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It’s a Wonder They Stay On: Thoughts on Wonder Woman’s Wardrobe…

Well, the first pictures of David E. Kelley’s upcoming Wonder Woman adaptation have hit the web. Lynda Carter loves it and everyone else seems to hate it. Me, I really couldn’t care too much about the costume – I’m just worried about the very idea of a Wonder Woman television show from the creator of Ally McBeal. That’s not a putdown – well, it kinda is – but it’s a more fundamental problem than the outfit she wears (which will likely get retooled repeatedly over the course of the show – assuming the show has a course). Anyway, the outfit gives me an opportunity to wonder about Wonder Woman’s outfit. Is there something wrong with her traditional Lynda Carter look, and is this update an improvement?

Is it any wonder?

I’ll be the first to concede that there is a ridiculously unhealthy double standard when it comes to men and women as superheroes. Sure, they both wear spandex. But, while they may digitally reduce certain parts of Brandon Routh’s… endowment, it’s unlikely that anyone is ever going to digitally reduce any part of the female anatomy. Male heroes like Superman, even when they wear skin-tight spandex, generally use at least enough fabric to ensure that they won’t catch a cold in the middle of summer, while female heroes generally… don’t.

It’s traditional for female superhero outfits to expose far more flesh than those of their male counterparts. And female biology is typically distorted to the point where any female superhero needs to count “immunity to back problems” as a secondary superpower. You may think I’m overreacting, but there was actually a conscious effort in the DC offices to see how ridiculously large they could make Powergirl’s breasts. Hell, some attempts to justify the incredibly obvious “boob window” with some deeper meaning or purpose than providing the audience with glimpses of gratuitous flesh have met with understandably outraged responses.

Get Carter?

Here’s the thing. Let’s not pretend that that these sorts of characters and costumes were designed mostly by men – and some interesting men at that. Rather famously, Superman’s creator Joe Shuster was also a bondage cartoonist. Wonder Woman’s creator William Marston had a famously fascinating private life, involving another woman in his household. Wonder Woman’s lasso originally bound the person tied to the holder’s will (a whole BDSM thing there), before it was toned down for family television – it was decided it would force people to tell the truth, since Marston also invented the lie detector. Nice save, by the way. So there’s no denying that there’s a lot of kinkiness at play here (in case you needed to be told when looking at characters prancing around in fetish outfits in skintight leather).

And so, understandably, there’s been a debate about how superhero fiction depicts the female form. Admittedly, modern creators like Greg Rucka have attempts to move away from the somewhat sleazy superhero fetish-wear thing (with his new female version of the Question wearing a fedora and trenchcoat), but there are still major issues with characters – new and old. This becomes particularly fascinating when you attempt to offer these characters to a mainstream audience (comic book readers apparently desensitized to the imagery long ago).

Compare and contrast...

Compare, for example, the outfits the X-Women wear in comic books to the (slightly) more conservative jumpsuits in the Bryan Singer films. Compare Electra as rendered in Frank Miller’s Daredevil saga to the version who made it to the screen in the movie Daredevil. It seems that studios are (understandably) concerned about how mainstream audiences would react to the barely-there costumes. In fairness, I think that this is perhaps the major reason why the new look Wonder Woman (on screen and in her own comic book), moves away from the classic hotpants design.

On the other hand, perhaps comic book movies are growing gradually more adventurous. Hell, some of January Jones’ outfits in the upcoming X-Men: First Class movie leave little to the imagination (compared to the appearance of a similar character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine). And besides, are Lynda Carter’s star-spangled pants really that much more sleazy than this squeaky blue skin-tight leggings? Gloria Steinem would disagree:

“[Adding pants] gives us the idea that only pants can be powerful — tell that to Greek warriors and Sumo wrestlers.” Besides, she added, “in fact, they’re so tight that they’ve just painted her legs blue; hardly a cover-up.”

Indeed, feminists actually decried the last major departure from the classic bustier and blue panties costume as well. During the height of the popularity of shows like The Avengers, DC attempted to reinvent their leading female character as something of a spy gal. This prompted a rash of criticisms from feminists that the creators had “depowered” an iconic female figure (never mind that, even outside of that, she’s sometimes been a less-than-ideal icon). Those changes were, needless to say, short-lived. It will remain to be seen whether the more modern revisions to Wonder Woman’s comic book costume (including a jacket) will last for more than a year.

I'm a bit ropey on feminism...

After all, you might argue that there’s nothing shameful in a beautiful female figure, and to downplay a woman’s sexuality is itself a form of sexism. I can understand the logic, and part of me would admit that maybe there’s nothing inherently wrong with Wonder Woman’s iconic Lynda Carter outfit, especially when compared to similarly revealing (and, of course, similarly perfect) male heroes like Namor (check out those abs) or the Spectre (ditto). Wonder Woman certainly wears considerably more fabric than either of those.

On the other hand, I do think there’s a serious problem with how female heroes are generally portrayed, even if they are (relatively) well clothed. Consider, for example, the blatant exploitation of this infamous cover. That was the front cover of a comic book, marked okay for most readers, back in 2007. I can go into examples, but it’s not that hard to find an exploitational image of a woman in a mainstream comic book. Greg Land, an artist who never seems to want for work, may as well have been tracing pornography for some of his superheroine poses. Those are the problem, right there.

You need to look impossibly wonder-ful to look good in that costume...

Concentrating on costumes is a little bit shortsighted. I’ll concede there are problems there in some cases, but I really genuinely think that comic books (some, but not all) are sexist – it’s occasionally a problem with the writing (Frank Miller frequently faces the accusation), but it’s also one with art. It’s how we draw and present these women. It’s one thing to flatter next-to-impossible physiques in flesh-revealing costumes for both male and female characters, but there’s something genuinely seedy about female characters are being illustrated as nothing more than idle titilation. Being honest, it occasionally makes me uncomfortable.

However, I sense I may have wandered a bit off point. I don’t have a problem with any of Wonder Woman’s costumes. Being honest, Lou Ferrigno showed as much skin in The Incredible Hulk as Lynda Carter did. It’s not necessarily about the costume, it’s about how you use it. It’s entirely possible that Adrianna Palicki will find herself more objectified on her television show than Carter ever was. Wonder Woman is a character you have to be careful of, especially if you want to go back to her roots. She’s mired in domination and submission – and, despite being classified as a feminist icon – most of her early stories read quite uncomfortably today.

So, am I impressed by this outfit? I am not. It looks very cheap and it honestly looks a lot trashier than her classic appearance (if only because her appearance has had decades to become a “classic”). Is it inherently more or less sexist than the iconic version? I don’t believe so. The real test will be watching the costume in action.

3 Responses

  1. Is it just me or does this new WW have a huge head?

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