What’s with all the Nipples? Female Sexualization in Comics
When I was, oh maybe three or four, I was introduced to my first super heroine. (I was still enamored of Super Grover, don’t get me wrong.) She-Ra was a bad ass that matched the things her brother, He-Man could do. She had a sword that transformed her from Adora, to her alter self, She-Ra. She had a witch that worked with her (who, by the way was stereotypically witchy: Long nose, eccentric, the hat- everything) She-Ra’s sword was amazing in that it could transform itself at her will to any item she needed at the time. Sometimes a shield, sometimes grappling hook- whatever she needed. She-Ra was also wicked strong. She moved giant boulders, carried people and so much more. She was a role model in a time when Barbie was considered ideal, with her kitchens and heels and dressed.
Here’s the thing about She-Ra, though. The target audience was young people. Poor She-Ra, badass extraordinaire, had to strut around in a skirt that barely covered her ass, and a halter top, in addition to some boots with giant heels. Granted, she rocked that, but why should she have had to? Also, her costume was mostly white, which I get is a nod to her purity, but she doesn’t stay in She-Ra form all the time and she got into situations that should have left it nasty. And yet, her hair was always immaculate, as was her costume. Most of these questions occurred to me much later in life. And I know, I know, the magic of comics and television.
I grew up a bit and was introduced to Archie Comics. To begin with, I have to say that Archie’s two love interests, Betty and Veronica, were curvy and often seen in bikinis and tight tops and jeans, or mini-skirts. They are perpetual teens, that have changed fashions with the passing decades. As a pre-teen and a teenager, they were role models that I read about over and over and I got a new issue every time that they came out. But they were typical High Schoolers and yet so very far from it. I went to public school and a small fraction of the populace looked anywhere close to the girls in the comics. I knew I never would achieve that, but at the same time I really would have liked to. Again, they were the ideal seventeen year olds, but only to someone that never had to actually be around real seventeen year olds. Part of being a teenager is learning that the standards set by the media are in no way realistic, but it is a difficult battle to fight and it is a daily struggle for so many. With the target readers a group that is typically insecure and many of which have issues with their own bodies, even venturing into body dysmorphic disorder, it is an unfair precedent to fight against.
Now, from the same Comic Empire, comes the woman that is infatuated with Jughead. Her name is Big Ethel. She is taller than most of the Riverdale High students, earning her the nickname. She is plain, gangly, and often the object of Jughead’s ridicule and rebuffs. He comments on how annoying she is and though she is constantly trying to win his affection, he is indifferent. To be fair, Jughead is in love with food in all forms, but still. The one not drop dead gorgeous girl fights and fights for the interest of the guy she wants and Archie has the choice between curvaliscious girls that fight over him. Sigh.
In order to really dig in and make sure that I was remembering the right things about the right heroines, I did a quick search on female super heroes. I regret it. I saw images of She Hulk (which, let’s be honest is a stupid name for a character who is bad ass in her own right, but the name implies that she is nothing more than a counterpart to the Hulk, and therefore not really even worthy of her own original naming. But I digress) in a freaking leotard that is practically cut to her belly button and is cut way up to her hips. It reminded me of a male wrestler’s costume and they don’t have to worry about their boobs popping out.
Then there was Elektra, who was a fascinating character with real depth. She had OCD, big time, and yet she still wore slinky skintight clothes while she was chasing bad guys. But the thing is that in these comic universes, none of the guys even notice that the costumes show almost all of the women’s bodies. I attribute that to the fact that they are all so used to seeing women bouncing around practically naked. In real life, when women dress like the heroines, they attract gawkers because…well…BA-BAM. Comicon? Girl skin all over.
Super Girl, in the Television show, has a spandex unitard/ footy pajamas reminiscent of her predecessor, Superman, but her boobs are squished in and pumped up so high, the damn things are practically chin rests. Her breasts would be just as effective tucked tight into her suit and out of sight as much as skintight material will allow. They don’t do anything to aid her in her pursuit of evil. It isn’t like she is a Fem-Bot with laser shooting titties. Unless I missed that episode.
Black Widow is another completely competent, ass kicking, no shit taking woman. And the costume she wears in the movies has coverage and purpose. She can do amazing things, but she uses her body to do them, so it makes sense that her clothing fits her so closely. Loose clothing would be a disadvantage. But she has a zipper that goes all the way up in the movies, and yet it is strategically left open just enough to show her cleavage crack. Again, unnecessary.
The picture I have included for this piece is a comic heroine from an obscure comic that a friend introduced me to about fifteen years ago or so. I was a bit eager to read them partially because I am pagan (identified at the time as a witch,) And my middle name is Dawn. Also the protagonist is a redhead. I love the storylines about Dawn: Queen of the Witches, but she literally walks around in leotards that crawl up her butt and she has permanently erect nipples, no matter what she wears. She clearly runs free from bras. That last part, though, I totally understand. The perma-nips have no purpose other than ogling. She is such a highly sexualized character and most of the pictures of her, even in the process of developing her as a character, are pinup style and sexual poses. I literally had to, in my head, separate her outfits from the storyline in my head. That being said, I have dressed up as her on Halloween several times. From the neck up. No way would I wear those outfits in public, even if I didn’t live in sometimes-snows-on-Halloween Maine. I like her makeup and her hair, which, though totally superficial, intrigue me because of the weeping left eye.
Final Fantasy games are another example. In FFX, Rikku is a race called Al-Bhed. They go diving for wreckage from the world that existed in previous times. Again, she has a full body suit that works for the character, logically. Though it is tight, that is a benefit when one is prowling through water filled metal debris, where other, looser clothing might get caught on something and be a liability. Once again, however, she has a lot of boobage and her zipper is conveniently low enough to show it off.
Final Fantasy X was a great game, despite my small amounts of anger over the depictions of the female characters. I understand that the native society of the game designers differs from ours and that may explain, though not forgive, the issues I had. Final Fantasy X-2, however, made my blood pressure rise. The main characters are female. Super bonus, right? And they are the same characters that I knew from Final Fantasy X. Yay, again! Then I started playing. In order to increase your abilities, you have a dresssphere. Translation: You have to change your clothes to change your powers. Unlike in other final fantasy games, where you level up your own skills by earning the power up and it just happens to the character itself. Other than armor, and weapons which can also level up. No, the increase in FFX-2 of abilities revolves all around the clothes the women wear, not the women themselves. That is the stupidest thing I can think of.
Women in real life deserve more credit than to be evaluated on the clothes they wear. By extension, the heroines that we should be able to relate to for who they are and what they themselves can do. We need heroines that show depth of character rather than depth of cleavage cracks. We need relatable, talented, realistic people that can overcome obstacles and not have their boobs clear those obstacles three whole seconds before she does. And little girls deserve all that too.
April Hawks lives with her husband and three of four sons. She spends far too much time on Pinterest, gets really weird ideas for stories from her crazy dreams, her kids, her husband, and strange synapses firing in her brain. She writes speculative fiction in both novel and short story form. She lives in Maine in a teeny, cozy town.