THIS Is The Problem We Have With Female Superheroes

Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.
When most little girls wanted to be Disney princesses, I wanted to be a different kind of princess. I wanted to be Wonder Woman. As a child, I marveled at her strength and fighting skills. She was the only woman in the Justice League. She could beat the crap out of Batman and gave Superman a run for his money. In short, she was a badass.

But even back then I had to wonder, why the hell is Wonder Woman running around in just her underwear?

It wasn't just Wonder Woman, either. From old school Vampirella to Power Girl, there are tons of female comic heroes and villains running around in tiny bikinis, catsuits with deep V-cuts, or wearing boob cutouts while flying around, fighting crime — and it's absurd. Hypersexualization of female characters in comics is real and has been for a long time.

But whenever it's brought up for debate, there's often a wave of pushback from fans — particularly fan boys.

"There's a sense of entitlement in these kinds of fans, who act as though the characters belong to them," says Casey Gilly, staff writer at Comic Book Resources and a comic writer and editor. "They aren't open to character designs being changed and they aren't willing to critique their media, or admit that their favorite things are problematic and potentially isolating to marginalized people."
Advertisement
Gilly says it's an "unrecognized, unchecked privilege" that fails to make room for people of color, queer people, and different types of women. But the good news — according to Gilly — is that both men and women are pushing for better representation in the comic world. And more inclusivity for writers, artists, and people in decision-making roles.

"Women, people of color, queer people, people with different kinds of abilities, all need to assume those decision-making roles to really drive home that the world of comics needs to be cracked wide open for all kinds of stories," says Gilly. And she's right. When people in power, the heads of massive corporations like Marvel and DC, give artists and writers the space to redesign and rethink their favorite characters, the end results are powerful. Just look at Marvel's America Chavez series, which will feature a queer, ass-kicking Latina.
Ahead, we talked to Gilly about 11 female comic characters that have seen improvements over the years thanks to changes in the industry. But we also take a moment to highlight a few characters who could still use a makeover.
1 of 20
This Is The Old Tomb Raider...
Yes, Lara Croft Tomb Raider had a comic. And just like in the video games, her body wasn't always anatomically correct.

Believe it or not, this is one of the better covers.
2 of 20
Here's The New Tomb Raider
Just as she's seen improvements in the video games, the comic version of Lara Croft has improved too, thanks to Mariko Tamaki and Phil Sevy.

"Lara Croft is such an intentionally sexualized character and they did a great job working within the license to make her a much more interesting person," says Gilly. The costume wasn’t necessarily redesigned, but her body's athleticism was emphasized."

She adds, "And like white colonialism, raiding tombs aside, the physical presentation of her is definitely worth looking at. Like a great way to communicate strong —physically strong — woman."
Advertisement
3 of 20
Here's The Old Ms. Marvel...
Once upon a time there was Captain Marvel (a man) and then there was Carol Danvers, who was Ms. Marvel. Danvers wore this sexed-up little leotard with thigh-high boots to fight, fly, and perform other heroic tasks that Captain Marvel did while wearing a fully bodysuit that did not expose his thighs.

Now to be clear, we aren't saying that being sexy in comics isn't allowed. Because we think it is.

As Gilly says, "I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sexy art. I think that broadening the definition of what sexy looks like is key, and respecting the audience is not all cisgendered, hetero people." What we need here — as Gilly puts it— is "equal opportunity sexy."
4 of 20
... And Then She Became The New Captain Marvel
The good news is that the comics evolved and Carol Danvers became the new Captain Marvel. That's right — a woman took up the Captain Marvel mantle.

The story was actually written by a woman, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and illustrated by Dexter Soy. But what's also great here is that man was responsible for her redesigned look.

