June 12, 2012

On Wonder Woman's costume

Over the weekend I spoke on a few panel discussions at Continuum 8, the national Australian science fiction convention. One of those panels was "Where Are All the Wonder Women?", focusing on the perceived (and in many cases actual) lack of strong, iconic female characters among American comic books. As the panel's title may suggest, Wonder Woman was brought up - and as with all discussions around Diana, talk quickly shifted to her costume. On a superficial level, the discussion these days seems to boil down to "Wonder Woman: pants or no pants?" I didn't really go into my opinions too much on that panel, but I've been thinking about it in the days since and figured it was worth writing them down.

The bottom line for me is that there isn't actually a problem with Wonder Woman's traditional "no pants" costume at all; the problem has come from the way it has been drawn. There's a nasty over-sexualised aesthetic that crept into comic books in the 1990s and is still around today. My extremely talented and wise co-podcaster Kitty once summarised it excellently (and bluntly) as "Male superheroes are what male readers want to look like, female superheroes are what male readers want to fuck". In this context Wonder Woman looks ridiculous. I've attached a few pictures of recent depictions of Wonder Woman to this post. If you want more, just typing "wonder woman" into the search box on Deviantart will give you enough amateur and professional examples alike to make you want to cry. The image at the top of this post (by Stanley Lau aka artgerm) is a good example: it not only puts Diana in the classic "look at my breasts and my butt" pose, but it gets bonus points for her stripping at the same time.

But take the image to my left (artist unknown): Unlike Wonder Woman Batgirl is clothed head to foot, with only her eyes and the lower half of her face exposed. Despite this she's still visually constructed as a lust object for a male gaze. The problem isn't the costume. If anything, the precise cut of Wonder Woman's costume in any given illustration is a symptom of the art style rather than a misogynist object in itself.

This isn't to say I wouldn't make changes to the costume if I was King of DC Comics (And you know what? I absolutely should be). On a very basic level I still like it: she's supposed to be an Amazon princess and warrior, and the breastplate suits that look, as does the tiara and the gauntlets. And the fact of the matter is that Greek warriors of any gender quite simply didn't wear pants.

This is why, while I applauded DC's brief attempt to cover Diana up (Jim Lee, to the right), it didn't actually work for me in the final analysis. It draws the character too far away from the iconic visual elements that have made her such a perennial favourite (despite many poorly written comics and a complete lack of film adaptations).

If I was to point to a visual cue best suited to Wonder Woman (and I am by no means the first person to suggest this) it would be Xena: Warrior Princess. You could pretty much add the elements of Xena's attire that are missing in Wonder Woman's and find you've got the perfect costume. Shoulder pads that hold the breastplate up. A Greek-style leather skirt. An overall aesthetic that screams "armoured warrior" and not "lingerie".

Above all, however, the character deserves better artists who refuse to draw Diana in overtly sexualised poses (to his credit, current artist Cliff Chiang is doing a very decent job in this regard). We need strong writers who accentuate Diana's strength, wisdom and courage. She's always been one of DC's "big three", alongside Batman and Superman, and she remains one top-notch writer and artist team away from surpassing them both.


  1. Very well said! I have recently enjoyed the Amanda Conner Wonder Woman too, and the Aaron Lopresti depictions from one of the Gail Simone trades. It frequently astonishes me how rarely artists are willing to draw her as strong, and Lopresti does this well.

    She-Hulk, Starfire (80's) and Power Girl are all examples of characters who have ridiculous skimpy costumes but have at times be drawn with great power, strength and respect.

    And while your point about Batgirl is very well made, I think Catwoman is a prime example of a character who is drawn as oversexualised and ridiculously malegazeish despite having her legs covered.

    The Justice League Generation Lost trade brought this home to me as it shifted artists from issue to issue and characters like Fire and Ice shifted back and forth from being interesting, active characters to being willowy sylphs who had to drape themselves over furniture because they were apparently unable to stand up straight.

    How is it that that animated series artists portray the female characters with respect for both to traditional costume choices and to female characters being humans, and so many comic artists fail on at least one if not both of those criteria?

  2. You are absolutely right.This blog provides so much information about wonder woman's costumes.


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