dealing with rigid structures that may not move along with the wearer. I see massive bruising, chafing and general discomfort. Ouch.

I will admit to being quite a fan of girls in armor though, and feel that metal symbolizes strength in a way that boob tube socks just don't. Would I recommend it outside the pages of a comic book? Probably not.

Extreme Exposure

With characters like Emma Frost it's like Marvel editorial isn't even trying. Not that I'm necessarily saying that they should be trying, but if modesty is what they're going for, Emma's costume, in most of its incarnations, is a very drafty and difficult to wear handkerchief of fail. She's got sex kitten written all over her and her wardrobe is the antithesis of sensible shoes.

However, the look does work for the character and Emma's unapologetic way of pulling off all that sex appeal is refreshing in its honesty. It's like Black Canary's fishnet stockings in that it makes little sense, but is at least going all the way in what it's trying to communicate to the reader.

I just wish someone would give Emma a warm cardigan for Christmas. That, or we need more male heroes willing to fight crime while wearing a loin cloth (and, no, Ka-Zar doesn't count). In the interest of providing equal opportunity eye candy for comic book readers, it's only fair.

Marvelous Mini-Skirts

Skirts are pretty. They're not practical. Yes, I know female tennis players still wear them, but they are gradually becoming more wearable and starting to look more like shorts. Skirts are particularly impractical if you happen to be able to fly, at least if you don't want anyone catching a glimpse of your underwear from down below.

Supergirl must be the superpowered version of the Catholic school girl fantasy. Her costume, discussed in more detail by Kirk in a previous post, is a classic combination of (very) youthful and (overly) sexy and, aside from the practical aspects, I think that may be my main problem with it. It's a combination that very easily starts to look an awful lot like objectification of young girls, and that's just a tad creepy.

As Kirk mentioned in the post I linked to, Supergirl recently had the opportunity to try out a pair of sensible shorts to complete her outfit, and that's a step in the right direction.

Final Thoughts

If the objectification of women in comics bothered me a great deal, I wouldn't be reading comics. I also don't mind the fact that superheroes and heroines alike are generally portrayed as fit and physically attractive. Many artists routinely draw very attractive women (and men) without going over the top, and I'd like to think that this is the kind of images that would attract the highest number of readers, male and female.

However, too often the costumes we see on female characters defy both logic and taste, crossing the boundary from sexy to trashy. I say, tone down the body paint, scratch the wedgies and remember that form and function are a lovely combination. Being able to carry a pen under each boob while in costume isn't hot, it's just plain weird.

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Klep said...

I wonder how much of the "Booty in Body Paint" phenomenon is objectification, and how much is laziness.

I also suspect Wonder Woman is rather invulnerable enough to avoid chafing from her armor, such as it is. I much prefer her in the armor-pleated skirt than the swim trunks she seems to normally wear though.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

I always appreciated this look at Liefeld's Captain America:


Really makes you think.

As for the way females are drawn, call me crazy but I'd much rather see them drawn sensibly rather than sexily. A simple set of pants and top that covers midriff would make sense, be practical, and not push away potential readers.

Anonymous said...

The majority of those who buy comics are "boys". This goes for the men too. We are all "boys". Boys spend a majority of time fantasizing (about the opposite sex, same sex?, fast cars, violence...). The comic companies want to give the fans what they want. The companies want to SELL their product. T & A, sex, violence, bulging muscles, cool gadgets, & fast cars sell. It's fantasy. Women's month was just p.r.. If they were serious about respecting women they'd give them a few warts & dress them in trench coats.

Vanessa G. said...

Great article!

I too have pondered the buoyancy of Spiderwoman's bosom, and have cringed at the "Wicked Wedgies" inevitable for Powergirl. Don't even get me started on the the stripperific hot-pink get up the Star Sapphires are sporting. I don't mind the hotness factor. I rather enjoy it (a la Nicola Scott's gratuitous glute shot of Nightwing). But, it does tug on my rationality at times.

Cheesecake is widely fashioned in comic art, but it would be nice to see a turn towards the more functional. My left brain would like that.

Marc said...

Fantastic article! I think something that sheds even more light on what's going on with female superhero costumes are the exceptions to some of the conventions mentioned here. Take Kitty Pryde's costume in Astonishing X-Men, for example...relatively modest and realistic, but still attractive. In fact, she actually makes a crack about Emma's half-nakedness in the first issue.

I think it's safe to say that her costume came about because Whedon and Cassaday had such a clear vision of the kind of personality they wanted to portray with her. Could it be that when a writer or artist doesn't have a very specific message they want to get across with a particular female character, they simply default to a more "sexy," conventionalized look? I'd be really interested to learn more about how the roles that women play in their individual comics relate to the type of costumes/outfits they wear.

Aaron Kimel said...

The sheer fact that women in comics often wear ridiculously inappropriate outfits doesn't bother me as much as the fact that the women seem to have no thought/comment on this. Carol Danvers is a woman portrayed with the same sorts of insecurities and flaws that anyone has, but she apparently has no difficulty changing into a skin tight outfit that may or may not feature what amounts to a thong (depending on the artist). Shouldn't she FEEL self-conscious? Coincidentally, when Karla Sofen took the Ms. Marvel mantle, she was actually vocal about feeling uncomfortable having everyone with a camera phone snapping pictures of her butt every time she was in public. That strikes me as realistic. Most people feel uncomfortable with their bodies and with people seeing everything. Only the most unreservedly confident persons could ever go out in public in spandex.