Artist Jamie McKelvie told Newsarama that he wanted to create a costume that was partially based on her military background. He also added, "It deserves a much longer answer, but I'd like to see more consideration for what message a female character's design is putting across."
5 of 20
But There's Also An Awesome New Ms. Marvel
But it gets even better! Because after the character of Carol Danvers moved on to be Captain Marvel, there was room for a new Ms. Marvel. And what we got was a Muslim teenager named Kamala Khan.

As Gilly points out, "[Ms. Marvel] is written by a Muslim woman. So there’s such an amount of knowledge and sensitivity brought to the story, but it’s still also an amazing superhero story."
6 of 20
Here's The Old Vampirella
Let's be 100% real here: Vampirella's costume looks almost identical to Borat's swimwear. Why she needs to wear a slingshot around her breasts and vagina isn't quite clear.

But, as Gilly noted, the risqué costume hasn't stopped cosplayers from breaking out some really incredible Vampirella look-alike costumes.
7 of 20
But Look At The Updated Vampirella
She has shorts and a crossbow and looks like a badass now. That's the power of redesigns.

"It’s so much more action-y. And I think cosplayers play a huge part in why we do see costume redesigns," says Gilly. "Once you see it on a real body, you start thinking, ‘Okay, I know these books are fiction, but can I no longer suspend disbelief that a woman would walk around wearing this while fighting battles’ — versus the costume redesign, which is flat boots and shorts and a belt and it looks utilitarian."

Vampirella's costume, with Kate Leth and Eman Casallos at the helm, actually lets her do what her character is meant to do in an outfit that's sexy and reasonable.
Advertisement
8 of 20
Here's An Older Variation Of Wonder Woman
There have been a number of variations on the Wonder Woman look. But perhaps the most famous is Diana looking similar to this.

Gilly notes that a lot of bad Wonder Woman representations over the years are rooted in "male power fantasy," particularly the sexist subtext from early storylines that weakened Wonder Woman or whenever she was chained up.

"But over time, as smart creators have written different Wonder Woman stories, they've been able to shift her into an authentic position of power and tell impactful stories," says Gilly.
9 of 20
Here's What The Updated Wonder Woman Looks Like
The best example of a new-and-improved, badass Wonder Woman? Greg Rucka, Nicola Scott, and Liam Sharp's run.

Not only is Wonder Woman's costume redesigned to be something that looks a little bit more like warrior-wear, but the new team has also acknowledged that her character is bisexual.

"I think everybody knew she was queer before they came out and said it," says Gilly. "It was just such a natural part of her and her origin story, and something that they needed to be explicit about to be clear on their stance, but something that many of the fans already knew."
10 of 20
Here's A Look At The Old Red Sonja
Back in the day, Red Sonja, a barbarian warrior who does not give any fucks, wore a chainmail bikini in battle. No, really.

She also had tiny metal garters. And a random metal shoulder plate. Because it's both sexy and practical, right?

"With Red Sonja, it partially makes sense — she's this nasty, violent, bawdy warlord. I get why her character could be in chainmail," says Gilly. "But a bikini? Come on. She'd probably need some armor or at least something to protect her core. But it's fantasy, and her personality is more in-line with a sexy costume."
11 of 20
Here's The Updated Red Sonja
Thank you Marguerite Bennett and Aneke for banishing the chainmail bikini!

Yes, there's still chainmail. But not, she has protection for her core and animal pelts and boots for the inclement weather.

Red Sonja is still a nasty, violent warlord — but it's probably a lot easier to be that way when you have a little more clothing on.
12 of 20
This Is What The Old She-Hulk Looked Like
You probably had no idea that there was a She-Hulk comic in existence, but there is. But she couldn't be like Hulk; she had to be sexed-up.

The old school She-Hulk had lots of different costumes, but they always had a touch of sexy. There was the tattered white bodysuit, strategically ripped to show her boobs. There was also a super-tight white-and-purple bodysuit.
Advertisement
13 of 20
Here's The New She-Hulk
Enter Charles Soule's run on She-Hulk.

"They had her going between professional, educated businesswoman and superhero. And her superhero costume was very appropriate for the duality of her character," says Gilly.

She notes, "It wasn’t this tiny bikini. It was like a weightlifter or a wrestler. And she had flat boots on and this great purple-and-white graphic print. And it wasn’t drawn like every single thing shown."

Major improvement.
14 of 20
This Is What Elektra Used To Wear
Netflix's Daredevil introduced audiences to an Elektra that looks totally different from the character we see in the comics — and that really pissed some people off. But maybe it wasn't such a bad idea? Just look at what Elektra normally wears in the comics.

Again, to Gilly's point, seeing the costume on a real woman is very different from seeing it on an imagined one.
15 of 20
This Is What Elektra Will Look Like Now
Thanks to the popularity of Netflix shows like Luke Cage and Daredevil, Elektra is getting a makeover. Just a few days ago, Marvel revealed the new — and much improved — Elektra with her body covered.
16 of 20
The Problem With The Old Starfire
Depending on the series, Starfire is actually a younger girl. And yet, she's often depicted wearing an outfit like this. Sure, there are teenagers who wear a number of risque outfits, by choice. Gilly makes a great point here: That design teams should ask themselves if their female character would consent to this outfit and if it adds anything to her story.

"What message does this send about her when we’re not writing a story about this?" asks Gilly. "And if we did show a teenage girl showing off her body, and part of the story was about her stating her autonomy and why she wanted to dress this way and why this was a decision for her or whatever, that would be a different story...versus what it looks like on the page [which] is sexualizing a young girl."
17 of 20
Starfire Is Still A Work In Progress — But She's Improved
Look, her updated outfit is cute. It looks a little more like something a teen could maybe wear. But there's still work to do here.

"I think it's crucial to look at who the readers are," says Gilly. "Starfire's book is rated T for Teen, meaning that's likely going to be the audience — and what do we see? Fully dressed men, and a girl in a bikini."

Gilly asks, "What message does it send? That you have to be conventionally attractive and exposed to be a hero? Is that what women characters have to offer? I don't see a problem with characters having sex appeal, or with certain books being designed to be erotic — but don't they deserve better? Aren't readers smart enough to understand subtlety, nuance, and women in normal clothing? I think they are."
Advertisement
18 of 20
Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.
Harley Quinn Is Complicated
Here's the thing: We love Harley Quinn. She's an amazing character who, as Gilly puts it, "exists in this space of chaos and you don’t often see women characters allowed to have that."

Harley Quinn, who didn't even originate in comics, can be incredible. Especially when she blurs the line between hero and villain, operates as her own character, and gets to hook up with Poison Ivy.

But she's not always that way.

"Harley Quinn, at her worst, is this hypersexualized fodder," says Gilly. "There's something infantilizing about her character design, especially in Suicide Squad in her 'Daddy's Little Monster' shirt."

Gilly adds, "She's so interesting, she has such a cool backstory, and yet she and many other female characters are reduced to a story of how they exist around, because of, and in allegiance [with] men. Their designs are for the male gaze and their stories are often reliant upon them looking a certain way."
19 of 20
Can Someone Please Update Powergirl For Good?
Look, there is a version of Power Girl as a Black woman with a suit that has absolutely no chest cutouts. But fans still seem to prefer their Power Girl with a giant hole for her breasts.

"I would really challenge comic book artists to look out their window. To go outside and look at women. In a not-creepy way," says Gilly. "Can you please open your eyes and look around and create a character that is modern and can appeal to modern readers?"

I mean, can you? Because who needs a super high-cut leotard with a chest cutout? But also gloves that are modest? No one. That's who.
20 of 20
Like this post? There's more. Get tons of celebrity news, fun takes on pop culture, and trending stories on the Refinery29 Entertainment Facebook page. Like us on Facebook — we'll see you there!
Advertisement

More from Pop Culture

Watch

R29 Original Series