I should also mention that I don't think these women and men are wearing spandex. Two words: unstable molecules. If Reed Richards can design a costume that permits his brother-in-law to burst into flame without harming the costume, or that can turn invisible whenever Sue turns invisible, or that can stretch as far as he can while retaining its original shape and tautness, he can likely invent a material that has maximal flexibility while also providing support. The guy saved Galactus: he's smart. (Also, he possessed the Infinity Gauntlet at one point. Maybe that's what he REALLY wished for.) Aesthetic arguments about costume design have a lot more weight with me than functional ones in a world in which helicarriers dot the skies, clones are as commonly grown as produce, and machines can transport people between dimensions and through time.

Anonymous said...

I first noticed this when i got the trade for messiah complex


I found this not so much to be a critique of how muscular everyone is drawn as how tight their spandex must be. LOOK AT WOLVERINE'S NECK! I know he's a buff dude and all, but even if he were to literally never stop flexing his spandex would have to be the size of his pinkie toe for it to accentuate every sinew the way it does. Geez, i just realized his spandex is so tight you can see the VEINS on his hand! And look at Colossus. His six pack literally has another six pack on top of it, yet his pecs are so smooth you could build a perpetual motion machine with those things. I think we're forced to conclude that a side effect of the X-Gene is not having any nipples

Kirk Warren said...

I always enjoyed Frank Quitely's artwork because he actually draws clothing like it's made of fabric andnot just a colour swap of skin tone. the clothing has depth and material. Other artists do this as well, but he was one of the few that stuck out to me for doing it.

Now, that doesn't really help with the costume problems for both female and male heroes, but it at least helps a little in my eyes.

Re: Ms Marvel's costume - I really dont get why she wouldn't wear more military-like attire with her background. Full body suit would be a minimum for combat. Thigh high boots, thong and a sash to set the piece off does not strike me as something an ex-military would decide to wear as their costume.

All in all, I'd love to see artists take the time to draw actual material for their characters. It's tougher, but makes a huge difference. Doubt we'll see it outside the rare artist here or there. For female costumes, though, most have been merchadised/existed so long that neither company will ever change or alter them. This is especially true for Wonder Woman's horrid costume design. I'd rather her in the toga costume she wore during training in the animated movie than the ridiculous spray on bikini and metal breastplate and not much else she has now.

Anonymous said...

This is going to sound silly, but I'm bothered by the one-sided nature of spandex in superhero comics. For instance, JH Williams III on Detective Comics was GORGEOUS but I was really bothered by the shine of the spandex that led down to her nipple. Some nipples show through on spandex, and for some they don't. I don't get it. You'll never see a guy with a nipple showing through their costume but for some artists, every female character has nipples poppin' through. It makes even less sense when you consider a man probably doesn't wear an undershirt and woman probably does wear some sort of support.

Whatever, it's silly, but its somewhat sexist, and it annoys the crap out of me.

Anonymous said...

What, no reference to Emma's outfit from Grant Morrison's first run? Y'know, the one where the top looks like it's made out of white duct tape in an X? That set the bar for impractical outfits.

At the same time, that one particular character has a distinct Lady Gaga / Madonna thing going on, and Lord know that in a word with unstable molecules, risque couture would be all the more ridiculous.

Klep said...

@Anonymous Actually Batwoman's costume is made of leather, not spandex. The shine you see is the natural shine of the material. The sensual nature of the artwork in the book goes well beyond the costume (which does fit her character), and was definitely a deliberate and well-executed choice in storytelling that is NOT about turning Batwoman into a sex object. The objectification of women is certainly a problem in a lot of comics, but JH Williams III's art for Batwoman is not an example of it.

Matt Ampersand said...

I do have to agree to an extent that the "Body paint" style can come out of laziness. Artists know how to draw a human body, but drawing clothes on top of them is much harder, specially in action sequences.

I think a great example of an artist that can draw these costumes to make them look like real fabric is Brad Walker (from Guardians of the Galaxy). Yeah, the clothes are skin tight, but you see the folds in it perfectly depending on what position the characters are in.

Another artist that clearly gets how to draw costumes is Tonci Zonjic (from Marvel Divas). Dude understands that clothes are just as important as the characters.

Jule said...

I am really pleased with this article, mostly because the writer its a woman and I always wondered about that particular point of view, but also because she didnt make it a gender issue but a very interesting observation about the (in)practical use of that kind of costumes or clothes. thanks again for a very fresh and funny article

Anonymous said...

Yawn, they are comic book characters... you know? Ink on a page. Logic? Taste? Really? I love comic books, but there is a certain point where everyone just needs to relax and remember that they are just drawings.

Christine Hanefalk said...

Thanks for all the feedback, guys! I think you're right, to an extent, about the body paint phenomenon being due to laziness, but it still weird that someone would go to the effort to add a belly button and so on.

It's true though that male characters' suits often look just as tight, though it is a bit weirder to have them wrap around a breast than have them follow the less pronounced curve of a six-pack. Though I do like the unstable molecules explanation... ;)

I think artists might need to hang out in gyms more. It's the perfect place to study women in tight outfits move their bodies in every direction imaginable.

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